Sexy in Theory

Grace Lavery on gender, genre, and fighting TERFS

By Vicky Osterweil

Photos By Angel Añazco

Grace Lavery lounges on a white sofa in a vivid shirt with tattooed arms

The bright-eyed optimism of 2014’s “the transgender tipping point” — the moment when Time magazine declared trans equality just over the horizon — is now undeniably dead. The ascendent Christo-fascist wing of the American far right is using anti-trans politics as a tool to take control of their party and the state, and Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), especially in the U.K., are using it to drive liberals away from progressive movements by declaring that support for trans people means contempt for cis women. 

UC Berkeley professor and writer Grace Lavery has spent years arguing with TERFs in journals, magazines, and on Twitter. As transphobia becomes the cause celebre of American fascism, Lavery’s insights can help inform the future of anti-fascist struggle here in America.

The January release of her raucous, sexy, and theoretically rich trans-memoir/picaresque/queer critique Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis saw her traveling on book tour to the U.K., and I caught up with her upon her return stateside. As she cooked dinner in her kitchen in Brooklyn, we got together to talk Please Miss and the role of trans politics in building a future without fascism. 

During the book tour, Lavery found to her great pleasure that British TERFs — or as she calls them, the “astro-TERFs” — are much more of a media and online phenomenon in the U.K. than any sort of viable center-left anti-trans movement. But if TERFs are overrepresented on mumsnet and Twitter, in the Guardian and on the BBC, Lavery still wants to figure out how transphobia takes root in these powerful institutions and how to get it out.

“The book believes, and maybe even I believe, that if a sex change is also gender transition, then it is even more primally a genre transition.”

The beginning of such an analysis appears in Please Miss, but it’s only one piece of this capacious book, a panoply of genres and literary excursions that create a hilarious and often melancholic tale about Lavery getting sober, getting fucked, and transitioning. Early in the book, in a conversation with her trans-masc husband Danny, Grace remarks that “expositions of trans life as it is lived is sort of the only genre that trans people have historically been allowed to work in.” Danny objects, “‘Well, I’ve not been allowed to work in it.’” The scene resonated with me because it often seems like only memoir or novelization of gender experience gets understood as “trans writing” — yet even so, it’s reserved for femmes. “What I’m trying to do,” Lavery tells me, “is find a way to internalize the critique of first person confessional trans writing while finding something both rehabilitating about disclosure and the possibility that language would be a vehicle for intimacy.”

Grace Lavery sits in front of a black floral folding screen, on a leather chair in casual attire

Please Miss proposes a connection between the concepts of gender and genre. “The book believes, and maybe even I believe,” she wryly adds, “that if a sex change is also gender transition, then it is even more primally a genre transition. That is to say, it is like walking through one kind of movie and suddenly, one is in a different kind of movie… So, what the book wants to do is try to stage and exhibit and demonstrate and walk through changes in genre.”

While memoir is a kind of tell-all, disclosure-oriented form, Lavery uses her playful approach to genre to conceal and seduce as much as reveal. The use of genre switches — sudden swerves from straightforward narrative to epistolary to queer theory — in Please Miss are elliptical ways of backing off from intimacy or revelation. It’s funny to describe such a sexually explicit, headlong, and uproarious book as a coy thing, but I think there is a lot of reserve and restraint here as well. For example, as Lavery reflects on a difficult experience of learning and failing to have gender-affirming sex, she suddenly shifts from her feelings in the moment to instead describe reaching into a “Hole Foods” bag and finding a new delicacy: finger limes. The next four pages are a lengthy reproduction of the FAQ on the finger limes packaging, which slyly refers to the previous scene even as it conceals her true feelings in the moment.

Of course, the idea of hiding/deception is an implicitly transphobic trope — The Crying Game, the “trap”, etc. — that Lavery engages with throughout the book. When I put the question of coyness to her, Lavery demurs: “There are parts of my life that I want to treat seriously enough not to talk about, and then there are other parts of my life, which I want to treat seriously enough to talk about exclusively in jocular terms. And there are things, especially with sex, where I’m really trying to take it less seriously as a rubric.” The book plays with issues and questions that are traditionally more seriously discussed. “I sometimes think,” she adds, “if everything one knew about sex came from queer theory that was written between 2000 the present, then one would [assume] I think that sex is… like, pure compulsion, quasi-suicidal. So if one is going to try to find a way to resist the imperative to make sex very serious in the practice of queer writing then how is one going to do that?”

Indeed, the central metaphorical image of the book is the clown, and there are a number of parodic trips into other literary genres, including the dick joke. When I ask Lavery how she understands the importance of parody, jokes, and humor in the project and their relation to transition, queerness and sex, she explains that she set out to “critique those masculinist forms of domination through sexual comedy, to try to find feminist practices of laughing about sex, which is why the book has a little offhanded joke about Louis C.K. in the first chapter and then a whole section about Lily, my girlfriend, and the way that she laughs when she orgasms.”

Unsurprisingly, however, TERFs did not get the joke. Lavery has spent a lot of time on the internet fighting them and being harassed by them, and as a trans woman who is not personally interested in engaging with TERFs, I was curious about why she chooses to do so. “People in a comradely way often suggest to me that it’s counterproductive or at least distracting,” she admits. But changing the narrative is important: “There is a real desire on the part of certain liberal British institutions to frame the issue as a fight between feminists and trans people.” Lavery argues that while these institutions are hardly radical, they matter because “the institutional failure of places like the Guardian and the BBC had engendered and intensified the violent legal oppression of trans people in the U.K. and in the U.S.”

“…she laughs when she orgasms.”

And is changing the narrative even possible? “I believed that it would be possible for me to leverage the privilege that I carry in my person as a tenured professor of English.” This idea of using her prestige backfired, however, when she set up a debate with TERF Helen Joyce, which she had planned to hold as part of her book tour. She later withdrew after consulting other trans activists and academics (I agreed withdrawing was the right thing to do.) Ultimately, the deciding factor was that the organization that was going to host the debate had published antisemitic work. “The case was put to me that this was an organization that existed to legitimate and launder far-right views and therefore to cooperate with them, and I think this was a direct quote, ‘it would tie the fortunes at trans civil rights to this particular organization,’” she says. 

This made sense, but I still wondered about the wisdom of the event in the first place, and I wasn’t the only one. Although Lavery understands why the mere existence of a debate could appear to cede ground to TERFs, she ultimately believes that “things are getting bad very quickly” and “anyone who has any kind of privilege or security at all, who is in any relation to this question should be grabbing every microphone that’s put in front of them, every camera that is in their general vicinity and attempting to make these arguments. Otherwise, the claim begins to kind of develop that these people are unstoppable, that they’re simply the unconquerable force of history, and I don’t believe that.” 

Grace Lavery wears a vivid shirt and sits on a white corner sofa

On that issue we are aligned. I agree with Lavery that the TERFs are “weaker than ever, not just intellectually, but institutionally and organizationally weaker than I thought they were. The gender-critical movement is eminently defeatable.”

Indeed, in this moment of collapsing reproductive rights and trans backlash, it can be hard to see just how desperate, fragile, and weak the reactionary worldview is. As I write this, the New York Times’s newest columnist Pamela Paul has published the latest high-profile TERF nonsense, implying that progressive movements’ support for trans women is actually misogyny, an expression of contempt for cis women comparable to that of murderous incels. The absurdity of her argument suggests a losing rearguard struggle against our advancing liberation. Books like Please Miss remind us that queer struggle can be funny, joyous, and sexy, and sometimes the best response to TERFs is a cackle. 

Vicky Osterweil is a writer, editor and agitator based in Philadelphia. She is the author of In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action.