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Queer Rock Love

A Family Memoir

Sex, Drugs and Southern Hospitality: An Interview with Sam Peterson

TRUNKY COVER trystan edits 811Sam Peterson’s Trunky (Transgender Junky): A Memoir of Institutionalization and Southern Hospitality is the rare book that’s formally experimental AND impossible to put down. It chronicles a three-week stay in a men’s drug rehabilitation center in North Carolina, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that it’s a finalist for this year’s Lambda Literary award in the category of Transgender Nonfiction.

Sam is also the literary equivalent of a record-label mate, because both of our memoirs were published by Transgress Press. We spent a sunny spring morning drinking coffee and talking on the phone about what makes Trunky so unique and compelling.

Paige: I wanted to start off by asking about what is probably the most striking formal characteristic of Trunky: it’s written in the third person.

Sam: I’m delighted that you frontloaded that question. It makes me so happy.

P: Tell me about that choice.

S: Sure. When I first started writing—it’s such difficult material, as you can imagine, just reliving that so freshly. It was a device for me to just kind of separate from it and look at it from the outside as a story and a narrative. And then, as I started posting it online and people started reading it, I was really delighted that people had to grapple with pronouns and to really pay attention to who was saying what. I loved that it gave this anonymity to this institution—like, anyone could be talking, anyone could be saying these things. It weirdly interpolates the reader into the narrative in a way that “I” doesn’t.

P: When I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the different genres that you might be writing with or writing against. In my mind, I made a shorthand for those genres, which was “Burroughs and Burroughs”—William S. Burroughs and Augusten Burroughs. In other words, there’s a genre of drug memoir or junky memoir, and then there’s a genre of recovery memoir. I was wondering if those genres were on your mind as you were writing and whether saw yourself in conversation with them?

S: Yeah, I mean, the title is a “tip of the nib” to William Burroughs’ Junky, which I love. I love that book so much, and I try to imagine myself—I mean, not that elevated, but as kind of a non-misogynist William Burroughs. Like a William Burroughs who actually loves women.
And yeah, the Augusten Burroughs comparison occurred to me after I wrote Trunky. But the actual writing is rooted in these really introspective, really harsh kind of memoirs. At the time I thought about Dorothy Allison—just in terms of how difficult the experience might be for the reader.

P: I think Dorothy Allison is an apt comparison in terms of what I want to get at. As I was reading, I kept thinking that there’s a built-in expectation of a certain kind of rehab story where you’re going to have a moment of total transcendence and recovery and hopefulness. Were you playing with those expectations at all?

S: I think, just generally, I find a lot of things formulaic. I’ve done some live performance and some radio, and I was specifically coached in terms of how to carry a story, what to give the listener in terms of experience—and I’m really chafed by that. I think I just wanted to give the reader the experience of being in this institution and the sort of claustrophobic, hypervigilant weirdness of it. Is there hope? Sure. I think it’s a generally hopeful book.

Maybe this is veering off topic, but when you’re in treatment, there’s always somebody who finds Jesus. Always. And, what happens is that they have this—it’s almost like a chemical euphoria. Something shifts, and they’re so excited about recovery. And what generally happens is, they go out, they join a church, and they can’t sustain that buzz, and so they relapse. I think those narratives were really troubling for me, because they don’t capture the slow grind that recovery actually is. There are epiphanies, but, you know—if I rely on one epiphany to carry me through sobriety—it’s just not going to happen.

P: Trunky chronicles one three-week sojourn in a state treatment facility. You don’t go into the narrator’s life post-rehab. That seemed like an interesting choice, because it leaves open the question of what happens next.

S: I didn’t initially plan that. But when I was getting towards the end of writing about the treatment facility, I was like, “This is where it needs to end.” There has to be a sense that we don’t know what’s going to happen. This person is hopeful and grounded in themselves, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen.

It also gives me the platform to write another book, potentially. Son of Trunky!

P: I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about being inspired by Burroughs but seeing yourself as kind of a non-misogynist Burroughs. This is one of the things I found fascinating about the book. The narrator, by virtue of his transness, is a very keen observer of misogyny—but not a judgmental observer of misogyny, a very compassionate observer. The character walks this tightrope at times with seeing the seduction of misogyny as well.

I felt like that must be a very scary line to walk as a writer?

S: I don’t think, as a writer, I really thought about it. I was trying to capture my thoughts in the moment. There were times when I felt the misogyny. I was like “fuck these bitches.” You know, my wife had cast me out. It was pleasurable to surrender to woman-hating. But then, there was a point at which—having done a lot of work on myself (because I need a lot of work, apparently)—I recognized those thoughts for what they are.

And then, having those thoughts mirrored on the outside [by the other men]. It was so clearly violent. It was awful. It really was painful to be around. That sort of trashed my non-feminist fantasies.

I think this is a really common trans-masculine story. When you get in a circle of guys, it’s shocking to find out what men are really saying. And, you know, I’d heard that, from trans guys, and that was a bit of my experience. You know, it’s hard to shock me, but the depth of the violence is shocking.

P: One of the things that comes through in the book is the narrator’s own uncomfortable position in terms of a fear of disclosure. There’s always that kind of double edge: “What if I was outed in this situation? Would all that misogyny and transphobia be turned on me?”

S: Totally. No, I was terrified. I don’t know if I had good reason to be terrified, but I was.

Sam Peterson photoP: The experience of being in treatment and going through withdrawal is necessarily inwardly focused. And yet, the other characters—particularly Laurence–do come across as really real and fully fleshed out. Because of the circumstance, there’s a limited amount of interaction between the narrator and other characters—meeting them doesn’t become the locus of the narrator’s transformation. And yet, there’s still a kind of depth to them.

S: My experience, in the multiple institutions that I’ve had the pleasure of staying at, is that these tiny interactions really save your ass. You know, I’m not someone who can do this alone. I spent a lot of time by myself because it was so noisy and I felt so crappy, but these moments of collision were so powerful. And you could see within each man the hope that they would generate for themselves. Sometimes even in awful interactions.

I did want to do some people justice. On the other hand, it’s a very interior memoir. It’s like a snapshot of what’s going on in my brain. I’m always scanning the room. And all the stuff about race and how uncomfortable I am around race—that’s the kind of thing that’s always going on in my head.

P: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about the chapter titles. Almost every chapter title has some kind of animal reference, and I was wondering how you thought about that.

S: Oh my god, this is like my dream interview! I can’t believe I get to talk about this stuff—it’s so exciting. There’s a part in the book where I talk about Temple Grandin. I saw Grandin when she spoke at Duke. And she gloated–she’s hailed as making lives better for cattle when she’s really just ushering in death. So I kind of saw being in an institution—and particularly in that complex that’s situated in a town where I can buy my dope and get arrested and go to jail there, and then I can have a meltdown and go to the psych ward there and then I can go to rehab and then back to jail—it’s one-stop shopping. For me it was like the meat industry. It was kind of gloatingly industrial.

There’s ways in which I connect with animals, so I wanted to use animals as symbols of the trickster, the wisdom. There’s a lot of crows in there. Crows were a very potent symbol for me, and I did see them a lot. I felt like a kind of shadow connection with them. But mostly it was the sense of it being an industry that is thoughtless, that disregards the stunning humanity that’s actually happening within the walls.

P: At the same time, there are these moments of intense humanity from the staff who work in the institution.

S: That’s what I’m saying! The institution is this thing. And the laws that are around that institution, that deny funding and deny—really deny access to humanity, right? I mean the politics in North Carolina are so draconian and so anti-human. That’s what I mean by the institution. But then there are these spectacular relationships. And the care that I got was phenomenal. Really, it could have gone a lot of ways, and I felt like I got great care from people.

P: I feel like one of the most striking and tender scenes is the one over lunch with Big E.

S: He was amazing. I mean, to watch somebody grapple with this trans person. He really struggled with it, and he brought all of his Christianity to bear in the best way. He availed himself to me, and he did me kindness after kindness. And he certainly didn’t have to. And I don’t think he wanted to.

P: Like, “Damn my Christian beliefs!”

S: I was so touched by that.

P: One of the saddest things in the book is your lack of post-treatment options because you’re trans. Do you have any sense of whether things have gotten better since 2013 when the events in the book transpired?

S: Yes, we have a queer recovery house now, LaVare’s House. Durham now has the Durham LGBTQ center. You know, but I imagine that these things like LGBTQ recovery houses are overwhelmed. Whatever there is, it’s not enough. There are more queer people in the South, and yet we have pennies to the dollar in terms of funding compared to L.A. or San Francisco.

Wanna hear Sam read from his work? Catch him in Austin on May 1 at Bookwoman. (P.S. I’ll be reading too.) It’s just a few weeks before the Lambda Literary Awards, so you can say you saw him before he got super famous!

QRL Invades the TX Capitol

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This weekend is the Texas Book Festival, and I’m on a panel called Life on the Page, with Paul Lisicky (Graywolf Press) and Chloe Caldwell (Coffee House/Emily Books). If I had to summarize what unites our nonfiction works, I would say that we all have quirky, queerish narrative voices that owe a lot to the personal essay form.

 

I really hope that you’ll come to our panel. Who knows? This may be the pinnacle of whatever mainstream recognition that I ever get. I’d like to bask in the moment with you.

 

Details: Sunday, November 6, 2:30, Capitol Extension Room E2.014

 

I’ll be signing books in the “main book-signing tent” after the panel.

 

If you’ve never been to the fest before, keep in mind that it gets crowded, so give yourself some time to park if you’re going to drive.

Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit in Killeen July 29-30

 

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It has been a tough year for transgender Texans and their allies. Last fall, opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) flooded the region with malicious and misleading advertisements that painted equal access to public facilities as a threat to vulnerable white children. In addition to defeating HERO, the campaign whipped up anti-trans sentiments across the state–and our grandstanding Lieutenant Governor wasted no time in exploiting those emotions.

In January, when the Ft. Worth Independent School District unveiled a nondiscrimination policy that allows students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that reflect their gender identity, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the superintendent to resign.

In May, when the Department of Education and the Department of Justice directed schools to allow transgender students to use facilities that match their gender identities, Dan Patrick urged Texas schools to resist. Within ten days, Texas had filed a lawsuit against the DOE and the DOJ, claiming that the Obama administration had “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment.”

So yeah. Tough year. And that’s why I’m about to say something I’ve never said before:

I’m really excited to be going to Killeen this weekend.

That’s right, Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, is the site of this year’s Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. For the eighth year in a row, students and social workers, activists and allies will come together to talk about strategies for social change.

The Summit is always held at a Texas college or university, and this year’s host is Texas A&M Central Texas. I’m particularly excited to see that Title IX officers from Baylor and UT Austin will be presenting, because people in their positions have real power to improve students’ lives.

Other promising sessions include a panel with Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLLT), a keynote by TransGriot Monica Roberts, and a session on culturally competent healthcare led by Lou Weaver. My colleague Kimmie Fink will be there to talk about Welcoming Schools, and former TENT Director Katy Stewart will be speaking about trans survivors of sexual assault.

Oh yeah, and I’ll be reading from Queer Rock Love, with an emphasis on how gender-nonconforming families experience health care institutions.

Come out, bask in the balm of community empowerment, and help queer up Killeen.

 

QRL Goes to Church for Mother’s Day

Queer Rock Love has certainly been getting around, from burlesque shows and honky-tonks to university classrooms and now…church.

My friend Erin Walter—badass bass player for Butch County—also happens to be the ministerial intern at Wildflower Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in South Austin, Texas. She’ll be preaching this Sunday (May 8) on the topic of vulnerability. On the church website, she promises to delve into her topic through the work of Brené Brown and Beyoncé. I’ll also be sharing a short reading from QRL.

I really admire Erin for her ability to balance motherhood and activism, spirituality and rock-n-roll. Plus, she can wear the hell out of a pair of gold lamé leggings.

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Erin (right) onstage with Butch County at Austin Pride 2014

I’m honored to be able to collaborate with Erin in this novel way, and I can’t help wondering—what’s next for my quirky little book about a queer family raising a kid in Texas?

If you have an idea for a reading or a collaboration, let me know. In the meantime, I hope to see you this Sunday at 11:30 at 1314 E. Oltorf Street (Wildflower Church meets inside Faith Presbyterian Church).

 

Hello from the Tightrope

Three weeks ago today was my dad’s 75th birthday. My sister and I came to Houston to celebrate. We knew he didn’t feel well, but we didn’t have any idea that a blood clot was forming in his leg, that it would break off and travel to his lung, that his 75th year would begin with a massive heart attack.

Dad has been in the ICU for 20 days now. His condition is “critical but stable,” which means that life is a roller coaster of small progress and new symptoms. The only plans we make are tentative plans.

I’m trying to remember the skills I learned from Katy’s illness, the balancing act of saying yes to life without imagining too far into the future. It’s very hard. I’m out of practice.

It feels precarious yet crucial to tell you that I’ll be reading from and talking about my work this Tuesday afternoon at UT Austin. I’m scared to leave Houston, but I know Dad would want me to go.

My respondent for this event is Andy Campbell, whose 2015 Outsider Fest panel on AIDS Activism in the Age of PrEP was one of the inspirations for my presentation’s title, “Queer Rock Love in the Age of Marriage, Tipping Points and Miracle Cures.” Ever since my wife was cured of Hepatitis C this November, I’ve been wanting to talk with Andy about medical interventions and how they impact our queer sense of living with the future in parentheses.

There’s no time like the present. Or, in this case, next Tuesday.

March 29
4-6 pm
Glickman Conference Center (CLA 1.302D)
University of Texas at Austin

 

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Me and my dad, circa 1971.

 

 

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When Butch Met Clyde: A Love Story

Last week, I was interviewed by a Bay Area reporter who expressed surprise that we were making our queer, gender-nonconforming family in Texas.

I get it.

I agree with Molly Ivins that Texas often functions as the “national laboratory of bad ideas.” And now the Republican voters of this state have inflicted Ted Cruz on the rest of the nation. It’s not hard to understand why people in California might think we’re all just a bunch of Bible-thumping, immigrant-hating homophobes.

Those kind of broad-brush assumptions about Texas are part of what motivated me to write Queer Rock Love. The story of LGBT community in the South is a story of chance alliances and unlikely bedfellows—and what could be more queer than that?

Speaking of unlikely bedfellows, I wanted to tell you about when Butch County met the Clyde band.

Long before I ever held an actual print copy of Queer Rock Love in my hands, I knew I wanted to have a book party in Katy’s home town of Lake Jackson, Texas. There was just one problem: how to find a venue. The main bookstore in Lake Jackson is the Hastings by the mall, and the events manager did not seem to be enthused about a queer memoir from a transgressive press in Californ-I-AY. In fact, he never returned my calls. Which was fine, because my dream was to combine my reading with a rock show featuring Butch County.

Eventually, a friend suggested the Bad “S” Icehouse, a honky tonk nestled among the creeks and bayous and chemical plants that line this part of the South Texas coast. The owner, Shauntae, was a fellow alum from Katy’s high school. She had a band booked for 9 that night, but we just needed to be off the stage by 8:15.

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Unfortunately, not everyone shared Shauntae’s welcoming attitude toward a band called “Butch County” and a book called “Queer Rock Love.” When she submitted the listing to a local Country-music bar rag, the calendar editor called with a question: “I thought you were a honky-tonk?” It was hard to tell if it was the queerness or the literary nature of our event that made him suspicious.

On the day of the show, Shauntae had written “Book Reading – Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir” in neon rainbow letters on the board above the bar. As we milled about, waiting for our friends and audience to show up, I heard several regular patrons grumbling about a “book reading” in the same tone one might reserve for “taxes” or “colonoscopy.”

I was nervous. I made a mental note not to lead with my usual story about watching Katy perform in sexy Viking costume. I decided to stick to Lake Jackson stories—more specifically to stories about Donna Koonce, whom many in the audience had known and loved.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Soon Katy’s friends from high school poured in to the bar, surrounding us in a protective cushion of love. Their enthusiasm inspired Butch County to deliver a raucous, rollicking first set. I even forgot to be nervous because I was too busy dancing and enjoying the band’s onstage antics.

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By the time I got on stage, my only worry was whether the crowd would be able to come down from their rock-n-roll rowdiness to be able to listen to me read. But as soon as I launched into my impersonation of Donna Koonce, I knew they were with me. The crowd really wanted to hear how this high-femme Southern diva had come to unconditional acceptance of her transgender butch daughter. It felt like they were hungry to have the best and most expansive sides of themselves reflected back to them. After the reading, I sold out of every copy of Queer Rock Love that I’d brought. Lots of people who swore they’d never attended a “book reading” in their lives bought a copy.

Some time during Butch County’s second-yet-equally-electric set, the guitarist from Clyde, the “porch stomp” band that was scheduled to go on at 9, showed up. Reportedly, Josh texted the other members of Clyde and told them to get on over to the club ASAP, because Butch County was tearing it up.

Now here’s where I have to admit my own small-mindedness, because several members of Clyde look like they’d fit right in on an episode of Duck Dynasty. Although I love country music and Americana, I did not immediately expect that Clyde and Butch County (a classic rock band) would form a mutual admiration society. However, we were all in the mood to celebrate, and Clyde’s songs—replete with wash tub beats and gospel-tinged soul—were the perfect soundtrack for a Lake Jackson-style love fest. Before long, the members of Butch County were turning to me and saying, “these guys are really good.”

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What followed was a flurry of Clyde liking Butch County’s facebook page and vice versa. We listened to Clyde’s album all the way home to Austin, and “I Saw Jesus on My Tortilla” became Waylon’s new favorite song.

A few weeks later, Clyde asked Butch County to play their annual “life’s a carnival” show at the Carousel Lounge. So if you’re hungry for an antidote to Ted Cruz’s version of Texas values, come on out and let these unlikely buddies rock your world.

Saturday, February 20 @ 7pm

Carousel Lounge
1110 E. 52nd St.
Austin

Clyde photo courtesy of Clyde. Other photos by Darryl Khoury.

Queer Rock Chicago on January 20

I’ll be reading from Queer Rock Love in Chicago next Wednesday. I’m thrilled to be speaking at the iconic feminist bookstore Women and Children First. By most counts, there are only about 12 feminist bookstores left in North America, and I hope to visit and support them all. You should too! Trying to get mainstream bookstores to carry Queer Rock Love has reminded me, once again, that queer and feminist bookstores are vital in helping new voices to be heard.

I’ve always loved Chicago, and I love it even more now that my sister lives there. If you haven’t read her book Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality, I recommend it. You’ll never think of all the mundane gendered interactions of the workplace in quite the same way.

In the spirit of #tbt, here’s a picture of two future feminists in pink polyester pantsuits. You’ll have to come out to the reading on Wednesday at 7:30 to see if we still dress alike.

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I’ll be in Chicago all week next week for the Creating Change conference. Will you be attending? Transgress Press will have a booth, so come say hello.

I Wanna Grow Up Like Girls in the Nose

When I was a little girl in the 1970s, my mother told me that someday our TV would be a computer and she’d be able to leave messages on the screen.

My dad told me that someday there would be a woman president and maybe it would even be me.

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No one ever predicted a lesbian rock band that would continue to electrify audiences when its lead singer was over 65. Back then, it seemed like women in their sixties were old ladies, grandmothers or old maids who drove too slow and carried purses full of Kleenex. If you had told me that old ladies could be sexy, powerful and creative—well, I think that human colonization of Mars would have seemed more likely.

In keeping with a 1970s-era vision of the future, the release of the new Star Wars movie has inspired a cultural conversation about women entertainers and aging. Everyone wants to weigh in about whether Carrie Fisher has aged well. Does she have too many wrinkles? Has she gained too much weight?

If this conversation seems very tiresome to you, then let me tell you a story about the Girls in the Nose reunion show last Tuesday night.

Let’s start with the way that lead-singer Kay Turner stands. Legs spread wide. Feet planted flat on the ground. Back straight. Hands wrapped around the mic until she grabs the stand and pulls it to her crotch on a song like “Sodomy.”

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“Does Kay’s voice remind you of Iggy Pop?” I ask my wife.

“Patti Smith,” Katy answers, supplying the feminist canonical referent. But I resist. It’s true that there’s a lot of rock-n-roll priestess in Kay’s performance, but it’s more carnal than Patty. If I could pick one song for them to cover, it would be The Stooges’ “Dirt,” a song that makes me blush every time I hear it.

“Can I have a little less reverb on my vocals?” Kay asks. Noooooo, I think, because I’m enjoying the stadium-rock quality of it. But I’m glad that Kay and guitarist Gretchen Phillips keep asking the sound person for exactly what they want. I once stood in a crowded nightclub while the singer for Sebadoh quibbled with the sound guy for 45 minutes. It’s rare to even hear a female musician ask apologetically for a little more or less of something in her monitor.

There’s no need for apologies here. When Kay sings “Menstrual Hut,” she shrugs off the fact that the members of GITN are mostly post-menopausal now. It was always about hanging out with other women anyway. And when Girls in the Nose makes a reference to the women’s health movement in a song like “Breast Exam,” it’s with a sly, sexy wink. Are they really singing about breast cancer screening? Or are they instructing you in how to squeeze and tug a nipple for more nefarious purposes? Does it have to be an either/or? When percussion/keyboard player Joanna Lebow is cavorting with the Les Nez dancers, I forget to care.

Most reunions are about looking back, and there was a warm glow of nostalgia over the evening, but Girls in the Nose’s performance didn’t feel dated. It was as if—to quote another beloved queer Texas band—they were “sent to us in a time capsule from the future.”

When I grow up, I want to be Girls in the Nose.

There’s one more opportunity to see GITN reunite on January 8 at Cheer Up Charlies.

Photo of GITN courtesy of Ann Hudspeth.

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