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.