From Greenpoint to Flatbush, McKenzie Wark outlines community on the margins of straight life
I’m on the G train, heading home from northern Queens to Brooklyn. Well, sort of. Brooklyn is now my home most of the time, but I come back to my old home in Queens to hang with my kids. Long story short: I came out as a transsexual woman late in life. Having come to the party late, I spent the last few years looking for connections with other trans women. That led me to Bushwick, Brooklyn.
We’ve always had our networks, our covens of care. Things changed a little with the so-called tipping point around 2013, when we were featured in a bunch of newspaper and TV stories. That “visibility” was a mixed blessing. It made it easier to find each other, but now trans people are the wedge issue of choice for various kinds of fascists doing their best to make trans life miserable, particularly for trans kids.
Our little corners of Brooklyn are a refuge from all that. It’s not utopia. It’s not always safe. Safety is very unevenly distributed, and it falls along lines of race and class. Then there’s the rent. We pay a lot for the possibilities of living our lives here, in proximity to each other. And then there’s each other. It’s not like we all get along. Trans “community” can just be each of us bitching to our friends about each other.
Still, as my G train burrows into Brooklyn, I think about all of the friends I’ve made—and occasionally lost—all across the borough, and what the place is coming to mean in the art we make about our shared lives. Let’s start in Greenpoint, the first part of Brooklyn the G train heads under. Greenpoint makes me think of fiction writer Torrey Peters, who had a breakout hit with her book Detransition, Baby. One of her main characters is a trans woman who lives in Greenpoint because it’s a little bit set apart from the main centers of trans life. Probably a wise choice.
My friend Crissy Bell lives up there, somewhere. I try to map where she would be from the subway line. Although the last time I saw her, I came by bike, huffing and puffing all the way from Queens. It was the start of the pandemic, before vaccinations. I was out of syringes and couldn’t get any locally. She offered to share hers. On the subway, I put her album Weakness on to hear her androgynous voice and her affecting, slightly abstract lyrics in my headphones.
The G train hits Williamsburg next. It goes right under Kellogg’s Diner, which features in Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, the book that started a new kind of trans literature when it came out in 2013. There was a whole trans writing scene in Brooklyn back then, and we even had our own publishing house—Topside Press—which fell apart, as these things do. Torrey’s book owes a lot to that writing community.
Not far from Kellogg’s is Metropolitan Bar, where Octavia Kohner hosts Gender Experts Party, the monthly trans open mic. I go there sometimes to see trans friends, share a drink, and see everyone do their five-minute bits— some great, some, let’s just say, entertaining. I’ve not been brave enough.
That’s where I met Cassette Spence. We’d been Twitter mutuals for a bit. T-girl Twitter is like this whole other network laid over, and extending beyond, the various Brooklyn scenes. Turns out Cassette lives on my block. I’m a fan of her low-key, intimate songs. Try “r.i.p. the glove”—“but I can be the glass / of anything you’re drinking.”
Williamsburg also features in the legendary but now discontinued podcast Nymphowars, co-produced by Macy Rodman and Theda Hammel. It was a mix of spontaneous talk-comedy and manic, surreal, scripted adventure stories. The series ends with Macy and Theda getting thrown out of all the gay bars in Williamsburg after they accidentally “make a mockery of Janet Mock.” Theda is also a brilliant lyricist. I love her song “Uninterrupted Black,” written in the voice of the worst lover you ever had.
As we move through Williamsburg, somewhere up on our left is the now famous trans house, started by filmmaker Jessica Dunn Rovinelli. Three of the four apartments are home to trans people. Her film So Pretty is a kind of utopian version of millennial Brooklyn queer and trans life—although it was actually shot in Ridgewood, Queens.
Also at trans house is P. E. Moskowitz, who wrote the book on gentrification, How to Kill a City. There’s a frank account in it of how a property company tried to force people of color out of a Bushwick apartment block and how they organized to resist it. They get the ambivalence of those of us who displaced previous residents—but will in turn get displaced.
Their last birthday party at trans house was quite the scene and brought together two kinds of trans women you don’t always see together: those of us who like girls and those who prefer men. That was the last time I saw the writers Harron Walker and Jamie Hood. Jamie wrote How to Be a Good Girl, which rewrites the straight girl literary canon for trans girl life. Her friend Harron was writing a Substack called Mounting for a while. Fiction, but with some juicy details about trans femme drama. I hope she makes it into a book.
We’re heading toward Bushwick, which is a sort of psychogeographic epicenter of certain kinds of trans girl culture. When I came out and looked for trans community, I found it among writers, but also ravers. Bushwick is where the techno clubs are. Burning nights, dancing to Goth Jafar. Both technically and emotionally, I really connect to her sets. She introduced herself to me at a rave once: “Hi, I’m Goth Jafar,” and I’m like, “I know!”
Bossa Nova Civic Club was techno central until it was damaged in a fire. So Pretty has a scene there, so at least there’s a record of it. It wasn’t a trans space at all, but it was one where I would not be the only trans woman, and where our presence was usually not remarkable. The hardest thing for trans people is the right to be ordinary.
I had my 60th birthday party at Bossa. Jasmine Infiniti played. I’m a fan of the tracks she produces. Dancing alone in my kitchen to her album BXTCH SLÄP got me through the lockdown. There’s rage and resistance, sex and seduction, but also sweetness in her tracks—it’s unusual for techno to have such range.
Passing by Bushwick also makes me think of the dolls. All dolls are trans women, but not all trans women are dolls. The dolls are more likely to be sex workers, to be nightlife people, to work a high-femme style, and to be trans women of color. I’m not one of them. I go to some of the parties they host, but it’s not my world, not mine to describe.
Bushwick also makes me think of Macy Rodman, who I used to see behind the bar around here. Trans women artists’ day jobs are often night jobs. Her music has all the energy and glamour of drag, but imbued with more pathos and comic range than drag can accommodate. Her Unbelievable Animals album is, among other things, a break-up album. It’s meaningful to me that a trans woman claimed the right to be mad about being unceremoniously dumped—that we have the same right to respect as any other girl.
The bar where Macy sometimes bartends has readings in the back, where I’ve heard Kay Gabriel, one of my favorite poets. The writing is great on the page but even better in her arch voice: funny, formally astute, political—and with gossip. It’s everything. There’s snark about me in her book of dream poems, Kissing Other People or the House of Fame, but I don’t mind.
Body Hack, the monthly trans benefit party, started here in another Bushwick bar. Río Sofia got me coming. Even when still a student, Río was making arresting art. I first learned of her from a story Harron wrote for Out magazine on Forced Womanhood!, a series of confronting images based on a porn subgenre where the subject is whipped and tied into submitting to feminization. Río puts herself in the position of the dominated, dominatrix, and observer in these images.
If I were to continue on the G we’d pass under Bed-Stuy and my electrolysis person, Rachika Nayar, who is also an instrumental musician. Her performances are so atmospheric, complete with Rachika’s carefully orchestrated lighting and video projections. Try her album Our Hands Against the Dusk. She didn’t play her own music when she zapped hair off my tits, but I kind of wish she had as the endorphin rush really sent me.
I once had Rachika over to meet Kaye Loggins, who also makes instrumental music as Time Wharp. In what was probably a massive overshare, I once told Kaye that her albums Feel No Pain and Live Online were my favorites to which to get high and have sex with my girlfriend. They’re just gorgeous, elastic experiences of spacetime.
There’s an old-fashioned disco and soul food venue in Bed-Stuy that used to host one of my favorite raves. Memories get mangled, but it might have been where I got turned back on to rave culture, after a 20-year absence. I remember a vivid Juliana Huxtable set. The fluidity with which she blends beats, noise, recognizable fragments of sonic culture—it’s a trip. And that’s before we get to her work as a visual artist, or her writing. I often give her book Mucus in My Pineal Gland to friends. Among other things, it’s writing about a version of trans life in this city that I don’t experience, where it intersects with Blackness.
Next up: Fort Greene, which makes me think of Drew Pham. We met, or rather re-met, when we were on the same bill for an event hosted by the free newspaper the Brooklyn Rail. Her powerful writing, in both poetry and prose, is about gender, sure, but it’s also about empire. Her Vietnamese parents lived through one war, and she another—as an army captain, serving in Afghanistan, before she came out. She has an astonishing long poem in A Formal Invitation, issue two.
As the train climbs out of the Brooklyn subway warren into the air to cross the Gowanus Canal, I think of Hannah Baer. A Twitter mutual sent me her book Trans Girl Suicide Museum. It’s rare writing on some difficult topics, such as trans drug use. Particularly ketamine, which has dissociative qualities that are something of a balm for our dysphoric bodies. And suicide. It can be just too hard. I’ve lost people. We all have.
Like me, Hannah is both a writer and a raver, although I rarely see her in either my trans writing world or my trans raving world. There are just so many trans worlds! That’s what’s special about Brooklyn trans life—that it’s so multiple and diverse.
On to Park Slope, and Prospect Park. In the summer it’s the site for the Trans Ladies Picnic. The Picnic is an institution, having run off and on for many years. Two trans women lovers in Torrey’s book have their meet-cute there. Cat Fitzpatrick has a comic rhyming poem about it, which she performs with considerable brio at readings.
Prospect Park is also where I hang with my South Brooklyn trans friends—the kind whose idea of a social outing is more a picnic than a rave. Bishakh Som lives nearby. Her comic collection Apsara Engine contains a story, “Swandive,” in which two trans people meet at an architecture conference, go back to a hotel room—but they don’t fuck. Instead, they imagine a South Asian trans utopia. Makes me cry when I read it.
This part of Brooklyn also makes me think of the visual artist Tuesday Smilie. The first works of hers I saw were a bit like the kind of banners people make for demonstrations, only abstracted, layered with different materials and occasional words. I don’t know if Tuesday knows Jeanne Thornton, a mutual friend of me and Bishakh. I make a mental note that we should all meet in the park. Jeanne wrote a terrific novel, Summer Fun, about a fictional surf music band from the ’60s who are not The Beach Boys, whose central musical genius turns out to be a trans woman.
The G train won’t take me quite as far as Flatbush. That’s where Casey Plett and Cat Fitzpatrick launched their new trans publishing house—LittlePuss Press. The event drew a hundred or more trans women and other gender-expansive people. Just to be around so many of us made me so happy. Emily Alison Zhou, a twentysomething recent transplant from the Midwest, read a work in progress. It’s just delightful to hear writing that’s about the interactions of trans characters, rather than the old trans memoir where it is just the author battling the world.
That night ended with Cecilia Gentili bringing down the house with one of her tall tales from her life, a real performance piece. Cecilia is an icon to many trans women in New York, but particularly to Latinas. She completes the loop of this journey: the center of English-speaking t-girl New York might be Brooklyn, but the center of its Spanish-speaking counterpart is at the other end of the G train, in northern Queens.
There’s just so much talent up there above the G train. Torrey Peters once wrote that “half of the trans women in Brooklyn live in a state of perpetual pre-celebrity, awaiting a well-deserved recognition that will never come.” There are trans women whose work is legendary around here, but a secret to the rest of the world. While it’s great to see your favorite writers read or musicians play or DJs spin to a handful of like-minded queers and transsexuals and adjacent folk—it doesn’t pay rent.
That’s bohemia: world-making on the margins of straight life, in little pockets of the city where we can connect but can barely afford. Inventing other ways of life, other ways of love. Transsexuality was always one way into the underground. In Brooklyn these days, we’re like the old mole in Hamlet, digging away, making ways of life for everyone who might undermine the unnecessary cruelty of sex-at-birth as an imposed order. We’re making art, but also making an art out of composing the sex of our own flesh. We make ourselves; we make this city.
Production Director Madeleine Kiersztan at MS4 Production Production Assisstant Ryan Williams.