Monday, October 27, 2008

Great Butches in History

Missy (Mathilde de Morny, 1862-1944) - in English, it sounds like a femme name, but Missy was about as butch as they come. Colette had a fling with her, between husbands, and they scandalized Paris by performing a sketch in which an Egyptian mummy (Colette) comes to life and seduces an archeologist (Missy).

(Image source: I got these pictures some years ago, probably in 2001, from a French-language site which I can't find again now.)

Bryher (1894-1983) - novelist, film critic, and "patron" (translation: her family had a whole bunch of money, and she spent her share on art and artists.) During the 1930s she lived in Switzerland and helped many people (mostly Jews) to escape from Nazi Germany. Finally she had to flee herself. Most of her novels are historical; one is a work of "Science Fantasy" called Visa for Avalon.

(Image source: Fembio. This photo appears to have been taken about the same time as the film Borderline (1930), which was directed by her second husband and features Bryher in a small part.)

Valentine Ackland (1906-1969), poet and lover. I discovered her because she was the life partner of one of my absolute favorite writers, Sylvia Townsend Warner (and shows up as a character in several of her short stories). Their collected letters, published under the title I'll Stand By You, tell an amazing story. Noteworthy is the bit where Sylvia asks her to explain how this lesbian stuff works, and part of Valentine's answer is "I'm the bisexual one." She was not referring to sexual practice, but to gender identity - for her, bisexual was synonymous with androgynous. (Image source: The Sylvia Townsend Warner Archive)

Leslie Feinberg (1949 - still around) Feinberg's book Transgender Warriors made transgender a reality for me. I thought I bought it to learn about a friend's transgender. Surprise!

Obviously, these are just a few of my personal favorites. There are many more. I used to think that I didn't believe in role models . . . and it's easy to pick out a person's flaws and say, "I don't want to be like that." But if I had role models, these would be them. Thank you all.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Clueless, Part 2

Actually, it would be incorrect to say I had no clue about being transgendered. If a clue is something you try not to think about, something that occasionally wanders into the front of your mind, where you look at it for a moment in fascination before shoving it back in the closet, then I had a clue.

I cultivated androgyny (but without thinking of it as my gender.) Before that I cultivated feminism. And since feminism so strongly influenced my notions of gender, I'd like to talk about that. It's well known that feminism questions gender roles. And once you start questioning them, they vanish, like smoke. Are there any qualities which are unique to one sex or the other? Aside from a few biological facts, no, not really. Is it rational to suppose that the state of one's intellect, or one's heart, is completely determined by the state of one's genitals? Of course not.

Feminism taught me to believe that gender does not exist. At least, that was the lesson I took from it, perhaps because I was unsure to start with about the notion of gender. And when I began to think that I actually did have a gender, that the concept of masculinity was real to me in a way that could not in fact be explained by the state of my genitals . . . well. I tried not to believe it. It was my last attempt to fight back. Soon I gave up. Gender is real to me, somehow. It's irrational (I still believe that) but it's true.

Feminism is extremely valuable to anyone who inhabits, or wants to inhabit, a female body. But although it questions gender, it has no notion of transgender. In a sense, it remains binary. It assumes that male and female are the only two options, and although I've read a lot of feminist books, I haven't come across any serious discussion of the idea that one can cross over from one gender to the other. (I'm sure someone has written about it. But it hasn't made its way into the core of feminist thought.) In practical terms, I think I understand why feminism ignores transgender: because it's not a solution to gender problems for the majority of people. Most people don't want to transition . . . and if a few do, what does that say about gender?

So. I can't explain to you why I am. I only know that it has become real for me. (I also know that it has been real for others. But that's a subject for another time.)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Historical Tidbit

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (ISBN 0754800911) contains the following brief entry:
Ruda, or "Gracious", was a pre-Islamic deity worshipped in Northern Arabia. The deity sometimes appears in male form, sometimes female. Usually associated with the evening star, Ruda was sometimes known as Arsu.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

How Clueless I Am (Part 1)

Some trans people say, "I always knew I was trans, I always knew I was really a girl/boy." I am not one of those people. I didn't have a clue. Or rather, I didn't have a label. I grew up in a household without strict gender roles, and I wonder if that's why I didn't have a label. If everyone had been constantly saying to me, "girls act like this, boys act like that" and "stop acting like X, act like Y," would I have deduced, "I act like an X, therefore I am an X"? Maybe so. Not that I regret my lack of exposure to gender indoctrination -- not in the slightest. But I do regret, in a way, not having a label. Not having a gender to call my own.

When I try to remember my earliest conceptions of gender, my gender in particular, I feel afraid. I definitely got the sense from somewhere that . . . not just that my gender was wrong, but that thinking about it was wrong. I don't recall receiving many criticisms of my behavior (my gender presentation, to use the more technical term.) What scares me is the idea of putting it into words. Of thinking, "I am . . ." or saying "I am . . ." My gender identity. Because, as I said, there was no word for it.

As a teenager, I came across Christine Jorgenson's autobiography and was fascinated by it. But I didn't wholly identify with her. For example, I found her insistence that she was absolutely positively not gay to be confusing and off-putting1. In other words, the "transsexual narrative" is not mine. I don't feel like I'm in the wrong body, and at this time I don't want to change my body2. When I encountered it in books, it couldn't explain my feelings. And unfortunately, when I encountered it in person I couldn't identify with it either.

When I was (technically) an adult, one of my closest friends came out to me as transgendered, and my response was, "You can be anything you want, but you cannot be a woman." I wish now that I had had a larger vocabulary for gender issues. What I meant was, "You are not and can never be biologically female." And I was assuming, the way everybody in this culture assumes, that sex and gender are exactly the same thing.

My own gender, the unspoken thing . . .

1 Re-reading it now, what strikes me is the remark that sex reassignment surgery is not for everyone. Personally, I don't want surgery, and I can believe that it's not appropriate in all cases. But I do wonder about people who want surgery and are found "unsuitable." Who makes that decision, and why? If you want it, shouldn't that be enough to qualify you?

2 In my opinion, the fault is not in my body, but in my culture, for being unaware that there are more than two genders.

Monday, August 18, 2008

"Why can't you just . . ."

I can't find it now, but a couple years ago I came across a blog by a transwoman who remarked that people were always asking her why she couldn't just be a "sensitive New Age guy." These days, they said, it's acceptable for a man to stretch the boundaries of masculinity a little. Maybe you're just effeminate. How do you know you're a woman?

Jan Morris got very similar questions, fifty years ago:
Could it not be, they sometimes asked, that I was merely a transvestite. . . . Alternatively, was I sure that I was not just a suppressed homosexual, like so many others? Nobody would blame me nowadays, surely, if I let my hair down a bit--'wear something a bit gayer, you know, let your true personality emerge, don't hide it!' --Conundrum
There is no answer to the question. How do you know? Why can't you just? You do know, and you can't. Questions like that are the last act of desperation. "Please try to be something other than what you are, because this is making me uncomfortable."

I have the impression that when you come out to someone (as homosexual or transgendered) they immediately make it all about them. It's not about you anymore. It's about what they think homosexuality or transgender is, or about their complete ignorance . . . definitely about their fears.

I actually felt like this took the pressure off me. I had no desire to say, "Stop it! This is about me!" because I already know what I am. I've been through all the shock and fear and denial. Maybe coming out really is about the other person (the comee, as opposed to the comer?) because it's their turn to deal with it now.

How do I know I'm transgendered? Because I've tried not to be, for years, and it just doesn't work. I've tried to compromise and I can't do it anymore. That is what defines the transgendered person. The moment in which we say "I can't do this anymore." We all come to it by different paths, but the moment arrives, and then everything has changed.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Coming Out Letter

Email from my mother, April 27, 2008:
Noticed in your blog about [a novel by] Emma Bull that you say androgyny is one of your favorite things. Wonder if you could elaborate on that.

I have believed for a long time that gender should not be considered such a defining human characteristic. . . . So, are [your stepfather] and I so unalike in some ways because he was raised in a society that made a strong definition of the male and female roles? We like many similar things, but he thinks women are more emotional than men, and let their emotions run their lives more than men do . . . he has made me wonder whether that is a real difference between men and women.
My response:

I don't think that women are more emotional than men. Definitely not. But I think they have been trained to show their emotions and rely on their emotions more than men do. Actually I think there are very few differences between women and men, but society exaggerates their differences (with things like "pink for girls and blue for boys") and makes up differences where none exist (stereotypes such as "women can't do math" or "men don't know how to take care of children.")

Some people seem to think that gender differences are very important. Personally I think the things we all have in common are more important. We all have emotions, for example, even if we're trained to express them differently. I don't think anyone pretends that men don't have emotions. They're just not supposed to show it. I can't believe that's a good thing.

You asked about androgyny. This is something that I have thought about a lot, but it's still difficult for me to put into words. If men and women are more alike than they are different (which is what I believe) then in a sense we're all androgynous. But I've also come to believe that there's more to it than that. I don't think that dividing people up into "male" and "female" accounts for everyone.

Have you heard anybody talk about the difference between sex and gender? Sex is your biological sex -- what you've got between your legs, basically. Gender has more to do with your personality, and also with the "gender roles" that society creates. A lot of that gender role stuff has nothing to do with a person's sex. Like pink for girls and blue for boys: what does that have to do with a person's genitals? Absolutely nothing. Or the belief that women can't do this, that and the other thing, because they're female. That's bullshit (as my stepfather would say.)

So, our society has some pretty twisted ideas about gender. Feminism has addressed a lot of that. But I've also come to believe that "male" and "female" are not the only two genders. There have been (perhaps still are) cultures that recognized more than two genders. And my gender is not female. My gender is androgynous.

It's hard to say that I am something that doesn't exist in our society. Or rather it does exist -- I'm not the only one - but it is not recognized. For a long time I didn't know, I didn't have the words, or I didn't want to know. And it's scary. But I'm living at a moment in history when people are coming out and questioning gender. And I get to be one of those people.

I'm sure that you've been wondering about why I changed my name (and this is why.) Like I said, I didn't have the words to talk about it with. I'm still trying to find them. But there you are. There's some words.

She came to visit me about a month later, and we spent literally a whole day talking about sex, and gender, and why I think I'm androgynous. It was a good conversation, and a difficult one. I'd finally reached the point where I was able to put some of this into words. And right then I started wanting to put more of it into words - to create a whole blog on the subject. I do move slowly. But here's the blog.