Taking Responsibility for the Plot
Personal transformation is complicated and terrifying.
There’s a picture of me with my two brothers when I was about five. I’m wearing my dad’s sunglasses and my brother’s purple paisley shirt that I loved. The shirt is unbuttoned, wide open, my little kid chest proudly on display. I look fierce and happy. Like myself.
I’ve spent a lifetime getting back to that photo.
I’ve always known I wasn’t a girl, and never a woman, even if that hasn’t always been the story.
The story can unfold in many directions. I’m sure I’ve told it different ways. But I feel pretty clear that I’ve always known I wasn’t a girl, and never a woman, even if that hasn’t always been the story. At 50 I’ve decided to be fully public about a gender transition and this transition (that’s been happening over many years) happens to be coinciding with a political transition in this country, a story with a history that has been told in many different ways, but is now playing out with abject clarity, in a way perhaps none of us white liberals imagined.
In many ways, I’ve tried not to create a plot for my own story. I’ve tried not to lay out the decisive actions my character would take in this transition. Inhabiting a body used to erasure, I’ve grown comfortable with my trans invisibility. I know what I know, and I feel bad you can’t see me. In some ways quietly, to myself, I’ve felt a victim of my circumstances. Charles Baxter, in his book of essays on fiction, Burning Down the House, says:
Our interest in victims and victimization has finally to do with our constant ambivalence about power, about being powerful, about wanting to be powerful but not having to acknowledge the buck stopping at our desk.
He writes these words in the context of too many stories he reads where things just happen, without accountability or authorship; “mistakes were made.” He says these kinds of stories often end in a court of law, “the fiction of finger-pointing, fiction of the quest for blame.” Now it’s important to note the frame of whiteness in which Baxter writes these words, because his desire for characters to own their own actions, to stop being victims of their circumstance requires a white frame. After watching behavior therapist Charles Kinsey laying on the ground with his hands up in North Miami and being shot anyway, well, that’s a victim, a victim of frames of whiteness.
As a white person, I find Baxter helpful—how do I use my power as a white person to acknowledge the buck stops with me? Yet as a trans person I often find his desire for clarity around action and plot—his sense that decisive action and self-knowing are more interesting character traits in a good story—maddening. It assumes a white frame of power that my trans self has found to be elusive. But it’s been extremely helpful in this time of transition, at a moment when I’m taking narrative responsibility for my story.
You see, I thought you could already see me. I haven’t worn a stitch of women’s clothing since 1991 or before. I just thought you knew, even though you kept calling me ma’m and lady and Ms. I really thought I was being clear. And yet, as a powerful person in the theatre, I felt no power in my own body, a victim of your failure of perception. But I wasn’t willing to speak up, to correct you, and make you look again, see me.
Baxter calls this story a “dysfunctional narrative”—a narrative that illuminates pain through injuries done to us by family, friends, society. These are stories where “pain can never be expunged” where life is “a life of fate, like a character disorder,” like an irrefutable ma’m in a boy’s purple paisley shirt.
I felt my erasure by you to be about you. And there’s some truth to that. Trans people are erased every single day in multiple ways. Please know that I know that. Please know that I write from this frame of whiteness and professional power.
You and Me
I felt my erasure by you to be about you. And there’s some truth to that. Trans people are erased every single day in multiple ways. Please know that I know that. Please know that I write from this frame of whiteness and professional power. But in what ways had I conceded to my own erasure, my plot of victimization? I kept waiting for you to change, for you to see what I thought I had been saying all along, until I realized I hadn’t been saying it clearly and directly and decisively. In some ways that’s your problem, your need for boxes, clarity. But your problems are my problems, and in the frames of gender binaries, clarity is survival, however you decide to define it.
I’ve written before about Baxter’s conception of “one-way gate actions”: “a one-way gate, an irrevocable action that a character cannot go back on… You are now defined by that action, often unforgivable, and always undoable.” So I made a decisive turn in my own plot, a one-way gate action, to name myself. Mistakes weren’t made. I intended the turn. I can’t go back now. It’s on Facebook. I changed my name from Polly Kathleen Carl to P. Carl. You can call me Carl or Dr. Carl or P. Carl. My pronouns are he and him. I’ve had top surgery. But you’ll have to deal with my lack of testosterone; I’m not going to change that much for you, you’ll have to deal with my hybridity—the fact that I may not pass in ways you think I should. I’m unapologetic. I’m sure some part of my action is unforgivable. This is clarity as I know it.
The Decisiveness of White Supremacy
Personal transformation is complicated and terrifying. It’s been a little surreal and sometimes seemingly indulgent to be transitioning as an individual in this dire social moment. We white liberals never imagined an overt white supremacist becoming a viable nominee for president of our country. It didn’t really occur to us, and at some levels feels like it just happened, out of nowhere. But as Claudia Rankine makes so clear in her wrenching book Citizen: An American Lyric, though the fiction of the facts may assume “innocence, lack of intention, misdirection,” the reality, as many people of color have known all along, is that white supremacy is nothing if not intentional, a plot with a clear objective, a plot cascading toward an endpoint, one we see in the numerous and “unbelievable” shootings and deaths of black men and women—black people in cars, on the ground with their hands up, in jail cells for no apparent reason.
Baxter says, “Every story is a history, however, when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history.” In the story of the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump is a character practicing what Baxter calls “deniability”— “the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.” But the one thing we do know as white liberals? A clear truth? He is a character showing us our history, telling a decisive story. This is why we find him so terrifying, we’ve grown used to giving up narrative responsibility–we are white liberal Americans looking on in disbelief. Clay Shirkey on Twitter after Trump’s acceptance of the Republican nomination:
In Trump we have history, we have plot, we have decisiveness; mistakes aren’t just being made. It’s intentional. Baxter says villains are good for us:
And I suppose I am nostalgic—as a writer of course—for stories with mindful villainy, villainy with clear motives that any adult would understand, bad behavior with a sense of scale that would give back to us our imaginative grip in the despicable and the admirable and our capacity to have some opinions about the two.
Baxter is relieved by the villain in the story, the maker of meaning, the one who reveals history. These characters and their clearly expressed actions are when “the moral life becomes intelligible. It also becomes legibly political.”
Imaginative grip. Moral life.
When has the need for the intelligibility of a moral life been more urgent? When has our need as artists to get an imaginative grip over our storytelling been more necessary?
Claudia Rankine asks, “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?”
An interruption from writing this essay to buy almond milk for breakfast, early Sunday morning, just me and the cashier at the co-op. How much is contained in that sentence? I wonder if almond milk and co-ops are frames of whiteness. My hair cut close, my tight t-shirt pulled up against my breastless chest, my guy clothes. Was I begging for that respectful ma’m that flew from the cashier’s mouth? She didn’t mean anything by it, it’s just a container, but honestly a container that lacks imagination, you can’t really look at me and see ma’m, but you can look past me and say it with ease.
Claudia Rankine again:
You like to think memory goes far back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives. To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form a someone. The headache begins then. Don’t wear sunglasses in the house, the world says, though they soothe, soothe sight, soothe you.
To get an imaginative grip it’s time to take off the sunglasses. It truly doesn’t matter how we feel. This is what Baxter and Rankine are both saying loud and clear; the facts are the facts and our feelings about truth and morality keep us in a place of indecisiveness. We let moral ambiguity be a kind of salve that soothes our fragile whiteness. What do we see in all of those videos of execution—it could be this or it could mean that? Does the story of what we see happening in our country right now lack clarity? Trump uses deniability to create a misleading sense of incoherence about what is utter narrative clarity. Baxter argues that public figures who deliberately refuse responsibility for their actions “humiliate the act of storytelling.” As experts in storytelling we must not abide this humiliation, this erasure of a history of white supremacy.
If I say I am trans, do you see me now?
It matters the decisive actions we take. We must take control of the plot, dare the risk of moral intelligibility. Let’s stop being shocked, staring in our white liberal disbelief. In the full light of day what we see is not meant to be soothing, and our art not meant for escape.
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Such a brave article, it really made me realize how ignorant I have been. Although I am a white-privileged liberal and I do have something in common with the author, it is time artists be less passive and more confrontational in our convictions, if we are passive, then we get something like a Donald Trump who is using "deniability" as the author states. This article was such stimulating food for thought, I like to think I'm politically correct which I believe is just being respectful, but who am I to define that term? I have faith that theatre, film, literature, and other forms of art make more of a difference now more than ever.
Thank you for helping me to see you more clearly, Carl. You remain as inspiring as ever.
Dr. Carl, thank you for this post. As a trans man who has been stealth my entire adult life, your decision to be publicly clear about who you are further challenges me to face the moral implications of my own hiddenness. I have been considering the support to others (and healing of my own sense of isolation) that being open about my full self would provide. Thank you for encouraging me to trust in the connection and integrity of openness.
If it's any consolation the guys who ran the parking garage thought you were a guy. And here I thought was being helpful by "correcting" them! (Sorry!)
I'm very happy you have come so far on your personal journey, but I find myself a bit overwhelmed by your statements to the effect that we should have known based on the fact that you haven't worn any women's clothing since 1991.
For (as a Xena fan, amongst other things) I've known a number of lesbians over the years, many of whom dressed like you. But it never occured to me that some of them might consider themselves to really be men inside. But now I'm wondering if some (most?) of them did. (Any thoughts?)
I really want to do the right thing going forward... any advice on how we can know when a woman dressed like a man wants to be seen as male, and when as female?
Confused but wanting to learn,
Not to intrude here, but a good rule of thumb is not to assume and instead ask people which pronoun they use. It's not quite as black and white as to say that all people who wear men's clothing prefer traditionally masculine pronounces, but there’s no harm in asking. As we work to be more inclusive many places now create space for people to give a pronoun in the same way they would give their name.
Thank you for taking the time to respond, and for the advice!
(Sorry it took me so long to check back.)
Great article. So much of this essay brought to mind one of my favorite Adrienne Rich quotes from Invisibility in Academe, "“When someone with the Authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequalibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” Thanks for this.
I love this, Carl. A book, perhaps?
P. Carl, Your essays are socially & politically invigorating, the perfect morning counterpart to my espresso. For several years now, and thanks to activists like you, I have taken my sunglasses off, and I do see you.
Thank you for writing this, and continuing to remind us that art's place in society is not just to entertain. It is to confront and to enlighten and to challenge. True culture is active and engaged, not paralyzed and apathetic.
I see you, P. Carl, with admiration and love.
Once again, Dr. Carl demonstrating his massive capacity for transforming personal revelation into profound cultural insight that serves us all. Thank you.