I am honored to be invited to talk about my memoir, Wild Things: A Trans-Glam-Punk-Rock Love Story, with my spouse Venus de Mars on Transgender Day of Visibility. The book chronicles our personal stories of what it was like to be trans in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, before a generation of parents and grandparents began to advocate that their children be allowed to express who they really are. We are at an important moment in cultural history, and I want to do what I can to prevent us from going backwards.
As the book recounts, in 1983 I married the love of my life. She did not have the courage to come out to me then and tell me that she was trans. I don’t think she even had the courage to acknowledge it privately to herself. The coming-out movement for lesbians and gays was only about ten years old, and there was no “T” in the LGB acronym. No one we knew discussed the trans community.
Our first five years together were mostly blissful, due perhaps our like-minded ambitions to immerse ourselves in the arts, our mutual love of cats, and a shared penchant for do-it-yourself home improvement projects. Yet oftentimes Venus would fall into what seemed to me inexplicable bitterness and depression. During a counseling session in 1988 she finally summoned the courage to come out to her therapist and then to me as trans. In stages, she began to figure out how to express her true self, forging a delicate balance between personal life and how she wanted to be seen in public.
In those early days, the only places it felt safe to be visible as a trans person was at home, at private parties with other trans people, or in gay clubs that hosted drag shows. We did all of the above, and spent many hours at the Gay Nineties, the Townhouse, and the Saloon. Venus also found visibility and self-expression through painting, filmmaking, and performance art. Her artistic vision is one of the many things about her that I fell in love with.
Venus discovered she felt visible and safe as well when she was onstage with her rock band, All the Pretty Horses, a band that started in 1993 after she ran into the drummer from the band she’d been in when we got married. But she couldn’t live her entire life on stage, and as with most rock and roll bands there was abundant drama that sometimes threatened to blow apart our own relationship. Despite that turbulence, Venus has been totally supportive of my writing this story from the beginning through to the end, and I am grateful for it.
I resisted telling this story for many years—Venus had been working on her own memoir for a while, and friends had asked me to write about my own experience. I resisted for a couple of reasons. First, the story felt incomplete. I didn’t know where the end point was; I instinctively felt we were still moving towards something like that.
The second reason for my resistance was that I’m not trans. I didn’t know if anyone would want to hear my story. But then the pendulum of national politics began to swing in a repressive direction against trans rights. It seemed like an outright attempt to erase the trans community and all their progress. It still does. I realized that it was time to tell this story—not my story, but this story. So in the summer of 2017, sitting under a grapevine-enshrouded pergola at the side of our house, I began to write.
At first I was just trying to remember and organize events, and that led to a lot of reflection forward and backward, trying to understand the underlying themes and causes of various events both happy and sad. Writing a memoir is a very much like going through therapy. You’ve made a promise to yourself to immerse yourself in past events, many of them painful ones that you thought you’d moved on from. I rediscovered a lot of memories that had been dormant for years and have come to the conclusion that writing any truthful memoir will involve tears. I remember days of staring into my computer screen and crying as I typed, then crying again the next day because I was remembering more details I hadn’t written about the previous day. I still needed to put them onto the page before I forgot them again. It took a long time to resurface after those writing episodes, like trying to wake up from a vivid dream that might color the way one sees people and interacts with them the rest of the day.
About two years into my writing this book, Venus suddenly and angrily told me that she wanted to have a legal name and gender change as well as surgery. It caught me completely off guard because she was so heated about it, and we’d had no prior discussions that would have indicated she wanted to do this. It turned out that her temper was the product of old fears that had resurfaced: she expected me to leave her. I certainly wasn’t going to do that, and I was distressed that she had all these buried negative assumptions about me had now come into the open. That led to going into marriage counseling again, and this time we had a therapist who was experienced working with trans clients, someone we didn’t have to educate about being trans, and most important, someone who could see beyond the trans thread in our lives and recognize some of the other issues we had as a couple, such as Venus’s undiagnosed ADHD. That therapist helped us through many hard but necessary conversations about the past.
I want to stress that we wouldn’t have had the motivation to get through those difficult conversations if there hadn’t also been many, many high points that demonstrated how good we felt together as a couple. As I wrote and I sifted through events of our story together, I found a common theme: the arts always brought us back together. Working together on something artistic or being in a community of artists who recognized us not just as a couple but as a team who worked together validated our relationship at a time when many other viewpoints did not.
For that reason, the book opens with a prologue about an experience I had in high school with jazz, a reflection on what learning to play jazz piano in high school opened up to me for the rest of my life. There were also two artistic oases we discovered outside the Twin Cities that nurtured our relationship when the rest of mainstream society often sought to revile it. One was the Carlton Arms art hotel in New York City, a not-quite-dive inhabited by kindred spirits who welcomed us into their family. Another was Bisbee, Arizona, a funky hamlet in the high desert that also recognized us as kindred souls. The spirit of art and invention in those places saved us. And First Avenue was still another place we felt together.
One quirk of having two memoirists in the house is that both of us have spent hours together hashing out the facts for the many scenes we were both present at but experienced differently. I imagine a lot of our conversation at the Humanities Center will focus on how we’ve negotiated that and how we try to remember and honor the truth of the past, getting into the nitty-gritty of creating and cross-checking a timeline with research. Both of us experienced surprises developing the timeline, discovering that events seemingly far apart in our memories actually occurred quite near each other, like one month apart, and vice-versa. We’ll probably also talk about pronouns, and I’m happy to answer nerdy questions about copy-editing.
We’re partnering with RECLAIM for this event. It’s an organization centered on mental health support for queer and trans young people ages 13-25, and it’s one of my favorite nonprofits. To some extent, it’s an outgrowth of District 202, which closed in 2009 and was a place where Venus and All the Pretty Horses used to play all-ages shows and hang around to answer questions from teenagers afterwards. I personally know people who have been helped by RECLAIM. At a time when the political calculus of some politicians sees a benefit to assaulting and erasing trans rights, RECLAIM is an organization we need to continue to support.
There is so much irony in the new attacks on medical support for young trans people. Puberty blockers give young people more time to consider how they want to move forward, avoiding having the difficult-to-reverse effects of puberty thrust upon them. I’m thinking of Kim Petras, who with Sam Smith recently won a Grammy. It makes it easier to transition, particularly for people initially identified as male who want to transition. Preventing parents and doctors from letting their children go on puberty blockers sounds like a malicious punishment for being born a trans person.
Non-binary, intersex, and gender-fluid people who are demonstrating the blurry edges of gender definition are perhaps the real heroes here. I remember taking Intro to Biology in college in the late 1970s. It was a big, lecture-hall class, unusual for the small, liberal-arts college I attended, and each week a different science faculty member would come to lecture on their area of specialization. Flo Farber lectured on genetics, particularly genetic variation, including genital variations that would make a child gender-ambiguous. Hmm, I thought. I wondered why no one ever told me about this before. Many years later I would learn that doctors have historically made a decision when an infant’s physical presentation doesn’t completely match physical stereotypes for one gender or another. They have performed “corrective” surgeries, but the child’s brain and spirit does not necessarily follow the surgical choice. Putting a child into a dress or a pair of pants isn’t what makes the child think she or he is a boy or a girl.
It’s possible that Venus experienced a surgery like this. We don’t know for sure because there don’t seem to be any records, but her mother once told her that when she was born she had corrective surgery for something the doctors called a “fosse.”
When I wrote this book, I wanted to tell the story of how we stayed in love, despite so many setbacks. Many of those difficulties happened because we were living in a world that didn’t think we should be a couple. When we held hands or kissed, people booed. We held on despite all that for a long time, and eventually the world caught up. I don’t want to go backwards ever again.
MN Writers Series: Wild Things
March 31 | 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm | $10
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By: Lynette Reini-Grandell
Lynette Reini-Grandell is the author of “Wild Verge” (Holy Cow! Press, 2018), “Approaching the Gate” (Holy Cow! Press, 2014), and the forthcoming memoir, “Wild Things: A Trans Glam Punk Rock Love Story” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2023). Other work has appeared in Alligator Juniper, The Understanding between Foxes and Light, Poetry Motel, Revolver, Poetry City U.S.A., and Seminary Ridge Review, among others. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and received grants for her work from the Finlandia Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. She performs with the Bosso Poetry Company and the jazz/poetry collective Sonoglyph. Her work is often inspired by Finnish folk culture and song, and she frequently collaborates with Nordic Roots artists in multimedia performances. She lives in Minneapolis on the ancestral homeland of the Dakota people.