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Cyrus Grace Dunham Gets Real About the Messiness of Identity

Cyrus Grace Dunham

Cyrus Grace Dunham is a mess, and they aren’t trying to hide it. In their new memoir, A Year Without A Name, the writer and activist complicates accepted narratives about transgender folks — ones that are steeped in binary, essentialist notions about gender identity. Dunham isn’t afraid to share their uncertainty about the source of their discontent with identity, whether it’s more social, more physical, or a combination of both.

In August, Dunham released a teaser of their memoir in an essay for the New Yorker. In it, they detail the experience of coming out to their parents about their medical transition. “My confession implied that my identity was simple and fixed,” they write. “That I had been born in the wrong body. The truth was something harder to explain: some days, I felt like a man. On other days — called ‘ma’am’ and ‘she’ and ‘Grace’ — my feelings of manhood seemed like a child’s fantasy, as delusional as thinking I was a bird or a car.”

In this conservation, I chat with Dunham about the freedom of nonbinary experiences, visibility, and their hidden organizing work. They also get real about how it feels to come from a prominent family and how they aren’t just Lena Dunham’s younger sibling. 

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In reading your New Yorker piece about A Year Without A Name, I resonated with your story about growing up and having a little voice in your head saying, "Actually, you're not this thing that everybody is telling you that you are." Being raised as a Catholic, I literally would pray, "I should wake up as a girl." I was basically advising God on what to do.

I wasn't even raised religious and I did that, too. No one taught me how to pray, and every time I'd find an eyelash, I'd be like, "I'm a boy. I'm a boy, I'm a boy." Kids are so funny. How'd we come up with that shit?

You wish on it and then you put it out of your head because you learn the realm of possibility. And what was the possibility for you to be the masculine person that you wanted to be?

Something I always try to explain to people is [that] the realm of possibility creates the boundaries of what's imaginable. So I never was like, "I'm a boy." I was like, "I'm a girl who wishes I was a boy. That's just my lot in life and I'll just carry this thing in me."

There's this pressure in a world that doesn't believe that trans people are real, to have no doubt [about your identity]. And in order to defend the space of transness, we all have to publicly defend it with 100 percent certainty.

So do you feel like now identifying as nonbinary gives you space to move within that doubt?

I do. It's different because I have the privilege of being assigned female at birth (AFAB), and there's this way that people acknowledge nonbinary identity for AFAB people, especially white people, and they don't for [assigned male at birth] people. It's fucked.

I say I'm nonbinary, but I’m also making choices to pass as a man, and when people ask for my pronouns now, I say, "he/him." But maybe because of the work that people have done before me and also the particular position I'm in with my identity, I'm able to talk about that doubt, and it feels important to not take up space with a false sense of certainty. Hopefully that will make other people who feel that doubt be a little less alone in it. Sometimes I feel like my gender is just happening to me.

I think about the different spaces of transition. For me, when I got to more "drastic" procedures, there was this internal debate around whether I was choosing them to be seen as more of a woman or simply to be more comfortable with myself. In my head, I gave more value to the latter, but what is really the line, if my comfort is wrapped up in how I'm viewed in the world.

How could it not be? I don't know what your experience is, but I have an intellectual, political analysis of the gender binary and how it is connected to white supremacy and capitalism. I also experience extreme gender dysphoria and always have. And I always was like, "I hate my body and I want the body of a man."

Sometimes I feel funny saying I'm nonbinary because I have and continue to modify my body to be more and more aligned with my internal vision. I had pretty stereotypical experiences of gender dysphoria my whole life. [And] I don't think that delegitimizes my nonbinary identity. What about you? Did you always have what you would call dysphoria?

Yeah, in some way. I think after having language [for my identity] and retracing my history, I realized I always had dysphoria around my body. I didn't like to be shirtless, didn't like my genitals. Those were things that I just dealt with and never shared with anyone until I was older. I think there was social dysphoria, too. I never wanted to be lumped in with boys or masculinity. I always thought it was simply because of how I had always been treated by men and boys because they could sniff out my femininity.

But I don't have this essentialist idea around transition, that you always have to feel that kind of dysphoria. Because now there are things that I would totally do, because I feel at ease with myself. I'll go to a kickboxing class and not feel dysphoric about it.

I'm so much more comfortable doing so many feminine things now. I can also have sex now in a totally different way. I couldn't do any sex that made me feel feminized, and now I'm a pillow princess, you know?

You know, in some spaces that could be read as you're lazy, but let me stop.

Even in that regard though, I would be less bothered by versatility in a sexual experience. When I was moving through the world being seen as a gay boy, I was always assumed to be a bottom. And then when I came out as a trans woman, they're always like, “You're a top, right?” Because for gay boys, people are trying to figure out the contours of your femininity. And as a trans woman, people are always trying to figure out the contours of your masculinity.

Yes, totally. That's such an interesting way of putting it.

So how are you dealing with the visibility around your memoir?

I don't know yet. I'm nervous. I don't know what to expect. What's funny is it's all very immaterial. I wrote the book, I took a few years, I shared it with my loved ones, I'm proud of it. And now my life is continuing on normally, but there's a feeling of waiting for something to drop as if all will be revealed when the book comes out. I wrote the book that I needed to write and that I wanted to share with my loved ones.

And your family has read it? Lena [Dunham] has read it?

She was pretty good about it.

Are you concerned with how your volume will always be linked to her writing and work?

I don't see how it couldn't be. I can either not write because of that or write under a different name, which I do sometimes. There's so many ways to write and I've always loved writing. It's part of how I exist in the world, and it's never not been a part of my life. 

We don't live in a vacuum. As much as people want to think about writing as if it's this pure art, we all have material concerns, and I made a choice to get paid to do something because it allowed me to do the things I wanted to do in my life at that time, like transition and do a shit ton of unpaid work. If I had written a different kind of book, I might not have had the resources and the security to do certain other things I wanted to do. I want to be honest about that because we are all, even artists, motivated by the material concerns of living under capitalism. That's just real.

Who would you say your audience is?

I hope it’s young people who are thinking about their gender. It would still be cool if people's parents read it and felt a little more able to understand and think about [our identities]. I also hope that people will be surprised or pushed by some of the ways that I write about fame, power, and visibility. I hope that even if people come to [my work] for other reasons, it will push their thinking around how power works. What's funny about writing a book or making anything is you have to kind of give up control. Books have a really funny way of finding people.

How do you see yourself in the larger LGBTQ+ movement? And with all of the issues going on, how do you still feel the power in your story? I mean, you're not a trans person at the border, you're not a Black trans woman who could be killed tonight, right? So how do you still see the power in your story?

I appreciate that question. Obviously, no other interviewer has asked me that question. It's tough because we could talk about the book, or we could talk about my actual movement work and the work I actually believe in and that I feel like I need to be doing. That work isn't making a book. That's what I did and that allowed me to do a lot of other things but that's not, I don't see that as my movement contribution. What are your thoughts?

So, I'm a magazine editor. On the surface, I don't think people see that as libratory work. But I see whatever I do as organizing. It's cultural organizing because I am being strategic about the stories that we put front and center, about what stories I push back on, about being in conversation with our team. We're very strategic about which photographers we use, what statement we're trying to make, the concept behind a particular shoot — all of those different things. When we talk about movement work, we have this warped idea that it's always with a bullhorn in the streets, and I'm in a position where I can possibly critique that in ways that other folks can't because I've done that too. For me, the real work is finding out how to organize within your passion.

Totally. There's so many fucked up systems and they're all entangled and we all don't have limitless time to fight every fight. My time is taken up with super specific work, like thinking about economic redistribution and how to push people with access to resources to redistribute those resources. I also do solidarity work for LGBTQ+ people, and I'm thinking about how to get people out of prison and supporting people in getting out of prison and supporting people in surviving while they are incarcerated. I deeply organize my life around solidarity politics and a mutual aid practice.

If I can push more white trans people to understand the way that their whiteness and their access to certain forms of transness intersect and to also start thinking about having a more rigorous class analysis and thinking about what it means to not just distribute resources. Wealth is networked. It's also about the people that you're connected to, the companies that you're part of, your family, your siblings, your friends. I'm not just a trans person, I'm a trans person who is materially positioned at the intersection of resources, and we all actually have the capacity to organize and influence in our communities, even in the ones that are protected by power.

So do you enjoy having a visible life on any level?

I don't think I know another way to support myself. It's what I was taught, you know? I don't like it, but I also don't not like it enough that I'm becoming … a dentist. I think sometimes I'm not doing a good enough job differentiating myself from my family because I'm still supporting myself through creative expression that's happening in public.

The writing brings me joy. Getting to connect with people brings me joy. Feeling myself become a commodity does not bring me joy. It feels like, it's like I have this fear, and I fought so hard to become Cyrus and I'm like, "What if Cyrus gets taken away from me, too, and then I have to do it all over again?"

Yeah, and then you become a new box.

Exactly. And I'm like, “Cyrus will just become exactly what Grace felt like.” I'm like, “What if in four months I hate Cyrus just as much as I hated Grace and I feel just as trapped in that name?” I guess I can get a new one, but it's the fear that I'm just going to be in a hamster wheel of differentiation, self-commodification, claustrophobia.

As much as you're willing to talk about your organizing work, what are the most important issues that people need to be paying attention to? 

The big campaigns I'm working on are fighting to end life without parole sentencing in California end extreme sentencing of all forms, which impacts people of color and particularly women and queer and trans people exponentially. I really care a lot about the Drop LWOP — or Drop Life Without Parole — campaign.

A lot of my thinking is about the intersection of prisons and gender and prisons as an engendering apparatus. I've been taught by people that I look up to, organize alongside, and mentors that radical social change starts with the people that are facing the most violence, and we can't actually change or abolish gender unless we abolish state systems and state forms of violence that entrap people.

Does that work make you feel empowered?

I know that I make people feel extremely held and witnessed, and I also know that I'm able to use language to articulate things that make people feel less alone. I've been that way since I was born, you know? I know that. There's that feeling in your body that you're doing what you feel like you're here to do. There's so many ways to do that.

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