Danny Lavery Wants to Be Your Goth Boyfriend
The author of "Something That May Shock and Discredit You" on writing a transmasculine memoir that avoids cliche
Trying to define Danny Lavery’s new release Something That May Shock and Discredit You is a little bit like trying to define what it means to be trans: simple on its face, outrageously complex once you dig into it.
Simple: It’s a collection of essays. Well, it’s sort of a memoir. Well, it’s a collection of essays about his transition. Well not like, about transition, it’s about, like, maleness, and masculinity, and identity and self-deception and recovery and gender and the nature of change and mythology and the Gospels and Arthurian legend and authenticity and Columbo. As for defining transness itself, if it were as simple as “identifying as a gender different than the one you were assigned at birth,” we probably wouldn’t need to write quite so many books on the topic.
Because our friendship began shortly after he came out publicly—not all trans guys know each other, except when we do—it was a particular joy to sit with Danny to discuss Something That May Shock and Discredit You, the stories we feel internally and externally compelled to tell, the transmasculine resonance of ultimate Frisbee, and Big Wolf On Campus.
Calvin Kasulke: One of the earlier chapters in the book is called “Chapter Titles from the On the Nose, Po-Faced Transmasculine Memoir I Am Trying Not To Write.” And it’s very self-conscious that this is an entry in perhaps emergent genre, but a well-trod genre nonetheless. How did that inform what you wound up writing about and what you didn’t want to write about?
Danny Lavery: I’m glad you started with that, because I feel like the one thing I was not able to communicate in that title is it’s not like “Here’s nine trans memoirs I’m giving shit to right now.” It was more like, what are the versions of these conversations I have had with some well-meaning-but-not-quite-there cis people where I have felt an internal pull to give them what they want: Which is to use the word “journey” a lot, to desexualize anything about transition, to make myself sound like I already know exactly where everything is going to end up and I have a good narrative where I promise to reintegrate myself into like legible masculinity so that they can feel good.
So it’s not like, “Man oh man, these memoirs suck and I’m coming for them.” It’s very much that I’m trying not to write a shitty, dishonest version of my own life. And because I’ve just used the word “journey” so many times as shorthand that “I’m like, sure, call it a journey” and I’m also like, “No, don’t call it a journey.”
CK: So it’s mostly about not gearing this story towards a coherent and very neatly tied-up narrative, or more towards discomfort.
DL: I think it’s probably more the latter than the former. I often have an impulse to try to guess what the person I’m talking to wants from me out of a story, and I will want to edit the story to give that to them. So it doesn’t even have to be from somebody well-intended but clueless. It may very well just have to do with my internal, anxious impression of what I think that person wants from me. So really it’s like I am my own clueless cis interlocutor. It’s really about my own impulse towards telling a version of a story that I think somebody else wants to hear, and making myself stop and not do that.
CK: There are a lot of pop culture characters in here—or I’ll just say characters, because some of them are Greek gods and the beautiful teenagers they accidentally maim, but also Columbo. How did you assemble this collection?
DL: I lived for 31 years as a very weird proto-trans person and had a lot of really intense relationships to the copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology that I got when I was in the sixth grade. I think part of it also was about who were the figures that I have written about the most that I keep coming back to, and do I want to try to figure out what it is that’s been compelling me there? Or, why does Bill Shatner make me want to cry and commit fellatio? So oftentimes it felt very intuitive.
CK: Is there anyone you feel like you left out?
DL: Oh, man. Probably Link from all the Zelda video games. He’s an important figure. I feel like many, many trans people who came of age in the 80s and 90s and aughts played their fair share of either Ocarina of Time or Link’s Awakening or Wind Waker or—what was the one where he could turn it into a wolf—Twilight Princess. Twilight Princess is a very trans game. He’s always turning into a wolf, and this imp turns out to be secretly a 10 foot tall goddess woman. All werewolves are transmasculine. I think we can agree on that. Somebody else said that, I don’t know who it was, but they were correct.
CK: It lends itself to a lot of really on-the-nose descriptions.
DL: Yeah. You don’t have to dig deep to figure out like the connections there. Big Wolf on Campus could have absolutely had its own chapter. It was like Canada’s half hour comedy about a male version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if she was a himbo. The main character is such a bimbo and I love him. He’s so pretty and stupid. His whole thing is like “gee whiz, why do I have to be a monster? This is complicated,” and his gay goth best friend is like, “This is awesome.” That show could absolutely have made it in. Someday I’m sure I’ll dedicate a whole book to it.
In the second season they added like a girl character because they were like “We need a girl.” And she’s very, “I’ll kick you in the face if you talk about a feeling! I love kickboxing!” in that way that like many 90s shows that did not want to spend too much time writing a female character would do. And also at that time in my life, do you remember slam books? It’s like in Mean Girls but not mean, you would pass it around to your friends and you would each answer “What’s your favorite music? What’re your favorite hobbies? Who do you think is cute?” And you’d all pass it around so it would fill up with everyone’s information, and I always listed that one of my hobbies was kickboxing. I’ve never kickboxed in my life. But at the time I thought it was cool because it seemed like this is what a cool girl might do, and I don’t really know what a girl would do, but like maybe it’s this. It just felt very resonant that this kind of hamfisted-ly written female character who felt shoehorned in was like me, who was also like a hastily written female character that was like, “I’m not sure what I’m doing here. Maybe I’m a kickboxer?” I really wanted to be the goth boyfriend. I just wanted to be a little pale guy with emo hair and have my best friend be a beautiful golden quarterback who maybe kissed me.
CK: Speaking of the goth boyfriends of beautiful golden jocks, Hyacinth and Apollo show up a lot in your book, often playing ultimate Frisbee. Why so many callbacks to them?
DL: They showed up more than I had anticipated. Before I had any sense of myself as a person who could transition, this “There’s a certain level of beautiful a man can be, a boy can be, a youth can be, that he has to die,” combined an attraction to maleness and impossibility in one, and I thought, yes, these things belong together and I don’t know why. Because it was this way of acknowledging-without-acknowledging I want this so much that I cannot imagine its continued existence. This fantasy has to end in death.
And that’s part of why I think I also wrote about how I didn’t kiss anyone until I was 18. My one romantic fantasy was someone will shoot me at Oberweis Dairy when I’m with all my friends and one of their boyfriends—it does not matter which one—will take pity on me because I’ll say “Please, I’m dying. There’s not time before the ambulance comes, I need to be kissed.” And one boy would say, “Oh what a noble squire this was. He should have been a knight,” and he will kiss me passionately but chastely and then I’ll die. And that was as far as I could go with any kind of romantic, sexual, embodied fantasy.
CK: Writing about some of these pop culture characters was a way for you to figure out why you kept coming back to them—similarly, I think many of the essays in this book also have a feeling of you figuring something out on the page.
DL: I agree. One thing I was struck by as I went back and I reread it to record the audiobook is that many of the chapters are dedicated to the things that I was thinking about when I was thinking about transitioning. There’s not a lot in terms of “here is what my transition looked like on a daily basis,” or even a ton about like, “Here’s what my transition has entailed,” aside from a couple of details. It is mostly about the sort of repetitive thought patterns that I would get into where I would think: I cannot make decisions unless I have such-and-such foundation or unless I can prove to myself that I am this-and-such type of person. So I think in a lot of ways it’s an attempt to reckon with thoughts that are designed to keep you going nowhere—repetitive thought patterns that you can use to make sure you never make a decision, or, rather, that you make the decision which is to stick with the status quo.
I think that’s part of why it feels more memoir-adjacent than memoir, because it’s a catalog of mostly the thoughts in about a 20 to 24 month period of my life immediately preceding and then in the first year and a half or so of my transition, and then also every thought that ever led me to that point.
CK: You have a line in the book about how in eight minutes you will want to disavow this writing completely. Are you feeling any of that anxiety on the eve of its release?
DL: Absolutely. I think some of my anxiety is that it will be taken as a final, permanent pronouncement. Obviously part of my worry is, oh fuck, is it going to look like one of those books that’s like “Other people have written trans memoirs but they didn’t get it right. But now here I am to rescue the genre!” And I worry about that because that was not my intention in writing the book. And I hope that that’s not how it comes across. But I think that’s always the fear with any book, like “Will anyone understand exactly what I intended to do?” I want to change everything now to make sure that I steer everyone toward exactly the right response to have to it. And you just kind of have to let that go.
I’m also aware I released a book about my early transition during my early transition. It would be shocking if a year from now I didn’t feel very differently about a lot of these things. And I think one of the nice things about a book is while it’s slightly more permanent than other types of writing, it’s not that permanent. How many books from the 17th century can you name? It’s kind of comforting that, yes, it’s great sometimes to write a book where, later, everything changes and you can just say, “I don’t think that anymore.” That’s fine. Or upsetting. But what can you do? It’s fine and upsetting.
That’s not to say “Don’t think about anything, just write a book and hope for the best,” as though it’s dumb to put thought and care into your work. I don’t mean that so much as, I try not to spend too much time worrying that this has to be some sort of testament to something. I think one of the things that’s really great about right now is like there are a number of great books coming out by other transmasculine people and we get to have a lot more of them now, and they can all speak to something different.
CK: On the topic of cyclical arguments, you talk about your sobriety in this one, which is not something you’ve written about at length.
DL: I did not want to write a book about recovery in part because I don’t know what I would have to say about it that would be especially new or interesting. But a lot of my drinking and using came from the fact that I wanted and needed a buffer all the time. And it also caused a lot of havoc in the sense that I would vacillate between being highly repressed, highly isolated, highly anxious, and then swing into like, “Oh, this is good because it enables me to say whatever I feel like,” and I would be like, “That’s good. That’s an antidote to my problem.”
But in fact, then my friends would say “You said something really mean to me last night” and I’d be like, “I’m so sorry. I don’t remember.” That’s not the opposite of repression, or rather that’s not a useful response to repression. It actually is the escape valve that enables the conditions of repression to continue. So I think getting sober really—though I don’t think I knew it at the time—made transition possibly inevitable for me. I don’t know that it would have been inevitable before, but I do think when I look back on what I started moving towards when I got sober, I think it was moving towards this.
I need to be able to sit in a room and feel a feeling and not do anything about it and see what happens. Because in many ways that had been the thing I had feared more than anything else in my whole life. And I have thrown a lot of things at it to make sure I never have to sit in a room and feel my feelings all the way from the beginning to end. So a lot of things that I did not give myself time to pay attention to squarely, I now had to in order to get through a day without drinking, because drinking really helped with that.
In my first year or so of sobriety, I heard from somebody who was like “I got sober and then I transitioned. And then I thought, well, I’ve never been drunk as a guy before, so maybe I’m not really an alcoholic,” and gave it a go and they’re like, “It turns out for me, that is still a problem.” And I remember being so struck by that and I had no idea why, but I would just think about that a lot. I was like, “Oh, that’s really interesting. What an interesting anecdote!”
In some ways, for me at least, it can be tempting to think of either sobriety or transition as, previously there was disorder, chaos, dishonesty. Now, your life begins today. And I think actually for me, both sobriety and transition haven’t really had a “my life begins today.” There’s not really a true self—or maybe there is, but not one permanent, true self that I had to chip away at like a sculptor. My true self is something that I make on a daily basis.
Because recovery has to keep going every day, you kind of get to let go of the idea of “Ah, my great triumph. Now I stride boldly off in the direction of my future.” It’s like, oh fuck, I have to do this again today. And I have to figure out a way to do it in such a way that it doesn’t feel like a miserable, joyless existence where I’m not allowed to drink because that would be worse than drinking. It’s realizing you can’t keep subsisting off epiphanies.
CK: Okay. It’s time to talk about the biblical stuff.
DL: Let’s do it. Let’s talk about the Bible.
CK: There’s a lot of Bible in here. Is this the ecclesiastical equivalent of “I keep returning to these pop culture characters,” like “I keep chewing on these Bible verses, let’s see what that’s about?”
DL: From like the age of five until age of 22, anywhere between three and seven days a week, I was engaged in some form of formal Bible study for several hours a day. So it’s wallpapered in my brain. It’s just there, and I can’t un-wallpaper it. Actually, I’m sure you probably can remove wallpaper fairly easily. So maybe something that’s more durable than wallpaper—really old wallpaper.
I’ve had different times in my life where I’ve had a more optimistic idea of it, which is that I’m writing myself into these old stories and thereby making them new. Sometimes I have a very pessimistic sense, which is just like this stuff is indelibly inked into my brain and it just is how I process things, I don’t have a lot of choice in the matter.
CK: So for each essay, whatever comes to you first, a Columbo episode or a Bible verse—it’s a matter of, “What’s the better parable here?”
DL: Yeah, I think so. You think of Columbo and I just immediately think, “Cunning as serpents and gentle as doves.” I think probably the creators of Columbo had that verse in mind when they were coming up with him, that is his M.O. It’s not just me, right, lots of culture—please include the fact that I gestured kind of ironically —because not all of it, but a lot of it, has that stuff baked in as well. So it’s also a useful series of references, I think. Sometimes I wish I could donate some of that trivia.
CK: I know it’s a reference to the Simpsons, but Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Why that title for this?
DL: There’s actually a couple of layers in that scene that I don’t really get into in the book. It’s Lionel Hutz, who’s this sweaty, fraudulent guy who’s always trying to pull a con. He always looks desperate. He always looks like he kind of hopes he’ll get caught. He wants someone to see through the shell game so he can just admit defeat and run away. And in that scene he’s interrogating Apu, who was for a very long time the show’s only Indian American character, and was voiced by a white guy doing a voice.
Hari Kondabolu did a documentary about this a couple of years ago and asked why does this show, 25 years in, have a white guy doing like an incredibly broad stereotype for this role? Why is this character here? It’s not a scene that I read closely in the book, but it’s a very interesting scene having to do with men falling apart, men pretending, whiteness falling apart, whiteness pretending, in ways that I think are really uncomfortable. And that scene sticks with me years on.
It has to do with whether or not Hutz is wearing a tie and he pretends he’s not, but he is, and it does not in fact discredit the person he’s talking to. It discredits himself. And the show’s response to Hari’s work has been very shambling, like “What, I don’t know, we didn’t know, but also it’s just a joke, but also we’ll do better, but also we’re going to keep doing it, but also please leave us alone,” and that kind of inability to figure out what am I doing, and why and how do I take into account what other people feel when I do these things, I think is really interesting.
CK: I’m realizing a lot of these essays focus around wanting to admit defeat, wanting to get caught, and realizing only then are you free to actually do the thing that you wanted to do all along.
DL: One other thing that I’ve started writing about a little bit more since I finished the book is about various writers, usually women writers who wrote what I kind of understand to be essentially forced-masc fantasies. There’s a whole category of pornography around forced feminization and as far as I’m aware, no porn studio has ever released a forced masculinization fantasy. Although if any of them would like to, I hope they’ll let me know. But oftentimes I think especially in literature—Georgette Heyer and Daphne du Maurier come especially to mind— there’ll be a crossdressing heroine. Very much like in the vein of, “She’s just a spirited heroine. She’s just resisting gender stereotypes.” But a big part of the clearly erotic thrill is this very masterful, extremely confident, extremely powerful man who treats her kind of like a younger brother, kind of like a kid who’s always tagging along with his friends, and kind of like an object of sexual desire—in a way that’s like both totally dismissive and like “I own you.” And like, “You’re going to be my valet and wear these clothes I’m going to ruffle your hair and act in a way that’s like very disorienting and confusing. You want to be treated like a boy, I’ll treat you like a boy.” And it’s like, yes please.
So I think about that a lot, and I think there may actually be like a rich history there. And I hope that we can get some interesting conferences going about the conversations between forced masculinization and forced feminization pornography. That would be my dream.