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Originally posted on comatonse.com October 20, 2011.
When recently compiling articles and reviews for the new website design, I noticed from comments on various blogs that the answers to a few basic questions about me remain unclear to some people. Although the answers are already out there, they are perhaps scattered among various texts and difficult to trace. So I decided to sit down with myself and get the answers to some of the recurring questions and misunderstood points about this Terre Thaemlitz person...
Do you live in New York?
No, I live in Kawasaki, Japan. I have not lived in New York since 1997. I first moved to New York in 1986 and stayed for a total of eleven years.
Are you American or Japanese?
I was born in the U.S., hold a U.S. passport, and am a permanent resident of Japan. In things such as concert announcements I always insist upon being identified with Japan. For example, "Terre Thaemlitz (JP)," "Japan-based producer Terre Thaemlitz," or "Japanese producer Terre Thaemlitz." The three main reasons for this are: 1) I have permanently resided in Japan for over 10 years now and have no plans to return to the U.S.; 2) to counter native Japanese peoples' aversion to identifying immigrants living in Japan as "Japanese;" and 3) to counter the aversions of people in the EU and other countries against identifying immigrants living in Japan as "Japanese" (which, oddly, is an aversion almost as strong as that of Japanese natives - I have had arguments with promoters about this).
Are you transsexual?
No, but I am transgendered.
What's the difference?
Think of transgenderism as an umbrella category that covers all types of behavior and body conditions that do not fit clearly into the female/male binary. Transsexualism is one form of transgenderism, and it refers to people who have undergone medical procedures to modify their bodies and alter their genders (such as hormone therapies, surgeries, etc.). Other types of transgendered people range from intersex people to cross dressers.
What kind of "transgendered" are you, then?
You might call me non-essentialist, non-op MTFTMTF...
"Non-essentialist" (or sometimes I say "anti-essentialist") means that I reject the notion of my gender identity stemming from something natural, such as an "inner essence." ("Essentialist" refers to people who believe their gender is innate or biological, such as a belief in "being born this way.") Particularly in relation to social organizing and political issues, the downside of any essentialist argument - asking for rights because "I can't help it, I was born this way" - is that it removes all self-agency and capacity for choice around the issue at hand. It is a point of eternal frustration for me that the legislation of most rights related to the body (gender, race, sexuality, etc.) are justified through completely non-democratic arguments of biological predisposition. For me, this is inseparable from the language of feudalism, by which the ruling aristocracy argued their privileges were based on birthright and bloodright... in other words, justified based on their DNA. This habit of legislating rights around bodies is completely different from a real democratic process of a people choosing to outlaw forms of violence and discrimination based on their cultural capacity to accept diversity (a capacity which, clearly, we do not have). Basically, essentialism is the cheap and easy way to legislate. But it is also dangerously conservative, often making it impossible to re-open discussions around civil rights for a particular group or class once rudimentary legislation has been passed. I think I've said this better in some interview...
I think it was the Little White Earbuds interview. You said:
Yeah, that one... It's also fleshed out in the text on Guattari and Deleuze's concept of "becoming-minor" vs. "becoming minority."
"Non-op" means without having had any operations or medical procedures (you may have heard of the more common term "post-op," or "post-operative," used in reference to people who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery).
"MTF" means "Male to Female," which refers to people who deviate from an initially male-identified gender identity (conversely, "FTM" means "Female to Male"). I tend to list them in an endless cycle, "MTFTMTF...," because my self-representation is open-ended and goes back and forth.
Do you go by "he" or "she"?
Yes, I do.
Oh, you're a smart-ass... nice.
Well, for several years now, when writing about myself I alternate gender pronouns (ex. from my online profile: "He has released over 15 solo albums, as well as numerous 12-inch singles and video works. Her writings on music and culture have been published internationally..."). I prefer this to conventional "neutral" pronouns ("one," "they") because gender is never neutral under patriarchy. I also prefer this to introducing new words ("hir," "zim," etc.), because - unlike re-appropriated "negative" terms such as "queer" and "fag" - I feel absolutely no connection to the new schools of gender pronouns, and they make me feel as though I must personally take on the burden of their inconvenience while the majority of readers have the luxury of remaining unphased and dismissive. The new words also return us to a model of singular identity, even if the definition of that third identity is supposed to signify something open (ie. "Oh, Terre is not a 'her' nor 'him,' but a 'hir'"). By simply rotating "she" and "he," the focus remains on unresolved questions of gender identity within patriarchy, while rejecting the notion that "third-gender" pronouns offer a comfort zone or escape route (although they may for others). Also, because "he/she/he/she" rotation is disorienting and annoying to most everyone, I feel I am inviting the reader to share in the awkwardness and inconvenience I continually feel around issues of gender identification.
From online comments I've read, it seems a lot of people feel I am identifying solely as a "he" at the moment. This may be a result of the recent media focus on my DJ Sprinkles persona, which is generally dressed in male clothing. Or it may be a misreading of comments I have made about accepting that I can no longer publicly pass as "female," and how this complicates notions of being "transgendered" identified, with a penis, and more often dressed in men's clothes than women's clothes. It may also be complicated by my insistence upon clearly stating the primary condition of transgendered life is "the closet," as opposed to conventional models of transgendered and transsexual visibility that portray transgenderism as a "coming out" journey of ever-increasing openness and acceptance (both self-acceptance and public acceptance). As a result of my not undergoing medical transitioning, as well as my "outing" of the closet as an active part of my life (even as a "visible and out transgendered person"), I have sometimes found myself rejected by members of transgendered communities as a "man simply playing with ideas." This comes with the double-punch of my being read as one-dimensionally "male" by non-trans people because, well, it's easier for them to visually read me that way. Both of these views are mistaken. I do not freely identify as "he" any more than "she," and I find them both alienating. For various reasons including finances, a lack of clothes in my size, social closets, and personal safety, my daily dress tends to be "casual non-office-working male" (t-shirt and jeans), which means I am generally addressed by others as a male. However, this is completely different from my actually identifying as male. Publicly, I allow people to address me as they wish, without correction, even if I would have preferred a different pronoun (such as being in femme dress for a performance and being introduced to a large crowd as "he"). Of course, this sort of "mistake" does not go unnoticed by the audience, leaving them wondering, "Was it okay to call Terre a 'he' (or 'she')?" which I consider an important experience for people to share as a group - taking gender out of the realm of (my) personal choice, and into the uncontrollable public sphere.
Is there a rule for deciding how to address someone's gender when you're not sure?
As a general rule, when in doubt about a person's preferred pronoun and the pronoun cannot be avoided - such as by using their name - it is usually best to opt for the gender that their clothes most lean toward, regardless of whether or not they can actually pass as that gender. This acknowledges their effort to depart from standard gender constructs, as opposed to negatively emphasizing the limitations of their "realness." They can always correct you if they prefer a different pronoun, but at least you would have opted for the more "polite" option in case you are speaking with someone who is self-conscious about their inability to pass.
You rotate "she" and "he" when talking about yourself, but I've noticed in your writings you seem to just use "she." Why?
Yes, when not writing about myself I tend to exclusively use feminine pronouns (although I have used "s/he" in the past). This is because I find "she" comes along with the feeling of excluding the masculine, which can at times read as surprising in relation to topics culturally dominated by men. It is also insistent upon the fact that there are people other than men working in every field, despite inequality. I feel both of these challenging dynamics are less prominent when using "s/he," which tends to imply the potential for equal participation where, in reality, there is none. In this sense, I think exclusively using "she" reads more urgent and aggressive than "s/he."
Ultimately, my selection of pronouns is not based on a holy-grail quest for "a better word," nor to represent myself in a way I feel comfortable (there is no such word), but simply bringing out the problems of patriarchy while deprioritizing the default privileging of the masculine. Like, I do not feel the world would be a better place if everyone used pronouns the way I do. I like it that all kinds of people are doing contradictory things at once.
While we're at it, what's the deal with all the capital lettering and "scare quotes" in your writings? Actually, I've noticed you don't capitalize as much as you used to...
Yeah, I used to always be very strict about capitalizing words like Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, etc. These days I'm a bit lazy with the 'shift' key. When I do capitalize it's intended as an indicator of a constructed category or subject - to emphasize the word as a title or category under which things are assembled, rather than as an essentialist state of being or thing in itself. The same goes for quotation marks around words like "man" and "woman" - you could kind of read it as "so-called man," or "what is conventionally considered to be a man." It's a way of calling a term or category into question, and expressing a lack of faith. I think I started getting lazy with these things because there's a point where everything becomes suspect, and almost every word becomes a possible candidate for capitalization or quotes, which is clunky to read. And sometimes capitalizing words like Lesbian and Gay reads as honorific - like capitalizing "God" or "Lord" - which can have the effect of reinforcing their construction rather than deconstructing them. Damned if you do, and damned if you don't. These days, I just try to choose a style of capitalization for an individual text and stick with it to the end.
Um... "she's" and "he's" aside, you're really a man, right?
If you have to ask that, I am afraid I could not give you an answer that would satisfy you. I do not identify as a man unless the social environment makes it absolutely necessary (such as in my passport). At the same time, this refusal to identify certainly does not mean I am "transcendent" of gender, and I would never say anything individualist like, "I'm not male or female - I'm just me." Society does not grant us that freedom. "I" am always in relation to "you," which means the potential for flexibility around my gender identifications is only as malleable or fluid as "you" will allow. This will change depending on whether "you" are a stranger, a friend, a lover, a family member, a physician, another trans-identified person, intersexed, transsexual, a government official, etc.
For example, when I am in women's clothes and say, "I am transgendered," the reaction is completely different than when I say the same thing while wearing men's clothes. When I wear women's clothes, it seems "real" to people. They seem to accept my femme appearance as part of a longer physical transition - they may imagine I will one day undergo medical transitioning. When I wear men's clothes, what I say is more likely to be heard as the word-games of a dilettante with no material connection to their notion of "true" transgendered bodies. This is the gap in which I exist.
So, if you insist I am a man, then that is all I can be within this context. And in some other context I was only a woman, because to out myself as anything else would have put me at risk of physical harm from those who believed I was a woman. In neither case have I ever felt "liberated." Nor did I personally feel like a "man" or "woman." And, as a feminist sensitive to the "woman's experience" under patriarchy, I would generally not identify as a "woman" outside of situations where it was necessary for my personal safety. (My moments of identifying as a "man" are similarly driven by fear and a desire for safety, but without the respect for a "man's experience.") I would never claim to "know what it feels like to be a woman." But I would also warn against those who essentialize their experiences as "women" in ways which perpetuate the two-gender binary to the exclusion of others. The privilege of living one's entire life as someone who's sense of self matches how she is perceived by others is not a matter of luck. It is the result of a certain blindness born of that position of privilege which crystalizes the connection between body and gender in dangerous ways.
I guess the key to understanding what I am talking about is being open to the notion that gender - which most people are accustomed to thinking of as a fixed aspect of one's life from birth to death - is, in fact, born of context and not of the body. There is the potential for flexibility in how we choose to honor or disrespect that contextual relationship slapped on us from birth. This flexibility does not equate with "freedom" - it is very difficult to bend oneself, and comes with great social and economic loss - but it is possible.
Yeah, but I mean, strictly on a biological level... you're a guy, right?
Let me try again... Even if you wish to only fixate on the body, and present me with what you consider an "unquestionably pure man" or "unquestionably pure woman" (in terms of appearance or genetics or whatever your conditions may be), I could always find someone else who is more "manly" or "womanly," thereby making your pure man or woman less pure. What do they become? I know it's difficult for many people to grasp this point, but can you see how "man" and "woman" are not singular things, and actually occupy a range or field of gradation among countlessly unique bodies?
We are conditioned to quantify gender. All societies seem obsessed with it. Most people seem to have no problem pointing at certain celebrities and saying, "Now she's a real woman," or "He's a real man," but it takes conscious training to open oneself to sensing a body's loss of gender, no matter how minute. Most people's sensitivity to this notion of "losing gender" is no more refined than, say, noticing a frail boy being labeled a "pussy" by his classmates. This lack of nuance in registering divestments of gender is a blind spot shared by most cultures, because most all cultures rely on power dynamics that exploit gender divides - almost exclusively along patriarchal lines.
But as I said, "female" and "male" are not singular states - they are ranges of existence with many gradations and qualifiers. The gaps and possible gradations between medical definitions of "male," "female" and "intersex" are truly infinite, involving both physiological and psychological diagnoses (the split between physiology and psychology itself being contrived). Gender, like race, does not exist in a purified state. That is impossible. Without knowing what your specific social and biological qualifiers are when judging my "biological gender," I honestly cannot answer your question with a "yes" or "no." Even if I did give you such an answer, it would only be for your sake, and not mine - in which case I suspect your agenda would not be one I would wish to endorse.
It seems most people can say, "In my heart I know I am a woman/man," but if I am honest with you, I can only say that in my gut I do not feel like either. Whatever illogical impulses or inexplicable physiological compulsions I may identify within myself, they only seem to take on associations of gender at the social level, and this "gut feeling" influences my actions every day. When I identify as "transgendered" (usually qualifying it with the phrase "non-essentialist"), I do so as a convenience because it signifies a range of identifications other than female and male, or feminine and masculine. However, I am also skeptical of the construction of transgendered identities, which do not emerge independent of patriarchal dominations, and are in that way also symptomatic of conditions of gender oppression. I am particularly concerned with the ways in which medical industries construct transgendered bodies within heterosexist patriarchies, and the sexism underlying the visual aesthetics of cosmetic surgery in general.
So you're kind of like a contrarian, then?
No, that would be a grotesque oversimplification - and one which relies on a binary model of "rejecting opposites," nonetheless. Look, for some people, all of these answers I am giving you will always seem to be about semantics. But for me, it is absolutely about "the body" and material social conditions - not semantics.
Okay, then let's talk about your body... Have you ever been clinically diagnosed with a form of intersexuality, Gender Identity Disorder (GID), or any other possible medical conditions related to transgenderism?
No. And I am extremely reluctant to subject myself to such diagnoses - particularly in relation to GID, which in most countries is a mandatory stepping-stone when pursuing transformative procedures such as hormone therapy, sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), etc. I find it incredibly upsetting that the majority of post-op transsexuals I have known considered their diagnosis with GID to be nothing but a bureaucratic formality for insurance coverage and continued access to health care. For example, here in Japan access to transitional procedures means following strict rules that make people wait 8 to 10 years before being eligible for SRS. As you can imagine, many people do not wish to wait that long (especially those who begin transitioning later in life) and end up breaking the rules by independently paying for surgery in Thailand or Singapore. But when they come back to Japan and seek local follow-up care they are penalized for trying jump steps in the Japanese system, sent to the back of the line in terms of priority when making appointments, and treated coldly by physicians. Taking diagnostic rules to their furthest extreme is Iran, where their economy around gender transitioning is surprisingly second only to Thailand. In Iran, SRS is forced upon countless people every year as a "cure" for homosexuality, which is forbidden under their interpretation of Islamic law. The government actually subsidizes these surgeries. Yet even in these cases where SRS is clearly used as a loophole in religious law to help people avoid beatings, imprisonment and/or "justified" murder (often at the hands of one's own family and local community), a diagnosis of GID remains a precondition of these surgeries. It makes absolutely no sense. While I recognize that there are those who do feel a sincere connection to their diagnoses (particularly in Western nations where these diagnoses first fostered, and are therefore more culturally reconciled with the mindsets of the patients), taking all of these global contexts into consideration I feel it is a mistake to use a history of clinical diagnoses as a means of qualifying a person's degree of "transgendered authenticity" - which is certainly a subtext of asking that question in a public setting. It simply reinforces the all too familiar trans-hierarchy which places transsexuals at the top, fetish cross-dressers at the bottom, and the rest of us as an indecisive, suspicious, untrustworthy lump in the middle.
The fact that the planet's two largest and most advanced industries around medical transitioning exist within the radically homophobic cultures of Thailand and Iran certainly raises flags in my mind. These industries not only define our conditions, but consistently propose "solutions" that just so happen to coincide with dominant gender and sexual mares. They encourage an essentialist faith in the relatinoship between bodies and medicine (which establishes the rules for what constitutes a "healthy body"), all of which cloaks the grim reality that culture after culture finds it easier to physically alter the bodies of a minority than to alter dominant social codings around sexuality, gender and the body. (In the West, people prefer to think of transitioning as a gender issue distinct from sexual orientation, but sexual orientation is absolutely an enormous factor within the evolution of these industries.) In this way I see medicine serving the interests of dominant cultures far more than serving the interests of transgendered people. People need medical care. Things like hormonal imbalances are real. But the ideological misdirections around transgendered care confuse the accuracy of diagnoses - even to the point of falsification - and that in turn confuses the direction of future developments in medicine.
Ultimately, most medical transitioning is less about becoming female or male, and more about unbecoming whatever we were (which may not have been "female" or "male" at all), just enough so that we are psychologically able to accept our bodies amidst the misery of life under heterosexist patriarchies. The crossing of gender borders is not unlike a form of migration. In the same way a large part of why I enjoy living in Japan is because of the ways it is not the U.S. (all the while being sure that if I were born in Japan I would be utterly miserable here), so I can see the positive function of medical transitioning as a means of migrating one's body away from the unbearable cultural codings surrounding it. And like the immigrant is ever-aware that they are not indigenous to their new land, so is the transgendered person ever aware that their transition is never complete. It is a thing of perpetual maintenance. It is interactive. It means no longer being able to take for granted all the privileges to which the "native" is generally numb.
Within this circumstance, I consider rampant essentialism among transgendered people - including that fostered by medical industries - as an anesthetic which allows people to remain numb. And that numbness is not politically neutral or devoid of dominations. It is an addictive painkiller prescribed by dominant culture. It helps one cope for a while, but it is not the cure for one's pain. It is an ultimatley harmful distraction. Like religion or 12-step, I can understand how people come to rely upon it - particularly those most vulnerable or on the verge of suicide (and as we know, transitioning is no deterrent for that). But like religion or 12-step, essentialism also requires a "leap of faith" by which one surrenders all control to a supra-social power (be it spiritual or genetic) - which is always a convoluted and misdirected means of seeking personal/social agency in the here-and-now.
Are you gay?
[Laughs] I like the way you're just blurting all these things out... like they're all valid questions, and not at all tedious or rude or reductionist - one after another...
No, well... Sorry, I mean, I'm asking because people seem unclear...
Unclear is also okay, but whatever. To quote Rev. Lovejoy from The Simpsons, it's going to be another "short answer 'yes' with an 'if...,' long answer 'no' with a 'but...'"
Wait, The Simpsons are from Springfield - that's your hometown, right?
Oh my god, I am soooo tired of that question! Listen, the joke of the Simpsons coming from a town called Springfield is that between all 50 U.S. states there are something like 46 cities called Springfield, so it's kind of like saying "Anytown U.S.A." But yes, I am from Springfield, Missouri. I wasn't born there - I was born in the outskirts of St. Paul, Minnesota - but I still have immediate family in Springfield and consider it my hometown. Actually, in one episode of The Simpsons which was parodying journalist TV shows like Entertainment Tonight, the voiceover announcer actually referred to the Springfield in The Simpsons as a "small Southern Missouri town," clearly referencing my hometown. But I took this more as a joke on how television journalism will make up facts, and not as though they were actually saying the Simpsons lived in Missouri. We have no nuclear reactor, and the town's layout is nothing like in the show. Wait, what are we talking about?
Are you gay?
Oh, that's right. Well, not to be evasive, but as a result of my transgenderism - by which I am unable to identify my gender opposite - the question suddenly becomes unanswerable in the absence of the "female/male" binary required by hetero- and homosexuality.
I generally describe my sexuality as "pansexually queer." Queerness is about a way of seeing sexuality as something that is neither singular nor fixed. The metaphor I've beaten to death over the years is to imagine homosexuality as white, and heterosexuality as black - queerness is about the infinite sexual shades of grey in between. Although most people tend to identify as exclusively hetero- or homosexual, I do not believe anyone occupies that pure white or black region. I think we all exist in the greys, although most of us have tastes closer to one end of the spectrum than the other. (I associate this bias with social programming more than biological predisposition - take a look a children's cartoons to see how heterosexual desire is represented and taught from infancy, usually in the form of an awkward boy character driven eye-poppingly crazy by an unbearably cute but oblivious girl character. The manner in which all characters only exist in male/female pairs, including the way in which initially androgynous characters ultimately end up with a second "female" partner indicated by a ribbon on her head, is part of how people come to perceive exclusive heterosexual coupling as natural. Even in the case of homosexuality, the sexual object choice is limited to that same childhood world of everything being "female" or "male.") If we are honest with ourselves, we have all had experiences that could be placed in other positions on the sliding scale of grey - even if they were embarrassing, regretful, or pure fantasy. That does not disqualify them as experiences, and shame is certainly more understandable in relation to moral codings than as a sign of "having done something unnatural." Think of all the exclusively homosexually-identified people who were at some point heterosexually married with children. This is completely common. It has only become uncommon with the advent of PrideTM based identities that have increased the possibility for people to exist in exclusively homosexual contexts that mirror the sexual exclusivity of dominant heterosexual culture - whereby the homosexual who sleeps with the opposite gender is as shamed in their freakishness as the heterosexual who has sex with others of their own gender. Around the world, the majority of same-sex sex has never happened between two exclusively homosexual-identified people who are "out loud and proud." That is a contemporary fiction, and forces everything else into yet another sexual closet. Clearly, PrideTM communities first arose out of a need for collective safety amidst heterosexist domination, and in that sense they remain historic and vital. I am not unsympathetic to that. I certainly could have used that protection when growing up. But I simultaneously see the direction of mainstream LGBT cultures (in which the B and T are utterly tokenistic) as doing more to integrate their members into dominant cultures (particularly through consumer identities and market visibility), and less to alter the systems of domination themselves. Like most "human rights" movements, the result is more likely to be increased power sharing by a minority class than instigating larger cultural divestments of power.
Even more important than identifying as queer, I actively refuse to identify as gay or straight, regardless of my partner's gender or sexual orientation - which causes much more trouble than you might think. Try it.. I mean, really stick to it... you'll be surprised by peoples' reactions. Two people can have the most amazing, interpersonally compatible sex in the world, but apparently it means nothing if you don't take sides. In a way, it can be worse for the other person if the sex is fantastic - like, it leads to some kind of sensory overload that must be categorized in order to be processed and diffused. I don't know how else to describe it. It can be frightening. So if cornered, I will opt to identify as gay rather than straight (again, regardless of my partner's gender or sexual orientation). However, my relationship to gay identity is clearly less of the PrideTM variety, and more of the being fagbashed and socialized/ostracised as homosexual by others for as long as I can remember (one dynamic of which was being ostracized by still-closeted queers who feared their being friendly to me would lead to their own "outing" and persecution - and rightly so). As a result of these experiences, from a young age all sexual identity has struck me as being rooted in fear - not biology - and is completely destructive to all persons involved.
If you insist on talking about sex in relation to some biological imperative to reproduce, I think we animals are only really interested in touching warm, wet places - of which every body has several. On a Darwinian level that is enough to ensure procreation happens - it doesn't at all require the sniper-like targetting of sexual object choices implied by heterosexuality. But if procreation is what you're focussing on, and you still think you are able to discuss that subject objectively with some kind of "scientific neutrality" that is not completely infiltrated by heterosexist cultural mores, you're too far gone for me to continue speaking.
Always wordy... I'm just going to say you're gay... [Laughs]
Anything but straight. Moving on...
Right, moving on. It's funny how you always write "PrideTM." What's that about?
You can quote the recent Fox is Black interview about that one:
One last kind of mundane question... Why are your albums so hard to buy? I've seen some for sale at Discogs and other places for crazy prices...
They aren't hard to buy. Most everything I have ever produced is available in one form or another directly from my Comatonse Recordings online shop, and at normal prices. If you don't see what you're looking for, just email me at email@example.com. And I don't know what those crazy prices at other places are about, either. I can't even sell my records at a normal price! [Laughs]
So, in summary:
Yeah, let's go with that for now.
Thanks for your time, Terre...
You're so weird.
[Laughs all around]