I have just finished reading Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, a Sunday Times bestseller shortlisted for the Women’s Prize 2021. It’s a book with large themes, predominantly those of racism and colourism, but I bought it because it was about twins. Briefly, the twins of the story are Black but so light-skinned that one of them makes the choice to ‘pass’ as white, and thenceforward their lives necessarily massively diverge. I am always disappointed when twins are used as a plot device in novels: in my experience it usually means hanging a storyline onto one of several cliches or stereotypes to do with two human beings being interchangeable, whether this is done in an amusing gimmicky kind of way or a threatening scary way. It angers me every time. I read this book looking to be offended.
So the first thing to say is that I found the depiction of twins as realistic as I could have reasonably expected in a work of fiction. There was enough, but not too much, about the closeness of twins, but the sisters were also honoured as individuals in their own right. The twin relationship was not overplayed, despite its centrality to the story. The aspect of how much the twins might miss eachother in their separate lives remained frustratingly unexplored but a small observation towards the end of the book reiterated the strength of the twin bond, when, after decades apart, Stella finally makes the decision to go home and visit her sister again. She looks in the mirror at the grey strands in her hair and suddenly worries that her sister’s hair might be dyed: ‘She couldn’t be the old twin. The thought terrified her, looking into Desiree’s face and not seeing her own.’ Subsequently, Desiree’s partner, observing the sisters together for the first time, felt ‘that he didn’t know Desiree at all, that maybe it was impossible to know one without the other.’ The writing of these characters was honest, the observations felt true. Both twin sisters were real people and, separately, the twinship was also real. It was a surprise and a relief to me.
The book is set in the US and spans the nineteen fifties to the eighties. Not much has changed for twins since then but a lot has changed in race relations, so the depiction of blackness, racism and segregation has historical and social significance as well as current cultural relevance. The story of identical twins, one living a ‘black’ life and one living a ‘white’ life, sounds like one of those awful fifties social experiments twins were subject to, and could have come across as a gimmick were it not for the quality of the writing. The race issues were written as authentically as the twin issues, the experiences were believable and the points made with such a light hand that the story was not swamped with its message.
It was a surprise then to come across a seemingly gratuitous ‘trans’ character, not drawn with any depth or detail but possibly there to illustrate another kind of ‘passing’? I really don’t know what the purpose of the character was, but to slot a young woman presenting herself as a man into a seventies storyline felt like it needed some explanation, or at least some acknowledgement from the other characters. Instead, the character is referred to with male pronouns throughout and the fact that ‘he’ is female does not seem to surprise Jude, the young woman who becomes her romantic and sexual partner. There is reference to some injuries caused by breast binding, and eventually a trip to the hospital for ‘some surgery’ (we are told ‘he wanted a new chest’) and towards the end of the book, after some pressure from Jude’s mother for the couple to marry, there is a nod to the fact that this would not be possible without a change of birth certificate. Jude’s mother does not realise that her potential son-in-law is female, though by now there is the presence of a beard due to some testosterone treatment, so the sex is better hidden.
This storyline was incredibly frustrating. Unlike the other themes, I experienced this one as manipulative: I knew exactly how I was meant to think and feel. Interestingly, the word ‘trans’ is never used, possibly because it was not in common useage in the seventies and would therefore not ring true, but also I imagine because once ‘trans’ did gain traction it was almost exclusively meant as ‘transsexual’ and almost exclusively used for males. There is a deceit somewhere at the heart of this story, that gender dysphoric people were common enough in the seventies not to be remarked upon by any other character, and that a trans character was just as likely to be female as male. The ‘transition’ is depicted as being as simple as this:
‘On the road from El Dorado, Therese Anne Carter became Reese… He cut his hair in Plano… In Socorro, he began wrapping his chest in a white bandage… the truth was that he’d always been Reese.’
We have already met Reese at this stage, and witnessed the beginning of his relationship with Jude, so this is ‘his’ backstory, and it did nothing so much as to make me think of the lyric to Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side:
‘Hitch hiked her way across the USA, Plucked her eyebrows on the way, Shaved her legs and then he was a she…’
But Lou Reed’s 1972 song is about drag and gay culture, not trans (and ironically, has itself been accused of transphobia in recent years). It would fit better another character in the book, Reese’s friend Barry, a man who becomes ‘Bianca two Saturdays a month’ at a drag club. Jude loves this drag act: ‘It was fun because everyone knew that it was not real.’ Barry refers to the other men who perform alongside him as ‘the girls’ but everyone knows they are not really girls. If this is fun because it’s ‘not real’ what does this mean for Jude’s relationship with Reese? Is this fun because it’s not real, or fun because it is real or does the realness or lack of realness not matter to her in her closest relationship? Does Reece really ‘pass’ in the way the storyline suggests? We are never allowed to examine any aspect of the relationship which turns on this central question. A storyline which would stretch the bounds of plausibility even today, with the unprecedented increase in girls presenting to gender clinics with gender dysphoria, and the prohibition on questions about ‘dead names’ and previous lives, is written as being unremarkable in the nineteen seventies. The author’s use of male pronouns, even when describing the female character’s journey to ‘becoming’ a man, is a modern conceit superimposed onto a previous age.
I was irritated by this weakness in an otherwise literary and honest book. It is difficult to write with an authentic voice at the best of times but the subject of trans seems to bring out the worst in writers of all stripes. I was thinking about this as I watched the trailer for the trans storyline in Hollyoaks this week. The same type of awful indoctrinating use of a trans character was played out in the more lowbrow setting of a soap opera, in this case the unrealistic depiction of a male trans person in a women’s jail (there for murder no less!) being terrified by the aggression of the female inmates. It was laughable, but also, in its extreme reversal of known facts, possibly gave a clue to what it is about trans subject matter which reduces writers to such artifice. The fact is that the trans narrative as it stands is dependent upon a lie: the lie that human beings can actually change sex. The lie was what made the story of Reese and Jude so false, and the lie was what made the Hollyoaks storyline false. There may not be a way of telling a story about a trans character which rings true, if this central lie remains unaddressed, but to address it has now been deemed transphobic. It is a lie which has only recently become mandatory, but it makes every fictional trans drama into a piece of propaganda.
Brit Bennett in The Vanishing Half already had a theme where ‘passing’ could be explored, both to facilitate an exploration of racism and also, if she had chosen, to explore the relationship between the twins themselves. In the story there is a desire to pass as white by Stella, just as there is a desire to pass as male by Reece, but nothing of value is added by this juxtaposition. The twins themselves though could have been the counterpoint: constantly being mistaken for eachother could be seen as another kind of ‘passing,’ one which is neither welcome nor sought after but an accident of birth. What if you have to spend your life trying not to pass? There is a story here which is a kind of inversion of the usual twin ‘swapping places’ narrative, and in my biased way, I think this would have made for a much more interesting and original mirror to the ‘swapping races’ theme. The percentage of twins in the world is roughly equivalent to the percentage of trans people: are our stories not interesting too?
This week I also read a thread by Vulvamort on Twitter about the Gender Recognition Act and whether or not it should now be repealed. The GRA was introduced in 2004 as a ‘legal fiction’ and one of the main reasons it was said to be needed was so that trans people could marry – a problem which, as mentioned previously, came up in the novel. That problem was fixed in 2014 in the UK and in all US states in 2015, with legislation which allowed for same-sex marriage, so now it is less clear what the GRA is actually for. A ‘legal fiction’ could alternatively be described as ‘a lie’. Maybe the introduction of this lie into the legislation is what makes the trans narrative so divisive, in fiction as elsewhere? Maybe, after having served its purpose it has now become counterproductive.
In the Twitter conversation, defending the existence of the Act, Lachlan Stuart described the variety of males traditionally attracted to and welcomed by gay culture:
I wondered again why the culture Lachlan describes, along with the gay/drag scene depicted in The Vanishing Half and the Andy Warhol crowd depicted in Walk on the Wild Side, has to be legislated for at all, beyond the basic need for equality and protection from discrimination? Why the legal fiction? Why the lie? As Jude notes in the book, it’s fun because it’s not real. I have come to believe it is the lie which people can’t and won’t accept. We often know instinctively when we are being lied to, and nobody likes it. It fuels resentment, it gets a backlash, people will not stand for it. A wild and alternative social scene, where rules are broken and anyone can be whoever they want to be, holds an attraction and excitement for many people, and acceptance of nonconforming identities is obviously to be welcomed here. Once the law starts to get involved in matters of ‘identity’ though, other people’s rights need to be considered too.
Much has been written about the conflict which arises from allowing males the legal fiction that they are female in a world where there is inequality between the sexes. Making sex a matter of personal choice has implications for gay rights too, and legislating for a lie also has repercussions for sexual consent when deception is written into the law.
Ironically it was reading a work of fiction which clarified for me just how much in everyday life we rely on being told the truth. There is no way you can make your story out of a lie, and then lie about telling a lie, without it resulting in propaganda rather than art. Even in fiction we need to believe the author’s voice, we need to trust it, otherwise the story is not worth the investment of our time. When it’s a ‘legal’ fiction we need to believe in the benefit of the lie in order to make it worthwhile suspending our disbelief. The suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible if the benefits are not discernible or if the results are perceived to be actively harmful. Just as when reading fiction, once the trust is gone we naturally want to stop engaging and put the book down. We stop caring.
Reading a novel which in all other respects tells with integrity a believable version of a truth, the one false note stuck out like a sore thumb. I resented it and I felt like I’d been had. Maybe I couldn’t trust the author’s other storylines if she felt it was okay to treat me with such dishonesty in this one. Maybe she thought I’d be easy to fool, maybe she thought I wouldn’t notice, maybe she assumed I was really stupid. Whatever the case, it serves as an analogy for the feelings engendered by gender extremists, who assume you need ‘educating’, tell you what to think and demand that you stick to their script.
Just as we have an instinct for observing someone’s correct sex, we also have an instinct for when we are being lied to. If you really want the allyship of the majority of people you are unlikely to get it if you won’t at least start by telling the truth.