Essays

“Self-Made Man” Review

Note: I wrote this review back in 2006, when I still identified as “just a crossdresser” (and as a man), but I was recently asked to talk about the differences I’ve had living as a man vs. a woman, and I still think Norah Vincent’s book, despite some serious flaws, has some great insights. (Also, the references to “transsexuals” reflects the language used at the time.)

Norah Vincent’s experience in “Self-Made Man,” her account of posing as a man named Ned off and on for 18 months, is a lesson in what being careful what you wish for. Vincent successfully blends in, but instead of the world of male privilege she’d been expecting, the strains of “being a man” (and of her double-life) lead to a nervous breakdown. For anyone who’s lived life as a man, Vincent’s insights often fall into the “well, yeeaaah” variety, but I suspect (and hope) many women will find the book to be eye-opening.

I was particularly interested in Vincent book as someone who’s both interested in gender issues and one of the estimated 1 in 20 men who’s a regular crossdresser. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to digress with a briefly primer on crossdressing, since it both colors my thoughts on Vincent’s books and because I’ll be referring to some of the parallels I see with Vincent’s experience. First off, I’m not gay—the vast majority of crossdressers are heterosexual and most of us are married. Second, unlike transsexuals, we’ve got no desire to become women, instead we’re just happy taking the occasional gender vacation. Finally, while in private crossdressers may engage in stylized femininity similar to our more flamboyant sisters, drag queens, those of who go out in public shun the attention that drag queens seek. Consequently, like Vincent our aim is usually to pass unnoticed in the crowd.

Like many crossdressers, Vincent seems to have a discomfort with her native gender. “Practically from birth, I was the kind of hard-core tomboy that makes you think there must be a gay gene.” That sentence points out one problem with the book and with Vincent’s conclusions: she fails to distinguish between sex identity (whether you feel biologically male or female), gender self-identity (whether you feel you’ve got a “masculine” or “feminine” personality) and gender role expectations (how others think men and women are “supposed” to behave). Vincent claims not to have transgendered feelings and I believe her. But Vincent herself makes clear her discomfort with gender role expectations for women and her belief that she’s got a “masculine” personality.

Ironically, Vincent assumes she’s butch enough that her personality won’t be a problem. Instead she frets about her physical appearance even though she’s got a physique (5’10” wearing size 11 men’s shoes) that female-to-male transsexuals would gladly kill for. Vincent spends several pages describing her physical transformation in the sort of loving detail one finds in postings on online crossdressing forums. But to Vincent’s shock, it’s her feminine personality that keeps comes bursting through the physical disguise. Vincent may successfully pose as a man, but she’s almost universally seen as a gay man—an example of society’s syllogism of “unmanly” = “effeminate” = “gay” in action.

Part of it that Vincent constantly stumbled over the subtle do’s and don’ts that men have incorporated into their behavior an unconscious level. (For example, one of the monks actually reprimands Vincent when she refers to another monk as “cute.”) As a crossdresser trying to blend in, I also find the hard part is less the physical transformation as much as trying to understand all the unwritten rules of behavior that women have also learned consciously or unconsciously growing up.

Crossdressers are often (and rightly) taken to task by wives and girlfriends for the assertion that feeling that one has a “feminine side” and putting on a dress somehow inherently understand those who are born and raised as women. And I confess I had the same reservations about Vincent’s experiment. The experiences she sought seem drawn from a rogue’s gallery of middle/upper-class feminist bête noires. The men’s hangout for working class stiffs. The strip club. Men-without-women (Vincent joins a monastery mainly because going undercover in the army or prison presented obvious difficulties). The Glengarry Glen Ross sales job. The Robert Bly-ish men’s movement weekend, beating drums in the wilderness. It’s only the chapter on dating where Vincent talks about something remotely like everyday male-female interaction.

Admittedly, choosing these sorts of extreme archetypes does highlight behavior seen elsewhere, and initially Vincent does caution that her experiences are a really a travelogue of carefully chosen outings, “certainly inapplicable to anything so grand as a pronouncement on gender in American society.” Which—for better of worse—doesn’t stop her from making exactly those sorts of pronouncements later on in the book. Many of those insights are dead on—if not exactly news—for this guy.

This is where Vincent’s lesbianism is advantage. She herself points out having dated men before she came out as a lesbian, she learned that romantic hurt gets inflicted by both genders in equal measure—whereas exclusively heterosexual woman often unfairly assign the blame for such hurt on the gender, rather than the morals of the person inflicting the pain. But more significantly, while a number of feminist writers have written sensitively and insightfully about the masculine psyche, as heterosexual women they’ve assumed that men’s relationships with women are the pivotal foundation of masculine experience. Whereas Michael Kimmel points out in his excellent “Manhood in America,” that American men define their masculinity, not as much in relation to women, but in relation to each other men. Not to say women are incidental to men’s conception of (and efforts to prove their) manhood—men do often take elaborate and extraordinary risks to prove themselves in the eyes of women. But it’s the fear that we won’t measure up in the eyes of other men that’s far more haunting.

In fact the central lesson Vincent learns is how constrained and powerless men often feel. As Kimmel notes, the paradox of male privilege is that while men as a whole have benefited from it, individual men rarely feel the power that feminist critiques tell they have. As Vincent puts it: “Somebody is always evaluating your manhood. Whether it’s other men, other women, even children. And everybody is always on the lookout for your weakness or your inadequacy, as if it’s some kind of plague they’re terrified of catching, or, more importantly, of other men catching.” In a meat-grinder job of door-to-door sales, the sale manager taunts the sales team with the fear of failure. On dates she’s shocked by the power women have and the icy precision with which they wield it. She hates how emotionally constrained she has to make herself to be a believable man.

One gets the sense that her breakdown may not have simply been the strain of the impersonation and the inevitable lies required, but instead may have been just as much do, as another reviewer put it, that “it was just as difficult—particularly for a lesbian, feminist, former Village Voice writer—to handle the disconcerting realization that being a guy is, as she plainly puts it, “is really hard.’”

Men—particularly those in the men’s liberation movement—have been saying that for years. So one of the main values of Vincent’s book is that hopefully women will be more receptive to hearing about some of the downsides of masculinity—and differences in communications styles—from one of their own. Vincent notes that women have taken the attitude that their style of communication is the “correct” one and men are just incommunicative clods who need to be trained how to do so properly. And it’s true that many men are unable to analyze their feelings, let alone articulate them, not only lacking the years of training that women have in both skills, but also having been actively discouraged (by fathers and mothers) from developing them. But Vincent discovers there’s a masculine style of intimacy that women haven’t bothered to see is there, let alone understand. It’s more physical than verbal, it’s often more about letting someone know you’re there rather than overtly offering sympathy—but it’s no less caring. As Vincent says, she learned “about the respectful space a man often needs around him when he is vulnerable or in tears. It may be possible now to interpret the silences of men around me as something more than voids or standoffs, and to feel more comfortable about being present and available to them without always needs our exchange to be explicit or neatly resolvable in my language.”

But being a man isn’t all bad. In her sales-jobs-from-beyond-hell, nerdy Ned becomes a Big Swinging Dick. “Nobody ever thought this Ned was gay,” she notes. Vincent doesn’t comment on why the change occurred, nor is it really clear to me either. But in part it was the clothes. Ned finally gets to wear the blazers and dress slacks Nora had stocked up on. And in the hardscrabble door-to-door sales industry, Vincent in her sharp suits stood-out (as potential management material) from the other salesmen with little cash and less fashion sense, who looked like exactly what they were: hucksters in cheap suits. The other part is it seems Vincent learned the same lesson men learn: fake it until you make it. The interviewers for these high-testosterone sales jobs expected Ned “to brag about himself, to be smugly charming and steadfast, and so I did and I was.” (Ned ended up getting into Norah’s head so much that she ended up being mistaken for a man even out of disguise.)

That air of confidence—even if it’s sometimes actually whistling in graveyard bluster—is one of the few aspects of Ned that Vincent carried through her post-Ned “detox” and she’s appreciative that it allows her to expand her repertoire of behavior. In a similar vein, crossdressing at its best can allow men to flex the parts of their personalities that they feel they can’t express as men. Admittedly, as Helen Boyd, author of the excellent “My Husband Betty,” points out, crossdressers are expressing a man’s idea of what it’s like to be a woman, but again it can—especially for crossdressers who get out in public and interact with people—be an opportunity to step out of the “normal” constraints of masculinity.

Speaking of constraints, I enjoyed Vincent’s chapter where she joins a men’s lib group of the Iron John/Robert Bly mythopoetic variety where the men eventually get together for a weekend retreat out in the woods beating drums and getting in touch with their long-buried Wild Men. While Vincent sympathizes with the mostly broken men there—she says of one man: “you could see that his sense of self was in pieces all over the floor”— she’s a bit bemused by the “toothless mantra and aphorisms, or airy poetry that’s supposed to sound deep but usually isn’t.” As someone who flirted with the men’s movement years ago, but who was turned off for similar reasons, it was interesting to see Vincent also wishing the group would “offer a genuine obstacle, a real trial that would test the limits of a person’s character and sense of self” rather than their faux-Native American/pagan rituals.

The book does have some definite downsides. The chapter on sex is by far the weakest. For starters using a strip club to investigate men’s attitudes toward sex is both spurious and offensive. (I can only imagine the reaction I would get if I posed as a woman and hung out with strippers to gauge women’s attitude toward sex.) Moreover, the two clubs Vincent hangs out at sound like something out of the lower levels of Dante’s Inferno, but Vincent seems naively shocked to see the amount of sleaziness. Vincent’s attitude toward the male libido itself seems oddly Victorian—men are just horny beasts who can’t really help themselves. Now I’ve seen enough male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals to have a healthy respect for the impact testosterone has on the libido, but the story isn’t quite that simple. There’s definitely truth in Vincent’s assertion that men on the whole think more from the groin and a better at separating lust from love, but on the other hand she wasn’t likely to meet the guys who take a more “womanly” approach to intimacy (i.e. attraction on more of an emotional basis) at a strip club.

The chapter on dating omits Ned’s dates with gay men, which Vincent has mentioned in interviews, which would’ve have provided an interesting contrast. Vincent did mention that they had far more sexual overtones than her dates with women and that the gay men immediately lost interest in her once they found out who she really was. But Vincent didn’t mention whether she also told them she was a lesbian—which obviously might have been a factor. A fair number of female-to-male transsexuals end up as gay men and manage to find partners even without genital reassignment surgery, so I’m not sure the picture is as clear-cut as Vincent might think it is.

In her chapter on her stay at a monastery, I think Vincent actually captures some of the problems of intimacy men have among each other and the sort of hazing that occurs as a new man seeks to proved himself to other men. But Vincent fails to look at how much of the hazing and emotional constriction is due to the environment rather than the gender. From what I recall of a ex-nun’s account of her time in the convent, a similar process of weeding out potential candidates went on, as well a tamping down on intimacy (also to prevent potential homosexual encounters as well as ensure each nun’s attachment remained on God), etc.

But it’s the conclusion of the book that for me is especially problematic. On the one hand, I’m glad she sums up the downsides to her experience. Vincent herself says that she became the “tired and prototypical angry young man” who she used to hate for droning on about his problems. “But after living as a guy for even just a small slice of a lifetime, I can really related to that screed and give you one of my own.” But Vincent is unable to move past the pain. Perhaps it’s too new to her. As men we’ve grown up with these constraints and as “Brokeback Mountain’s” Ennis Del Mar says, “If you can’t change it, then you gotta stand it…” So we may chafe it our constraints but they’re not as raw as they are for Vincent. And Vincent’s lopsided forays into the world of men might have something to do the pain she feels about being a man—ironically the final bits written after temporarily checking herself into a locked psychiatric ward are written in a clipped tone that reveals almost nothing about what’s going on in her head (maybe Vincent hasn’t shed Ned as thoroughly as she thought).

For transgendered people (in the broadest sense of the word, including not only transsexuals, but crossdressers, drag queens, etc.), it’s heartening to hear that Vincent— who wrote some notoriously trans-phobia things a few years ago—has developed a deep sympathy for us. (This isn’t explicitly mentioned in the book, but Vincent has mentioned on the talk show circuit.) However, Vincent does talk about the ever-increasing difficulty she had trying to sustain simultaneously maintain male and female personas—“this cognitive dissonance essentially shut down my brain.” Ironically, for someone who’s an advocate of androgyny, Vincent decides she needs to banish Ned entirely to maintain her sanity. “I could not live in both worlds at once, so I chose the side to which habit and upbringing have accustomed me….”

Unfortunately, Vincent generalizes from her personal experience that “I can’t help almost believing, after having been Ned, that we live in parallel worlds, that there is at bottom really no such thing as that mystical unifying creature we call a human being, but only male human being and female human beings, as separate as sects.” I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s adage that a cat having sat on a hot stove will never again—nor a cold stove either. Vincent has burned herself (perhaps deeper than she realizes) with her gender bending, and in talk shows she’s shown an unfortunate tendency to warn others against “messing with gender.”

Which is probably one reason Vincent doesn’t seem like she’s a found integrated sense of manhood. On the one hand, she sees men as the sorrier sex. On the other, she still seems to harbor “gender fantasy” ideas about masculinity—such as her rhapsody to the “authenticity” of the male handshake. Girlfriend, lemme tell ya, men’s handshakes may not involve the fake smiles that women-to-women greetings can have, but there’s also a lot of subtext going on there too. Believe me, I’ve endured more bone-crushing let’s-see-who’s-top-dog handshakes than I care to remember. That said, if Vincent has contradictory attitudes toward masculinity, it’s undoubtedly in part because society also does.

Had Vincent participated in more “regular Joe” male pursuits, she might have discovered that there many times when being a man isn’t “a series of unrealistic, limiting, infuriating and depressing expectations constantly coming over the wire”—in fact it can be a joy (and not just from the privilege of being the cock of the walk). Or why, although I enjoy putting on a dress and taking a gender vacation from time to time, I’m happy to remain a man.

Or so I thought at the time…

 

 

Let’s Talk About Sex….

I’ve also been posting elsewhere about my surgery, and the question came up about how estrogen affected my sexual drive.

Yes, my libido dropped off sharply after starting estrogen.

Estrogen is notorious for killing the libidos of trans women. But a bit part of that is when you start estrogen, you’ve usually decided to transition, and is unbelievably stressful. (Preparing to transition is like simultaneously planning your wedding and the arrival of your first-born child, while worrying whether you’re going to get laid off, and running a marathon every day — I’m only slightly exaggerating….)

So that kind of stress can definitely kill one’s libido by itself. I found my libido started bouncing back post-transition.

It also changes your libido to become more stereotypically “female” (i.e. context matters much more, it can take longer to get going, but OTOH, whole-body orgasms and I’ve developed the ability to be multi-orgasmic. 😀 whole body/multiple orgasms actually were the result of becoming estrogen-powered being rather than the genital reassignment surgery.

Reading Emily Nagoski’s excellent “Come As You Are” was really useful in helping me understand my re-wired sexual response. Nagoski’s “restaurant analogy” between stereotypical male/female sexual desire responses has been definitely applicable to me.

Now sexuality is definitely influenced by culture, but the experience of trans women and trans men show that there’s a clear bio-chemical component. When trans men start testosterone typically their libidos go through the roof (i.e. they become like horny 13-year-old boys who are mortified by unexpected and unwanted erections that invariably come at awkward times.)

FWIW, trans men on T also typically experience an increase in assertiveness not unlike teenage cisgender boys, while trans women on E experience heightened and more complex emotions. (E.g. I’d never experienced the happy/sad cry pre-E.) But just like cisgender teens, we learn to manage these.

“Hormone therapy” is a combination of taking estrogen, and sometimes progesterone as well, combined with a testosterone blocker — some my levels of estrogen/testosterone were equivalent to a cisgender woman pre-surgery. (Obviously post-surgery the testosterone blocker is no longer needed, although ironically some trans women take small amounts to increase their libidos, similar to the treatment used with cisgender women.”)

I started hormones two years prior to the surgery, and my voyage of sexual rediscovery actually began prior to that. The Hitachi wand is a magical and magnificent thing, and while I still had a penis I’d “tuck” by putting on a tight pair of panties and then tucking the penis backwards, and then apply the wand to my groin. (This is easier to do once on hormones since one side effect of hormones is that it’s often difficult to achieve/maintain a full erection.)

Aside from being fun in itself, it was a conscious effort to retrain my body and my mind, especially after hormones. Whole body orgasms kind of developed slowly and naturally, they stopped being less penile-specific and became more and more diffuse over time.

Multiple orgasms initially came by accident, and it’s something I’ve since worked to cultivate, although it’s not something I consistently acheive. I should make clear that orgasm was separate from ejaculation — once the latter occurred it was game over, since biologically there are mechanisms that cause loss of erection post-ejaculation (albeit there’s a few men who can override this).

Ask Me Anything — But Maybe Not Right Now

Damn, this article — “Why being trans in a cis world can be exhausting” — is resonating hard.

I’ve intentionally been open about being trans, and about my transition, and I mostly respond with an “ask me anything” attitude. As Rachel, who is far, far more cool-as-fuck than I, aptly puts it:

“It’s mostly cool and okay when I answer questions about my life. I’m glad that I can be the first trans person that people meet (mostly). Because I’m cool as fuck and I’m willing to be patient and kind (mostly).”

But yeah… being constantly on call to do Trans 101 — usually not at times and places not of my own choosing — can be wearing.

As the fabulous Mx. Justin Vivian Bond put it: “it still feels like I can really only be myself when no one’s looking.” Mostly.

Transgender Day Of Remembrance

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance — an occasion that honestly I have very mixed feelings about.

Not that we shouldn’t remember our dead. On the contrary. At least 23 transgender/non-binary people have been killed so far this year in the U.S. As usual, almost all of them were trans women, the vast majority were WOC (mostly black trans women ), a number of them were street sex workers. I point out the latter not to denigrate sex work, rather that they were so marginalized by society that the only way for them to survive was to engage in a highly risky profession.

A partial list of our dead from around the world is a  the TDOR website. Many of them were killed with extreme brutality — what criminologists refer to as “overkill,” which is an indicator of extreme rage and hatred toward the victim.

There were undoubtedly more. Usually they were people who couldn’t afford to change their name and gender on their legal ID — or lived in states where social conservatives intentionally pass ed laws to make it difficult/impossible to do — and consequently when their bodies are found, they usually suffer the final indignity of being misnamed and misgendered by the police and the media. It’s only through people who knew them that we learn who they really were.

They deserve one final recognition as their proper selves.

#SayTheirNames
Mesha Caldwell, 41
Sean Hake, 23
Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28
JoJo Striker, 23
Tiara Richmond, also known as Keke Collier, 24
Chyna Gibson, 31
Ciara McElveen, 26
Jaquarrius Holland, 18
Alphonza Watson, 38
Chay Reed, 28
Kenneth Bostick, 59
Sherrell Faulkner, 46
Kenne McFadden, 27
Kendra Marie Adams, 28
Ava Le’Ray Barrin, 17
Ebony Morgan, 28
TeeTee Dangerfield, 32
Gwynevere River Song, 26
Kiwi Herring, 30
Kashmire Nazier Redd, 28
Derricka Banner, 26
Scout Schultz, 21
Ally Steinfeld, 17
Stephanie Montez, 47
Candace Towns, 30

OTOH, for years TDOR was the only time trans people were publicly recognized. If you were gay or lesbian, you had Gay Pride — an event, even if less and less political over the years, still has an attitude of celebration and defiance. As gay writer Joe Jervis summed it up: “They wish we were invisible. We’re not. Let’s dance.” (From his must-read essay about the value of Pride).

For us, not so much. Pre-Laverne Cox, pre-Janet Mock, pre-Caitlyn Jenner, the only public occasion for trans people was one marking our persecution and deaths. Fortunately, that’s changing, Transgender Day of Visibility, on March 31, intended to celebrate living members of the transgender community, has been gaining traction.

As Daye Pope eloquently said:

“Transgender people are real, and vibrant, and powerful, and beautiful, and resilient, and enough. Despite every obstacle stacked against us we rewrite the rules, beat the odds, defy expectations. I believe with all my heart that we have a bright future, because we will build it together.”

So today mourn our dead, tomorrow fight like hell for the living. In March, celebrate our fabulous selves.

They wish we were invisible. We’re not. Let’s dance.

I Didn’t Choose To Be Strong 24/7

Helen Boyd put it well: “It’s hard to see sometimes because trans people seem to be made of steel. They amaze me regularly with their ability to hide their fear and their worries.”

We don’t have a choice, especially these days. It’s not about “being brave” — as cisgender people are so wont to say about us — it’s about survival. We armor up just to make it through the day. But underneath… a wise friend of mine said that in the face of what society throws at us, every trans person has at least low-level PTSD. But we can’t show it, sometimes not even to ourselves, lest it overwhelm and crush us. Trans kids who don’t have supportive families have a 41 percent risk of suicide. 41 percent. Those who don’t have enough armor don’t survive.

There was essay recently that made the point: don’t forget to check on your strong friend. Because sometimes they want, rather they need a chance to not to be the one who’s strong.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends! Like, I would give my life to protect them. But some days, I don’t want to be the strong friend. Sometimes I need someone to tell me, “You are strong. You are powerful. You are beautiful.” Sometimes I need someone to tell me, “God hears you.” Sometimes I need someone to wipe my tears when I’m having relationship problems. Sometimes, I don’t want to give life advice, I want to sulk. I want to be the crazy friend who needs someone to edit my text messages before I emotionally send them off. I want to complain about my career. I want permission to be weak.

Don’t forget to check on your strong trans people, your “brave” trans people. Because sometimes they too need someone to to carry a shield for them, someone to care for them, someone who make them feel safe enough to let down the armor for a bit. And yes, that includes me.

On Being “Beautiful Ugly”

Not everyone gets to be beautiful, and I’m one of them. That isn’t self-hatred, it’s statistics — a few of us are beautiful, a few of us are ugly, and the rest of us are some degree of what society deems average looking.

This is the part where I don’t say: but that’s OK. Because I’m not yet OK with it. But I’m working toward it, and the French concept of jolie laide is giving me hope about being beautiful on my own terms (more about jolie laide a in bit).

Now I hear you protest, but, but, everyone is beautiful just the way they are.1 Lots of body positivity movements use that sort of language, when what they really mean everyone can, and should be, worthy, desired, valued. It’s a reflection of how 50 shades of fucked up our culture is that even these sorts of messages, by women, for other women, get ensnared in the beauty myth.

No, what I’m talking about is “beauty” in its narrower, more traditional sense of the word: “A combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. One that is beautiful, especially a beautiful woman.” Or as Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriters Blues” described aspiring Hollywood starlets: “Aesthetically pleasing / In other words: Fly.”2

(While we’re thinking of Hollywood, can we stop pretending that beautiful people aren’t beautiful? “Ugly Betty” was probably the frumpiest that network TV has ever allowed a woman to be. But underneath the braces, the hideous glasses, the garish clothes, America Ferrera was, and is, a gorgeous woman. It’s beautiful pretending to be ugly — a kind evil, anti-jolie laide)

Nor am I talking about the sort of “oh, I’m so ugly” bonding that all too many women engage in, nor the sort of body anxieties all too many women fall prey too. I’m no saint here. With the right wig, the right make-up, the right camera angle, the right lighting, I can feel beautiful. But I generally detest casual photos of myself. Especially when I’m in photos with other women. I invariably feel like a hulking Princess Fiona ± only without the the benefit of a tiara and green skin.

Like all too many other women, I’ve stood in front of the mirror are cataloged what society sees as my flaws:

  • Statistically, my height and size are at the far, far end of the chart. My hands and feet are all too big — trust me, trying to find size 13 shoes is a constant reminder of how off the chart I am.3
  • I wasn’t blessed by the androgyny fairy — I’ve got the bulky body type that runs in my family all the way back to the babushkas built to survive long Russian winters.
  • I’m not an hourglass, I’m V-shaped. While estrogen is now giving me a booty, it won’t ever give me hips to balance out my broad child-bearing shoulders, I’ve got big biceps. I’ve got an apple belly just like my mother. (Any plus-size fashion designer wanna give some love to us apples?)
  • I’ve got an average-looking face with a Karl Malden-nose (thanks Mom! <sigh>). I’ve got a gap-tooth grin and my open-lip smile often looks odd.
  • While estrogen is starting to give me breasts, I’m still a member of the itty bitty titty committee.

I’m unbeautiful. Not ugly. But unbeautiful.

In short, like a lot of trans women, by many objective measures I’m not terribly close to the cisnormative, heteronormative “feminine ideal for women in our culture. Very few of us look like Janet Mock, Carmen Carrera, or Laverne Cox. When Cox says, no matter how well-intentionally that “I am not beautiful despite my big hands, my big feet, my wide shoulders, my height, my deep voice and all the things that make me beautifully and noticeably trans. I am beautiful because of those things.”4 it rings a bit hollow for me, well because it’s easy for her to say, she looks like Laverne Cox.5

Another big factor is that, ironically, is that the burlesque world probably has made my body dysphoria worse than it might have been otherwise — since I’m seeing (and comparing myself) to lots of sparkly nearly-naked women. Who I’d argue, on the whole, are probably more attractive, with “better” bodies, than the general population.

While burlesque does talk a lot of about being a body positive space (which it is to a greater or lesser degree depending on the area), it definitely does help boost one’s confidence if you’re closer to cisnormative, heteronormative standard of what’s considered beautiful. So there is a bit of self-sorting that goes on, as far as who even attempts it. Even many (self-described) fat performers often have very pretty faces. Not in the sense of “oh, she’s got a pretty face” as a euphemism for “fat,” rather faces that fit the mold of what’s conventionally considered “beautiful.”

(And just an aside, mad props to those who aren’t the stereotypical burlesque performer – a skinny young (white) woman with a pretty face and big boobs – and who still get up on stage and own it. Especially if you’ve got a face that’s not “pretty” and/or a body that’s “unconventional.” That takes a fuckton amount of courage.)

A final factor is that I transitioned into being a woman “of a certain age,” that age where at best one’s beauty’s is considered fading, that age where women become invisible. I hear about other woman having to deal with unsolicited dick pics and most of me rages with them — but a small part of me is bothered that I don’t get them, like I’m not even pretty enough to merit sexual harassment. Which needless to say is a feeling that’s fucked up six ways from Sunday. But there is it.

Honestly, it all can feel a bit crushing.

But other cultures don’t have such a narrow concept of beauty. There’s a French phrase, jolie laide, which literally means “beautiful ugly,” but is more commonly translated along the lines of meaning oddly beautiful or unconventionally beautiful.

Opinions differ in interpretation. At one end of it’s the flaw that punctuates perfection, for example supermodel Lauren Hutton and her famous gap-toothed grin. On the other, it’s sometimes offered up as a homely woman, whose personal magnetism overcomes her looks, such as the celebrated 19th-century diva Pauline Viardot, who was described by a contemporary as “the kind of ugliness which is noble.”6

However, more commonly it refers to a woman who’s seen as beautiful not in spite of — but actually, because of — her unconventional individual features. Anjelica Huston, whose “regal asymmetry defies the norms of magazine ‘pretty’”7 is often cited as an example. (Benedict Cumberbatch is a good example of the male equivalent.) It’s more of an earned title than a compliment.

But there it’s more than just features that come together in an unexpectedly pleasing way — it’s often described as women who are “not conventionally beautiful but radiate a kind of magnetism that goes beyond their features,”8 a woman who “draws you in in an entirely different and unique way. You can’t take your eyes off of her, but you often don’t know why” and “her allure and perfection comes from a presence of an inner life that informs her outer appearance.”9

Although I personally like an earthy version of it that I heard: “I’m an acquired taste; if you don’t like me, acquire some fucking taste.”

When researching the concept of jolie laide — and there’s a surprising dearth of articles on it — I ran across three quotes that eloquently summarize my feelings:

“I love the idea of jolie laide because it suggests that we do not need to be cookie cutter beauties to be attractive. Suddenly features like tiny eyes, a jutting chin or a prominent nose could actually be deemed attractive. That these features need not be ‘corrected’ by plastic surgery in order to be considered beautiful. The motto of jolie laide is ‘work with what you’ve got,’ and that is very refreshing indeed.”10

Jolie laide offers hope for the rest of us. It opens up the democratic possibility that a woman can be beautiful because she thinks she is, in spite of her oddities. She loves herself, and that love shines through in how she carries herself, in how she expresses herself to the world. Others who would not otherwise be drawn to her looks are yet enchanted because of who she is.”11

“French women are attractive, yes, and stylish, yes, but the mystique and appeal that they wield as a whole isn’t located in [dare I say] mere perfection of proportion. They believe in their beauty, and so convince the rest of us. We should take a lesson.”12

And one final quote from Anjelica Huston herself: “I remember overhearing a conversation between my mother and father… to the effect that Anjelica wasn’t going to be a beauty. My way dealing with that, even then, was I’m going to make myself beautiful. I might not have physical perfection, but I’m going to think myself into being beautiful.”13

Likewise, I may never — make that, will never — be a paragon of cisgender, heteronormative ideas of “beauty,” but I can still be beautiful.

I am fucking beautiful. And if you can’t see it, it’s your fucking loss.


 
1. Which is a phrase that’s really off-putting to trans people with body dysphoria. See Sam Dylan Finch’s excellent “I’m Transgender And I Need Body Positivity, Too”
 
2. Yes, it is 5 a.m. and I am listening to Los Angeles.
 
3. Although obviously there are other women out there who are my size, otherwise I’d be running around naked and shoeless.
 
 
5. Admittedly, Cox is trying to make the point that “trans is beautiful” and that is shouldn’t matter if someone is “visibly trans” as so many of us are. (And she acknowledges it took years for her to reach that sort of self-acceptance.) She’s also acutely aware not all trans people can, or want to, embody this ideal, nor should they. See: http://lavernecox.tumblr.com/post/120503412651/on-may-29-2014-the-issue-of-timemagazine
 
 
7. “What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind” by Debra Ollivier
 
 
 
 
 
 
13. I’ve seen the quote appear on various websites, but never tracked it back to a source. But if it isn’t true, it should be.

I Am Still A Dyke…

To all the TERFs from other states and other countries who’ve descended like flying monkeys on the 25th SF Dyke March – Calling All Dykes: Take Up Your Space page to tell the locals how we’re doing it wrong:

I am a trans woman. I am still a dyke.
I am a late-life transitioner. I am still a dyke.
I still have my original factory-installed equipment. I am still a dyke.
I am a pansexual woman. I am still a dyke.
I’m not a gold star lesbian. I am still a dyke.
I am a late-life entrant to lesbian spaces. I am still a dyke.
I am a burlesque performer (not sex work per se, but still “sexy work,” of which I’m sure you also disapprove). I am still a dyke.
I perform as a drag queen. I am still a dyke.
I am a femme. I am still a dyke.
I am all the things you hate. I am still a dyke.

You’re the ones who are doing it wrong: your cult-like gender essentialism, your rabid hatred of anyone who’s not exactly like you, your outing and doxing my trans sisters.

The SF Dyke March is — and always has been from day one — inclusive of all women who identify as dykes. As their official 2017 statement says: “It’s a political identity. It stands for community. It stands for solidarity. It stands for radical fight. It stands for trans*, black, brown, queer, bisexual, lesbian, disabled, chronically ill, fat, femme, butch, indigenous, gender expansive love. It does not stand by erasure. By displacement. By appropriation.”

Today I will don my rainbow-colored dress and take my rightful place among my dyke sisters. I will be taking up space with them. You can crawl back into the holes you slithered out of. We will be busy being fierce and fabulous.

Keeping Burlesque A World Where Women Feel Safe

I hadn’t spoken up about the Russell Bruner controversy engulfing the burlesque world because I wanted gather my thoughts first.

For those of you outside the burly world, numerous women collectively wrote and yesterday released an open letter saying that a prominent performer and producer had engaged in serial sexually predatory behavior against them, ranging from verbal sexual harassment to criminally punishable sexual assault. Bruner has admitted there have been “incidents,” but claims to have been forgiven by those in involved.

I believe the women. I’ve been sexually assaulted myself, and I know how hard it is to speak up — particularly if it’s a person of prestige and power. Want to know why women don’t report being raped and/or sexually assaulted? Look no further than the Cosby mistrial.

Needless to say there’s no room for sexual predators in the burly world (or the dungeon, or the world at large for that matter). But particularly in the burly world, which today is an art form created by women, where the vast majority of the performers are women, intended primarily for the women in the audience (who make up the majority of our audiences). It’s a space where women can celebrate their sexuality without being slut shamed, without having to worry about Schrodinger’s rapist, without having to constantly watch how we dress and what we say for fear it will result in unwanted sexual attention.

As someone who’s lived on both sides of the gender binary, and who’s had careers in both the burlesque and drag worlds, here’s some thoughts on keeping burlesque a world where women feel safe.

There are men in burlesque — performers, producers and photographers — many of whom I love. That said, Mama’s got some advice.

You are working in a predominately “women’s space.” Much of like bachelorette parties at gay bars, and straight people at Pride, are in someone else’s space. We welcome you, but we also expect you behave with respect and well-learned politesse.

This may take some getting used to. I get it, men — especially white men — are used to going anywhere, saying anything. When I was living as a man, I got that indoctrination too. It’s an example of privilege, which is typically hard to see *precisely* because you don’t have to think about it.

It can also feel unfair to feel like there may be an undercurrent of suspicion until proven otherwise. Yeah it sucks to be prejudged for who you are — welcome to the world of women, of trans people, of people of color. There’s a reason why many women are wary, because we move through the world it is definitely #yesallwomen.

You may think you understand the level of sexual harassment women face. Trust me, you don’t. You just don’t. I had only an intellectual understanding of it myself until I began living as a woman in the world. It’s wondering how quickly it will take for “Come on give me a smile” to turn into “Smile bitch! It’s walking to your car late at night and wondering if you’ll need to use your heels to defend yourself against the guy who’s following you. It’s dealing with the daily messages from collectors who want to friend you so that can save your photos to their personal spank bank. It’s ever-present, it permeates down into your bones.

Obviously not all sexual predators are men — in fact the person who sexually assaulted me was a random women, and sexual abuse within the lesbian community is sadly unreported. But most of them are.

So yeah, you *do* need to be on your best behavior. Think about it. You’re in a space where women are nearly naked on stage, and often fully naked backstage. Watch what you say, watch what you do. Know that, despite your intent, what you say may be taken the wrong way. I know it might feel onerous — welcome to what it’s like being a woman in a man’s world. I’m not saying you need to completely self-censor — I’m a bitch who loves bawdy banter myself. But be mindful of where it’s appropriate and who it’s appropriate with (i.e. best to start with only people you know well).

Some special thoughts for the gay men, who perform as drag queens, who are crossing over into burlesque.

If I hadn’t already made it clear, you’re in a different culture now, with different cultural norms. I’m a lesbian-leaning bisexual, but I’ve spent more than a decade performing in gay bars and other gay spaces as a drag queen (who at the time was thought to be a man), and let me repeat: *it’s different.* Gay culture can at times be a bit sexually… direct… not only cruising but also on the mic, and unfortunately fairly tolerant of people getting handsy with performers. I’ve been groped so many times in gay bars I’ve lost count and people expect to brush it off with a laugh. “It’s not like they’re real” as I ask them to remove their hands from my boobs and my ass. (Yes, they’re my boobs and ass, I paid good money for them.) “What’s the big deal, I’m gay,” they tell my women friends who perform there after groping them. Nope. Just nope. Without consent, it’s still sexual assault.

We drag queens love innuendo and teasing others (and ourselves) about being promiscuous and/or sec workers. But remember women’s sexuality is viewed — and policed very differently. Yes women MCs may make similar comments and jokes on the mic, and the women in the audience go wild. But that’s because burly spaces are one of the exceedingly few places women *can* do that. Those sorts of comments can be heard very differently when coming from a may, gay or not.

Again, I get it, it sucks to feel restricted by problems caused (mostly) by straight men. You want more freedom? Become known for shutting down sexually harassing comments/actions by straight men, and confronting sexually misogynistic comments in gay spaces. In another words, someone known as an ally by deeds not just words.

Actually, that’s good advice for all men.

To all men, it’s not that hard. There’s concrete things you can do every day. If you’re a photographer, before going into a dressing area, ask if you can come in (someone may prefer to get covered by you enter). If you’re a producer make it clear you take sexual harassment (by any gender) extremely seriously. If you’re a performer and see another performer getting a little out of line, pull them aside.

As said before, we welcome you to our house — be good guests.

Why I Smile…

I smile because it’s part of my social jujitsu toolkit for dealing with situations where I’m misgendered, or I can tell they’re trying to figure out my gender, or they realize I’m a *trans* woman and trying out to figure out how they feel about it. When I see a woman giving me “the look” — the glance held too long, where I can see the gears turning inside their head, I give her the social smile that woman are trained to do automatically. It may look friendly, but as is often the case with other forms of woman-to-woman communication, there’s subtext: It’s the “I know you’re looking at me, and now you know that I know you’re looking at me” smile.

I smile at small children because now I can. No longer does smiling at strangers’ children make people presume I’m a potential pedo-creeper.

I smile because there is a casual camaraderie among women. By no means do I want to romanticize that — women can be just as aggressive and nasty as men, and far more micro-aggressive in ways that most men don’t even perceive. But I can’t count the number of casual conversations — in line at the store, in the woman restroom, etc. — that I never had as a man interacting with other men.

I smile because women are trained to smile automatically, practically instinctively. To be nice, to be pleasant. Of course I, like other women, learned the nuances of when and where to smile. Smile at a man you don’t know and he’ll likely think you’re sexually interested in him. Smiling in the street invites sexual harassment. (And even if you don’t smile, catcalls of “hey baby, looking good,” all too rapidly turn into, “why won’t you smile, bitch.”)

I smile because now society allows me a vastly widely range of emotions. In Norah Vincent’s flawed, but still worth reading book, “Self Made Man” (about the 18 months see spend posing as a man to try to better understand masculinity), at the end of the experience she had a nervous breakdown, which in part she attributes to the stress of trying to living within the emotional straightjacket of masculinity.

I smile because why the fuck not. Emotions are contagious, and with all the shitty stuff going on the in world, if I’m feeling like it, why not randomly smile and brighten someone else’s day. Of course, there’s a huge difference between feeling that one *can* smile and and feeling obligated to do so, regardless of how one is feeling. So I someone doesn’t smile back, I don’t take it personally. Maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe they’re from a culture where it’s not acceptable (it’s notable that the thing that reliably identifies Americans overseas is how frequently we smile at strangers), maybe they just don’t feel like smiling back.

I smile because I’m happy. Despite all the trials and tribulations of being a woman, being a trans woman, in our patriarchal society, I’m much happier than I when I was trying to live life as a man.

The Trans Prime Directive

Since I seem to be in a meditation-on-all-things-trans mood tonight, let me talk about something I’m been meaning to talk about for awhile: the Trans Prime Directive — something that’s one of the ways being T is different than LGB, and makes it much harder to build a “trans community” the way that gays and lesbians (or POC) have.

I was checking out at a store the other day, and the cashier was pretty clearly another trans woman. Her build, her voice, the large hands, etc. like me, there’s a lot of tells, if you know what to look for. I’m sure she knew I was trans. But we never acknowledged that to each other.

Why? Because of the Trans Prime Directive: Thou Shalt Not Out Another Trans Person. It’s never written down or really ever discussed publicly (in fact the name was coined on a private forum for trans people that I belong to), but all but the most socially inept trans people instinctively do it.

So no knowing nod. No asking if someone is a friend of Dorothy, or likes RuPaul’s Drag Race, or they like softball. (Just to be clear I’m referring to ways gays and lesbians used historically to subtly find out if someone was also gay or lesbian while still flying under the radar of straight folks.)

Yes there are trans people who are out and proud — and more and more these days. But there’s also people who aren’t yet out of the closet, living in that gray area of gender non-conformity but with plausible deniability. Others transition and “disappear into the woodwork,” finally able to live their lives as woman and men, rather than trans women or men.

And one never knows which group a randomly-encountered trans person belong to. So we all respect the Trans Prime Directive. Which needless to say can feel a bit isolating at times, and harder to feel a sense of solidarity.