Are men good now?

Oh, Christ Anna, he’s going to start reading poetry at us what do we do play dead? no that’s bears

Last month I was dancing with some friends at a local karaoke bar. Some guy started dancing with a trans woman friend of mine, in a very grabby, smothery kind of way. I could tell my friend wasn’t enjoying it, so I cut in and danced with her in a fun, Platonic way. I was presenting as a guy that night, and Mr. Handsy didn’t seem at all interested in me. Later in the evening, after my friend had gone home, I saw the same guy doing the same thing with another friend of mine, a non-transitioning trans man, and I cut in again with him.

Seeing my friends’ experiences brought back memories of feeling sexy surrounded by men on the dance floor, and then going back to my seat after those men’s hands slipped too far down along my dress. That, and memories of being followed by guys who said filthy things in my ear, and hearing from women about similar experiences, and worse.

There’s another class of gender interactions that doesn’t rise to the level of borderline assault that I saw on the karaoke dance floor, but that women find unpleasant and frustrating. It’s the kind captured by Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” by Mallory Ortberg’s Western Art History series for The Toast, and by Nicole Gugliucci’s tweet about “hepeating.”

So what does this have to do with transgender feelings, beliefs or actions? We trans women are accused of having an unrealistic view of women’s lives, and often with good reason. Many of us form our ideas about womanhood from a distance. We fantasize about becoming fictional women like Ariel the Little Mermaid, or celebrities with highly crafted media personas like Marilyn Monroe. We do have contact with real live women, but we are often uninformed about important aspects of women’s experiences. In our fantasy of women’s life it doesn’t hurt to wear heels, a short skirt will attract the right partner, we’ll always be taken seriously, and men will revere us.

When we confront these fantasies with a real taste of the special frustrations of women’s lives, it can give us pause. In my case, awareness of these realities contributed to my decision not to transition. The realization that living as a woman wouldn’t automatically resolve all the difficulties that just come with being human in the world led me to decide to continue living as a man most of the time.

When people who’ve lived as men lack that basic understanding of the daily experiences of women’s lives in our society, their actions in relating to men can seem puzzling at best, and often selfish or malicious. Why do they go to the bathroom in groups? Why don’t they just say no? Why do they dress sexy, but then say no? We don’t see the bind that many women are in, forced to choose between attracting and rejecting, and punished both for pursuing partners and for not having a partner. Some of us don’t figure out the answers to these questions until we’ve been on the other side of the interaction.

It doesn’t help that from an early age we are taught to see women as inherently stupid and irrational in many ways. They aren’t, of course. Some people are in fact stupid, irrational, selfish or even malicious, and some of those people are women. It can be hard to distinguish that individual irrationality or selfishness from rational, even compassionate actions that are skewed by our misogynist social structures.

Now here’s the tricky part: all those minor interactions I mentioned, like mansplaining and hepeating and the courtship behavior mocked by Ortberg? The same principles apply to them. At an early age we are taught to see men as particularly overbearing and oblivious in many ways. Some people are in fact overbearing, inconsiderate, selfish or even malicious, and some of those people are men. It can be hard to distinguish that individual obliviousness or malice from conscious, even generous actions that are skewed by our misogynist social structures.

Why do men like to show off to women? Why do they keep calling after a woman says no? Why do they say they’ll call but then don’t? We don’t see the bind that many men are in, forced to choose between pursuing and waiting for a woman to defy convention, and punished both for showing off and for not competing aggressively enough.

Some people don’t figure out the answers to those questions without being on the other side of the interaction. Ortberg’s work in particular has always demonstrated a striking contrast between its keen insight for the experiences and feelings of women, and its shallow, judgmental understanding of the experiences and feelings of men.

When trans men have a taste of the special frustrations of men’s lives, it can give them pause. Trans men have spoken publicly about experiencing male privilege from the male side, and about how even men with firsthand experience of women’s lives and the desire for equality can be stymied by the misogyny entrenched in our social structure. One trans guy I talked to had been preoccupied with looking tough, both living as a woman and as a man, but was still shocked when he saw a woman cross the street at night to avoid him.

The fact is that many trans men form their ideas about manhood from a distance, fantasizing about fictional characters or celebrities with highly crafted media personas. Nothing shows this clearer than Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s interview with Heather Havrilesky. Ortberg gushes about the glamour of Captain Kirk and Brendan Fraser and Deep Springs College. He talks about relationships and discussions with women and non-binary people and his parents as a unit and someone named Brook, but he never mentions having a face-to-face discussion with an identifiable man about what it means to be a man.

In this fantasy of men’s life, large muscles can be had with no effort or health consequences. Everyone admires a guy in a bowtie and a colorful shirt, no matter how short he may be. As long as a man’s intentions are pure, his authority will be respected. Everyone will recognize that he is thoughtful and caring, and no one will ever question his motives. In every interaction with women there is an obvious way to balance gender equality with our other needs and wants, and to see it all you need to do is pay attention.

When trans men lack that basic understanding of the daily experience of men’s lives in our society I have to question why they want to be men, just as I questioned my own desire to be a woman. Men unquestionably have privilege, and on a basic level of safety and economics a certain desire to transition is always understandable. But anyone who is not making a decision based on faith or survival owes it to themself to go beyond the fantasy and examine the realities of the choices before them.

Ortberg kinda sorta acknowledges this, in a response to a question from Havrilevsky:

Does it sometimes feel like you’re joining the other side, the enemy, MEN?
Yeah, like, I’m taking my skills and opportunities to Cleveland. Or like “Men are good now.” Or I’m going to fix something. Or what I’m doing is in some way a commentary on ways in which men and women relate to one another, or some kind of statement on the work I’ve done before, the position I inhabited as a woman feminist. Yeah, that’s been anxiety-inducing, especially because: Men as a group? Not fantastic. White men as a group? I don’t have a sense that I will be met with safety and joy on the other side.

First of all, white men as a group? We have not taken a poll on how to meet Ortberg when he finally decides he’s ready to interact with us. This is what has always puzzled me about Ortberg: he seems too well-read to confuse structural bias with collective decision-making, and yet he does confuse it even here, after examining gender for years.

Second, if so much of your past work has been about the ways in which men and women relate to one another, then yes, any public action you take that regards gender is a statement on that work and a commentary on those ways of relating.

Third, if men aren’t good, why become one? Because you’ve somehow mystically determined that it’s your destiny? That’s just as stupid as the Bible study teacher who somehow mystically determined that Ortberg’s destiny was not to wield authority over men.

Do I welcome Ortberg to manhood with safety and joy? Well, safety is a given. And I bear him no ill will for his prior work. When I first read “Women Having a Terrible Time,” I took it as one woman commiserating with and comforting others based on their limited experiences with these creatures called men. I’m okay if some women have an arms-length relationship with manhood. Whatever gets you through the night.

I have to say, in terms of understanding and empathizing with men, I kinda do expect more from a man. But as Ortberg continues to learn and experiences life as a man firsthand, I’ll be interested to see if he goes back and revises his work on gender relations, or builds on it in a way that recognizes the humanity of men. And yeah, he should probably have done that before he “started to access different aspects of medical transition.” In any case, let’s see how it goes.

How to make love to a trans person (I mean me)

Here’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Actually, a transvestite,
Actually, me,
Because me is all I really know).

The first step is to enter your lover’s fantasy world,
(I mean my fantasy world),
And be their fantasy.

The next step is to let your lover,
(I mean me),
Be their fantasy.
For you that may be the hardest part.

Then there will come a time
During your lovemaking
When the fantasies run out,
When there is no escaping reality,
When your lover,
(I mean I),
Will have to face facts.

The fact that you are two people, two animals,
With real feelings that have been hurt before,
With real fears and sore spots and longings.

Then you must be ready
To stop being fantasy you and start being real you,
To stop making love to your fantasy lover and start loving the real person,
(I mean the real me).

You must be ready to be afraid and let your lover comfort you,
To let them be afraid and comfort them,
(I mean me),
To be two people alone together,
To be two animals grooming each other.

You must be ready to take pleasure in the real person,
(I mean the real me),
To let them take pleasure in the real you,
So that when you’re done making love
You will still have real love.

When you’re advanced you may be able to skip the first couple of steps.

That’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Well, actually, me.
Well, actually, there’s only one person who can make love to me now.
If that person isn’t you,
This might work for other trans people).

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.

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…

The glamour of high heels

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago in response to a discussion about high heels and the patriarchy on Tumblr:

Yes, it is important to remember that high heels have all kinds of problems. In addition to the health problems mentioned, it’s hard to run away from predators in them. It’s hard to move nimbly at all, unless you have a lot of practice with them. Some people wear them every day and never manage to be graceful in them.

Riding a bike in heels is fine, especially with flat pedals.
Riding a bike in heels is fine, especially with flat pedals.
But there is that fantasy. When I’m sitting by the window and I hear heels clicking on the pavement below, I imagine a slim, elegant, sexy young woman outside on her way to an editing job at Conde Nast, or a fancy cocktail party. I imagine myself in those heels, strutting down the sidewalk, turning heads, instead of sitting at my computer grading homeworks or debugging code.

And then sometimes I get a chance to put on my own heels and go clicking down the sidewalk in Greenwich Village. At first I feel elegant and sexy and I see men and women looking at me, but are they looking because they think I’m elegant, or because they think I look silly? Are the heels making too much noise? I want to go faster but I can’t without worrying about slipping or losing my balance. Watch out for those cobblestones! One of my heels just got stuck in the subway grate. And then my feet start to hurt. I have to walk even slower. Can I still look elegant with my feet hurting so much? Fortunately the creepy guy who was following me and saying “hey baby” seems to have given up and gone away.

So I take the shoes off at the end of the day and my feet are sore for days. I’m glad I don’t have to wear those every day! I would get used to them to a degree, but never completely. Imagine if I had a job where they expected it? But in a few days I hear heels clicking outside my window again and I don’t think about how much of the attention was unwelcome. I don’t think about how physically painful it was to walk in them. I don’t think about how limited my movement felt. I just think about how elegant and sexy the wearer of those shoes must be.

The disconnect doesn’t just apply to the person who’s wearing heels. I fantasize about dating or kissing elegant women in heels, but I know plenty of women who wear heels that I have absolutely no desire to kiss. I’ve been on dates with women who were sexy, even elegant, but distracted and uncomfortable in their heels. I’ve been on dates with women who were sexier and more elegant in flats. I’ve gone on long, romantic walks that wouldn’t have been possible if either of us had been wearing heels. And I’ve had fabulous sex with women who’ve worn heels maybe five days in their entire lives.

That disconnect between fantasy and reality is a perfect example of glamour. It’s a fantasy that persists, sometimes in the face of massive evidence. It’s important to acknowledge it and examine it, but a massive guilt trip is not the way to stop it.

The Power of Glamour and transgender feelings

Seven years ago I talked about the notion of glamour as described by Virginia Postrel. Virginia has been working on a book about glamour, and it was published on Monday. Here’s the definition from the book (as of last year):

Glamour is not the same as beauty, stylishness, luxury, sex appeal, or celebrity. Glamour is, rather, a form of nonverbal rhetoric, which moves and persuades not through words but through images. Glamour takes our inchoate longings and focuses them. By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It makes us feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more. We recognize glamour by its emotional effect—a sense of projection and longing—and by the elements from which that effect arises: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation. The effect and the elements together define what glamour is.

The Power of GlamourYou can probably see why I was immediately struck by the connection to transgender feelings. My strongest trans feeling is that longing to escape from my male reality, with its career obligations and social frustrations, where I’m expected to go out and get what I want, into a dream world where all I have to do is put on the right clothes and everyone will pay attention to me, desire me, and give me what I want. (Yeah, right!)

To me, glamour explains the connection between gender dysphoria, my feeling of unhappiness with being a man, and gender desire, my desire to be a woman, to be seen as a woman. There are lots of men who are unhappy being men, but only some of us want to be women. Glamour helps us understand why we do.

As Virginia has pointed out, this is compatible with the Official Trans Narrative: if you have an innate sense of gender that doesn’t match your physical sex, then you’re likely to be unhappy and thus feel a desire to escape your birth gender classification. But for those of us not convinced by the innatist narrative, glamour opens the door to other explanations.

Since then I’ve followed Virginia on her blogs and on Twitter, and in June she mentioned that she visited my blog while checking footnotes. On Monday night I had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the book launch party, and found that I’m quoted on Page 63, connecting glamour with despair:

I came to the idea of despair based on Virginia’s characterization of glamour as a means of escape. If you’re trying to escape through a fantasy you have to be pretty desperate, right? That’s the sense of “despair” that I mean – a feeling of being trapped and having no options left.

To Angus/Andrea with thanks & best wishes - Virginia

That’s from a comment I left on an article Virginia wrote in 2008, expanding on the connection Salman Rushdie made between terror and glamour. In the book, she expands on my connection to despair by noting the glamour elements highlighted in the documentary Paris Is Burning.

The glamour response is powerful. It can move us to approach strangers, to buy houses, and to blow up buses full of people. It can also move us to cross-dress, to get surgery to change our bodies, and to declare gender transitions.

What I’ve read of the book so far has been great. I encourage anyone who’s interested in transgender feelings to get a copy. I’ll be posting more about it in the future.

Presentation fatigue

I thought about going out presenting as a woman today. I really had too much work to do, but even if i hadn’t it would have meant spending over two hours on my presentation. It’s mostly makeup, but it’s also showering, shaving (face and chest), brushing teeth, deodorant, picking out clothes and getting dressed. Every couple of weeks I need to spend an hour shaving my legs. I usually don’t bother painting my nails unless I’m planning to present as a woman all day. Today, instead I skipped all shaving, brushed my teeth, showered and dressed in about twenty minutes.

SAMSUNGI know this difference is not just because I’m trans. The line, “But it takes me so long just to figure out what I’m gonna wear,” in “Manic Monday” resonate with non-trans women because our society polices women’s presentation much more strictly than men’s. Laura Topham spent eight hours getting the “Essex girl” presentation, and a lot of it was procedures like hair extensions and spray tan that full-time Essex girls don’t get every day, but the average woman spends more than twenty minutes a day on her presentation. Even many men spend more than I do to go out as a guy. When I was in high school, a friend of mine would be in the bathroom for hours.

But my female presentation requires more than the average woman, and if I had transitioned it wouldn’t take as long. I would have gotten permanent hair removal, so I wouldn’t have to shave anywhere near as much, or put on so much makeup, and hormones would have reshaped my body to some extent.

If I had chosen to transition in my twenties my shoulders probably wouldn’t be as wide, so I wouldn’t have to be so careful about my clothing choices. In fact, when I first started wearing women’s clothes in my teens, I wore anything I could find. I never wore makeup, because I didn’t have much facial hair until my twenties. Going out in public has also raised the stakes. When I was fifteen, my presentation time was about ten minutes.

The presentation has always been part of my enjoyment of presenting as a woman. But not two hours of it. Not worrying that if I miss a spot on my foundation I might get sirred or even beaten up. Not worrying that if I nick my ankle I’ll have a scab for days and a spot for weeks. Not worrying that if I get my tuck wrong I’ll be uncomfortable for hours.

But of course, I will be uncomfortable for hours, because wearing heels and nylons and makeup and “foundation garments” is uncomfortable. On top of that, even a good tuck is uncomfortable, and so is a padded bra and enough makeup to hide a beard shadow. Some people put up with that every day for years. I’m okay with it once in a while.

I know some of you transitioners who are reading this are thinking smugly, “I don’t have to shave. I don’t even wear heels or makeup most days! I’m a -” Yeah, we get it. That was the point of this post. The point is that this presentation fatigue is a factor in decisions to get permanent hair removal, to take hormones, and even to get genital surgery. Presentation fatigue is a factor in transition.

What’s keeping me awake at night

I have real reasons to be happy about my excursion on Saturday. I have a great friend. My co-workers are super cool. But that’s not how gender fog works with me. Instead, it keeps me up all night thinking about things like this:

I'm so hot.
I’m so hot. Don’t you think I’m hot? I’m in soft focus.
  • I’ve lost so much weight! I wonder if I’m a 38C or a 36D.
  • That guy who held the door for me totally didn’t read me. I bet nobody did!
  • I definitely fit in with all those cute tourist women. I was prettier than a lot of them.
  • I could rock the dress that woman was wearing on the subway yesterday.
  • Would the brown skirt I bought go better with a black top or a white one?
  • I so want to go out in that green dress. Maybe this weekend. Can I get the time off?
  • Makeup is such a pain. I wonder how much laser costs.
  • Can I really wear a strappy sundress? I’d definitely need to get rid of my T-shirt tan lines first.
  • I could have gone to work in a dress yesterday. No, maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea. Well, at least I could’ve gone to the coffee shop in a dress. Who cares what my neighbors think?
  • Is my video camera good enough to make a haul video?

Were you looking at the woman in the red dress?

Film director Lana Wachowski, whom I associate most with the Matrix, has now declared her gender transition. I didn’t feel comfortable speculating when her transgender feelings were just a rumor, but now I can say that I see the Matrix as a deeply transgender movie. Blogger Hannah DuVoix finds a number of trans themes in the movie, but dissociation and glamour are the two that make the biggest impression on me. (There will be some spoilers here for those who haven’t yet seen it.)

The Matrix is dissociative. Dissociation is a psychological term for a particular kind of disconnect from reality, at least as others experience that reality. Dissociation can range from plain old field-independence to a deeply held belief that “my” body is not my own. One of its most extreme expressions is the dissociative fugue, where a person runs away and assumes a new identity, sometimes forgetting who they “really” are.

I refuse to speak for all trans people, but my own trans feelings have always contained an element of dissociation, and I’ve seen and heard it from others. A lot of my trans fantasies have involved some disconnection from my body. When I was younger I used to fantasize about moving to a different city and taking on a completely new identity for myself. Many trans people have done this, including the story of Holly Woodlawn as Lou Reed tells it in “Take a Walk on the Wild Side.”

In the Matrix, these dissociative fantasies are reality. When Neo takes the red pill, his entire reality is revealed to be an illusion, and he discovers his real body and the sensations that go with it. He is not just a programmer, “Mr. Anderson,” in a dreary world. He is something more, something where his “unreal” online identity is foregrounded.

The Matrix deals with glamour, and specifically the desire to own and control feminine glamour. After Neo first disconnects from the Matrix, Morpheus takes him into a training program, a sandbox where he can demonstrate how the constructed world works. He is distracted by “the woman in the red dress” (played by Fiona Johnson), who walks by, smirking flirtatiously, and then turns into an evil Agent pointing a gun at Neo.

When Neo leaves the training program, his new shipmate Mouse slyly confides that he created the woman in the red dress, and that she’s available for other encounters. It’s not exactly a secret that many trans people obsess over the glamour of their target gender, trying to discover and replicate its secrets.

In her speech to the Human Rights Campaign, Wachowski talks about spending hours trying on dresses in the wardrobe closet of her high school drama club. I have similar memories, and when I saw the Matrix I had spent the previous year and a half working on my own animated virtual women, one of whom was sort of blonde (and neither of whom turned out anywhere near as sexy as the Woman in the Red Dress). Like Mouse – and Wachowski – I had very good reasons for doing it, but those reasons don’t preclude others.

Again, I’m not saying that all trans people are dissociative or obsessed with the glamour of their target gender, but these are themes we hear from lots of trans people. I wasn’t entirely surprised with the rumors and later revelations about Wachowski, because I had recognized a kindred spirit.

Living in the highlight reel

Steven Furtick, a Christian cleric who has publicly condemned homosexuality, has nevertheless come up with a great metaphor to help us understand insecurity.

Building on Furtick’s metaphor, it occurred to me recently that glamour, as described by Virginia Postrel, is the desire to escape from our behind-the-scenes into someone else’s highlight reel.


After taking this picture of myself last week, I’m thinking that narcissism is the desire to escape from our behind-the-scenes into our own highlight reel.