Gender is Not a Contest Anyone Can Win: Cooper Lee Bombardier Interviewed by Sophia Shalmiyev

On inheriting queer lineage, finding belonging, and imagining new possibilities.

Pass With Care 8

Cooper Lee Bombardier and I met in our MFA program in 2012. I was immediately struck by this humble, hilarious, charming, and immensely talented writer and artist. Bombardier’s memoir on gender and sexuality, Pass with Care (Dottir Press), came out during a pandemic—a book poignant and timely, yet anchored in his ongoing daily existence. These essays stylistically shift around his experience with transitioning and blending into the straight world, sometimes encountering an adolescent-style jealousy commonplace in queer communities where development and identity are non-linear; where an inheritance of erasure, self-harm, violence, and fear seep into every relationship. 

Bombardier has also passed on much wisdom, feedback, theory, and practice onto his writing students and graduate school cohort alike with a swagger, a wink, a nod, and a sigh of relief that is delicious and well-earned. We spoke while I quarantined in Portland and he was in Halifax, teaching and writing while sheltering in place with his wife and dogs. 

—Sophia Shalmiyev

Sophia Shalmiyev Throughout Pass with Care, the thread that felt most reliable was this concept of attaining stability and earning the right to be a boring dude. The pacing and the voice are anything but boring and you are steady, competent, and kind to your reader. 

Cooper Lee Bombardier Those of us who live with complex trauma often find moments of balance or calm to be a bit disturbing. We are so used to the clanging alarm bells in our minds and the red-alert hormones pumping through our bloodstreams. So, in the book, earning the right to be “boring” is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the quest to feel stable and to eventually thrive rather than just survive is very real, and very serious. By locating steadiness in my own life (and work), I am not seeking assimilation at all, and so the sense of “boring” I am using is not pointing to conformity but rather the opposite of “living in a state of emergency.” 

In terms of how this translates to daily life, it is the practice of showing up with patience and kindness every day for my partner, even if the wild animal part of me has no idea how to navigate the domestic with another human being in a way that feels safe. It is about wanting to create a space based on the unknown. For creative practice, the boring might look like making a commitment to write every morning for three hours before doing anything else. The “boring” in a way is actually a gift in that sense.

Also, as a transsexual, it felt thrilling to claim the idea of myself as a boring man.‬‬‬‬

SS It is a thrill! Perfect word. As a working-class trans man who passes “successfully” to the straight world, you are code-switching and managing to live between so many spaces. Are these markers of success to you?

CLB To me, success means living my life with as little compromise to my integrity as possible, while being as much of my full self in as many aspects of my life as I can. Also, to me, success means not having a boss. It doesn’t mean not working in cooperation with others or being responsible to answer to or report to someone else. It just means that, in most of my “working life” these days, no one is breathing over my shoulder and telling me what to do.‬‬‬‬

SS You write that the people who congratulate you on passing are maybe hateful and transphobic to some degree towards those who are in a different place in their transness or do not have access.‬‬

CLB Yeah, when non-trans people place a weighted sense of reward on those of us who, by their standards “pass,” it really feeds into an ugly dichotomy that devalues those who might not match up with binary expectations of gender. It’s unkind, harmful, and shortsighted. Gender is not a contest anyone can win.‬‬‬‬

If you’re getting these kinds of comments you’ve likely spent a great deal of your life dealing with everyone in your life, as well as perfect strangers, weighing in about how you weren’t fitting their narrow scopes of gender. So, it makes sense that any trans person would feel tempted by those little crumbs of acceptance.‬‬‬‬

SS That nurse touching your arm and congratulating you … that was a visceral “aha” moment‬.

I see you integrating these identities and cementing them in your sentences, mainly with humor. Your ability to admit wrongdoing, confusion, lack, and hunger is where I can feel you speak to a future generation of trans babies, baby queers, and a gorgeous tribe of weirdos emerging from the margins. Where do you belong in the queer movement of today and tomorrow? Who do you write to and towards and for?  ‬‬‬‬

CLBIt’s difficult to say where I belong in the queer movement today because it is increasingly difficult to point to the queer movement as one thing. Trump’s triumph is his (and his administration’s) ability to completely confuse, fracture, divide, and pit people against each other. This amplifies divisions that have grown increasingly louder over the past two decades but especially in the last several years. At this point in my life, I belong in the overlapping circles of longtime friends and chosen family, and I put my focus there. I’ll connect and engage politically or through my actions in ways that may be much less visible now, and I belong to the lineage of queer writers that have come before me and who will continue long after I’m dead. ‬‬‬

SS The book is largely braided through a sense of place. At times I thought about this road-tripping, classic seventies American movie genre of tough men on the run or on paths to self-discovery—a wonderful aimlessness most women can never have. But in your work, it is a butch dyke, (so much more interesting and generous of a character switch) who has to find a tribe rather than run away from something. I love the movie in my head of dykes on the road. It is gorgeous and cool and has swagger. You seem re-born in every city. How much does environment shape your writing, your sense of safety, your self-esteem, and your activism?‬‬

‬‬CLB I was always seduced by those archetypal seventies road-tripping dudes.‬

Environment is not only a character in my writing … It is a character in my life. I’ve had a bit of a peripatetic life, like a lot of queer folks I’ve migrated around America looking for that sense of home. Where I was from didn’t feel like “home” for a long time. I see a sense of that aimlessness and rootlessness in my friend groups from my twenties. It was also a Gen-X affliction, too, I think. It was looking for a place to be, to unfold, but also looking to figure out how to make a life that mattered, that made sense. Looking back now I can definitely see how there was a part of me that was always running away from something—grief, remorse, shame, fear—and running toward something: a place that promised queer utopia, art, sex, love. ‬‬‬‬

SS But there were brief moments of queer and feminist art utopias. We didn’t dream them.‬‬‬‬

CLB Yes, we did not dream them!‬ They were real. ‬Imperfect, messy utopias.‬ I think there’s a sense now among some queer/feminist folks that if it can’t promise to be perfect it is not worth trying to make.‬

Right now, I am in the biggest city in Atlantic Canada. Compared to many places I’ve lived in, it is a lovely and great large town in so many ways. But I never get the sense of complacency in terms of queer vitality that I slipped into in other places because there is nothing to take for granted here. To get involved here takes a lot more time: it is based on developing relationships and showing that you’re willing to stick around, get to know people, put in the work, and listen.‬‬

Cooper Lee Bombardier

Photo of Cooper Lee Bombardier courtesy of the author.

SS Can you speak to your inheritance as a queer trans man? I see your grit as a vulnerability you can lend others who have many reasons to distrust society. As a writer, you bring a hearty and ballsy voice that provides a framework for any level of crisis experienced in a queer life. How did you earn and move into that self?‬‬‬‬

CLB I attempted to speak to that inheritance throughout the book, by pointing to and engaging with my own history and the artists and icons who made me even think this was a life I could live. My masculinity is as informed by butch identity and gay male masculinity as it is working-class transcending to middle-class men. I feel lucky that I came of age in a vibrant culture of butch/femme, but also a lot of humor, fluidity, and attitude where gender was concerned. Nobody had to be all one thing.‬

I don’t know if vulnerability was something I earned, only something I realized would kill me if I did not embrace it. For so much of my life I felt so ashamed for even having questions, for needing help figuring things out. I was in complete survival mode. Returning to this other book project this week after a break for almost two years, I am examining that past self and the need to just shoulder my way through from crisis to crisis really is quite glaring. The vulnerability I hope comes through in this book is the result of many years of reflection and filtering experience through process and craft. 

SS As a baby feminist, I looked up to lesbians (and mainly butch dykes) and was inspired by all they did like they were gods. It was so rad and interesting and also so basic and not strange when some of them started to fundraise in the community to get top surgery. It is a winding road. 

Recently, I was at a bookshop with a lesbian bookseller who asked me in all sincerity if she is allowed to say: I am proud to be a woman. Like, she was empowered to in the nineties. Can you speak to these turns? Some people feel so fixed and are genderfull and some feel genderless, but for you the decision to be on T was a homecoming, no?‬ I am also thinking of this in terms of role models for my son, for who I hope the best men to look up to are trans men. ‬‬‬‬

CLB For me, deciding to transition medically was a long process. I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t fully accept myself in queer ’90s San Francisco as a woman, a place where women ruled everything, where there were a million ways to be a woman. 

As for that bookseller, if she feels proud to be a woman, she should say so. It’s great to be proud to be a woman. I think it gets tricky when we say who can be a woman and who cannot. When I was still moving through the world as a butch there was still some serious butch-phobia out there, and then there was a panic that all butches were transitioning to male, which wasn’t true.

Before my time, there were those who did not accept butches (and femmes) as part of their definition of who belongs inside the word woman. With expanding inclusivity and awareness, we go through uncomfortable growing pains, and while we might not all always get it right, it is worth thinking about how we can keep expanding our sense of who is part of our communities. The younger generation has blown the idea of gender wide open in a way that was not available for my generation and that is a great thing.‬

I love that trans men are included in the pantheon of imagined male role models for your awesome son.‬‬‬‬

SS I think without trans men there is no way forward for masculinity in America. And I am very boy crazy in every way. I can smell testosterone with a blindfold on. Hormones are powerful. The hormones coursing through his veins have him acting and feeling somewhat differently than his sister and it is upsetting that the means for channeling sadness and aggression are not going to be modeled by the straight dudes in charge.‬‬‬‬

I clearly remember the moment we met at the MFA mixer. I asked Ellie if she knows that hot guy over there and she was like, Yeah, that’s Cooper and I was like, Oh, I think saw him on the cover holding an axe with his shirt open. Reading about how lonely it was for you to be a new man in town was sad! I get it now. What was this scene like for you as a writer and a man?‬‬‬‬

CLB Well, I think you do a great job yourself of modeling the sense that we can have many literary “mothers,” and maybe the same is true for modeling “fathers” for your kiddo, right? Perhaps the greatest thing you can teach him is not how to be but how to look for various ways to respond, and ask questions, and figure out that he has options. ‬‬‬‬

Being in an MFA program was such a gift, right? As much as I wasn’t feeling solidly ensconced in queer community when I first made it to Portland, it was incredible to spend a few years reading, writing, talking about books and craft all the time, and teaching.‬

I love that you solidly identify as boy crazy.‬

SS Have you always been into femmes?‬‬‬‬

CLB I have always loved femmes. Since my earliest memories of desire.‬ Nobody ever asks me, as a writer, about desire‬. I love it!‬‬‬‬

I am pulled in desire by the friction of that difference, the polarity between my gender and its opposite.‬ Have you read Females? I am sure there are plenty who take umbrage with Long Chu’s theses in Females but it felt refreshing to read, especially how she defines gender as so relational. There was someone way back, maybe it was Susie Bright or perhaps Shar Rednour who wrote about how the butch queers the femme, and the femme sexes the butch … though these verbs could be interchangeable, no?‬‬‬‬

SS I love that book. We are all female in our performance of desire and fulfillment rather than direct and unwavering and unafraid. That the femaleness in all of us is heavy‬, according to Chu. My friend Isaac, who is also a trans man into femmes, coined me as “genderfull.” I want us all to worship the feminine and be obsessed with sartorial and corporeal masculinity, if we wish. I am. Maybe gender is an addiction, but we are all happily addicted to coffee, even if it is problematic. I am being simplistic here on purpose to poke a hole in an infinite loop of distilling this topic. ‬‬‬

CLB You know, while I am so onboard for all of the detonation of the gender binary by folks younger than me, I still love gender.‬

I am not talking about imposing gender on anyone, I am talking less about a binary and more about a polarity. And this is part of the charge for me in butch/femme desire‬.

SS My vision of you as a teacher and nurturer, with that giant backpack and the rolled-up sleeves, is forever imprinted on my brain. This image is needed in academia. I relate to your benevolent grifter ways because we don’t come from that kind of culture and privilege. We are always the scholarship kids working that second job. In fact, you have a fantastic essay about the inversion of campus life when you wear a “narc” uniform as a security guard and have to gently but firmly, redirect college students who were seeking your opinion as a teacher rather than shunning you as a blue-collar man to be avoided. ‬‬‬

I want to know what you are most jazzed to assign and speak about these days and how academia has shaped you, how your students shape you?‬

CLB I will be teaching in the low-residency MFA in Creative Nonfiction at University of King’s College, and I am thrilled about it. I’ve been doing online workshops with the amazing Corporeal Writing workshop about twice a year, too, and other classes.

In terms of academia, I am constantly torn in regard to pursuing a doctorate. I want to because I love the gift of studying, reading, writing, analyzing. It would help with getting teaching jobs. But it comes down to how I want to spend my time: do I want to spend it on further advanced study, or do I want to spend it writing more books? I feel like such an imposter in academia. At the same time, I probably never want to feel like a comfortable insider, because at heart, while I love reading and thinking and studying and researching, it is still a colonial, white supremacist institution. Kind of like how we can be tempted to mistake marriage as being about love and romance rather than its true nature as a white supremacist, sexist, colonial institution.‬

SS Pass with Care feels like an antidote to cancel culture. It is about acceptance and, indeed, desire. What’s your take on how we treat fucking up in our world of kids who feel too woke and too impatient to put up with the garbage that we do or have perpetuated? What is atonement? What is harmony? Is that even a goal?‬‬‬‬

Many people feel so traumatized by protest rather than enlivened by it, most days.‬ 

CLB We are all worn thin, and many are worn thinner than others. I definitely do not have the answer(s) to cancel culture, but I think it is about figuring out who we want to be. Do we want to tell people how to be without treating them the way we want them to treat others? Do we want to eradicate carceral capitalism while holding other people to a past from which they can never grow?

I think we can’t say we want to end prisons while wanting to appoint ourselves wardens. I have no answers, but I have a lot of questions. In a way, cancel culture seems to operate on a premise that one should never have committed any kind of wrongdoing in the first place, without inquiring into the causes and conditions that encompassed the moment of wrongdoing. It’s like original sin: you’re born bad, and the expectation is that you should spend your whole life trying to atone. I think we lack a range of options and responses to conflicts and often the only tools we have are sledgehammers.‬

SS Are there any revolutions in our cities to be had by young and old queers alike? What will we do without this cosmopolitan nomad culture? ‬‬‬CLB I have no idea how intergenerational contact even happens these days. In the past we’d find each other in physical spaces that we had to seek out, and to place ourselves in proximity to each other. There is more levity and room for difference and variance when we can see each other. I think we all hunger for cross-generational friendship but how do we even find that? 

This current health crisis has us doing what we were already doing to the extreme, and I am curious how we will connect with each other on the other side of self-isolation. What will matter to us most, and who will we be? I can’t speak to specific queer urban revolutions, but I think whatever revolutions are cooking out there won’t look quite like what we imagine they should and will be brilliantly branching forward in some new way.‬‬‬ Cities will always shift and that there will always be a “cosmopolitan nomad culture” as you say, and it will just be the nomads who are changing. Will we recognize the newcomers as our people and invite them in? I hope so.‬

SSYou are a home. That’s your archetype. A big, cozy craftsman with a warm hearth. ‬

Pass with Care is available for purchase here.

Sophia Shalmiyev emigrated from Leningrad to New York City in 1990. She is an MFA graduate of Portland State University with a second master’s degree in creative arts therapy from the School of Visual Arts. She lives in Portland with her two children. Mother Winter is her first book.

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