5/3/2022 0 Comments
Grey Weinstein (he/they)
The marginalization of trans women on a societal level is often best told through narratives of abuse. Poet Torrin A. Greathouse is no stranger to such abuse; her wide body of work explores the trauma of verbal and physical assault she experienced at the hands of her father as a child, at the hands of strangers as a sex worker, and at the hands of police as a trans adult. Greathouse’s debut poetry collection “Wound from the Mouth of a Wound” combines an exploration of this personal trauma with astute structural analysis of the ways in which transphobia and ableism function on a societal level. In “On Confinement,” “When My Gender is First Named Disorder,” and “I Was Looking for Dick & All I Got Was This Lousy Poem” Torrin A. Greathouse uses the metaphor of the panopticon to argue that both the prison industrial complex and medical institutions monitor gender variant people through state surveillance. Greathouse demonstrates that this surveillance forces trans women to police their own self expression; she compares how this systemic transphobia and interpersonal acts of transphobia both dehumanize trans women in order to justify their continued subjugation.
To begin, Greathouse relies on Bentham's metaphor of the panopticon to explain how the state surveillance forces trans women to discipline themselves. Specifically, by employing a matter-of-fact tone to explain the metaphor of the panopticon, she lays the groundwork for an academic understanding of trans women’s role within carceral state institutions. Sandwiched between one stanza about her partner “in the atrium of the psychiatric holding facility” and another about their fear “of taking/ their own life,” Greathouse writes, “In 1787,/ Jeremy Bentham conceived of what would become/ the most common prison design:/ the panopticon./ Intended to control prisoners through the illusion/ that they are always under surveillance.” The stanzas immediately preceding and following this quotation are intensely emotional, fraught with the trauma of her partner’s suicide attempt. This stanza thus marks a jarring tonal shift, in which Greathouse presents the metaphor of the panopticon in a straightforward, factual tone. This brief change in the speaker’s voice denotes the academic nature of Bentham’s theory, signaling to the reader that Greathouse is taking a momentary detour into political philosophy that is separate from, although related to, the difficult personal experiences to which she then returns. Thus, Greathouse uses tone to put her remarks on the panopticon in conversation with more academic discussions of state surveillance. For instance, Courtenay Daum explains the phenomenon of “walking while trans,” in which police officers use anti-solicitation laws to profile and target visibly trans women. Daum asserts that “the selective enforcement of solicitation laws on transgender individuals may be understood as a tactic of social control utilized to manage the movements and actions of this population.” Just as Greathouse writes that the panopticon is used to “control prisoners,” solicitation laws “manage the movement and actions” of trans women. The “illusion/ that they are always under surveillance” by police who will arrest them for sex work causes trans women to themselves monitor and restrict their own behavior, similar to prisoners in a panopticon. For instance, they might take measure to “pass” as cisgender and thus avoid harassment, or forego condom use because police take carrying a condom as evidence that they are sex workers. Thus, Greathouse’s somber representation of the panopticon is in conversation with research about how state surveillance, namely the police, forces trans women to self-police their own daily lives. This is especially true of those who engage in sex work, as Greathouse has herself.
Having established the metaphor of the panopticon, Greathouse next expands upon it to argue that the prison industrial complex’s surveillance of trans women perpetuates violence against them. Particularly, she uses imagery of her own body to show how scrutiny from parole and the police materially and physically harms trans women. For example, she writes, “I plead my sentence down/ in exchange for: my face, my prints, my DNA/ & ten years probation.” Greathouse’s experience with the criminal justice system reflects exactly the state surveillance she previously alludes to in her remarks about Bentham’s panopticon. By taking “my face, my prints, my DNA/ & ten years probation,” the state can now track and monitor her as a means of control. Greathouse’s use of imagery centered on her physical body conveys the extent to which she feels violated by these systems of surveillance. By saying that she had to “exchange her face” (rather than, for instance, images of her face) in return for a reduced sentence, Greathouse creates the sense that she has lost some physical part of herself through her interaction with the police, something central to her identity. Similarly, when Greathouse goes on to say, “When I see a cop, I fear/ even my breath/ criminal,” the imagery centered on her own breathing draws attention to the physicality of her body. This word choice thus makes the reader intimately aware of the extent to which the speaker’s defiance of the police state rests within her own body– by merely daring to possess a non-normative body as a trans woman, she is seen as a threat. At the same time, this imagery also emphasizes how “the illusion/ that they are always under surveillance” forces trans women to self-monitor, much like prisoners in the panopticon. In fact, they must do so to such an extent that the speaker is hyper aware of her smallest action that might make her a target, even down to her own breath. As Greathouse notes, “A big part of public presentation as a trans woman is femininity as an act of preservation.” This is certainly true in relation to trans women’s interactions with the police; it connects back to Daum’s observations that trans women often have no choice but to attempt to pass as cis in order to avoid being assaulted by police. Greathouse thus uses imagery of her own body to communicate how trans women must constantly assess and adjust how they present and act in public for fear of police violence.
Next, Greathouse extends her criticism of the surveillance state to include medical institutions. In particular, she employs metaphor to assert that doctors similarly monitor and restrict gender variance, dehumanizing trans women in the process. For instance, in referring to her gender Greathouse says, “Machine with excess parts? If I called the parts of me/ I no longer want vestigial this would imply they were/ the vestige of a once-boy.” While describing the ways in which medical professionals view her, Greathouse employs two separate metaphors. Both these metaphors– likening the parts of her body typically associated with masculinity to unnecessary machine parts, and to vestigial organs of an animal species which has evolved beyond its need for them– underscore the lack of humanity granted to her by her doctors. Whether they view her as an animal or as a mere object, Greathouse clearly does not receive respect and dignity in her interactions with the medical system. Furthermore, the idea of Greathouse as a “once-boy” reveals that even when they are willing to admit that trans women are not currently boys, medical professionals see the poem’s speaker as possessing an inherent masculinity. Refusing to recognize that Greathouse was always a woman further contributes to her dehumanization. She then adds, “Our language unable to speak my gender/ out of disease.” By employing this third metaphor comparing her gender to a disease, Greathouse draws attention back to the issue of state surveillance. This language allows her to demonstrate that medical systems frame transess as an illness, pathologizing trans identity. This pathologization in turn allows medical systems to gatekeep resources from trans people by denying them hormones or surgery without excessive psychological screening, a practice which Greathouse’s metaphor alludes to. As a result, trans people are again put in the position of surveilling themselves in order to navigate state institutions. In fact, Greathouse describes femininity as “this public negotiation that we have to [do]” and “a bargaining chip.” In other words, trans women often have no choice but to strive for cisnormative standards of femininity in their presentation in order to access the medical resources many of them feel they need to survive. Greathouse thus speaks to how the scrutiny of doctors, who often demand that trans people pass as a prerequisite for providing transition-related care, forces trans women to regulate their own self expression.
Greathouse then uses poetic diction to argue that transphobic individuals draw on the same rhetoric to justify interpersonal acts of transphobia as do agents of state sanctioned violence. Specifically, through her word choice she demonstrates how transphobic individuals and the state both view trans women as imposters deserving of violence. For example, Greathouse writes, “The first cop who ever handcuffed me/ [was my father]/ left me bound/ till my fingers blued.” It is unclear from Greathouse’s phrasing whether the person who left her “bound/ till my fingers blued” was the cop, her father, or both; by utilizing this purposely ambiguous word choice, Greathouse draws attention to the similarities between structural and interpersonal violence. Both the cop and her father abuse their authority over her, using violence both to punish her and to humiliate her by robbing her of control. Similarly, in reflecting upon her experiences talking to men on dating apps, Greathouse writes, “Another calls me trap & this/ must be for all the door/ he is imagining me.” Greathouse’s use of the transmisogynistic slur “tr*p” is clearly purposeful. The word relies on the idea that trans women are men trying to trick cis men into sleeping with them, imperilling their heterosexuality through sex with someone who is not a “real” woman. This obviously transphobic rhetoric runs parallel to the transphobia Greathouse experiences in the medical field, where doctors see her as a “once-boy” still in possession of the “vestiges” of masculinity. Greathouse thus demonstrates that the false concept that sex assigned at birth negates the authenticity of trans women’s womanhood underlies systemic transphobia (for example, in medical institutions) and interpersonal acts of transphobia (such as interactions she has with men online).
In conclusion, after establishing the panopticon as a means of explaining government control, Greathouse argues that the prison industrial complex and medical institutions exemplify such state surveillance by singling out trans women for brutal treatment. She then contends that this institutionalized transphobia is mimicked by individuals who, through interpersonal acts of violence, draw on the same transmisogynistic logic to dehumanize trans women. Greathouse accomplishes her analysis through the use of tone, imagery of her own body, metaphors comparing herself to nonhuman entities, and diction. Yet Greathouse’s writing also explores the parallels between how trans and disabled bodies are dehumanized and denied autonomy. In “Moral Model of Disability,” for example, Greathouse refers to her body as that of an “apple-taker” and “rib-giver.” This reference to the biblical Adam and Eve reflects how others refuse to see her as fully female while simultaneously denying her access to the privileges given to cis men. She then juxtaposes her “crooked back” and her “sidestepped gender,” connecting the deviance of her body’s disability and its transness. Similarly, in “On Examination/Dereliction” Greathouse nods to the dehumanization she experiences due to her disability; she is seen as disabled “first,” before she is even seen as a person. Her body is a “dissection,” suggesting her lack of agency over it; a dissected corpse has no bodily autonomy, but is merely a puzzle to be solved by doctors. Greathouse echoes this sentiment in “Metaphors for My Body on the Examination Table,” when Greathouse compares her body to “the diagram of the procedure.” Her poetry thus meaningfully examines violence against trans women and disabled people through the framework of structural power, revealing how unjust systems perpetuate harm against individuals.