Contributed by Annie Sansonetti, Ph. D. candidate, Department of Performance Studies, New York University; Recipient of an Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Research Travel Grant, 2022-23, supported by the Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick Foundation.
There is a photograph of my best friend and I as children that I especially love. The year is 2002. In the photo, I am in her “girl” clothes and she is in my “boy” clothes. We pose, my hand on my hip, her arm by her side. We smile with our other arms around each other. I remember our debut in her big, sun-filled kitchen: coffee and pastries on the table and the surprise on our parents’ faces. Laughter ensued, someone took a photo, and we played in our shared clothing all day. I assume that I eventually swapped her clothes for mine, although this moment does not stand out in my mind. The memory of my friend’s roomy walk-in closet and our subsequent exit of it—down the spiral staircase hand in hand, with our footsteps set to a symphony of our giggles—does.
I call this moment, and the gendered and (trans)sexual activity that transpired there, “Eve’s closet.” Play in Eve’s closet is my descriptor for queer and trans pleasure in the curvature of sexual and gendered spaces, what Sedgwick described in a response to an essay by Jacob Hale as an “identification with what is, at any given moment, understood to be the growing edge of a self.” It recalls moments of childhood play—“of daring surmise and cognitive rupture”—between queer and trans kids (here trans feminine and trans masculine), where clothing, make-believe, and toys are the “very stuff” of queer sexuality and/or where friendship is a medium for gender transition or sex change. Eve’s closet is a funhouse for kids: comprised of many entrances and exits, where they are encouraged to come in and come out when they are ready. It is like a theatre’s backstage, or a dressing room, where costume choices are endless. In Eve’s closet, and in play among children, even bridal lingerie has queer and trans potential.
I visited the Eve Kosofksy Sedgwick papers at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library with an interest in Sedgwick’s writing on trans feminine childhood—what was then-called “feminine boyhood,” “boyhood effeminacy,” or “boyhood femininity” in common parlance of queer theory in the 1990s. I am interested in how stories of trans feminine childhood—of feminine boyhood and trans girlhood—have been written and performed in theatre and the performing arts, especially when friends (or other queer- and trans-loving collaborators) are the chosen or desired audience members or co-stars. I read an early 1989 draft of her now-famous essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” later re-published in Tendencies in 1993 with the subtitle “The War on Effeminate Boys,” as well as her lesser-known 1989 essay “Willa Cather and Others” on Cather’s 1905 short story titled “Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament.” But I soon became fascinated by Sedgwick’s collaborations with her best friend and once-roommate Michael Moon, especially their co-authored 1990 essay, more of a “performance piece,” on the topic of “divinity,” what they called “a little-understood emotion.”
In “Divinity,” Moon and Sedgwick reflect on the “roominess” of the fat woman’s body—and her closet—for the feminine boy. While I am interested in the content of the essay (especially a film still of Divine and the “Infant of Prague” from John Waters’ 1970 film Multiple Maniacs, and I certainly have my own stories of play in fat women’s closets as a girly-boy), for the purposes of this report, I want to dwell on Moon and Sedgwick’s collaboration for what it teaches us about the pleasure and play of the trans masculine and trans feminine relation. In Sedgwick’s papers, there are multiple drafts of “Divinity”—some with misplaced paragraphs, others with Moon’s and Sedgwick’s marginalia, and a few with Moon’s initials swapped for Sedgwick’s and vice versa, as if they were sharing and exchanging each other’s voices, or playing dress up with each other’s bodies, if you will.
Moon and Sedgwick both spent time in the closet. Moon as a “proto-gay,” feminine boy and Sedgwick as a fat woman who accompanied them there (and who was, especially in her white glasses, a fat woman who was a gay man). But they also stepped outside them quite proudly and defiantly, both together and apart, like me and my friend. For Moon and Sedgwick, their play-space was writing; for my friend and I, it was clothing. Inspired by Moon and Sedgwick’s essay and my photograph, we might make the claim that queer and trans children’s play with each other (both “actual” children and the inner child of the queer or trans adult who is “co-present,” not gone, after Mary Zaborskis) can constitute felt and pleasurable enactments of queer sexuality and/or gender transition beyond the confine of an “adult”—legal, medical, and political—form of legibility and between friends.
Play in each other’s shared clothing is co-authorship. It a chance for queer and trans kids to stage the bodies and lives they want for themselves and their friends, at least for the time being, and until they have the autonomy to demand more from the world at the level of sexual and gender-determination in an adult-centric world. In extant queer and trans scholarship and popular culture, tomboys and sissies are often staged far apart from each other. But what about their conviviality and solidarity—the “I have what you need/want, you have what I need/want” kind of mutual aid? Think: my photograph. It occurs to me that in our play, a repertoire that was certainly “t4t,” we relished the share of clothing, bodies (body parts?), and toys that sustained our queer and trans childhood—little-by-little, day-by-day, and moment-by-moment, like the best scenes of queer and trans childhood’s “divinity.”
In this sense, play among queer and trans children is best encapsulated in Sedgwick’s last words on the “divine” collaboration between Divine and Waters (and, I add, herself and Moon, and me and my friend). This play, is, as Sedgwick writes, “as scarce as it is precious.” It offers us “opulent images and daring performances that suggest the experiment of desires that might withstand the possibility of their fulfillment.” In the absence of a certain fulfillment, there is no “finale” to such play’s enactment of desire. Instead, there are only a bunch of opulent and daring debuts with the friends who withstand the often frustrated, unrealizable experiments in queer and trans desire with you. This is “Eve’s closet,” where children can change their genders/sexualities, stage a scene, and strike a pose with a friend, always as if for the first time. There may even be someone queer- and trans-loving around to photograph it.