Maya Lionne is a genderqueer author and professor of writing, currently living in Portland, Oregon. Their work has appeared in The Pitkin Review Literary Magazine, Paper Tape, and Soul’s Road: a Fiction Collection (although you might not know it was them.) They enjoy musty old books, giant robots, and model tanks.
In this interview, we talk about Maya’s novel in progress, There are no Butterflies in Salem, what it was like when Maya first began to identify as genderqueer, and we dispel a few myths along the way.
PT: If you could bust one myth about trans*, what would it be?
ML: The biggest myth I’d dispel about trans* is that it’s black and white; you’re either going all the way for Hormone Replacement Therapy and surgery, or you’re not doing anything. Many trans* people don’t even go as far as HRT; a change of clothing, mannerisms, and attitude is enough of a transition, and they’re not any less the trans* for it. Many others are happy with HRT, but can’t stand the thought of surgery.
Still others, like myself, opt to abstain from transition altogether, even though we still feel wrong in our own skin. And in the absence of safe mind or body-swapping technology, I find myself in the genderqueer community; a place where I am not pressured or even assumed to be anything (ideally, anyway. As with any community, reality does not always reflect the ideal.)
I would also like to bust the myth that the act of transition is inherently selfish, that it is thinking only of oneself. Having nearly done it, I can say that this is patently untrue. When you’re trans*, you’re agonizing over how your decision will affect everyone around you. And if you do decide to go ahead with transition, I do not believe it is something you WANT to do, it is something you MUST do. To what degree is irrelevant, you MUST make a change. To remain as you are is to die (in both a figurative and a tragically literal sense. The statistics for trans* suicide are staggering.)
It is not selfish because we are compelled by forces beyond our control, and we do it not just for ourselves, but for the lives of those we care about, that they might be given the chance to see us as we really are.
PT: What is genderqueer? Is it trans* without HRT, or is there more to it?
ML: In many cases yes, genderqueer is where someone finds themself if they decide not to transition. But also I believe that many genderqueer people have always felt that way; not necessarily that they felt wrong in their own skin, but that they didn’t feel right in the “other” skin either. Or that they felt more right in both skins. Genderqueer has become a sort of catch-all term for anyone who defies other classification, either by intent or default.
PT: What has changed the most for you day to day since you started identifying as genderqueer?
ML: My vocabulary and attitude have changed more than anything else. Many words have new meaning, and the way I feel about things, particularly GLBTQIA issues. It’s quite a thing to live the vast majority of your life thinking you’re more or less cisgendered (cis refers to someone who has never questioned their gender or sexual identity; cisgendered or cissexual,) and to one day be hit in the face (almost literally) with the fact that you’re not, that you’re now a part of the GLBTQIA (even if you were an ally, which I was, it’s still different.) It puts a new perspective on things.
I’ve also given a great deal of thought to visual identity. Many genderqueers are very open, and can be readily identified by something on their person (patch, tattoo, whatever.) I think there’s a notion, even among the GLBTQIA community, that you need to look the part in order to be the part; that if you don’t look queer, you’re somehow less queer than someone who does.
I don’t really look all that queer (at least I don’t think I do,) and I often wonder if I am queer enough; if the community would take me seriously if I ever went to a GLBTQIA event.
I also find myself constantly wondering if I can come out to someone, if it’ll ever be appropriate or advisable to tell them my story. Because I want to, I want to be “honest” with people, I want them to know that what we see on the outside is not always what’s on the inside. I want to raise awareness of genderqueer issues, and of genderqueer itself (I teach at a college in a rural area, so this is rarely-tread subject in my experience.)
PT: Right now you’re working on a novel called There are no Butterflies in Salem. Can you tell us about it?
ML: It’s the story of Tolya Serimanov, a teenager growing up in Salem, Oregon, and his revelation and transition from Tolya to Tanya Serra. Initially, it began as a sort of “what would’ve happened if I had transitioned,” but it’s taken on a life of its own.
I’m also integrating some of the fashion show culture presented in the documentary “Paris is Burning.” Paris has been a great influence in my work as of late, and I wanted to bring the ball culture from New York out west, as well as pay homage to some of the people in the film.
I’ve also striven to create an authentic trans* experience. Imagine all the problems usually associated with puberty: low self esteem, identity crises, depression. Now make it twenty times worse. The statistics regarding trans* youth suicide are utterly heartbreaking, and I want to represent that, in all its tragic glory.
I’ve seen the story continually evolve and differ from what I had initially planned, which is great. Yes, some truly awful things will happen to Tanya before the end, but also some miraculous things. I’ve also taken the liberty of sprinkling a few characters from some of my other works in.
And yes, it has a happy ending, complete with a lovelorn comic artist from Seattle.
PT: What is a ball?
ML: My initial thought is to say “gay fashion show,” but that’s not enough. Picture the Oscars, the Tony’s, the Emmy’s, and the playoffs for your favorite sport in one day – that’s a ball. Populated mostly by gay minorities (at least they were in New York circa 1986,) balls are fashion shows in which people walk in a category (eg: straight boy/girl, boy/girl going to school, military, etc.) and you try to create “realness,” or the illusion to both the untrained and trained eye that you are whatever you’re walking as – that you ARE a straight guy going to school, that you ARE a hetero businesswoman. Trophies are awarded, and for many people, the balls are their life; they will forgo eating for days, and show up to a ball starving in a beautiful designer dress. Trans* and other identities are also represented, but not greatly.
Keep it Quiet
An Excerpt from There are no Butterflies in Salem
“I’m sorry,” Nicolas said as they walked back to the house. “My dad beat the shit out of me when I came out. Told me to get my queer ass out of his house and never come back.”
“Did you ever want to go back?” Tanya asked, her tears slowing.
“Shit, yeah. I went back all the time. I’d sneak in through the basement at night just to sit in the kitchen. It’s stupid, but I used to like touching the silverware. Nothing fancy, just steel forks and spoons. I don’t know why, it just…just felt like before, when everything wasn’t totally fucked up.” Nicolas looked away, like he was staring at the night sky, but it was just an empty patch of black. “Yeah, I went back for a while. You get used to it. Living with a bunch of queers, I mean.” He looked at Tanya, sizing her up. “You trans?”
“My parents called me Nena. Nobody knows, except maybe Uly. Keep it quiet, okay?”
“I didn’t hear anything. As far as I know, you’ve always been Nicolas.”