“Heterosexuality is bad,” and other thoughts from a rising-star writer poking holes in how we talk about power, transgender identity, and what to do after you tell the truth.
by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard
Sep 11 2018
“Change my fucking sex!” Andrea Long Chu bellows. A few glances from nearby laptop users graze us, two trannies cackling over coffee on an oppressively sticky August day. The writer’s outburst isn’t a direct request, of course—she already has a GoFundMe for that. Chu is bemoaning the dismissal of phrases like transsexual and sex change. In scrutinizing the code of how we ought to speak about ourselves, Chu isn’t having the valorization of well-intentioned language like “gender confirmation surgery.” The Brooklyn-based writer finds rigid language around gender to be about as intellectually expansive as a bathroom stall.
Chu writes about gender, desire, and culture. Her early-2018 n+1 essay, “On Liking Women,” a work that she anticipated would ignite “the anger of the other trannies on the internet,” instead spread like wonderous wildfire across the internet. Sandy Stone, the artist and academic regarded as the founder of transgender studies, lauded Chu’s break-out piece for “launching ‘the second wave’ of trans studies.” Chu has since served similarly provocative pieces on diverse topics including the hot mess that is the Avital Ronell scandal and the homoeroticism in Sex and the City.
Chu likes to do many things in her writing. Most notably, Chu likes to pants people—often herself, especially on what she calls “dirtbag Twitter,” a platform on which she has become something of a cult icon for literary types. “I really like a certain genre of female Twitter personality where you let the world catch you with your pants down. There’s a really stooge-ish element. It’s not self-deprecation, and it’s not wry. It’s like, ‘This is a bad part of myself.’ Like, ‘Whatever the discourse is today, I just don’t care about it.’ When the Scarlett Johansson casting decision was trending, I tweeted, ‘Scarlett Johansson could play me in a movie if she wants.’ I like putting things on Twitter that I would hide in real life.”
The pleasure Chu takes in being honest about sticky subjects extends to her prose. Chu has a knack for kissing—maybe biting—the readers with turns-of-phrases that make you wonder why you hadn’t already written that, much less thought of it. She identifies concepts that feel abundantly intuitive, but have been obstructed by the pain of overthinking, like her thoughts on language surrounding transitioning: In a recent Boston Review article titled “Extreme Pregnancy,” she quips, “I’m not even supposed to write sex change; I’m supposed to write gender confirmation surgery, as if all the doctors did was to throw your inner woman a big thumbs-up.”
Which brings us back to yelling about sex changes over chai lattés. Bottom surgery, as it is colloquially referred to, is coveted by many trans people because of its promise of self-actualization, but scorned—at least by the little devil on my shoulder—as a failure to embrace one’s body as it exists without surgery. Bottom surgery is also exactly what its more frowned-upon name describes: a reconstruction of sex organs. The ‘gender-confirmation surgery’ formulation is unfaithful to the model that figures gender as absolutely distinct from sex—the one that states that gender is an internal identity—whereas sex is just between the legs. ‘Gender confirmation surgery’ does not follow at all from that gender-sex schema; if you faithfully subscribed to it, you wouldn’t want to do anything at all to your genitals if gender is completely isolated from them.
“Gender identity is maximally essentialist,” Chu says, reversing the popular claim that gender identity is the liberating escape route from a genital-based logic of gender.”It leaves no room for anything else, because you are [characterized as having been] always exactly what you are. Gender deviance becomes ontologically impossible under the gender identity model—like, ‘Oh, since you were always a woman, you shouldn’t have to—’ It’s like, No, bitch! The whole point of this was to change. That means there has to be a before. Even if that before is uncomfortable.”