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.

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.”

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…

We still exist!

I had some doubts that a drag queen could do justice to the story of Casa Susanna, but I should have known better than to doubt Harvey Fierstein. He is, really, one of us and a gifted, sensitive storyteller, as I should have known after watching Torch Song Trilogy. The actors assembled for Casa Valentina may not be transvestites, but they are seasoned professionals, and they captured the reality of our lives (including the gender fog). I recognized a bit of myself in every one of the transvestites, and was reminded of many others I’ve met at various gatherings. It’s up for three Tony Awards: Best Play, Featured Actor (Reed Birney) and Featured Actress (Mare Winningham, who as Rita expertly draws out the ironies and contradictions in the feelings of the transvestites around her).

As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history.  Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history. Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
Anyone who has any interest in transgender issues should see this play. Fierstein tells about a critical point in our history that reverberates today, culminating in a great line from the character of Charlotte (Reed Birney), a stand-in for Virginia Prince: “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”

The irony, of course, is that it is us transvestites who are still scuttling about, while homosexuals are more everyday than cigarette smoking. We took pains to distance ourselves from gay men, and in particular drag queens, and look what that got us. We distanced ourselves from “sex-changers” and eventually “transgenderists,” as Prince came to call herself, as well. Now we’re still in the closet, while they gain more acceptance every year.

The one thing I really want to add is that we do still exist. From reading the reviews of the play and commentary inspired by it, you might think that a black hole swallowed us all up in 1963, with our bouffant wigs. The one exception is Playbill, which quotes Fierstein: “What grabbed me was: Why did they get cut out of our world? Why aren’t they part of our struggle? We get rights. They don’t.”

I had read some of the reviews before I went. I told the bus driver I was going to see Casa Valentina, and he mentioned he had heard good things about A Raisin in the Sun. Later in the conversation I told him, “Imagine if people were talking about A Raisin in the Sun as though black people only existed back in 1961?”

No, we do still exist, and the vast majority of us are still deep in the closet. And here’s where you come in. You can help us to come out. You can make a safe space for us.

Chances are that someone you know is a closeted transvestite. When I came out of the closet, it was a huge relief to hear people say things like this:

  • It’s okay if you wear women’s clothes.
  • It’s okay whether you like men or you don’t.
  • It’s okay whether you believe you’re really a woman or you don’t.
  • I won’t laugh at you.
  • I won’t fire you.
  • I won’t kick you out.
  • I won’t leave you.
  • I’ll still love you.

It would have been even better if they had said those things before I came out. Maybe you can say them, for your friends and family and employees and tenants and neighbors to hear. Maybe if enough people say them, we won’t feel so afraid any more.

Identity stress

You may remember the movie Mrs. Doubtfire, where Robin Williams plays a divorced actor who can only spend time with his kids by posing as an elderly woman and getting hired as their nanny. In the climactic scene, the actor is pitching his idea for a new kids’ show to a producer over dinner in one dining room of a fancy restaurant, while in another room his kids need Mrs. Doubtfire. Amid numerous quick-changes in a single-user bathroom, hilarity ensues.

image18That scene may seem like pure comedy, but like all comedy it exaggerates a real and often painful aspect of our lives: identity stress. We all – trans people and everyone else – take on multiple roles in our lives, some gendered, some not. Sometimes you’re the teacher, sometimes the student. Sometimes you’re the artist, sometimes the subject. And often you’re nobody in particular, just a person on the street.

Each of those roles comes with different standards of behavior and the expectation of different treatment, and that can be more stressful than the different clothing that is sometimes expected. When someone who is used to being treated as a Very Important Person is confronted with the expectations of ordinary people, like getting pulled over for speeding or having to wait on line, a common response is, “Do you know who I am?”

This identity stress can be particularly acute for trans people, or anyone who takes transgender actions, whether they identify as trans or not. About eight years ago, Norah Vincent wrote a fascinating book called Self-Made Man, where she presented as a man called Ned and participated in a series of male-dominated activities such as competitive bowling and hard selling. She personally identifies as a non-trans lesbian and never had any intention to transition, but she felt what I call transgender feelings: a desire to be a man in order to escape some of the burden of her gender and partake in male privilege.

In the last section of her book, Vincent participates in a Robert Bly-style drum circle ceremony, and surprises the group leader by asking him to cut her with a knife. This feeling, relatively common among some women but so foreign to the type of man who typically takes part in drum circles, shocked and surprised the leader. Shortly after, Vincent checked herself into a mental hospital. She writes:

When I plucked out, one by one, my set of gendered characteristics, and slotted in Ned’s, unknowingly I drove the slim end of a wedge into my sense of self, and as I lived as Ned, growing into his life and conjured place in the world, a fault line opened in my mind, precipitating small and then increasingly larger seismic events in my subconscious until the stratum finally gave.

Ned had built up in my system over time. This allowed me to convey him more convincingly as the project went on, but it was also what made me buckle eventually under his weight. It was to be expected. As one rare (rare because insightful) psychiatrist would later put it to me when I declared that my breakdown would surely impeach me as a narrative, and hence impugn the whole project, “On the contrary, having done what you did, I would have thought you were crazy if you hadn’t had a breakdown.”

I’ve never had experiences like Norah Vincent’s “project,” or the restaurant scene in Mrs. Doubtfire, but I have felt similarly torn between two identities. Setting aside presentation fatigue, if you have distinct presentations with distinct voices and mannerisms it takes time and effort to do the switch, mentally and emotionally. It also takes effort to keep them separate, to avoid using the wrong voice or the wrong walk. This can actually be fun once in a while, when it’s the point of the activity, but sometimes you just want to get a cup of coffee.

If you have any significant social interaction in an identity you will make social investments that are specific to that identity and difficult to transfer. Vincent made friends in her bowling team and other activities, and on 20/20 she met some of them as Norah for the first time. It seems clear to me that part of what precipitated her emotional crisis was the realization that she couldn’t have the same relationships with these guys without continuing to interact as Ned.

I’ve heard from other “part time” trans people that they have some people who know them in one identity and some in the other, without much overlap. This might be sustainable for someone who has lots of free time and energy to manage these mini-transitions, but it goes way beyond the minor identity stress that the rest of us deal with. I think that’s one reason you see so few people who lead that kind of double life.

They’re my women’s dresses

In 2011, transgender comedian Eddie Izzard was interviewed on the Australian talk show The Project. As clips from Izzard’s live shows played, one of the interviewers said, “It’s wonderful watching these highlights, it’s a journey of outfits for you. Famously, you’ve dressed up in women’s dresses.” Izzard responded, “No, I wear dresses. They’re my dresses, I buy them. It’s like when women wear trousers, they’re not cross-dressing. They’re not wearing men’s trousers, they’re wearing trousers.”
No, I wear dresses. They're not "women's dresses."
Someone liked that quote enough that they made one of those distracting animated gif sets that are all over Tumblr, and people have been reblogging it around the world. After it showed up on my dash for the third or fourth time I said, “I gotta write a post about this. Izzard is probably the trans person I admire most in the world, but I disagree with him on this.” The Transfeminist Geometer said, “Let me know if you write a post. I agree pretty strongly with Eddie Izzard, so I’d be interested to read it.” And here it is.

There is one interpretation of “they’re my dresses” that could be said by someone who identifies as a woman. It means that of course they’re women’s dresses, because I’m a woman, so there’s nothing noteworthy about me wearing them.

I don’t think Izzard is identifying as a woman here, with his beard and all (although it would be damn radical if he did). I think he’s saying it as a statement of sartorial freedom, along the lines of the people who make utilikilts, and the fashionistas who tell us every so often that this is the year when men will start wearing skirts again. It means that these dresses may have been designed for women, but once I pay for them they’re mine, so they’re men’s dresses or transvestite’s dresses or something.

I disagree with Izzard here because for me the point is that they are women’s dresses. I don’t have any particular interest in a utilikilt or a men’s skirt. In fact, last week I went out wearing leggings under a sweater and jacket, but I’m thinking I don’t feel like wearing that anymore because they looked too much like the kind of spandex pants a guy might wear.

It’s like if you imagine a society in the future where everyone wears identical jumpsuits, but the women’s jumpsuits have one button more than the men’s. The transvestites will all want that extra button. Not because they like an extra button, but because it’s a woman’s button. That’s why I have women’s dresses in my closet. My women’s dresses.

Obviously, Izzard has a right to his own feelings about his dresses. He’s not wrong for that, and neither is the dude in a utilikilt, or the transwoman who buys her women’s pants at the Men’s Wearhouse. My disagreement with them is purely that I having different feelings.

But I wonder how different Izzard’s feelings really are. It’s possible that he thought that up just because he was tired of answering the same question about “women’s dresses” for so many years and wanted to say something different, just to mix things up and be funny. Kind of like I’m pretty sure he was joking when he told Greg Kilborn that the police shot him for shoplifting a makeup kit when he was a teenager.

Concerns about birth rate concerns

I grew up in the seventies, with “future shock” and other environmental doom about out of control population growth. The argument makes a certain sense: we have only so much room, and we can only grow so much food. As Malthus observed over two hundred years ago, if the population increases faster than the carrying capacity of the land, misery is the result. The more people we have, the more hunger and pollution.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started to hear stories on the news that were concerned with declining birth rates. Low birth rates can lead to work going undone, especially work supporting the elderly. It can lead to the bankruptcy of pension plans and even Social Security. They tell us it’s depopulated Russia, and the Japanese are worrying too! So which is it? Is a low birth rate good or bad? Do these people even talk to each other? And what does all this have to do with transgender issues?

I’ll connect this with trans politics in another post, but first, a low birth rate seems to be good for the planet overall. The population bomb people and the low birth rate people don’t talk so much to each other, but there are occasional examples. Matthew Connelly and Hans Rosling observe that as women get more power, education and birth control, populations stabilize, so they predict that the world’s population will stabilize as more regions industrialize.

One key thing to note about the “low birth rate” alarmism is that it’s almost never about the worldwide birth rate. It’s about the birth rate of a country, an ethnic group, a religious group or even a race, relative to another. You can see that in the concerns of Cardinal Meiser and the Russian elites, which are both about “the Muslims” outbreeding “us” – German or Russian Christians. And if you’re concerned about that race part, that should tip you off about the others, because they’re basically the same thing. A race is just an ethnic or religious group fortified with biological essentialism.

Concern about national birth rates is also the same as concern about ethnic birth rates, because low national birth rates are only a cause for concern if there are strong restrictions on migration. If population levels are the only reason for concern, then immigration is just as good a remedy as procreation.

At its root of all of this lies a desire for more “us” and less “them.” This is an ancient tribal feeling, and it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view. But from the point of view of fairness and kindness, it sucks. “Us and them” is fundamentally opposed to “all men are created equal.”

Obsession with “our” birth rate is part of the reason some parts of the world are still struggling with overpopulation. It’s also a primary motivator for hatred of trans people. I’ll get into all that in a future post, but in the meantime when you hear concern about birth rates, take it with a grain of salt.

Skepticism, faith and fearmongering

I’m frustrated. I just put together a draft post about how it’s hard for me, as a trans person who tries to be skeptical, to believe in gender identity. Now, television psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow has written that he doesn’t believe in gender identity, and uses that in an argument that children shouldn’t be allowed to choose the gender of the bathroom they use. And then professional troll Bryan J Fischer picks up on it, citing “the truth that we find in the Scriptures.” Great. Well, let me deal with these guys first.

Screen capture by Media Matters
Screen capture by Media Matters
There’s not much to say about Fischer. Despite centuries of trying, nobody’s yet found scientific proof of the existence of God, or Satan, or the “truth” of the Bible, or the effectiveness of prayer. If you’re going to believe in those, you might as well believe in gender identity, the True Self, the Authentic You, and the Two Spirits. Or not.

Ablow (who in happier days provided a national platform for Betty Crow to declare her transition) has an argument that’s a bit more challenging because it’s not so obviously faith-based. Yet, right at the point where he begins to challenge bathroom rights, he admits that “data is sorely lacking” to support the idea that if kids are exposed to other kids with female anatomy who are treated like boys it will “do harm to their own developing sense of self.” And yet he feels that the possibility is so strong that we need to protect kids from it.

Later he claims, with absolutely no supporting argument, that he doesn’t see “anything but toxicity from the notion of a person with female anatomy feeling free to use the urinal in the boys’ rest room while a boy stands next to her and uses one, too,” and warns that bathroom rights will create “completely unnecessary anxiety related to whether they should be doing some sort of emotional inventory to determine whether they’re really going to turn into men, once and for all, or find out they’ve been suppressing the truth that they’re actually women.”

There is a coherent argument in the piece: that it is a lie to say that the question of gender identity is settled to the point where we can simply take someone’s word about what their gender is. So far, that’s a solid skeptical observation: the whole business with uterine hormone baths and the bed of the stria terminalis is pretty shaky science, but trans dogmatists claim that it’s The Established Truth. It’s pretty strong to say it’s a lie; it’s more like wishful thinking.

Now, it is this “lie” that Ablow claims will harm the children’s sense of self more than the gender stuff. But if you think about it, that’s a really weird idea. Kids are constantly being lied to by adults about everything from the Easter Bunny to Moses parting the Red Sea. Did I miss the editorial where Ablow denounced the threat to kids’ sense of self posed by the myth of hairy palms? Where did he call for the impeachment of President Bush for “a powerful, devious and pathological way to weaken them by making them question their sense of safety, security and certainty about anything and everything” – this myth of the War on Terror?

It’s pretty clear that this argument about “a lie that can steal their ability to trust adults” is bullshit. Ablow doesn’t actually believe that adults lying to kids is that big a threat. His skepticism about trans dogma is just a fig leaf for his true concerns (completely unsupported by any evidence) that kids will catch the trans from their classmates.

A true skeptic who was genuinely concerned about this issue might call for a temporary moratorium on bathroom rights, but would want to see the issue explored as soon as possible. After all, it’s obvious that the kids who want to live as the other gender aren’t being well served by the current system. It’s a testable hypothesis, this idea that kids can catch the trans by being around other kids whose non-normative gender expression is tolerated by authority figures. You might expect that a freethinker like Dr. Keith would want to investigate this hypothesis. For some reason I’m skeptical.

We don’t hold elections

After I posted my take on the “transgender/transgendered” debate on Facebook, a friend-of-a-friend who’s a gay man with some inside knowledge mentioned that in deciding to endorse “transgender,” his organization talked to representatives of several national transgender organizations. While that’s way better than nothing, it’s not enough information for them to be able to say “this is what the trans community wants.” These “leaders” don’t actually represent any of us. There is no way to find out what “the trans community” wants, because we don’t have a collective decision-making process.

old-voting-machine-adWhether it’s the “-ed” suffix, the space in “trans woman,” the use of the “cis-” prefix, the declaration of “transvestite” as taboo, the freakout over “princex,” generally the proclamation du jour of this term or that as being preferred, dispreferred, offensive, indispensable, etc. – it’s all one single person’s opinion, more or less well informed. If it gets picked up by two people, then it’s three people’s opinion. It never gets to be what “the trans community” wants.

None of these people asked me if, as a linguist, I approved of the term “cis.” Nobody asked me if, as a sociolinguist, I agreed that it would be good for trans rights to declare “transvestite” taboo. Nobody asked me if, as a trans person, I wanted people to use the space in “trans woman” to browbeat potential allies. I never got a ballot for the referendum, and I never got to vote for a rep to the Trans Grand Council.

More importantly, nobody sends magical owls to make sure that all the closeted transvestites and stealth transsexuals get their ballots. Nobody badgers the trans people who might be kind of busy with work, or raising kids, or next week’s model railroad exhibition, to make sure they take the time to register their opinions on the matter.

No, what we get are the voices of people who are thinking about this stuff all the time. Those who spend their hours on Tumblr and Facebook puzzling out the optimal arrangement of acronyms, affixes and punctuation to finally bring down the patriarchy. Those who collect dues with the promise of lobbying our elected officials to pass laws protecting us, and can’t stop thinking about it on their downtime. And of course, those who are in mid-transition and living with the trans nonstop and completely unable to think of anything else. Not exactly representative of all trans people.

So if you’re not trans, please do me a favor: the next time you read about the Words Not to Say on Buzzfeed, or get your ear bent by your buddy Kyle about how appropriative some punctuation mark is, or hear from the Legislative Director of the National Council on Trans Women-Gender/Rights that “trans” is exclusionary, please take it with a grain of salt. And if you are trans, the next time you get that great idea about How the Ampersand Oppresses the People, please use I statements. Don’t claim that you, or anyone, knows what “the trans community” thinks or wants or believes. We don’t hold elections, and we definitely didn’t elect you.