Coming out as a transvestite

On this National Coming Out Day, a lot of it feels so old news. I came out in 1996 – over twenty years ago! And yet I’m still uncomfortable talking about my sexuality. I say the word “transvestite,” but I don’t stress what it means. I posted a version of this last year as a private post on Facebook, but I’ve been afraid to put it in a blog post, or even a tweet – afraid that if people find out it will destroy any credibility I have as a trans person, destroy my social life, and make people not want to hire me.

On some levels it seems like we’ve made such strides in terms of openness and acceptance of sexuality, and on other levels it feels like we’re stuck back in 1950 or even 1880 and haven’t moved an inch. Even in terms of trans acceptance, we’ve made progress, but only at the cost of a lot of us denying our sexuality. Is that really progress?

Anyway, I’m a transvestite. And yes, that means I’m transgender. Are you a transvestite too? Happy National Coming Out Day!

Repression, resentment and rebellion

I’ve written before about how being in the closet makes us insecure and undermines our political power. There’s another aspect to it: we resent it, and we rebel. When we rebel, we can wind up hurting ourselves or innocent bystanders.

When I was younger, my parents didn’t want to help or support my feminine self-expression, and I got clear messages that the establishment – the universities I attended, the government, the local street gangs, didn’t either. Even the famous LGBT Center of New York told me in 1995 and again in 2000 that they had nothing to offer me if I wasn’t going to transition.

As a result I kept my transgender feelings and actions a secret throughout my teenage and college years. Coming out was a huge help, but even then I avoided directly telling anyone I didn’t trust. I repressed my desires, and the more I repressed, the more resentful I felt.

I didn’t really blame my family members who told me not to let anyone see me in a skirt, not to even talk about my desires. At times I agreed with them; sometimes I still do. But at other times it was easier to say to myself that they were wrong, and that they were holding me back.

The more that resentment built up, the more tempted I was to rebel. I felt alone and misunderstood, and powerless to fight even the LGBT Center, much less a gang, a college or the government. So my rebellion took childish forms, along the lines of, “You said I couldn’t do it, but I’m going to do it anyway! I don’t care if I get hurt. And I don’t care if you get hurt!”

I was lucky. I didn’t get hurt, and I didn’t really hurt anyone around me. Eventually, I began to grow out of this childish rebellion. After being out online for years and still getting work, I came to the conclusion that there are plenty of people who just want the job done and don’t care if I’m trans. I made connections with some people who were helpful, and the general cultural climate for trans people has improved.

Today I still have restrictions on my gender expression, and I still sometimes feel a desire to rebel against them. It helps to remind myself that they are my restrictions. I have thought through the pros and cons and made the decision to place these restrictions where they are, and I own them.

Unfortunately, those reminders are not always enough. This is why I need to manage my gender expression and avoid feeling like I’m restricting myself too much. Because restrictions and repression lead to resentment, and resentment leads to rebelliousness.

Transgender, and 55+ years in the closet

One thing jumped out at me from Bruce Jenner’s ABC interview about his transgender feelings, beliefs and actions: he has been wearing women’s clothes in private for over fifty-five years. I noticed this when I listened to Lana Wachowski’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign, and even when I read interviews with Richard O’Brien. All three described being fascinated with women’s clothes since childhood. Why didn’t they feel comfortable telling anyone about it before they started taking hormones and wearing women’s clothes in public?

Let me be clear: I am not blaming Jenner, Wachowski or O’Brien; they are completely entitled to their choices. I can understand people not wanting to talk about a private aspect of their life, and nobody is required to talk to the media about their transgender feelings or beliefs if they don’t want to, no matter how famous they are. Actor, director, sports star, stepfather to reality television superstars, everyone has a right to privacy.

I can understand people not wanting to discuss their life plans before they’re finalized. If someone is planning to go back to school for their MD, or move to Portland, or live the rest of their life as a woman, they need to figure out how to do what’s right for themself while honoring their obligations to family and friends. It may take a long time to do that, and they don’t need to tell anyone.

And yet, Jenner and Wachowski are just two in a long line of trans women who talk about wearing women’s clothes in secret for years before declaring their gender transitions. (O’Brien is a bit different: he made his feelings and beliefs pretty clear in his plays and movies.) There are hardly any famous trans women who feel comfortable talking about their feelings or actions while deciding whether to transition, let alone wearing women’s clothes in public. And among those famous trans women who have decided not to transition, very few are out about it in any way.

you dont have to transitionFor me, as someone who decided long ago not to transition, the support that these declarations receive from some quarters rings a bit hollow. Often it feels like people are cheering the transition more than expressing support for people who have trans feelings. And it makes me wonder: what would they have said in 1995 if Wachowski had simply mentioned in an interview that she was considering transitioning but hadn’t made up her mind? Or in 1985 if Jenner had told Phil Donohue that he was a cross-dresser? It makes me wonder: would these people show the same support to someone who chose my path?

Would you show the same support to someone who chose my path? Would you want to know about my transgender feelings, regardless of what I do about them? Would you defend me against discrimination? Would you support my right to use bathrooms consistent with my gender expression, even if my gender expression changes from day to day?

If so, please tell the world. Say it louder. Because I don’t think Bruce Jenner heard you.

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.”

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.

Four transgender paths

I’ve written before about how important it is to separate transgender feelings and beliefs from the actions we take in response to those feelings and beliefs. Some of these actions are spontaneous and impulsive, but many are deliberate and goal-oriented. Everyone’s trans journey is individual, but I think there are four main paths that people take.

Stanley Park 038-001The best-known path is that of out transition, followed by celebrities like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono. This path leads to the goal of a different social gender classification, and also social classification as transgender. It involves actions to transition, like body modifications and legal gender changes, and also actions to be or remain out, like declarations of intent to transition or disclosure of past transition.

The second path is the closet, which may not seem like an active path. It leads to maintaining the gender that was assigned at birth, as well as a social classification as “normal” – not trans, and usually not gay. But people who choose the closet actually have to do a lot to maintain their “normal” status: joining secret clubs, constructing elaborate stories to explain their shaved bodies or trips to Provincetown, building literal hiding places for their clothing.

A third path is stealth transition, which aims for a new social gender classification but to keep the status of “normal” and not transgender, and involves the actions of transition plus those of the closet.

The fourth path is the one I have chosen. I reject repression, and I have found that I do not need the closet, but I have also decided that transition is not for me. My goal is to be socially classified as transgender, or maybe a transvestite, but not to permanently change the way that others see my gender. The only actions that I need for this goal are the “eternal coming out” – because even though I put up a web site in 1996, not everyone has read it, so I need to keep letting people know. And this path has worked very well for me. The vast majority of the stress that I felt as a teenager in the closet went away as I accepted myself and came out.

I know that I’m fortunate to be able to follow this path, through the acceptance of my family, friends, co-workers and customers. Some people choose the closet, and others truly have no choice.

You don’t hear a lot about those of us on the fourth path. It’s a bit harder and lonelier than I thought it would be when I chose it back in 1996. But it’s here. It’s not repression, and it’s not transition. It’s another way of dealing with the trans feelings, and it might work for you. Please respect it.

I broke a promise

Years ago, I promised my wife I wouldn’t go out in our neighborhood, presenting as a woman.

It was 2001 and we lived in the South Bronx. Everyone agreed it was a dangerous neighborhood, particularly for women and people who were seen as “faggots” or “travestis.” We had a neighbor who was a trans woman, and we never saw anybody attack her, but we didn’t want to take any chances. We talked about it, and we agreed.

Not going out in the neighborhood meant that I couldn’t go out at all. I stopped by the “LGBT Community Center” one day. I figured that a safe place to change was a basic service to the “T” community. The receptionist told me, “No, we don’t let people change in the bathroom, because they make a mess with all the makeup and stuff.” (They have since changed their policy, and you are allowed to change in the bathroom.)

And then one late summer day I was at home. I’d been laid off. I put on a skirt and heels and admired myself in the mirror, and then I started to take them off. No, I said. Fuck this.

I stripped down to my underwear and put on a layer of foundation makeup. Then I put on some androgynous pants and a T-shirt and packed a bag. In Riverside Park I put on lipstick and earrings. In a Barnes and Noble women’s room I changed into my skirt and heels. Then I got on the subway and walked around Midtown.

008_DR-1It felt so good to be walking around as a woman. I felt pretty and free and excited. I didn’t want it to end. And then it came to me: why should it end? Everyone here sees me as a woman. My neighbors will see me as a woman. None of them will recognize me! Nobody in the South Bronx will attack me, because they’ll see me as a woman!

And that’s how I broke my promise to my wife. How I went against my own better judgment. I got on the subway in my skirt and heels and lipstick, with my guy clothes in a shoulder bag. Half an hour later I walked up the stairs and click-clicked my heels down the Grand Concourse to my building.

Then I remembered the older guys that hang out in front of my building. They’re an interesting combination of doorman, neighborhood watch and senior citizens’ club. They weren’t there when I left in the late morning, but of course they were there in the late afternoon. They held the door for me, and I scooted inside.

Clicking around the corner I came face-to-face with my next-door neighbor. “Hi, Myrna!” I blurted out in my perky women’s voice, before disappearing inside my apartment. Why, no, I’m not your neighbor, I’m a complete stranger who just happens to know your first name!

As it turns out, there was no fallout from that incident. I ran into Myrna a couple of weeks later, and she said, “I saw your … sister?” I said, “Oh, you mean my cousin!” Her son helpfully translated, “Ah, la prima!” which suggested that I had been the topic of their dinner-table conversation. The guys at the front door asked my wife, “So you live with your … brother?” She said, “No, my husband.”

And that was the end of it. Nobody attacked me, nobody harassed me. Everyone was just as friendly as before. That’s not the point, of course.

The point is that it could have been worse. My wife and I sat down and made a sober assessment of the state of our neighborhood and the risks of going out in public there. I was frustrated with that, which is reasonable. In a thoughtful, sober state of mind, I would have gone to CDI until I had a chance to move to a less notorious neighborhood, and in fact that’s what I later did.

The point is that I took this sober assessment and threw it out the window. And that’s an example of gender fog.

The kind of coming out we need

Last month I highlighted some good research done by Lal Zimman at the University of Colorado, where he found two conceptions of coming out among trans people that were very different from the way the term is used by lesbians and gay men. In the comments, my friend Caprice Bellefleur hit on the next point that I was going to make: that there’s a fourth way that coming out is used.

There is a further complication about the use of the term “coming out” among trans people. Many, especially those who identify as crossdressers, use it to mean the first time they appeared in public in their alternate gender. They may not have disclosed anything to anyone.

IMG_1806-001

In keeping with Zimman’s use of the letter “d,” with declaring a gender transition and disclosing a transgender history, I’ll talk about non-transitioning trans people displaying non-normative gender expression.

Zimman explicitly excluded crossdressers from his definition of “transgender,” acknowledging its use as a euphemism for “transsexual,” but when I met him in February I was there to advocate rejecting that sense of the word, based in part on the fact that there’s so much overlap. Many of his “transgender people,” particularly on the feminine spectrum, identify for years as crossdressers, and in fact the “declaration” he described is a performative speech act that, in the eyes of many trans people, is enough to allow someone to pass from “umbrella trans” (or even “just a cross-dresser” or “just a lesbian”) into “really trans.”

(I honestly don’t know much about coming out for queens and butch lesbians. I do know that for some gay men, coming out allows some feminine self-expression, and similarly allows some masculine expression for lesbians, but I’ve heard that that is still stigmatized by many people, gay and straight.)

As I said before, I’m not really happy with these three uses of “coming out.” To put this in perspective, there are several advantages that the “gay” kind of being out confers on the individual and the community:

  1. The dishonesty and self-denial necessary to be closeted tend to be habit-forming and have a corrosive effect on character
  2. The same habits of dishonesty and self-denial have a corrosive effect on the tenor of group interactions.
  3. Large numbers of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals being out contribute to safety in numbers.
  4. It’s easy to dehumanize people when you can pretend they’re not there, but it’s a lot harder when you know someone.
  5. It’s easy to hate people when they feel ashamed of themselves, but it’s harder when they have self-respect.

The two forms of “coming out” that Zimman describes (declaring and disclosing) fulfill all these characteristics, but they are only available to people who choose to transition and genderqueer or genderfluid people. Someone who has the exact same thoughts, beliefs and feelings but decides not to transition or change their primary gender expression has only the display form of coming out available to them. When people display they are visible in public as trans people, but in clothing and accessories that they normally don’t wear, and with makeup that changes their appearance. They may not be recognized by people who know them in their primary identity. Most importantly, they don’t use the same name. How is anyone supposed to know that the Tiffany Sparkle that they met at the dance club last Friday is the same person as Bob from Accounting?

This means that displaying has only one of the four advantages of coming out, the “safety in numbers” advantage, and that only when people are actively cross-dressing. There may be some feeling of liberation in this, but it is fleeting, and at all other times they still have to hide and to deny their true feelings. And while they hide, others are unaware that people they know are “one of those” and know that all these people are so ashamed of themselves they don’t want their true names known.

I seem to be the exception here. I decided not to transition in 1995, and I decided to come out in 1996. I came out “gay style,” by putting up a website and telling my co-workers. I didn’t start wearing dresses to work; I just told people. And when a trans-related topic came up, I came out again as necessary.

I’ve reaped three of the four benefits of coming out. I’ve felt hugely better being able to talk about this important part of my life, and knowing that all these people know and are still treating me with respect. I’ve used it to build bridges in my community and break down walls of hatred and mistrust. But I don’t get the benefit of strength in numbers.

I don’t know any other non-transitioning trans people who’ve come out the way I did, and that’s a shame. Because there are a lot of closeted trans people out there who don’t seem to know that it’s possible to come out this way. The only way they see out of the closet is to disclose a gender transition. That’s not right.

Good research of the month: “coming out” in trans communities

As you could probably tell, I feel bad describing research like the Trans Mental Health Study in such strong negative terms. I know that the authors wanted to do something to help the trans community, and they thought that was what they were doing. I want to balance that out by highlighting examples of transgender research done right.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Lal Zimman, a fellow linguist who studies transgender language. In 2009, Zimman published a paper (PDF) summarizing his research into the concept of “coming out” in transgender communities.

A.C. Liang (1997) and Kathleen Wood (1997) reported on “coming out” stories of gay men and lesbians. In these stories, the term “coming out” is used to refer to the sharing of a sexual orientation. Because this orientation may not be visible, Zimman says, “Liang argues that reference to the ‘processual’ nature of coming out – in other words, the fact that coming out is not a single event but is rather reenacted time and again throughout an individual’s lifetime – is a crucial component of the coming out narrative.”

Zimman interviewed nine individuals who had completed a gender transition and found a pattern that will probably be familiar to a lot of you. They used “coming out” to share a transgender identity, but in one of two specific ways that were very different from those reported for gay men and lesbians. Those who hadn’t transitioned to their target gender used “coming out” to mean a declaration (in Zimman’s terms) of their desire or plans to transition to a different gender. Those who had transitioned used “coming out” to mean a disclosure of their history of gender transition.

This is the right way to do research on an unrepresentative sample. Ask relatively open-ended questions and listen to the answers. Note common threads among the answers. Use the stories to make existential arguments – ones that highlight the existence of something that may not have been acknowledged by the academic community. This is particularly valuable to show exceptions to generalizations that others have made. In this case, Zimman identifies exceptions to the generalizations that Liang and Wood made about coming out narratives.

Even though I think Zimman’s research is exemplary here, I want to note that I have a verbal hygiene argument with what he found. I don’t like these uses of the term “coming out,” and I think they’re bad for both the trans community and the wider LGBT community. But that’s a topic for another post. In the meantime, keep studying trans communities!

The closet corrodes your soul

I’ve talked before about the value of being out of the closet – the global political value.  But being out can be valuable in a more direct, immediate way.  It can save us from the closet.

When I first started cross-dressing, I knew that it was not acceptable.  I had heard so many people making fun of transvestites that I didn’t think that anyone would value or support me if I told them I was one.  For over a year I did my cross-dressing in secrecy and isolation.

One day my mother came into my room and said, “This closet is a mess!  I’ve given you so many chances to clean it up.  Now I’m going to do it.”

I said, “Okay, Mom, but just don’t open the top drawer.”

“What’s in the top drawer?”

“Just don’t look in it.”

“Angus, what’s in the top drawer?”

After a few more rounds of this, I told her.  Her response was not as bad as it could have been (the horror stories we’ve heard about teenagers being rejected by their parents, thrown out of the house, beaten, or even killed), but it was not encouraging.  I won’t go into too much detail, since she apologized for it many years ago, but she was ashamed, and worried that I might be gay.  She insisted that I go to therapy, which was probably a good idea, but I didn’t even mention cross-dressing to the first therapist.  The second one was helpful in various ways, but not with regards to this issue.

I avoided talking to my mom about cross-dressing after that, until I came out in general.  That meant that I was pretty much alone in the closet for another fourteen years.  And that time was hell.  I don’t know which was worse, the feeling of shame when I cross-dressed, or the feeling of relief when I purged.  Every time the topic came up in general conversations with anyone other than my mother I had to remain silent, afraid that I would be ostracized if anyone found out.  The chronic fear of being found out was a source of discomfort throughout my teen and college years.

Since I’ve come out, I know that there is a group of people that I can rely on, who have shown me that they support me no matter what I’m wearing.  I don’t need to feel ashamed around them.  Even if I don’t feel comfortable telling absolutely everyone, it’s still liberating to know that there are many people who don’t judge me for my gender expression.

Unfortunately, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable coming out.  I had to tell one person at a  time, until I knew that there were enough people who supported me.  This is why one of my goals is to encourage widespread, open, vocal support of non-conforming gender expression, so that the teenagers of tomorrow can live outside the closet.

A simple thing you can do for trans people is to say something supportive every time the topic comes up.  You can do this for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, cyclists, or any disenfranchised group.  You might want to have a handy phrase or two ready ahead of time.  And if you can’t think of anything supportive to say, educate yourself!