Choice Words

Masha Gessen delivering her Robert B. Silvers lecture, “The Stories of a Life,” at the New York Public Library, December 18, 2017.

“TRUMP APPEARS TO BE OBSESSED with people who embody choice,” said Masha Gessen in her New York Public Library talk on the night of December 18, pointing to his administration’s preoccupation with immigrants and transgender people, among others. Even their representation in words can seem threatening: Why else would his administration ban the Centers for Disease Control from mentioning fetuses, diversity, and the transgender community?

Gessen embraces choices, seeing them as “adventures.” Her Robert B. Silvers lecture, “The Stories of a Life,” recounted the ways in which decisions, both those offered to her and denied of her, have shaped her existence. Fittingly, a last-minute move to change her speech defined the evening. Prior to the event, Paul Holdengräber, director of LIVE from the NYPL, asked Gessen for the seven words that best describe her. Gessen wasn’t satisfied by her first response—“Outliner. Moscow, New York, Moscow, New York”—so she sent a follow-up e-mail with a second set: “Fetus, transgender, diversity, vulnerable, entitled, evidence-based, science-based.” Gessen stayed true to her original set of words by structuring her talk around the seven words that are not to appear on CDC reports.

Most of the words on the list may seem to be the opposite of choice: By now, the majority of the American population seems to understand that we’re born this way. Indeed, Gessen noted that the “rhetoric of choicelessness that the LGBT movement had been using to great effect . . . had gotten people access to such institutions as the military and marriage.” But Gessen sees empowerment in creating choices where none are typically available, such as her decision to undergo a mastectomy when she learned that she carried the gene for the cancer that killed her mother, or when she returned to the US after a decade in Russia, under threat of losing her children.

Some of the most important events in Gessen’s life have been the result of choices she did not have, while others were from discovering options that she didn’t realize existed. Upon returning to the US, Gessen found that many of her friends had transitioned, something she was surprised to find that she felt jealous of. “I, too, had always felt like a boy,” she remembered. “I had learned to be a woman, whatever that means. I’d succeeded, but still, there I was faced with the possibility that in the parallel life . . . I would have transitioned.” She began taking a low dose of testosterone. “True gender, whatever that means, didn’t have much to do with it, but choice did,” she explained. “Somehow I had missed the fact that it was there.”

A person, in Gessen’s view, “is a sequence of choices. The question is, will your next choice be conscious, and will your ability to make it be unfettered?” Under the current administration, Gessen believes that the “insistence on making a choice . . . is the only possible avenue of resistance.” Toward the end of her lecture, she imparted a lesson from Soviet dissidents: “If you have the choice between going to prison and leaving the country, you should always leave the country. There’s nothing heroic about placing yourself in a position where you will not be able to act.”