“Before I knew I was a human being and not a dog, my earliest sense of myself was male. I am just a funny sort of guy. I don’t hate my female body, I just don’t recognize it as mine,” writes Cooper Lee Bombardier, author, artist, and transgender activist, in his book, Pass With Care: Memoirs, which was published by Dottir Press in June. In a voice that meshes disarming humanity with humor, the author chronicles his journey through life as a trans man, making peace with experiences that wounded him and led him to become the human being he now is.
Bombardier, who was listed by the Huffington Post in 2014 as one of “10 Transgender Artists Who Are Changing the Landscape of Contemporary Art,” feels that accounts of trans lives are all too frequently just about their transitions. “When we reduce trans people’s lives to a transition narrative,” he tells the Independent by phone, “we shrink what we believe to be possible about all that a trans person’s life can contain. Trans writers have a whole lot more to add to our ongoing cultural conversations.”
Releasing his first book in the middle of a pandemic has, Bombardier says, “been interesting, to say the least. I won’t lie — at first, I was pretty crushed when it became clear that my tour would have to be canceled. But I quickly moved on. Staying safe in a global pandemic and fighting for black and indigenous liberation and the end to immigrant detention are things that are far more important than my little book being born.”
Bombardier adds that the “unexpected upshot of a pandemic book” has been that the virtual events that he’s been participating in are far more accessible to a wider public. “You just have no idea who might turn out, and that is really cool,” he says. He will be reading from Pass With Care this Friday in a virtual event hosted by East End Books Ptown.
Bombardier, who lives with his wife in Halifax, Nova Scotia, grew up in a small town on the South Shore of Massachusetts. “My town used to be classified as rural, and my immediate neighbors were four generations of my father’s family,” he says. “I’m Gen X, so my childhood was composed of tons of unsupervised time outside, running through the woods and overgrown farmland and each other’s yards.”
Family vacations always included an annual trip to Provincetown, and Bombardier would later return to the Outer Cape to work summers and once spent a full year. “Provincetown is one of those places that lives in my soul,” he says. “I love the feeling of being free as a queer person, but also being around so much joy and creativity. To have that kind of experience is particularly resonant for many who grew up in small towns, where we felt that there was no room for us.”
Visual art was, for a long time, Bombardier’s primary form of expression, followed in the 1990s by spoken word performance in San Francisco’s queer punk scene. Around 2001, he says, “I hit a place where I felt stuck in my visual work. I wasn’t sure how to get it to do what I wanted it to do. As I focused more on writing, that became the place where I could ask the questions I wanted to explore.” Bombardier, who was then living in Portland, Ore., completed a master’s in publishing and then an M.F.A. in creative writing at Portland State University.
He chose to render his trans experience in the medium of nonfiction memoir with an awareness of the form’s potential and its pitfalls. “In my nonfiction writing, I reveal a lot, but I also pick and choose,” he says. “I’m very private, which is always a weird conundrum. I also always try to stay focused on my own experience and make sure that I am not exposing anybody else more than myself. The work that I put out now is not a therapy session. It’s not a diary. I’m using the tools of a creative form to take material and turn it into artistic expression. More than anything, I am obsessed with polyvalence and nuance and trying to say the unsayable without truncation.”
Despite a greater awareness and wider understanding in our society of the trans experience, Bombardier feels we still have a long way to go. “Because there is more visibility, there is also more of a pushback, and visibility doesn’t always come with actual rights and acceptance,” he says, adding that violence against trans bodies has not decreased. “Trans feminine people and trans people of color are still an incredibly vulnerable population, so I feel that it is also very important to acknowledge that, for me, moving through the world in a white, masculine body comes with a lot of privilege.”
Above all, Bombardier hopes that trans people will be seen as equal human beings. “You know, I can’t stand the word ‘tolerance,’ ” he says. “The idea of tolerance sounds nice, but when you think about it, tolerating somebody just isn’t the same as saying, ‘Hey, I’m glad you’re here!’”
The event: Virtual reading by Cooper Lee Bombardier from his memoir, Pass With Care
The time: Friday, Aug. 14, at 6 p.m.
The place: East End Books Ptown via Zoom, at eastendbooksptown.com
The cost: Free; registration required for Zoom link