Andrea Long Chu Is the Cult Writer Changing Gender Theory
"Heterosexuality is bad," and other thoughts from a rising-star writer poking holes in how we talk about power, transgender identity, and what to do after you tell the truth.
Photo courtesy of Andrea Long Chu.
“Change my fucking sex!” Andrea Long Chu bellows. A few glances from nearby laptop users graze us, two trannies cackling over coffee on an oppressively sticky August day. The writer’s outburst isn’t a direct request, of course—she already has a GoFundMe for that. Chu is bemoaning the dismissal of phrases like transsexual and sex change. In scrutinizing the code of how we ought to speak about ourselves, Chu isn’t having the valorization of well-intentioned language like “gender confirmation surgery.” The Brooklyn-based writer finds rigid language around gender to be about as intellectually expansive as a bathroom stall.
Chu writes about gender, desire, and culture. Her early-2018 n+1 essay, "On Liking Women," a work that she anticipated would ignite “the anger of the other trannies on the internet,” instead spread like wonderous wildfire across the internet. Sandy Stone, the artist and academic regarded as the founder of transgender studies, lauded Chu’s break-out piece for “launching ‘the second wave’ of trans studies.” Chu has since served similarly provocative pieces on diverse topics including the hot mess that is the Avital Ronell scandal and the homoeroticism in Sex and the City.
Chu likes to do many things in her writing. Most notably, Chu likes to pants people—often herself, especially on what she calls “dirtbag Twitter,” a platform on which she has become something of a cult icon for literary types. “I really like a certain genre of female Twitter personality where you let the world catch you with your pants down. There’s a really stooge-ish element. It’s not self-deprecation, and it’s not wry. It’s like, ‘This is a bad part of myself.’ Like, ‘Whatever the discourse is today, I just don’t care about it.’ When the Scarlett Johansson casting decision was trending, I tweeted, ‘Scarlett Johansson could play me in a movie if she wants.’ I like putting things on Twitter that I would hide in real life.”
The pleasure Chu takes in being honest about sticky subjects extends to her prose. Chu has a knack for kissing—maybe biting—the readers with turns-of-phrases that make you wonder why you hadn’t already written that, much less thought of it. She identifies concepts that feel abundantly intuitive, but have been obstructed by the pain of overthinking, like her thoughts on language surrounding transitioning: In a recent Boston Review article titled “Extreme Pregnancy,” she quips, “I’m not even supposed to write sex change; I’m supposed to write gender confirmation surgery, as if all the doctors did was to throw your inner woman a big thumbs-up.”
Which brings us back to yelling about sex changes over chai lattés. Bottom surgery, as it is colloquially referred to, is coveted by many trans people because of its promise of self-actualization, but scorned—at least by the little devil on my shoulder—as a failure to embrace one’s body as it exists without surgery. Bottom surgery is also exactly what its more frowned-upon name describes: a reconstruction of sex organs. The ‘gender-confirmation surgery’ formulation is unfaithful to the model that figures gender as absolutely distinct from sex—the one that states that gender is an internal identity—whereas sex is just between the legs. ‘Gender confirmation surgery’ does not follow at all from that gender-sex schema; if you faithfully subscribed to it, you wouldn’t want to do anything at all to your genitals if gender is completely isolated from them.
"Gender identity is maximally essentialist," Chu says, reversing the popular claim that gender identity is the liberating escape route from a genital-based logic of gender."It leaves no room for anything else, because you are [characterized as having been] always exactly what you are. Gender deviance becomes ontologically impossible under the gender identity model—like, ‘Oh, since you were always a woman, you shouldn’t have to—’ It’s like, No, bitch! The whole point of this was to change. That means there has to be a before. Even if that before is uncomfortable.”
Chu cites the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s theory of becoming: “Deleuze talks about Alice in Wonderland. Alice eats the cake and gets big. When you get big, you are also getting small, because you become increasingly bigger than you were and increasingly smaller than you will be. Change is happening, but it’s also somehow moving in both directions. Sex change admits that the more of a woman I become, the more of a man I was.”
Within that thought—The more of a woman I become, the more of a man I was—Chu is saying that, through the process of transition, the gender position assigned by a doctor at birth is rejected. But through that rejection, the assigned gender is recognized. Sure, a trans girl can stake her claim to womanhood since day one. Regardless of whether she identifies an absolute sense of womanhood across her life, the world, at one point, perceived her as something else. Chu punctuates her thought: “Faced with the decision to change the world or to change yourself, you’ve decided to change yourself.”
Underneath her frustration with the standardization of transgender vocabulary, Chu says, “I have an aversion to being churched.” Having grown up in an evangelical Christian family, she remarks, “I believe in the value of disagreeing and overstating,” adding, “I don’t think a lukewarm take is worth having.”
Chu’s penchant for hot takes is evidenced by a point she makes elsewhere in our conversation: “Heterosexuality is bad. It’s just true.” Her use of “bad” is alluring—but curious, given her peevishness about “being churched” and affinity for theory expelling any trace of moralism. I ask her to elaborate. “Heterosexuality is bad because it’s a mode of diminishment and slow death for women. It’s not redeemable. It’s total depravity. There’s no arguing with it. Everyone’s fucked up on a totally intimate level.”
I’m unsatisfied. Sure, I think heterosexuals (like myself) are despicable. But her application of it seems contradictory, especially when she assumes “heterosexuality” is bad, and, earlier in our conversation, Chu observed, “Queerness is used in certain academic circles as a master term for subversion or resistance”—pretty much a leftist moral currency. Which is it? “I’m generally ready to endorse the thesis that any given X is bad. The analytic work is to figure out how the thing is bad,” Andrea shrugs, “I think straightness and queerness are bad in different ways.” Like a pack of Newports and a Juul, fully loaded with a crème brûlée pod. Both promise a head rush and potential dependency, but the Juul, like queerness, is just cooler, or at least feels more modern.
What’s also different is that heterosexuals don’t exist, according to Chu. Andrea insists, “There are no heterosexuals, on the one hand. On the other hand, everyone is at least in some relation to the social norm of heterosexuality. This was one of the problems with the whole lesbian separatist movement. You get a bunch of dykes on the land, and they start pairing off like man and wife. Heterosexuality just doesn’t go away. What that means for, ‘Should she stay with him?’ is different for any given circumstance. But I think we need to be at least on the same page about the fact that it’s bad.”
When Andrea Long Chu pantses you, you are faced with the question of what to do post–junk exposure. The thought What now? has plagued me since reading her work on bad desires—those wantings that are unsightly, but refuse to desist. In that essay, “On Liking Women,” which was my introduction to her work, Chu writes, “Nothing good comes of forcing desire to conform to political principle. You could sooner give a cat a bath.” Desires are stubborn. I get that. But I am antsy about what follows—relationships, community, life itself—after her words on my screen conclude. I want to shake her, in all my tranny delirium, demanding, “What do we do?”
I ask Chu about possibilities for what might happen following a ‘bad’ diagnosis—this time in reference to the Avital Ronell scandal that she recently wrote about for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Ronell, a professor of comparative literature and German at NYU, and for whom Chu worked as a teaching assistant, has been found responsible by the university’s Title IX committee for sexually harassing a former graduate student named Nimrod Reitman. According to Reitman’s claims and supporting evidence like email correspondences between the two, Ronell made sexually suggestive comments, physical advances, and emotionally manipulative retaliations, all of which she defended as expressions of “queer” intimacy between herself and him, a gay man.
Chu’s essay suggests that the power afforded to professors over their students lends itself to abuse. Perhaps most compellingly, Chu decimates the academic defense of Ronell, a demand for ‘complexity’ and ‘nuance’ the situation, by simply spelling-out what immediately feels obvious: “Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words.”
In a bid to discredit him, some of Reitman’s critics (who also just so happen to be adoring allies of Ronnell’s) attempt to add complexity to the issue by pointing to his continued intimate communication with the accused professor throughout and after her alleged harassment, according to a New York Times article. In our conversation, Chu notes that Reitman and other people experiencing abuse have constraints on their behavior. “Choosing not to leave, by itself, does not obviate the question of injustice. The fact that Nimrod wanted to stay with Avital does not mean that Avital was not abusive. That’s an assumption—that one would cancel the other out.”
Chu adds, “There’s a kind of analysis that is like, ‘Of course he was reciprocating. Of course it takes two to tango.’ The complaint is not that a tango occurred. The complaint is on the quality of the tango. Nimrod was in a shitty situation. He was trying to figure out how to make it work to his best advantage.”
So how do we adjudicate such shaky and uncertain relations? Chu, elsewhere, has drawn distinctions between action and desire, the latter of which, here, means belief or intention. “How do we join those two things?” I ask.
Chu sighs. “Charlie Jane Anders, this speculative fiction writer, has a character in All the Birds in the Sky say something like, ‘Ethics is what you have instead of principles.’ Any ethical decision is always going to take place in the situation. It isn’t going to be the application of a rule,” Chu says, which recalls her earlier disdain for dogma. “The assumption that action follows from analysis is how you get reactions to #MeToo where people are like, ‘So, what are you saying?! His career should be over? Or we should send him off to a little island somewhere? Are you going to kill him?!’” She laughs.
“There was this demand that the practical consequence of the analysis reveal itself. It was one of the clear ways to dismantle the critique—as if women were thinking, This guy has to go to jail forever, or, All harassers need their fingers chopped off. On some level, critiquing sexual harassment and violence is just saying, ‘This is wrong.’ The pure fact of being wrong doesn’t imply anything about what you should do—that call only proceeds from the question of justice. We have to start from a place of, ‘It’s wrong.’”
“The fact that this thing is bad will then lead to a set of untenable propositions, like, ‘If Avital abuses students, and that’s how a lot of professors treat their students, should we not have advising? Should we not have graduate school?’ At some point you realize that the only way to effectively deal with the problem is to obliterate the profession. Or, with heterosexuality, exterminate the gender. That’s what happens if you follow the logic.”
Chu still sees real potential in plain action, regardless of whether it is actionable or “right.” “For example, a group of people tries to break down an abusive professor or important person in their profession. They consider the question, ‘Are we going to get this person fired, are we going to get this person disciplined, or are we going to fix the system?’ Maybe yes, maybe no, who knows. But on the lateral level, we are forming associations with each other. Maybe there’s a group chat, there are emails—there’s some emergent way of being together that is congealing in that space. It has some sort of value, regardless of whether it accomplishes anything else.”
“A lot of #MeToo was the feeling of belonging to something, through the internet or with your friends, talking about it furtively and with a sort of clandestine air. It opened up room for adjusting relations with other people in a substantive way. And those aren’t necessarily positive things; they can be negative things, too. That’s always happening in the margins.”
For all her vehemence, Chu is wary of suggesting resolutions that don’t uproot the underpinning systems of belief and power that automate the issues at hand: mistreatment and abuse. “Maybe I would be fine if nothing happened to Avital. She keeps her job, she keeps abusing students, she keeps doing all of that,” Chu exhales. “But punishing her might be a way to avoid having to figure out that there’s some value in just being able to say, ‘This is an abusive situation.’”
Andrea Long Chu gets tired pantsing people all day long. It’s work, after all: Reading and writing and thinking is hard. But watching television isn’t. That’s why she recently started a weekly newsletter, called Paper View. For a taste of this, skim the opening paragraph of the first edition of Paper View, titled “We Open On Twincest.” Chu takes a lemon, Riverdale’s Cheryl Blossom, and juices her into strawberry lemonade: “the redhead, Poison Ivy by way of Regina George, a Pre-Raphaelite Jessica Rabbit, an anti-Weasley, smooth and creamy like a skinless almond.”
Chu says, “I just love television so much. It’s one of my favorite things. Which is funny, because I dislike most things.” (Right, I almost forgot who I was talking to.) It’s not that Chu likes television because it is good, and much less because it’s an admirable cultural object: “I enjoy seeing how a show that is bad gets me to like it nonetheless.”
I ask if this past summer’s queer fave, Pose, a ten-episode FX series about the 1980s uptown NYC ball scene, will make an appearance in the newsletter. “I have been resisting watching Pose,” Chu says frankly. I am surprised. Andrea snickers, “The show looks like you plucked an essay at random from a gay and lesbian studies anthology published in 1995 and then adapted it into a diorama.” Her teeth catch the humming yellow light of the lamp behind my head. They are hungry. “ Pose looks fucking awful. It looks unbearably woke.” In her essay on the way the #MeToo movement has been staged in the news, almost like a bad drama from The CW, Chu jabs, “Woke TV has all the moral subtlety of an after-school special.” She has a similar impression of Pose. “The show is just a lesson for the gay male audience member. Which is actually the target audience of the show,” she says, summoning her best Anderson Cooper voice to mock the audience she imagines: “What is ‘reading’?” I laugh. I know the type. Four years ago, I was it.
The instructive nature of the series isn’t even the real bone she has to pick with the critically acclaimed show. Instead, Chu is wary of the way Pose represents—or fabricates—a history of transgender people. “It’s like literally anyone who put on a dress from 1968 on was a transgender woman and just didn’t know it. It’s the same way that Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera get called ‘trans women’ all the time.” I duck eye contact with her—I wonder if she has read my Broadly article about Marsha. As Chu aptly points out, “Neither of them ever identified or consented to that description.”
Chu might have just pantsed me again. We were supposed to be talking about her innocent love of television! Oh, that thing you like? It’s not what you think it is. That’s what Chu is saying, as she is almost always trying to say. Maybe when Chu finally gets around to binging Pose, like a Good Trans Person, she’ll change her mind. That might actually be exactly what she wants. “I like the humiliation of finding out that I like something that I can’t come up with a good reason for liking,” she says. In her writing and thinking, Andrea Long Chu is captivated by understanding what’s bad—words, politics, television. For her readers, that’s a very good thing.