Archive for June 2007

Esprit de Corps

June 6, 2007

The best question of the book tour so far comes in Port Angeles, Washington.  
 Port Angeles is a small town several hours’ drive from the I-5 corridor whose main claims to fame are a deepwater harbor and the largest male-to-female transgender conference in the Northwest.  The major economic products of Port Angeles are shore leave and lingerie.  First impression: breathtaking views of the Olympic mountains.  Second impression:  breathtaking view of drunk man in baseball cap, who hoves toward us at full sail, slews vaguely in the direction of the the Red Lion Inn, then leans very close before asking,

“Hey, don’t they have some kind of crossdresser’s convention in there?”  

This is not the best question.  It was, however, clearly a request for man-to-man confidential information.  It was honest, at any rate, so I drop my eyes in virtual shame as I admit that my traveling companion and I–one of us suffering from a desperate case of off-duty, and the other uncertain as to the exact organs required for confidential manliness–evaded it.  Therefore, dear reader, I am unable to report being invited to crash a party for transsexuals.  I am also unable to report encouraging a shy small-town wallflower to come out, or helping a troubled young transsexual person find her way.  Oh, well.  We all have our Clark Kent moments.

The best question comes a day later.  It happens, naturally, in a coffeehouse.   The small but plucky LGBT club of Port Angeles has invited me to speak.  I do so, and in the midst of my deathless prose I am asked the most brilliant question I have ever heard.  It comes from a young person with Asperger’s Syndrome and their friend, who is doubling as a kind of translator.  Translation was unnecessary in this case; Asperger’s, a milder relative of autism, causes people to be formal, detail oriented, and not generally inclined to party hearty.  I took an advanced degree in the History and Philosophy of Science and spent the next ten years studying bugs.  I speak Asperger’s just fine.  This person listens patiently as I go on for some time, and then says,

“Because of my situation, I don’t understand social interaction at all.  Male and female roles are equally alien to me.  I was wondering if you think it would be easier for a person like me to be female or male?”

It is with virtual bowed head I admit that I misunderstood this question.  I am asked so often if men’s or women’s lives are easier, and I am often asked to confirm the questioner’s assumption that men’s lives are much easier and better than theirs.  I fear I have developed a stock answer.  It involves taking a lot of time to say that the grass is not greener just because it is on the other side of a high fence, and that at the moment, given there’s a war on and few support systems open to those of us of the male persuasion, it is rather brown and sandy and stained with a great deal of blood.  

This question was different.  If I understand it correctly with the benefit of hindsight, I was being asked if a person who finds it difficult to experience social connection, emotional expressiveness, and spontaneity would have an easier time getting along if the world assumed they were male.  Phrased in this way, the answer seems obvious.  A white-skinned woman who has limited fluency in social situations and as a result appears withdrawn and stilted, focuses on facts and things, and has few chances to experience intimacy or emotional freedom with others would appear to be handicapped indeed.  A white-skinned man with these qualities would seem more or less normal.

I have run into this issue before, though not in the context of sex-change and Asperger’s.  

My experience has been that in order to be seen as good middle-aged, middle-class white men, we are expected to behave like trauma survivors.  (As far as I can tell, the following list also applies to those of us of the male persuasion whose skin is dark, although on the shared quest to avoid poverty and prison a lot more smiling and nodding seems required.)  Good men are expected to be personally disconnected, avoid physical contact with anyone we don’t know well, keep our gestures confined and our movements slow, be emotionally distant, restricted to routines, to make and follow rules, avoid talking about bodies or feelings, serve and protect anyone we imagine to be small and weak, deny needs for reassurance or comfort, avoid intimacy (except for sex, or perhaps, especially sex), and display stoic behavior.  People who look like middle-aged, middle-class men and don’t behave like trauma survivors are going to experience a lot of trauma.  

The question for the day is:  why?

The website for the day (thanks to Karen Bradley) is The Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies:  Though it describes itself as women-directed, they might be on to something of interest to all of us in relation to this question.  

The book and I visit the Esprit Transgender Conference.  Most available surfaces are pastel.  Whether this design element signifies “ladies” or “chain hotel” is a point on which I am not qualified to comment.  The conference ID tags, along with many other surfaces, feature butterflies.  Mine is a Morpho peledes.  Knowing my butterfly’s binomial nomenclature comforts me.  

In addition to myself and a man I spot at the talent show wearing a green vest sequinned with shamrocks, the conference is a mix of men wearing women’s clothes, transgendered and transsexual women, their female partners (where are the men?), and those folks still exploring the nature and depth of their interest in ladies’ underwear.  (First generation transsexual feminism:  “You know, I have had it with criticisms of my look from people who spend three hours plucking and shaving every time they put on a dress.  I ‘dress’ every day and go to work, to the grocery store, do the laundry, for crying out loud!  I do not have perfect hair.  I have a life.”)  

I sympathize.  I have experienced the special kind of discomfort which comes with entering a space for gay men and discovering rather belatedly that one has joined the few fetish objects in a room full of non-gay-male people with a fetish for gay men. Apparently genital preference varies, but there’s a universal fantasy of perfect hair.

Of course, one could make the point that a room full of gay men is equally a room full of people with a fetish for gay men.  I would not argue.  However, the balance of fetish to fetishist in these cases levels out nicely at one to one.  (In theory at least.  In practice, nothing looks more like a genderqueer conference than a trendy gay men’s cruise spot on Saturday night, though the breasts in the latter are rather more firm.  The judgments, however, are equally firm.)  

At Esprit I am stunned with admiration that this particular diversity of people is not killing each other.  I do not know how they manage.  Seizing the moment, I scout for helpful hints.  I cannot say I discover their secret.  However, I can say there is a special kind of pride that comes with entering a space defined for your community and realizing the mere fact that the people in it are not killing each other. If the people here can avoid killing each other, anyone can.

We discover later in the evening that the news has not reached Washington. Perhaps we should send them a delegation from Esprit. On the other hand, they could send us a delegation of automatic weapons and leave explosives lying about in the hallways of the Red Lion, and I’m not sure how well we’d do then. So the next time someone tells me how wonderful Norah Vincent is, I will be newly inspired to take a deep breath and count to ten before saying anything nasty.

In the spirit of diversity, I am invited to attend both the keynote speech and the talent show.  Though the entire weekend is a lovely process of watching my stereotypes explode like bubbles, there are highlights.  Permanent lipliner+Tina Turner hair=legislative process analyst.  Theories of socially gendered movement:  myself, lawyer, and building contractor.  Busy professional woman drops by, turns out to be the director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.  She knows who Tobias Wolff is; how many directors of Washington political action organizations read literature?  Elderly man in business suit with thick Virginia drawl arrives, asks if he can sit in on the keynote speech.  Sensing a putsch from the Who-Would-Jesus-Kill movement, I smile sweetly and engage him in conversation.  Turns out he’s a retired Unitarian minister, and the keynote speaker’s work for trans acceptance was a major inspiration for his own civil rights activism.  Attending her speech, I can see why.  

She speaks to the clip-on earring generation, with rigorous sporty blonde hair and a Scottsdale tan. (She and my sex-reassignment surgeon are apparently neighbors.)  Her name is Donna Rose, she is a transsexual woman, and she addresses us with clarity, eloquence, generosity, humor, and entirely without notes.  As I listen to her, two memories come forcibly to mind: 

In one, people with rigorous sporty blonde hair and tasteful eighteen-carat crosses, charged with leisure and money and smug in the imagination of women’s moral purity, fuel an engine which works tirelessly against me and mine–the destruction of the poor, the heathen, the lesser races, the sick, the queer, the different, all individually regrettable but of course our own fault, the consequence of our encounters with sanitary procedures as necessary by Natural Law as the prompt removal of a stain.  From where I sit, Donna Rose looks exactly like the image of these women, and this is what gives her so much power, because she is not an image but a human being.  She refuses to be so easy to imagine.  

In the other, a gay activist who looks very much the way I do now is keynote speaker at the first female-to-male trans conference in San Francisco in 1995.  The activist wears a gray flannel suit with a colored rather than a plain shirt, in order to represent a lesbian and gay organization, and refers often to notes in an attempt to inspire trans people to continue to be first out of the trenches against the machine guns of prejudice.  In spite of the notes, he is flustered, clearly used to making inspirational action speeches about the murder of Teena Brandon, Lesbian Heroine.  Protecting helpless female victims of Evil Patriarchy makes him easy to imagine as a Good Liberal rather than an Evil Patriarch.  As a result, he keeps bringing up the murder but forgetting to re-reverse the order of the names to Brandon Teena, or to refer to any of the murder victims with the male pronoun.  He starts in, forgets, remembers, apologizes, forgets again, checks his notes.  

After the keynote, happy children wander by, undisturbed by the rainbows exploding in all directions.  A bored-looking teenager is later revealed as a kick-ass drag king.  My sex reassignment surgeon Toby Meltzer (5’5″, trim, cute as a button) has a posse.  My companion meets Dr. Meltzer and swoons discreetly in the hallway.  I do not.  I am too busy giving him a free book.  Perhaps it’s a fetish, but there’s just something about a man in Armani.  

My big bubble bursts during the talent show.  I watch two people perform a comedy routine whose major sight gag involves a pair of giant breasts.  My Good Liberal feminist alarm (yes, I was raised in the Seventies) goes off.  By now I know enough to sit quietly and watch, and take some time to think.  I think about the Esprit audience; crossdressing men who are convincing or unconvincing female impersonators, transsexual women whose bodies can or cannot match our prejudices of how women are supposed to look.  I realize I have no way to know whether the people performing this gag are women.  I have no way to know whether the bodies they’re satirizing are women’s bodies.  I could be witnessing older men rife with sexism and heterosexual hubris, fetishizing women…Older women satirizing a culture that defines women based on natural sex appeal, offered for a fee in shrink-wrap from Victoria’s Secret…Straight men…or gay women…satirizing their own sexual obsessions…Transgendered people using laughter to draw the poison from their own dreams of perfection…Men satirizing sexist culture…sexist women…Or, as seems likely, all of the above.  I have no way to know.  

Plus, I realize shortly thereafter, I perform a show with a sight gag involving a pair of giant breasts.  

Of course, those breasts are a cast of my own.  Does that make them not offensive?  I certainly found them offensive at the time.  They seem quite a lot funnier now that they’re made of foam and held on by removable straps.  
Is that a fetish?  Beats me.  

At the end of the day, I know only the generosity of the people who invited me here and made a place for me at their table.  And if I cannot tell by looking whether what I see is supportive, offensive, insider or outsider commentary on men’s, women’s, or other lives, maybe there’s something wrong with any system that pretends there is one universal answer and we can walk through the door and know what it is.  Perhaps what’s wrong is our tendency to fall back on a simple shortcut; good is what we do, bad is what they do.  The spandex Republicans and cloth-coat radicals of Esprit (and not a few cloth-coat Republicans and spandex radicals) offered me much more than our name-brand liberal and conservative communities, whose moralities are mirror images, identical but reversed:  Women are good, so men are bad.  Men are good, so women are bad…and so on, ad nauseam.  Our conversations about race, color, politics and religion seem to follow the same pattern.  As the lovely people of Esprit have the courage to make visible, one prejudice and its opposite can be–in practice–impossible to tell apart.

The word for the day, sayeth Merriam-Webster, is fecund.