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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!

A Few (More) Words About Breasts

Dear QRL Readers,

The beginning of this post bears a superficial resemblance to the previous post, but fear not. This is a much-expanded version that delivers sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, trans history, romance, surgery, Donna Koonce, go-go girls and havin babies. Thanks to everyone who wrote asking for more! xoxox

As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.

It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.

All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of “development.” In the absence of any mammarian swellings, I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra. I was afraid she’d ask the obvious question: “what for?” My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 29AA hand-me-downs to school. She delivered the goods under the watchful eyes of the cafeteria ladies, and I hastily shoved the mass of straps and padding into my Muppet Movie lunchbox…and proceeded to forget about them, until later that night, when I heard my mother shrieking with laughter as she unpacked my lunch.

By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup.

Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to materialize. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra. In Speech class, I memorized a section from Nora Ephron’s classic essay, “A Few Words About Breasts.” I played my flat chest for laughs, but the words resonated more than I wanted to admit. Like Ephron’s narrator, I believed that breasts were the magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy – not just about my attractiveness – but about my identity.

My wife’s experience was quite entirely different. By age thirteen, it was clear that Katy had inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jayne Mansfield-style bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.

It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras made femininity seem like awkward and unfortunate drag.

Throughout her teen years, Katy’s parents enjoined her to “Lose some weight.” Have a stomach ache? “If you lose some weight, it would feel better.” Sprained your ankle? “You need to lose some weight.” A hangnail? “Lose some weight.” Looking back at old pictures, it’s clear that Katy didn’t really need to lose weight. She was a natural athlete who played multiple sports. “Lose some weight” was her family’s way of expressing discomfort with physical difference. They couldn’t very well tell her to stop moving and looking like a linebacker with boobs – they had no language for gender nonconformity. They might have known words like “butch” or “dyke,” but their implications would have been unspeakable. Weight became the focal point for the desire to fix a body that refused to be fully feminine.

Her parents, especially her mother, would live to regret it. When Katy was nineteen, she moved to Hollywood. She stopped wearing bullet bras and began wearing tight long-sleeved leotards under her clothes. At first she favored the leotards because they flattened her chest. Later she needed the leotards to cover her track marks.

When Katy came home to Texas for a visit, her parents were ecstatic. “Finally,” Donna wrote in the family photo album, “a size 6!!!” It’s easy to understand how she was beguiled. In photographs from that era, Katy looks skinny, even a bit gaunt. But she also looks comfortable in her body, more congruent, confident, and even sexy. Katy told her parents that she had discovered a remarkable new diet medicine. In fact, she had discovered a powerful means to androgynize her body: crystal meth.

The tale of Katy’s addiction is a long story in itself – one that I will delve into elsewhere. When she was homeless, hungry, living in her car and cheap motels, her mother came to fetch her from Hollywood. Even then, Katy wasn’t ready to give up on speed and the relief it afforded from dysphoria. She clung to it until she realized that the drugs had changed more than her body – she had become a person whom she did not like or respect – and then she quit.

By that time, Katy’s parents had changed too. Katy had come out as a lesbian when she moved to Hollywood, and her family had accepted the news with love and grace. “You know,” her dad said one day, in his deadpan East Texas drawl, “that k.d. lang is a lezben.” They were less attached to having a particular kind of daughter and were simply glad that she had survived. Thus, when Katy gained back weight and boobs, she was able to convince her parents to pay for a partial breast reduction.

* * * *

Katy’s mother, Donna, was a lovable narcissist. It grieved her that Katy didn’t treasure their shared hereditary abundance. Still, to her credit, Donna did accompany Katy to nearby Galveston to meet the plastic surgeon, Dr. Ted Huang.

“She’d just like a nice B cup,” Donna informed the doctor, making a suggestive cupping gesture with her hand.

“Mom! I want to be flat,” Katy corrected. “I want people to look at me and say ‘that girl is so flat!'”

Katy had no idea that Dr. Huang was affiliated with the Rosenberg Clinic, one of the oldest gender clinics in the South. She’d never heard of genderqueers or transmen or transgender community; she had no idea that there were other people who felt the way she did.

Apparently, Dr. Huang did not feel compelled to enlighten her on these points. But he did remove eight pounds of breast tissue from Katy’s chest. The breast reduction didn’t leave her totally flat, and it didn’t resolve her feelings of gender dysphoria, but it did make living in her body a lot more bearable.

* * * *

Katy performs with Raunchy Reckless.

The first time I saw Katy, she was wearing a prosthetic plastic man-chest with perfectly molded pecs and sculpted abs. It was 1999, and Katy was performing with Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, a Xena tribute band/queer performance troupe whose motto, “keep the dream alive,” was literalized in outrageous mythological costumes that transformed private fantasies into fabulous public realities. Katy’s character was called “Koonce the Vulgar Viking,” and she sang a catchy song about her masculine physique:

All the girls love it,
While the scrawny boys want it.
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Man-chest!

Despite its chirpy surf-rock style, “Manchest” never seemed like kitsch to me, and Katy’s costume never exactly read as drag. In contrast to the bullet bras of Katy’s youth, the man-chest looked comfortable, and it seemed clear that she would have worn it all the time if she could have gotten away with it.

We didn’t meet that night. I didn’t even know Koonce the Vulgar Viking’s real name. I was standing in the back of the darkened room, feebly trying to sell t-shirts to support the grassroots youth organization that I had created with my sister and a bunch of other riot grrl-inspired feminists. I hadn’t come out yet, and the crowded club – packed with sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers – filled me with longing and despair. I had no idea how to make this thing inside of me, my queerness, visible.

* * * *

A year later, I was on stage before a live audience of sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers. In my continuing quest to shed my straight-girl image, I had volunteered to go-go dance at a Valentine’s Day dance party at Gaby and Mo’s, a ramshackle coffeehouse with a tiny stage that served as Austin’s main lesbian art space.

With my silver hair and black tights, I was dressed like my small-breasted fashion idol, Edie Sedgwick. I felt that I didn’t have a good enough go-go dancer body, and, as I ascended the homemade plywood go-go box, I began to feel painfully self-conscious. I had thought that I wanted queer visibility, but now I wished I could just fade into the woodwork. The room became a blur of bright lights and loud bass beats.

Suddenly, someone was saying my name.

“Paige, do you want me to fix that spotlight? It’s shining right in your eyes.”

S/he wasn’t wearing a full beard or a plastic man-chest, but I knew immediately that it was the Viking from Raunchy Reckless. I also knew that this person, with his or her butch chivalry, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. And s/he knew my name! I had a crush so brutal and instantaneous that my face blushed and I could barely speak.

“No,” I mumbled, turning my face away from the spotlight and the directness of Katy’s gaze. “It’s okay.”

Katy shrugged and walked back to her friends. My heart skipped a beat. I had blown my chance! And now I had to dance all night with that stupid light shining in my eyes.

* * * *

Later that week, on February 18, 2000, The Austin Chronicle ran one of its first major stories about trans issues. The previous year, on January 8, 1999, a young transwoman named Lauryn Paige Fuller had been brutally murdered. As the murderer’s trial approached, it was a watershed moment, a time when terrible violence forced the city to take a closer look at itself. The story quoted a local therapist named Katy Koonce, who spoke about the dire lack of services for transgender youth.

I felt a particular connection with Lauryn Paige because we shared a name. I scoured the news for details of her life. When I read The Chronicle story, I made a mental note to contact this Katy Koonce to see how my grassroots feminist organization might be able to connect with young transwomen.

What happened next strains the limits of plausibility. And yet, it’s true.

A few days after I danced at the Valentine’s party, I was due to begin group therapy. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and I’d met several times with the therapists who led the group, to make sure that the group was right for me and that I was right for the group.

When it was time for my first group session, I arrived early. Outside on the street, I smoked a cigarette and gave myself a pep talk. Being part of a group would be good. It would help me learn to deal more directly with my emotions. I would gain self knowledge. Hoo-fucking-ray.

I stubbed out my cigarette and gathered enough courage to go up the stairs and into the therapy office. The door was open. Some people were already sitting in couches and on chairs. I took a seat close to the door and glanced nervously around. No one spoke. In the unforgiving light of self-consciousness, my prospective peers looked like they’d been photographed by Diane Arbus. I began to have doubts. What was I doing with all these crazy people?

Suddenly, a majestic figure came barreling down the hall and through the office door. Head tilted, long hair falling forward like a shield – it was the Viking person. And s/he pointed straight at me.

“I know you,” Katy said, plopping into the chair next to mine.

* * * *

Group therapy is an odd place to meet your future partner. Long before we ever went on a date, Katy knew that I was a depression-prone approval-seeker with an addiction to vintage clothes. She knew that I was divorced, that I was ambivalent about my academic career, and that I tended to smile and joke when I was hurt or angry.

I knew that Katy was a former drug addict with hepatitis C. I knew that her anger could command a room, but her vulnerability could take my breath away.

We bonded over body issues. I had grown up in a family of unrelenting dieters. Katy’s mom had warned her never to wear white shirts or horizontal stripes. In response, Katy wore oversize men’s shirts with outlandish patterns. They were calculated to distract the eye and disguise her body. I longed to run my hands down her back, to explore whether she was wearing a binder or an undershirt or nothing at all, but group rules forbade physical contact.

In one of my earliest group sessions, Katy was agonizing because she had been misquoted in the Austin Chronicle story on Lauryn Paige. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Katy from group = Koonce the Vulgar Viking = that smart Dr. Koonce (that was how I thought of her) from the newspaper. But Katy was mortified, because the story had bungled the distinction between sex and gender and sexuality.

To be fair, it was an era with a pretty steep learning curve. New language and new identities were proliferating. Although she used a feminine name and feminine pronouns, Katy also ran a support group for transmen. I guessed that she was moving toward transition, but that her own identity hadn’t quite caught up to the available options.

We saw each other once a week for an hour and a half, in a room full of other people. At the end of six months, I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that I was moving across the country, despite the fact that we had never been alone together, never kissed, had never even hugged, I felt strangely confident that we would end up together.

I was almost equally sure that Katy would eventually transition. At the time, I didn’t realize that Katy’s baby clock was ticking faster than her gender clock.

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