What we talk about when we talk about trans rights Story-level
The first time I saw Masha Gessen was more than thirty years ago, on the streets of Moscow. This was during the Gorbachev era, the perestroika years, a time of reforms and promises. It’s hard to imagine now. As a reporter for the Washington mail, I was trying to keep track of the myriad ways in which Soviet society was changing. For a long time, despite all the other sweeping changes that consumed the country, discussion of gay rights was largely absent. In those days, public figures sometimes proclaimed that homosexuality was a disgusting quirk of the West and did not exist at home. In the late 1980s, the official press declared that HIV was foreign to the Soviet Union and that it had been created by the US defense establishment, in a biological weapons research laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. But around 1990 this also began to change. For me, at least, one of the reasons for this change was to see a determined young journalist and activist leading a small gay rights demonstration near the Bolshoi Theatre. This was Masha eaten.
Gessen has been a member of the staff of the new yorker since 2017 and is best known for her writing on Russia, human rights, democracy and authoritarianism and, for the past thirteen months, the war in Ukraine. Recently, not long after Gessen returned from a reporting trip to the Ukraine, I sent you an email noting some of the debates around the way trans issues are being covered and discussed. The last flashpoint had been in the New York Times. I asked Gessen, who identifies as trans and non-binary, how the new yorker you should be thinking about your own coverage and approach. The response led to an interview in The New York Radio Hour.
Gessen was born into a Jewish family in Moscow in 1967. The family moved to the US in 1981, and Masha returned to Moscow in 1991. I first began reading her work, with admiration, on the pages of itogui, a Yeltsin-era magazine run by two talented liberal editors, Sergei Parkhomenko and Masha Lipman. In the years since, Gessen has published books on Putin, the Russian intelligentsia, and many other subjects; his most recent is ”surviving autocracy.” This week, it was announced that Gessen won the Blake-Dodd Award for nonfiction, awarded by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2013, when Vladimir Putin stepped up his anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and threatened to take action to remove children from gay parents, Gessen, who has three children, decided to return to the US. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity .
Masha, to listen to a lot of Republicans right now, you would think that LGBTQ rights are somehow as big a threat as the new Cold War or nuclear war. I spoke with Michaela Cavanaugh, a Democratic state senator in Nebraska, who is fighting to block a bill that would deny gender-affirming care to trans children, including mental health care. She told me that the Republicans they legislate with aren’t that concerned about trans rights, and that these bills are designed to get airtime on Fox News; they are a kind of directive of the national party. That seems like a convenient argument for a Democrat who doesn’t want to make too many enemies among her fellow Republicans. What is the motivation of Ron DeSantis, of Donald Trump, of the Republican Party, to make this issue so huge?
I think I probably kind of agree with the state senator, in that all of these bills are about pointing, and what they’re pointing to is the essence of past-oriented politics. It’s a very convenient sign because some of the most recent and rapid social changes concern LGBT rights in general, and trans rights and trans visibility in particular.
All the autocratic politics we see around the world right now are past-oriented politics. It is Putin’s call for a return to the “great Russia” of the past. Keep in mind that Putin’s war in Ukraine goes hand in hand with extreme anti-LGBT rhetoric. In his last speech, he took the time to assert that God is masculine, and that crazy Europeans and “Nazi” Ukrainians are trying to make God gender fluid. I’m not kidding.
Men are men and women are women, and that’s the end of the story.
Good. That simplicity: women are women, men are men. There is social and financial stability. Where relevant, there is whiteness. There is a comfortable and predictable future. That’s a message that says, We’re going to take you back to a time when things weren’t scary, when things weren’t bothering you, when you weren’t afraid your child would come home from school and tell you. that they are trans Andrew Solomon has written wonderfully about this, about the anxiety related to having children whose identity is completely different from your own.
Does it mean how annoying that difference is and how attractive that difference doesn’t happen?
Good. Promising to remove that fear and anxiety is truly powerful.
I think a lot of people know you from your coverage of Russia and now the war in Ukraine. The first time I met you, or even saw you, was in 1991. You were leading a gay rights demonstration in Moscow, or were part of it. You are a citizen of both Russia and the United States, and this movement has been a big part of your life. But I thought maybe we could go back even further in time, so you can tell me about your own journey, about gender, about sexuality, and why this has become such an important part of your life, as well as your journalism. and yours. writing.
Professionally I started in gay and lesbian journalism, as it was known, in the mid-1980s. At the time, it was obvious that if anyone was doing gay and lesbian journalism, at least they were queer. Growing up, I definitely identified as trans, except I had no words for it.
We are talking about how many years, then?
Five? Six? I remember, at the age of five, going to sleep in my sad, my Russian preschool, and hoping to wake up a child. A real boy. There were people who addressed me by the name of a boy. Fortunately, my parents were incredibly enthusiastic. They were totally fine with that.
Because they were so open-minded, or because they just thought it was a passing thing?
I think because they are quite broad-minded. I remember that at the end of the seventies, then I would have been ten or eleven years old, they read in a Polish magazine about trans surgery, “transsexual” at that time, and they told me about it. And I said, “Oh, I’m going to have surgery when I grow up.” And they said, “Okay.” So that was the kind of deal. And then I went through puberty and couldn’t live as a child as clearly anymore. Then I was a lesbian for many, many years, or more likely queer. But I’ve always thought that I have more of a gender identity than a sexual orientation.
What does that mean?
We weren’t supposed to talk like that in the eighties and nineties. We were supposed to be very clear that sexual orientation was separate from gender and that if you were a lesbian, that didn’t mean you wanted to be a man. In fact, for many people, it’s more complicated than that. It’s a bit of this and a bit of that. I have always been attracted to both men and women, but have always been clearly a gender non-conformist.
One of the things that became part of the language in a certain period of time was the following phrase: “Gender is a construct.” I think most people over the centuries thought of gender as given by biology. What is the origin of the notion of gender as a construct?
Judith Butler, who certainly didn’t invent the phrase “gender as construction,” but she did a lot to popularize that idea, and an idea of genre as performance, which I think is even more relevant to what we’re talking about—said recently or, I feel, they recently said—in an interview that—
I think it will be encouraging for some to know that you made this mistake. We left it!
[Laughs.] OK They said that “genre is imitation without original”. I think it’s a beautiful description of not only how gender works, but also why we have so much trouble doing journalism, especially on transgender issues.
What does it mean that it does not have “original”?
The simple answer would be, and much of standard journalism will give this answer:[that gender and sex are different]. The sex is not so clear either. There are biological determinants of sex that vary from person to person, and there is a small but significant minority of people who cannot be placed as clearly into the category of male or female. There are gender expectations, which change over time, historical time and personal time. One of the best quotes I ever heard from someone who studies gender and medical intervention was, “Look, the gender of a five-year-old girl and a fifty-year-old woman is not the same.” I thought you were right. We think of these things as stable and knowable, but they are not. They are fluid by definition, and in our lived experience they are fluid.