I promised myself I wasn’t going to be the trans girl who wrote some stupid fucking essay about being trans in her first year of public transition. So happy anniversary to me.
The Butterfly Conservatory is very probably the greatest band never to actually play a single note. Instead it exists in hypothetical and implication; an almost that never quite resolves into being. A band under that name played a pair of songs at the 2012 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival—a folk supergroup consisting of Tracy Grammer and a phalanx of other musicians to honor the ten year anniversary of the sudden passing of her musical partner, Dave Carter. But this is not The Butterfly Conservatory—merely a marker of what could have been. The real Butterfly Conservatory would have been Grammer along with a woman who’s never going to have a name—the woman Dave Carter was in the act of becoming when she died.
Of course, this divide is complex and problematic. Transition does not straightforwardly make you a different person. And yet at times the divide between before and after is at times a stark chasm. An honest accounting of transition requires that we embrace a both/and approach. For instance, when I remember my adolescence I can both remember the leering and toxic sense of sexual entitlement of a sixteen-year-old boy and the sense of rapturous and uncanny possibility of a sixteen-year-old girl listening to Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face” for the first time and getting to the chorus. I am both—a boy named Phil who was, but is no longer (even as a person who is self-evidently the same person as him exists) and a girl named Elizabeth who always was, but only just became. The trans scholar Grace Lavery has written movingly about this on Twitter, describing how “trans narratology teaches us that neither a singular narrative of becoming, nor the laying out of life as a causal sequence, will do justice to the complexity of trans identification. Trans lives slip and slide, forward and backward in time.”
So instead of The Butterfly Conservatory we have the career of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, who worked together for five years starting with the release of When I Go (credited as Dave Carter with Tracy Grammer) in 1998 and ending with Carter’s fatal heart attack in 2002, a few months after she started hormones. By this time they had released two further albums, Tanglewood Tree andDrum Hat Buddha. The canon has posthumously swelled with two further albums, one recorded prior to Carter’s death, one created by Grammer taking some vocal demos and expanding on them, and two EPs, one a collection of holiday songs recorded across their career, the other releasing a couple more expanded demos. Adding to this body of work is a solo album by Grammer,Flower of Avalon, which consists of her takes on songs that Carter had written but that the duo had not recorded prior to her death.
That Carter and Grammer would have recorded as an entirely new band instead of simply rebranding as _______ Carter and Tracy Grammer speaks to the degree to which Carter, at least, saw this as a disjunct. Whatever came after her transition would be sufficiently different from the before to require framing as a different project. The career that she had belongs to a person she was not, but she never got to be the person that she was.
And Carter unquestionably was the primary creative figure of the two. This is not to slight Grammer’s contributions—she was a talented singer, instrumentalist, and producer whose contribution to the Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer albums was tremendous. But Carter was the songwriter, and while the albums are solidly performed and produced, it is their songwriting that renders them extraordinaary. Carter is one of the unheralded greats of the American songwriting canon—as good as people say Dylan is and the equal of Cohen or Mitchell. At the heart of her work is a casual mastery of the mythic. Her songs take place on some elevated plane—not in the banal sense that fantasy novels do, but in a sense that is closer to magical realism.
Consider “Shadows of Evangeline,” the opening track of Flower of Avalon. The mythic register is established in the first verse, which intones “it is rain, it is age, it is poison / supplication to family honor / little children with keys to the temple / red lights and silver dimes.” But the context of this is obscure. There are hints of the southern gothic in descriptions of “porchlight halos ringed about by moss and hanging vines” and the invocations of family honor, while details like the red lights and silver dimes and the third verse’s description of “the bang and the crash of the factory / in a hot, cutting season of metal / on the floor of an ocean of contracts” point to the song being set in modernity. But there is something lost and timeless to this modernity, and it gives way to the uncanny swiftly—the third verse concludes with the line “skin drums and shrunken heads,” then bursts off into the outright Lovecraftian with “strange dances long undone go stamping in between the lines / old gods incarnate in the shadows of Evangeline.” Who or what Evangeline is, meanwhile, remains wholly, beautifully oblique—a tacit allusion to Longfellow’s poem (whose famed opening line, “This is the forest primeval,” is clearly in the same general register as the song) but not one that resolves into a clear meaning.
Even when she writes songs that are grounded in something more concrete and narrative, however, there is a compelling sense of the strange and wondrous. “Cat-Eyed Willie Claims His Lover,” off of Tanglewood Tree, is murder ballad in the classic tradition. And yet the song strays out of the lines. When the eponymous Cat-Eyed Willie arrives to take the woman he has somehow won the right to wed by beating in cards, the description goes well beyond that of a mere deformed hunchback: “as the hour of midnight was approaching / she heard his goblin bootheels on the floor / his tattered rags like raven wings in motion / his hammer hand upon her bedroom door.” And after she has dispatched him by stabbing him in the chest as he sleeps, she retains a connection to him that goes well beyond her own n’er-do-well “cat-eyed boy,” demanding she be buried “down in some meadow lonely / and mark it with that traitor diamond knave / for I have served one master true and only / and I will sleep beside him in the grave.”
In all of this, however, it is Carter’s knack with a turn of phrase or an image that stands out. We could go through the lyrics already quoted, but let’s instead look to one of her outright masterpieces, “The Mountain.” The song’s opening couplet is wondrously suggestion: “I was born in a fork-tongued story / raised up by merchants and drugstore liars.” And it is the small details that really make it—the image of being born in a story is impressive enough even before you clarify that the story was “fork-tongued.” And for all that what exactly this line might mean is unclear, the follow-up clearly fits with it, its invocation of merchants and liars making an intuitive sense with the idea of a “fork-tongued story.” And more to the point, it too has a remarkable details, using the extra two syllables that the song’s meter requires to fold in the gloriously incongruous modifier “drugstore,” which serves to put the song in the same sort of mythic alt-modernity as “Shadows of Evangeline.”
A more dizzying instance of Carter’s magnificent use of language comes in another of her murder ballads, “Preston Miller,” which seems to constantly unfurl new and striking phrases and unusual word choices. The title character’s “toady tutors fawn and praise” him, though he “walks the streets like velvet death / with his daddy’s money on his breath.” When he sends a letter to his distant father (who had him with a nameless chambermaid) “the hoary claw that holds it shakes and trembles,” and his father’s reply is the majestic decree “meet me scion if you will.” And so Preston “combed his laggard locks / and hired a comely roan” to go to the meeting, where he’s suddenly surrounded by his father’s men. And so a final verse, which sings of how “this morning sailed a ship of fools across a sea of gin / with a blinded grinning reaper at the tiller / and it drove an aged Jacob to his lone and bitter end / and a bullet through the brain of Preston Miller.” It’d stray preposterously into too much—few songs can get away with a line like “a blinded grinning reaper at the tiller”—except that the whole song has by this point sold its magnificently wrought excess to the point where this seems a perfectly reasonable climax.
None of these, of course, are Butterfly Conservatory songs. They are Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer songs (a classification I am inclined to keep for Flower of Avalon, where several of the songs also exist with Dave Carter vocals on some of the posthumous releases), a project that was always at least partially concerned with masculinities. The title track of their first posthumous release, Seven is the Number (which was mostly a re-recording of a solo album she’d recorded prior to meeting Grammer, with two songs that had already been re-recorded by the duo replaced with new compositions, one of these being the title track) repeats the refrain that “seven is the number of a man” throughout the song, for instance, while the following track, “Snake-Handlin’ Man,” is a swaggering exorcism of her charismatic Christian upbringing and the toxic masculinity it brought.
Even more interesting is “Frank to Valentino,” off When I Go, a song about “the homely son of a handsome man / neither clear-complected nor expected to achieve / a little bit ragged, a little big rough, a little too rowdy for the summer of love.” The basic subject matter—a frustrated working class man—is of course a standard of folk and folk-adjacent music. Bruce Springsteen has made a career out of characters like this. But Carter’s take is typically distinctive, with a chorus about how “and he’s changed his name from Frank to Valentino / and he’s growin’ out his sideburns, and he’s wearin’ platform shoes / and he’s drivin’ on the midnight road from Medford down to Reno / and he thinks he’s found a way to cure his workin’ blues.” And this is inevitably suggestive—even though Valentino’s self-transformation remains within his gender assigned at birth, the basic fact that Carter’s go-to solution for the classic Springsteen character is “become a new person” speaks volumes.
And indeed, there are unsurprisingly frequent signs of Carter’s transness. These exist as they generally do—as obvious signs not in the “how could anyone have missed this” sense but in the sense of creating a continuity of narrative. (For me: always picking female characters in video games, reading the Babysitters Club books in elementary school, proactively shepherding a trans friend through the transition process.) The most blatant aspect of this is probably Carter’s musical use of Grammer, which at times drifted into using her as a sort of proxy. In the later years of the duo’s work, Carter frequently declared her intention to eventually have Grammer sing all the songs, an act of self-erasure that drips with meaning in hindsight. And at times this instinct became deeply suggestive, such as the track “Crocodile Man” off of Tanglewood Tree, which is a first person song from the perspective of an explicitly masculine circus performer, but which is one of four songs on the album where Grammer gets the lead vocal. Even the concern with masculinities fits this, belonging to a long tradition of attempting to avoid transition through some sort of hypermasculinity. (Hence the otherwise surprising phenomenon of trans women with military backgrounds. Or, for that matter, large beards.)
The most obviously trans of Carter’s songs, however, is “Phantom Doll,” the penultimate track of Flower of Avalon, which remains one of the most crushingly beautiful artistic depictions of gender dysphoria ever crafted. The song opens with a description of how “Raggedy Anne came out to play / kittened a thin disguise against the day / painted a face across the mask / victim of the looking glass” before lashing out with the achingly insightful “store windows are cruel.” The song tarries agonizingly in this space between self image and the vicissitudes of the mirror. The song talks about how “In glorious dreams / she walks outside her skin / her face so fine, her waist so thin / her voice like chimes and mandolins” and “She strolls, the boys beseech / the Venus queen of Venice Beach / so near, so ever out of reach / beautiful phantom doll.” And then, in its final verse, the song curls back to its initial line to make it clear (if the heartbreaking description of “wasted daughters of the moon” didn’t already) what it’s about, acknowledging the truth that “Raggedy Andy wrote this song / scribbled it down where ocean meets the dawn.”
There are a few other lines here and there that enable literal trans readings. But I would argue that, even though searching for straightforward trans markers in Carter’s music is fruitful, it is ultimately not the most rewarding approach in understanding the potential implicit in The Butterfly Conservatory. For that, we ought turn back to Grace Lavery’s observation about trans narratology and the way in which trans lives exist outside of straightforward linear narratives. And, in turn, to our initial observation about the particular nature of Carter’s mythic register—the way in which she blends a sense of the concrete and material with a mythic register.
Let’s look at “The Mountain” again. We already talked about its opening couplet, with its invocation of fork-tongued stories and drug-store liars. But let’s look at where it goes from there: “now I walk on the paths of glory / one foot in ice and one in fire.” The mythic resonances here are obvious—George R.R. Martin has made millions off the same iconography after all. But what is notable is how diffuse the mythology is. For all the specificity of image, there’s little sense of a whole here. More to the point, the presence of the mythic bleeds back into the concrete: in the face of these soaring paths of glory the nature of the drug stores decoheres, so that it becomes a weird island of the material within the inchoately mythic. This becomes even more obvious with the chorus: “I see the mountain / mountain come to me / I see the mountain / and it is all I see.” One can piece together that this is probably Mount Meru, the sacred mountain at the center of Buddhist cosmology, but understanding the allusion does nothing to clarify the song. Like Mount Meru itself, the mountain sits resolutely at the centerpiece of the song, absolute and immovable, even as everything around it remains oblique and fragmentary.
Another example comes in “Disappearing Man,” off of Drum Hat Buddha. The opening verse is full of Carter’s familiar vague mythology: “All rise, behold the famous disappearing man / who comes in crimson robes and leaves in yellow rags. / Hear now his ancient call to union / and the furious communion of the maiden and the stag.” Eventually it becomes clear that this is a song elevating the fairly standard “girl meets boy, boy is a cad who runs off, girl is stronger for it” narrative into a mythic register, which is a good trick. But what stands out is the repeated use of imagery of nature. In addition to the maiden and the stag there’s “the yearning desert in the country of your skin,” imagery of the seasons passing, “a friendly gypsy storm on tender lillies, hale and blaze,” “the boatman rows you grimly / down a canyon dark and empty in a stale and dreary haze,” and finally the question “will you bloom bright and fierce, will you know you don’t need him anymore?” All of this serves to ground the elevated language of crimson robes and wedding dresses in tatters not just in the mundanities of love and betrayal but in the concrete and immutability of the natural world.
Indeed, it’s an effort to find a Carter song that doesn’t involve at least some nature imagery. The specific trick of “Disappearing Man,” where the ups and downs of romantic love are framed in terms of natural cycles, is a particularly common one, but even in her narrative songs she turns reflexively to the natural world for her imagery and iconography. This strengthens the sense of a mythology that blurs the mundane world without ever losing touch with it—something that is rooted in the deep ecology of the world. But within this there is always the possibility for multiplicity, not only in the sense that Carter’s mythology is vague and multivalent but in the sense that her songs, on aggregate, contradict each other. We might, for instance, look at Flower of Avalon, which contains the sage religious skepticism of “Mother I Climbed,” which repeats the lines “Mother, I climbed the holy steeple / I found nothing to believe,” but which also ends with “Any Way I Do,” a soaring hymn whose chorus is “in praise or lamentation, peace or desperation / any way I do I come into the presence of the Lord.”
There is something intensely trans about this in a way that functions without any actual reference to gender. The weird tension at the heart of trans narratology, after all, is precisely the fact that gender identity is on the one hand an absolute and undeniable truth whose rejection causes genuine anguish and on the other a schism in the continuity of identity that renders memory and history suspect. We are thus forced to choose between rewriting the past to make it true or leaving it as it happened and thus fundamentally false. Trans narratives are not simply postmodern rejections of fixed truth—the grim irony of transphobes’ obsession with citing “biology” as a refutation is that the vicissitudes of that field, with all its smudged taxonomies and odd exigencies, are far murkier and uncertain than the stark certainty of self-knowledge implicit in making the great and terrifying decision to transition. And Carter’s music, with its mythologies that are at once rooted in the ancient material and constructed out of a tapestry of wondrous multiplicity, is constantly capturing sentiments akin to the truth that is at the heart of transition—the absolute and stony certainty that I am not the person I am being.
Is this because she was trans? We should know by now that it is not so simple as that. Trans people are not the only ones whose narratives take these doubled and self-negating forms. Indeed, much of what has been said applies just as well to trauma theory. More broadly, other stories exist, as they always do. Carter was a devotee of Joseph Campbell, for instance. The typical perspective on Campbell is that he drove a bulldozer over mythology, collapsing everything into a western-centered and highly patriarchal monomyth by aggressively filing off all the rough edges until all the diversity of human culture becomes a singular story to rule all others. But Carter’s work reveals a magic trick that can be played with this approach—a shift in perspective that allows Campbell’s work to go in a radically different direction. Because the other thing that Campbell’s work can mean is that no story is ever just itself; they all bleed into other tales that are at once the same and radically different. We are never the only possible endpoints of our own histories. Never mind some many worlds hypothesis where all our other histories played out; even our existing histories lead other places than just here. And by extension, these histories are not just one story either. We were all born in fork-tongued stories; we have always been legion.
Carter no more wrote this way because she was trans than she was trans because she wrote this way. The two facts simply exist, winding through each other like vines through a trellis. But in their interplay we find one of the great lost voices of trans literature. The Butterfly Conservatory does not exist. It never did, and never will. But the six albums and two EPs that exist in its place form an essential part of trans history that deserves to be rescued and told. It is not just our story, but it is unquestionably that.
Postscript: On Pronouns
The question of pronouns for Carter is vexed, and my selection of feminine pronouns is not only controversial, but an outright defiance of Tracy Grammer’s express wishes. Grammer uses exclusively masculine pronouns for Carter on the stated grounds that her transition was not complete at the time of her death and, as she put it in on Twitter, “He never came out as female; it was all secret. It feels wrong to pull him across that threshold posthumously.” Going against the view of Carter’s stated “partner in all things” on something this fundamental and intimate is not a decision I make lightly, especially as she is the only available source as to Carter’s wishes. Nevertheless, I stand by the choice and recommend it as best practice for anyone wishing to talk about Carter’s work.
We should begin from the null hypothesis, which is to say look at the facts as they are known and what conclusions would be appropriate absent any interpretation from Grammer. These are simple: Carter struggled with gender dysphoria throughout her life, announced an intention to transition, and had begun hormone therapy at the time of her death. She was undoubtedly transgender. The default assumption with trans people is that one should use their preferred pronouns when referring to them at any stage of their life. Being a woman is not the end result of physical or social transition; these acts are simply solutions to practical problems caused by being a woman who was assigned male at birth. By this logic, the fact that Carter was not out or presenting as female at the time of her death is irrelevant: her intention to transition was clear, and we should honor that intention when referring to her pre-transition life even if pre-transition life is all she had.
This is, however, merely the default interpretation as opposed to a universal one. There exist no shortage of trans people who do not renounce their previous pronouns. I declined to use she/her or Elizabeth until I was presenting as female, and retain a complex ambivalence on retconning my pronouns (even though in most cases I go ahead and do it and generally expect others to simply because rejection of that convention is more often a sign of transphobia than an acknowledgment of the subtleties involved). And there are scattered pieces of evidence that suggest that Carter held a more dualistic view of transition: Grammer has stated that Carter intended to record one more masculine “cowboy Dave” album before publicly transitioning (this may have been Seven is the Number), a detail that suggests that she retained an investment in her masculine past. Close analysis of lyrics also suggests a dualism—”Phantom Doll”’s ontrast between Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, for instance, suggests a preference for discontinuity between the two. But these are cryptic clues that, if we had a post-transition narrative for Carter, could easily have been positioned in a different light. Certainly they do not seem to me sufficient cause to ignore standard best practices.
More to the point, though, this simply isn’t the argument that Grammer makes in justifying her use of male pronouns. Her argument is one of agnosticism—that Carter had not finished her transition. As she put it in an e-mail to me, “none of us can say where Dave might have landed. “Nonbinary” is as likely as “she” in Dave’s case, given my experience of him. Perhaps he would have preferred “they.” My hope is that you can honor the perfection of his journey — including the part wherein Dave Carter dies before completing his transition — and let the mystery be.” But this argument crumbles under scrutiny. It’s true that nobody can know where Carter’s transition would have ended. But the existence of an ambiguity between whether “she” or “they” would have been someone’s preferred pronouns is not an argument to use “he,” which is the one pronoun we knew Carter found loathsome enough to require transitioning. And again, Carter was not merely talking about maybe wanting to transition; she had begun hormones because of the gender dysphoria provoked by her assigned role as a man. However inconclusive the evidence is for “she/her” or “they/them, the evidence that “he/him” is inappropriate is overwhelming.
More to the point, however, Grammer’s account forces us to ask for whom, exactly, Carter’s journey was perfect? After all, it is difficult to suggest seriously that dying young and without having finished her transition was something Dave Carter wanted or would have considered ideal. I want to tread delicately here. I have zero doubt that Grammer has approached this situation with compassion and a desire to do right by an extraordinary individual who she loved and continues to love with a depth and richness that no fan or critic can come close to. Absolutely none of her actions are motivated out of malice or cruelty. Her failings here are ordinary human foibles; the everyday selfishness of love and the fundamental narcissism of memory.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that Grammer, by all indications, took news of Carter’s transition poorly. Carter first shared her desire to transition in 2000, and Grammer was, by her own admission, “fascinated, then upset.” She blames this on not growing up in an environment where she’d heard of trans people, but also notes that “I felt like I mourned him twice. I had this fairy tale of getting married. He said he’d had these feelings since eighth grade. What do you do with that?” Grammer’s negative reaction was enough to dissuade Carter from pursuing transition further, although the decision damaged their relationship—in 2006 she said that their relationship had been “in transition” at the time of Carter’s death. In early 2002, when Carter began HRT, she did so without telling Grammer. Grammer eventually found out, and the two had what she describes as a “sort of reconciliation,” which included a conversation shortly before her death in which she told Grammer that “you just need to be my friend and stop pushing and let it happen.” Grammer’s poor reaction is unfortunate but understandable; there is no evidence that she’s anything other than a heterosexual woman. Carter’s transition raised fundamental incompatibilities in their relationship that would be painful regardless of Grammer’s basic sympathy towards trans people. It’s a sad story that does not call for anything as crass as blame.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to escape the sense that Grammer’s choice of pronouns amounts to motivated reasoning—an understandable but nevertheless fundamentally misguided desire to posthumously preserve her partner as she wanted her to be, as opposed to as Carter wanted to be. Grammer is hardly the first surviving family member or lover of a trans person to deny their transition after their death. Far too many of us have been buried under names we rejected by families we had no further relationship with for the act of posthumously denying someone’s transition not to sting. That Grammer’s reasons for doing so are not born of the same ugly transphobia as Leelah Alcorn’s parents or Dani Bunten’s children does not make them any more correct.
Nevertheless, Grammer is adamant in defending her authority on the matter. In an e-mail to me when I wrote seeking more information about Carter’s thoughts on transition for writing this essay, she was firm in her assertion, writing: “As to the “norms,” they seem to apply to people who are living in their new gender and have had to figure out how to refer to their “old” selves. Dave never had an “old” self. He was just Dave — transitioning, but not there yet, and still without a name for his female impending. You yourself say that you didn’t feel right with she/her until you lived as a woman. Please check your temptation to “she” Dave when he did not have that same privilege. Dave is not your cause, he was not your friend, and this is not your place.” And this deserves to be taken seriously. There’s nobody living with a better perspective on Carter’s wishes and self-conception than Tracy Grammer. But her input is not dispositive. In the end, it is wrong to assert that it is not anybody’s place but hers to make decisions on what pronouns to use.
Certainly it is wrong to, as Grammer did in response to my inquiries, suggest that I was acting out of an “agenda” or to insist that “Dave’s transition has nothing to do with you, or me, or anybody but himself. He’s not anybody’s pet or cause.” As we’ve already noted at length, stories are never just one thing. Carter’s story belongs to herself, but for Grammer to deny that it is also a part of the long shared history of trans people is, in the end, no different from E.J. Levy’s self-serving denial that Dr. James Berry is. Put bluntly, Grammer does not get to take our history from us, regardless of whether she’s doing it out of a well-meaning but misguided effort to honor Carter’s journey or just because she’d rather remember her deceased partner as a man. So since the question has been raised, however crassly, my agenda simple enough: I want to tell our story.
But more broadly, getting pronouns right is a matter of treating someone with basic respect. When talking about someone, one has an obligation to do the best one can in accurately capturing their gender identity in any pronouns used. For Carter and any other trans person, it’s everybody’s place to try to get this right, in the same way that human dignity is always a collective responsibility. And while for the living this can be accomplished by simply asking someone’s preferred pronouns, for someone like Carter who died closeted and with her transition in progress we are forced to resort to other evidence. And while Tracy Grammer has a credible claim to authority and is undoubtedly trying to do right by Carter, her account of why masculine pronouns are appropriate is unpersuasive. Her claim that it feels wrong to complete Carter’s transition after death requires us to instead look at someone who had been suffering from decades of gender dysphoria and who died taking active steps to alleviate it and to condemn her to an eternity of the exact role she took extraordinary measures to escape, all on the word of someone who was at no point supportive of her transition and whose argument for doing so is based on a distinctly minority view of how transition works.
This is, it seems to me, clearly wrong. There are many things about Carter’s transition that cannot be addressed after death. She cannot pick a name, develop a new personal style, step into the world presenting as female, or apply her prodigious talents to depicting trans experiences. But we can validate the underlying desire and sense of self by not using trapping her within the gender she was clearly seeking to escape. We don’t know how things would have ended up or what pronouns would have been settled on. We don’t know if Carter and Grammer’s partnership would have survived to ever make a Butterfly Conservatory album. We don’t know what kind of woman or enby Carter would have become. But we know she didn’t want to be a man. And while Grammer is unable or unwilling to grant her partner in all things one final release to be herself, we are in no way obliged to follow suit.
As I note in the main essay, trans lives are always contingent, made of ghosts and stories about people who were not there for the events described. The use of she/her pronouns is not the whole story. As we’ve seen, nothing is ever the whole story. They’re just the kindest option.