Sophina Chu reflects on questions of queer bodies and Cat Fitzpatrick’s novel in rhyme.
Fitzpatrick, Cat, The Call-Out (Seven Stories Press, 2022), 192pp.
What makes a woman? A traditional-minded person might respond with reference to a woman’s fertility, and thus exclude transgender women, as well as the 26% of women globally who are over 50 and likely to have experienced or be experiencing menopause. Cat Fitzpatrick’s The Call-Out approaches female fertility from a different direction, calling out difficult ambiguities in the queer community by discussing trans-fertility (amongst other issues) through the lives of six queer women. With the growing understanding of queer theory and a better understanding of body politics, communities have become more accepting towards transgender women. Yet is queer theory a practice or merely an ideal? Fitzpatrick does not avoid controversy. For example, one of her trans characters, Day, is called out on social media for sexually assaulting another transgender woman. This review will particularly focus on another character, Kate, a transgender woman who wants to have a baby with her cis partner, Anvi. It will contextualise the complexities of their situation in relation to transgender-related policies in Hong Kong.
“but this text is not a text about you”
If we refer to Hong Kong’s outdated gender policies, the same relation of gender and reproductive power makes it dehumanising for transgender people to legally change their identity. The Call-Out reiterates the ways in which both trans people and the authorities that legislate their legal identities return to the body as the authentic arbiter of gender. In Hong Kong, gender change entry on the HKID card requires a full sex change that includes the removal of sexual organs. Only irreversible sex change surgeries are accepted as the requirement for an “official” and “legally recognised” change of sex and gender. In 2019, three transgender men were denied their plea to change their HKID cards because it was believed that they can still become pregnant when they stop taking androgen (Law, 2019). The outdated laws and regulations relate one’s fertility to gender.
“Hormones fuck up your feelings too: they change your body, but your body’s you.”
The issue of identity always returns to the body regardless of how accepting the society has become. Despite differences between Day’s body and Kate’s body, they draw the same conclusion that one’s identity is not as fluid as some theories suggest. Both irreversible and purportedly reversible procedures have unpredictable and potentially permanent impacts. The body is politics, unfortunately and inevitably, and it’s still a called-out matter that needs to be resolved.
Furthermore, despite decades of feminist effort in gender re-presentation, stereotypes are hard to eradicate. Even the queer community itself can subconsciously reinforce the binarism that they work to subvert. If we look at the word “woman”, which etymologically refers to “wife of a man”, a deep-rooted correspondence of marriage and family lies within the history of the word in itself, making it difficult to not relate a woman’s reproductive power to her identity, and to be converged with other interpretations of “woman”. Perhaps it’s related to the longing for a “Child”, hard to conceive without sex between a man and a woman, which symbolises the innocent yet political idea of making a better future that no one can refuse but defend (Edelman, 2004, as cited in Nichols, 2020, p.76). The drive for reproduction is so essential that many scholars continue to reinterpret “reproduction” in non-heterosexual couplings as “recruitment” and “imitation”.
Such “imitation” can be seen in the queer couple, Kate and Anvi, whose storyline revolves around Kate’s ability to regain her male reproductive ability. Anvi is considered by the queer community as a “rich cis wife” (68) to Kate, who was born male, undertook years of oestrogen treatment, Kate is asked by Anvi to stop taking oestrogen in hopes to regain her fertility so that Anvi gets to live a “perfect life” with her “social justice trophy wife” and a “cisgender child” (112-113). The ironies abound. If the aim of queer theory is to transform “oppressive social structures by representing same-sex sexual practices as legitimate” (Jagose, 1996, p.60), in the narrator Laure’s words, “If we build our own system, we’ll just replicate the defense of order we all say we hate” (125). It seems to suggest that the queer community is undermining the system of representation that queer scholars have tried so hard to establish.
”—Well that’s where theory can help us out…’”
Queer theory regards “queer” as an inclusive term which “mark[s] a flexible space for the expression of all aspects of non- (anti-, contra-) straight cultural production and reception” (Halperin, 1995, as cited in Jagose, 1996, p.97). Yet this utopian definition does not always reflect queer reality. Day’s body and Kate’s body are comparable, in the sense that they both identify as transwomen and have undergone some biological transitions, but not others. Day takes pride in her body: she has kept her penis and has learned to enjoy her sexuality. On the other hand, once she stops taking oestrogen, Kate grows increasingly depressed when her male sex traits return. Laure points out that Day’s body intimidates others not because of her possession of a penis, but about her performativity – her aggressive sexuality combined with her privilege: “Day’s super visible, […] And she’s white, she has money. I might be frightened of her, if I was young, or poor”.
Discrepancy results in chaos, and the book’s style resonates with its representation of individual and social disintegration. Written as a thread of fourteen tweets, a uniform use of rhyme persists throughout the thread to tell the story. The rigid couplets are important. The rhyme highlights how an idealised formal structure stresses language to breaking point: the binary form of rhyming couplets mirrors the binaries against which Fitzpatrick’s transgender characters themselves struggle. But Fitzpatrick’s formal choice makes it hard to follow the novel, particularly when the characters are speaking.
However, in spite of the problems Fitpatrick calls out, New York opens a space for the queer community – where transwomen can live their experiences in relatively fluid gendered bodies – that does not exist in Hong Kong. Despite the struggles and hypocrisy, different styles of women and queerness coexist within New York city, which is ultimately a lot more accepting. Unlike transwomen and transmen in Hong Kong, the queer characters get to live their life more fully and openly, enjoying their lifestyle, exercising their rights in sex and gender change, applying and embodying the theories of identity they believe in.
Jagose, A. (1996). Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York University Press.
Law, V. (2019). Hong Kong court denies male status to 3 transgender men. AP News. https://apnews.com/article/6128011e768f49e28118f0c9646c5e54
Nicolas, B. (2020). Same old: Queer theory, literature and the politics of sameness. Manchester University Press.
Sophina Chu is a lecturer in the Department of English at The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong. Her research interests include monster theory, gender studies, and ecocriticism.