Voyage dans la dissidence sexuelle

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Love*, on a scale where it’s possible

français: L’amour*, à une échelle où cela est possible

In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, Audre Lorde talks about how the figure of Eros (god of desire and love) has been captured by forms of patriarchal pornography. Captured and locked up in the bedroom, and turned into an instrument for the extraction of femme sex work. But what happens when love serves other purposes? Seeking an erotic divinity less ensnared in the stories of hetero couples and abuse that Greek myths are full of, she turns instead to “Eros, son of Chaos”: a primordial divinity who, well before becoming the Cupid-Eros of weddings, was the god able to draw from Chaos (the void = the original mess) to make its opposite, Gaia (the Earth = a corner of organised cosmos). By calling on this first Eros, Audre Lorde knows what she’s doing: she speaks of a force that is able to plunge into the depth of a creature (Chaos, the void) and bring out in them what they are not (Gaia, fullness of being). In “The Uses of the Erotic”, Lorde says that the patriarchal capture of the erotic has resulted in a dangerous separation of “the spiritual (psychic and emotional) from the political, to see them as contradictory or antithetical. ‘What do you mean, a poetic revolutionary, a meditating gunrunner?’” And what if we gave space to the political and spiritual power of love, and the forms of life it proposes?
In these notes on love*, Emma Bigé visits different figures of queer love-politics, from the trans*species love of Alexis Pauline Gumbs to Léa Rivière’s municipal love, to V. Jo Hsu’s T4T love-politics–everywhere, she looks for the call to refuse the kink of the couple in favour of more collective ways of making family. In sum, love on a scale we can survive.

Love*, on a scale where it’s possible
Translation: Dai Lâm Tait


Alexis Pauline Gumbs has just lost her father, Clyde Gumbs. And in the midst of her mourning and tears, she wonders: who can teach me about surviving this? Without really knowing why at first, she turns to marine animals, ancestors who have learned to live deep in waters as salty as human tears, and who are able to breathe and hold their breath in impossible conditions. This is one birth story for Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, a ceremony-poem that celebrates the survival skills of marine mammals who face the risk of drowning, turbulent environments and unbreathable atmospheres.

In the middle of her book, a series of poems under the collective title “Be Vulnerable” talk about living with wounded* creatures. One of them talks about Pacific white-sided dolphins, an especially social species, which often lives alongside other dolphins, whales and even seabirds. Within these pods, sometimes made up of thousands of individuals, scientists have observed small tight formations that are often exclusively made up of dolphins with skin that is “heavily scarred”. Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes:

I wonder why sometimes we congregate with those who have been hurt in ways that look similar to how we have been hurt. About how we sometimes (me too) name identities and even whole organizations based on our scars. And how sometimes those of us with similar vulnerabilities are the ones who scar each other. I wonder sometimes about what keeps us close, in a hurting world shaped by intimate violence. In a world that cuts systemically and deep.
Another thing. The scars on dolphins and whales also tell their would-be benefactors who they are. It is how observing scientists tell them apart. It is useful for getting an accurate count, for tracking behavior across expeditions. A dolphin with scars is more likely to be known, recognized, named by the watchers. Mentioned in funding reports.

Like in almost all of her poems in Undrowned, Alexis Pauline Gumbs begins here with a scientific description. She suggests a rewriting of marine biology manuals that, under the pretence of objectivity, often betray the same individualistic, heterosexist and racist discourses that abound in the harmful policies of the human species. What if, the poems of Alexis Pauline Gumbs ask, we learned to read—far from the distorting mirror of petrosexoracial science, and its obsession with efficacy, gender difference and epidermic identification?
And she asks:

Do I do that too? Are my wounds the most convenient ways for you to know me? Why do they shape so much of how I know myself? And the whole dynamic of recognition, how does it shape and scar us?
What I know is that I was not wrong when I chose to hold you close and stay in range. I knew. I always knew we were still healing. And you could see right away that I was not perfect. You could see some piece of what the world had done. And yet, what has been done, though still not over, is not the end. And your scars are not all I know about you. And my scars are not all I want you to know.

“I love you” is the most frequently recurring phrase in the entire book. It can be found in almost every poem. It is the operator that transforms the discourse of science and its presumed objectivity (competition, the individual, and survival as the unique motors of marine mammal life), dissolving it into a different form of address: “I”, “you”, instead of “they”. In linguistics, these pronouns are described as being on a “gradient of animacy”: “they” is a pronoun of incapacitation used to describe creatures that, while certainly capable of action, are not really at the heart of their own actions (they act, but they don’t really decide: it is their instincts, their environment, their habits). The shift from “they” to “I” and “you” leads us in another direction, describing creatures capable of answering to their own actions. A prerequisite of any declaration of love*: bringing together (at least grammatically) subjects capable of responding to each other.

But that’s not all. When the poem says “I love you”, it is never clear: who exactly is speaking? Marine mammals to each other? Marine mammal to Alexis? Alexis to them? To Ṣangodare, her partner? To us? It is never clear, because this politics of trans*species love* is the very terrain that the poetry of Alexis Pauline Gumbs situates us in: a move to encompass past the markers that make us strangers to each other, and past the classifications that hierarchise them. Because

… your scars are not all I know about you. And my scars are not all I want you to know. And your name is made where life makes itself in me. And your name is medicine over my skin. And our kinship is the kind of salve that heals whole oceans. And love is where I know and do not know you. And love is where we began and where we begin.


The intimacy of strangers. This is how the biologist Lynn Margulis defines symbiosis: not a cooperation, not an alliance, not a quid pro quo, but simply a connivance, a contiguity, the sharing of a border because, you and I, we are stuck to each other.

Lynn Margulis is famously known as the “mother” of the Gaia hypothesis, according to which the Earth functions as an organism capable of regulating its own temperature and atmosphere, a theory that notably contributed to establishing the reality of climate change. But she is also the great propagator of the concept of symbiogenesis, according to which the process of speciation (the appearance of new species) is not so much the result of accidental mutations, as that of the ongoing collusion between creatures who are “strangers” to each other and who learn new ways to live together.

A bacteriologist, Margulis based her theory on an old discovery, one that she is also famous for: the endosymbiogenesis of prokaryotic cells (lacking a nucleus), resulting in the existence of the first multicellular beings, and specifically the existence of the first eukaryotic cells (with a nucleus). The story she tells (and today still one of the best stories that biologists agree to tell) is this: in the primordial soup, unicellular creatures evolved, and some of them ate each other. Among the different strategies they developed to survive this situation, some developed motility, some made themselves averse to others, and some developed a very unique technique: they became indigestible. Prey, originally consumed by their predators, thus learned to live within the bodies of those who would otherwise have digested them. They took shelter in the belly of the wolf, thus creating a holobiont, a creature with multiple cells, a collection of symbionts.

It is tempting to tell this story in terms of advantages and disadvantages, cost and benefit: symbionts that cooperate, or who parasite, or who simply accept to communalise their existence. But this economists’ parlance, the symbiologist Kriti Sharma insists, is an error in reasoning: it assumes that the individuals who live together existed before the multispecies creature that they form together. Rather, and this is exactly what ongoing contact, “the intimacy of strangers” produces: there is a mutual presupposition of the symbiotes’ existence, an interdependency—or even better, an intradependency. Not two preexisting beings who happened to encounter each other, but beings who are made up of this encounter. The advantages of symbiosis? You and me, we exist.


Alexis Pauline Gumbs has given herself this mission in life: to be a Black feminist love evangelist. It came to her one day when she was taking a free course to learn about making radio shows in Durham, North Carolina, where she lives: there were only evangelists in the room, people with “good news” (eu angélion) to share and spread as much as possible, on every wavelength. Asking herself what her own good news could be, among these activists and their faith, she decided that her text (the fabric she dons), her religion (her way of making connection), her good news for the world, was Black feminist love*, and the way in which the lives, writings, words and actions of Black feminists have made her life and those of the people she loves not only more possible, but also fuller and richer. They loved me before I was even born, Alexis Pauline Gumbs says of them: in this suffocating atmosphere of sexoracial necrocapitalism, where everything is geared towards highlighting the enmity of a State that exposes you to premature death and mourning, there remains this act of faith and love* that activist lives have given to embrace your life, without even knowing who you will be, or what you will look like.

As part of this mission, Alexis Pauline Gumbs prepares ceremonies. We know that we want to be together. All we have to do is find the ceremony for it she says. A creature of ritual, Alexis Pauline Gumbs strives to give attention every day to this unpayable debt* that ties her to her ancestors, both chosen and inherited, who took on the mission of expanding the future. By, for example opening a marine biology textbook every day and looking up a mammal ancestor that learned to evolve with grace in the troubled waters of the oceans, and write a poem to them. Or a more collective practice, the Black Feminist Breathing Chorus: every day for twenty days repeat 108 times a different mantra, one drawing from queer Black feminist history. Echoing in your mouth, in your lungs, in the air around you, the voice and futures imagined by those who fought to make your existence possible.

One of these mantras: “My people are free”. A phrase that the abolitionist Harriet Tubman dreamt of, and that she woke up with while staying with friends, in the midst of organising the Underground Railroad, the underground* fugitive network that organised escape routes out of the Southern States. “My people are free”: a balm to the heart, a belief, but also a vision of the future, a connection that breaks with the modern/colonial timeframe, a bid to inhabit a time that, despite having passed, gives strength for the present. When Alexis Pauline Gumbs reads this phrase, she says: it’s me, it’s us. It’s me, it’s us the free people that Harriet Tubman dreams of and gives her the strength to do what she did: it’s me, it’s us, it’s our present, that allowed my ancestors to escape slavery and the plantation. In this, she sees a responsibility (the capacity to answer the love* that Harriet Tubman offered from the day she had that dream): for this dream to have been dreamed, my life must be the freest, the least fettered to our modern/colonial slaver heritage, grammar and politics.

Love*. A hole in the chrono-logic*. Your freedom is the source from which your ancestors drew the strength to fight the fight that made your freedom possible [1].


Some gifts are given without knowing what is given, nor who they are given to. Let’s call it love*.

You’re here, ready for encounter, and of course behind you is all your history, a few euros in your bank account, plus maybe a few books to your name, a beat-up car*, a mouth, a heart and scars, but for something like a flash of desire to run through you, something else needs to slip between the two of you that is not premeditated, that did not exist before you both met. Something that isn’t even you, isn’t yours, something that you don’t own and over which you have no control, and yet that will come from you and can come from no one else. Or better: what you already are, and which, through the alchemy of encounter, you manage to make virtual, unfinished, incomplete.

This is the special gift that we offer ourselves when we meet each other, you and I: I don’t know what it is you do exactly, but as soon as I see you, there are parts of me that melt and that turn back into possibilities; the actual (what I thought I knew about myself, my ID card) that transforms into the virtual. I’m falling in love with you means: I’m losing a bit of the solid ground on which I thought I was able to say “I”; momentarily, something of my non-difference to myself dissolves; momentarily, I lose my bearings.

“When the real begs to become virtual”: in a studio one day, Carla Bottiglieri said this of the dancer Lisa Nelson. “When the real begs to become virtual”: a state, given or worked, where we are each of us is straining towards what neither of us is. An intimacy of strangers. The question then becomes: under what conditions can we allow ourselves to give each other this unique gift of what we have not yet become? In which circumstances can we give ourselves to each other, not only what we are and know that we are, but the opportunity to grow together? A cell cannot grow and protect itself at the same time, Alexis Pauline Gumbs tells us (and it so happens that Ṣangodare, who she shares her life with, was the one who taught her that). This is what is actually at stake: finding ways to exist so that our growth and protection condition each other. Intradependency. Sheltering and being sheltered*.


In The smell of wet stones, Léa Rivière calls it “municipal love”: municipality as a condition for love*; a scale (the village) at which love* is made possible. She asks:

When will we finally stop thinking romance can be practiced without Harm Reduction, without collective responsibility? When will we understand that the couple is a kink and not a form of kinship? The end of heterosexuality means when the queers will stop breaking up and start inhabiting villages instead, it means the joy of finally being able to grieve-together again, everything that we lose, everything that gently changes, everything that is on the verge of changing, including the molecules made by our brains. When will we let the dead teach us how to love?
… Neurochemical interventions without Harm Reduction, that’s the regime of heterosexuality, the naturalisation of cringe. It damages everyone, and especially those who think they’ve been inoculated against it by their leaving party to the promised Queerland. And in the meantime, it keeps happening: transitions in isolation, psychological grieving that has to be done, abuses of power without consent, without even imagining that we can choose and that we often choose, without a safety-net, without a village, basically without love.
Léo asks if by heterosexuality she means lesbians taking testo who hook up with lesbians taking oestro to play mum and dad?
Lila bursts out laughing, and suddenly she jumps on her, shouting suck my cunt, you sacrilegious old butch!

Heterosexuality: not a form of sexuality, not a type of sexual relation, not necessarily even a hetero thing; rather a political form comprising of a separate life, a core that we ineptly call family*. A pharmacopornography (take your pill and lay down), a “neurochemical intervention… without a village, without love”. How do we hack it? How do we change the tide?

They laugh their heads off even harder, until their ribs vibrate against each other like a herd of cows excited by the storm. Lila melts into Léo and Léo slowly drives into Lila. They choke and they poke fun, they gather themselves, they gather together, they amass, they begin to dissolve, they enter into each others’ muscles.
They become without trying and without not trying, and both at the same time without knowing it, they think about the quantic masturbation of electrons that touch each others’ dicks without touching, or maybe while also not touching, and about the inert mass of a neutrino and about the urgent need to finally bind together imagination and common sense (later, the stage directions will read: “sex scene”).

They eat vegetables Léo got for free at the market yesterday morning because the guy likes her. Lila swallows the last bite of courgette and says I don’t really see how I could be trans without looking after the dead. Nor how I could look after the dead without living in a village.

The political model proposed by Léa Rivière’s municipal love* suggests getting closer to the dead: not only is it not possible to love by yourself, that goes without saying (it takes a village*); but the sum of the living is also not enough for loving each other (you need the dead and ancestors). Love* is when you know you’re not an individual, when you know that you are a multitude*. Meaning that, each time you love, a part of you that isn’t you is brought into play. A transindividual part, that could be written in italics, a life, to say something like: anonymous elements, something that has been loved before being individualised into you and into your life. Lesson from the dead: remember the smell of wet stones—like the smell of grave markers—to feel held in a time beyond urgency. To feel always-more-than-just-one.


In their article, “T4T Love-Politics”, the philosopher V. Jo Hsu suggests inventing forms of politics based on T4T love* (trans-for-trans) that prioritize trans community while also acknowledging that trans people frequently make things harder for one another. Does that happen to you too? When you find yourself with people who have been marked, like you, by a world that doesn’t want you? And not knowing any other way to show you belong to the group than by showing your scars*? Or by throwing salt on them to make them stand out and show your pain? T4T love*, says V. Jo Hsu, navigates the difficult waters of identifying with oppression.

Their article is dedicated to the work of a blogger, TransGriot (Monica Roberts), and the texts that she wrote across a span of more than twenty years to rename both transphobic injustices and their intersections with misogyny, anti-blackness, validism, as well as trans* love* and solidarity. These two acts—on one hand, bearing witness to impossible lives and premature mourning, and on the other, celebrating the interdependency and mutual vulnerability of trans* existences—these two indissociable acts, are a condition of love* envisioned as a political act. I will not start pretending that I am not surviving / and / I do not want to forget that our vulnerability is not just about the potential to be injured but also about the transformative potential of being open to others.

T4T: a category for dating websites and apps, a form of self-protection against transphobic reactions / and / to signal desire. Sheltering / and / being sheltered. V. Jo Hsu concludes their article by stating that Monica Roberts taught us to write of and write toward trans abundance while capturing our losses. A love* that is not tranquil, a love* that cannot be distinguished from rage and the struggle, a love* that doesn’t spare itself from knowing and making ties with the others’ battles. A radically inclusive love grounding itself in the hard day-to-day work of sustaining our relationships and ourselves.


In the series of poems “Collaborate” (or: could I learn to study with you?), Alexis Pauline Gumbs talks about another particularly social species of dolphin, the striped dolphin. The poem talks about the fact that, like for many other marine creatures, the living unit of the striped dolphin is referred to as a school. She writes that:

In a striped dolphin school, only up to one-third of the school is visible at the surface. What scale and trust would it take to rotate our roles, to work not to fulfill a gendered lifetime ideal (husbandwifemotherfatherdaughterson) but to show up and sink back, knowing there is enough of all the forms of nurturance to go around in cycles? Striped dolphin schools don’t bother with shallow water, they go deep off the continental shelf. What would it mean to go deep with each other? What are the scales of intimacy and the actual practices that would teach us how to care for each other beyond obligation or imaginary duties. Striped dolphins eat fish with luminous organs that live in the deep scattering layer of the sea. What nourishes them is literally what lights them up inside! Could we be like that?
I am wondering if we could trade the image of “family” for the practice of school, a unit of care where we are learning and re-learning how to honor each other, how to go deep, how to take turns, how to find nourishing light again and again.
(…) What if all those ways we feel like failures in our families are not failures at all, but a pre-school lesson that could teach us to restructure our care?
What I do commit to for this lifetime and as many as I get, is to learn with you always. To study the changes you bring to my body, my spirit, my mind. To be in school with you for the duration, in a curriculum called “how we endure.” I do commit to rigorously learning how to gracefully collaborate, and step back when it’s your turn with nothing to prove. I do commit to the work of going deep enough to find the necessary food that lights us up inside. I love you, and I have so much to learn. I love you and we are just now learning that it’s possible, love on a scale we can survive. I love you, and how generous—how downright miraculous—it is that life would let me learn like this.

Love* on a scale where it’s possible: a trans*species and trans*individual scale, a scale that goes beyond the present time and encompasses generations. The condition for me to be able to love you: a village, a school, a party. Always-more-than-two.

Emma Bigé

⌂ Acknowledgements: this text was first published in french on and translated in english by Dai Lâm Tait. It was written at the invitation of Laëtitia Badaut-Haussmann’s Pavillon des amours. My thanks to her for posing the question. ⌂

. Sources of citations (in italics): 1&7. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Chico, AK Press, 2020. 2a. Lynn Margulis, Symbiotic Planet, New York, Basic Books, 2008. 2b. Kriti Sharma, Interdependence: Biology and Beyond, New York, Fordham University Press, 2015. 3a. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, "What It Means To Be A ’Black Feminist Love Evangelist’", Festival of Faith, conference, 2021. 3b. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown, "A Breathing Chorus", How To Survive The End of The World, podcast, 20 December 2017. 4. Alexis Pauline Gumbs and Prentis Hemphill, "Remembering", podcast, 19 October 2020. 5. Léa Rivière, L’odeur des pierres mouillées [The smell of wet stones], Paris, Éditions du Commun, 2023. 6. V. Jo Hsu, "T4T Love-Politics: Monica Roberts’s TransGriot and Love as a Theory of Justice", TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, vol. 9.1, 2022. ← Jennifer C. Nash, "Practicing Love: Black Feminism, Love-Politics, and Post-Intersectionality", Meridians, vol. 11.2, 2013.

⌂ Love*, informal citations and indirect references (followed by an asterisk*): Léo love, Oscar, Pol, Denise Ferreira Da Silva, Dénètem, Cy, A*, Erin. ⌂

[1And me? I, too, have an unpayable debt*, to Black North-American feminism, and in particular to the Combahee River lesbian feminist collective who, by declaring that “the freedom of [Black women] would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression”, invented a form of activist conspiracy (the intersectional struggle) that contributed and continues to contribute to making my life (trans, femme, white, European) possible. And for that, I am indebted to Harriet Tubman, who in 1863 led an attack against the confederate outposts on the Combahee River and who, having freed over 750 ex-enslaved captives, also inspired the women of the Combahee River Collective to choose their name in honour of this victory.

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