Philosopher Paul B. Preciado, speaking in Barcelona in 2018 (SOPA IMAGES LIMITED / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

An outspoken and exciting philosopher, Paul B. Preciado’s life and work has long challenged established ideas on gender and sex. “My life is a message in a bottle sent to the future so that someone, somewhere, can read it someday,” he once wrote in Libération, the French newspaper that has run his columns for the past nine years. Now 50, he has published four “auto-theories”: fusions of biography, autobiography and critical theory that draw on post-Foucauldian philosophical inquiry. His latest work, Can the Monster Speak?, is a highly unusual text – based on a lecture he tried to deliver to an audience of Lacanian philosophers before being booed off stage. To understand this latest challenge to the psychoanalytical establishment, we must look back at the life of a thinker whose intellectual development has always intersected with his personal metamorphosis.

Paul B. Preciado was born in 1970 in Burgos, “a small Spanish city dominated by Catholic Francoism”, to parents shaped by that dictator’s ideological straitjacket. (“B.” stands for Beatriz, his birth name.) “I was assigned the female gender,” he writes in Testo Junkie (2008), the earliest of the numerous chronicles of his development. “Spanish was made my maternal language; I was brought up to be a perfect little girl” – including, we’re told, an expensive education and private lessons in Latin.

Aged four, Preciado was diagnosed with maxillofacial deformation, which became more noticeable during his adolescence “to the point of looking grotesque”. In those years Preciado considered himself “a myopic monster who was dramatically skinny, had a pronounced jaw and arms and legs that were too long.” Girls were attracted to him but “after they’ve let their breasts be fondled and taken off their panties in my room,” they denounced Preciado to teachers. One day his mother received an anonymous phone call: “Your daughter is a dyke.” Preciado revelled in this moment of truth. He told his mother “with icy cruelty” that he liked girls, adding, “I’m a boy, and you didn’t realise it.”

The cultural climate of post-Franco Spain suffocated the young Preciado, and he flew to New York in 1993 on a Fulbright Scholarship. Self-identifying as a lesbian feminist, he enrolled in the philosophy department of the New School, studying under the founder of “deconstruction” Jacques Derrida and the Hungarian philosopher Agnes Heller. In 1999 he travelled to Paris to attend a seminar at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales to find out what “doing deconstruction” meant in France, the beginning of a lifelong relationship with the country.

Preciado views sex-assignment as a performance. Before birth, via ultrasound, we’re interpellated as female or male. “We all have lain on this first performative operating table: ‘It’s a boy!’ ‘It’s a girl!’” he writes in Testo Junkie. “The given name and its role as linguistic currency ensure the constant reiteration of this performative interpellation.” When birth and sex assignment don’t coincide, science intervenes. In 1955 the North American psychiatrist John Money introduced the terminological distinction of “gender role”, differentiating it from “sex”, contending that sex and gender identity could be changed until a child is roughly 18 months old.

It is this sex-assignment regime, fascinating in the power it wields, that Preciado holds to account. That Money accepted using surgical techniques to change the sex of any baby up to 18 months, but refused to do so later, is held up as an example of the arbitrariness of sex-assignment. The first documented case of such a procedure in a child born “normal” was performed on Bruce Peter Reimer in 1967, under Money’s supervision. Reimer’s penis was severely injured during a botched circumcision. Subsequently, the 18-month-old baby’s penis and testes were removed by physicians at the John Hopkins Hospital; a vestigial vulva and a vaginal canal were constructed for her. This type of surgery, not legislated but used to fix similar medical emergencies, came under attack after Reimer’s suicide in 2004, at the age of 38. To Preciado, modern medical practice is both an ally and a foe of the trans community: the guardian holding the keys to its self-realisation.

Reclaiming pornography and sex work

There was a particularly fierce culture war climate in France in the early 21st century, which shaped Preciado’s corpus of work. In 2000, France’s socialist government revoked the distribution permit for Baise-Moi (Fuck Me), a film based on the 1994 debut by Virginie Despentes, whose grimly realistic novels of sex and drugs led her to be described as “the rock’n’roll Zola of modern Paris”. Preciado joined protesters, arguing that sex work and pornography should not be banned or suppressed, but reclaimed as tools to upturn Europe’s sexual hegemonies. This position was fiercely criticised by feminists following Andrea Dworkin’s critique, which viewed porn and prostitution as components of male supremacism, with attempts to reappropriate them for “female empowerment” illusory at best.

Preciado writes of how he felt “a bit ridiculous” after seeing Despentes for the first time: “I’m impressed by her Nordic peasant arms, her decidedly warrior-like walk. VD is stoned on alcohol, coke, speed, I suppose.” They became a couple, the blossoming of their relationship coinciding with what Preciado considers “the beginning of queer politics” in Europe. For months, the couple devoted all their time to activism and intellectual work, in an attempt to invent “new forms of collective living”.

Preciado’s “crossing” began in 2004 when he decided to self-administer testosterone for the first time. For several years he was gender-fluid, “travelling through a nameless space between female and male”. Yet he renounced fluidity because he “desired change”, as he writes in An Apartment on Uranus. His testosterone regime is mythologised with panache: “I notice that the last four doses of fifty milligrams are interacting for the first time, forming a chemical bond that is getting me high. The skin inside my mouth has become thicker. My tongue is like an erectile muscle. I feel that I could smash the window with my fist. I could leap to the balcony opposite and fuck my neighbour if she were waiting for me with her thighs spread.” The testosterone keeps him awake. It compels him to tidy up his apartment “frenetically, all night long”. His writing transforms, too: from post-structuralist academese to a Flaubertian precision.

An Apartment on Uranus was published in the UK in 2020, finely rendered into English by Charlotte Mandell. In the course of 67 essays, mostly collected from Preciado’s Libération column, it follows the trajectory of continental politics between 2013 and 2018, the high era of 21st century European populism. We learn about the rise of La Manif Pour Tous (the Protest for Everyone), a homophobic protest movement led by “Frigide Barjot”, a populist comedian, and the “uterus strike” in Spain to protest proposed abortion laws by not allowing “a single drop of National-Catholic sperm to penetrate our vaginas”.

In my favourite essay, on diaries Virginia Woolf kept while writing Orlando: A Biography, her 1928 novel on a male nobleman who switches gender roles, he reflects: “Understanding how she constructed Orlando narratively helps me think about the making of Paul. What happens in the narrative of a life when it is possible to change the main character’s sex?” Woolf defined the effect this writing created in her as ecstasy. “I sometimes feel a similar emotion,” he admits.

Resisting the language of colonial patriarchy

A different mood reigns in Can the Monster Speak? Report to an Academy of Psychoanalysts, published in France last summer and by Fitzcarraldo Editions in June. It is the text of a lecture Preciado delivered in part in November 2019 to an audience of 3,500 psychoanalysts at the École de la Cause Freudienne. He accused them of using “the language of Freud and Lacan, the language of colonial patriarchy” and of normalising gender roles; asking them not to deny the “complicity of psychoanalysis in the heteronormative epistemology of sex” and asking how many queer analysts there were in the room. He was unable to finish the lecture, which was cut short due to booing and heckling from the scandalised audience.

The text itself draws heavily on Franz Kafka’s A Report to an Academy. Kafka’s short story is narrated by an ape, “Red Peter”, who turns human by imitating his captors: he recalls how he was shot and caught on the Gold Coast and his memories of being carried in a three-sided cage, where it is “too low for me to stand up, too narrow to sit down”. For Red Peter there’s no way out, and he considers human freedom as a set of disciplined acts, resembling the self-controlled movements of trapeze artists. “No, freedom was not what I wanted. Only a way out: right or left, or in any direction . . . To get out somewhere, to get out!”

In Preciado’s lecture, he details his own history in “the cage of human subjectivity” to his audience of Lacanians, introducing himself as an “ape-human” and issuing a startling warning: “I am the monster who speaks to you. The monster you have created with your discourse and your clinical practices.” Yet he seems to have no qualms about being stuck in “this elective, refashioned cage of the trans man”, preferring it to heterosexuality “in that it acknowledges its status as a cage”.

As his self-mutations continue, Preciado has become a master of auto-theory: all his works arrive at a philosophy by way of personal experience. In doing so, they demand the same from readers, calling us to leave our cages of sexual difference. His writings can be didactic at times, while his politics is often as black-and-white as the binary regime he seeks to critique. And yet, Preciado remains one of the most probing and original minds in queer studies today. Drawing fierce criticism and admiration, his writings burn with a fire kindled by a passion for self-change.

This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.