The Devil and Lucy Sante

 
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McKenzie Wark

Art by Gail Thacker

 

Amid the moral panic about trans people coming out young, one can forget that many of us still come out late. I was in my fifties; Lucy Sante, her sixties. Judging by her new memoir, I Heard Her Call My Name, her experience was in many ways different to mine. There’s no such thing as a standard trans story. Two things we share all the same are feelings of regret for the life we didn’t lead, and a belated awareness of how the tight jacket of masculinity we wore for so long cramped our style and limited our lives.

Sante’s book weaves together the story of her coming out with a look back over her life, seen at the turning point of transition. The triggering event is playing with FaceApp, in which the user uploads photographs and can, among other things, change the gender expression of the image. There’s a series of images of Lucy throughout the book, at different ages, the post-puberty ones altered by FaceApp. It's uncanny, and moving, how these images track a life that didn’t happen alongside an account of the one that did.

These mute images seem to me to ask a question not otherwise voiced in the text, one that in my case I try not to think about, but do anyway. So many of our contemporaries who came out young died young—the artists Greer Lankton and Lorenza Böttner, comic book writer and actor Maddie Blaustein, to name just three New York contemporaries. The writing trade and academia like to preen their liberality, but that can be skin-deep, at best. The life whose absent residue we feel might not have been possible anyway.

This is a book written in the luminous moment of early transition. Has to be said, it’s the story cis people most want from us. The trans memoir is like a turning off from the path that the cis reader who remains on it can use as a curbside landmark to the street never to be taken. The cis are never particularly interested in our journey after that. They either just fold us into cis gender, ignoring our difference, and their own discomfort with us; or they move on, and forget us.

 
 

It’s not that long ago that I came out myself, and I recognize the conflicting feelings Sante expresses, from doubt to relief. I remember the euphoric discoveries, the wardrobe comedy, the reactions of friends, and the painful reckoning with a partner. For a late transitioner, it can feel like a lonely side street, but it doesn’t have to be. Trans community is not hard to find these days. Any three trans women will have four conflicting opinions about how to be trans, but it’s so helpful having that cross-chatter within which to locate one’s own possibility of being. Even if it comes with that bittersweet feeling, as a late transitioner, of listening to trans elders who are half one’s calendrical age.

Lucy Sante is a writer whose work I’ve admired, savored, and frankly envied for many years. She is a writer of the city, of its demimondes and bohemias, both of her own time and before. She is a few years older than me, arrived in New York City several decades earlier, and accomplish so much more as a writer. The gag is that I always wanted to be Sante. Now I’m looking at her transition memoir, written in that giddy first flush, as a slightly older sister. After the moment of transition comes the years where transsexuality just becomes the street ahead. In our case it won’t be a long one.

My friend Diana Goetsch once said to me that there’s only two kinds of trans people—those who can hide it and those who can’t. As it happens, Diana is also a late transitioning New Yorker, and memoirist thereof—her book is This Body I Wore. There’s something instructive about the differences in how Diana, Lucy, or I write about late transition. And yet there’s something the same too, in that we were the kind that could hide it. Where we hid it was in writing. Someone should put the three of us on a panel.

 
 

Sante grew up in New Jersey, only child of working-class Belgian immigrants. Suburban teen life was only made endurable by “Pax Sativa”— jocks and weirdos united in pursuit of weed. Her mother was extremely Catholic. They didn’t get on. “We spun in a tilt-a-whirl of rage, like two bulldogs in a Tex Avery cartoon.”

Getting into a Manhattan high school changed her life. Not school itself—the city. Wandering its streets, its bookstores, its cafes. Education by peregrination. Then Columbia University, which triggered her class anxiety. Somewhere, along the way, shedding inherited cultural constraints: “religion fell off me, with the sudden mass speed of snow off a tin roof.”

New York was in a bad way in the seventies. “Our inheritance was chaos, which I grew to savor.” Downtown seemed like the center, if not of the world, then of a world. Sante was present for what might have been downtown’s last burst of creative glory. (The city itself, I insist, is not dead. The candied darlings now roam the Bushwick-Ridgewood border.)

Sante might have dissolved into the city, as many did, and still do. Bohemia has its discipline, and those who come into it with money are more likely to come out the other side. There’re experiences there worth the gamble. As a former speed connoisseur I savor this line on taking Black Beauties: “I loved the comedown, a shivery, ecstatic, continuous series of ripples and chills and occasional quakes of the nervous system.”

It could have all come to nothing. “I retained a memory of ambition, but not how to activate it. I felt invisible and maybe I was.” Sante got a job in the mail room at New York Review of Books and ended up writing for it, and elsewhere. I have fond memories of coming across her occasional pieces, now collected in Kill All Your Darlings and Maybe the People Would Be the Times. Those collect her writing on the people who became the times: Patti Smith, Rene Ricard, Robert Mapplethorpe, and pieces on people of other times, viewed through that moment. “I wanted to write like the movies,” she says, and did.

 

“The dance floor is one of those places you can go to cure yourself, temporarily, of gender. Another is writing. She became, she says, a ‘walking byline.’ Writer is a mask one can hide behind, even if one isn’t always aware that one is hiding. Maybe writer is a gender.”

 

I’d love to know more about Lucy dancing at The Loft. As a late-blooming raver, it’s part of our lore. As a fellow trans woman, looking for the signs, I cock a knowing smile at Sante’s penchant for dancing: “we found we could talk through our bodies.” The dance floor is one of those places you can go to cure yourself, temporarily, of gender. Another is writing. She became, she says, a “walking byline.” Writer is a mask one can hide behind, even if one isn’t always aware that one is hiding. Maybe writer is a gender.

Closeted trans women who are attracted to women make the best and worst “boyfriends.” We want to be our partners. It can make us very attentive. And then sometimes we’re not there. Sometimes we’re not trying; sometimes we try too hard. Sante: “I was always susceptible to the grand, foolish romantic gesture, which I never failed to regret.”

I’m jealous that she got to study with Sylvère Lotringer. Sylvère was a downtown figure to me, not a Columbia professor. I got to know him late, after the books he’d published at Semiotext(e) had already set me on my path. Sante wasn’t, and isn’t, into it. “I’m allergic to theory,” she says. Still, her book The Other Paris was essential reading for my theory books on the Situationists, as it sets out the backstory to the bohemian milieu that made them.

If Sante is leery of theory, I’m wary of memoir. I don’t believe selves have stories, other than through retrospective imposition. When you turn off the straight streets of assigned gender toward the meandering mews of transsexuality, you get a fresh perspective on the path you just left, but it’s a view that disappears. The moment of transition has its insights, and they’re worth documenting, but they pass as you proceed through the corner.

Like Sante, when I got to the turn-off to transsexuality, I made an inventory of the signs in the past of my own trans-ness. I, too, was a furtive reader. She found John Rechy’s City of Night and Geoff Brown’s I Want What I Want—the latter an overlooked trans classic. I, too, had my idols. Hers predate me a little: Françoise Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, Jean Shrimpton. Like her, I too wanted to be Patti Smith. (But then doesn’t everybody?) “I was shaken to my core,” she writes, upon seeing a picture of a naked woman with a dick. For me it was of Candy Darling, in Richard Avedon’s group portrait of Warhol’s Factory.

“I was engaged in a complex dance of knowledge and denial,” she says. Does transition actually end that, or just route it to a more habitable place? I think of selves as fields, as spaces, rather than lines, as stories. Maybe we could have become a lot of things, and didn’t. Like in the brilliant opening of Sante’s previous memoir, Factory of Facts, which gives several paragraph-long alternate life-stories for who her old self could have become.

 

Transition was not among the array of possible paths in Factory of Facts, but I wonder what the alternate transitions, or alternatives to transition, might have been, for any of our generation. We could have disappeared into addictions. We could have struck it lucky with a relationship in which our weird gender was privately acknowledged, even loved. I had that, for a time. We could have transitioned young and be dead by now. That’s the one I think we late transitioners have a hard time feeling our way through.

Sante is brilliant on the gentle comedy of learning to be a trans woman. On her first wig: “I bought a reddish brown bob that came down into points, like a helmet for an android ninja lounge dancer, and immediately hated it.” There’s the pain of losing a long-term partner, as most of us do. “I loved her in great detail,” she says. Such an apt expression.

As is “watching my maleness dry up.” Like a street puddle in the summer sun. “I was still very much aware of the presence of Luc, whom I sometimes liked to think of as my sad-sack ex-husband.” In the margin I wrote, “Girl, same!” I’m wary of the popular metaphor wherein others claim they “mourn” our abandoned gender. Divorce might suit better. It does come with similar complications.

“Nowadays, observing men and their words and actions is like reading a familiar text in another language—perhaps the original…. The results are by turns boring, hilarious, and alarming, as you’d expect.” Trans women are rare witnesses to the farrago that is masculinity. Maybe we should dish about that more.

When you’re a late transitioner who is well established as an artist (Sante mentions her friend Jaime Nares) or a writer—how is that to be managed? There’s the professional side. Maybe transition is a career move (joke). More interesting are the subtle changes to the creative instrument. “Right up until my egg cracked I continued to maintain the fiction that my writing self was somehow distinct from the rest of me.” And then it’s not. Writing can be a kind of dissociated fugue in which to get out of the body, but the flesh is still there. Writing after hormones, or even just in a dress, hits different.

 
 

“Transitioning was a budget of paradoxes.” A ledger always in the red. More fun to make an art of it, but like any art, the hard part is getting started. “I knew that if I took a single step in that direction I wouldn’t be coming back.” She says this kept her from moving toward transitioning. How does one know that? We don’t know the streets not taken. Would experimenting with gender really have been too powerful a drug? I, too, have my retrospective fiction about my life, in which my choices make sense. I just don’t trust them.

That’s where I find I have a different concept of selfhood to Sante. Maybe I’m just theory-pilled, because I just don’t think the self is anything but a fiction. Transition for me is not from a false to a true self, but to a better fiction. As if a change of gender was a change of genre. This is why I don’t trust memoir. As a genre its appeal seems to be that for the reader it renders some other life into an intelligible narrative shape, so that the reader can imagine their own life might have a shape too. As if life were like a novel with a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t think life is anything like a novel. We live as fiction without form. I think we’re all wanderers in a foreign city, looking for clues as to whom we have the possibility of becoming.

 
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Sante writes now about Factory of Facts that “I was dodging self-depiction.” The irony being that I think that made for a really interesting book. “My secret poisoned my entire experience of life,” she says, and I feel that. I Heard Her Call My Name makes me rejoice in who she has become. But here’s the rub: What if the devil had appeared to Lucy, or Diana, or me, when we were young, and offered us this proposition: that we could transition, that we could become the woman we so desperately wanted to become, but would never write a line worth a damn—would we take that bargain? Speaking only for myself, I don’t know how I’d answer.

 
 

Spring / Summer 2024



McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark is an essayist and philosopher. Her most recent book is Raving (Duke University Press, 2023). She is professor of culture and media at The New School and director of the Gender Studies Program there.



Gail Thacker

Gail Thacker’s work features artists, performers, friends, and lovers who have congregated in downtown New York since the 1980s around the Gene Frankel Theatre on Bond Street. Thacker began as Frankel’s assistant, an experience she describes as life-altering. Since Frankel’s death in 2005, she has continued as the theater’s artistic director and producer, advancing its seventy-four-year history of championing civil rights and progressive thinking. The theater, along with other spaces Thacker occupies with her friends (the Dyke March, a rural farm in Oregon, and the streets of New York City) provides the backdrop for a powerful exploration of storytelling and self-agency in her work. (Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/pataroid/)



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