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.

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.

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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?

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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.

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.

Years 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.”