by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

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.

Claire’s story

DSC00261My friend Claire is a trans woman who graciously agreed to share her story for this blog.

For most of her life she had no body dysphoria. “The funny thing is in the very beginning, I didn’t care,” she told me of her male anatomy. But then things changed. “I transition and the only thing I want is it gone.”

Claire began her transition in 2013, and by most measures she was wildly successful. For a trans woman of color, even more so. Her family and friends did not reject her and got her new name and pronouns right most of the time. Her small business continued to prosper, and her customers all took her transition in stride. “Everything came easy to me in transition and coming out, so I lived in a world where no one knew unless I told them.”

Even after transition, she didn’t mind her genitals at first, but she began to grow dissatisfied with them. And then something happened that brought about a drastic change in her feelings.
Earlier this year, Claire went on a vacation with her new boyfriend. They had a great time, and everyone treated Claire as a woman. “I forget that I’m actually trans at times,” she told me. Then when it came time to board the plane home, the TSA was performing pat-downs on all the women at that checkpoint. She thought nothing of it until the screener discovered a bulge.

The TSA screener had apparently never patted down a trans woman, and was unsure of the protocol, but Claire reassured her that she was indeed a woman and belonged there with all the other women. Eventually the screener let Claire fetch her driver’s license from her purse, completed the search and allowed her into the boarding area.

“She did everything right,” Claire says. And yet, Claire was traumatized by the incident. She started crying, and despite her boyfriend’s best efforts to comfort her, she couldn’t stop. She locked herself in a bathroom stall until the last minute, and then boarded the plane home. On the plane she sobbed into a pillow to avoid disturbing other passengers, and cried until she fell asleep.

That was just the beginning. “Months of depression and suicidal tendencies from just one experience,” Claire says. Significantly, she developed intense body dysphoria, focused on her genitals, which she still feels months later. “I really despise that thing but I know I have to live with that. For the mean time.” She says that she is currently feeling better, but she doesn’t know if the depression will return.

Claire’s story, and similar ones I’ve heard from other people, have important implications for all trans people, and I will discuss it further in future posts, but for this post I want to let it stand by itself.

When my dad made a transgender movie

When I was a kid my dad, who was a sound engineer, told me how he had worked on a movie with an actress who was really a man. I believe those were the words he used. He said, “She looked and sounded just like a woman, but she had to take a break and shave around five o’clock.”

It’s hard to know how much things like this affect your thoughts, but the story stuck with me, and it was probably swimming around in my head when I started thinking that life might be a lot easier if I didn’t correct people when they thought I was a girl. It went in there with Holly Woodlawn’s cross-country gender change in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Princess Ozma, a girl named Patrice in my elementary school who bore an uncanny resemblance to a boy named Donavan at my summer camp, Bugs Bunny, and any number of madcap comedies where a boy disguises himself as a girl.

sombfa1Years later, after I developed a habit of wearing women’s clothes and came out to my father about it, I asked him for more details about the movie. He didn’t remember it quite that way. It turned out that the actress in question was Candy Darling, an associate of Holly Woodlawn’s in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the movie was called Some of My Best Friends Are… It was an ensemble piece about gay life in Greenwich Village, set in a single bar on a Christmas Eve, and was released three days before I was born.

When the film came out, Vincent Canby unfavorably compared it to The Boys in the Band, which I haven’t seen, while noting that it “may well be more accurate.” Citizen Kane it ain’t, but it’s not horrible. Candy Darling’s performance in the film was straight dramatic acting, unlike her campy performances in Warhol’s movies. And my dad didn’t tell me that she played a transvestite who was attacked for being trans.

I looked up Some of My Best Friends Are… last night and discovered that someone had put the scenes with Candy Darling on YouTube. My dad was right that she did pass well; I was a bit envious. I was also impressed at how well the director, Mervyn Nelson, captured the feeling of gender fog, even if it was a bit over the top. But I found the bashing scene very disturbing. I’ve never been comfortable with movie violence, but the fact that the character Karen was attacked in part for passing so well, in a bar full of men who tried and failed to protect her, was particularly upsetting.

Things may be better now than they were in 1971. More people are out of the closet, and gay bars are probably safer for transvestites, at least for those of us who are white and middle class. But for those who are poor or nonwhite, things are still dangerous. At least ten trans women have been killed this year in the United States. The character of Karen survived being beaten; how many people survived a similar beating this year?

If you want to change things, here are two ideas: (1) make sure everyone knows that you don’t think we should be beaten or killed, and (2) leverage intersectionality to make life safer for trans people who are poor, nonwhite, sex workers or perceived as “gay.”

Passing and credibility

You don’t have to hang around the trans world very long to encounter a message like “passability is overrated.” Many people go further and argue that passing should not be a goal. Yes, passing is overrated, and it means nothing in itself. But it does have value for other goals, and right now I want to focus on one goal in particular: credibility.

20140927_152708Activism needs credibility. Activism is all about convincing people. We want the public to believe that we deserve respect, that we deserve protection from discrimination and hate crimes, that we deserve access to bathrooms and medical care.

We also need credibility in our personal lives. Those of us who transition need others to believe in their transitions, to treat them as their desired gender. Those of us who don’t transition need others to believe that we can still be responsible members of society, that we should still be loved, and even that we don’t need to transition.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that attractive people have more success at convincing others. People pay more attention to attractive people (and here I don’t mean just sexually attractive). They also pay more attention to people who look “like us.” Maybe you think that’s not fair, it’s not the way things should be, and you’re probably right. We should work to make the world a more tolerant place. But there’s no point in ignoring the way that the world currently works.

The uncanny valley also turns people off. That’s the area where people have difficulty processing an image as a person or a thing, or a person or an animal. It’s also where people have difficulty deciding whether someone is a man or a woman, or “one of us” or one of them. The squirming depicted in Julia Sweeney’s “It’s Pat” sketches is a real-life occurrence. Again, maybe that’s not the way the world should be, and maybe we should change it. But we can’t ignore that the world is that way right now.

This is one reason why charismatic, attractive, passable people like Janet Mock and Chaz Bono are so popular as spokespeople for transgender activism. It’s also why such people are more readily accepted as members of their target gender. Again, that’s not the way it should be, but it is.

Predators and prey

hello fellow1s

6 ways you can use intersectionality to help stop trans murders

You’ve heard (I hope) that the vast majority of trans people who are killed are male to female living in poverty, and many are sex workers and immigrants. Here in the United States, most of the dead are black or Latina, and often both.

intersectionality1This is intersectionality at work: if they were just poor, or just female, or just seen as gay, or just nonwhite, or just immigrants, or just employed illegally, or just sex workers, or even just trans, their risk of being murdered would already be higher than a non-trans straight white middle-class legally employed male American citizen.

Together, though, these risks multiply, and even reinforce each other: if you’re female, or trans, or nonwhite, or an immigrant, you’re more likely to be poor, and if you’re poor you’re more likely to work in the “informal economy,” including sex work. If you’ve immigrated in violation of the laws or work in the informal economy you’re under constant threat from law enforcement, and if you’re seen as poor or nonwhite or gay or female, you’re more likely to face discrimination when it comes to police protection and employment. It’s also harder to get a good education when you’re poor, which makes it hard to get work. If you can’t get a good job you get poorer, and the cycle continues.

A large amount of anti-trans sentiment is related to anti-gay sentiment. The real solution is not to convince people that MTF trans people and the men who have sex with us aren’t gay, but to make it okay for us to be seen as gay. It should be like being mistaken for Irish when you’re really Scottish in the US today: a minor inaccuracy that’s annoying at worst.

We can use intersectionality to solve these problems too. If we could bring murder rates for nonwhite, poor and immigrant trans women down to those of white middle-class trans women we’d eliminate most of the killing. If we could bring the rates for African American trans sex workers down to those of non-trans, non-sex-worker African-American women it would be a huge improvement.

With that in mind, here are some intersectional ways to help stop violence against trans people:

  • Break the cycle of poverty. Adequately fund public education.
  • End racial discrimination. Enforce equal opportunity laws.
  • Help immigrants. Create an immigration policy that makes our country welcoming again.
  • End sex worker harassment. End the use of condoms as evidence for prostitution.
  • End violence against women. Speak out against rape culture and domestic violence. Examine your own actions for ways that you might commit or condone such violence.
  • End homophobia. Support respect, dignity and equality for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

Which of them is easiest for you to start working on? Which is hardest?

I tried to be cured

There have been several times in my life when my transgender desire – my desire to be a woman, even though I was raised to be a man, with a man’s body – has gotten less intense, less frequent, to the point that I thought it might be gone for good.

I was tremendously relieved. I didn’t want to be a transvestite. I didn’t want a closetful of clothes that could get me mocked and rejected. I didn’t want to look into my mom’s eyes and see nothing but worry and pity. I didn’t want to harbor a secret that could get me blackmailed.

Twice I purged. I threw away all the women’s clothes I had collected, painstakingly, sometimes illegally, over the course of years. I put my past out of my mind. I no longer had anything to hide. That part of my life was over.

But that part of my life was not over. What I eventually discovered was that my transgender desires come and go with my gender dysphoria – my discomfort with my life as a man. When I feel satisfied with my life as a man, my desire to be a woman diminishes. I will not feel completely satisfied with my life, every day until I die. And when I am feeling particularly dissatisfied, life as a woman will seem like a great escape.

Life as a woman certainly seemed like a great escape when I was twelve. Of course it isn’t, I know that now. I learned from listening to women, and a few fleeting, incomplete experiences of living as a woman were enough to drive the point home. But when I’m feeling trapped and hopeless, the dysphoria returns.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think the dysphoria always gets worse. But it does come back, and with it comes the desire to be a woman, to look like a woman, to dress like a woman. That’s what happened to me after the two times I purged.

That, in turn, is why I don’t purge any more, and why I don’t ever believe I’ll be “cured.” If I did purge, I might enjoy some extra closet space for a while, but soon enough I would wind up paying again for expensive clothes and makeup.

I actually wouldn’t mind a cure for the trans feelings. None of them are very pleasant, even the euphoric post-event gratification. I’m not one of those people who think being trans is a gift. But I just don’t see it happening. Some day we may figure out how to prevent it, but I doubt we’ll be able to cure it.

Outsider perspective

m4s0n501

I was talking with some trans men recently, and they said something to the effect of, “Nobody told me I’d be short!” Obviously, they knew how tall they were, both on an absolute scale and relative to the men around them, but they knew it in their heads. That didn’t really prepare them for the reality of going through life as a short guy. Similarly, nothing prepared me for the reality of being a tall, overweight woman, for the pain of walking in heels and the discomfort of the male gaze.

When I posted about my trans feelings back in January, one response was that I didn’t sound like a woman, that the feelings I wrote about don’t support any claims to “interiority,” and that I have an “outsider perspective.” The commenter assumed that I would claim this interiority because I identified as a trans woman, but the point of my post was that I don’t claim any kind of interior femininity. I do have occasional flashes of “insider perspective” on a woman’s life, but they come from the limited time I’ve spent in women’s roles, not from some essential “interiority.”

I’ve observed the same thing in other trans people. The degree of understanding I see in other trans women is proportional to the amount of real experience they have living in the world as women and interacting with others as women. And no, experience in support groups and “trans women only” spaces doesn’t count. I’ve never seen any evidence to support claims of inner femininity.

Maybe you say that I don’t see their inner femininity because I’m “really a man.” But think about the transmasculine friends I mentioned above. You can’t get much more of an outsider perspective than not knowing how short men are treated. If you believe that these trans men have always been “really men” too, why didn’t they know?

Not only do many trans people persist in claiming interior femininity (or masculinity), but many are willing to accept those claims – or even to claim them on behalf of other people. Not long ago a trans man told me that I was so obviously feminine that I should be making plans to transition. It wasn’t the first time people have told me that I should transition, or assumed that I’d already transitioned, or even assumed that I was born and raised a woman. Some have even assumed I was a trans man. None of them were right. People are bad judges of this stuff.

Even if you believe that trans women are and have always been women, and that trans men are and have always been men, you should be able to accept that many aspects of masculinity and femininity are cultural, and that knowledge of these aspects is very difficult to acquire without direct experience. Trans men who haven’t lived as men will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of masculinity, and trans women who have never lived as women will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of femininity.

Some of us don’t transition

In the past I’ve done verbal hygiene on the words “transgender” and “coming out,” and now I feel like I need to do some on the word “transition.” I have always thought of transition as meaning that someone takes on a new identity, with a new name and a new presentation, and a new gender marker to go with it. Almost twenty years ago I decided not to transition, meaning that even though I regularly feel gender dysphoria (a discomfort with living as a man) and transgender desire (a desire to live as a woman), I examined my options and concluded that I wanted to continue living as a man most of the time. Back then it seemed pretty clear to everyone what transition was, and I chose not to do it.

Maybe I'm transitioning to a new Centauri identity...
Maybe I’m transitioning to a new Centauri identity…
Once in a while when I tell people I’m transgender and out but not transitioning, I get a puzzled reaction about the “not transitioning.” The first time I recall was about ten years ago from Reid Vanderburgh, but I’ve heard it from several other people since. The general idea is that everyone’s idea of “transition” is personal. I can just decide that for me “transition” means not changing much of anything, so then I must have transitioned!

I guess this line of thinking is meant in a nice way, but there are a few things that bother me about it. The first is that it undermines its own claims to respect my definitions. In this view, I can have any definition of transition I want, as long as I transitioned. I am not allowed to define transition in such a way that I – or any trans person – have the option to not do it.

The second problem is that it erases very real prototype effects. Maybe Vanderburgh and friends will respect my personal definition of “transition,” but they have no power to compel anyone else to. Even if people do accept the idea, that means that nobody knows what I mean by “transition” until I tell them.

As I understand it, they think that I can talk about “my transition” and everyone will keep an open mind and not make any assumptions about what it entails. But that’s really not how anyone’s mind works. We always have an image for any category. If I mention “my dog,” you’re probably going to imagine a common breed like a yellow Lab or a German Shepherd, or maybe a pit bull or a Maltese if you know city dogs. If I then tell you I have a great Dane or a Bassett hound or a Chihuahua you might not be surprised, but you won’t envision one until I tell you, because they’re not prototypical dogs.

Similarly, if I mention “my transition,” you’re going to envision hormones, surgery and a name and document change, because that’s the common transition image. There are so many people doing it who are so vocal about it, that me saying, “I shave my legs more often now” is not going to budge the needle.

Finally, there’s a message I want to send: that you can be trans and lead a relatively happy life without hormones or surgery, and without significantly changing your gender presentation, name, pronouns or legal documentation. For me, the easiest way to say that is “I’m trans, and I decided long ago not to transition.” Take that away, and it makes it that much harder for me to say what I want to say.

The bottom line is that people have images, schemas in their heads for every category. That’s the way the mind works, and saying, “everyone has their own definition” doesn’t make it so. There are some things you can legislate about language, but you can’t legislate prototypes out of existence.

Short Skirt/Long Jacket

Short Skirt Long Jacket
a mind like a diamond knows what’s best
shoes that cut eyes that burn like cigarettes
playing with her jewelry the right allocations
putting up her hair fast and thorough and sharp as a tack
fingernails that shine like justice touring the facilities
a voice that is dark like tinted glass picking up slack
stays up late gets up early
a car with a cupholder armrest a car that will get her there
Kitty Karen
MG white Chrysler LeBaron
Hey! Ho!
uninterrupted prosperity
uses a machete to cut through red tape
smooth liquidation
good dividends

More or less…