by S.E. Fleenor
Transcription by Veronique Emma Houxbois started out as a project to explore Houxbois’ experience starting HRT, particularly her emotional transformation. The stunning diary comic, created in beautiful pink, white, and blue strips that reflect the colors of the trans pride flag, has grown since its inception to become not just a testament to the power of trans women, but also an archive of transfemininity and the healing capacity of t4t love and intimacy.
In building her strip, Houxbois pulls from real-world experiences, fiction, pop culture, and pretty much everything to pull readers into the expansiveness of transness while using familiar references (particularly for comic book lovers, nerds, and horror aficionados) to ground us.
Veronique Emma Houxbois takes BoC behind creating and growing Transcription in this interview. Volume One is out now and available for purchase at houxbois.itch.io. Read the comic in its entirety at houxbois.org and make sure to check out the Transcription playlist here.
Psst…If you can’t get enough of Veronique Emma Houxbois (we never can!), make sure to check out the Bitches on Comics episodes she’s featured on: Episode 32: All these reflective surfaces, Episode 47: That would be impolitic, and most recently, Episode 172: A conscious act to believe in something better featuring Emma Jayne, which Veronique Emma Houxbois guest hosts.
I also had the opportunity to talk to Veronique Emma Houxbois about her comic a few years back and highly recommend reading that interview about the early days of Transcription.
When we had you on the podcast as a guest host talking to Emma Jayne, we ended up discussing Rachel Pollack, her interview with BoC, and her approach to creating trans characters. I’m paraphrasing, but she told us that she just wrote people she knew and that’s why they felt real. Transcription pulls from your real-life experiences starting HRT and from fictionalized versions of conversations and scenarios that happen in real life, as well as from pop culture including comics and science fiction, fantasy, and horror. What does blending these elements together allow you to do that you could not otherwise?
I guess if there’s one like, overarching logic, it’s shared cultural understanding. They’re shortcuts to understanding, and you’re going to need a lot of those if you want to get something complex across in a three panel strip. It really varies though. Sometimes it’s to amplify a message or feeling through the messenger. So like, if I use Poison Ivy as the vehicle for talking about the insecurities and emotional weight that go along with loving someone involved with an abuser, it casts a wide net. People instantly get it but they might also start asking themselves why DC has never actually published a comic where Ivy’s perspective is communicated as anything but jealousy and suspicion.
That strip was actually about processing my feelings about the Reese character in Detransition, Baby but I didn’t want to restrict an understanding of what I was talking about to people who had read that book. It was, you know, also touching on the fact that the most meaningful friendship I had with another trans woman ended because of the tensions around her dating Brandon Graham and I didn’t want an expression of my feelings about a broad phenomenon to get reduced to salacious rubbernecking about him and his bad behaviour. That’s why, you know, any time I mention him in my comics it’s an oblique representation of an elephant. Only people who know enough about him to know he’s got a huge elephant tattoo on his neck are going to know who I’m talking about, and generally speaking, those people aren’t going to hassle me about it. It’s a way to control access to meaning without restricting my range of expression, which is a very queer thing if you think about, say, the hanky code or palare.
I also did something similar to that in a more lighthearted way in a strip about playing with a dildo. The third panel is just a drawing of myself in the style of the WAP video. Someone who did an early review of Transcription thought it was a non sequitur because they didn’t recognize the reference. It cracks me up. The whole thing was that I didn’t really want to explain my first, accidental experience of prostate milking and sudden deluge of prostatic fluid after I had mostly stopped ejaculating except for what Michelle Perez calls Crystal Pepsi. It also actually happened on the night of the day that the WAP video premiered. That morning I was like, wow I love this song and Cardi and Meghan but it’s too bad I can’t relate to the central visual here. Turns out that yeah, I could. I just didn’t find out until later.
At a time where so much of the public discourse around transness is filled with salacious lies and titillating cishet machinations, I feel firmly that stories by and about trans people are a lifeline we can offer each other. I know that reading your comics made me feel less alone and helped me understand my transfeminine partner a lot better. That’s obviously not your job as a cartoonist, but I’m curious about the reception of Transcription and how that has influenced the strips you are now creating or not. Did you expect for people to react so strongly and positively to your work?
Well, the whole inciting incident, the bat smashing through the window, of Transcription was that I’d never encountered any trans related media that talked about the emotional realignment that goes along with HRT. You hear about physical changes, peeing too much on spiro (ask your doctor about cyproterone), stuff like that and I feel like a lot of that probably has to do with cis gatekeeping about what parts of the trans experience are compelling to them and their idea of a broader audience. So I’ve always had visibility or advocacy or discourse or whatever in mind to a certain extent. Everything I do is rooted in expressing emotional realities.
I guess any expectations I had about the reception of my comics had more to do with how good I thought I was at making comics when I started than anything else. When I was on the judging panel that awarded Emma Jayne a Prism award for Trans Girls Hit The Town I had written several pages of notes like, anticipating pleading my case for why it was so uniquely compelling and affecting for trans women because I wasn’t expecting like TME (lol) or you know, anyone not a trans woman to get why it was so different from how relationships between trans women had been portrayed elsewhere. I barely used my notes in our deliberation because yeah, I did end up being the only trans woman on the panel, but the other judges got it. A lot of them had come into the deliberations just as prepared to give the award to Emma as I was. So that was a big deal to me because I had been pretty much at my nadir of alienation from comics as an industry after going through stuff like getting baited into a debate over Howard Chaykin’s The Divided States of America with Rich Johnston and the aftermath of the allegations against Brandon Graham and how cis people in the industry treated both those situations. But then I got this look into how trans women making our own comics could be received and that I could just let go of the entire armature built up around the direct market without abandoning comics as a whole.
So I knew it could happen, but not necessarily whether it could or would happen to me. I tried not to worry too much about it and just, you know, toil away at what I wanted to do and just build inertia towards making something worth noticing. I’ve always been obsessed with the progression of comics like Wet Moon, Scott Pilgrim, and Scud: The Disposable Assassin where people started out unpolished and immature and just really fundamentally changed as people along the way. Sophie Campbell wasn’t Sophie back then. Brian Lee O’Malley and Rob Schamberger, you can spot the precise moments that they had their Ozymandias moments and completely restructured their work out of embarrassment at who they were and how they expressed themselves at the outset.
There’s nothing like getting to see people grow and change through their work like that. I was banking on Transcription being that for me and I was hyper aware that the progress of my transition was going to contribute to that dynamic as much as my grasp on how to manipulate the medium would. There’s that quote that God created the transsexual for the same reason as creating both wheat and bread: so that we could partake in the act of creation.
Over time, the reactions I’ve gotten have really kept me doing it and coming back to it even if life events forced long hiatuses. Seeing that people who aren’t trans women or even trans were really connecting to it emotionally told me that my comics vocabulary was effective and that I could push further, get bolder, more esoteric, more idiosyncratic. It was really non binary people who first got invested enough to want to write reviews and interview me about it out of enthusiasm for my work and that was really surprising to me because in my own mind I write girl comics for girls and like, I definitely disrupt cisnormativity a lot, but I live very firmly at one end of the proverbial swimming pool and I didn’t see that appealing to people with more expansive and non euclidian perceptions of their own genders than I do.
So I think about that and I remember it when I do stuff like the strip about Brooke Candy’s song “My Sex” or I’m putting together a Bitch Planet porn parody. Who do I want to acknowledge and return empathy to when I’m doing stuff that isn’t immediately about me?
I also tack towards what works, what gets compliments. I remember you saying something early on about how I use hands and let me tell you, I have never thought I draw hands well. Rob Liefeld drawing feet, me drawing hands. Whether or not I thought I could draw hands worth a damn I still tried to center them sometimes because I was really taken with what Susie Bright said about her advice to the Wachowskis about dykes’ hands being their cocks when she was consulting on Bound and wanted to carry it forward. My whole mentality was “I’ll nail it on the next take,” that I’d just come back to the motif in subsequent comics until I could pull it off. So the fact that you weren’t deterred by how I drew them in being affected by what I wanted to convey was really motivating. It’s there in my most recent strip, #203.
I’d love to hear about how you’ve decided to situate readers in individual strips and as a whole. Many of your strips address all readers, but a fair number also speak to a specific addressee: a lover, an ex, etc. The effect, in my opinion, is putting the reader in a sort of voyeur and participant framework that is just plain fun and at the same time productive for conversations around gender and sexuality. How conscious was the process of defining your reader as a specific person in some strips and what do you think we get from that immediacy?
Well I’m not fully expressing myself and my emotions if I’m not addressing them to who they’re for, right? It’s mediated and diminished if I’m just narrating to a third person. That’s also, kind of like, orienting it to an outside gaze. It’s how you write a song though. Like Carly Simon or Alanis Morisette or Adele. I think it’s more emotionally honest and less prone to detached, prurient interest. I’m not thinking about the audience at all when I do strips like that, they aren’t receiving it, they’re privileged to overhear it unmitigated. Which is really important in thinking about the like, cultural invisibility of trans women loving each other and what that can look like. People are shocked that we love each other and bang each other because they think our emotional and sexual lives have to revolve around cis people. As Elle Woods once said “They just don’t.”
That said, you know, the fourth wall really didn’t last long in my comics. I do a lot of POV panels and that’s where I get confrontational with the reader and refuse them a passive, disconnected experience. I talked about the bisexual semiotics of Transcription for Autostraddle a while back and how I reverse the representational dynamics of straight POV porn. It’s a genre that trans women have been able to use as a surrogate for the otherwise dismal representation of trans women in mainstream studio porn if they’re into topping other women. It obviously sucks as an erotic surrogate because it’s a literal cis male gaze that doesn’t reflect how trans women fuck.
Of course, cis men do shoot a lot of POV porn for trans women performers because it’s a way to fuck trans women without their faces appearing on camera. So POV porn of trans women having sex with cis men shot from the trans woman’s perspective is vanishingly rare. Most of the POV porn shot from a trans woman’s perspective is lesbian T4T stuff so that’s as great for me personally as it is dismal commentary on social norms around the desirability of trans women. So when I did the panel of Mystique getting her dick sucked in POV it was very confrontational and challenging. I definitely did use a reference of a POV video of a cis guy sucking a trans woman’s dick for that panel but it was pretty much the only video like that from a very prolific performer.
So generally speaking, I want to bring people into situations outside of their experience to understand how alien it is for a trans woman to be expected to subsist on perspectives that have nothing to do with her. Michelle Perez recently mentioned on BlueSky that some people who reviewed The Pervert felt like they were witnessing something they weren’t supposed to see in a panel of two trans women 69ing. I couldn’t stop laughing. I drew a strip swapping POV panels between two trans women sucking each others’ dicks. How would those squares react to being pulled that intimately into the same scene? I forget how many cis people are that skittish.
But I don’t always have a big plan in mind when I use those panels. I did a recent strip picking up on a concept that Matty Lubchansky and Pseudonym Jones did before me where a TERF is telling a trans woman that when she dies she’ll leave a “male skeleton” behind. My version involved Emily Deschanel stepping out of a toilet stall to intervene, and the middle panel was a POV shot of her opening the door. I really just did it to dramatize the cameo and heighten the third panel reveal, but looking back at it, the strip comes off as issuing a challenge to see the situation from Deschanel’s perspective. To imagine themselves being the ones to say “Anthropologically speaking, that’s incorrect.” I didn’t mean to do that, but that’s what’s there on the page and that owns.
Something that jumped out at me in this readthrough is how often you put your protagonist/yourself on the side of characters from Batman’s rogues gallery, from Bane to Harley Quinn. Sometimes, as when Harley and Ivy are talking to Catwoman about whether or not Batman is into cunnilingus, the strip is used as a playful and sexy reimagining of something that happened IRL around the Batman franchise. In others, the strip is used to show how trans and queer people tend to identify with villains and why. I’d love to hear about how you first connected with Batman’s baddies and what it is you’re doing with these strips.
Yeah, well, for reference in case people don’t know what prompted this, the Harley Quinn cartoon’s writers’ room came up with a joke about Batman “eating pussy” and someone from corporate came back and told them that they had to pull the joke because “heroes don’t do that.” This is, you know, an HBO Max show. It wasn’t someone at HBO programming saying you can’t make cunnilingus jokes at HBO. It was someone saying that making the joke would damage Batman’s brand somehow. We’ve talked before about how Batman’s dick is why SFSX got dropped by Vertigo and landed at Image. There’s a mania about protecting Batman in specific from sex in that company.
I love Bane, and I love antagonizing Chuck Dixon even more, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really put myself on Bane’s side in Transcription. I used his Venom addiction as an allegory for my relationship with anger prior to transitioning, for sure. That said, I do personally confront Batman as a Bane inspired villain in a luchadora costume. Her name is Osita (after Bane’s childhood teddy bear Osito) and I’ll be returning as her soon.
I guess, and I don’t mean to be belligerent when I say this, I would argue that none of the unholy trinity of Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman are villains. Catwoman has always existed in a category of exception in Batman’s moral cosmology. Their relationship has always been a cat about to push something off a shelf and a person telling the cat not to push the thing off the shelf. Catwoman doesn’t really ever go to Arkham. She goes to Blackgate or whatever. She’s always a sympathetic character and sometimes an audience surrogate. If you wanted to argue that Frank Miller has been a net positive for sex worker representation in comics and treating them as sympathetic characters you’re supposed to root for, you start at “Seliiiina, you punched Staaaan!”
As far as where it began, the script for my life was written in a span of three months in 1992, when I was eight years old. Batman Returns was released on June 19th. Batman: The Animated Series Season 1, Episode 7 “Joker’s Favor” aired September 11th. I’m a trans woman leatherdyke cartoonist. The first Catwoman I ever saw was Michelle Pfieffer. I’ve never known Batman without Harley Quinn.
I grew up with Harley Quinn and I don’t just mean like I saw her around on TV and stuff when I was a kid. I mean that the character has evolved as I’ve matured and developed into who I am now. The project that Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner undertook to legitimize and humanize Harley’s queerness after decades of bad jokes and prurient male interest took place in tandem with my coming out and asserting myself as a trans woman. Moving on a parallel track to a fictional character like that is a lot. The initial Suicide Squad movie look with the washed out pink and blue ombre hair. Trans flag haired Harley Quinn. How do you process something like that? I guess you draw her forever and dress up like her for leather events a lot.
Again, I just don’t think that Harley has ever been consistently viewed or intentionally portrayed cleanly as a villain. From Mad Love forward Harley’s identity becomes that of a victim, and that’s not great in a lot of ways if you want a critique of the portrayal, but that’s where she starts getting fleshed out as a character. You get Harley’s Holiday and that’s the genesis of Bruce’s ongoing drive to “save” Harley and her bifurcated love-hate relationship with Bruce Wayne and Batman that has defined the character since.
Poison Ivy, you know I probably first saw her on B:TAS, but I think I’ve made it explicitly clear in both my comics and cosplay that she wants to dance like Uma Thurman. How can Joel Schumacher be gone? I can’t accept that he’s dead any more than I can Anthony Bourdain. Poison Ivy as a character has mutated and evolved as a character entirely at the pace of change of popular opinion about feminism, homosexuality, and climate change.
When Ivy got her B:TAS debut three days after Harley Quinn, alongside Renee Montoya, it was as a pair of hands saving a wild rose from the construction site of a prison. Ivy has been a straight villain, but it’s become untenable to the point of impossibility in my lifetime. It definitely used to be the case that both the writers and fandom were pathologically attached to the principle that Ivy was just as bad to/for Harley as The Joker. I’ve said many times that abusers exist in all genders and orientations and have gone further to assert that it’s dangerous and destructive to disallow portrayals of abuse in same gender relationships in media, but I can confidently tell you that the attachment to this particular dynamic was homophobic and that’s why it’s been gradually eased back since Karl Kershel and Terry Dodson unveiled Harley’s first solo comic series twenty three years ago.
One thing I’ll say about all three of them is that they were all presented as allegorically transexual in their film debuts. Tim Burton really lit a match that could never be extinguished because all three follow the pattern set by Selina’s transformation in Batman Begins. All three are meek professional women clearly living as diminished, closeted versions of their true selves until a workplace trauma forces a transformation into a version of themselves they embrace openly. Ivy, I really do think that Joel Schumacher intended to be read as transsexual. The way Thurman acts like a drag queen and is presented as the diametric opposite of Bane as the gay archetype of the leather daddy feels incredibly intentional. Judith Butler had already published their thoughts on homosexuality restaging and parodying heterosexuality in Gender Trouble by the time Batman and Robin came out, and by came out, I mean came out.
There’s an alternate take on Harley’s origin in Suicide Squad that’s included in the extended cut and I think the cartoon might have riffed on it as well. They shot a version where Harley took the Joker to Ace Chemical at gunpoint and forced him to follow through on his promise to make her like him. No one had tried that or touched it before. That Harley was the one who had agency over becoming Harley. I’m an Ayer Cut radical and I’ve been one since the movie opened.
I think that, even though I guess I disagree with the premise I would say that all three of them exist in a state of exception in the moral cosmology of Batman. They exist outside the binary of good and evil. Even Poison Ivy, it’s like the best anyone can say is that Batman disagrees with Ivy’s methods but can’t really argue with her goals or ideals. They’re more like, I don’t know, Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or the dearly departed Diane Feinstein and the children outside her office that wanted climate change legislation than hero and villain.
A couple points worth noting here though. The Harley/Ivy/Selina bit is a two part strip. There’s just an absurd number of easter eggs in those strips. One example is that Selina is wearing a Vivienne Westwood pearl choker because my friend Tini Howard, who writes Catwoman, loves Vivienne Westwood. A joke in the second strip that I hope people got is that when Selina is interrupted by the server, she’s talking about how much money she spent on bottom surgery. There’s a previous strip where Poison Ivy talks about being able to make her semen taste like anything so there’s supposed to be a subtext here that this is a group of trans women who are chill with each others’ transition choices.
The other thing about these strips is that Kate Kane is in both of them. She’s a tiny background figure at the bar in the first one, identifiable by the nautical star tattoo on her back. In the second one she appears sending a round of muff divers to the trio. It’s the first time she really appears in Transcription but there’s a lot of easter eggs pointing to her that I set up along the way. I redrew an Alex Ross variant cover of her in a comic about my first bondage harness, and her penthouse with the tree growing out of it appears in the “kink at pride” exchange between Osita and Batman. It’s incredibly oblique. The nautical star I draw on my back in a few strips is one of her tattoos in JH Williams III’s design sheet for her. I got one of her tattoos instead of getting a tattoo of her because of how intense my identification with her is.
Greg Rucka and JH Williams III’s Detective Comics run started just when I was coming out as trans and trying to start socially transitioning. A lot of my first women’s clothes were red and black, bought intentionally to try to channel her confidence and embodiment. I almost chose Kate instead of Emma. I’ve had a really difficult relationship with the character because of how she’s been portrayed since and how DC has handled the character and the creative teams on her books. So I’ve been very slow and deliberate in working references to her into Transcription, but I will be putting something together exploring her influence on my transition and DC’s relationship to leather iconography in its comics.
I also sketched out and never executed a third strip in the series where Harley confronts Batman with an Alf hand puppet. If you’ve ever seen Alf, you’ll probably figure out what I was going for pretty quickly.
I’m often deeply touched by your comics, particularly the more explicit ones. You show the realities of trans women’s bodies and sexuality with such vulnerability and tenderness. There’s both a deep respect for trans experiences and a simplicity of presenting things just the way they are. It strips away the layers of mystery and fear and, even, hatred, and lays bare transness as another way to be. At the same time, it’s clear the strips don’t center the cishet gaze, but rather center transfeminine desire and perspective. So, while it’s accessible in many ways, it’s not a how-to and it’s just simply not about cishet people. Talk to me about how you center and explore transness without explaining it.
I just fucking do it. There was a short period of time where I tried to do sex toy reviews in draggy sort of looks and post them to either OnlyFans or YouTube. There was one where, I think I was talking about a trans flag dildo from a company that has a whole line of pride flag sex toys. I bought the trans flag dildo, the bisexual one, and the leather flag butt plug over the course of a few months as those parts of my identity developed. Anyway, I was shooting this video about the trans flag one, the first one I got, and I just broke down on camera. I just started crying my eyes out saying “I love trans women so much.”
I don’t think that it’s much more complicated than that. I develop things in the ways that I experience them and then I work out how best to put them on the page. I think once I first started getting real feedback and saw that people could grasp and were interested in what I was doing it gave me a kind of fearlessness to just keep going.
The other trans women around me are important to it too, of course. How my desires developed and how I learned to articulate them had a lot to do with figuring out how to articulate them to other trans women and how they express reciprocation.
Porn is also really important. Seeing how trans women performers transitioned to self producing content and what they were doing and how they were presenting it as studio production stopped due to the pandemic and OnlyFans really took off was formative. How they talk about their cocks and orgasms in JOI videos or how they talk to each other in switchy POV videos. It was entirely trans women porn performers explaining the ins and outs of changes to semen and orgasms to start killing the myths behind the days when studios pushed them to go off blockers to produce cumshots that gave me any idea what to expect as I transitioned.
A lot of it is stuff that I was drawing out as I was learning it and experiencing it so it was still fresh and easy to capture the way that it played out for me. It’s not a memoir in the sense of trying to recall and reconstruct the past, it’s a living document.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You draw the absolute cutest cocks. They wear bows and pretty colors. They are loved and worshiped. And, they simply are. In Transcription, transness is a gift and it’s a reclamation. These are our bodies. We will do with them what we want. We will transform ourselves and we will not be ashamed of the parts of ourselves we cannot–will not–change. Because a cock is not inherently masculine. It just…is. I’d love to hear how you decided to make Transcription explicit and why you think that’s important for trans people and trans women in particular to explore the erotic beauty of our bodies?
Sex and love were big parts of why I chose to go on HRT when I did. It was something I kept delaying, like oh I’ll start hormones when I finish school or when I can leave this job where I can’t be out comfortably. Kicking the can down the road. That changed for me when the pandemic hit, I lost that job, and I was able to get onto a government program that paid me to stay home for the next six months or so. The issues around transitioning in a hostile workplace were gone, but the real motivating factor was that I was falling in love with another trans woman I was corresponding with online and for the first time, I really wanted someone to see me the way I wanted to be seen. I made the biggest and scariest decision of my life -to be in and out of doctor’s offices and medical labs repeatedly- in the terrifying pre-vaccine days. I did it as an act of love, for her to get to see the version of me she deserved and for myself, to choose self care and embodiment.
Aside from that, I’ve been interested in making porn and erotic art a lot longer than I’ve articulated it openly or produced it confidently. When I was laser focused on producing direct market type comics before the pandemic, I started developing the idea for a series that was kind of a coming of age story about a new porn performer in a heightened but somewhat grounded version of the studio system.
So I think there’s a trail of breadcrumbs leading to how I finally found an outlet for it. Part of what ends up in Transcription is rough drafts for the kind of porn I would want to shoot if I had sets and a cast and all that. Woke Up Like This is absolutely that, just figuring out basic story, blocking, and flow before trying to integrate a more complicated story or fantastical elements into it.
I think part of it is that I have a belligerent attitude about keeping the sex in transsexual as a means of pushing back on respectability politics and the segment of online youth who are expressing reactionary views because they haven’t come to terms with how much of their worldview has been shaped by Evangelical Christian dogma. I can’t stand to see wedges get driven between trans or queer people and that’s really how the reactionaries win. If we can’t find solidarity and hold the line, we’re done.
There was an incident a few years ago, when Pose was coming out, a prominent trans woman in comics started complaining about how much of media representation of trans women involves drag queens and sex workers. Paris is Burning runs through my veins. I learned to read Judith Butler through their review of it. I wrote multiple women’s studies and critical theory papers on ballroom in college. Leiomy Maldonado is a recurring character in Transcription. These are the founding principles of my politics and values as a trans woman. I was incredibly angry, upset, and scared.
I don’t think I actually tweeted anything directly, but I had a few industry people and friends reach out to me and send me DMs asking me if I was okay because they knew how upsetting it would be to me. Something only a handful of people know is that when those tweets went out, my first pitch for a comic I would write and draw myself had been accepted and I was being assigned an editor and production assistant. The comic was about a coven of drag queen witches, some of whom were trans sex workers, who created a Frankenstein’s Monster to give their drag mother a “real” daughter.
It paralyzed me. Obviously, I was already in a pretty vulnerable and difficult place to let a tweet make me walk away from my first comic on my own, but either way it was a terrible way to wield public influence that threw a lot of people under the bus. This was before The Pervert came out. It was probably while a lot of the events in The Pervert were happening in real life. I looked at my own comic and it terrified me. What if I tried to put this out and I get a backlash about resorting to stereotypes from bad actors because a prominent trans woman in the industry salted the earth? It wasn’t something I had the emotional stamina to endure at the time.
I lied about why I walked away. I said I couldn’t move forward because of contract language that would potentially let the publisher undercut me with the original story in perpetuity without paying royalties if I chose to continue it as a serial elsewhere. It was true, but it was really an excuse to give me cover to walk away without admitting what the real reason was.
I can’t let that happen to me again and the stakes are so much higher right now. Book bans are shitty and we do have to mobilize to put an end to it but I feel like it tends to take up too much oxygen and gets talked about in the wrong ways. You always get some authors who are going to act like it’s street cred to get challenged, but, like, again, The Pervert got banned from a library and the person who ordered it for the collection got fired. Michelle isn’t out here like how cool is it that someone lost their job for making my book available to people. Liberals adding The Pervert or The Magic Fish to their “banned book shelf” isn’t going to resolve the issue. It’s theater.
I mean realistically speaking, the scope of the access to these books being lost is kind of narrow and they can still be accessed in a lot of ways. It’s more of a class issue than an existential threat to the works themselves. Again, it deserves attention and needs to be countered, but it doesn’t need to take all the oxygen out of the room or get misconstrued as a fun party activity for social clout.
Meanwhile, we just are not talking about the scope of online censorship and gatekeeping of “adult” content. There’s a bill that’s wildly dangerous for the future of queer people to exist on the Internet right now called the Kids Online Safety Act, and Elizabeth Warren is a cosponsor. This is a supposed left wing progressive champion using children as a smokescreen to choke out queer expression online. It’s somehow even more sinister than SESTA/FOSTA or EARN IT in its packaging. This is what happens when people let porn and erotic art become wedge issues between queer people. This is where “kink at pride” and attacking the Folsom Street Fair on social media leads.
But you know, no one outside of porn and a narrow band of civil rights groups is talking about how soft power outside the scope of elected office has been strangling queer expression on the Internet for ages. How reactionary “anti-trafficking” groups did an end run around elected officials to lobby payment processors directly to tighten restrictions on sex workers and adult content.
There’s charts you can look up that show you what kinds of content can be posted to various porn sites like OF, ManyVids, and so on, and these aren’t like, the squicks of site management dictating whether they’ll let you post fisting or watersports or whatever. It’s the restrictions laid out by payment processors or laws where a given site is based. It’s credit card companies and other processors like PayPal dictating what they will and will not let people pay for on their platforms. It’s censorship in the form of economic warfare and it isn’t new. Performers like Stoya were talking about having cheques from porn studios arbitrarily rejected by banks during the Obama administration.
The ACLU has filed a complaint with MasterCard to the FTC over it and one of the public faces of the action is Vanniall, an incredibly talented black trans porn performer who has lost significant income over the onerous regulations and verification systems imposed on OnlyFans by MasterCard. Stuff like this is why I get so upset at those respectability politics arguments. We should have robust media representation of trans drag queens and sex workers because they have always been on the vanguard of fighting for our rights because they have always been the first and worst affected by prejudice against us.
We have to keep making this work and celebrating it because it will disappear if we don’t. We need challenging works that show us as we are to show each other how we can move through the world because we’re in an era of a resurgent campaign to eliminate us from public life.
I think for trans women, whatever the political climate or regulatory structure is there will always be opportunities for derogatory and prurient depictions of us from cis people. There will always be space and excuses made for why something like The Divided States of Hysteria deserves to be out there and there just won’t be that energy for The Pervert or Transcription or anything else. We’ve seen what happens when cis men are allowed to dominate how trans women are depicted, erotically or otherwise.
It keeps us from being able to know ourselves and understand the possibilities of what we can be and achieve. The first time I saw trans women having sex together was a clip on a tube site years ago shot in a hotel room where there was a guy off camera telling them what to do to give him the fantasy he wanted and they were just really half heartedly following through and having trouble getting hard. It really made sex between trans women seem like something that didn’t really happen. I couldn’t see myself with another trans woman and I really thought that bottom surgery and sort of assimilating into cis lesbian womanhood was the only real path forward. For a while that’s genuinely what I thought I wanted for myself. That stopped being the case when I had access to better depictions of trans women’s sexuality and fell in love with another trans woman.
So a lot of why I articulate the things that I do around sex and why I’m so transparent about my body and my desires is that I want to hold those possibilities open for anyone who sees my work. To make it clear how narrow and misleading the position of trans women in the cis imaginary is. I don’t think any of how I express myself sexually is radical. I think having a sensual, heightened experience of the world that recognizes the latent erotic potential all around us is a central part of being a leatherdyke. So I present it that way. I don’t situate it in the political reality of the moment because that’s ultimately a concession to cisnormativity. I know what the opposing viewpoints are and how they manifest and I’m rarely interested in allowing them to enter what I do. I’m far more interested in creating a liminal space and reinforcing the precious and delicate nature of that space.
One thread that weaves throughout your comic is that of gender euphoria. It’s explicitly discussed on the page. What stands out to me, though, is the way that euphoria shows up in the actual art, from the way we see characters smiling and fucking to how we see them crying with relief at being understood and loved. How did you infuse Transcription with gender euphoria at the deepest levels and why does that matter to you?
I think, like just about anything else, it starts with my emotional reality and figuring how best to visually depict it. Getting back to the original intent behind Transcription, HRT really heightened a lot of my emotional responses. I cry a lot more easily. I get aroused a lot more intensely. Feeling things more acutely makes it easier and more attractive to focus on artistically.
Of course dysphoria is also wildly overrepresented in trans related media. For a long time, and maybe still, dysphoria has been more or less presented as The Trans Condition, and I guess, from there the idea was that HRT and gender affirming care was effectively an alleviation of dysphoria. Like a leveling off at best. Those narratives don’t really leave space for anything beyond the potential alleviation of misery. It’s only really recently that an antonym of gender dysphoria has been introduced into the popular lexicon.
I don’t think I had the vernacular for gender euphoria yet when it first entered my comics and it was at the absolute beginning when I wrote a script for the DC/IDW charity anthology benefitting the families of the victims of the Pulse shooting. I got forwarded Marc Andreyko’s letter to DC reacting to the shooting that kicked the whole thing off and got asked if I had something I wanted to contribute to it. If you haven’t read it, you should look it up, I think it’s publicly available.
My gut instinct when I asked Effy if she wanted to draw it was to mount a defense of gay clubs, to explain their importance to trans people and why we have to defend their existence. To explain why they’re sacred, liminal spaces. So we made a comic that didn’t center the shooting or even acknowledge it. We made one that followed a trans woman who took advantage of the club to test out a different gender expression in a space where it was encouraged. It ended with her going home to a closeted life and taking estrogen pills in the mirror. Pushing at the boundaries of who she could be bit by bit.
Gay clubs were where I did a lot of the work to find myself. Cross dressing at pride, going to drag shows, chasing the hints of where the adrenaline rushes were pointing me to. That’s where I first experienced gender euphoria and it was a very erotic, esoteric experience. I think there’s only really one strip where I really clearly portray myself as being into magic, but you know, I read The Invisibles the way it was intended to be and I did it to identify and resolve my gender dysphoria.
I’ve been practicing chaos magic in one form or another for almost twenty years now and I would refer to myself as a witch. When I first experienced gender euphoria in those clubs, I understood it as an expression of gnosis in the tradition of Austin Osman Spare that Grant Morrison pulled from extensively in The Invisibles. A state where mind and body have sort of separated, what Jacques Lacan would call an encounter with the real. Morrison, again, following Spare, pointed to states like ecstatic dancing or orgasm as ideal states in which to cast magical intent out into the universe.
Because of that, gender euphoria first manifested itself to me as a magical, liminal state in which to assert my desires. A ritual to push the boundaries of who I could be. It was a lot later that I recognized it as a specific affirmation of how I was presenting. So I would hope that whole history is somehow visible or manifest in my comics. Transcription is definitely a hypersigil. I’ve put the work in, whether people want to validate what that is or not.
I think people tend to expect something sort of Matrixey, Brazil oriented out of a comic following The Invisibles. SFSX, probably. I know Tina Horn went through The Invisibles the way Morrison intended. She’s talked about attending Disinfocon on her podcast in an episode about the erotic appeal of the occult with Connor Habib. She definitely carried forward the leather aesthetics and culture of The Invisibles in SFSX, but I don’t know if she’s taken it down the hypersigil rabbit hole. I’m not, you know, making comics that follow in that narrative truadition, but I am, in my own way, building something magical into Transcription. I haven’t asked anyone to masturbate to juice my Patreon numbers or itch.io sales, but I think we can all agree that there’s a really significant exchange of erotic energy going on around my comics. Maybe I’m not tapping into it the way I should be. Maybe Tina Horn should have run a wankathon in tandem with the SFSX volume two kickstarter campaign. Who can say?
But you know, what I’m saying here is that I attach a really kind of sacred, heightened significance to intense emotional experiences and I really try to convey that in everything from facial expressions to fantastical elements like a choir of angels playing instruments behind me while I belligerently tweet that I don’t really experience dysphoria anymore.
On a raw technical level, expressive cartoonists like Amanda Conner and JM DiMatteis have always had a massive influence on how I try to convey emotions and choose particular moments in an emotional arc to draw in a given panel. Who knows what my cartooning would look like if I hadn’t read The Pro, JSA: Classified, or Harley Quinn? Luckily we just never have to know.
If readers want to learn more about you and your comic work, where can they find you online?
If you want to learn more about me, well, that won’t happen because I’m a Virgo. If you want to read my comics you can browse them on my website at houxbois.org or buy Transcription Volume One in PDF form at houxbois.itch.io. I’m on BlueSky as emmahouxbois and Instagram as houxbois.
Veronique Emma Houxbois is an award winning pornographic romance cartoonist last spotted in the Pacific Northwest.
S.E. Fleenor is a writer and editor who wears many hats. They are a freelance developmental editor, editor of Decoded Pride literary magazine, co-founder of QueerSpec.com, and their essays, creative nonfiction, and fiction appear in various publications including The Independent, Buzzfeed Reader, VICE, Electric Literature, Xtra Magazine, them.us, Upworthy, Denver VOICE, and many more. They teach online and in-person writing workshops, and co-host the comics and pop culture podcast Bitches on Comics, which has over 65,000 downloads, putting us in the top 15% of all podcasts. They are a head writer and voice actor for the horror narrative fiction podcast Tales of the Sapphire Bay Hotel, and their short story “Anomalous” was adapted to audio through Decoded Horror Channel’s Graveyard Orbit. They are a member of GALECA: the society of LGBTQ entertainment critics.