I didn’t really know Rachel Pollack. I didn’t grow up on her books; I’ve still only just read a story or two of hers, and my heart goes out endlessly to all the people who called her a friend, and who are now grieving her loss.
What I have is a singular memory of her, or rather, a small collection of memories, from one weekend nearly a decade ago, and in the weeks since her passing, I’ve wondered if I should share them, and now I think I will.
If you don’t know who she was, Rachel was a trans woman writer of fiction, comic books, and tarot. She was involved with the Gay Liberation Front in London in the early ’70s. She did a newsletter called “Don’t Call Me Mister You Fucking Beast.” She passed away this month at 77 after being sick for a long time. I don’t think it’s unfair to say Rachel was a legend in many quarters, and her work has held deep, deep and special meaning to many trans artists for a very long time.
Rachel was a keynote speaker for Writing Trans Genres, a trans lit conference I helped organize under Trish Salah in Winnipeg in 2014. There was a real buzzing vibe at that conference—most of my memories center on putting in 12-hour days, then closing up shop and finding everyone at the bar still chatting and overflowing with energy until closing time, then pouring myself home at 2 AM to catch five hours sleep and go open everything up again the next day. It was one of those rare spurts of days you sometimes get that pushes your world five levels sideways through a wall, and sometimes you can even forget it happened, for long stretches of time, because it was so out of the ordinary. But also you keep it with you for the rest of your life, as I believe I will.
Rachel had been writing while openly trans for decades. She had been in the game for a very, very long time, definitely longer than most of us there (maybe all of us, depending on your metrics). She gave a fucking great keynote. But mostly, it seemed, she wanted to listen.
Like I said, it was that rare conference where the vibe never stopped buzzing. Everybody hung in each other’s sessions, including the big-name speakers, rooms packed, people sitting on the floor; everybody was TALKING and JAZZED. And Rachel…I mostly remember her taking it all in. She wasn’t a yapper. She was gentle and kind. She was inquisitive. She wasn’t interested in booming around jawing about what it “used to be like” or whatever, though she would’ve had a willing audience for that. She wanted to listen and to see what was happening. I have a memory of something very specific: Somebody, a long-time fan of hers, I think it was Cat Fitzpatrick (my now co-publisher at LittlePuss), going up to her toward the end of the weekend and saying, “I’ve been waiting for years to meet you,” and Rachel saying back, “I’ve been waiting for years to meet you.” The “you” in Rachel’s usage being a synecdoche of singular and collective here, a strange and meaningful “you” that held an awful and generous weight, a “you” that contained possibility, unknowns, a wild and cathartic kind of hope. It wasn’t unfair.
But: That’s the memory I have, which, all these years later, after digging up old Facebook posts and talking to people, turns out is a little different from what actually happened.
Rachel did have that exact conversation with a long-time fan of hers. But it was with Annie Mok, the artist. She had a different exchange with Cat. What happened with them is Rachel said to Cat:
“You are the future I want.”
And Cat said back to her, “You are the future I want.“
Rachel gave an interview a year before this (it was pre-Tipping Point) where she was asked of her involvement in trans political activism. She said: “I have not been directly active for some time. I was so in the early 70s, then again in the early 90s, so maybe I’m due for another round. I do think transgender women can be effective, I see it.“
I think about that all the time. There was something resigned but sturdy in the wisdom of that whole answer, something about the calm, terrifying understanding that the bullshit stacked against us is never leaving, that we can have some wins but we’ve never really going to “win,” and knowing this is a long game, a hard game, believing in the necessity of action anyway. Maybe I’m extrapolating too much, I dunno. “Maybe I’m due for another round.” That phrasing’s stuck with me too; something in the wisdom to know there might be points you need to really get in there, but you also can’t do that and run on emergency forever. We all owe it to ourselves (and maybe to Rachel too) to play the long game and plan for the long-haul, which, of course, is a strategy that only works if no one’s doing it alone. But it can work. Sometimes you’re due for another round.
I spent a lot of yesterday thinking about other people in my life who have since passed on. That list is long for me. Maybe it’s long for you too. And if it’s not, I hope it stays that way for a very, very, very long time. That is the future I want.
Rest in peace, Rachel. You (you) are still a future worth wanting.
(Taken at the Writing Trans Genres conference in Winnipeg, MB, 2014. Photo credit: Samuel Ace)