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t4t as a model of eco intimacy and kinship in Oliver Baez Bendorf’s “T4T”

Arcadiana, BLOG, Queer and trans* ecologies

T4t stands for “trans for trans” and originated in the early 2000s within Craigslist personals to describe trans individuals choosing to pursue relationships and/or sex with other trans people. t4t as a model has been problematised because it might risk epitomising cis/trans binaries and “distract[ing] us from or cover[ing] over the significant axes of difference, race chief among them, that characterize and trouble trans affinities and solidarities”(Awkward-Rich and Malatino 3). In this way, t4t needs to be reframed through a more expansive approach, one which, as theorised by Black feminist Amira Lundy-Harris, could describe more accurately and comprehensively the different connections between trans people and explore “the relationship between Black feminist thought and trans studies, as part of a larger structure of thinking Blackness and transness in relationship to one another” (89). Expanded in this way, t4t would be a useful and joyful ideal. There is, after all, a great and hopeful resistance in actively choosing only people within your own trans collectivity, outside the borders of which there is a much higher chance of rejection, misidentification, and a forceful need for explanations and justifications. t4t could then summarise and stand for the intricate nets of “recognition, attraction, solidarity, and support” within trans circles described by Hil Malatino (SA).

Much of the trans experience is based on such exchanges – on webs of relationality and connections with others, which are essential to resistance (Edwards 324). As analysed by Malatino, webs of care, collectivity, and kinship among queer and especially trans individuals arise in a system built on types of collectiveness that are cisheteronormative and centred around the nuclear family, thus leaving no space for trans and queer individuals (TC). These trans counter systems of care contrast both the ways in which care and kinship are “steeped in forms of domesticity and intimacy that are both White and Eurocentered, grounded in the colonial/modern gender system” and “the mythos of neoliberal, entrepreneurial self-making” (TC). The trans self is relational rather than self-sufficient and the webs of collectivity, care, and kinship on which it depends for survival configure a type of care that evades established heteronormative structures. “Subjectivity and dependency” (TC) are then inextricably linked, which is further augmented by the fact that an act of care in trans circles is never a linear, unidirectional exchange; instead, in these webs, any act of care towards another is an act sustaining and supporting those same networks of care you are part of (TC). The trans self that emerges from this analysis is then interconnected and relational, contrasting the “capitalist […] ideology of individualism” (Drucker 56) and the neoliberal idea that the individual must be self-sufficient and self-reliant.

Starting from the t4t experience, poet Oliver Baez Bendorf shows how this relationality can expand towards a similar interrelationality and kinship with nature and our surroundings. Bendorf’s poem “T4T” opens mid-scene and mid-action, with an “And” that signifies that what is written on the page continues something that is left unwritten, left unseen. 

And I think he must be drunk, from the sweet way he.

Brother. I think about his XX all the time. It’s like a joke,

that we’ll start dreaming of men once we. […]

Not only does the poem open as if halfway through an already-started action, story, or scene. It also opens by declaring a sense of inebriation. The t4t encounter is then immediately portrayed as belonging to a different state of consciousness, one where “his XX” does not require any further words but can immediately move to being an inside joke shared only between the two men. It is never revealed what the lover is doing that shows a drunk-like state, as some lines abruptly halt and break mid-sentence, so that the reader is left only knowing about a “sweet way” and not what this sweet way is applied to. These unfinished sentences consistently happen after the use of a pronoun referring to either the speaker, the lover, or both together. The actions, descriptions, and definitions of the speaker and the lover are left unsaid, because interrupted or unsayable, so that their identities remain nebulous, interrupted, unfinished. However, their identities are built throughout the poem in the exchange(s) between them. The self is then (partly and) intimately constructed from an encounter with and recognition of the similar, exemplifying how t4t can become “a site of identity formation” (Adair and Azura 46). The sites of the interruptions also become the sites of the constructions, so that what is left unknowable for an external reader is a site of becoming for the two trans men. 

Identity is built through and within an ‘other’ which is other but is also same, through a process of recognition of similarities and recognition of differences, embodied in the poem by the “brother” address, isolated as a single-word sentence. The use of the term brother pulls the reader into a system of relationality that borrows terminology from the standard heteronormative family just to subvert it and build a different type of kinship and bonds that can only exist outside such family. Further, the term “brother” in the context of sex also creates an immediate connection to incest. According to Lee Edelman, incest, because it confounds and destabilises sameness and difference, threatens the stability of culture as opposed to nature and, as it is in culture rather than nature that meaning is produced, it also disrupts the stability of meaning itself (BE). If “the incest prohibition is the fundamental social rule” that culture is articulated around and depends on (Ramadanovic), the “brother” address interrupts culture and disrupts a clear, singular, and stable presence of meaning – as articulated in the unfinished sentences. It declares its disassociation from culture as opposed to nature and reinforces the t4t encounter as a webbed exchange of sameness and difference belonging to an alternative space. In this way, nature (as opposed to culture) becomes part of what makes these expansive movements of encounter & recognition and similarity & difference possible.

This expansiveness and enmeshment also directly extends to the non-human, so that t4t evades separatism by merging with what goes beyond the human. Natural imagery is scattered throughout the poem. It starts from being in the surroundings – a place which is already intertwined with the two men and their actions. They eat “citrus on river rock / while others swam out”, in a way that denotes a singularity of interconnectedness with the natural: while “others” swim out, preparing themselves to leave such a space, the two men remain there and eat. Such interconnectedness is then furthered through the t4t encounter so that nature moves from being in the background to becoming part of their sex and intimacy. In the image of their “clothes scattered around pine root” the trees and the ground become what creates the time and space for their nakedness and sex. Nature is also co-creative of their own bodies, as the root of the pine also becomes the root of the lover, the root which the speaker, if given “the chance”, would “go right to”, wanting to reach not only the lover’s deepest core but also the core of the nature around them. The t4t erotic recognition and suspension creates a reaching towards an erotic similarity and intimacy with the non-human, so that the two become intertwined with each other, and one happens through the other, in a process that is reminiscent of the principles of the Ecosex Manifesto, formulated and written by Elizabeth M. Stephens and Annie M. Sprinkle. 

The Ecosex Manifesto rejects the image of Earth as a mother to instead think of Earth as a “lover”, to be “madly, passionately, and fiercely in love” with, in a relationship to be renovated and continued every day and that can become “more mutual and sustainable” only through a collaboration with nature. The relationship with nature is erotic, sensory, and physical, made of “shamelessly hug[ging] trees, massag[ing] the earth with our feet, and talk[ing] erotically to plants” and, ultimately, “mak[ing] love with the Earth through our senses”. The relationship with nature articulated in the manifesto is an enmeshed and mutual one furthered through physical exchanges and love. In Bendorf’s poem, a similar relationship with nature is depicted, and it is in this fusion with and commitment to nature that queer love, sex, and intimacy can find further fulfilment. 

The identity formation that happens through t4t intimacy and sex in Bendorf’s poem is, thus, an identity formation that also happens with and through nature. Here we see the trans self is not interconnected and relational only because it belongs to a trans collectivity, but also because – in its t4t exchange – is located within and existing in nature, with which it merges and mingles, in a continuous exchange akin to the one that happens within trans circles of care. This merging with the surroundings intertwined with the merging between the two men’s bodies culminates in the acknowledgement that “there’s something happy and right about us mating”. 

The word “mating” clearly carries an animal-like connotation. This evocation of non-human animals in the context of t4t sex disrupts even further the social and cultural boundaries that the term brother has already eroded. Going beyond the human as an exclusive subject of love, sexuality, and inter-subjective co-creation, Bendorf shows the happiness and rightness of a t4t encounter bleeding into the happiness and rightness of an inter-nature encounter. This poem thus offers a powerful example of how the potentially problematic or overly simplistic characterization of t4t can be eluded: by showing the body and self are interconnected not only with more, different bodies and selves, but also with the (natural) spaces that allow for those bodies to meet. 

Works Cited

Adair, Cassius, and Aizura, Aren. ““The Transgender Craze Seducing Our [Sons]”; or, All the 

Trans Guys Are Just Dating Each Other”. TSQ: Transgender Studies 

Quarterly, vol 9, no 1, 2022, pp 44–64. https://doi.org/10.1215/23289252-9475509.

Awkward-Rich, Cameron, and Malatino, Hil. “Meanwhile, t4t”. TSQ: Transgender Studies 

Quarterly, vol 9, no 1, 2022, pp 1-8. DOI: 10.1215/23289252-9475467

Bendorf, Oliver Baez. “T4T”. Poetry, 2020. 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/151771/t4t.

Drucker, Peter. Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism. Brill, 2015.

Edelman, Lee. Bad Education. Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing. Duke University 

Press, 2022.

Edwards, Kari. In Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, edited by 

Trace Peterson and TC Colbert, Nightboat Books, 2013.

Malatino, Hil. Trans Care. University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

—. Side Affects: on Being Trans and Feeling Bad. University of Minnesota Press, 2022.

Lundy-Harris, Amira. ““Necessary Bonding” On Black Trans Studies, Kinship, and Black 

Feminist Genealogies”. TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol 9, no 1, 2022, pp 

84-100. https://doi.org/10.1215/23289252-9475537.

Ramadanovic, Petar. “The Non-meaning of Incest or, How Natural Culture Is.” Postmodern 

Culture, vol 20 no 2, 2010. doi: 10.1353/pmc.2010.0004

Stephens, Elizabeth M. and Sprinkle, Annie M. “Ecosex Manifesto”. 

https://sprinklestephens.ucsc.edu/research-writing/ecosex-manifesto/.

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