Cyrus Grace Dunham on Why We Need to Explode the Gender Binary
Sarah Neilson in Conversation with the Author of A Year Without a Name
What is gender? It’s a question people seem to be increasingly asking themselves. Cyrus Grace Dunham might question if there is any real answer at all. In their debut memoir, A Year Without a Name, Dunham chronicles a two-year period in which they underwent several layers of gender exploration and transition. In a scant 176 pages, Dunham pens a surprisingly wide existential exploration of what it means to be human; an honest, beautiful memoir that isn’t afraid to live in the unknown.
Sarah Neilson: In the book’s prologue, you write about the “trick” of gender–gender is a trick one performs oneself, it’s a trick being played on everyone; in turn, gender needs to be tricked to be escaped: you write that the trick is to be who you are. When I hear “trick,” I think of magic. How did the framework of both magic and deception inform your writing about gender?
Cyrus Grace Dunham: A lot of the first examples of gender nonconformity, gender deviance, or gender fluidity that I was exposed to were rooted in deception.
Historically, for example, cross-dressing was understood as a form of deception; anti cross-dressing laws and regulations put in place to prevent people from cross-dressing were about stopping people from deceiving the public and the state. Before I knew that it was possible to live differently in my gender, a lot of my fantasy life was about deceiving people. I would always imagine, what if I could go to a new school and just trick everyone into thinking I was a boy? The thought that I could be a boy wasn’t actually available to me, only that I would be able to successfully perform the trick of being a boy enough that people wouldn’t know I was really a girl.
I obviously have a more complicated framework for thinking about it now, but a lot of this attraction to deception has really stayed with me. The way I think about my gender now isn’t that I’m inherently a man, or that manhood is some true, authentic part of me that’s always been there. Often when I pass as a man it still feels like a form of deception, which maybe means that I don’t totally believe myself yet.
But I am more interested in rethinking what gender can be, because I don’t believe that male and female are inherent biological categories. As you said, gender is a trick that’s been played on us. I like the idea that some of the work we get to do is play the trick back.
SN: One of the things you write about in the book is the power of language, and the sense of control it gives you. You recall being a skilled debater in high school and using language to assert “intellectual superiority” as a way of correcting for the cultural oppression of girlhood. Later, you also write that, “Writing is inherently optimistic for me. A leap of faith that, if I try to communicate, I will be understood.” It seems like gender is one of those areas of human experience that is so often failed by language. How do you think the language in your book, and/or language in general, empowers or disempowers a writer or reader, especially with regard to writing about gender?I am more interested in rethinking what gender can be, because I don’t believe that male and female are inherent biological categories.
CGD: I’ll be real with you. I’m very unresolved about my beliefs about writing, about gender and especially about writing about transness.
Legacies of colonization have forced written language as this arbiter and space of fact, rule and regulation, onto indigenous frameworks of being in which language doesn’t play such a tyrannical role. Written language can also be tyrannical on a personal level.
I made the choice to document this extremely intense period of time in language. Now the way that I remember that period of time has been deeply shaped by the story that ended up being told. In many ways it is deep and true, but in other ways it was shaped by arbitrary factors like whatever mood I was in on a certain day, whatever mood my editor was in on a certain day, whatever the previous paragraph necessitated about the next paragraph. The law of writing now dictates how I understand that period of time. I think that is a huge risk when it comes to documenting our own stories.
This is also really important to consider when we’re talking about gender and transness. No matter how many times I tried to undermine some kind of linear story of what a gender transition looks like, the book still ends with me going through this process of medicalization. It still ends with me feeling a relative level of calm or peace. The narrator at the end of the book is a lot more self-aware and a lot more together than the narrator at the beginning of the book. So in those ways, it reifies this idea that going through a medical transition creates a sense of internal completion. That’s something I want to be really careful talking about. At the same time, though, I do feel a lot better than when I started writing the book.
SN: This book is definitely a journey of gender, but it’s also the story of a young person living with a sometimes overwhelming amount of questions. The relentless questioning conveys a constant self-examination of one’s existence as a person in society. How do you think a narrative of self-examination that embraces uncertainty can broaden discussions of literature and art, social justice, and identity?
CGD: I can speak best about why it felt important for me to write that way. We’re given such calcified beliefs when we grow up in this world, in this society—about gender, family, desire, value, meaning, purpose. I am white and grew up in a social world where there were very particular value systems around money, power, and success.
I have developed strong beliefs in opposition to that. But when I develop beliefs that are strongly formed around opposition, I need to think about what I am creating that might be equally as limiting. I’m drawn to belief systems that are process-based and more about openness to change. I want to be honest about where I am in my process—I have pain and anger about a lot of the value systems that my particular world imbued me with.
But I’m also a 27-year-old person who wants to feel loved and valued in my world. Meeting people who hold space for uncertainty and process has been super meaningful to me. So I wanted to make my own little attempt at writing about that. Do I think that a memoir by a white person who grew up with class privilege in a family with a lot of cultural visibility is going to change the world? No, I wouldn’t say that I think that.
However, I do hope that putting work in the world that’s vulnerable, work that attempts something like honesty, will make other people feel less alone in their confusion, in their process. And maybe feel like there’s more space for trying to figure out another way of being, of relating to the world.
SN: You write very honestly about mental illness in the book. One of my favorite passages is the one in which you list the DSM codes for different “illnesses” and how they do and don’t define you. This is a really broad question, but what do you think is missing from mental health/mental illness narratives in literature, and/or how do you think we can expand the way it’s written about?
CGD: I am not a mental health professional, but I am someone who thinks a lot about these questions, has struggled with mental illness myself, and is really close to people who struggle with mental illness and have experienced trauma. One thing I was trying to get at with that passage is the ways in which diagnoses are almost absurdly reductive and limited in what they offer us, but within the institutions that we’re trying to navigate, sometimes they’re one of the only ways that we can get access to certain types of care that we need.
I play a lot with transness, for example: It seems utterly normal to me that if you lived in a society where you were forced to exist within two incredibly rigid options of being, that your failure to perform that would drive you to pain. That seems like the most natural thing to me. But we’re negotiating a legacy of nonconformity being understood as mental illness. Medical care has shifted a lot, so when I go into a gender health clinic, I don’t say, “I’m mentally ill. I have these delusions that I’m a man,” but I am in some way performing a belief that I was, for example, born in the wrong body. Which isn’t how I understand my gender.
I have a deep belief that a lot of the mental illness that people live with is deeply related to the trauma that accumulated from living in a society where there’s an enormous amount of ambient and material violence directed at people of color, poor people, people who don’t have conforming gender identities. Mental illness isn’t an illogical, irrational disease, but a deeply rooted response to the conditions of the world that we live in. We can find care in alternative, holistic, social justice-oriented spaces, but often those things are really expensive. It would be amazing if we lived in a world where all harm and pain were dealt with in a holistic way, but we have to change a lot of other things first.
SN: You bring up this ubiquitous violence, and that made me think about the connection between violence and masculinity. You write in the book that since you’ve transitioned there’s a new violence in your life—it no longer comes from someone thinking you’re a girl pretending to be a man but rather a man failing at being a man. “Violence” is a very broad term that encompasses a lot, but generally speaking, how do you think writing/art can help society reckon with this connection between violence and masculinity?
CGD: I spent the first 22 years of my life conceiving of myself as a white girl—albeit one with a lot of deviant, internal fantasies that made me think I really sucked at being a girl, but I still thought that’s what I was. I was taught to feel afraid, that I was always a potential victim, and that it was of utmost importance that I protect my body from violence.
In some ways, that’s true, but in other ways that narrative was pretty divorced from the reality of violence and how it takes shape around race and other forms of precarity that weren’t present in my life. When I started having a deeper awareness of gender and gender nonconformity, it became increasingly clear to me that it’s consistently trans women and gender-nonconforming people of color who experience really extreme forms of violence in public and at the hands of the state.
There’s something about the combination of a perception of biological manhood and a failure to perform normative manhood that makes people targets for extreme violence. When I started to present as more masculine—and I am a white person so I’m not exposed to the most intense forms of violence that take place in public—I realized that the types of harassment I started to receive were because people thought I had been assigned male at birth.
So for example, I went into a women’s room and was followed by a security guard who pushed the stall door open and pushed me against the wall of the bathroom, not because they thought I was a butch woman, but because they thought I was a man going into the women’s room. That’s deeply connected to a spectrum of the violence that transfemmes face. It’s been really important for me to unlearn this idea that the biological white woman is the primary target of violence. I think that belief is often used to mask the way that violence is racialized, and particularly the ways that violence often targets femme or gender-nonconforming people who weren’t assigned female at birth. I say none of that to detract from the very real and constant forms of violence that people who were assigned female at birth face, particularly women of color, in a world so intensely shaped by anti-Blackness and indigenous genocide, but just to say that it’s a lot more complex than the story I was told as a young person.
SN: Though the book does cover parts of your childhood and adolescence, the bulk of it is anchored in a very recent period of time, which gives it a kind of immediacy. What was your writing process like while you were writing so close to the events of the book?
CGD:I had never written a book before, so while I was writing about this moment in time I was also figuring out what it looked like to write a book.
The truth is, I was in a lot of pain and I was struggling with my mental health throughout that time. Sometimes I was hyper-productive and sometimes I was completely unable to write in a coherent way, and that means that some parts of the book are really big and spacious and some parts I’ve sort of disconnected from time. That’s just a reflection of what my capacity was at that time. But the one thing I was really strict about was making myself write every day. If I was in a really hard place, I was writing the same things over and over. If I was in a lucid phase I was more able to describe and articulate an overarching sense of where I was at.There’s something about the combination of a perception of biological manhood and a failure to perform normative manhood that makes people targets for extreme violence.
It ended up being crucial for me to have all of that material to work with. I was able to go back through and look at the texture of everything that happened. It was an interesting process that gave me ideas about ways I could write books in the future. Within all that epistolary material the story that wanted to be told emerged. But I obviously needed my editor’s help as well. Overall. I feel like this is a process I could do down the line again about a different year or a different moment in time.
In many ways I enjoyed the way that writing close to the moment, rather than looking back at something from a long distance, felt like letting the story guide me rather than me guiding the story. Although, as I said earlier, language can have a tyrannical rule, so I don’t feel like it’s a style of writing that I would take on lightly again, because now I know how it can control one’s experience of reality.
SN: Lastly, I always like to end my interviews by asking people who or what they’re reading right now, or where they draw writing inspiration from. Are there any books, writers, or other artists whose work has resonated with you as a writer that you’d like to shout out or talk about?
CGD: Firstly, Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Hartman worked from state archives, particularly documented by social workers and prisons, to try to rebuild or reimagine lives of resistance—revolutionary lives of young black women in urban areas in the early 20th century. I really like finding early trans narratives where I can. Ralph Werther’s Autobiography of Androgyne (Subterranean Lives) is amazing. I get a lot out of reading works of re-imagination or reanimation of an archive, because it makes me think about the way that we can tell those stories. The novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg also does this. Even though it’s fiction, I basically experienced it as a trans memoir. It’s everything I want a book to be.
There’s a kind of pain in contributing to the so-called genre of trans-memoir because the truth is, most people who have lived gender-deviant lives haven’t actually been in a position to have their work published and disseminated. The stories that we do get exist either because they have a lot of class privilege or because somehow by accident the story that they told was put in language and saved. I wonder about all the stories we’ll never get to hear.