Late in 2018, I had a job cataloging 86,000 photos from the Peoples Temple. They were publicity shots, intended to recruit members to both the Temple and its new settlement in Jonestown. Jim Jones leading his flock on a special trip to Washington, wearing a suit in powder-coating blue. Jonestown going up in Guyana, young workers breaking earth on a utopian community. A testimonial dinner for Jones, featuring San Francisco’s boldfaced names of 1976.
It takes a long time to pull 86,000 photos out of old plastic sleeves and put them into new plastic sleeves (the step was necessary because there’s nothing older plastics love as much as bonding with the glossy surface of a photo print). As you can imagine, the collection was also emotionally intense. There weren’t photos of the aftermath of Jonestown, but there was an undertone of decay that the sunniness of the subject matter only accelerated. I decided now was the time to get into podcasts.
I had spent a lot of that year obsessing about transition. I had written a novel about it. I had dissolved into uncontrollable shaking on a San Francisco-Santa Rosa bus. But I was stuck where I was, between “I can’t do this anymore” and “I don’t know how to do what’s next.” Transitioning was inconceivable, especially since I couldn’t tell the difference between what I wanted and what other people wanted for me — and I knew that nobody wanted me to transition.
The novel was a good attempt to imagine something I hadn’t seen, but there are limits to the imagination. That isn’t something I like to admit. As a writer, I’m quite arrogant; I’ve written about all sorts of shames, skills, and traumas that I don’t have. I have also always been dubious of the idea that you need to be shown things before you can think about them. For me, writing is all about taking things I have felt, transposing and transmuting them, and cheating the angle so that I look like an expert. The illicit glee of impostordom is real — it’s the reason the Seven of Swords, the card of getting away with it, is the header image I use for this newsletter.
But writing isn’t living, and you can’t cheat the angle to make yourself imagine something totally outside of your experience. Some people are very invested in keeping transition that way — outside. Trans people have always been kept at bay by preventing us from imagining each other, siloing us, restricting our access to information, and isolating and pillorying the ones who lead public lives. And the tactic works.
So it was fortuitous, this new interest in podcasts. I say “podcasts,” but actually, I just mean Slate’s Dear Prudence advice show, hosted by Danny Lavery. It was a very specific episode that finally distracted me from the 86,000 photos, and that finally helped me to start imagining transition.
The guests were both trans women — Grace Lavery (professor, writer, later Danny’s wife) and Carta Monir (cartoonist and pornographer). Both were brilliant, and Danny, whose gender rejects the raconteur/host binary, kept showing one off and then the other. His voice was a sweet, cracking, old-timey tenor. Carta sounded like a cellist who has retrained on the violin, Grace like a cellist who has chosen not to.
They answered a question about transition, as I recall, and the answer was helpful. Carta gently encouraged the letter writer to remember that it’s only one move at a time, and that all the things they would have to do would happen serially, not all at once. I needed that answer for myself, but I also needed to hear an hour of transgender fellowship, competence, warmth. These three friends had all been through something that wasn’t easy, but that had given them fresh strength and serenity, and you could hear it in their beautiful voices. I don’t normally enjoy admitting that I am like other people, but there was joy in recognizing that I was like them.
Last week, I got to be on the show, and I’m pretty sure I bombed. In the time between the two episodes, Danny and I had become close — we used to live a mile apart and had mutual friends, and a friendship developed that has been sustaining and delightful. I was excited to be offered the guest spot, which we recorded over Zoom. Danny sat speaking into a microphone with a fluffy purple head, close to his tiny and regal dog, Bon-Bon, who later ended the podcast by throwing up. I spoke into my phone’s voice memo app, and had no dog.
I felt great going in. I love public speaking; I love using the sharpened tool of my voice, especially now that it has changed so much. As a writer and archivist, I’ve done a lot of panels and readings. I was also a suicide hotline volunteer for several years. My voice knows what to do, and I can rely on it to elaborate mellifluously on my ideas while I sit and steam and come up with new ones. When I speak to strangers under pressure, I’ve come to see myself as a little man operating a big robot. That doesn’t mean I feel dissociated. It’s actually one of the more powerful, integrated feelings I know. I am the man and I am the robot, and we trust each other, my little pal/big pal and me.
But the big pal shut down as soon as Danny and I started talking. The little pal rushed around for the first two letters, trying to make the big pal work, and then gave up, hit the ejector button, and resigned himself to working alone — a six-inch-tall man standing next to a phone the size of himself, dragging it up to face level with both hands. I’d read the questions in advance, of course, and made notes, but it didn’t matter. The big pal’s works were gummed to hell.
The trouble was this acute sense of exposure, of total vulnerability. Usually, when I speak, I have a prop to help me. I am the calm voice in the hotline phone, the confident professional who has learned to channel his quirks, the author behind his polished and edited book, the tarot reader shuffling the cards. Here, I had nothing but the painful memories from which most advice comes. I didn’t know yet how to stand with the raw wire of that pain exposed. At the same time, I projected freely, assuming that letter writers shared my anxiety about secrecy, my philosophy about nostalgia, and my complete lack of knowledge about how to be a parent. If I ever record several more advice podcasts, perhaps I’ll come to be good at it, but for now, it was a skill I didn’t have.
I don’t want to make it sound as if this experience was agony, or that my bombing was a disastrous one. Although it was overwhelming, it was also fascinating. Watching Danny take apart a question is like watching a skilled chef chop an onion; one minute it’s whole, and the next it’s been made useful, and nobody’s crying. I know I did well enough to hold the line, though I might not listen to the show when it comes out in a couple of weeks.
The funny thing is that I think hearing this would have helped pre-transition Isaac, too. Trans flop-sweat may not be as inspiring as trans joy, but both of them are part of the range and depth of trans life, which does exist and does go on.