The transgender issue is the hot news of the day. From the one formerly known as Bruce Jenner to the trans person next door, stories about trans people seem to be everywhere. For many it is a controversial issue. Many people, for instance, admit that they still struggle with understanding how someone can feel that they were born into the wrong body. Gay people also struggle with understanding this concept. In fact, there’s a small movement currently within the LGBT community working to take the ‘T’ off the label LGBT so that it will read LGB, meaning lesbian, gay and bisexual. Sexual orientation, they say, is not gender identity. They are really two very different issues.
I met my first trans person in the late 1970s while living in
“Bruce” was a fellow writer who I bumped into at a book event at the Germantown
Free library. Over a cup of coffee after the event he asked me if I would call
him “Becky.” I did a double take. Bruce had a masculine demeanor. There was
nothing about him that called attention to himself. He was quiet and looked
rather like a bookworm. While I had no problem calling him Becky if that’s what
he wanted, I was naturally curious about what was happening to him. So he told
me about the hormone shots he was taking and even indicated, by removing his
sweater, his emerging breasts.
I had never seen that before and I was shocked. I had seen drag queens in
perform in cowboy bars but they all had tissue stuffed in their bras.
As it happened, I never saw “Becky” again after that coffee but not because I disapproved of him or what was happening to him but because, as people, we had nothing in common. I wished Becky well, and that was that. But down deep I felt sorry for him. It was bad enough that in the 1970s—despite the popularity of “cross sexers” like David Bowie and Lou Reed— being gay was still a dicey proposition, but to be trans or even a transvestite from Translyvania, could be downright dangerous when you weren’t in Rocky Horror territory.
Twenty years later one of my good gay friends published a personal dating ad. He was hopping to meet a fellow student so when
Milo, a twenty-four year
old music student, answered his ad, my friend made arrangements to meet him. Milo,
who described himself as being slight of build and kind of nerdy looking,
expressed a similar desire to meet, and so the two met at Front and Girard
because Milo would be traveling into Fishtown on the El. “At that first
meeting,” my friend said, “I got the distinct impression that Milo was a ultra
nerd—black glasses, spotty beard, plaid shirt, knapsack, and very pale looking.
Yet there was something a little different about him that I couldn’t place,
something odd but I liked him all the same.
So we headed back to my place where we watched a movie and ate popcorn
and drank a little white wine. Things were going well until I got the itch to
become intimate and that’s when Milo turned to me and
said, “’I have to tell you something.’”
My friend said that he thought that
Milo was going to announce that he was
already involved, or that he wasn’t attracted to him, but what he heard was
“I am a female to male trans person. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t. I’m sorry if I misled you.”
“If you want me to leave, I will,”
added. “I won’t hold it against you.” My friend told Milo
to stay because he wanted to hear his/her story. In fact, the two remained together
for a couple of hours talking about Milo’s transition,
although the hand holding had stopped. Milo, as it
turned out, had worn a tight belt under her plaid shirt to flatten her breasts
but the beard was real because she had already begun treatments. She was, in
fact, a straight female who wanted to become a gay male. In the spirit of openness,
the two of them talked about everything, including why a heterosexual female
would want to become a gay male when she could meet more men as a woman since (theoretically)
the majority of men are not gay despite occasional slip-ups when too many
sixpacks are consumed. Milo would tell
my friend that her transition had nothing to do with sexual attraction or
desire or “meeting lots of men,” but that it was an internal, gender identity
thing, and that’s why it was important.
When it came time to say good-bye, conventional gender roles took over when my friend said he felt obligated to walk
Milo to the bus stop, something he may or may not
have done had Milo been a biological male.
When I published the two stories above in a gay periodical a couple of years ago, all hell broke loose. The transgender community attacked me because I “wasn’t using the right pronouns.” The attacks weren’t gentle editorial reprimands but violent rhetorical outbursts that bordered on lunacy. Real lunacy. I was called every name in the book, as one trans person after another stood in line to throw a poisoned dart. In a matter of days I was the most transphobic person on the planet because I was identifying both “Becky” and
Milo by their
biological gender and not the gender they identified with. As I told the editor
of the publication, “Hey, who knew…. I thought I was being emphatic and sympathic
and honest as well. I thought trans people officially became the gender they
identify with only after their complete physical transformation.”
An interesting fact that I’ve discovered is that the trans “legacy” is essentially a very American story. Many early Native American tribes had a special place for men who identified as women. In Walter Williams’ classic overview of Native American sexuality, The Spirit and the Flesh, we learn of the existence of the berdache, or the Two Spirited-third gendered male, usually a gay man, who would often dress as a member of the opposite sex, take a husband or wife (Two Spirited persons were male or female) and live among the tribe as a shaman or holy person. Not only were they considered holy people with special powers but they were believed to be able to tap into mystical realms. In many cases the berdache was considered the most important person of a tribe outside of the chief.
So there you have it. Being trans is not all glamour and posing for the cover of People magazine. Sometimes it’s just an ordinary “next door” kind of thing.