terre thaemlitz writings

We Are Not Welcome Here
Address for "Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness,"
Tate Modern, February 2, 2013

- Terre Thaemlitz

Originally posted on comatonse.com February 6, 2013. First presented at "Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness," organized by Carlos Motta at The Tate Modern, London, UK, February 2, 2013.



Gender Talents proposes "the relation between self-determination and solidarity in processes of systemic change form the foundation of a pragmatic, but also euphoric exploration of ways of being ungoverned by normative gender." Like many, I disbelieve in the fundamental premise of self-determination. And like many, my skepticism towards constructs of community, which is born of social traumas, leaves me leery of acts of solidarity. Furthermore, amidst a cultural climate of globalizing humanism that demands enthusiam and optimism of its participants, I feel politically averse to participating in public displays of euphoria and joy. This aversion is doubled within music and art contexts, where transgendered persons (particularly anyone fitting into an MTF category) are expected to be campy and entertaining. During our time at Gender Talents I will do my best to draw focus away from the euphoric, and towards the traumatic and violent.


Speaking at any symposium or gathering around issues of cultural criticism presents a social dilemma. To what extent does one refrain from speaking with frankness and complexity in order to preserve the generally desired atmosphere of sociability, cooperation and community? As speakers, our job is both to challenge and to harmonize, which I often find contains a conflict of interests. But it is, in the end, a job, and our performance will be evaluated like most other jobs - primarily in relation to our social adaptability. And so, we usually keep the feather-ruffling and quarreling to a minimum.

I find these dynamics of symposia become even more exaggerated at gatherings on topics of gender and trans-issues, because our desires for personal acceptance based on - or despite - these issues are often rooted in ancient traumas that have been carried awkwardly for decades. Feelings of isolation and peerlessness are part and parcel of most trans-experiences, so being presented with a "peer experience" such as this can become a bit of a mind fuck. It can summon an almost embarrassing desire for social approval and acceptance. So we become incredibly polite and cooperative around each other, uncertain how to carry into these "transgender safe spaces" the reality that most forms of transgenderism and gender deviance rely heavily on disobedience and non-cooperation. In the end, unable to find ways of being openly duplicitous with one another within these "safe spaces," the kind of safety on offer becomes untrustworthy.

And so here I am at the Tate (*yawn*); as part of a series funded by Creative Capital, an organization that describes itself as "inspired by venture-capital principles" (whereas I, like many of you, find such principles callous); and gathered under the banner, "Charming for the Revolution: A Congress for Gender Talents and Wildness" (whereas I, like at least some of you, have ideological problems to varying degrees with all of these terms: charm, revolution, social congress, gender, talent, and wildness). I am particularly skeptical of conjuring these terms within a fucking art museum - that ultimate pillager of other contexts, and other politics, in the service of the magnanimity of the museum’s funders. Despite today’s pomp, what happens within these walls - this stasis chamber for constructs of the "timeless" and "universal" - is tempered by the fact we, in our unwieldy specificities and difficulties, are not welcome here.

However, as I am here in this context collecting my speaker’s fee, I would like to address some serious concerns I have with this notion of "gender talents." I am not specifically referring to Carlos Motta’s series of that name, but am responding to the larger cultural climate in which that term takes on peculiar meanings and appeal. For those who are unfamiliar with my projects, I have spent the bulk of my adult life attempting to debunk notions of talent and creativity, particularly in relation to concepts of authenticity and innate attributes. I embrace fakery and hypocrisy as means of actively deprogramming my own relationships to essentialist and individualist identity constructs. As someone fitting into an MTF category, whereby I am instantly expected to be campy, upbeat and entertaining, I have gone to great lengths in my own performances to present an alternative transgendered stage that forgoes both glamour and trash in favor of critical minded boredom and uneventfulness.

I am acutely aware of the ways in which my own transgenderism emerges from an absence of that most fundamental talent internalized and acted upon reflexively by the majority of people: the talent to act according to the culturally mandated gender prescripts imposed upon one’s body. I also lack the "trans-talent" to do the acceptable MTF alternatives: to act passably "feminine" or outlandishly "queenish." I lack the physical talents to transform and maintain an acceptable MTF body image. On a feminist level, I even lack the ability to comfortably don feminine attire and make-up. They are as patriarchally oppressive and awkward as placing a noose-like men’s neck tie around my throat - perhaps the tie’s joke of metaphorical suicide is simply too close to home. I find no celebratory moment in fashion or costume of any form. So, amidst all the social and subjective burdens we carry as transgendered people, the demand that we must exhibit or even define talents - particularly gender talents of any kind - strikes me as just one more ludicrous burden to bear.

Begin slideshow of randomized Google image search results for the following keywords: blind musicians, paralympics, special olympics, drag king, and drag queen. These were additionally supplemented with photos of myself (drag queen) and my mother (blind folk musician).

It is a preconception that trans-folk are "creative" and "talented," whether it be a cliché MTF talent for performativity, or a cliché FTM talent for invisibility. This is not unlike the preconception that those in the autistic spectrum must also be savant. Or the preconception that blind people are inherently talented at music. Or the preconception that all physically challenged people can become Paralympians. Or the preconception that all mentally challenged people can become Special Olympians. Each of these misguided preconceptions relies on countless unspoken issues of mobility and access, on both social and subjective levels. Each of these preconceptions omits the home ridden and closeted. And each of these preconceptions demands of people a peculiarly optimistic brand of individual performance and self-actualization that is interwoven with the value systems of contemporary global humanism and capitalism.

Over the years I have written and spoken many times against the language of positivity, optimism, hope, dreams and PrideTM, as cultivated within the ideological mechanisms of globalization. In particular, I am concerned with how the cultural demand for positivity in all aspects of life enacts a reciprocal prohibition on negativity. This prohibition extends to critical discourses from the Left as well. I consider negativity an indispensible aspect of any cultural endeavor that frames itself as "critical." What is "resistance" if not a negative push against domination? Conversely, what shame-based system of domination does not associate its own power with goodness, pride and positivity? Like it or not, the language of positivity is infused with an ideological desire for power-sharing, and not actual divestments of power.

Such power-sharing is at the core of any humanist democratic project: the right to share in the privileges of others. Within such social contexts, dreams and hopes become culturally necessary points of focus. The optimistic desire to transform according to one’s longings becomes the only valid source of motivation for cultural transformation. We become culturally unable to sustain a sense of urgency rooted in the horror of material reality’s unbearable brutalities. People say, "That’s too depressing. Everyone needs hope!" It becomes "wrong" to focus wholeheartedly on simply stopping that which is no longer tolerable, and "right" to work for that which one desires. The stopping of violence becomes only seen as a side-effect of our pursuit of loftier objectives. And in this way, ultimately, positivity is a language of acquisition. It is a language of achievement. It encourages our moral ambivalence toward, and affirmation of, our own acts of conquest. It stops us from seeing how our desires emerge from the dominations of our current contexts. Our failure to continually and actively address the ways in which today’s dreams are both symptomatic and affirmative of today’s dominations is the formula which ensures Marx’s proverb that culture repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

Concurrently, there are those who are less interested in power-sharing, and more concerned with divestments of power. It is when focusing in this other direction that I find losing the positive language of transcendence and self-determination - or attempting to make such language no longer effective - clears a lot of smoke when trying to identify the material causes for the various restrictions placed upon us. It allows one to investigate the here and now in ways that are not otherwise possible when restricted to positive linguistic and representational methodologies.

I am here as a fake. A loser. A failure. If I am an artist, I am a con artist. This is my starting point, not only in this particular moment, but in all social interactions - work related or otherwise. And just to prove how unimaginative I am, I am about to use one of the shittiest and least interesting types of metaphor ever invented: the sports metaphor. Positive people see a transgendered person sitting on the sidelines of society and seek to put them into the game. Now, I - and I assume many of you here today - had a youth filled with sports-related social traumas. In elementary school I was the weakling boy who the team captains fought to keep off their teams. I was the booby prize reluctantly accepted onto a team with groans, only picked after the last and least athletic girl (who, of course, had her own social problems). Whatever game they were playing, that girl and I being dragged into it was always synonymous with an act of force. It is true that for years I did not know how to cope with this ongoing experience other than in terms of shame and humiliation. But if I knew one thing, even as a child, it was that being put into the game only multiplied my troubles. There was no "hopeful solution" that did not involve some other shame and humiliation.

Teachers, students and parents were all focused on giving me tools to play the game, when I really needed a completely other set of tools simply focusing on ways to cope with their attempts to give me those tools to play the game. Tools of non-cooperation. Not tools to redefine winning and losing according to my own personal needs, but tools to understand both winning and losing as suspect. Tools to continue functioning amidst the inescapability of both. Not tools to cultivate gender olympians or gender talents, but tools to debase all of our trans-achievements as well. Those are the tools I needed then. They remain the tools I attempt to piece together today.

Certainly, my resistance to positivity is informed by the fact I am a non-essentialist, non-op transgendered person with no intention of undertaking medical transitional procedures of any kind. (Yes, I’m sure.) For many trans-folk - and in particular, transsexuals - this makes me someone who is unwilling to "play the game." I cannot count how many times I have been told by medically transitioning people - close friends and strangers alike - that they guarantee I will formally transition. They say, "We’ll see how you feel two years from now… just you wait!" And when those two years pass without my starting hormones, generally so too do the friendships, because it seems the majority of transgendered people wish to be surrounded by team players. It is part of the mainstream, cultic, 12-step-friendly trans-support mentality.

Of course, from a cultural perspective it is not surprising that the directions of the largest mobilizations for transgendered communal support would also coincide with the directions of the major industrial mobilizations of medicine around those same issues. We are forced to focus on transgenderism as a process of "becoming," of "arrival," of "self-realization." The cliché of a "journey." We are especially discouraged from speaking of transsexuality and medical transitioning as acts of "unbecoming," of "departure," of "self-obfuscation," of "loss" and "being lost." I do not mean a self-empowering "unbecoming" initiated out of free will. Rather, I mean an unavoidable "unbecoming" stemming from an inability to continue living with one’s birth-body and the social codifications it is subjected to. An "unbecoming" that is perhaps the only way for someone to avert suicide. To speak in such terms verges on taboo because it deprioritizes popular concepts of free will or biological necessity.

Many non-ops do not respond to the same linguistic and social codings around dominant transsexual support issues. This leads to misunderstandings. Speaking from the first-hand experiences of myself and others I know, if we say openly and honestly that we are incapable of believing medical transitioning will resolve our gender troubles - and particularly if we openly identify as feminist in any way - we are instantly branded trans-phobic conservatives… perhaps followed by a referral to a friend’s doctor who could help us break through what must surely be a repressed desire to transition. If we say openly and honestly that we do not have the money to spend on hormones, medications, or the surgical regimes of the day (and these do change along with fashion), we are dismissed as cross-dressing fetishists who only pretend to be transgendered, because everybody knows true trans-folk commit to medical transitioning no matter what the cost. If we say openly and honestly that we do not feel the technology ages well, then that makes us superficially concerned with looks - as if the only concerns we may have about the physical decay or rupture of implants, or the prolonged ingestion of hormones, must be visual. As a MTF non-op, I have even had several trans-women tell me not to worry about a loss of sex drive or an inability to have orgasms, because female hormones would eliminate my sex drive all together and make it a non-issue. On a personal note, as someone who does not drink, smoke, do drugs, or have any other such outlets beyond the orgasm, this is not an effective sales point. And again, if from a feminist perspective I indicate social discomfort with oversimplified generalizations about female hormones eradicating sex drive and male hormones introducing sex drive - discomfort because those generalizations so seamlessly tie into patriarchal mythologies of male sexual prowess and feminine a-sexual virtue - well, that just makes me an ignorant "nurturist" in denial of how "nature" really works, right?

As a non-essentialist non-op, and within this museum space, I refute the existence of talent - especially innate talent. Talents are nothing more than variables of social access and repetition. They only exist as talents upon recognition by the self and/or others. To boast of one’s talents is simply to boast of one’s social access. As someone who was born with a penis and hypocritically spends the majority of my life in men’s clothing for reasons of personal safety, despite my public visibility as an "out" transgendered person, I express my empathy and deep affiliation with other talentless transgendered people who remain in closets with no way out. At the same time, I am not here as a spokesperson for a specific subset of transgendered people. I am simply here, at this job today, due to variables of social access and repetition - much as I got my first full-time secretarial job because I could type fifty-five words per minute. And I feel no more comfortable here than I did there. I presume many of you are similarly uncomfortable in this space. It usually remains unspoken, but most of us understand a gathering such as today is only made possible by selling our agendas to funders through the self-sabotaging language of positive cultural investments and returns. This is the unfortunate subtext haunting today’s attempts to substitute the "euphoric" for the "dysphoric." And it is why I am left unable to imagine this as a meaningful time or place for attempting such a substitution.



In the symposium's catalog, Jack Halberstam's introductory essay perfectly performed the problems of positive reductionism I speak of by summarizing my contribution as "delightfully, dare I say charmingly, grumpy."

Later that evening, while DJ-ing at the after party, I was harassed by a drunk, middle-aged, standardly attractive heterosexual woman with long blonde hair who had apparently walked through life without hearing the word, "No!" At least not in a night club. While I realize that may sound like a mysogynistic generalization, my years of experience as a DJ have shown the two types of people who never fail to give me trouble are heterosexual long-haired blonde women, and heterosexual middle-aged German men in casual blazers.

She began by asking me to play something by Madonna. I joked that she clearly did not know who I was (ref. my anti-Madonna tyrade in "Ball'r (Madonna-Free Zone)"). She persisted, moving on to request Billy Bragg and the Pogues. As I was in the midst of playing a deep house set, I asked why she would even imagine I had such music with me. She continued with her requests, and I kept explaining I didn't have the type of music she wanted to hear. It is amazing how people presume DJ's always carry an arsenal of mainstream pop records. Sorry, I don't play at coming out parties or wedding receptions.

After what must have been at least ten minutes, I finally said, "I guess my answer to your requests is, 'No!'" This did not go over well.


"No! My answer is no!"

Total shock-face. "How dare you!"

I pointed to the day's curator Stuart Comer, who was standing a few meters away, and suggested she complain to him. Her response was, "Who's that? Your boyfriend? What are you, faggots?" I pointed once again to Stuart and she repeated her insult, at which point I began screaming at the top of my lungs, "Yes, that's right! We are all faggots! This is a faggot party! Where the fuck do you think you are? We - are - all - faggots - here! This - is - a - faggot - party!"

At this point, the staff and people on the floor began to realize what was happening, and moved her away - but she remained on the dancefloor flipping me off until closing time. The most disturbing thing was that she was accompanied by a WGM friend who could have been an attendee at the symposium. If so, and if you read this, get a new fag hag because your old one is broken. She clearly despises you - probably because you are the only person with a penis offering her the vapid emotional understanding she craves but cannot find in the drunk, heterosexual men with blonde hair she attempts to have meaningful relationships with. Both of your lives have been lived a million times.

As a DJ, I cannot understand why clubs do not immediatley kick out people who harrass DJ's and other employees like this. Why let them linger? I am absolutely opposed to door policies when letting people into a club, but once they are inside there have to be boundaries. Over the years I've had people who were denied their requests rip out cables from the back of the mixer, pour drinks on equipment, reach to skip the record needles... Drunk + disgruntled = scary. Back in the day, you got your ass thrown the fuck out for shit like this! As unfair as that may seem to some customers, I really wish these people would get immediatley hauled onto the street and not let back in. Refund their cover charge if you have to. Just keep 'em the fuck away from me.

...So if you ever see me acting like a hysterical lunatic in the DJ booth, and you are too far away to hear what is going on, I hope you will consider this is probably the type of scene happening rather than concluding I am the ultimate asshole ego-DJ from hell. Sadly, this situation is more commonplace than you'd think. If it could happen at the afterparty for this symposium, that should be proof enough it happens everywhere. Indeed, we are not welcome... anywhere. That is always the starting point.

Please understand, if you fuck with me during my futile attempts to publicly carry forward these long dead musics that were the soundtrack to a lost era of queer/HIV-AIDS/trans-activism, it is like attacking a mourner at a funeral. I will respond irrationally and emotionally.