On the Meaninglessness of Being Trans

Orlando (1992)

Tilda Swinton in Orlando (1992) | Sony Pictures Classics

I want more than anything else for my desire to mean something. When I first watched Sally Potter’s Orlando, a loose adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel of the same title, its central character, the Lord Orlando, promised to be a fellow lonely heart. Orlando (Tilda Swinton) begins the movie as a young English nobleman in 1600. The narrator—Orlando, later in life—describes his own character as one neither content nor concerned with his upper-class status: “Though heir to a name that meant power, land, and property, surely when Orlando was born, it wasn’t privilege he sought, but company.” As any friend or fellow grad student or mentor of mine could attest, I am a sucker for love and for interpersonal intimacy—I am at once fascinated and enamored by it. But what Orlando articulates in its first moments is not just the desire for others but an underlying loneliness. For Orlando to desire company implies he does not have it. The truth is that Orlando’s desire for company is one with which I feel kinship. The truth is that despite the attachments I have—my friends, my familiars—I am nevertheless a deeply lonely person. I want company because I rarely feel deeply, truly, that I have it.

The story of Orlando, then, is framed from the beginning as a quest for connection. Soon after  the opening narration, Elizabeth I visits Orlando’s family estate and he quickly becomes her favorite. When Elizabeth offers him and his heirs material security forever, she commands him to “not fade,” to “not wither,” and to “not grow old,” and so he doesn’t. Instead, we follow Orlando as he searches for love and for purpose all the way through to the 1990s, neither physically aging nor physically changing with one famous exception: In 1750, after falling unconscious while serving as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Orlando wakes to discover he has the sex characteristics of a cisgender woman, and so, she decides, she is now a woman.

Other things happen in Orlando, of course, but I offer this skeletal summary to bring out the thinness of the connective tissue between the bones. I do not mean this as a bad thing. Orlando is an elusive movie, withholding and distant. It lives on the surface and does not like answering questions or explaining itself. Why does Orlando become eternally youthful? Because Elizabeth told him to. Why does Orlando’s body change and why does she become a woman? For this there is no explanation, instead only the wordless swell of music as Orlando looks at her new body, and her quiet declaration, “Same person. No difference at all,” then, a gentle smile as she looks into the camera, “Just a different sex.”

It’s tempting to intertwine Orlando’s quest for connection and Orlando’s transness as an odyssey that ends with fulfillment, to read his transness as powerful, important, or liberatory. Potter herself implies this in the press kit for the movie. Orlando begins as a lonely and isolated man, then he is a woman, and then he ends, Potter writes, “somewhere between heaven and earth in a place of ecstatic communion with the present moment.” But when I watched Orlando for the first time during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and when I watch it now while, less than four miles away from my home, the Texas Legislature passes laws meant to eradicate gender variance from the state, I did not feel and do not feel ecstasy. Orlando does not arc toward transness as salvific, symbolic, or rich with meaning. Instead, the movie’s performance of elusiveness demonstrates the shallowness of gender variance, the empty space where meaning should be. Vincent Canby, in his review of the movie, writes that Orlando’s “motherhood more or less happens to her,” and in the same way, Orlando’s life and her becoming a woman happen to her and beyond that does nothing. I fear my own gender variance does little more.

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The first place Orlando looks for meaning is love. During his manhood and her womanhood we witness two parallel confessions of romantic feelings. In the first part of the movie after Elizabeth’s death, Orlando becomes infatuated with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and breaks off his betrothal to his current fiancée. He declares,“I am only interested in love,” and after his fiancée angrily storms off, “A man must follow his heart.” What does following his heart mean to Orlando? We learn what it means when Orlando insists they run away together: “But we’re linked. Our destinies are linked. You’re mine!” When Sasha asks why, Orlando says simply, earnestly, “Because I adore you.” In 1750, after Orlando is a woman, the Archduke Harry (John Wood)—a man Orlando met as a man himself in the Ottoman Empire—proposes to her as a way out of several lawsuits filed alleging that, because she is a woman, she could not inherit the estate she owns. “To me,” he tells her, “you were and always will be, whether male or female, the pink, the pearl, and the perfection of your sex.” When Orlando begins to refuse, Harry interrupts and retorts, “But I am England, and you are mine.” Orlando asks, “On what grounds?”

Her own words as a young man are repeated back to her: “That I adore you.”The joke, of course, is at the expense of a heteronormative understanding of love and adoration as possession of a woman by a man. Indeed, much of the second half of Orlando wryly depicts the misogyny of the England to which Orlando returns as a woman. However, while the Archduke and Orlando before him both tie adoration to ownership, there is an even more basic assumption here: that loving someone has power, that it can do something, anything, at all. In the end, though, both Orlando’s and the Archduke’s love fails to materialize—Sasha leaves for home and does not meet Orlando as he asked her to, and Orlando rejects the Archduke’s proposal. These rejections are unsurprising because the proposals and confessions of love are sudden, unexpected, and frankly, pathetic. But the fact that Orlando’s confession of love as a man is repeated verbatim after she is a woman suggests that Orlando cannot escape patheticness. As soon as she rejects the Archduke. “With your history, quite frankly, who else will have you?  Do you realize what you’re turning down? With your ambiguous sexuality, which I am prepared to tolerate, this is your last chance of respectability. You will die a spinster, dispossessed and alone.” Again, the Archduke’s sudden reversal of feeling and judgment of Orlando is familiar even today in its misogyny, but there is something important and deeply sad lurking under the surface. Orlando is no longer perfect as either a man or a woman, and is instead a failure at being either, instead loveless and ambiguously gendered.

Orlando is pathetic because he could not have his love returned and she is pathetic because she could not return love. Because Orlando cannot succeed at love, Orlando’s gender is shiftless and ungrounded.

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Immediately after the Archduke confronts Orlando with the threat of spinsterhood, she picks up her skirt and runs into the hedge maze on her estate. “Spinster!” she huffs with scorn. “Alone!” But as she marches to the maze’s entrance, the camera remains at a distance and makes her aloneness painfully obvious: in a far shot, she half-runs half-marches, light blue dress in sharp contrast to the dull greens and browns and creams of grass and wood and statuary, the only human in frame. And as we follow her racing through the labyrinth in perhaps the most visually iconic sequence of the movie, her isolation becomes increasingly apparent—claustrophobic shots of her frantic movement, dress rustling between the hedges on either side of her, intercut with shots from her point-of-view, so alone that we do not even see her. She darts around corners in cuts that grow faster and sharper, as if she is running even from the viewer. Suddenly, her dress changes to a muted blue one—Victorian instead of Georgian—and by the time she emerges from the maze and collapses onto the ground, one hundred years of solitude have passed.

Orlando’s sojourn through her maze is uniquely striking, but it also emblematizes Orlando’s approach to earnestness and affective sincerity. Despite the outbursts of desire for intimacy, the visual language of Orlando squirms away from closeness and instead embraces aloofness. Rather than embrace vulnerability, Orlando darts this way and that, just out of reach. The bulk of its shots are composed, seemingly, to resist sentimentality. Most of the time, Potter keeps human figures at a distance, dwarfed by their environments—the outside walls and cavernous interiors of Orlando’s estate that stretch up out of frame, the sand and wide open sky outside Istanbul, the skyscrapers of modern London. When we do draw near to Orlando or other characters in mid shots or close-ups, we are denied access to the full nuances of their inner emotional lives. Throughout the movie, Orlando makes asides to the audience, looking directly into the camera—but while these moments of fourth-wall-breaking and eye contact should be occasions for emotional contact, they instead are wry, impishly sidestepping vulnerability. In 1650, for instance, Orlando sits in his library reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 29. Halfway through, he turns to the camera and says, a boyish grin on his face, “Ah. Poetry.” In the 1990s, when a prospective editor offers to publish Orlando’s memoir provided she makes edits, he asks her how long she spent writing it. Orlando does not answer but instead looks at us with amusement.

These moments of dialogic silence on Orlando’s part, and the wryness and distance of the movie’s cinematography belie a deeper affective tension that plays out across Orlando’s gender variant life. The book publisher in the above scene says that Orlando’s memoir was “written from the heart,” but the truth is Orlando’s heart stays hidden throughout. As both a man and a woman, Orlando either deliberately conceals her emotional life from the audience or, as when he reads Shaekesepare’s poetry and justifies leaving his fiancée, he cannot articulate what he feels beyond simple, pat truisms. And it’s not just Orlando. When any character speaks, their words feel stubbornly pallid and washed out. The title cards that punctuate the movie’s sections—death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex, and birth—promise meaning by signaling themes but say frustratingly little. Much like the movie’s cinematography, dialogue and title cards alike evacuate explicit meaning in the face of stuffiness, bombast, grandeur.

Rather than a failing, though, this arm’s-length quality, this elusiveness, is the point. Orlando’s journey across gender is not one that lives in the heart but instead takes place off in the distance. Orlando’s first experience of misogyny—before the Archduke’s rebuke—comes at a party in 1750, when Alexander Pope declares to two other men that “every woman is, at best, a contradiction. And frankly, most women have no characters at all.”

Here we would be forgiven if we expected—or at least hoped for—Orlando to offer the perfect reply, the most biting zinger born of her century and a half as a man. We would be forgiven if her gender variance could do something to combat Pope’s chauvinism. But she doesn’t, at least not at first. Instead, Potter gives us an Orlando stunned into silence, staring, flabbergasted. Pope observes gleefully, “Oh, the lady is aflame. And silent. Perfect.”

Eventually, Orlando does make her attempt at arguing with the men, but to no avail. Instead of a win, the scene ends with one final quip from Pope, that without a father or husband, a woman “is lost.” We do not get Orlando’s response to this because, indeed, she herself is lost, and I suspect she was lost well before Pope’s declaration. When the men direct their animosity toward her, when she first realizes that she is still the object of ridicule as a woman just as he was as a man, her incensed stare already seems miles away—somewhere far from the parlor, lost in her garden, perhaps, or among the statuary or within the hedge maze, never quite letting us return her gaze.

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I’ve been dancing around what is really at stake to me in Orlando’s story. All this talk of intimacy, affective depth, and even the depth of Orlando’s gendered experience, is a proxy for what really worries me. I want to ask: is Orlando a man or a woman? I want to ask: is he neither or is she both? What I really am asking, I admit it: what am I and what am I worth?

During my first semester of college in the fall of 2014, late at night after seeing the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, my sense of gender, the queer boy I thought I was, fissured and vaporized in a clap of thunder. I do not know whether my gender identity changed or I discovered something there all along—that is a debate in the philosophy of gender I don’t have the time for here. What I do know, more than anything, is my new understanding of myself—or more accurately, the new self around which I had to build an understanding—was sudden and without clear significance. The labels I’ve used have mutated over the years—genderqueer, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, agender—but the experience has stayed the same. I don’t feel as though I’m not a man or a woman. Instead, the very idea of feeling any gender makes no sense—it is an alien feeling, incoherent and babbling.

As senseless to me as it may be, the world reminds me constantly that the feeling should make sense. I have not medically transitioned and, for the most part, haven’t sought to do so. What this means is that I am, for all intents and purposes, still a man in the eyes of the world. I have been called a man, referred to as he, by friends, by family, by colleagues, and by mentors at various stages of my career. I say all this not as an exercise in complaint but to make a confession of which I’m ashamed: on some level, I don’t blame the world for refusing to see me as I want to be seen. On some level, I fear this will be the case forever. But as much as I unconsciously understand the world’s lack of understanding, it nevertheless leaves me so painfully lonely. The truth is that I fixate so readily on interpersonal intimacy and relate so strongly to Orlando’s own desire for company because instinctively I twin intimacy with understanding, with recognition—a recognition not merely of my gender identity or my pronouns, but of what my gender variance feels like. If someone can be close enough to me, then perhaps they will understand what I cannot explain. This longing has only grown more acute as transphobic animus and state violence continues to mount.

But herein lies another shameful confession: unlike many other trans and gender variant people, I cannot muster a righteous anger at the world but instead feel only disappointment in myself. I fear I am wasting my energy on a dream of closeness that will never come, that my gender variance might be made meaningful by it, that it can be made meaningful by it. I fear that, instead of fighting, I retreat into fantasy. In this, Orlando is my shameful bedfellow, my twin. When the bailiffs of the court come to her perfectly manicured garden with a lawsuit challenging the validity of her gender, she leaves them to their work. When, one hundred years later, the lawsuits conclude, she accepts the outcome stoically. Orlando is not a resistive figure, but instead drifts from century to century. She raises an eyebrow at the misogyny directed her way in 1750, but bemusement is as far as she goes. Earlier in this essay, I called Orlando pathetic, and I do not intend on backpedaling here. Indeed, Orlando’s patheticness is part of what attracts me to him. I fear that I am just as pathetic as Orlando, substituting love and poetry and politics and sex and interpersonal intimacy for salvation in the face of the world’s transphobic violence. And, faced with the seeming impotence of my feelings, I have only despair in place of rage. Orlando’s loneliness and his longing for love, I think, is not incidental to her transness but is mutually constitutive with it—and where it would be so easy to reach for meaning in both his journey and mine, I cannot help but see myself lost in the labyrinth instead of her.

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On the other side of the hedge maze in 1850, Orlando comes close to something like both love and meaning in her gendered experience. As soon as Orlando exits the maze, she throws herself onto the ground and, exasperatedly, as if she has exhausted all alternatives, begs of the Earth: “Nature, Nature, I am your bride. Take me.” But then she hears a horse approach, and through the fog, a beautiful man, androgynous in appearance like her, rides into frame and falls in front of her and twists his ankle. Orlando takes him back to her estate, and the two get to know each other. His name is Shelmerdine (Billy Zane), an American revolutionary who travels the world supporting political liberty. He is instantly smitten with her and she with him, and the two have sex in an unusually long, sensual montage—tracking shots of skin, the sheer white of Orlando’s bedsheets, kissing, touching, cuddling.

The mutual attraction and sexual contact to which it gives rise is constantly couched in the language of unreality and not-quite-ness. When Orlando, during their conversation in her drawing room, says that if she were a man, she “might think that freedom won by death was not worth having. In fact…” Shelmerdine completes her thought: “You might choose not to be a real man at all.” Just as the Archduke did one hundred years earlier, Shelmerdine here denies Orlando’s participation in manhood—but where the Archduke does so out of scorn, Shelmerdine’s tone is generous and understanding. That warmth extends to the sort of love that they will share. “You don’t really want a husband,” he says to her. “I think you want a lover.” In the end, a transitory connection is all they have. In the morning, the southwesterly wind Shelmerdine says would be his sign to leave for America comes, and Orlando says that she “can’t just follow” him despite his urging. And so, with a final kiss and embrace, she helps him onto his horse. The music swells as Shelmerdine rides off back into the fog as Orlando looks on, smiling.

As the camera cuts back to and holds on Orlando, her smile fades. Then suddenly the music fades too and it starts to rain and all that’s left is Orlando alone and the sound of rainfall. Once more, a connection has wandered into Orlando’s life and wandered out of it again. The only thing left behind, other than rain, is Orlando, her gender still shallow and undefined. She will not speak again for almost one hundred and fifty years, in the final minute of the movie.

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In the final part of Orlando, set in the 1990s, Orlando has a daughter but not her estate: her status as a woman without a male excluded her from keeping it. Sitting under the same tree as in the opening, Orlando’s young daughter films her on a camcorder and asks her why she’s sad. Orlando insists, “I’m not. I’m happy,” before immediately urging her daughter to look up in the sky, where—with just as little explanation as Orlando’s immortality or her gender—an angel sings in falsetto: I am coming, I am coming, here I am, neither a woman nor a man. Then Orlando cuts to the movie’s final shot, a hard close-up on Orlando’s face gazing into the camera, smiling just as she did after her physical transformation. But in this long shot, the corners of Orlando’s mouth flatten and her eyes grow unsettlingly sad as the angel continues to sing: We are joined, we are one with the human face. I am on Earth and I am in outer space. I’m being born and I am dying.

The angel’s singing of dying, birth, interpersonal connection, Earth, space, and nonbinary gender as a bundle of inseparable things deeply unsettles me and, in the subtle erasure of Orlando’s smile, I cannot help but see discomfort. She insists she is happy but I don’t believe her. At one point in Orlando’s brief affair with Sasha in 1610, Orlando muses that “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates melancholy from happiness,” and when Sasha asks him why he’s sad, Orlando says bluntly, “Because I can’t bear this happiness to end.” And here, just under four hundred years later, the happiness Orlando insists she feels is still intertwined with its absence. In a very meaningful and painful way, her transness means nothing and it has done nothing for her.

I want more than anything to say that the twinning of death and ending with gender variance was confined to the fictive space of Orlando and the lyric space of its angel’s song, but as I said early in this essay, political forces in the United States and elsewhere continue to gather and slouch toward the extermination of trans and gender variant people, especially the most vulnerable among us—people of color, the disabled, the poor. In a way, then, Orlando telling the story of a person who gets to change genders and live forever is an act of dream-making when viewed with the baggage of our current sociopolitical moment, even if it refuses to acquiesce to a simple portrayal of gender variance as intrinsically meaningful. But I’m inclined to think that even the shallowness of Orlando’s affective world demonstrates a facet of the gender variant experience which we must face: the fact that flat affect, elusiveness, aloofness, are strategies of survival. Hil Malatino writes, “The interesting thing about numbness, though, is that it can be selectively generated to make certain situations more survivable […] It might be generated by the surrounding milieu, but it might also be deliberately engineered by a subject to move through the unbearable: a kind of phenomenological muting of the sensorium in the name of survival.”

Even this risks being too tidy an ending, too clean a redirect of the emotional shiftlessness of Orlando, too strenuous an effort to find a lesson. Writing this essay, I constantly circle around the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The only thing grief has taught me,” he wrote in 1844, around the same time Orlando emerged from her hedge maze and into the arms of Shelmerdine, “is to know how shallow it is. […] I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” My nonbinary-ness, my gender variance, whatever word I will call it tomorrow or years from now, is as shallow, incoherent, and meaningless as the violence with which I and everyone like me are threatened and the grief I feel in the face of it. Is there a lesson for Orlando or for my trans loved ones or for me, here? I don’t know. I don’t know. I only have these muddled feelings and this hollow in my heart and nowhere to put them.