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‘Young People Saved Me’: Lucy Sante on Gen Z, the Virgin Mary, and Drugs

Sante is a legend, incisive and unsentimental, and she does not soften her renowned critical eye when turning it selfward.

Lucy Sante sits on a porch.

Lucy Sante (Photo: Jem Cohen)

Lucy Sante's new book, "I Heard Her Call My Name," is a bracing journey through her gender transition—the photos she fed into FaceApp's gender-swap function one February day during the pandemic, the email she sent to her friends and then her employers at Bard College, the conversations with the small community of trans women she discovered online, and the trusted advisors at her local wig store in Kingston. And then the pink cloud of possibility. 

It is a memoir of self-actualization in its truest and most trenchant form, but also, in its own way, a kind of survey of kyriarchy and transmisogyny across six decades and two continents. She reports the ways and whys she repressed herself from her childhood in Belgium and New Jersey, through the bohemian and drug eras of New York and San Francisco, until 2021, when she was 66 and primed for the truth of herself—when her "egg cracked," as she puts it. 

Sante is a legend, incisive and unsentimental, and she does not soften her renowned critical eye when turning it selfward. "Nearly every day at some point I'd find myself overcome by sheer incredulity," she writes, "that I had actually gone and done this thing that had haunted me all my life and that I had been so invested in suppressing." 

Hell Gate spoke with Sante over Zoom about her book, gender, Catholicism, drugs and this beautiful, messed-up city.

Hell Gate: I love your book so much. One of my most pressing questions is that at one point, you write about dropping acid amid your gender dysphoria, which seems especially terrifying. I read that and was like, What the fuck?

Lucy Sante: Well, what the fuck this was—what year was this? 1970 or '71, I forget. And like I say, I had taken acid a few times, but it must have been heavily stepped on or something got me high, but it wasn't a really hallucinogenic experience. It was like having a couple of mushrooms or something. And then I took this possibly multiple dose a dozen times, and I had two or three really bad experiences in the course. 

But, you know, this was the time when—I'm not gonna say everybody was taking acid. But if you're going to be with the hip kids, you're gonna take acid. I mean, it was just what was done. And as far as gender dysphoria goes, at that point in my life, I knew that it was a thing that existed vaguely. I had this idea that, you know, maybe a few dozen people around the world [were transgender] and they all like, came out in the Daily News and wrote books, appeared in the press. I thought that was pretty much the extent of it. So I was one of these extreme weirdos. The idea of flipping out during an acid trip about gender dysphoria—obviously, it shook me to my bones, but it also just seemed like, well, you know, I'm the kind of person that takes acid. And I've got this weird, one-in-a-million kind of deformity. I thought, I've got to ride it. Just got to see it through.

I truly can't stop thinking about that. To backtrack, what was the purpose of writing this for yourself at this point? Did you think of your memoir as for an audience or for yourself?

Well, I'm a writer, and that means that I write for the writing. The shocking truth of it is, when I started putting these pictures through FaceApp almost exactly three years ago, really one of my first thoughts was, These pictures are so incredible, there has to be a book. But then again, it was fated. If I came out, I was gonna write a book about it. Because again, I'm a writer, that's my first response to anything that can be written about that is sufficiently dramatic and interesting. 

But I did think of two readerships, really. One of them is cis people. Like 99 percent of my friends are cis, and even the most sympathetic among them have zero idea of what this is, so I won't have to explain it to them and people like them. I know there are a lot of trans writers who reject the idea of trying to talk to the cis-hets at all. But in my case, because of my age and what I've been through, and who I know, it was imperative. 

And then the other thing, too, was for young trans people, and their parents to know that, no, if you suppress this at age nine, it's not going to disappear. It's lifelong, it's fundamental. I mean, I really believe that it's not even a psychological matter. It's physiological. 

So were you writing it as you were first transitioning, or was it reflective? 

This book is the fastest thing I've ever written in my life, it probably took about two months. I was writing morning, noon, and night, which I never ever do. But I started it about a year and a half into my transition. Or I mean, since the initial egg cracking. At that point, I was sufficiently off the pink cloud that I was able to look at it kind of dispassionately. I mean, if I tried writing it a year earlier, it would not have been as coherent.

You say dispassionate, but at least for me, writing that quickly feels more like what you're writing is an utmost matter of necessity. Did it feel like this urgent matter to report? 

Maybe the most urgent matter to me I've ever reported. Certainly the most personal thing I've ever written.

Penguin Random House

Was it difficult to write something so personal? 

You know, that's one of the weird things. People keep asking me over and over again, "How has your writing changed since your transition?" Well, I'm pretty much the same writer except for two things, which are interlinked.

One of them is that I've become really honest. I mean, I'm incapable of dissembling at this point. The other, which is much more far-reaching and subtle and weird, is that previous to this, I was always hesitant to write about real people. And, in fact, when I did in the past—you know, there's various things about my friends in my previous collection, "Maybe the People Would be the Times"—I took care to disguise their identities or I assigned them initials. And now, I didn't want to actually name my ex-wives because they're both angry at me, but aside from that, I'm pretty open about everything. And frankly, I had nothing but nice things to say about my friends, so it wasn't a problem. But it used to be that I could only write about people, really, if they were dead. And suddenly, you know—I think it's part of being more integrated in my life.

Do you think that only wanting to write about dead people and past things was a side effect of that distance that you write about, of keeping yourself from who you truly are?

You know, it's a kind of chain. Because I was hiding, I was careful to disguise a lot about myself, including things that don't even seem to have any direct rapport to gender dysphoria. And by consequence, that became hiding my friends, as well as who I was. It all had to be shoved into the closet while I presented as this avant-garde intellectual, or whatever it was pretending to be.

I mean, are you pretending to be an avant-garde intellectual?

Well, no, I'm not pretending. It was about pretending. And, of course, that has class ramifications, too. I'm an immigrant, I have no family. I'm spottily educated—very well, but nevertheless spottily educated. I'm the kind of kid who never invited friends over to the house, because I was kind of ashamed of my parents, frankly. That probably didn't derive from gender dysphoria, but it was woven with it. This general pattern of not so much pretending to be someone else, but to create a front that I could wear.

You write so well about your immigrant experience and Catholicism. Do you think Catholicism factors into that style of compartmentalization? 

I mean, several kinds of Catholicism really, because there's my mother's voodoo Catholicism, which is all about statues and religious medals. It has zero theology. All the way at the other end of the spectrum, I was educated by the Jesuits. And the Jesuits themselves are masters of compartmentalization. They taught me all the tricks. The motto of the Jesuits might as well be "by any means necessary." They're the one order that will tell you, "Yes, it's okay to lie if it's in service of the greater good."

In your book, you write about the Virgin Mary, or La Virgen as I know her, and your mother dressing you in Mary blue. In Mexican Catholicism, La Virgen is more important than Jesus, and is this outsize figure. I wonder in the context of your memoir and your transition, how did the Virgin Mary factor in as a woman or figure in your life—if she did?

Oh my God, did she ever. For one thing, in 1933, like five, 10 miles from the village where my family lives in Belgium, the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to a young girl eight or nine times. This has never quite been officially recognized by the church, but it was major in my mother's life, in part because she was the exact same age as this girl. On Sundays, we would walk to this miracle site. It was a very local miracle site, it's only people from Belgium, Holland and Germany. We're near the intersection of all three countries. Ambulances would come in bearing the desperately ill on stretchers and stuff. 

My mother actually managed to get English-language pamphlets for this miracle, and we'd buttonhole people after church. She can barely speak English, but she was determined to proselytize for this site. It never got any traction, mind you. Anyway, I remember when I was a teenager, I read "Doctor Sax" by Jack Kerouac, which begins with this invocation of the Virgin suddenly appearing in the corner of the room, and he described my greatest fear. I was terrified that the Virgin would appear to me.

Oh yeah.

That was all the ghosts and monsters I needed. In the iconography of this particular miracle site, she is this glowing white visitation against a black night sky. So the visual was right there. And my mother prayed to the Virgin rather than to God. Jesus was always part of the picture, but her direct line of communication was to the Virgin. So it's a various interest in Catholicism, how it has this whole matriarchal side as well as the patriarchal side. And who was really steering the ship?

So factor that into who you grow up to be, as a child raised in this culture. In the book, you're very frank about your self-doubt and your consternation about living who you are once you came out. For me, reading that was kind of more heartbreaking than the outside societal forces that pinned you in. I wonder how much feminism factored in, once you got past the self-doubt and self-abnegation? 

It was an impediment at the same time that it was encouragement. Impediment because I still felt like I am not worthy, et cetera. It wasn't so much feminist texts as it was practical feminism embodied by the women who were my friends, all of whom were feminists without a single exception. And not the kind of people who would proselytize—because none of us were at that period, you know, we were children of the '70s. The '60s were over, we stopped proselytizing about anything. But I definitely saw women's issues through their eyes. And not just in the eyes of my friends and contemporaries, but also of older women, like my great boss and teacher and friend, [founding New York Review of Books editor] Barbara Epstein, and [NYRB critic and novelist] Elizabeth Hardwick, who was from an earlier generation, born in 1916. She was kind of pre-feminist in a way, but with Barbara, you could she was born 12 years after Lizzie and already making the first steps into feminism. All this was visible learning material for me in a deep emotional way. More than reading any books.

You also write about young people; coming to accept yourself in a small chat room of trans women; and a student, Leor, whom you were friends with. What does it feel like to transition as an older person in this world where Gen Z seems so much more open and accepting of trans people? 

Young people saved me. I don't think this would really have been possible if it hadn't been for the fact that I taught at Bard for 24 years, and saw this wave kind of come up. I mean, when I started teaching at Bard, for maybe the first 10 years or so, I didn't know any gender-questioning, gender-fluid, gender-transitioning people at all. And then it slowly started manifesting itself as a phenomenon and I started getting to know people. And that was one of the things that set me free.

When I look at this generation, I have two contradictory thoughts. And one of them is great envy. I wish I were among them, you know, I wish, I wish I could be coming out at 14, or 18, or 22, or whatever. And at the same time, of course, I'm old enough so that I can remember a world that was better in a lot of other ways. A world that was kind or a world in which you didn't need as much money, et cetera. So I'm grateful to also be as old as I am. So you know, like, pick one, right? 

But in any case, I really admire these kids. And I mention my son too, and my son—I always just try out this phrase, because I love it—he's straight as a highway in Texas. He's known trans kids for most of his life, or half his life, at least. And when I came out to him, his only pressing question was, "What do I call you now?" He just moved out of my house a week and a half ago, he was living with me after graduation and he lived with me during his gap year before college. We get along great and he's completely unfazed by my transition.

I love that. But have any of your younger friends taken you to any Gen Z queer clubs?

No, I've never had the pleasure. The only thing I've done is gone a couple of times to a trans writer's salon in Brooklyn, and it's mind blowing. Especially the first time I went, when there were, like, 100 people in this apartment, it was just wild. Me and McKenzie Wark, I think, were the elders there, easily 40 years older than the average. I feel like I'm at home and at the same time, I feel forever excluded by virtue of my age.

Being in spaces with younger people also lends you a certain perspective.

Yeah, it does, inevitably. I mean, it's really interesting learning from the youth. My friend Leor is my Virgil, but there are plenty of other people too, and now I have these trans correspondents. And I learn surprising things on a regular basis. I appreciate more and more just how many of us there are. Where I once thought there were like six of us in the universe, I realized no, there's a whole lot.

I don't know if you've had this fantasy, but for me, the greatest thing about my Catholic belief, when I had it, was this thought that on the day of the final judgment was when everything would be revealed. Like, you know, Who killed Ambrose Bierce? And so, on that day, we finally find out who all the closeted trans people were in history, in the Senate and the House, you know.

That is beautiful. I definitely had that fantasy when I was a kid, but it was around the time of Oliver Stone's "JFK" and I thought God would finally tell us who killed JFK. Now I care about that the least, in the range of things that I wish God would reveal.

In this book, writing about the drug years of the '80s and the East Village, you have the line: "The most unlikely people were getting themselves strung out. It was as easy as falling down the stairs." Aside from the ease of obtaining drugs and their addictiveness, I wonder if you see a parallel between the ennui then and now, with the explosion of fentanyl in party drugs—or a consistent reaction to the general malaise of society, correspondent to, say, normies getting hooked on fentanyl in 2024. 

And furthermore, you could say the same thing about the 1940s. You could say the same thing about the cocaine epidemic of the 1910s. It's going to repeat from generation to generation. It's your artificial paradise, it's people with a lot of problems that, even though they know it doesn't solve any problems, it's like the topical analgesic which you can't get out from under. It's a standard thing. 

And really it's worse because, back in my day when people were getting themselves strung out, it was because of people's emotional and psychological problems, as well as the ease of purchase. But at the same time, we all had apartments. Nobody was living on the street then. We could work some shit job and make enough to pay rent and buy groceries and even the occasional record album or shirt. This is no longer possible. At the same time…I gotta admit that, until not that long ago, I thought, well, you know, if I manage to make it to like 85, I'll become a junkie, because at that point it doesn't matter. I love opiates and always have. My drug of choice, and it's the eternal lure. 

But now you can't do that. Because you can take a microdot of fentanyl and wake up dead. That shit is so terrifying. And street drugs in general—well, in my day, the only really scary street drug was PCP. And then came crack. And everything that's come along since is just exponentially worse than before.

You also wrote about the beginning of the gentrification of the East Village in the 1980s. What do you think about when you come back to the city, about its landscape? 

When I come to the city, I stay with one of two people, and it's a study in contrast. One of them is my ex, who has an HDFC apartment in West Harlem. One friend who made the trip said, "Wow, it feels like I'm in New York." Not a lot of banks, not a lot of chain things, no really fancy restaurants, normal people walking around. And my other friend lives in TriBeCa, and she's had her loft there since the early '80s. That neighborhood is like, completely unreal. Sometimes it can feel as depopulated as it did 30, 40 years ago. But it's depopulated for different reasons. Back then it was because of empty lofts that had formerly held manufacturing enterprises. 

I like to walk long distances. I've been doing this for over 50 years, taking really giant walks from the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side or Battery Park or whatever. But in those days, there were always plenty of relays, there were stops. And those stops were bookstores or record stores, junk shops. All those places are gone. The last time I tried taking one of these long walks, I was going from one part of town to another. I'd been invited to a party. And by the time I got downtown, it was much faster than I calculated. I had to go see a movie in order to make up the time. 

It seems like everything is restaurants, and the restaurants are starkly divided in the same way that the country is. There's fast food for the teeming masses, and then there's gourmet food for the people who have money, and there's nothing in between. It seems to me that everything used to be in between. 

I remember when they opened the first McDonald's on the Lower East Side and I thought, There goes the neighborhood.

And then it became the neighborhood. The last holdout of old New York, the Delancey McDonald's. [Update: Sante was referring to the McDonald's on First Avenue and Sixth Street.]

There's a lot of nostalgia for "old New York." And in some ways it's for good reason, because of affordability and people not having the time or space to work on their art or live their lives. But I wonder if there's something we can learn from that moment in the '70s and '80s, that we can bring into the horrific nightmare we're living in 2024. 

I was thinking about how it felt like the last days of Pompeii when I read that recent study about ocean currents. How many years do we have left, even as a species? I love to write about my youth because it was the period of my life in which mostly what I was doing was observing. I felt so shut out. I wasn't really writing. As I say in the book, I was creatively blocked and eternally lovelorn. So I was an observer. I could write three more books based on what I observed, probably. And yet I feel a little guilty when young people read it. I mean, what can I tell them, really? I could tell them, Well, we had this attitude and it can be your attitude too, sure. But the material conditions have changed so much that it's difficult to figure out what would apply to them.

The fact is that it was unreproducible circumstances because, at this point, New York City was both the capital of the world and the armpit of civilization. We had our cake and ate it, too. It's never gonna happen again, in quite that form. But yeah, if it's possible, if you can make a local scene where you are, you can come closer to reproducing what we had in your hometown than you could in a major city at this point.

I've seen my former students go to Williamsburg, then Bushwick, and now it's Ridgewood, Queens, or people with less money going to places like Brownsville or East New York. But you know, it also makes me think that when the hippie thing broke in 1969, roughly, there were hippie outposts popping up in every town. It wasn't just people moving to New York or San Francisco. The hippie enclave in East Orange, New Jersey, was significant, but it only lasted a couple of years, really. Things are constantly in flux. And it's very hard to predict anything these days.

That reminds me of my own druggie enclave of Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1993. It was a flash in the pan. I guess that sort of brings me to my last question, which is: Eric Adams. Thoughts?

Oh, boy. I haven't really followed him that closely. I've been at least a part-time New Yorker, out of state or out of city, or since 1993 or '94. But Eric Adams, what a nightmare. He's like a tin-pot dictator. Subject to whims. Oblivious hypocrite. Oh, God, no, no, no, no. Gotta get rid of him quickly. But, you know, they'll come up with somebody worse. 

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