Injurious Acts: Notes on Happiness from the Trans Ordinary

B Lee Aultman

This essay argues that not every practice toward achieving the good life can fit neatly into categories of the healthy and the normative—happiness. It argues for an aesthetic reconsideration of everyday life via the trans ordinary: scenes of everyday life-making for trans people. These scenes can problematize normative conceptions of the good life, or of happy living. In this sense, this essay explores how variously embodied practices can make a less-bad life possible. Employing phenomenology and recent trends in affect theory, this essay explores how trans narratives establish scenes of carrying on that, while not immediately heralded as happy, complicate the notion of healthy well-being altogether.


Trans Studies; Embodiment; Affect Theory; Critical Theory; Phenomenology


This essay explores the lived aspects of feeling “happy” within the rhythms of day-to-day gender non-normative life, which I will be calling the “trans ordinary”.[1] I use shudder quotes around “happy” to point toward the normative perils of assuming that happiness extends from accepted healthy attachments to things, life-activities, and people. My aim is not to argue that happiness is impossible to achieve or that the things we enjoy will always disappoint us, but to question happiness’ solidity across different ways of life. What is it to be happy when attachments to unhealthy habits (whether to fast foods or so-called unsafe sexual practices) may produce feelings of emotional contentment but reproduce conditions for social ostracism or poor health, or both? Is this sense of happiness most crucial to a person when life is patterned around a constant state of exhausting vigilance—whether about one’s own sense of belonging in the world, a sense of local safety or ordinary mutual recognition and reciprocation? Might happiness be understood as phenomenological, as irreducible experiences of the bodily type? Or as affective attachments that do not fit neatly within liberal commitments to self-sovereignty or radical left critiques of power and of revolutionary empowerment? These are some of the questions we need to ask in order to re-frame happiness as it is lived in the fragile grooves of the trans ordinary.


For me, happiness is an assemblage of feelings, or attachments obtaining amongst people, things, institutions, social forms, or the world. Happiness can be constructed around anything that might provide a sense of longevity and stability in the face of what scholars are more and more identifying as lived insecurity (Stewart, 2007, pp.1-7). It is not an emotion, per se. Happiness often reflects an adjustment within and around everyday practices to the sometimes fantasmatic genres of living a good life, being a member of a good society, and so on. Happiness is thus more an assemblage of feelings that can be described as attempts at “getting there” rather than some existential mood of “being there,” where the “there” is the projected space of happiness beyond the finish line of anticipated experience.


By “getting there”—including all the affective structures attending practices associated with that phrase—I mean that non-normative life adjusts itself to fit as best it can to the fantasy of a normative “good life” because this so-called good life is perceived as the only real road to happiness. Of course, non-normative life faces all sorts of impasses along that road. Although I will explore how trans communities are disproportionately affected by structural violence, I am more concerned with the various practices that best approximate happy livability (see Gossett, 2013; Valentine, 2007). In the ordinary, such “affective attachments” to everyday objects are part of efforts to manage feelings of wellbeing in justifiably unhappy circumstances. Tracking the affects and effects of happiness in everyday non-normative expressions of life means adjusting our own theoretical conception of the normal, the impersonal, and the political. This means shaking loose some already settled questions in queer and trans theory that include, but are not limited to, the trans body as philosophical sites of becoming (Baldino, 2015), the trans body as revolutionary (Spade, 2011), and the trans body as an effect of the disciplinary power of sex/gender (Butler, 2006).


The first section of this essay sketches the phenomenological and affective terrain onto which rest of the essay will map experiences of the trans ordinary. Here I rely most heavily on Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling (2003), and Andrea Long Chu’s (2017) brilliant critique of trans phenomenology—including nods to her recent commentary on transness and desire (2018a; 2018b).The second section explores the meaning of happiness as attached to potentially unhealthy or “ugly” affective states. My archive consists of various stories from transwomen across the 20th century. “On Rage” and “On Privation” illustrate how happiness is affectively structured by the need to find continuity in unstable ordinaries by engaging with the improvisation and suspension of feeling.


I argue that within this improvisational zone ordinary practices often approximate the feelings associated with normativity (sovereignty, a handle on things) that the good life fantasy propagates. In that way, I argue that forms of self-care in maintaining the continuity of day-to-day life may also include injurious practices. As Adler and Adler (2011) have argued, self-harming by cutting is “at its essence, about feelings [and] the pain that drive people and the feelings of relief they get from it” (p.66). As a cutter and a non-binary person, I find that most discussions about self-injury either deliver a pathos-laden narrative or essentialize us as pathological depressives. That must change. The cultural attitude, not the subject, needs to change. I argue that the project of making a life that feels good means dealing with, carrying on, and making do in the complex management of worlds. In the trans ordinary, normative fantasies come to face with the realities of violence, dissipation, and impasses that force readjustments. Happiness is no less real when the practices enacted to achieve it have come to be associated with anything but happiness.


Resisting Paranoid Theories of Trans Experiences

I like to think that phenomenology and affect theory can be utilized along the lines of what Sedgwick (2003) called reparative—as opposed to paranoid—forms of criticism. Focusing on the day-to-day practices of life within structural oppressions, reparative theorists think in terms of “what is naive, sincere, uncomplicated, unironic, uncritical, unstrategic, or just plain ordinary about everyday being in the world’” (Chu 2017, 150; emphasis added). Such readings aim to sidestep the claim that humans are simply duped by power and tricked into an identity (and desires). This is why Chu’s choice of “naive” is telling and important. Naive can be defined here as the condition whereby no prior theorization, no method of inquiry, has been imposed upon something. For my analysis this “something” is the body. Improvisation is critical for a phenomenology of something like bodily experience. In a manner of speaking, experience is experienced as pure experience, or phenomenality—a very literal sense of being here. The body may be ordinary, average, sexy, or sometimes unappealing, but it is already here for us to experience. Experience and activity are phenomena that invite creativity and, again, improvisation in what closely approximates Martin Heidegger’s notion of the nexus of life’s available possibilities in the everyday (see also Harney and Moten, 2013, pp.48-49).


Despite recent inroads made in developing trans phenomenology within this vein—from Jay Prosser’s Second Skins (1998) to Gayle Salamon’s Assuming a Body (2010)—there is still a failure to take seriously this everyday improvisation. Often following Judith Butler’s (2006) take on strong (social) constructionism, these studies misapprehend the day-to-day expressions of bodily experience, of actually experiencing being-in-a-body. Constructionist theories situate the body as reflecting norms (or being “inscribed” by them) through bodily iterations and performances. Repetitions instantiate the norm, making the norm real. Such trans phenomenologies elide what it is to experience the singular presence of one’s own body—in other words, one’s body untouched by theory. They erase the possibility of the presence of a trans body in spite of their intended goal of enabling the description of precisely this experience. For example, Chu’s (2017) review of these phenomenologies argues that Prosser, while discussing the “wrong body” narrative of transsexual experience, suspends the body in a “literal-to-come, linked to an imagined, idealized, or phantasmatic future where the ‘imaginary or phantomized signifieds’ of the transsexual body image will be—one day, some day—reunited with their ‘corporeal referents’” (149; see also Chu, 2018b). In other words, trans bodies are not-here-yet.


In response, Chu goes on to argue that in order “to defend a theory of social construction, Salamon must insist that this ‘simple givenness,’ this unproblematic availability of the phenomenological body, ‘is a fiction, albeit a necessary one’ – even though […] she assures readers that ‘to claim that our experiences of sexed and gendered bodies are socially constructed is not to claim that our experiences are fictive’” (p.146). Can the trans body ever simply exist? Chu thinks so. There is a taken for granted appeal that leaves “[life’s] unremarkableness” in peril. Focusing on what the future trans body ought to look and feel like, theorists retroactively assemble emotions that haphazardly privilege sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) and other forms of transition. As Chu would have it, trans phenomenologies should “[succeed] in making transition boring” (142). Being trans just is. Delving into that “is” constitutes the phenomenological intent of my essay even when that “is” consists of behaviors considered normatively questionable.


If phenomenology seeks to understand things as they are in the everyday, then affect theory is a complementary method of prying open the not-quite-definable sensations that are a part of ordinary bodily existence (Berlant, 2011, pp.6-7). Unlike emotions, affects are not immediately intelligible. But they are experienced and thus “known” to exist in scenes of life. I will explore this while reviewing Susan Stryker’s poetic account of feeling unsettled by the trip to the hospital during the birth of her partner’s child. Affect theory is concerned with how a person’s sensations are brought to the surface of perception, e.g., comfort or discomfort, calmness or anxiety, belonging or standing out like a sore thumb. It is all about intensity (Massumi, 2003, pp.34-35). As something felt, “affects can be, and are, attached to things, people, ideas, sensations, relations, activities, ambitions, institutions, and any number of other things, including other affects. Thus, one can be excited by anger, disgusted by shame, or surprised by joy” (Sedgwick, 2003, p.19). If happiness is understood as affect, then it is easier to see how its production can be attached to things not intuitively “good.” My affective argument centers on practices of making do that dominant (social and intellectual) norms would define as problematic and thus chalk up to pathology or power.


Throughout my meditations on affect, I depend heavily on Lauren Berlant’s (2011, pp.52-54) vision of how affective structures in crisis deepen a subject’s commitments to feeling something, anything, akin to happiness. She argues that within widespread contemporary precariousness “happiness exists [for some] in their commitment to bring life in line with the affect they want to continue experiencing” (pp.166). When the pursuit of happiness becomes a strategy for feeling something at the expense of getting something, the fragmentary and elusive characteristics of being happy begin associating in unanticipated ways with unanticipated lived consequences. Affective structures that emerge during crisis, or crisis time, also organize the sensation of trauma and anxiety by clustering such feelings around objects that promise a way out of worry. Such structures can induce suspensions of feeling burdened by worry whereby subjects look for and reenact a sense of solidity. Such structures of affect constitute my theoretical scaffolding of the trans ordinary and how it is transformed into zones of livability. These zones hold happiness and dissipation in proximal location to one another across scenes of living.


Trans Narratives of (Precarious) Happiness

Throughout this section I will be adopting the view that norms and normativity need to be recast in the modes of what living is doing with the norm rather than the other way around. Normative accounts of the good life (manifested through heteronormativity [marriage], cisnormativity [passing], and bionormativity [transition-related surgeries]) do not interpellate trans subjects as such because, ideologically charged as they are, they tend to “read normativity too narrowly as an authoritarian desire” (Berlant, 2011, p.186). For the purpose of this section, I treat norms more like genres within which subjects work and make life happen. Each of the following testimonies will indicate that affects of belonging and self-sovereignty (all relationally “happy”) might have to be put on hold, suspended as it were, in response to perceived norms. Yet in each story, these suspensions illustrate a kind of “readying” for (rather than a hollowing out of) agency and agential intensity that living in crisis conditions induce.


On Rage

Susan Stryker has written some of the most influential texts in trans studies. Her style is often disarming, revealing and resonant with an everyday awareness of lived pain often lost in critical (queer) theory. Her influential “My Words to Victor Frankenstein”—a hybrid of monologue, theoretical analysis and poetry—captures the powerful affective stakes in the trans ordinary: from happiness, transition, reactions to heterosexism in medical science, all the way down to the normative family (Stryker, 1994). The joyous scene of her partner’s giving birth is fraught with all kinds of affective tensions. Stryker’s story does not begin at the hospital. It begins at home where the decision was made that the birth would have to take at the hospital for medical reasons. Exhausted from participation in the birth of her partner and disappointed that they couldn’t have the envisaged home birth, away from the normative “script” of the hospital as a site of ambiguous consent to gendered norms, the declaration “it’s a girl,” finally triggered Stryker. It unlocked a series of affects that already circulating before and during the event. “Why, just then, did a jumble of dark, unsolicited feelings….” Stryker confesses that “my body left me hanging” (p.245). Between her lover’s body and her own there grew a space, an emergent gap that seemed unbridgeable. Stryker had to suspend her feelings in order to avoid being completely undone by the moment. However, she would catch up would herself and those feelings later.


The sensation of “catching up” is an example of what Berlant (2011) attributes to the peculiar temporal effects of life in cultural crisis, or what Massumi (2003) has called a “pastness opening directly onto a future” (p.30). The traumatic or violent potential of an experience does not necessarily manifest directly. For example, homophobic or racist norms that possess the essential effect of dehumanizing non-normative ways of life can be felt as tremors in the fields of perception. They become actualized in form and content by a joke, or by gendering a newborn child, or by being mistaken for somebody else when you are Black in a culture of whiteness. Anthropologist Veena Das calls the effects of these happenings “the soft knife of everyday oppressions” (2007, p.218). In this way, crisis is lived as a nonevent, an affective maw spanning across lived time, connecting feelings of presence and precarity in ways that are phantasmatic but materially abrupt. I would describe the sensation as anticipation, as worrying affects that ready the subject for the actualization of something “in the air.” This physical and mental state is anxiety inducing, for sure, because it suspends feelings of being control in order to be ready for the moment when something might happen. It is a kind of knowledge, an epistemology all too familiar for those living a non-normative life.


I call this a non-normative epistemology because it runs the full gamut of intersectional precarity. The poet Claudia Rankine argues that the affects of racialized anger form “[another] kind of anger [that] can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness” (2014, p.24). Rankine invites readers to consider what could possibly be known, or be as considered knowledge, in such affective states. Is affect a type of knowledge unto itself? Perhaps a knowledge of one’s limits and one’s body? “You begin to think, maybe erroneously,” Rankine writes, “that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge: the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence, and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment” (p,24). The known becomes the realization of having lived in the very impasse being presently faced. Experiences over the long course of making a life accumulate and, so to speak, readies the body through a kind of visceral memory. Minorities of all kinds carry a life’s worth of experiences in the everyday that may never register at conscious levels. This is especially true of bias and of the expense of energy. The soft knife of everyday oppressions is “soft” precisely because it cuts slowly and delicately into the ordinary over the course of time. Unaware of its temporal effects, minoritized subjects feel a continuous sagging by the nonevent of (racial, economic, gendered) crisis, a sensation that anticipates a happening before it actually takes place. It’s the difference in what happens in the moment that counts.


This seems to be the case in Stryker’s hospital scene. She must make new attachments in order to make sense of the impossible (her own body’s inability to bear children), to recuperate from her own feelings of shame at being emotionally distant, and her exhaustion of feeling so overwhelmed by norms that she already knew were there. She writes “I floated home from the hospital, filled with a vital energy that wouldn’t discharge. I puttered about until I was alone. […] Finally, in the solitude of my home, I burst apart like a wet paper bag” (Stryker, 1994, p.245). Whereas Sianne Ngai (2005, p.1) describes anxiety as so many “ugly feelings [that act as] affective gaps and illegibilities, dysphoric feelings, and other sites of emotional negativity [producing] suspended agency”. I argue that, on the contrary, such suspensions are sites where affective attachments turn into new experimental practices that question the limits of ordinary knowledge and test boundaries. Stryker’s impasse leads her to an attachment of rage, the epistemic continuity she needs to fix what she can fix in the everyday. Her tears of anger at the limitations of her own body are akin to her feelings of pride at having been witness to the birth of a child. This transgender rage, of a particular kind of relation between the trans subject and normativity, de-privileges the linguistic and advances the affective for Stryker: “No sound/ exists/in this place without language/my rage is a silent raving” (p.248). Her rage is a means through which hegemonic gender practices and the limitations of biology get mapped back into her ordinary. She is free to associate with other feelings, cathartic yet tentative, but given over to potential energy. Her rage might sustain but can also suspend a sense of self to begin again someplace else and at another time. In that sense rage can be its own form of affective knowledge, a way of relating to dissipation and keeping oneself together in the face of potential undoing.


On Privation

The following stories are taken from the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Archives are often products of privileged donors, situated in private universities or libraries, exemplifying how certain voices are recorded and remembered and others discarded to history. But here the materials themselves felt lost. They were keepsakes, fragments of forgotten lives, arranged in sometimes non-intuitive ways: sorted into folders and held together by paperclips. Looking back on my experience there, I felt that the archive in British Columbia buried physical and affective registers together in one location. At this burial site, I was left with the task of “finding” stories, narratives, or “critical objects” to signify trans life. These stories illustrate that the “I am” is often a linguistic mask for an attachment to “I want to be.” This attachment, often routed through the future-temporality of transition, leads to a number of affective impasses each person deals with in different ways.


Among the number of people whose testimonies I read, Dorothy D. (1971) stood out to me. She, along with many other trans people in the mid-20th century, used op-ed pieces and letters to the editor as means for sharing lived experience. Dorothy, living most of her life by another name, writes of the kinds of exhaustions identified earlier in Stryker’s letter. Her identity, she argues, “would be classified by shrinks as an unoperated transsexual”. She hasn’t “gone to the girl factory to get a sex change a la Christine Jorgenson” (p.9). Dorothy would, however, “prefer to live as a woman full time. I feel more together that way. I am more comfortable, relaxed, more me. I’ve spent better than 50 years trying to be Phil, and all I’ve got to show for that is a lot of pain and agony, so I think I’ve given my male self a good try” (p.9, my emphasis). Fifty years of waiting, practicing, and being another to what effect? By the time Dorothy (as Phil) reached middle age, she had joined the advertising business, had served in the military, and experienced economic success. All this under the pretense of a name she felt alienated from. In one important passage, she asks “where am I, Dorothy, at?” (9, emphasis in text). Dorothy discloses herself as herself, her I, as less a part of a constructed “trans-script” and more of an ongoing encounter with the nakedness of her experiences with the world. Her ordinary was trying to make Phil work; and it didn’t work in the emotional long haul.


Her frustration and exhaustion while living as Phil only tracks into the life of Dorothy. She must consider how “passing” works, how to overcome the former duality of Dorothy/Phil and merge into a unified self. She has to make do with the body she has and explains the difficulties of passing (its practices, its constitutive features) like this: “[a]ppearance can also overcome a low-pitched voice if you know how to act the woman’s role – carriage, sitting, gestures. This takes practice” (p.9). Dorothy’s practice is one that revels in the adjustments to the norms of femininity. But she isn’t inscribed by them so much as adjusting to these norms. In other words, she is not performing them but living in day-to-day improvisations of having mastered them. These practices get bound up with an economy of pain and joy, economic success and emotional failure, for sure. But she sutures these events together to make a life, however unexceptional she defines it. In one sense, it is the banality of trans life that stands out in Dorothy’s story.


For Dorothy, learning and practicing gender cues does not exhaust her as such. Rather, it’s the wait of “getting people to believe how I feel—that when I’m Dorothy, I feel together, secure, at peace with myself and full of self-confidence” (1971, p.10; my emphasis) that is tiring. The feeling of her own togetherness seems to be in a constant state of risk. Dorothy’s ordinary consists of the sagging sensation of never getting it quite right. One wonders why she should try at all, keeping at it in spite of the fact that friends and family continue to let her down. She keeps those connections in spite of her efforts to master self-making. In Dorothy’s view, you take what you can get and make it work, so that one day you might rest in a space of affective balance.


Dorothy deserves to be understood as she is, and deserves access to the medical care her body and identity require. However, I want to complicate the reading of her story by detaching the scenes of trans bodily experience from their automatic emplotment in a genre of transition (thus avoiding what amounts to an identity-based teleology). Dorothy’s desire for sex reassignment surgery (SRS) is situated in a field of conflicting promises. It speaks of her desire to feel at home in her body and have access to the affects of social belonging. SRS, at best, offers the promise that this form of transition (and there are many forms) will allow her to thrive, but specifically where her family and friends are concerned. But SRS does not guarantee that forms of social reciprocity will be there. The need to make a life will continue in spite of gender-confirming surgeries. If SRS is not a defining event, but one among many, then happiness is a cluster of connections to all those non-events and interstitial spaces in the trans ordinary.


Nancy Ledins (n.d.), like Dorothy, uses writing as a vehicle to clarify those vexed identity issues surrounding her sense of womanhood. The archive contained a letter written for a future self and reader. It was meant to be cathartic, expressing a tentative connection to a feeling of belonging in a suspended space where the yet-to-come was still, as it was being written, very much here. It is transition as optimism or, as Veena Das puts it, “writing the self points to a promise” (2007, p.214). In a letter addressed only to “Dear,” Nancy tells her reader that “Bill Griglak is Nancy Ledins – the name I have chosen to be known by in this preoperative stage and, within due time, postoperatively. [But] surgery is not the final answer—not the end-all—not the magical answer” (pp.1-3, emphasis added). What then is the promise of the future for her? In saying, “I am me”, that Bill Griglak is Nancy Ledins, she places her identity in the tenuous bracket of “becoming”. This “I” comes at a personal cost (no doubt expressed in her grief of capping, repressing, and suppressing her feelings in the ordinary). Rankine (2014) maintains that this pronoun provides a false sense of present and future security. “Sometimes ‘I’ is supposed to hold what is not there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it./This makes the first person a symbol for something./The pronoun barely holding the person together” (p.71, emphasis in text). There is no guarantee that the “I” will ever come through on its promise of togetherness, completeness, or happiness even after SRS.


I agree with Berlant (2011), who argues that our historical present is felt as though we faced with an imminent sense of crisis. In such temporalities, affects (even happiness) are registered in suspense, as if as subjects we are only catching up to them. As such, affects, including happiness, are realized in otherwise counter-intuitive scenes of making do, out of ongoing relations to a past as much as to a projected self in the future. For instance, Dorothy speculated that SRS would provide the means of dissociating from her old life by making her new life livable. And yet before, during, and after SRS, Dorothy would still persist in an unjust ordinary of misrecognition by strangers, family, and friends. Nancy knows how that sagging feeling of incompleteness in life might in fact carry over into bodily life after SRS. It didn’t guarantee happiness (see Chu 2018a). Dorothy felt the ongoing pressure to convince others that her “I” existed at all. Nancy had to confess to herself that her “I” was an ongoing construction, a tentative “I” always in the process of becoming – as if she needed to prove to herself that it was possible to exist. And yet both Dorothy and Nancy approximated happiness, made do, existed.


I don’t wish to argue that SRS or transition does not contribute to one’s sense of self-making and wholeness. It very much does. What I am saying is that attachment to the promissory narrative of transition can reify a kind of self-extension into a future self-to-be. Such a narrative may occlude the disappointment that attends making life happen in our historical present (see Chu, 2018). What Dorothy and Nancy’s narratives invite readers to consider is that self-extension and SRS occur in different temporalities. They fact is they deal with their bodies and persist in the present, however wrong or unjust their circumstances may be. Their narratives engage in what remains undefeated in their problematic relations with normative power. Their stories speak of a knowledge that self-preservation can take many forms in the ordinary. As I will argue in the next section, this kind of knowledge can also result in attachments where the normative fantasy of the good-life invites what many see and isolate as injurious (and thus bad) acts of self-management.


Injurious Care in an Injurious World

Theorizing the genre of “life in crisis” means dealing with how everyday violence is woven into the scene of the ordinary. Self-harm (various forms of purposefully injuring the body) is one example of this. When someone’s ordinary is impinged on by an injurious world, they might discover that injurious acts reproduce the normative feelings that “healthy” forms self-care are supposed to produce. These include belonging, grounding, control, and relief. This discussion opens a place for self-injury in the conversation because it “provides an alternative way of talking about phrases like ‘self-medication’, which we use to imagine what someone is doing when they are becoming dissipated, and not acting in life-building ways—the way that liberal subjects and happy people are supposed to” (Berlant, 2011, p.100). This alternative thinking attempts to separate the phenomenological act of cutting from the so-called medicalized subjectivity and its implicit need for institutional forms of help.


In spite of itself, my discussion remains adjacent to (if not captured by) psychiatric and psychological discourse. It also must contend with a popular imaginary that reads self-injury as indicative of a poorly managed emotional life. These practices are linked to suicidal ideation (which is often not the case). These perspectives narrate the cutter within diagnosis and melodrama the present analysis is distancing itself from. In such narratives, cutters figure either as psychiatric subjects, out of control and unable to make healthy decisions; or they are liberal self-sovereign agents and in total control, freely choosing to irresponsibly injure themselves as a call for help. Undoubtedly, injurious behaviors can pose serious health risks (Adler and Adler, 2011; Carmel, et al., 2014, p.314; Girshick, 2008, p.166). However, psychological (normative) narratives of self-injury are problematic in that they regularly intervene in ways that can trigger a popular response to shame people who self-injure or deny their ability to think for themselves. In other words, cutters need to view their practice as their “problem” that they need to change. Neither of these narratives incriminate the cultural context of crisis, precarity, and inadequate attention to mental health as possible culprits. Trans self-injurers, already emplotted in a medical narrative, live in multiple, intersecting impasses.


I want to buck this trend and frame these injurious acts as a means of getting by during scenes of perceived irregularities in the mundane and traumatic events in life. The trans ordinary is a space in which a temporality is set, and the fantasy of normativity becomes momentarily attainable. “Moments like this, the fantasy of an unconflicted, normative lifeworld can provide the affective pre-experience of a potential site of rest, even if one has known it only as at best a mirage of solidity and stability” (Berlant, 2011, p.185). From both testimony and personal experience, I understand that cutting serves as a form of catching up as well as slowing down. Each person attempts to construct a self that feels more in line with that the fantasy of what normativity is telling them. If somewhat controversially put, self-injury is a means of feeling at ease with a body that is both present and projected into a future.


Lori Girshick’s (2008) study Transgender Voices is a rare but useful archive in this respect. There is not a lot of research about trans communities and their relation to self-injury. I read some of the testimonies in Girshick’s study as demonstrative of how self-injury becomes attached to life’s maintenance, how affects of rest and stability are tracked through the experience of cutting, and how self-hatred is still read as moments of dealing through violence. Trans youths also discuss their bodies in terms of temporal and episodic achievement. For instance, A.J., self-identified as female-to-male transsexual, said “I did have a self-mutilation problem which was like a drug to me. I hurt myself any way I could just as long as I was in pain because I hated my body” (p.166). For A.J., this “drug,” created an affective rush with addictive potential. For Tim, another female-to-male transsexual, cutting was a means of re-grounding everyday experience. Tim explained that he “used to dissociate and [cutting] was a way of bringing me back” (p.166). Participants in Girshick’s study as well as other related studies argued that cutting engendered a sensorium of belonging in an otherwise alienating world. In their classic study of self-harm Adler and Adler’s (2011) also note that the growing discourse on self-injury means that, alongside rising access to online communities, cutting is now lived as a new form reciprocal recognition—a virtual form of being-with. In this sense, cutters have adjusted their affective attachments in order to make sense of belonging, not only in order to vitiate the internalized stigma of cutting. In effect, cutters produce an alternative sensorium to bring about the sensation of normative well-being.


Gender, race, and class are all significant factors in Adler and Adler’s narrative account of self-injury. Roughly 85 per cent of the respondents in their study were (presumably cis) women (p.35). They found that the socialized gender identity of the person also had corresponding impacts on type of injury, location on the body, timing, and location of the act itself. Instances of cutting were overrepresented in white (middle and upper-middle class) communities; however, reports of self-injury have increased in non-white communities as well. These cases included black cisgender men, whose injuries ranged from scratching with fingernails to the use of shards of plastic. It has become “rampant among the incarcerated, in jails and prisons as well as in juvenile detention centers, where people of lower socioeconomic status and minority ethnicity are disproportionately prevalent, as well as in the military, where stress is high, personal control is low, and racial/ethnic mixing is common” (37). Self-injury happens within contingent sites. We have to think of how the fragility of being-in-crisis gets temporalized through acts that feel like self-sovereign control. Sometimes proximity to feeling in control is as good as it gets.


Since the testimonies regarding self-injury in trans communities remain limited to psychological studies, many questions as to its place in self-making remain speculative. For instance, if self-injury becomes associated with masculine and feminine performances of embodiment, couldn’t knowledge of such social “facts” impact how trans cutters relate to the phenomenon? Ian Hacking (1999) has dubbed this kind of reenactment a “looping effect” whereby sociological discourse gets taken up in ordinary life by virtue of information dissemination. For example, if cutting is closely associated with cis-feminine embodiments, could the act enable a transwoman, aware of this social “fact,” to feel feminine? If so, then questions of healthy and normative gender practices are inflected in her self-injury. The same could be said about iterations of cis-masculinity, where trans men might reproduce more severe forms of self-mutilation as a performative part of transition. Alternatively, they might avoid cutting altogether as a feminine practice that does not define their bodily experience as men. Thus, self-injury implies a worrying kind of agency because it enables certain modes of gendered continuity in life. In this sense, problematizing self-injury outside of pathology implies new questions of gendered agency over one’s body—especially in an historical present where sovereignty is associated predominantly with the normatively embodied. Accordingly, when Chu (2017) argues that so-called wrong attachments are necessary, “even if it is the wrong kind of wrong to hold onto”. Her argument turns on this notion because non-normative communities within conditions of contemporary crisis feel the affective pressures to be normal more intensely. Trans communities are in spaces of improvisation. It is precisely this improvisational nature of transness that invites theorists to reconsider the enduring normative connections between the concepts of health and happiness. When viewed as an affect, the complex ways in which happiness is embroiled in making a life become visible.



This essay’s central purpose was to challenge presuppositions concerning how happiness is lived in gender non-normative communities. Cultural theories have an obligation to look at how contemporary living is often one of getting by as best as one can. If a culture expects its subjects to simply bear with whatever it is they encounter in the world by maintaining a self within the solitude of their ordinaries, then non-normative life bears the brunt of attrition more intensely. Under such intensities, it might seem to be more evident that trans ordinaries contain affects of wellbeing that stem from the simple elation of an unspectacular public encounter, the boring continuity of having a stable feeling of home (whatever that home is and wherever it is experienced), or even the production of a bodily scar that temporalizes pain and makes getting on with life better because it is less bad.


There is also a cause for concern about how trans narratives are getting spun (Steinmetz, 2017; Davis, 2017). Caught between the belated promises of liberal political recognition and the undertow of fitting into the political world of mainstream LGBTQIA rights, trans communities are still expected to fill in the normative gaps these discourses create. In a word, they are expected to be happy. And yet their lives are sensationalized through accounts of surgical transformation (Chu 2018b). Trans people of color find many of their own community appropriated for the amplification of a more emancipatory “we” in the growing LGBTQIA struggle for liberation and rights (Snorton and Haritaworn, 2013). Whose experiences get to fill the gaps that these discourses create? In such a climate, I wonder whose ordinaries and which kinds of happiness will, in Audre Lorde’s words, “survive all these liberations” (1982, p.50).





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[1] The conventional usage of trans (short for transgender) has been an umbrella-like term representing the plurality of gender identities that do not neatly correspond to a person’s birth-assigned sex. These include transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, nonbinary, and others (see Currah 2006). Cisgender (or cis) is a term describing gender identities that have an enduring correspondence to a person’s birth-assigned sex.

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