A discussion of identity, freedom, and the struggle for recognition beyond binary genders in the face of societal norms and psychoanalysis

by Andrea Dusio


Photo by Tommy Kha, Exchange Place (VI), Midtown Memphis, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Higher Pictures Generation.

Culture 10 May 2023

“If you are neither male nor female, or you are both male and female, every single day you have to face the fact that you are not adaptable, that you are not welcome. Somehow you don’t belong to anything, and therefore you fail, in being neither male nor female or in being both. But if you can shout out loud that you are non-binary, trans, or on your way to becoming male or female, you are claiming your own space to continue living.” This is an excerpt from an interview given by London-based poet and rapper Kae Tempest at the release of their new album, The Line is a Curve. With great frankness, Tempest, a leading figure in the new cultural scene in South London, after coming out about their transition, explains: “For someone who has not been successful with the gender that was assigned to them, it is very difficult to explain that feeling of abandonment to someone who has found their place in the world.”

In 2019, on the International Days of the École de la Cause Freudienne, the Spanish writer, philosopher, and editor Paul B. Preciado was invited to give a speech in Paris to an audience of 3,500 psychoanalysts. His relationship with the professional community he finds himself confessing to was as contentious as ever. Preciado had been repeatedly diagnosed with a personality disorder. He decided to draw inspiration for his speech from Kafka’s short story A Report to an Academy, in which an ape, Red Peter, finds himself speaking before a scientific conference. Recounting how he dealt with learning human language, he explains that it was not a path of growth, much less emancipation, but rather a passage from one cage to another. Likewise, Preciado, focusing his talk on the issue of contiguity — or better, of contemporary psychoanalysis’ complicity with the regime of difference between the sexes — declares that he speaks from his own cage as a “mutant.” In 2014, she had announced that she wanted to undertake the transition from her biological sex to the gender with which she identified and therefore took the name Paul, keeping Beatriz as her middle name. The speech immediately provoked an outcry among the assembly. Many people filmed it with their smartphones and published it online, with translation errors and cuts that altered the overall sense. The climate in the room became heated; cries of open protest were heard, and even insults. The speaker was forced to interrupt himself, to cut the length of his speech by more than half. This led to the need to publish the conference in its entirety in a small book entitled Can the Monster Speak? (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021).

Faced with the same society that had imprisoned him because of his “monstrous” condition as a mutant, Preciado now finds himself in the situation of someone called upon to tell the story of his status as an intellectual. So, he speaks of Burgos and his childhood in Catholic Spain, to some extent following the patterns of the most paradoxical of formative novels. From her years in New York, when she temporarily positioned her identity in the libertarian landscape of militant lesbianism — which she relives as an expression of her dissident youth — to the time of her full maturity. At the age of thirty-eight, she began to understand that she would never find her proper place within the binary definition of gender. This awareness resulted in a transition process, in which liberty is defined as a “tunnel that must be dug by hand,” the construction of a way out, which cannot be achieved by society’s recognition as a concession, but rather is an individual achievement, the outcome of which is a new name and a “vaguely hirsute face.”

Sexual difference is the result of an episteme. We are forced to find our identity and freedom in the mold of an established cultural paradigm. Science and its language have made it a constitutive superstructure of our knowledge. It is not an empirical reality, yet it is not laid down as a dogma, a metaphysical truth. And it is everywhere, starting with religion. The political economy of our bodies, an apparently irremovable boulder, constitutes the political order that informs and permeates our lives, with an assertion of universality that can only be dismantled by a new paradigm, which will sweep it away for good. But until then, we will find ourselves living in what Preciado calls a “colonial heteropatriarchal power.” This is the form of totalitarianism we are surrounded by.

Confined initially within their own heterosexuality, bodies in transition must now traverse other cages. Medical, legal. Aimed at legitimizing the strictness of gender against the free expression of identity and marginality, and even exceptionality. But life is destined to reaffirm its own “mutation and multiplicity.” The tunnel dug towards freedom precedes the struggle of generations to come. “You need to understand that the future monsters are also your children and your grandchildren.”

The j’accuse against psychoanalysis challenges not only clinical practice but Freud’s own language, the compromise with European colonialism, and the way the West has structured the idea of diversity. “I am the monster who gets up from the analyst’s couch and dares to speak, not as a patient, but as a citizen, as your monstrous equal.” Those who step out of binary genders are doomed to social and individual death through a practice of dehumanization of the body, repelled to the edges of society, and condemned to perpetual invisibility. The responsibility for the absence of a new episteme, which contemplates the recognition of the right to exist in the fullness of one’s own choice outside of binary genders, must be attributed to those — scientists, psychologists, physicians, philosophers — who confirm the pre-eminence of sexual assignment as a prerequisite that governs and regulates life.

Preciado, therefore, calls on the uprising crowd to fully bear the brunt of their choice. To remain “on the side of patriarchal and colonial discourse and to reassert the universality of sex, gender and sexual difference and heterosexual reproduction” or to start, together with the “mutants and monsters of this world”, a process of criticism and invention, and, therefore a political path of emancipation from the logical structure and method of science, the result of which will inevitably allow for the “redistribution of sovereignty and the recognition of other forms of political subjectivity”.

It is a powerful assertion of individuality against the sedimentation of knowledge, which operates in a conservative direction. In this piece, certainly intentionally, to mark a dystonia, I initially spoke of Kae Tempest by calling her a “poetess.” Thus, staying within the rules of the old episteme. I should have gotten rid of what I remembered, of the pre-existence of the author and rapper Kate Tempest. I should have written “poet.” In another interview, Kae argues about her own name change, “When I took Tempest as my name, I was a teenager. (It was) my rap name. It’s crazy because I didn’t intend it to become such a big part of my identity. (…) I didn’t know then that Tempest would suddenly become this dominant force in my life. (…) Names are important. We get new names at important times in our lives. Like when we get married, we get a new name. (…) Suddenly, these requirements are important. In other cultures, we take new names at different times in our lives as we develop.”

I thought of Ovid and the Metamorphoses. In the literary reworking of myth, in the arrangement of a tradition that probably constituted a genre of its own, dedicated to the mutations of the divine and the human, there was a kind of encyclopedic ordering that contemplated mutation as the engine of history. With Kafka, which probably for Preciado represents not only a choice of great oratorical effectiveness, and of course, with the Metamorphosis, the process of psychoanalytic (or pre-psychoanalytic) reduction of the force of mutation into a monstrous transformation, experienced as a condemnation and guilt, without understanding and redemption, is accomplished. Transition assigns to metamorphosis the centrality of a conscious choice, made against culture and not, as the still-dominant episteme wants, against nature.