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Writer Cyrus Grace Dunham Shows How Messy Gender Can Be

cyrus dunham year without a name

This interview was conducted as part of the interview series, LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history. 

Cyrus Grace Dunham has written a complicated, necessary addition to the trans literary canon. 

A Year Without A Name, Dunham's debut book, recontextualizes gender dysphoria as something that is not solely exclusive to binary trans people. Readers get to know Cryus as Dunham gets to know Cyrus, and the memoir makes clear that one's journey to figuring out their gender is a messy, life-long process.

Dunham opens up on this week's episode of LGBTQ&A podcast, about how his experience of gender is still evolving, how it's affected by privilege and whiteness, and why using he/him pronouns feels "scary and erotic."

[Click here to listen to the full podcast with Cyrus Grace Dunham.]

Jeffrey Masters: I was really moved by the visceral response you had in the book to choosing the name "Cyrus." I wasn’t expecting that.
Cyrus Grace Dunham: I wasn't either — at all. When I started writing this book, all I knew was that I wanted to document a period of a lot of change, but I didn't know I was going to change my name. I didn't know I was going to get surgery. I was certain that I wouldn't go on hormones. I would say to myself all the time, I'm never going to be someone who goes on hormones. 

JM: And yet you did all those things.
CGD: All of them. And I might not be done, you know? Starting hormones and sort of masculinizing my appearance has lessened my dysphoria in a lot of ways.

But a lot of my experience of dysphoria is something that extends beyond gender, and it has a lot to do with just trying to find an experience and a sense of identity that is grounded and resonant within a world where there's so many expectations for how we're supposed to be.

JM: We've moved the trans discourse away from the body and body parts, but a part of me wonders if the way to best connect with non-trans people is to bring it back to the body. It's something everyone can relate to.
CGD: And we hold so much information and feeling and nonverbal intuition in our bodies. I mean this sounds very woo-woo. But a huge part of my process of transitioning has just been about grounding: getting back into my body, feeling my heels, feeling my legs, feeling that I am this brief experience of cells that's going to be here for a little and then go away, and just feeling myself on earth because I think dysphoria makes it really hard to stay in the body. 

JM: I appreciated how clear it was that your experience of gender was affected by who you were dating. 
CGD: It was so important for me when I first learned this concept that gender and sexuality are different. But then I also was like, is there something wrong with me that they don't feel separate?

JM: You were always dating someone during this period. Did you worry about how you would feel and experience your gender when you were alone? 
CGD: I was worried about it constantly. It's hard if you're writing a book and it's a memoir, and you're writing it as your life unfolds to not let your wishes for the book start to affect your wishes for your own life.

I had this dream that I would, at the end of the book, not be so dependent on other people to reflect back my gender identity at me. It didn't work out like that. But I really wanted to reach someplace where I was more autonomous and self-determining, and I think I have to accept that maybe that's just not who I am.

So much of the process of writing this book was letting myself use language to work through my fantasy of who I might be. If I just let my natural gestures come out, if I just dress myself how I wanted to, if I just moved through the day in the way that felt most intuitive to me, what would that look like?

JM: I said earlier that you present more masculine, and you gave me a look. Was that OK? 
CGD: Oh, I mean, I choose...most people in my life use "he" pronouns.

JM: Is that what you like?
CGD: I like he. I feel really good about it. It's kind of like thrilling, and scary and erotic, but I really like it. 

JM: I actually don't know how you identify.
CGD: I mean, I don't really know either. I guess, in a deep soul way, I definitely identify as non-binary, but I also know that I've had a transmasculine experience. And increasingly when I meet people, they experience me as a man.

I think I'm transmasculine and non-binary and also maybe forever lesbian. 

JM: Has who you’re attracted to changed?
CGD: Most of the people that I've been with in recent history are non-binary-identified.

I think as a young person, as a young lesbian, I was obsessed with girls and women—deep, obsessive, all-consuming love. And that hung in my life and was so much larger than a feeling that I was meant to be a boy. I just assumed I was a lesbian woman, although in my fantasy life, I could never imagine myself with the girls and women I was obsessed with. I always imagined a boy with them, but I couldn't make the leap to think that boy is me. 

As I've gotten older and started to peel back all the layers of oppression, I've started to wonder, Is it that I was attracted to women so intensely or is it that I so deeply wanted to feel like a boy? That relation made it possible for me to feel masculine, you know? And since I've started to present more and more masculine and start hormones, my desire patterns have shifted and I've started being attracted to a much wider range of gender presentations.

JM: When your sister, Lena Dunham, became famous, a part of your relationship with her and your family was put up for public consumption. Did you have reservations about publishing this book and doing that to the people in your own life?

CGD: Reservations would be such a massive understatement that I don't even know if it's the right word.

I love writing; I've always wanted to be a writer. It's just never not been something that I did, you know? When my sister first got famous, I was like, I'm not going to write. I'm not going to share my writing with the world. I just can't deal with the weight of that microscope.

And then at a certain point I was like, Am I also supposed to just not do the writing that I want to do because of this? And I don't know the answer. Sometimes we make decisions because they seem like the best decision at a certain point in time, and I made the decision to do this and now I'm going to see what it feels like.

JM: How much of a factor in that decision was it that we have so few trans and nonbinary narratives in mainstream culture?

CGD: I think that I have a pretty strong feeling that as much as I want more and more young people to know that they can reject cisgender identity, I don't think I'm the most important person to tell that story.

JM: Why not?
CGD: Most people who will go through gender transitions in their life are not white people from famous families who grew up with a ton of access. I hope that things within it will make people feel less lonely, but I also know that this really specific type of violence and that trans and gender-nonconforming people face is stuff that I've been protected from.

What I told myself was, I'm only going to do this if I'm also going to look at my gender in relation to all of these other systems of power, like my whiteness, like my family. If I'm going to be honest about the ways that it's gotten wrapped up with questions of fame and visibility. And more so, I wish there had been more narratives when I was younger by people from similar backgrounds to me who were really trying to think about what it means to try to negotiate systems of power. I was like, I'm not going to tell this story and not go there. I'm not going to pretend that that's not a part of my experience.

[Click here to listen to the full podcast with Cyrus Grace Dunham.]

A Year Without A Name by Cyrus Grace Dunham is available now. 

New episodes of the LGBTQ&A podcast come out every Tuesday, only on the Luminary app. Click here to listen.  

Cyrus Grace Dunham and Jeffrey Masters, LGBTQ&A Podcast

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