I am Frankenstein’s Monster: An echo of Susan Stryker’s call to action
This is the second in a series I’m writing on gender. Equal parts personal narrative and transgender studies I hope to explore topics that have, by-and-large, been nagging at me for some time, but that I haven’t taken the time to write about. What does a thing called “The Cyborg Manifesto” have to do with being trans? What’s the relationship between transgender people and Frankenstein’s Monster? What are neopronouns and why do they upset some people? These are just some of the topics I hope to address in this series.
The first time I heard of the idea of the transgender person as Frankenstein’s Monster, I was enthralled. I read Mary Shelley’s novel for the first time as a senior in high school, and I enjoyed it for all its Gothic darkness as much as for the monster’s righteous anger.
The first time I read about Frankenstein’s Monster in relation to the transgender body was in an excerpt from Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage:” I don’t know how, now, I found the quote out of context (or, having read it in context, how I lost all context around the quote), but I know that I didn’t read the piece in its entirety until very recently.
The excerpt I was exposed to many years ago reads as follows:
“On January 5, 1993, a 22-year-old pre-operative transsexual woman from Seattle, Filisa Vistima, wrote in her journal, “I wish I was anatomically ‘normal’ so I could go swimming. . . . But no, I’m a mutant, Frankenstein’s monster” Two months later Filisa Vistima committed suicide,” (Stryker, 246).
Filisa’s suicide was caused by a community that, truly, treated her the same as Frankenstein's monster was treated in Shelley’s novel:
What drove her to such despair was the exclusion she experienced in Seattle’s queer community, some members of which opposed Filisa’s participation because of her transsexuality — even though she identified as and lived as a bisexual woman. The Lesbian Resource Center where she served as a volunteer conducted a survey of its constituency to determine whether it should stop offering services to male-to-female transsexuals. Filisa did the data entry for tabulating the survey results; she didn’t have to imagine how people felt about her kind. The Seattle Bisexual Women’s Network announced that if it admitted transsexuals the SBWN would no longer be a women’s organization. “I’m sure:’ one member said in reference to the inclusion of bisexual transsexual women, “the boys can take care of themselves.” Filisa Vistima was not a boy, and she found it impossible to take care of herself.
— (Stryker, 246)
According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 40% of respondents have attempted suicide in their life (which is nearly 9 times the national average of 4.6%) (James, 2016). If you’re familiar with my writing, or my activist or academic work in general then you know that I use this statistic probably far more than any other. I, of course, have no joy in doing so. I find it relevant. Filisa shouldn’t have faced the loneliness that rejection no doubt brought. She shouldn’t have been driven to suicide by a community that thought that she could take care of herself. Who amongst us, social creatures as we are, could ever be expected to take care of ourselves when we are isolated and/or rejected from our communities?
This quote is important to me as someone who has and continues to face suicidal ideation, depression, feelings of loneliness and isolation, and uncertainty about where I stand in relation to my community. I used to have a job in the LGBTQ center at my university, and since completing my undergraduate degree and having to leave that position, I have felt a growing separation from the LGBT community closest to me, the one on my campus (where I now attend graduate school).
I was probably 19 or 20 when I first read that quote about Filisa. It made me wonder if I would live past 22. And as the years past, and I’ve lived not only to 22, but 25, so many other transgender people have been bullied, brutalized, pushed to suicide or murdered. The villagers still refuse to accept us. We remain no more than monsters.
Stryker suggests, however, that we embrace being monsters. She writes, “Like that creature, I assert my worth as a monster in spite of the conditions my monstrosity requires me to face, and redefine a life worth living,” (p 254).
She goes on to say, “May you discover the enlivening power of darkness within yourself. May it nourish your rage. May your rage inform your actions, and your actions transform you as you struggle to transform your world,” (p 254).
So often we’re told that anger isn’t productive, that rage isn’t productive. One of the blessings for me of being into heavy metal and punk rock is having an outlet for all of my negative emotions. A lifetime of abuse has left me very adept at preventing myself from crying, cathartic as it is. So when I need to process emotions that might otherwise make me cry, I put on some music that will allow me to nourish my rage. There is great priority in living life in compassionate ways. I don’t think there’s any shame in living life in rageful ways. I’m hesitant to qualify that statement in any way.
Stryker compares the reclamation of words like “monster” to words such as “fag” and “queer” among others:
“I want to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself. I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster. Just as the words “dyke:’ “fag:’ “queer:’ “slut:’ and “whore” have been reclaimed, respectively, by lesbians and gay men, by anti-assimilationist sexual minorities, by women who pursue erotic pleasure, and by sex industry workers, words like “creature:’ “monster:’ and “un-natural” need to be reclaimed by the transgendered.”
I think we should reclaim the words monster and creature. I think that if the villagers want to see us as unnatural, that we should embrace that. I do not shy away from the scientific realities that make me a modern human, and I will not shy away from the science that can make me a monster.
In 8th grade I began to embrace my queerness. Not because I had access to queer history, because I didn’t, but because I knew that I was queer. I am queer in the way that I’m not heterosexual, or even monosexual, I’m queer in the way that I’m not cisgender, I’m queer in my agender, trans woman, asexual panromanticism.
But I settled for less provocative dictionary definitions of the word, such as this one from Merriam-Webster, “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal.”
For a long time my dad has called me a commie pink bedwetting faggot.
The kids in middle school who would bully me would call me a queer and a faggot. I think we should reclaim these words, I think we should reclaim the word tranny. For me, it is time to dull the impact these words have when used against us. It is well worth embracing who we are as monsters. It isn’t our responsibility to make the villagers understand or accept us, and maybe, in fact, we can’t.
I can want to kill them with kindness, but their vitriol and hatred might wear down on me faster.
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