That Awful Antioch Review Essay

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I don’t know if you heard about the awful essay that the prestigious literary journal, Antioch Review, recently published: “The Sacred Androgen: The Transgender Debate,” by Daniel Harris.

You can read it if you want to — I would advise not to.

As far as I can tell, Harris attempts to argue that older conceptions of sexuality and gender (hence the “sacred androgen”) which have traditionally been tied to the many complex forms that male homosexuality takes, are far superior to those tied to transgender identity, and that the recent rise in awareness, in the Western world, of transgender people and their concerns is, overall, a loss for the culture.

I write “as far as I can tell,” because pulling out a thesis of Harris’s essay is not easy. It is an overly long, vicious, sourceless rant, with one typo that is so glaring that a reader may be forgiven for suspecting that the piece was not edited or proofed in any way before publication. The essay seethes with an opaque mass of pent-up rage against transgender people, a rage that is not explained by reading the essay.

(I know, at this point, I should quote sections of the piece, to show you what I mean, but each time I copy and paste some of it in, I feel disturbed and gross. Suffice it to say that Harris argues that transgender people suffer from a “mass delusion,” and that he is outraged by the idea that he, a conventionally gendered man, is required, in today’s world, to “aid and re-inforce” those “self-delusions.” The essay is rich with lurid and lengthy descriptions of surgical terms and gender-related body parts, diving head-first into the minutiae of the flesh that the writer’s stated argument would have us believe we should transcend.)

A petition to protest the essay’s publication quickly gained over 4,000 signatures.

Rather than advising you read Harris’s essay, I instead recommend an excellent response to it, “Justifying Our Existence,” from Clarence Harlan Orsi, which offers a more measured, more generous reading than the original piece deserves.

Daniel Harris begins “The Sacred Androgen,” his Antioch Review essay on “the transgender debate,” with a dutiful recounting of the travails transgender people face today: violence inflicted by others and self, bullying, lack of access to resources, etc. Harris does not condone these trials. He goes on to assure his readers that whatever decisions we transgender people make about ourselves, he still believes in our “humanity.”

By the end of the essay, Harris’s readers would be forgiven for doubting this assertion. “The Sacred Androgen” is a mess of unreflective bigotry, incoherent assumptions, and wildly inaccurate conclusions. Harris uses outmoded, offensive, or simply strange terminology, referring to transgender people as “TGs,” trans women as transitioning “from virago to vamp,” or as “Mrs. Doubtfires or Victor Victorias.” Harris’s research methods date him as much as his movie references; most of his anecdata seem to have been collected from AOL chat rooms for macho “studs” and the trans women they fetishize.

Orsi’s essay first unpacks how Harris seems to want his argument to work, and then delivers a careful refutation of that method:

“The Sacred Androgen,” while purporting to say what good liberals won’t, actually operates like a juvenile game of “gotcha.” Harris seems to believe that if he can expose enough supposed inconsistencies in how we trans people talk about ourselves, the house of cards we’ve constructed will fall apart altogether. To that end he accuses transgender people of being subject to a “mass delusion,” the fault lines of which emerge in our discussions of the differences between transgender and transracial identity, the way we talk about fetishes and sexual pleasure, and in our claims to radical embodiment vs. how radical we actually are, to name a few.

Each of these gotcha moments requires the creation of a straw man — typically a straw trans woman, in this case — who espouses views Harris believes to be hypocritical….

This is not to say that there are no inconsistencies in the ways in which we trans people talk about ourselves, or that there is no room for exploration or growth. Like a toddler sensing a word is “bad” without knowing why, Harris shows a remarkable ability to hone in on the issues that get trans people feeling defensive. Take the Rachel Dolezal controversy, which he brings up with glee: Trans people have yet to come up with a foolproof answer to the question of whether transgender can equate to transracial. This is because the issue, like all questions involving the thorny intersections of identities, is complicated.

But here’s the thing: What’s the reason trans people rush to defend the legitimacy of our identities at the first challenge, often at the cost of complexity or rational discussion? It’s because of assholes like Daniel Harris, who prey on the burden of proof transgender people feel we need to justify our existence. As if our lives require the armor of pristine argumentation; as if every inconsistency makes us less real…

Read Orsi’s whole essay: it’s remarkable.

One more thing, however, from me. What I found particularly upsetting, among many other upsetting parts of Harris’s essay, was his triumphant belief that because many transgender people fail to aesthetically please him, this proves something lacking in their nature. He seems overjoyed that because he is unimpressed aesthetically by transgender people, this reveals that they are delusional, that the laws of the universe are justly set against them. His aesthetic displeasure trumps all, it appears.

I think this argument is a far more dangerous one than Harris realises. In the past, people have used aesthetic arguments like this (“ugliness in my eyes” = “nature is against it”) against homosexuals, against the disabled, against mixed-race relationships.

It’s not up to someone else to judge whether my life, my body, or my relationships, are sufficiently aesthetically pleasing to be worth respecting. That’s for me to do. It’s for me to decide how closely my current life matches my ideals.

It’s for the individual to determine what is right and beautiful, and then to decide how hard he or she wishes to work to manifest that rightness in his or her own life. That’s the correct application of aesthetic standards to everyday existence. If I sincerely believe that you are wrong to collect stamps, or go to the gym five days a week, or to love a particular person, my advice had better be delivered with the awareness of a line being crossed, with full humility and an earnest effort to understand.

None of us match up to the aesthetic possibilities that our imaginations can conceive of. It would be nice if we could, but we can’t. By Harris’s logic, we are all lacking, all vile, all delusional.

Wanting to make one’s real life resemble more closely the imaginary life depicted by one’s own aesthetic intuition is the very essence of being human.

To wrap this up — here is Orsi again:

Believe me, I’m not crying myself to sleep every night because Daniel Harris doesn’t think I’m a real man. I may not even want to be a real man — and here, too, is something that Harris doesn’t consider: that some of us are happy in the middle. That some of us are happy failing at gender. Because all of us fail gender in some way. The woman who talks too loud; the man who takes to the dance floor without sufficient irony. But that’s the thing: gender is so much more complicated, so much more of a dialectical exchange between real and ideal, than Harris could ever know.

2 thoughts on “That Awful Antioch Review Essay

  1. Great post! I especially enjoyed the quotes from Clarence Harlon Orsi.

    What people like Daniel Harris need to realize is that the human race is incredibly diverse. Personally, I believe that diversity is a good thing. But, regardless of our differences, we all have the right to be here and to live our lives however we choose. As an American, I’m a firm believer that we all have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And, it’s up to each of us (as individuals) to figure out what makes us happy. Just my two cents worth!

    Liked by 1 person

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