by Tomás Ojeda and Trinidad Avaria
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Revista Barbarie on 9 May 2023, and this translated and slightly updated version is reposted here with permission.
“What is a travesti? When did you realise that you were like that? Do you feel discriminated against? How does it feel to be a lesbian? How many cases of intersexuality are there? How do I explain what they are to my child?…
And so, hundreds of questions that name and produce difference, differences. Questions that demand un saber (knowledge), a revelation, an explanation, a confession. But also questions that display un saber. One knows, because one learns, that distance as a condition of impunity and immunity to speak of the other, is not marked in the answer but in the very formulation of the question” – val flores.
This quote from val flores (2013) is very powerful. It was for us when we first came across it some time ago; powerful in its interpellation of those who ask and, also, those of us who respond, especially as psychoanalysts or from the place of psychoanalysis. Questions and answers: someone asks and someone else explains; some will always ask, and others will always have to explain, to explain themselves, to become intelligible in front of the attentive gaze of the Other and their (sometimes) pornographic curiosity. Until the questions run out or until we are exhausted, without energy, at the disposal of what other people say about us, in our name, without our consent, even after death.
Photograph by Tomás Ojeda
In recent years, trans people have been subjected to all kinds of questions. Yes, subjected: forced – compelled – against their will. Questions that feel like a scalpel, a dissection or torture table, an X-ray, a Rorschach test, an expert opinion, a court report. What are you? Are you really trans? Are you sure? Lest you regret it. If you feel you are trans, why can’t I feel like a dog or a cat? How many cases are there? How do I explain this to my son/daughter, how do I prevent him/her from getting confused, from thinking that he/she can also be trans?
In the name of curiosity and concern – that distance val flores speaks of – the existence of trans people has become the subject of debate. And when the questions of concerned parents/psychologists/feminists/far-right-activists are not answered, or when the invitation to debate is rejected and the violence of the framework is exposed in its dehumanising imprint, they are accused of being violent: they, trans people, are the ones who do not want to debate, who impose their ways of living and erase our existence; they are the ones who cancel the exchange of ideas and do not let us speak.
When your existence is reduced to an idea or a debate, to your genitals, the toilet you use and the surgeries you have had, you are dehumanised and, as Siobhan Guerrero (2020) suggests, you become the object of the other’s hatred, suspicion and even disgust, leaving you exposed and vulnerable to violence. By dehumanising you, you are not recognised as a victim. On the contrary, refusing to respond and participate in the debate is thus resignified by the ideologically cisgender audience as an aggression, a violent gesture, a cancellation. And the lesson is clear: if you are not human – by which they mean if you are not intelligible or classifiable within the parameters of cis-heteronormativity – you cannot be attacked, you have no right to be assaulted or demand reparation for it. As ALOK suggests: “these are [also] grammar lessons: some of us are only allowed to be thought by others, never to think for ourselves”, even when it comes to denouncing violence and trans-hatred attacks. Or as they further ask in Beyond the Gender Binary, “How are we supposed to be believed about the harm that you experience when people don’t even believe that you exist?”.
The existence, humanity and dignity of a person are not matters of opinion. To make the violence of your question visible and to hold you accountable for its effects is not to cancel or silence you. As Travis Alabanza (2022) says, your “understanding is not a prerequisite for us to exist”. Because, contrary to what many think, trans and non-binary identities are not a fad, they are not contagious, nor are they a recent phenomenon or an invention of social media (and the evidence against this is compelling and has been there forever!). And this is where we draw an ethical boundary: not every question is valid, not everyone is equally positioned to answer, not everyone is equally scrutinised. And, above all, we do not always have to answer. Not responding can be a way of confronting violence, of limiting it, of caring for and honouring one’s own existence, one’s own name, one’s body, one’s identity.
In what follows, we craft our response to some of the challenges psychoanalyses face in dealing with the non-conformity of gender and sexuality in the consulting room, which have become more and more urgent in the present times of anti-gender attacks. We do this by thinking with trans and queer scholars and activists who have been interpellating psychoanalyses in their complicities with racist, cis-heternormative ideologies. We do this convinced of the potential of psychoanalysis to think about an affirmative clinic that demands us to analyse our own gender anxieties and to stop holding on to those aspects of psychoanalytic theory that do not do the work of liberating the subject, “and that may well prove deadly to the field and actively dangerous to queer and trans life and lives” (Saketopoulou & Pellegrini, 2023, emphasis as original).
In defense of affirmation: A proposal
Taking trans and queer approaches into account becomes critical for the clinic today, as far as psychoanalysis and cisgender analysts are concerned.
We are today in the midst of a dispute that is both ethical and political, where affirmative health and the existence of trans and non-binary people is being brutally besieged: from the state apparatus, disciplinary knowledges and certain feminisms; and even from professionals who declare themselves progressive and against a clinical practice that serves “explanatory knowledge”, paraphrasing val flores.
But what do we mean when we say gender affirmation, and how do we think about affirmation when it comes to psychoanalysis? Shon Faye (2022) helps us to think about this in the Prologue of The Transgender Issue:
“Gender is one of the first things we look for, ask about or intuit in a person. Cis men and women have the immeasurable benefit of never being thought to be mistaken, deluded or deceptive about this very fundamental fact about their personhood”.
Faye’s reference to the term ‘advantage’ is at the heart of what we have come to understand as the work of gender affirmation from our experience as cis professionals. This recognition, which is relational (even if we forget it), inaugurates such work; it is the starting point that makes the genuine encounter with the other possible. As Tobias Wiggins (2021) points out, our gender as conforming cis people is constantly affirmed: we “walk through the world with a baseline of being” that ensures that we are always seen as conforming to our gender and the cultural norms that regulate its expression. And he gives us some clues: “perhaps an affirmative psychoanalytic approach is one that takes into consideration… the trauma of misrecognition. Maybe affirmation shows awareness of transphobia and an openness to having a conversation about it”; to encountering one another, to ask questions, to “affirming not the patient’s identity, but the patient’s right to have their own, nonlinear process, which may or may not be legible to the analyst” (Saketopoulou & Pellegrini, 2023, emphasis as original).
When we fail to recognise that advantage referred to above, we act it out as transphobia in countertransference in our therapeutic and institutional bonds. In response, psychoanalyst Griffin Hansbury (2017) proposes to shift the gaze away from the trans patient, the usual object of the professional regulatory gaze, to ask what happens to cis analysts and therapists who encounter a trans person in the consulting room. What happens when it is the monster, in Preciado’s terms, that “gets up from the analysist’s couch and dares to speak” (2020). The shift here is epistemological and technical: much of what psychoanalysis thinks to know about trans people has been written from that vantage point, scarcely interrogated. In that sense, that vantage point has a history that is important to rescue:
“For over a century of history written by cisgender psychoanalysts about transgender patients, beginning as early as Sigmund Freud’s 1911 applied analysis of the gender-crossing German judge Daniel Paul Schreber, clinicians have revealed their attitudes and biases as they shaped psychoanalytic narratives about trans people…” (Hansbury, 2017).
And, as we know, it is those narratives that have sedimented what we know about gender and trans people: stories told by cis people, for cis people.
What we know, then, says much more about our anxieties and that of the psychoanalytic institution than it does about trans people and their health needs. And it is at this point that we cannot retreat to our certainties nor refuse to respond: as psychoanalysts and psy professionals, we must give up the power to give existence to the (non-normative) other; to think we are their gatekeepers and custodians, those who know best and are always right. It is an ethical imperative. A call to work on our own gender anxieties, those that become unthinkable and end up being projected onto trans people, who act as containers for the terror that some of us feel when we imagine the fall of the gender binary, that baseline that holds and affirms us, and that gives continuity to our experience as cis people (Alabanza, 2022; Hansbury, 2017).
The work of Maggie Nelson (2016), and especially her fantastic book The Argonauts, has helped us to think about these issues by suggesting certain orientations, not certainties or securities, to get lost and revisit critically what we think we know. Given that language is not always enough (because of its incompleteness, a la Wittgenstein, but also because of its patriarchal imprints), Nelson asks what we can say and whether we should say anything, and how we can think about life experiences that explode our imaginaries and certainties about what it is to be human, a man, a woman, a family, a couple, etc. Following this thread, she invites us to go ahead, since “it is idle to fault a net for having holes”; we are going to do what we can, because we do not aspire to a thought without holes—in that we remain psychoanalysts. However, and this is important, to do this work we must bring into the equation the anxieties of cis people and stop putting trans bodies and their existences under the microscope of structuralism and biologicism, which hide their position of enunciation – that advantage that Shon Faye talks about – and limit the potential for change.
To this end, and by quoting Zewig, Nelson proposes to pluralise and, at the same time, to specify. In metapsychology, it is important to think of the more than the one, to move beyond individual experience. And to pluralise is to think of more than one, more than a hundred, to generalise without losing sight of the individual case. However, and this is the paradox, at the same time our listening and attentiveness to the patient’s unconscious must remain finite, because human experience is finite: the person who speaks in front of us, who brings the material we will work with is a human being. One. And probably suffers—and enjoys their life, have fun, experience pleasure and have ordinary things to tell, like everybody else!
In the face of the reasons that bring consultants to our practice, the invitation is to specify. People are different from each other. And yet, as Wiggins reminds us, for everyone gender is non-conforming, and it is this fantasy of conformity, certainty and alignment that captures us all, not just trans people. Moreover, we know that our bodies have different meanings for different people. Every bodily experience can take on new meaning if we bring in scenes from our own, everyday lives. Only by embracing the repetition of the same particular (lo mismo particular) over and over again, ad nauseam, we can see how the new – the change in repetition – is produced. This is what we, both analysts and analysands, know from experience.
Finally, Nelson challenges us to take a stance, or in Avgi Saketopoulou and Ann Pellegrini’s words, to “take sides”; to side with the autonomy of the subject while they embark in their self-theorising projects. This active position, reminds us of what Paul B. Preciado witnessed himself in his own analytic process, since for him
“The success or failure of my analytic sessions largely depended not on the fidelity of the analysts to Freud, Klein or Lacan, but, on the contrary, on their infidelity, or, to put it another way, on their creativity, their ability to step outside the ‘cage’”.
And it is in the face of this cage, of the cages of our conceptual frameworks and their effects, that we cannot remain silent or in an illusion of neutrality that is not such and that, when invoked as a limit to our work, only exposes its defensive and symptomatic character. To paraphrase Sara Ahmed (2015), whenever psychology and psychoanalysis proscribe what can be thought and said in the name of neutrality, we are witnessing a mechanism of power: who benefits from our silence and our complicity? Who is protected by neutrality, by following the rule of abstinence?
Psychoanalysis cannot advance its thinking if it does not do so from the clinic, from the specific plurality of the clinic. As Hansbury warns us, it is only by loosening our control over the psychoanalytic overconcern with aetiology and gender conformity; by moving away from the violent question Why trans? to the question How trans?; it is only then that psychoanalyses and therapists in general will begin to analyse our own transphobic reactions, those ‘unthinkable anxieties’ (Hansbury, 2017) that protect us and that we violently act out on others for simply asking questions. Let’s reverse the questioning to ourselves, to your children, our friends, and see how it feels: What are you, are you really cis, are you sure, when did you realise? Was it traumatic? Did your parents take you to the psychologists for that? We would probably find this absurd, meaningless, disrespectful. May that clarity help us not to answer, to avoid questions that are violent, to refuse their terms of address.
Tomás Ojeda is a queer researcher and trained psychotherapist. His interests lie in the intersections of queer theory, psychosocial studies, anti-gender politics and LGBTIQ+ mental health, with a special focus on activist and academic responses to current attacks on gender affirming care. Tomás is also a member of the Engenderings editorial collective.
Trinidad Avaria is a feminist psychoanalyst based in Santiago, Chile. She holds an MSc in Clinical Psychology, with a line of specialisation in psychoanalysis. In 2018, she co-founded Trenza Colectivo (Trenza Collective), where she has developed a clinical, cultural and community work that seeks to articulate psychoanalytic practice with gender studies and cuir epistemologies.
 Cis-heteronormativity refers to practices and discourses that privilege those bodies and subjectivities that align to cisgender and heterosexual cultural expectations. Cisness, in this logic, appears “less a naturally occurring identity than a description of a compulsory system ‘that demands a match between anatomy and identity’” (Gill-Peterson, 2021, as cited in Saketopoulou & Pellegrini, 2023). Following Blas Radi (2020), cis-normativity can be thought of as an analytical category that exposes the contingency of alleged common sensical beliefs about sexuality and gender, such as biological essentialism, gender conformity and sexual dimorphism.
 We strongly recommend reading the extraordinary work of Jules Gill-Peterson (2018; 2021) in her book Histories of Transgender Child; on the myth of contagion, the work and critique of Julia Serano (2023a, 2023b) has been key, as has the research of Florence Ashley (2020) in relation to gender affirming care.
 Being read as ‘gender conforming’ or passing as ‘cis’ is also unevenly distributed among those subjected to conservative reading practices or transphobic enactments that police gender presentation. This is particularly the case when gender conformity is not granted by how people see you or because your gender falls out dominant cis-heteropatriarchal understandings of masculinity and femininity (e.g., butch cis-women, feminine boys, queer femininities).