Crossing the Line

Are transsexuals at the forefront of a revolution--or
just reinforcing old stereotypes about men and women?

by Richard M. Levine

On her way to the Second Annual International
Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy, Susan
Stryker had one of those tiny moments of
existential panic that can bring a whole world
into focus. Susan is a preoperative transsexual, which
means that she is taking female hormones and
has developed small breasts but still has male
genitalia as well as facial hair that she
shaves closely and covers with makeup. She has
been "presenting" as a woman full-time for almost
two years, and yet every time she enters
a public rest room, choosing more deliberately than
most of us the door marked by one
stick-figured symbol over another, she instinctively checks for
the absence of urinals before feeling safe. It
was the kind of discomfort that she had
always felt in public rest rooms, even when
she was living as a man. But in
the Dallas airport on that particular day she
was startled when a teen-age boy burst into
the women's room, then quickly realized he was
on taboo turf and fled in embarrassment.

The havoc
that a strictly bipolar system wreaks most directly
on transgendered people but also on the rest
of us was the subject of the conference
in Houston. According to the packet of information
I had received, there would be 65 transgendered
(both transsexual and cross-dressing) lawyers and activists at
the three-day event, held at the Hilton Southwest
Hotel. They would participate in workshops in such
areas as health, employment, military and personal-identification regulations,
out of which would come blueprints for further
action.

My own interest in transsexualism had begun only
two months earlier, when I met Susan Stryker
at a gender conference I was covering in
San Francisco. Unlike other panelists on transsexualism that
day, who were dressed in clothes that instantly
signaled their new identity, Susan was wearing what
she called her "radical-transsexual-genderfuck-drag" outfit: work boots, black
cotton sleeveless T-shirt, and ripped-to-the-point-of-shredded jeans over black
tights. With her long blond hair, she could
easily have "passed" as a woman, but passing
turned out to be the last thing on
her mind.

Besides having taught early American history at
the University of San Francisco (her students were
surely unique in learning, along with more standard
fare, that the current anti-cross-dressing laws in New
York originated as an attempt by the state
legislature to prevent militant farmers from committing acts
of civil disobedience while dressed as American Indians),
Susan was also a founding member of a
nascent radical civil-rights group called Transgender Nation. She
saw her "gender dysphoria," as the medical profession
would label it, as a personal quest that
pointed the way toward gender liberation for us
all.

Gender identity is clearly one of the ur-topics
of the '90s. Half the stories in the
newspapers are really about changing perceptions of gender,
whether in the guise of gays in the
military or dating codes on campus or discrimination
in the workplace or the domestic life of
the Bobbitts, or any of dozens of other
subjects. A recent spate of movies--including "The Crying
Game," "Orlando," "The Ballad of Little Jo," "M.
Butterfly," "House of Angels," "Farewell My Concubine," and
the top box office hit "Mrs. Doubtfire"--explored transgender
themes. So crowded has this transgender bandwagon become
that a short time after "Mrs. Doubtfire" lost
its number-one position, it was replaced by another
Hollywood comedy that touched on the same theme:
"Ace Ventura: Pet Detective." In the film's climactic
scene, the detective's main antagonist, the local police
chief (played by Sean Young), is revealed to
be--family entertainment not being what it used to
be--a preoperative male-to-female transsexual with breasts and a
penis.

Yet the fact is that Hollywood is really
playing cultural catch-up. The list of musicians who
engage in some form of gender-bending is so
extensive that the practice almost seems to be
a prerequisite for stardom: Mick Jagger, David Bowie,
Madonna, Boy George, Michael Jackson, Annie Lennox, k.d.
lang, Laurie Anderson, Ru Paul, and many others
(not to mention performers from an older generation,
such as Liberace, who is, in this context,
one of the seminal cultural figures of our
time--or that even more problematic icon, Elvis, the
cross-dresser as male sex symbol).

If MTV is where
we try out new gender possibilities, old-fashioned TV
is where we ridicule them. Hundreds of talk-show
programs have been devoted to cross-dressers and transsexuals
(Donahue in a dress was not one of
the more enlightening televised images of recent years),
and there is hardly a gregarious transgendered person
who hasn't appeared on at least one of
them. (A recent male-to-female support group I attended
in San Francisco discussed talk-show appearance tips.) We
laugh at what we fear, and what we
fear most is the dissolution of personal identity,
gender being one of its essential components.

Frankly, before
I met Susan Stryker and her group of
transsexual friends, I was a pretty typical talk-show
viewer. I had never thought a lot about
gender liberation--or even gender itself much beyond the
standard bipolar me-Tarzan-you-Jane sense. Specifically, I had never
thought about the distinction between sex and gender:
the one, a chromosomal and anatomical "fact"; the
other, more of a mental and social construct.

In
the ensuing weeks I read much of the
scant literature on transsexualism. In 1953, a Danish
physician turned an ex-G.I. named George Jorgensen into
Christine in the most widely publicized early sexual
reassignment surgery. Since then, the number of postoperative
transsexuals has grown into the tens of thousands,
with many times that in various stages of
gender transition--and, of course, an untold number who
feel themselves to be transgendered and do nothing
about it physically. And while transsexualism is, strictly
speaking, a fairly recent phenomenon (a result, largely,
of wartime advances in trauma surgery), there have
been transgendered individuals in all cultures and mythologies
throughout history. (Joan of Arc, far from being
the frail-but-feisty maid of lore, was a six-foot-plus
warrior who was burned at the stake more
because she refused to stop wearing male clothing
than for her role in a regional dynastic
struggle.) In many cultures such people have been
considered to possess numinous powers by virtue of
their knowledge of both male and female secrets,
and have played honored roles. For instance, Native
American berdaches-- effeminate men and masculine women who
chose to live in opposite gender roles--officiated at
important tribal rituals.

The actual cause of transsexualism is
hotly disputed by gender researchers, who line up
in the familiar nature vs. nurture formation, with
prenatal theories of chromosomal irregularities and hormonal imbalances
vying with postnatal notions of opposite sex imprinting
and family-system concepts of dominant and absent parents.

What we fear most is the dissolution of
personal identity, gender being 
an essential component. 

The
conference, half law convention, half transgender support group,
proved to be fascinating, as much or more
because of the people involved as because of
the issues raised. The news in the first
workshop on employment law was mostly discouraging. As
the workshop moderator, a transsexual lawyer and businesswoman
named Laura Skaer, put it, "Basically, if you're
at the stage where you're filing an employment-discrimination
suit, you've already lost." No transsexual has ever
won such a suit based on gender issues,
although that situation could soon change now that
Minnesota has passed the first wide-ranging civil-rights bill
that specifically includes transsexuals. The closest anyone came
was a Boeing engineer, whose initial judgment against
the company for not letting her dress in
feminine clothing or use the women's rest room
while still preoperative was overturned on appeal.

But overall,
the event had an upbeat, get-out-of-the-closet tenor. Participants
rarely used the medical term "gender dysphoria" to
describe their condition. They said "gender gifted," "gender
creative," or "whole gendered." One transsexual announced that
she "wasn't gender dysphonic but gender euphoric." Perhaps
two-thirds considered themselves transsexuals, almost all male-to-females. The
rest were transvestites, often distinguishable because they dressed
to the nines, wore more makeup (to cover
their beards, since they rarely underwent electrolysis), and
frequently touched their carefully coiffed wigs, as if
holding on to a more tenuous femininity.

In sexuality
textbooks, the two groups are completely distinct. In
theory, transsexuals are generally certain from an early
age that their sex and gender are at
odds and want to permanently alter their bodies
to fit the image they have of themselves,
while transvestites are typically heterosexual men who get
a sexual charge from occasionally dressing up as
women. In the real world, however, this distinction
often breaks down. Many transsexuals--for a variety of
reasons, most commonly the disruption of family life
as well as the expense and problematic nature
of surgery--must content themselves with cross-dressing, sometimes along
with hormonal and electrolysis treatments.

Occasionally there is some
tension between the two groups. In private, transsexuals
might refer to cross-dressers as "men in skirts"
or even "chicks with dicks," but in general
gender activists realize that they are both such
tiny minorities that they have to find common
cause not only with one another but with
other marginalized groups, especially gays and lesbians.

Some of
the most crucial issues for transsexuals were raised
at the workshop on health law. It was
chaired by Martine Rothblatt, a Washington, D.C., communications-industry
attorney who had been living full-time as a
female for the past two years and was
scheduled for surgery shortly. As Martine, a tall,
strong-featured woman who was raising four children, related
her experiences, it was apparent that, compared to
others, she had had a relatively smooth transition
between genders. 

When Martine came out to friends,
colleagues, and her parents, she encountered a very
surprised but ultimately understanding response. Martine was actually
discovered by her parents when her nine-year-old daughter,
who said to them one day, "How come
Daddy only wears dresses when you're not around?"
Martine claimed to be "maxing out on happiness"
since she had decided to live as a
woman. But, in one of the many Catch-22s
of transsexual life, because Gender Dysphoria is officially
labeled a psychiatric disorder and a medical pathology,
a candidate for sex-reassignment surgery who acts completely
normal can be rejected for treatment.

The field is
regulated by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria
Association, named after the New York endocrinologist who
first popularized the term "transsexual" and wrote widely
about the phenomenon. The professional group of medical
and psychological caretakers has only recently allowed a
transgendered person on its board. The Harry Benjamin
Association's widely followed standards of care decree that
a candidate for hormone therapy and sexual-reassignment surgery
must have the written approval of a certified
therapist after no less than three months of
care; he or she must live full-time in
the sought-after gender for at least a year
before being accepted for surgery; and a partner
in a heterosexual marriage might not be eligible
for the operation. (Transsexuals feel strongly that this
reluctance to create gay or lesbian couples is
homophobic, but it is also true that in
1971 a woman won a hefty judgment from
a gender clinic for irrevocably and nonconsensually cutting
off, so to speak, her marital rights.)

For many
transsexuals these protocols foster gender stereotyping (behavior considered
inappropriate for the candidate's desired gender will not
pass muster); are class-biased (many transsexuals cannot afford
the psychological visits that must precede expensive and
largely uninsurable surgery); and are just plain humiliating.
"We are like a colonized people," said Susan
Stryker, wearing a Transgender Nation T-shirt. "We are
forced to speak the oppressor's language and submit
to his law."

By no means were all transgendered
people as militant as Susan. For many, assimilation
into their new gender was the fervently desired
goal. They gladly attended the gender-identity clinic's deportment
classes to learn how to "pass," if they
were male-to-females, by walking on high heels while
appearing sober at the same time. Indeed, many
radical feminists complain loudly and with some justification
that transsexuals themselves reinforce gender stereotyping.

The more radical
transsexuals felt that all of us have masculine
and feminine sides to some degree, and that
"gender creative" people were simply those who were
willing and able to express themselves completely--something that
in our society "takes a lot of ovaries
to do," according to Martine Rothblatt, who liked
the symmetry that she had spent half her
life as a male and would now spend
the second half as a female. These people
wanted to shift the grounds of the debate
from the clinical language of the medical establishment
to one of human rights--specifically, the right of
transsexuals to control their own bodies and have
access to hormone treatment and sex-reassignment surgery on
demand.

Male-to-female surgery is both less expensive and less
problematic than female-to-male, which partially accounts for the
fact that male-to-females greatly outnumber female-to-males. (An equally
important reason for the gap, which is narrowing,
may be the greater latitude society gives women
in dress and lifestyle.) The creation of a
"neo-vagina" averages $12,000 to $15,000, not counting the
lifetime use of estrogen. It involves dissecting the
penis while preserving the urethra, then turning the
extremely sensitive penile sheath inside out, reinserting it
into the abdominal cavity, and constructing an entryway
framed with labia made from the scrotum. It
is frequently orgasmic and ready for active use
after six to eight weeks of healing. 

In
contrast, female-to-male transsexuals must choose between form and
function, with neither choice providing a completely satisfactory
result and the total cost for both a
bilateral mastectomy and genitoplasty running anywhere from $20,000
to $40,000 and up. The most common model
is a "micro-penis," where the female clitoris, somewhat
enlarged by male hormones, is released from the
clitoral hood. Orgasm can generally be achieved but
not penetration. More aesthetically satisfying but much less
sensitive is a penis-like flap taken from the
arm or thigh and held permanently semi-erect by
a bone implant, resulting in what female-to-males sometimes
refer to as a "pants stuffer."

All the transsexuals
I talked to agreed that the surgical procedure,
while perhaps the most dramatic aspect of gender
transition, is far from the most important. (Indeed,
some transsexuals are satisfied with the changes in
their bodies and psyches that hormone therapy alone
induces and skip the surgery entirely.) If sex
is inevitably a male/female polarity, they insisted, gender
is a broad spectrum along which each of
us stands at different points, even changing our
position along this continuum of role possibilities in
the course of our lives or, in some
cases, in the course of any given day
of our lives.

Perhaps no one embodied the fluidity
of gender as literally as the workshop leader,
Sharon Ann. At the moment, she wore a
demure puffy-sleeved dress with a lace collar, but
she was also an ex-Marine and a competitive
athlete. Sharon Ann is the cross-dressing pseudonym of
a man who describes himself as "bi-gendered." Married
for more than 29 years and the father
of three daughters (he planned to give away
the middle one in marriage the following weekend,
very much the tuxedo-clad father of the bride),
he spends 90 percent of his life as
a male and "lets Sharon Ann out" only
at transgender events and in the office he
rents to conduct his manifold gender-community activities.

Sharon Ann's
fondest dream is to wake up each morning
and decide whether to be masculine or feminine
"based on my mood or the weather or
the activities I have on my calendar." His
wife and children accept his transgenderism, and his
two-year-old grandchild even called him "grandma-grandpa" on one
occasion. But because he fears that coming out
of the gender closet would cause him to
be fired from a job he loves, living
such a gender-blending life is not an option
for him. Sharon Ann's gender versatility began when
he was a boy. His Junior League mother
wanted a baby daughter and dressed him in
little girl's outfits as a child, but when
he began wearing her clothes on his own,
she ridiculed him and called him a sissy.
At the age of six or seven his
father became the dominant presence in his life
and encouraged his more masculine side, particularly a
love of competitive sports, both as player and
fan, that continues today.

In his boyhood and teen-age
years Sharon Ann's mother, who had visions of
him becoming "another Heifetz," allowed him to wear
her clothing only when practicing the violin. ("I'd
be sitting in my room in her slip,
high heels, and pearl choker practicing scales for
hours on end, and she'd come into my
room for something and actually pretend not to
notice.") The result was that he became an
excellent violinist--and a compulsive cross-dresser. In college and
law school, where he dated women in public
and cross-dressed in private, the "mixed messages" about
his own identity troubled him deeply. But after
surviving boot camp and basic training on his
way to becoming a Marine Corps lawyer, he
"didn't feel I had to apologize to anyone
for being less than a man."

"The basic dynamic
in my life is balancing both aspects of
myself," Sharon Ann explains. "I think of it
as talking two different languages, since language and
gender, after all, are the two skills society
trains us to perform practically from birth."

Susan Stryker
has an even more radical vision of the
social role of transsexuals in the larger world,
which came out in the debate over the
wording of a gender bill of rights that
would be presented to the United Nations. She
likened those of us who stay in the
same gender all our lives to people who
never leave their hometowns, whereas she and other
transsexuals are much more intrepid travelers. She sees
her own gender transition as "a magical journey
to transform the constructed realities of nature and
society."

Farfetched as they may be, such transgender visions
are more realistic than they would have been
only a decade or two ago. Historically, gender
identity is a constantly shifting terrain, and there
seems little doubt that we are entering a
transformative period. It's hard to know where these
changes will end up or precisely what caused
them. Gender is one of those crucial focal
points that act upon--and are acted upon by--all
aspects of a society, even contradictory ones.

In some
cultures, such as pre-Revolutionary France, where women in
the court temporarily gained considerable power, a certain
freedom of gender identity was encouraged simply because
it did not have to be accompanied by
a loss of status. (The Chevalier D'Eon, an
18th-century French diplomat and spy who lived most
of his life as a woman, became so
celebrated that "eonism" was an early term for
transsexualism.) In other cultures, such as those Native
American and Middle Eastern tribal societies where the
masculine warrior ideal is taken to an extreme,
transgenderism seems to serve as a socially sanctioned
escape valve for people who don't want to
compete.

By and large, any loosening of social constraints
encourages a corresponding freedom of gender expression--think of
the late Roman Empire or the Weimar Republic.
The reason why gender-blurring in the late 20th
century may be more pervasive and longer lasting
is that it seems to be part of
a worldwide paradigm shift of both the body
and the body politic. The old bipolar Cold
War standoff has been replaced by a world
where there are many centers of political, economic,
and military power. The new communications and information
technologies pull signals out of an omni-dimensional cyberspace.
A growing ecological consciousness envisions humankind as part
of a Great Chain of Being that is
circular rather than hierarchical, placing more emphasis on
interdependence than on an evolutionary ascent from "bottom"
to "top." Still closer to home, the ideal
of the old bipolar mom-and-pop family is being
replaced by looser-knit networks of kinship and affection.

So
it should come as no surprise that even
something most of us think of as immutably
written in the genes has become more a
matter of individual expression than ever before. In
gender, fashion--not biology--may be our destiny.

In a world
freer from binary oppositions, you could choose to
live your life within fairly conventional gender limits,
as most of us do, or you could,
as Sharon Ann dreamed of doing, change your
gender identity daily. You could set out from
one fixed gender polarity and travel to the
other, as the majority of transsexuals do, or
you could take off for gender parts unknown
with Susan Stryker. 

Such thoughts occasioned by the
Houston conference brought to mind an experience in
the early '70s when I was invited to
a party given for the writer Jan Morris.
It was not long after she had undergone
male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery. Most of the other guests
had been personally acquainted with James Morris, who
had roamed the breadth and heights of the
world reporting on far-flung wars and accompanying Sir
Edmund Hillary on his conquest of Mount Everest.
They seemed frightened and even repulsed by what
he had become--a proper, somewhat dowdy, middle-aged Englishwoman
who looked as though a trip to the
local tearoom was about all the adventure she
could handle.

She stood alone in her tweed skirt
and sensible shoes amid a swirl of literary
lights, and so I, untroubled by before-and-after comparisons,
had a chance to talk to her at
some length. It didn't surprise me to learn
that, far from being a retreat into conventionality,
she saw her gender switch as the greatest
adventure of her life. But I was struck
even then, and much more so upon distant
reflection, that she spoke wistfully and somewhat prophetically
about a time in the future when "the
slow overlapping of the genders," as she put
it when she wrote up her experiences a
few years later in "Conundrum," would make the
kind of bloody violation she had endured in
a Moroccan clinic unnecessary.

In the day-to-day world most
transsexuals, like the rest of us, have less
cosmic thoughts on their minds and try to
snatch small victories from the ever-threatening jaws of
defeat. Before I left Houston Laura Skaer told
me about an incident that had happened to
her late the night before. She had wandered
into a nearly empty hotel bar looking for
friends and had struck up a conversation with
a traveling businessman. For a couple of hours
they talked about their lives with the kind
of freedom strangers who will never meet again
often feel. Toward closing time the man told
Laura that she was the most empathetic woman
he had ever met, and asked what she
was doing in Houston.

"When I told him that
I was a transsexual attending a gender-law conference
he was astonished," Laura said. "But after recovering
somewhat he asked politely if he could see
me to my room. At the door he
asked if he could kiss me good night.
The moment seemed right, and I nodded. Then
I told him he had made me feel
like a complete woman for the first time
in my life. 'Laura, you don't need me
to feel like a woman,' he said, and
left. It was such a wonderful moment for
me."

Richard M. Levine is an author and journalist
who lives in Berkeley, California.

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