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the one-body problem: existing in queer bodies

Ekim 3, 2023
Pelin Çılgın


A feverishly hot midsummer day. Two boys appear on the Greek streets running, laughing, not caring for what anybody else thinks of them. The pale-skinned one caringly carries a cage with a pigeon in it which suddenly appeared one day in their bedroom; not only the pigeon but the boy is looking for an escape from the burning city as well. They climb up a hill; figures blurred by the heatwave. Suddenly, the cage’s lock opens, only to reveal that the bird is dead. The two boys fight in what appears to be the last drop of an impending, built-up meltdown. Eventually, they stop and look into each other’s eyes. “As the years go by, the sun doesn’t burn like before,” the pale-skinned boy stops for a second. “And it helps me remember.” This is how these two boys, a young couple, become vulnerable to each other for the first time during the last sequences of the short fiction film, Pigeons Are Dying, When the City Is on Fire (Ta Peristéria Arrostaínoun, Ótan I Póli Phléyetai, Netherlands, Greece, 2023) by the Greek director Stavros Markoulakis. For the two boys, this vulnerability is the catalyst for a newly found freedom in expressing their identity. Then, the pigeon, clearly not dead as they thought, jumps out of the cage lying behind them. It flies out to the blue sky. Both of the boys get up and just as they start looking for the freed pigeon hastily, a whole flock of pigeons surrounds them, just like a pair of wings with the wind flowing beneath them.

Winning those wings of freedom is not easy, especially for queer people. You have to be open to vulnerability and have to accept the fact that this is neither an easy nor a fast task. As described by all modern-day Orlandos, this challenge consists of several stages of metamorphosis. France-based Spanish director Paul B. Preciado’s feature documentary Orlando, My Political Biography (Orlando, Ma Biographie Politique, France, 2023) explores this eponymous character from Virginia Woolf’s novel “Orlando” by casting 26 different trans and non-binary actors to depict the character and tell their stories with this new name. The film blurs the line between documentary and fiction by making use of talking-heads-style classical documentary choices and also dramatization sequences one would expect in a drama. The cast is seen in many places from nature to a psychiatrist’s office, each location portraying something specific about different stages of their journeys. Orlando becomes a name for trans and non-binary people across time and space. They come from different races and ages, yet they experience this very difficult metamorphosis to live freely and at ease with their own body. “I am sick to death of this particular self. I want another,” says one of the Orlandos in the film. This thought is a seed of an unknown possibility for understanding one’s own experiences with identity and body – one’s own pigeon that suddenly appears in their room.

Orlando, ma biographie politique, 2023, by Paul B. Preciado

It is important to decide how to position themselves against this pigeon. Maybe trying to hide it even further? Then, that would mean the alienation of your true self. The pigeon almost suffocated in the cage. The Orlandos almost lost their will to live. Not only internal forces, but external forces can also cause this phenomenon as well – for the two boys, it was the city itself and for an Orlando, it was a backward-minded psychiatrist. What about setting it free, on the other hand? Then, you would have to fight against not only yourself but also other people around them. Seeking this option triggers the next stage of metamorphosis. A daunting journey through self-discovery and acceptance toward the natural realms of anti-patriarchal and non-binary existence. The good thing is this journey does not have to be alone – there are always other Orlandos around that you can connect with or simply seeking out art will do the trick as well. This art can come in different forms from nature to poetry, from novels to films. The two boys in Markoulakis’ short found solace in the hills and fresh air. The Orlandos found that in reading books instead. While navigating this painful stage, what you look for is simply a form of guidance. What is this pain I am feeling? Why cannot I feel at ease with my body? Why does my body not feel my own? What would make it hurt less? What do I need to make it make sense to me? After persistently taking steps forward to understanding this pigeon of a feeling through others and/or art, only then comes the final stage of the metamorphosis – self-realization, and acceptance.

Now, having the answer to your current relationship with the body (current, because this journey never truly ends), it is crucial to look back to the bumpy paths discovered this entire time. These paths were painful, having to navigate all sorts of feelings while carrying that pigeon around. But, in the end, you made it out alive despite all the scars, wounds, and bruises on your body. You made your one-body your home at last. “It is necessary to tell our history in order to survive violence,” says an Orlando in Preciado’s film. One of the boys says “I’m not holding you. You aren’t leaving,” to the other one in Markoulakis’ film. You lived in that painful state for so long, now acknowledge it, but move forward. All that is left for you to do is to set that pigeon free at the top of the hill you have just reached and tell the others – other Orlandos – about it with your newly-found power and autonomy over your body, identity, and existence.

This frightening journey scares me as well. I have barely felt comfortable within my skin from my childhood to the present day. Gender was something unknowable to me because I did not realize it was so much more than a binary of “man” and “woman” out there. I did not understand I could perform my gender in any way I could please. Coming from a rather troubled region in terms of queer existence and freedom, as well as being a film critic/lover, I have opted for the arts route to navigate what I was feeling about my body this entire time. I despised my body, so watching horror films with body horror and gore felt as if I was at home. That gore represented how I saw my body as well. Through this bloodshed, however, I started to understand myself better. And now, watching queer documentaries or films make me realize that I am not alone – even though all my fellow Orlandos are on the silver screen.

Gender, identity, and freedom. These are the components of my so-called one-body problem. We need to find the right balance to make sure all elements are expressed well and clearly to be sure that our one-body feels at ease. It is important to know that we are not limited by what the patriarchal binary-loving society tells us. It is just like a river in a forest, flowing freely; or a pigeon in a city, flying lightly. And just like an Orlando says at the beginning of Preciado’s film – “We all have a bit of Orlando in us.”

lead image: Ta peristeria arrostainoun otan i poli flegetai (2023) by Stavros Markoulakis

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