I managed to get a copy of the book, and I need to tell you: it’s wonderful. It’s about life in the middle-ground of gender, and all the many ways the world around us hiccups as we try to live our lives. It’s encouraging and honest, and you should go buy it right now. There are very few people out there who are telling our story well in a mainstream medium. But Bear is one of them.
Here’s the official spiel:
Alternately unsettling and affirming, devastating and delicious, The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You is a new collection of essays on gender and identity by S. Bear Bergman that is irrevocably honest and endlessly illuminating. With humor and grace, these essays deal with issues from women’s spaces to the old boys’ network, from gay male bathhouses to lesbian potlucks, from being a child to preparing to have one. Throughout, S. Bear Bergman shows us there are things you learn when you’re visibly different from those around you—whether it’s being transgressively gendered or readably queer. As a transmasculine person, Bergman keeps readers breathless and rapt in the freakshow tent long after the midway has gone dark, when the good hooch gets passed around and the best stories get told. Ze offers unique perspectives on issues that challenge, complicate, and confound the “official stories” about how gender and sexuality work.
But getting to the juicy stuff…
Genderfork: Your message comes across so well as a collection of essays. Over what period of time did you write this particular stack of them? Did you write many of them before you realized the theme of the book?
Bear: I wrote this book in about two years, from roughly the spring of 2007 to the spring of 2009. I think perhaps one or two of the pieces came before that, but no more than those. The theme emerged naturally, but the title story (about a woman on an airplane who refused to sit by me in order to avoid catching The Gay) really, shall we say, clarified my direction.
I really enjoy the essay format as a way to talk about whatever I’m thinking about, and so I am often settling down to write an essay even if I have no idea what project it is for. Last week’s, for example, was about the dishes my husband’s grandmother owned, which we now have and use. Since there’s not a dish anthology anywhere on my radar that one may sit a while. Though I do dream of someday being sufficiently famous to publish a volume of all the orphans. I have an essay about other people’s dogs that I love, and also one about my love of certain things that I wish I could publish somewhere. Oh, well.
Genderfork: I loved the “Velveteen Tranny” essay — especially the Theory section — because it articulates what so many of us in the Genderfork community are struggling with. What advice can you offer to those of us who are feeling like we’re “not really real”?
Bear: I’m really not in the advice business (I prefer to reserve it as a treasured hobby) but I do notice something as I travel and meet people. Here it is: there is nowhere in this macroculture for outlaws to feel really real. The best possible things I have seen so far, as far as what works, are projects like Genderfork in which some fabulous freaks just start taking up space. I am afraid we forget that we help each other to feel real, and that this is an awfully nice thing to be part of, even though sometimes it is uncomfortable. If I have advice, it might be “go love all over someone else who doesn’t feel really real. Rub yourself against them, literally or metaphorically, until you both feel warmer.”
Genderfork: I also really connected with “I’m Just Saying” (“I’m just saying: ‘I have never really felt like a girl’ is not the same as ‘I have always felt like a boy.’”) So far in your travels, have you found that “mainstream” audiences are able to grasp this concept? What helps it resonate?
Bear: Sometimes I am able to relate it to gender-normative straight people as the experience of being told that one is insufficiently masculine or feminine. But by and large, I do not get the sense that this is something “mainstream” audiences totally get. They seem more willing to hear about it, but what usually happens is they find the person they believe to be most likely to know immediately after the show or lecture and demand of them “Was that a man or a woman?”
I have a great story of a school board trustee, someone who has been a big fan and has done incredible work as an ally for LGBTQ students about this. This is the most heteronormative heterosexual balding chunky white dude you can imagine. He’s someone’s Uncle Phil, right? He invited me to come and perform my show Clearly Marked for a huge group of school board trustees for miles in every direction. And its this very queer show which is also very much about labels and identity and so on. Afterwards, the exact thing described above happened – a little knot of other het white dudes all but cornered him in the hallway and were all “uh, what just happened? Was that a man? Or what?” And this guy, G-d bless him, says: “Your reaction is a perfect example of why we need to do more and better for students who are transgender and gender-nonconforming. If well-educated grownups are not able to sit with this for one hour, then how do we expect people like Bear to go to school all day, every day, under the supervision of people like us?”
Some days I really love my work.
Genderfork: The way you handled the rude people at that restaurant in “New Year” was pure brilliance. Have you heard any other smart anecdotes for how to fix a horrible situation with excessive kindness?
Bear: I have an old friend Jonathan Mack, who I lost touch with and then found again, who has this incredible essay about metta meditation in sleazy bars. Metta meditation is a loving-kindness meditation, and his entire point is that everyone needs this and that offering and it has some side effects for you as well. It has caused me to start muttering “I wish you well. I wish you peace,” at people who are being stupid in traffic, which does — I have to admit — sort of help.
The big problem for me is that I often do not remember that remaining calm and kind, generous and flexible, will serve me better than almost anything else until it is too late. That’s what I’m working on.
Genderfork: For those of us who are still figuring out how to embrace and enjoy our queer middle-ground genders, which essays do you recommend we turn to first when we pick up your book?
Bear: Hrm. I’d start with “No Surgery, Not Yet.” Then “I’m Just Saying” and then “The Velveteen Tranny” and maybe also “Just A Phase.” Plus also probably “Dutiful Grandchild.”
Genderfork: For those of us who are trying to help families feel more comfortable with our gender variance, can you recommend some essays in the book that we could safely point them to?
Bear: When we say safely do we mean not too sexually explicit? The sexually explicit essays are “Gay Men, Queer Men, and Me” and also probably “Just A Phase,” though that one less so. I will spare you my whole rant about writing about sex in a serious way and including it in the book, but I do feel that it’s important. Especially for trans and gender-nonconforming people, because I think there’s a big lie about how we cannot find anyone to like us or love us or fuck us. This is untrue.
Oh, I was sparing you the rant. Right.
“Dutiful Grandchild” and “Today I Am A Man” are both very family oriented, and “Like Love” and “Seahorse Papa” are too, though differently. Those are the best places for parents or family members to begin, I think, though I am of course interested to hear what other people think. I have not yet heard from my parents on the topic; I think their copy just arrived.
Genderfork: Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
Bear: A million things as usual. The current high-priority project is Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, which I’m co-editing with Kate Bornstein. We’re just trying to make our first cut now (we got hundreds of submissions!). That’ll be published by Seal next fall, and I think it’ll be excellent. I’m also always writing more essays, plus thinking about a children’s book, plus working on an installation-style show. I also did my very first ever solo canning project this week – a green tomato chutney that I made all by myself. Why yes, I am a dork. Thank you so much for noticing.
Besides all that, I am doing booklaunch readings in NYC, Vancouver, Seattle and SF in November, with some other dates coming up before too long. All that info is available on my website or on Facebook.
Also, I’ve made a special, limited-edition button just for this booktour, and they’re awesome, but not for sale. However, the first five Genderfork readers to come up to me at any reading and say “Genderfork!” will be rewarded with buttons, just for being awesome.
Genderfork: That’s it! Thank you so much for talking with me! I’m really excited about this book!
Bear: Thanks for having me!
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Bear’s treating this as a sort of “virtual book tour,” so if you have any additional questions, go ahead and ask them below!