Something That May Shock and Discredit You
I think the underlying reason is simply, people ought to be able to do what they wish with their own bodies, and I don’t believe anyone else has a better right than I do to handle mine.
Daniel Lavery is very clear about one thing, he does not owe an explanation about himself or his gender to anyone.
His deeply personal new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a funny, gentle and self-deprecating exploration of how Daniel sees the world, and how the experience of coming to know and affirm his gender has affected the lens through which he experiences that world.
Taking direct aim at the cultural canon, Daniel’s work leaves no literary or philosophical stone unturned, spanning everything from the cast of Mean Girls to the beauty of William Shatner and whether or not Greek goddess Athena was a tomboy - a truly unapologetic exploration of all the intricacies of reimagining gender, faith, and family.
Join UNSW social researcher Christy Newman in conversation with Daniel to explore how this vital combination of courage and humour might help us resist efforts to discredit community knowledge of our own bodies, desires and needs, and become more honest about the awkwardness and ambiguities in our intimate lives.
You can order a copy of Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M Lavery online through the UNSW bookshop here.
Please be aware that this event discusses sexual abuse and trauma which may be distressing for some people. Resources and support can be found here: unsw.to/sexualmisconductsupport.
The Centre for Ideas’ International Conversations series brings the world to Sydney. Each digital event brings a leading UNSW thinker together with their international peer or hero to explore inspiration, new ideas and discoveries.
Ann Mossop: Welcome to the UNSW Centre for Ideas podcast. A place to hear ideas from the world's leading thinkers and UNSW Sydney's brightest minds. I'm Ann Mossop from the UNSW Centre for Ideas, and I'm very happy to welcome you to this event in our International Conversation series, where writers and thinkers from around the world are in conversation with UNSW researchers about inspiration and ideas. I'd like to pay my respects to the Bidjigal people, the traditional owners of the land I'm speaking from and pay my respects to their elders past and present. Our conversation today brings together writer Daniel Lavery, and UNSW’s Christy Newman. They're going to be talking about Daniel's recent book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, and they'll be exploring how courage and humour might teach us to be more honest about the ambiguities and awkwardnesses of our intimate lives. Our host tonight is Christy Newman, whose pronouns are they/them. Christy is professor of health, sexuality and gender at the UNSW Centre for Social Research in Health, and Associate Dean Impact and Engagement in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture. Thank you, Christy.
Christy Newman: Thanks so much, Ann, and welcome, everyone to this incredibly exciting conversation with the brilliant Daniel M. Lavery. We've just heard Daniel is the author of Something That May Shock and Discredit You, this wonderful book, which we'll be talking about today, but also the books, Texts from Jane Eyre, and The Merry Spinster. He is a co-founder of The Toast and a former Dear Prudence at Slate, and he runs the Chatner newsletter, and lives in New York. Thank you, Daniel, so much for making this time work across our different continents. Now I'm just also recognizing that I'm on unseeded, Bidjigal land here today in Warrang, or Sydney, and I live on Gadigal land. But I was also raised on Whadjuk Boodjar Nyungar country in Western Australia. Tell us where you're joining us from today. And also, I'd love to know how are your dogs doing today?
Daniel M. Lavery: I am joining you from my apartment in New York and you got to see one of the boys earlier, sorry to everyone that you don't get to see them. Now, they are both passed out on the rug, exhausted from doing nothing all afternoon. So they're about as contented as they can be.
Christy Newman: Excellent. And if anyone else would like to see why I'm so enamoured with Daniel's dogs, you can find him as Daniel M. Lavery on Instagram, and you will not regret the choice. So let's start the conversation. I've been anticipating this with much excitement, and it's a bit hard to know where to start, because you've done so many things, and also you mean many different things to different people. And I was really struck by that actually, in talking to friends and colleagues about this conversation. People would literally fall over sometimes, in hearing about this, with excitement. Your wife Grace Lavery recently described of you in her recent memoir; “he is well known and very beloved.” And indeed, this was the impression that I had confirmed when I was speaking to people. I discovered that most of the people in my circle who follow your work have done so since you are co-founder and writer on The Toast, which was truly a website like no other. Publishing, I've seen this, quote, “parodic reworkings of classic literature and art”, from 2013-2016. And your books have continued in that approach to remaking the stories that shape us. So, biblical text, Greek myths, fairy tales, the literary canon and also popular media, taking aim at sacred cows of all kinds, but making the most delicious meal of them. And this book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, which is a line from The Simpsons for anyone who wasn't aware, it continues this tradition, but also as a memoir, it feels quite different to your previous writing. Can you tell us a bit about this book and what it represents for you as a writer?
Daniel M. Lavery: Yeah, I'd be happy to. And also, I must confess, a little disappointed that you didn't use my favourite description of me from Grace's memoir, which was, “lord rapid-onset”. The first time I saw that line, I was furious that I hadn't come up with it. Which is not… like often if somebody else writes a really good line, I don't feel angry that I didn't write it. But this one I just felt pure proprietary resentment. But yes, so I… you know, this book is slightly unlike my first two books. Part of it, I think, feels… it's a little bit embarrassing. Like, if you transition, and you have a job that is remotely related to writing or media, it feels a little inevitable that you just have to get one out of the way. And so part of me felt like I should just do it now, get it over with, like throwing up, and then I can you know… I don't have to, you know, when am I going to do the trans memoir that I have to do? That's also, I'm sorry, that's a little bit dismissive, because it makes it sound like I felt like it was purely something that I had to finish. As opposed to, something that felt maybe a little self conscious about, because it is, in fact, such a kind of, common practice. And I think sort of speaks to, there's often like a real preoccupation with newness and freshness, such that, whenever somebody transitions, they kind of get the like, debutante rush, and then it becomes a little boring. So I'm also aware of ways in which it felt like, just do it now. And if you feel embarrassed about it, at least you got it out of the way. But it also felt like something that had been on my mind a great deal, it was something that was slightly cropping up when I was writing The Merry Spinster, and it felt like a, kind of, exciting project, in as much as it both included things that I was very familiar with doing, as well as pushing me in a slightly new direction as a writer. So it felt like a good balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar. It’s a nice way to get to make progress, I think slowly and steadily.
Christy Newman: We're gonna come back to the book and ask you about a few things in it, which have really struck me, but I want to talk about some other aspects of your work first. I noted in thinking about this, I'm part of the last generation to experience a pre-internet adolescence. So I relied on magazines to learn about the subjects that grownups didn't want to talk about; sex bodies, gender, and so on. And this made me a lifelong fan of advice writing, although I'm not, you know, alone in that. But that's also how I came to know your work first. So I, really, when you took over as Dear Prudence on Slate in 2015, you handed that role over last year, but you continue to provide advice on the wonderful Slate podcast, Big Mood, Little Mood. And you've been described as part of a new generation of advice writers, one that features greater diversity in the forms of life experience that are drawn upon, and a more progressive politics in the ways of interpreting and resolving the complex problems that are shared by readers. I'd love to hear from you what this role of contemporary progressive life advisor looks like from the inside? Or more importantly, and certainly more interesting to me, what does that feel like?
Daniel M. Lavery: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. So you know, I do, I am aware, at least, of the history of like gay and trans and progressive advice columnists, for a number of, at least in the United States, local, gay alt weeklies or newspapers that have been around for 20 or 25 years. So it's not as if they only came to be in this sort of internet age. But I think it's certainly true that it was a lot easier to find a wide audience, as opposed to, like, hope you get the job at the Provincetown paper. So, you know, I think that certainly both, I attracted more questions from people who were either thinking about coming out or beginning the process of coming out, particularly people who are transitioning, so that ended up being a bigger and bigger part of my sort of remit, I think, as my tenure went on. And that wasn't necessarily something that I was consciously aware of at the start, but I, you know, noticed it as that change happened, and I welcomed it, and it felt pretty exciting and invigorating. And just, like, I was generally able to be more useful to people in that kind of situation, or those kinds of situations. Just because it's not the most wildly common experience in the world, transitioning especially, and so hearing from, and kind of sharing experiences with more and more people can be really, really useful. Because if you don't have much of that connection, especially at the beginning, it can feel like either you are inventing this by yourself, and you don't have anything to sort of fall back on, and also it can be difficult to spot, certain tendencies that maybe if you have heard more about other people's experiences, you might be able to recognize a little bit sooner. And that's something I've actually been writing about, even though, as you mentioned, I'm no longer writing Dear Prudence columns, but I do sometimes write about my sort of general experience with advice getting, in the newsletter. And I've recently been kind of tackling what are seemingly consistent problems that crop up with family members especially, dealing with someone's transition. And what are some common themes that I've actually seen pop up again and again, that you might not necessarily know in advance.
Christy Newman: I'm going to come back to that as well, because I just think that the kind of manners and the, kind of, appropriateness around how these things are negotiated, are just so important to be engaging with directly and you do that so well. I want to think again, though, about this question around how you uncover, or how you manage that process of making private truths public, particularly in the areas in which you write about. And I guess I'm very aware that since you started as Dear Prudence in 2015, we've experienced major world events that have impacted everybody. I mean, the Donald Trump president experience has happened since that time, Me Too movements, the Black Lives movement, massively accelerating climate change, it's just been, a time. But we've also been forced to engage in really challenging ways, for many, with some of those private truths that we often overlook or are, kind of, hidden in these big policy and political problems. So, periods of COVID lockdown and isolation, in particular, for many people focused attention on the ways that we live in domestic spaces, the ways that we create and care for relationships and families, and often the ways that we occupy and understand our own bodies, particularly in relation to health and gender and sexuality. I mean, I saw that so much in my own social networks, I had that experience myself. And so, it's clear we still find it very hard to talk about these kinds of intimate dimensions of our lives. And yet, it feels increasingly urgent that we learn how to do that better. And I guess that you've talked about this book as something that… it felt like it needed to happen, it kind of had a history to it. But also, it was published at a time of escalating political media and community attacks on the rights of trans people, and often the physical safety of trans people in America and around the world, including in Australia, which is a brave decision in lots of ways. And I'm really interested in what that experience has been like for you. But also, there's a section in your book, which really hit very deep for me where you said – because I've thought about this myself a lot – “Being a grown up is a joy that has never lost its shine”. And I'd love to know how you stay connected to that joy, particularly when so many adults are being so mean right now, including to trans people.
Daniel M. Lavery: Well, I will say, unfortunately, sometimes, you know, carefully curating that meanness is one of the great joys of being an adult. So I don't want to completely take meanness off the table. Although it does feel important to separate meanness from cruelty in that sort of context. Yeah, I can't remember now exactly which chapter that line is in, but I do remember writing that, and I think, it had come to me, particularly after I had written a sort of goofy piece that was just like a frequent, like, bad daydream I have. Which is that, like, I wake up, and I'm in eighth grade again. And it's just like, you're not in your 30s, you don't live in an apartment, you have to get up at 6:30, and you have to go to school, and every 45 minutes, the bill will shriek and then you have to move all your stuff, and that's your life. And, you know, it's always difficult too to try to get a truth about my childhood, or the idea of childhood, because obviously, I have now spent more time reflecting on childhood as an adult than I ever did being a child. So, there's this way that I can, you know, uncover or think about my own memories, and they'll feel familiar. But then I'll sort of stop and think, does this feel familiar because I've arrived at the bottom layer of the memory or just have some feel familiar because I've remembered it in a particular way for 15 years? And now, my memory of this memory is what feels truest to me. And obviously, that's a problem that everyone shares and thinks about the past. But without saying that I had an unusually unhappy childhood, I don't believe that I did, I think there were even many elements about my childhood that were remarkably pleasant, even, I never felt anything other than, you know, a pretty substantial eagerness to become an adult. And, you know, oftentimes, we anticipate pleasure and find that it doesn't live up to the anticipation. This one lives up to it, I have never in my life felt anything other than relief at no longer being a child. And it's just, you know, again, I want to, like, put the brakes on, because part of me wants to say, and that's just the sort of universal like queer or trans experience of just relief at breaking free of the fetters of childhood. And I'm always tempted to speak for the world when I'm actually just trying to speak for myself. So I do want to watch out for that. But there is also just so many ways in which being a child leaves you with very, very few options. And if the way that your childhood has been set up is itself not safe for fulfilling or wholesome or nurturing, you're kind of shit out of luck all the time. You can't drive, you can't leave. You know, there's this sort of like, really popular image macro that goes around these days about like, da share z0ne, you know, if something sucks, hit the bricks, just walk out, it's like a skeleton walking away and listing all the things you can just leave. And, you know, I think one of the things that's hardest about childhood is you can't really go away. There's very few options for saying, this sucks, I'm out of here, I'm gonna leave early. You can't Irish exit, as long as you're alive, or there are very few ways to do so. And especially when the sort of stewards of your childhood, whether that be parents or guardians or other authority figures are operating according to a value system that you don't share, it doesn't matter, you're the child, your values don't win. And that was something that I always felt, sort of, infuriating.
Christy Newman: Thank you for explaining that, gosh, I relate in so many ways. Your memoir is an incredible read, I have not laughed that much in a long time. Some of the most compelling insights for me, though, were when you use these superpowers that you have in reworking classic tales, to reveal the incredibly bad manners in expressions of contemporary transphobia. And as someone whose early life was also organised around the Christian faith, as I know, yours was, it was the Bible passages that gave me the most joy in this regard, I have to say. And if you'll permit me, I want to read out one extract, which I've condensed this a little bit, and thinking about how this might play out if it was in today's context. So this is the quote, “and they said to him, it's not that we don't like the name Israel, it's just that we've always called him Jacob… called you Jacob. We're so used to it, we're gonna get it wrong sometimes. It's just that it's really hard for us too, you know, in some ways, it's like you've died. To which Israel said, in which ways? And they said, please don't get defensive”. This is like, I've heard this over and over and over. And not only does this make clear, by setting it in this different context, how incredibly rude it is to not respect the very basic wishes of trans people regarding name, pronouns, or any other aspect of gender affirmation. But it also just makes really starkly clear how the values which are espoused in sacred texts, like the Bible, were actually the opposite of those which are being used to justify these kinds of, apparently, reasonable concerns about gender diversity that we hear today. I'm really interested… and that’s what struck me from reading those kinds of passages. What is it that you like so much about transposing these strange, contemporary ways that we have with engaging with sticky social issues, into those sorts of classical or archetypal storytelling contexts?
Daniel M. Lavery: You're dead on, I love doing it. So that's absolutely true. You know, some of it, of course, is they're the stories that I'm the most familiar with. I've known them the longest, so they come to mind most easily. And at least in the story of Jacob, that one felt to me, so… it leapt off the page, you know, it's an abrupt, confusing story that involves, you know, sudden physical changes, sudden name changes, strange, brief encounters with relatives that don't make a great deal of sense. And, you know, slightly under-explained transformation. So it felt, you know, whatever the sort of cinematical equivalent of low hanging fruit was. But I also, you know, I simply really enjoy reworking brief stories, and whether that be Bible stories or older fables or fairy tales, or well known myths. The brevity is part of what I think enables that kind of flexibility and reworking, repeatedly. And in some of my favourite books as a child, like Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, did that thing. So I already saw that as like a genre that was very well established, rather than something new that I could try to bring to it, rather, the newness that I would bring to it would be the scope or the focus, rather than the form. If that makes sense?
Christy Newman: Yeah.
Daniel M. Lavery: Um, yeah. But it is also just one of those things where it can be very difficult in the moment to think, well, why is this rude? Or why is this jarring? Or why do I simply feel vaguely uncomfortable about hearing this information from someone who forgot to drink their “be normal” juice this morning? And it takes a little bit of distance to sort of work through, how do I… like, like an autopsy of rudeness, where no one agrees on the source of the rudeness, so you'd have to kind of go away and think about it in a separate context. And I think that actually even goes back a little bit to our conversation about childhood earlier, which is that, one of the things that I remember strongly from my childhood, more than moments where it felt very clear cut, like, oh, what's happening right now is wrong, I know this and I just have to bide my time so I can get out of this situation. It was a vague sense of, I don't think that's true, but I don't know how to find out more, and I don't know how to make anyone agree with me, so I guess I'll just not think about this one for a while. And I think that that can also be true in different contexts where there's a consensus being leveraged against autonomy. And sorry, that's my dog waking up and shaking his harness. And so I think that was part of why it felt useful to go back to those texts that were familiar from my own childhood.
Christy Newman: Fantastic. So there's a thread in this book on the pressures, and in some of your other writings, which are continuing and I'll talk about The Chatner, for example, on the pressures that are placed on trans people to know their gender without any doubt or uncertainty, and then to also communicate their desire for, or the desire for gender affirmation at the exact right time in life, not too early, when you might be seen as too young to know yourself, but also not too late when you should surely have known this earlier. And a post in your subscription newsletter, The Chatner, which I highly recommend everybody sign up to, was called On Transitioning Like You're Opening A Candy Bar In A Crowded Movie Theater With A Really Loud Wrapper. This is a fabulous metaphor. Can you explain this metaphor of the candy wrapper to us? And also explained to us, why does it matter that we appreciate this impossibility of trying to align trans and cis timelines for navigating gender affirmation?
Daniel M. Lavery: I love that this is such a beautiful softball, because I get to explain something that almost everyone listening will already be pretty familiar with. So I can't lose here. Many, many of you have probably been to movie theatres at some point, and either you or someone else has started to unwrap either a candy bar, or a granola bar, or sometimes a protein bar. And, you know, often that comes at an ill timed moment where the trailers wind down. And there's a few moments of silence before the movie really kicks into high gear, and you just realise, this is the loudest sound in the world. And everyone's kind of aware of where it's coming from. And you have that question before you which is, do you just rip it open and make one really loud sound? Or do you try to open it so quietly, that it makes no sound? And it's always difficult, even though you know, and you I think have always known, opening it slowly, is not silence, it's a little quieter, but it's so much longer, and everyone still hears it. And so you're just sitting there, unwrapping something painstakingly, and failing at this, like you're making nobody happy, and you’re making yourself feel self conscious and miserable, you're driving everyone else around you a little extra nuts, because it's taking longer to unwrap the candy bar. And it's just like, you wish you wish you never felt the temptation to do it. But somehow, each time, you’re like, this time it might work. And I think you know, this isn't wholly exclusive to transitioning. The fundamental problem I think stems from, whenever we do something that goes against our, sort of, implicit sense of our own values, usually, we don't want to admit that to ourselves, or to other people. I think that's a not uncommon phenomenon. And so while there are certainly plenty of people, plenty of families in the world, who if someone says something like, I'm going to transition, or I'm thinking about transitioning, or I've started transitioning, they’ll at least give you the gift of clarity and say something like, never speak to me again, or I don't accept this, or no, or, if you transition I won't care for you anymore. And as unpleasant as that might be, it's straightforward. They tell you honestly, what they're doing, and you know. And there are plenty of people who genuinely say, I love you, I support you, let's go on this wacky journey together. But there are also many, many people who will say something like, thank you for telling me, this must have been really challenging for you, this is a lot to take in, of course, I love you. And that is the best their reaction will ever be. They will just get worse and worse and worse from there. And it's not always easy to tell when that might happen, because that initial reaction can often look like, you know, a well meaning person who is trying their best, and dealing with some new information. So then there's that question of, generally speaking, if you want to take people at their word, at what point do you start thinking, well, their word is no longer lining up with their behaviour of the last six weeks, six months, six years. And I think it's important not to overestimate the reluctance of many people who consider themselves too polite, or too middle class to be openly transphobic. To in fact, be wildly transphobic, as if they were going for gold medals in transphobia while also saying things like but I love you, and I'm so glad you told me but why didn't you tell me sooner? Because the idea that you were in pain and you didn't tell me the second you were in pain makes me want to die. And that is itself like way too much energy. It's like the idea of you being in pain, and I could have helped, and it’s like, first of all, you couldn't have helped, you're not being helpful now. I don't think you would have been helpful at the time. Second of all, this level of intimacy that you're trying to like foist upon me, where, as soon as I experience a feeling, your expectation is that I share it with you, so we can feel it together as if I am still in your womb, I don't like that. I don't want that kind of relationship, mother dear, or whomever. And so that can also be difficult to untangle. Especially if someone is coming to you with, you know, distress, concern, a desire to shoulder your pain. There's that thought of, well, surely that's a good thing, I should just give into that. If you want to know everything that I feel, and I want privacy, and that hurts you, gosh, maybe I'm a hurtful person, maybe I’m a deceptive person, if I want time to process things on my own or make my own decisions without calling you over first. So I sometimes want to try to save people time if I can. Which is not to say the goal is then to rush everyone through an assembly line version of transition, or say, don't go at your own pace, do everything everywhere, all at once. But, that many of us often will be so relieved, after, kind of, working at the energy to come out and having it not be the worst case scenario, then we sort of think, okay, how can I open the wrapper real slow? How can I make sure that nobody freaks out, and that I show my gratitude for nobody throwing a rock at my head? And I will try to not even consider some things that I think would be going too far for the group in order to thank them for not throwing things in my head. And I would like people to at least feel like everything is an option when you are considering transition. And you don’t need to think about, you know, rolling out the news real slowly. I partly… I say this, because I want to do that. I was like, I wonder if I could transition so slowly that nobody noticed. Or like nobody in my family noticed, but everyone else in the world did notice and thought I looked really great.
Christy Newman: (laughs) Yes.
In your book, you say that you came to realise that, and I quote, “The best reason for transition is because I particularly want it.” This is very compelling. It's something I've found myself drawing on often since I read it. But it also very much focuses on gender as an internal experience, rather than one that is engaged with the human rights debates and dimensions of trans experience, as they are in the world around us right now, including debates around the right to access appropriate forms of health care, the right to participate in social institutions, sport is a big one right now, education, employment, faith practice, all under attack right now, in your country, in mine, and many more. So I'm wondering, I mean, you speak about that, wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to be, you know, kind of partially completely open there, and also, and also not here. How do we learn to live with that paradox? And beyond that paradox, that gender is an interior experience, an intimate experience, and one that needs to be communicated externally in order to sort of have its value, in some ways, and it's also a political battleground right now.
Daniel M. Lavery: Yeah, absolutely. That is such a crucial question. I would maybe qualify my answer as saying, you know, align like because I particularly wish it, which by the way, I lifted from a snappish moment that Aunt Agatha says to Bertie Wooster in one of the Jeeves books, which is sort of funny looking back, because they're both like highly trans-ly resonant characters, I think. I mean that logistically, in the same way that when people say abortion immediately and safely, on demand. I say transition, immediately and safely and on demand, as a political point, rather than, you know, some people transition on a whim, other people transition due to deeply felt and static senses of self. I simply mean, the only reason that you should have to lift before someone gives you, your hormones, or your access to changing your name, is, I want to, give it to me now. And I hold that as a fairly straightforward principle of bodily autonomy. So it's not an attempt to distinguish between, I want, I am, I feel, I desire, claims. I don't have a lot of interest in qualifying these claims, I think they're interesting, and I like hearing about different peoples' arrival of a trans sense of self, whether it be primarily through desire, primarily through identification, primarily through, you know, ontologies, or, or what have you. But I think the underlying reason is simply, people ought to be able to do what they wish with their own bodies. And I don't believe anyone else has a better right than I do to handle mine. So I just wanted to make that clear, it wasn't an attempt to, sort of, pit I want versus I am, against one another, if that makes sense? And I wish… I just want that to be freely available. I think, I think, sometimes wrongly, people can sometimes say something like, I have a relationship to transness that's not like the classic narrative you've heard about, in a way that can be slightly disparaging towards, like, this presumed other type of, you know, trans person who is maybe, like, a little oblique, or a little literal. And I don't, I don't mean that’s intentional. I've probably done that in my own life more times than I would like to admit. And I really think that because access to transition has always been so highly, highly facilitated, and gate kept by a variety of different types of authority figures, it makes a lot of sense to me that trans people have come up with consistent stories to get what we need. And they may sometimes reflect lots of people's lives fairly accurately, other people's inconsistently accurately, other people's not at all, in the way that any sort of framework narrative might. And so I don't, I don't want to say let's get rid of that story, in as much as it's just true for some people, or it’s useful for some people. But I also want to be able to say, that's not the foundation upon which we should… that’s not the sole foundation upon which we should build our political projects.
Christy Newman: An idea that I've seen promoted in some of the transmasculine memoir writing and other other forms of writing over the years, is that that men who have had the experience of being socialised female, have a unique insight into the ways that toxic masculinity constrains us all, and can also be changed. And I was thinking about this, when I was reading back over some of your writing, including a very popular post on The Toast called Dirtbag Beowulf. This is an all time favourite of a friend of mine who has a PhD in mediaeval literature, and they described this as doing and I quote, “the most incredible job of getting at the exact brand of masculinity in a 3000 line poem.” This post is hilarious, everyone should read it. But I wanted to ask you about this, this other idea. I find it tricky to assume that just because a person with trans experience might gain a unique insight into the ways that hetero patriarchy functions, that they therefore have also some kind of moral duty in helping to lead the work of dismantling it. What are your thoughts on that? Does the inside of trans experience imply a responsibility to make change? Or is it okay to simply enjoy that experience? Like, as you said, in your memoir, “the euphoria that can hit you in doing the small everyday things like putting away the dishes?”
Daniel M. Lavery: I bless you for wording all of this, so diplomatically. Because you surely must know that the phrase female socialisation is one of my pet bugbears. And then I have also, I believe, in the not too distant past written a piece, something along the lines of, I'm sorry, I can't, I have female socialisation. Which I always deliver in the same line as like Burger from Sex and the City, with the post it, “I’m sorry, I can't. Don't hate me.” I think that there are a wide variety of experiences that people have with socialisation. I think socialisation is something that happens all the time. I think it is not something that stops or starts. I think if anything, it sometimes reminds me of the way that I see phrases like male or female socialisation used, it feels a little bit like the evo-psych boom, of like 10 years ago? But like, brought into the level of the individual. Like, this idea that at some point, in the distant past, some group of human ancestors lived in the sort of, like, way that we were meant to. It's frankly, religious, right? It's this idea of, you know, we've removed this idea of the supernatural from it, but there's a design by which human beings ought to live. And we've fallen away from it, we've committed the, you know, original sin of cities or domesticating cows or something, and we need to get back to our pre-fallen state. And, you know, that was a pretty stupid time to be living in, the evo-phyc boom. And I also think that for all it can be worthwhile, true, important, meaningful, to talk about the various experiences that people might have had with their socialisations – and I used the plural there – as children, or in faith communities, or in their cultural or racial contacts, or national contexts. I want anyone to feel lots of freedom to discuss their own experiences. I think it's, again, like, just weirdly religious to think of like, oh, you know, that one female socialisation that all girl children get, that's the same everywhere and that stops the day you turn 18? And you can never… like, I mean, again, I don't want to say any of this meaning like, never think about your past in a certain way, or if you want to transition, you're not allowed to say I used to be a girl, if you want to, you also don't have to say it, but you can. I guess, just, I want to say that I often see something like male and female socialisation used in order to shepherd trans people back into whatever categories they were assigned at birth. Which, like, last time I checked, is not what the project of transitioning is, like, about. That's kind of not a thing. And it also just feels a little like, you know, if female socialisation is going to have like a really meaningful category, surely you have to say, the people who supposedly got it, and then later said, you know what I'm gonna do? Change my name to Daniel, and take testosterone, and like, live my life as a man? I think you can safely say it didn't take. So I sometimes find people say like, you know, well, I'm a trans guy, but like, due to my female socialisation, if someone tries to argue with me, like, I can't handle that, and I’ll fall apart. And it’s just like, well, you did overcome some of your female socialisation, so maybe you can think about some of it differently now too? Anyways, that's my bugbear. I've been giving you a lot of very long answers, so I'm gonna stop, for now.
Christy Newman: I love the long answers, please don't stop. We're heading though, towards some of my final questions. And there's a bit of a trigger warning, maybe, for the audience, around this last question, which, you know, we've got to fit something in here, right? I haven't given one for the rest of it, even though you know, we're discussing stuff, which is, which is new for a lot of people. This one, though, is about I guess, the relationship between faith and family and accountability. So I mentioned that I also grew up in a Christian family. And I just, I think that's, you know, it really is one of the reasons why I've resonated so much with the writings that you've produced over the last two years, but also have been quite affected by watching some of the developments in your own life in the last few years. I just want to quote one thing that I love from your book, the title of chapter one, “when you were younger, and you got home early, and you were the first one home and no one else was out on the street, did you ever worry that the rapture had happened without you? I did.” And yes, I read that I had to put the book down. Yes, I…
Daniel M. Lavery: I wrote all these chapter titles like I was writing my chemical romance song titles, and I don't regret that.
Christy Newman: I love it. But um, you know, growing up in a Christian community also made me very conscious from a young age of the variable ways in which the principles of that faith were put into practice by the people around me, the adults around me. And a few years ago, you faced an incredibly difficult situation with your own family who were people of great influence in the Californian evangelical community, when your younger brother disclosed his attraction to children to you, you also discovered that he had been advised to be following a self guided program of the faith based treatment for his pedophilia, which was encouraged by your father, who was the pastor of that church. And this included many opportunities to be alone with other people's children in that church, although never with your sister’s son, your nephew within the family. You inform the church's leadership of this information, and when they refuse to conduct a thorough investigation, you went public, which is the time that I, and many other people became aware of this, after which a third party stepped up to lead an investigation and your father resigned as pastor of the church. Also, after this, you were made aware of a credible accusation of rape against your father, which had occurred during a session of, and I've got these quotes from you, therapeutic pastoral care, allegedly designed to cure this woman's fear of men and intimacy.
So in witnessing this from afar, and that the outcomes are, I guess, a matter of public record now, so you don't have to, kind of, talk about the details. You know, I was incredibly affected, as I know many were, by the clarity and courage that you and your wife Grace demonstrated through this process in insisting that the church, which was your family church, be held accountable for failing to manage the situation appropriately. The book Something That May Shock and Discredit You, it has new meaning when we see this kind of, you know, really profound developments happening in your own life. But one of the devastating outcomes for you is that you've had no contact with any of your relatives since the end of 2019. So I've also been really haunted by this reminder that making a choice to commit to honesty and accountability can lead to profound loss in connection and stability. And a disruption to that sense of loyalty which we are, you know, which is built in us from the time we're born. And you spoke to this in a recent podcast when you were talking about… in response to a reader's question, you were speaking about the loss of the relationship with your sister with whom you'd been very close. And I'm going to quote your words here. You said, “I cannot choose closeness over honesty. Those things aren't always at odds, they're often not. But in a situation like this one, closeness with our honesty is like being tied up and thrown in a river together. It's not the kind of closeness that feeds the soul.” I'd love to hear more about this wonderful idea, that we can have closeness, the kind that feeds the soul, and honesty, the kind that holds a mirror up to the self and the other, and insists upon both compassion and accountability. Are there things we can do, do you think, in our personal lives and in the social worlds in which we move, to create the conditions for more of this? Knowing how much fear we have about that potential loss of the people that we love?
Daniel M. Lavery: Yeah, absolutely. I do want to make one quick clarification of facts, which is that the young woman who has made the allegations of rape against my father, she was a child at the time. So she is now a young woman, but at the time that he allegedly raped her, she was a child. So, just wanted to mention that point of fact. And then moving to your broader question, because as you say, that the details are publicly available, and not necessarily something that we can quite get into with real care in this conversation. You know, one of the things that I was already really aware of, through the work that I had done as an advice columnist, was how unbelievably common this sort of situation is, which is sort of a horrible thing to say, and I don't have anything like numbers, but it happens a lot. I hear from people a lot, where somebody in their family has, usually, raped another member of the family, usually a child, or sometimes, many. And most often, at least in terms of the people that I hear from, the family collective response is some variation of, maybe at best, well we're sorry to hear about that, but you can't fight city hall, or at worst, it never happened, or it's good that it happened, or it's your fault that it happened. And the net result, whether it's a polite or an impolite response was always the same, which is, stay close to the family, don't betray the family secrets, the worst thing to do would be to share this with outsiders, that is the one thing that we cannot forgive. And it was really funny, I remember a few months before I had learned about any of this, I had this thought, kind of popped into my head one afternoon when I was watching a movie with my sister, which was just, I'm going to lose my family. And at the time that was tied to my fears about how they would handle my transition. And for a while, I felt like wow, you know, I'm so relieved that that wasn't the case. And then, of course, it was spectacularly the case. And one of the things that I feel grateful to get to do in my ongoing work with the show that I still do with Slate, is I get to often hear from people who are in similar situations, which is not itself fun. But it does feel useful to be able to say, I have some idea of what you're experiencing, I can't know it exactly, but it is not a foreign idea to me. I know some of the depths of how seriously this can affect your sense of stability, and self, and place in the universe, and I have some suggestions. And as you pointed out, you know, that moment of sort of distinguishing between meaningful closeness, the kind of closeness that can actually produce real genuine intimacy, mutual trust, respect, love and ability to adhere to your values, versus just the kind of closeness that'll suffocate and kill ya’... Sorry I get real folksy sometimes when I'm trying to discuss this, just because it's hard to find a tone that matches it, and it's also difficult sometimes to stay composed. So I apologise if I suddenly sound like I've got a Panhandle twang.
But, you know, in a single day, I went from… this was a month before I was getting married, my sister was going to be the officiant, she was gonna be doing the ceremony. I went from thinking well, I've had some trouble with my transition and my family, and some things are a little rocky, but overall we're a really close knit bunch, who really love one another and really found our way towards a meaningful, honest, genuine kind of relationship. To feeling like I had walked into a room and seen, like, somebody with a gangrenous leg lying in a poisonous swamp surrounded by doctors saying, this is actually the best place for this person to be, with their gangrenous leg, in the swamp, covered in crud and mud and crawling with vermin, don't change a thing. It felt that nightmarish. And it was everyone, and they had been in on it for a long time. And they were happy to be in on it, and they felt like, moved, that they thought I was in on it now too. They wanted to welcome into the fold. And, as, you know, baffling, and jarring, and shocking, and upsetting as all that was, it was also the easiest call I've ever made in my life. There was no part of me that felt like I was devastated by the scale of the loss that I was facing, not that I was the primary victim or suffer in this scenario. But just as I was considering my own situation, it was devastating, beyond description, and yet, there was no part of me that thought, you know what? I want to throw on a coat and stand around the swamp here too, this seems good. Like, the idea of living like that for even a single day just, I felt like I'd be sick constantly, I wouldn't be able to sleep, or eat, or talk to people, or you live in society. And I was frankly, like, stunned that they had been getting up and going about their days with this in the background.
So you know, I've now wandered kind of far away from your original question, such that I'm even struggling to remember exactly what it was, but in terms of, how do you separate, how do you distinguish between loyalty that's meaningful, loving, and protecting the people you care about, versus, you know, what are the situations where you have to say, compromise… further conversation is not possible, is not desirable, and I have to run in the other direction, and ring some alarm bells. You know, life doesn't always hand you really clear cut opportunities to do so. But when those moments come… you know, the thing that I came back to – and this will be the last thought that I have on this question, so that will take up too much of our time – what I came back to was, if this were anyone else in the world, if a regular parishioner of my father's had come to his office and said, I need to talk to you as my pastor – He wasn't at the time a practising clinician, but he had a PhD, and forgive me, I can't recall, my as it was psychology or psychiatry, but one of the two from Fuller Seminary, and he had done some work with patients in the past – if a patient had come to him and said, I'm attracted to children, I work with them extensively, I don't receive any therapeutic treatments, I need to be around children, I promise you, I'm not touching them, but I do fall in love with them all the time, and I can't give it up, and if I did, I’d die, and I don't want to tell anyone, and I don't want to stop, and I want to be able to take kids on trips overnight, and stay with them by myself. What do you think? Can I do that? And I just thought, if this were anyone else in the world with his son, my father would not say this sounds like a really good idea. Keep doing it. Not just because it's dangerous and harmful to children, on so many levels, beyond simply the question of whether or not a child has been physically harmed, there's so many ways to damage a child without ever laying a hand on them in that situation. But the idea that that would be good for the person in question, that that would be healthy for that man, that he would be living the best version of his life, in so doing, would be ludicrous! He wouldn't fall for it for a second. And so that felt so clarifying. Just everything that you are saying about this, is an equivocation, is a justification, is a lie and you know it to be a lie. And I just, I'll do whatever I have to to stop you. I think it was genuinely sad. We made multiple attempts to get a real investigation going, and only when it was clear that the church had withheld the relationship between my brother and my father, as they, you know, did a sort of cursory asking around, hey, did anything bad happen? Especially because we know how low the reporting rates among children who have been abused are. When we realised they were withholding that pretty crucial piece of information, at that point, my wife and I talked it over and we said, we need to go public with who it is, and that was not something that brought either of us any joy. Especially if, you know, if there was a way to have ensured safety and secure, like, protocols for how children were being supervised within the church without using his name, and using that relationship, I would have liked to have done so. Which, again, it was like, well, I wish this weren't the case, it sure is the case, let's do the only thing that doesn't make me want to vomit. That was what got a real investigation with real recommendation, with real change. That's the one that got my father removed from a position of authority where he could continue to abuse it in order to enter into secret contact with people who wanted to use children as emotional band-aids. And so that was the right thing to do. Because it's the thing that works.
Christy Newman: Thank you for explaining all of that. And I think that people will be able to see, in hearing you talk about that combination that you bring, compassion is always present. You know, even as you're talking with such conviction, and clarity about what has to happen. It's an incredible combination. And what I… just want, I guess, to remember in this conversation is that the thing which constantly strikes me from your writing is your capacity to be unbelievably funny in talking about the things which are so hard for so many to talk about openly. So thank you. We're gonna have to wrap up, unfortunately, I've got lots more things that I would love to talk to you about. We've managed to explore many things. And I really just want to thank you so much for being so open and generous in your time and explaining all of those experiences to us. Thank you so much.
Daniel M. Lavery: Thank you. This was remarkable.
Ann Mossop: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit centreforideas.com, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Daniel M. Lavery is the author of Something that May Shock and Discredit You, Texts From Jane Eyre, and The Merry Spinster. He is a co-founder of The Toast and a former Dear Prudence at Slate. He runs The Chatner newsletter and lives in New York.
Christy Newman (they/them) is a Professor of health, sexuality and gender at the UNSW Centre for Social Research in Health, and Associate Dean Engagement and Impact in UNSW Arts, Design and Architecture. Over the last two decades, Christy has had the privilege of documenting the lived experience of people whose ways of ‘doing’ gender, sexuality, relationships and families are considered diverse or unconventional, including queer and trans communities, and those intimately affected by HIV and viral hepatitis. Christy is endlessly inspired by the cultures of care and courage these communities bring to the intersecting tasks of looking after one self, and looking after one another, often in the face of ongoing social and political hostility.