by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

The black sex appeal of Professor Doležal

As I noted in my linguistics blog on Saturday night, there have been several comparisons between Rachel Doležal’s claiming of a black identity and transgender identity claims, and lots of articles condemning any such comparison. Most of those have been faith-based, along the lines of “Their god can’t be the true god, because it says in our holy book that our God is the true one.” But I study transgender phenomena from a skeptical point of view, and I’ve noticed some important commonalities. Of course race and gender are not the same thing, but we deal with them in similar enough ways that one can be a mirror to the other.

Rachel Doležal ca. 2002
You want to dissolve stereotypes …by wearing a black turtleneck in your artist publicity shot?
On Saturday I noted the contrast between the absence of African American English features in Doležal’s speech and the numerous African American features in her appearance, most strikingly of course her hair. I compared it to the many transgender people I know who have spent long hours and serious cash on their visual appearance with no thought given to how they sound. Now, for a non-linguistic angle, I’m going to talk about being sexy.

Maybe I’m reading the wrong blogs (or the right ones), but after three days I haven’t come across anyone talking about how sexy Doležal is. This is funny, because most women in the public eye (and most who aren’t) are subject to constant commentary about their attractiveness – or lack thereof. Here I am looking at her cleavage-baring blouses, her tight pants and tailored jackets, and her curve-accentuating heels, and everyone’s sticking to the script: skin tone and hair. It’s surreal.

When I went looking tonight, I did find two insightful comments that articulated what I was also thinking. An anonymous commenter on the “Toddler” section of the YouBeMom forum, of all places, wrote, “Rachel Dolezal was an awkward looking white woman and is now attractive as a light skinned black woman. Say what you will about her lies but her new skin and hair suit her.” Writer Calaya Reid had a much longer take which is worth reading in full, but here’s the key part, invoking Jessica Care Moore: “Maybe she’s trying to tap into her Black girl juice. Maybe she’s admitting what everyone knows and what everyone seems to want you to forget — that there’s a power to this thing of being a Black woman. That there’s some wizardry, some cosmic brilliance to this skin you’re in. There really is Black girl juice.”

I should note that I’ve only seen five or six pictures of “white” Doležal, and she was pretty young in most of them. “Awkward” wasn’t the word that came to mind, but I was definitely thinking “demure.” The publicity photo she used right after she graduated Howard in 2002 was a bit more sophisticated, but really didn’t do much to counter the impression of being a well-brought up Christian girl from Montana.

I’m not sure I need to say this, but it is definitely possible to be sexy as a white woman with straight blonde hair. You may have seen a few on television. Superficially it seems like it would be easier for her to go with her natural assets, but Doležal chose to dye and perm her hair to be a sexy black woman with utterly unnatural “natural hair.” Why?

I get the impression Doležal is her own hairdresser, so only she knows for sure. But here’s where her actions feel familiar to me as a transgender person, and as a transvestite in particular. Because I only feel like I know how to be sexy as a woman. I know what clothes flatter my body, and what makeup and hairstyle go with the clothes to make a sexy look. As a guy, I only go with what people tell me, but I never know if I’m doing it right. I constantly feel like I’m fumbling in the dark.

I could be totally off-base with this, but I get the feeling that Doležal feels like she only knows how to be sexy as a black woman. She knows not just the hair and the clothes, but the jewelry and the eyebrows. And when she’s tried to make it work as a blonde woman, she never knows if she’s doing it right.

The irony here is that if I achieve any actual sexiness as a woman, it’s superficial and it never attracts anyone that I actually want to attract. Sometimes it looks good in still photos, but I’ve been told by people whose opinion I trust that in person it feels false and disconnected from my true self, not necessarily because of gender. Meanwhile, I have on some occasions managed to be sexy as a guy, usually just by being able to relax, to be myself and to own my true sexuality. Of course, nobody can tell you how to act natural.

Again, I feel the same way when I watch videos of Rachel Doležal. The moment she moves, the moment she opens her mouth, the sexy black professor disappears and I see a scared white girl hiding inside. A profoundly unsexy scared white girl. But I hope that for her sake, she has also managed at times to relax, and to be as truly sexy as I have been. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Selections from the Facebook chats of Myra Breckenridge

Mike Silver: Yo Myron! Wow, dude, I had no idea.
Myra Breckenridge: I’m not Myron.
Mike Silver: Sorry, man, I get it. Myra. You look way hotter than you did as Myron.
Myra Breckenridge: I never was Myron. Who’s Myron?
Mike Silver: Whoa, sorry, bear with me. Yeah, you were always Myra inside. I felt it, man! There was always something girly about you, even that time when we snuck under the bleachers to look up Emma Liu’s skirt.
Myra Breckenridge: No, you don’t- I’m not- Fuck!
Mike Silver: ??? Anyhoo, some people are worried on your wall.
Myra Breckenridge: How’d you find me, Mike?
Mike Silver: fb asked me to tag you in your profile pic

Grayden Liu: Hey Myra, your trans too? You look awesome! Did you get your hormones at the Eastdale clinic? I’m so jealous! They have a wait list for trans men.
Myra Breckenridge: What? Emma Liu? !!!

Myra J. Breckenridge: You fucker! Identity thief! You know how long I was on the phone with Banana Republic trying to get my rewards points back? If I ever track you down I’m gonna kikk your ass!

Steve Daniels: Wow, u are a hot tranny! so feminine. still have ur dick? That’s how I like it! are u on Grindr?

Stephanie Ridgenbreck: Myron? Mike Silver posted that he found you. Don’t do this to me again, Myron! I mean Myra! Bear with me, sweetie. I’ll get it right eventually! Come back, we’ll go shopping with Jen at Target!
Myra Breckenridge: I always hated shopping with Jen as a boy, mom. Why would it be better as a girl?

Laverne Cox: I welcome our sister Myra Breckenridge to Facebook and wish her luck in her acting career. But while her struggles are significant, we must remember the pervasive violence and discrimination that trans women of color face daily.

Jordan DiGiulio: Hey Myra you look GORGEOUS! Mike Silver told me you transitioned, but I didn’t believe it. Your skin is flawless! I’m so jealous.
Myra Breckenridge: Coming from you, Jordan, that is quite a compliment! You were always the most popular girl in tenth grade. How are the kids?
Jordan DiGiulio: Aw, you’re so sweet! Anyway, here’s this BuzzFeed article that made me think of you
Myra Breckenridge: The one about the women in Kyrgyzstan who wear “Man hats” when they pick apples? Yeah, I saw that one back in October.
Jordan DiGiulio: I bet you can totally relate!
Myra Breckenridge: Oh, totally.
Jordan DiGiulio: I mean, gender!
Myra Breckenridge: Thanks for thinking of me! 😀

Justin Haripaul: Hey Myra! You look great! Why didn’t you tell me about this?
Myra Breckenridge: Oh Justin, I didn’t think you’d understand.
Justin Haripaul: Listen, you’re my friend and I’m there for you. We’ll make things work for you in New York. You didn’t need to run away!
Myra Breckenridge: You’re so sweet!
Justin Haripaul: Where in California are you? Samantha and I will get a flight out there. We want to make sure you’re safe.
Myra Breckenridge: I’m actually not in California.
Justin Haripaul: Huh?? Where are you?
Myra Breckenridge: Hackensack, right near the Anderson Ave station
Justin Haripaul: Hackensack?
Myra Breckenridge: This is as far as I could get without showing ID

Icky surgeries

I’ve always been disturbed by the idea of transgender surgery, and of surgery relating to appearances in general. Part of it is because surgery is generally icky, part is because it’s objectively dangerous, and part is because there are doubts about how effective it is at helping us to deal with our transgender feelings. There are situations where most of us would agree that surgery is ineffective or not worth the risk. I’ve met some people – trans and not trans, of all genders – with facial features that are clearly artificial, unattractive, and worse-looking than if they had just left things the way they were.

Surgery is also expensive. This means that making cosmetic surgery the norm – whether for trans people or for large segments of the population at large, as I’ve heard it is in places like California, Korea and Venezuela – gives an advantage to people who can better afford it.

While I have no interest in getting any such surgery, there are a few things that have made me more comfortable with the idea for other people, and in general.

The first was a discussion I had with some friends in grad school. One guy told a story about a time when he was driving home from work late at night, overtired, and blacked out and hit a telephone pole. The impact split his face open, but surgeons were able to reconstruct it. I was shocked, because I had no idea that anything had happened to him. He told me that his beard helped to hide the scars. At that point I realized the value of that kind of surgery: it had spared him a lifetime of disfigurement.

The author, pre-"surgery"Another was the realization that I have in fact had cosmetic facial surgery, on a small scale. In the past I’ve been complimented for having a youthful, feminine face, but I thought that was all luck of the genes. Then one day I read that the width of a person’s mouth is a major factor when people judge a face to be a man’s or a woman’s.

When I was a kid I had crooked teeth, basically because there wasn’t enough room in my mouth for all of my teeth. When I was fifteen my mom took me to get braces, but my orthodontist said that before he put them on I had to get four bicuspids removed so that all the teeth could line up. So he sent me to an oral surgeon. It’s certainly not what most people think of as surgery: the procedure took about an hour, and the anesthetic was just a relatively high dose of novocain. (The oral surgeon offered me a valium, but I declined.) But removing four large, healthy adult teeth and then sewing up the gums was a fairly major procedure for dental work.

If I had not had those teeth removed, I would probably have had to have my wisdom teeth removed a few years later, but all my teeth together would probably also have taken up more space, giving me a wider mouth and a more masculine appearance, and maybe even making my jaw grow bigger than it has. So I believe the result was some permanent facial … not exactly “feminization,” but anti-masculinization.

As I said, surgery is generally icky, and dangerous, but there are some times when it is clearly life-saving, like an appendectomy. I think most of us can agree that it was also good that surgeons were able to reconstruct my grad school friend’s face so that people didn’t grimace when they saw him. On the other hand, even in circumstances like those there are people who would not care about the grimacing and would choose the minimum amount of surgery to be able to physically function, and forgo anything beyond that.

It is important to recognize that when people choose to have cosmetic surgery, they are often not acting rationally. They may be under a mistaken belief that the surgery will satisfy a glamour longing that they feel. They may be addicted to the danger, or to the excitement of a new image. Their minds may be clouded by gender fog. Many people are not well-informed of the risks of surgery – even the simple risk that what they get may not look very good, or may not age well.

The bottom line is that adults should be free to choose what kind of surgery is done to modify their bodies, and children should be allowed to make reasonable modifications that they are not likely to regret in the future. Part of living in a free country is giving people the freedom to act irrationally, or in rational ways that are beyond our understanding.

Transgender, and 55+ years in the closet

One thing jumped out at me from Bruce Jenner’s ABC interview about his transgender feelings, beliefs and actions: he has been wearing women’s clothes in private for over fifty-five years. I noticed this when I listened to Lana Wachowski’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign, and even when I read interviews with Richard O’Brien. All three described being fascinated with women’s clothes since childhood. Why didn’t they feel comfortable telling anyone about it before they started taking hormones and wearing women’s clothes in public?

Let me be clear: I am not blaming Jenner, Wachowski or O’Brien; they are completely entitled to their choices. I can understand people not wanting to talk about a private aspect of their life, and nobody is required to talk to the media about their transgender feelings or beliefs if they don’t want to, no matter how famous they are. Actor, director, sports star, stepfather to reality television superstars, everyone has a right to privacy.

I can understand people not wanting to discuss their life plans before they’re finalized. If someone is planning to go back to school for their MD, or move to Portland, or live the rest of their life as a woman, they need to figure out how to do what’s right for themself while honoring their obligations to family and friends. It may take a long time to do that, and they don’t need to tell anyone.

And yet, Jenner and Wachowski are just two in a long line of trans women who talk about wearing women’s clothes in secret for years before declaring their gender transitions. (O’Brien is a bit different: he made his feelings and beliefs pretty clear in his plays and movies.) There are hardly any famous trans women who feel comfortable talking about their feelings or actions while deciding whether to transition, let alone wearing women’s clothes in public. And among those famous trans women who have decided not to transition, very few are out about it in any way.

you dont have to transitionFor me, as someone who decided long ago not to transition, the support that these declarations receive from some quarters rings a bit hollow. Often it feels like people are cheering the transition more than expressing support for people who have trans feelings. And it makes me wonder: what would they have said in 1995 if Wachowski had simply mentioned in an interview that she was considering transitioning but hadn’t made up her mind? Or in 1985 if Jenner had told Phil Donohue that he was a cross-dresser? It makes me wonder: would these people show the same support to someone who chose my path?

Would you show the same support to someone who chose my path? Would you want to know about my transgender feelings, regardless of what I do about them? Would you defend me against discrimination? Would you support my right to use bathrooms consistent with my gender expression, even if my gender expression changes from day to day?

If so, please tell the world. Say it louder. Because I don’t think Bruce Jenner heard you.

Predators, prey and gender overlap

In 2013 I wrote about how I and many other people sometimes interact with the world as a woman, and sometimes as a man. Some people are very uncomfortable with this. They may accept the idea that a person is “really” a different gender inside, or that they have to live as a different gender, but they want everyone to transition and get it over with. They hate the idea that someone could be a man one day and a woman the next and a man again the following day, or even both simultaneously.

hello fellow1s

I puzzled over this for years, but I think I’ve figured out now why some people are violently opposed (many of them quite literally) to the idea of someone being both a man and a woman. It is because they see the two categories as not just incompatible but as antagonists, even enemies. It is because they see men as predators and women as prey.

Our culture has many metaphors based on this model. We talk about sexual predators (the vast majority of them are men), men being out on the prowl, women as trophies and feathers in caps. We talk about the chase and about the thrill of the hunt. There are other metaphors where women are valuable prizes won by men, and in the other direction where men are fish or bears, and women are trying to catch them with nets and traps, but the ones where men are hunting women are more common.

These metaphors are not created out of thin air. In my first grade class a common pastime of the boys was to have “girl chases” (I boycotted them on principle, so I don’t know what happened if a boy ever caught a girl). When I was a teenager I learned from movies and songs that getting a pretty girl – or at least having a pretty girl say that she liked him – was one of the main goals in life, and a way that a boy could get people to like and respect him.

I have known people who really do relate to the other primary gender in those terms most of the time. I’ve known men whose first reaction on meeting a woman is to size her up as a potential mate. Those who are suitable they pursue, and if they catch them they may use them and drop them. Those who are not suitable they try to ignore, or to relate to as “one of the guys.” If that fails, they are often at a loss.

Similarly, I have known women who evaluate all men as potential threats. Those who turn out to be threats they may run away from, or grit their teeth and try to bear it. Those who are not threats they try to ignore, or dismiss as annoying boys. If that fails, they are similarly at a loss.

Some women reject the idea that trans people who were raised male can be women, but are occasionally willing to make an exception for passable trans women with lots of female socialization – provided that they transition, get rid of as much of their maleness as possible, and then stay transitioned. If we spend any time as men, we’re automatically disqualified. This makes sense if they are thinking of us as predators: we can’t be simultaneously predators and prey, so we must be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Similarly, men who attack trans women seem to do so when they feel attracted, but there is some unmistakable sign of the trans woman’s maleness. This also can be understood (not excused, of course) if they are thinking of men as predators and women as prey. Just when they think they have caught their prey and begin to let their guard down, she turns into a predator before their eyes!

Anyone who has actually made the effort to relate to people of other genders as human beings knows how superficial this way of thinking is, and how unrewarding. The reality is that both men and women are people, and every person is a complex individual. Some are nice and some are not. But of course, if they’re treating you either like a predator or like prey, you can’t get to know them anyway.

The lure of fake community leaders

Remember in 2002 when George Bush assured us that the Iraqis would welcome our invading armies “with open arms”? When we actually did invade that welcome was a lot less warm. A lot of people wondered what Bush and his cabinet were thinking. Where did they get that idea? It’s not like they took a poll of Iraqi citizens living under Saddam’s police state.

It turned out that this idea of a grateful, welcoming Iraqi people came from Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile living in Washington who had regular contact with the US media and Beltway thought leaders. He hadn’t taken a poll of Iraqis either: his “intelligence” came from what people in his own echo chamber of exiles were saying, with a heavy dose of his own fantasies. Add in the fantasies of Bush advisers like Condoleeza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, and we get a disaster of epic proportions that we’re still paying for today.

Unfortunately, Ahmed Chalabi’s con was not unique. There are many Chalabis around the world who tell a compelling story about Their People. How they were victims of the Enemy, unfairly brutalized – and often still are. How they desperately need help.

A big part of that story is You. You can help, when nobody else will. You can put an end the injustice. You can save Their People. And Their People will love you for it. They will probably do something nice in return.

You can see how seductive this idea was to people like George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz. A friend, whose People were being unjustly treated. All they have to do is deploy some expensive troops and planes that are sitting around doing nothing, and they can right that wrong, and earn the gratitude of the Iraqi People. They’ll look good, and earn influence. What could possibly go wrong?

The interesting thing is that some of what Chalabi was saying was the truth. His people were being victimized, they did appreciate being liberated and restored to their homeland, and they did shower the Bush Administration with favors and grant them influence and access.

What went wrong was that Chalabi’s people weren’t the Iraqi people. If they had been, everything would have gone according to plan (maybe). But they were only a small subset of the Iraqi people, a narrow slice of the elite. Most of the rest of the population did appreciate getting rid of Saddam, but they did not like the rest of the invasion and occupation, which was planned without consulting them, and often without acknowledging their existence. They certainly did not want Chalabi running the country. So they resisted him, and the occupation.

Boy those right wingers sure are stupid, huh? Nobody on the left would base their political actions on the words of a few friends! We always take these stories with healthy skepticism. And our humble left-wing friends would never take their experience and present it as that of an entire group. Right?

Sadly, the left is just as susceptible to our own Ahmed Chalabis as the Bush Administration was. They’re friends! They’re victims! Other people listen to them! How could we doubt them?

Even more sadly, there are many in the transgender world who stoop to Chalabi-style tactics, claiming to speak for the entire community and offering the undying gratitude of all trans people to anyone who uses the proper pronouns and recites the prescribed incantations. This may work for the people in the roles of Bush and Chalabi, at least for a time, but in the end nobody is really better off, and those of us who do not have access to these wannabe allies are in the worst situation of all.

Creating body dysphoria

Some people believe that there are two kinds of dysphoria: social dysphoria, meaning a discomfort with the social expectations associated with a gender role, and body dysphoria, meaning a discomfort with the awareness of physical sex characteristics.

In this worldview (sometimes called “truscum”; the word is adopted as a badge of pride by many people who espouse it), the feeling of body dysphoria separates the true transsexuals from the wannabe “transtrenders.” It is a “medical condition,” resulting from a mismatch between brain sex and the shape of the body, and the only cure is full hormonal and surgical transition. Social dysphoria, by contrast, is a malaise resulting from society’s restrictive gender roles, and affects everyone who’s paying attention. The only cure for this is reforming society to equalize the sexes, and any other response is a waste of time.

In the truscum worldview, resources available for trans people are scarce, and the true transsexuals with their medical condition deserve priority over the transtrenders who only experience social dysphoria. Transtrenders also monopolize media time and attention, and trivialize transgender problems in people’s minds.

This argument rests on two claims: (a) that body dysphoria is qualitatively different from other kinds of gender dysphoria and much more intense, and (b) that body dysphoria is innate – either you have it or you don’t.

When I first heard this argument I was skeptical of the first claim. Does body dysphoria even exist, I wondered? I couldn’t think of a way it could arise psychologically, so I didn’t really think too much about the claim that it was innate. Now I’ve not only seen that body dysphoria does exist, but I’ve also seen how it can develop, in fully grown adults who never experienced it before.

My friend Claire said she had never felt any dissatisfaction with her body until she transitioned. But after a significant period of being accepted as a woman, and then a single incident focused on her genitals, she began to experience intense, traumatic body dysphoria. And she’s not the only one.

I’ve heard similar stories from other trans women, and they all have the same pattern: feeling accepted as a woman, thinking of themselves as a woman (with no “trans” qualifier), and having to confront the fact of having male anatomy at a time when it was inconvenient (or worse) to have it.

The fact that all of these women were fully grown adults when they first experienced body dysphoria means that there is no way to neatly divide the world into “true transsexuals” and “wannabe transtrenders.” It doesn’t show that body dysphoria is never innate, but it does prove that it isn’t always innate. We’re not all born this way.

Unethical therapy

When 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn committed suicide on December 27, she left a note on Tumblr urging action to help trans people like herself:

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.
Please.

Some trans people have responded to Alcorn’s call for action with a petition to ban “the practice known as ‘transgender conversion therapy.'” Here’s how Alcorn described her therapy experience in an October posting to Reddit found by Cristan Williams:

I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.

I wholeheartedly agree that what Alcorn describes is a disgrace to the therapeutic profession, and that it should be stopped. The goal of any therapy should be to give the client a place to be heard and respected, to free them from repression, and to help them find the path that works for them. Biased, faith-based sessions where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance is inhumane brainwashing, not therapy. If it takes a law to stop it, I’m in favor.

This image is not an endorsement
Photo: Barbara B. Shostak, Ph.D. / Flickr. This image is not an endorsement

That said, I have concerns about this drive to outlaw all “conversion” and “reparative” therapies. I want to make sure there is room for the kind of therapy that I want and need: therapy that helps me to live in the gender that I was assigned at birth.

As I’ve written before, I feel many of the same feelings that other trans people feel, but believing in a gender identity goes against my skepticism, and many years ago I chose not to transition. Over the years, with the help of several therapists and the support of friends and family, I have succeeded in losing a lot of my repression, but I still have to deal with those transgender feelings, and I will probably need to see therapists, at least occasionally, for the rest of my life.

My therapists have been supportive of my decision not to transition, and I am confident that if someone came to them wanting to transition, they would be similarly supportive of their decisions. Unlike the therapists hired by Alcorn’s parents, my therapists listen to me, and respect me.

I’ve never been to a gender therapist. From what I’ve seen and heard – from the therapists themselves as well as from other trans people – there are very few who have any idea how to help someone like me who’s decided not to transition. While they may pay lip service to the idea of not transitioning, they seem to see their job as helping trans people jump through the hoops necessary for transition. What happens if a trans person changes their mind about transition – or decides to detransition? Are they simply declared to be “not really trans after all,” and left to fend for themselves?

Gender therapy is better than “conversion” therapy, because it doesn’t impose anything that the client doesn’t want, and it’s better than the “gatekeeping” practices that were prevalent for the late twentieth century, but it is still a biased situation where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance.

We trans people need therapy, and we deserve a range of options where we can find support for the path we choose. We do not need therapy that is just another way for parents to repress us, as Leelah Alcorn described her “Christian” therapy. But we do need support for those of us who have chosen to live without transitioning.

When you’re the insult

Radical feminists have been critical of transgender beliefs and actions for years, going back at least to Janice Raymond in 1979. Trans people have had various responses to these critiques, from acceptance to outright demonization, and sometimes including substantive, thoughtful critiques of radical feminism. Frequently, arguments between trans activists and radfems degenerate into vicious name-calling and worse.

hello fellow1s

Third Way Trans has a compelling explanation for these fights: “this debate is not really about a scientific question, but it is about an emotional need, and both groups contain a lot of people that have been traumatized, particularly by men, and both need safety. However, these needs are also fundamentally incompatible in some ways which leads to the current impasse.”

I’m not interested in getting into arguments where either side is dehumanizing the other, so I’ve generally avoided the issue. At one point I did try to make common ground with some FTMTF detransitioners, but when those conversations turned into dehumanizing attacks on me I gave up. I found out last night that back in January the radical feminist blog GenderTrender reposted an entire post of mine without asking or telling me, for the sole purpose of mocking me and other trans people.

gallusmag-sheilag

The thing is that there are certain aspects of the radfem critique of trans beliefs that I agree with, and others that I find at least thought-provoking. I am open to discussions with people who are willing to show me basic respect and empathy, not scream at me and definitely not laugh at me behind my back.

Joel Nowak, a MFTM “retransitioner,” is someone I respect and doesn’t do dehumanizing, so I took it seriously when he recommended the website of Ms. Hell Bedlam. Sadly, after reading Hell Bedlam’s site, I found it to be just as essentialist and dehumanizing as all the other radfem critiques, even if it does have the advantage of succinctly stating all the main points in a single location.

I had a hard time getting across to Joel the main thing that bothered me about Hell Bedlam’s site. After all, she says that she doesn’t hate the good transsexuals! I’m not one of those misogynistic essentialists who wants to speak over feminists, so why should I take offense?

hellbedlam1

No, I’m not. I’m not the target of Ms. Hell Bedlam’s rage at all. I’m something much worse to her: I’m what she accuses the “anti-feminist trans activists” of secretly being: one of those “middle class white males with a cross-dressing fetish and great love for their penises,” a “be-penised cross-dresser.”

Wait, you may be saying. I thought Hell Bedlam’s site was all about trans woman who claim the right to unilaterally change the language and talk over feminists. What do cross-dressing, fetishes and penises have to do with these things?

The answer is nothing, it’s a complete non-sequitur. From what I can tell, Hell Bedlam brings it into the conversation (along with a long page about Ray Blanchard’s moronic “HSTS/autogynephilic” typology and lots of examples of transvestite erotica) primarily because the two things that upset transgender dogmatists the most are “You’re a fetishist,” and “You’re a MAN!”

I am not offended by either claim, because I freely acknowledge that I am both a man and a fetishist. I love my penis as much as I love my left arm or my right eye, or any other part of me. But I am offended by being so dehumanized that I’m not even a demon, I’m just the insult that Hell Bedlam uses to hurt the trans dogmatists.

Unsweet transvestites

I think the first time I heard the word “transvestite,” it was in the context of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. For years I thought it had nothing to do with me, that any resemblance was purely coincidental. Now I’m convinced that the movie, and the play that it’s based on, is an insightful examination of transgender feelings and actions.

Rocky 2I don’t remember if I had already started sneaking into my sister’s room to try on her neglected pantyhose and dresses, or if I had only fantasized about being a pretty girl in makeup and heels. Either way, it was around the time I turned twelve that my sister told us about a movie she’d gone to see with a friend. They had shouted and thrown toilet paper at the screen! It was a wacky movie with singing, dancing and a transvestite!

What was a transvestite? It was a man who dressed up in women’s clothes, they said. Kind of like the actor my dad told me about – or even like me! Was this person pretty, or even sexy? I was curious, but when I tried to find out more it was all about the Frankenstein Place and the Galaxy of Transylvania and people named Meat Loaf and Columbia. The soundtrack that my sister started playing didn’t help me at all.

Finally, we visited some friends of the family who had a weird book adaptation, illustrated with copious stills from the movie, like one of those Tumblr gif sets except the pictures didn’t move. I snuck off and perused it, eager to see what a transvestite looked like.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of the character of Dr. Frank N. Furter, the mad scientist. He didn’t pad his breasts, his makeup looked like clown makeup, and what did he have on his legs? Was he wearing some kind of shorts over his tights?

Eventually I learned about fishnets and garter belts, and then I figured out what I was seeing. But I still didn’t find Dr. Frank remotely sexy, let alone pretty. I filed the Rocky Horror Picture Show under Weird Cross-dressing Things I Can’t Relate To. This file went in the drawer with the file of Weird Relationship Things I Can’t Relate To, and Weird Political Things I Can’t Relate To.

Like a bunch of things in that drawer, several years later I had a chance to take Rocky Horror out of the file and examine it. And several years after that I took it out again, and now it doesn’t seem so foreign to me. I’ll talk more about that in future posts.