Dicks, Damsels and Dilemmas
Boychick. He-she. FTM. Drag king. Tranny boy. Boss grrrl. Female guy. Butch. Gender outlaw. First, the girls were women, then womyn, then grrrls. And the lesbians were dykes, then perverts, then queer. And then postmodernism came along and deconstructed everything, and now the grrrls are on a "male continuum" and the lesbians are just really guys and everyone is transgender and some are transsexual and nobody is being reasonable any more.Transsexuals, honey. You may have heard of them. They're very popular on daytime television, along with the horribly obese and people who eat their pets. But I bet you're thinking of some big lady with a mysteriously low voice in stilettos and a wig -- John who deep down inside is really Jane. And you'd be partially right.But who's become increasingly visible in the last several years is Jane who wants to become John. And in the urban queer or feministo ghetto, you can't walk a step lately without smashing into one of them.And, girl, they are trouble.Trans MothershipLast summer, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival instituted what trans activists dubbed a "no penises on the land" admission policy to deal with the confusion of post-operative female-to-male transsexuals (FTMs).And this summer, Fireweed, a feminist quarterly, is planning to publish a trans issue. But they're having to do some fancy dancing to justify why "men," which is what post-operative FTMs identify as and pre-operative male-to-females were, should be in the pages of what has been a women's space for 20 years.Why has the transboy mothership arrived? And what should the women's community's relationship, if any, be to these enigmatic guys who used to be girls?***There have always been stories of gals who cross-lived, cross-dressed and generally existed outside the gender they were ascribed at birth.Everyone has heard of Pope Joan, who is reputed to have ruled in the 850s as Pope John VIII Angelicus and was only revealed as Joan when she gave birth in the middle of a papal procession through Rome. Or Joan of Arc, who started out life as a 15th-century peasant girl but, inspired by a divine vision, dressed as a man and led France against England in the Hundred Years War.As for the theory that modern-day gender-bending is increasing in popularity, well, StatsCan doesn't exactly keep figures on it. There is no one who knows every chick who's shooting T (testosterone) or every dyke who's a drag king or every PhD who's writing about the tyranny of pronouns.Gender BlendingBut every trans person I speak to and every Web site I land on and every cultural studies bookshelf I browse seems to echo FTM filmmaker B.L.'s sigh over a greasy-spoon breakfast: "Everyone is doing something about trans these days."Much of the academic and pop fascination with gender-bending falls under the nebulous umbrella of transgenderism.And while its exact definition is hotly contested, transgenderism generally hinges on the notion that masculinity and femininity are social constructs, so there is nothing to say that your gender should be inherently linked to your sex. Therefore, you can live between genders, reject the binary gender system altogether or just dress in drag once in a while.Recent Insanity"It's come to mean anyone who is doing anything with gender that isn't traditional. It's very 'cutting-edge' and cool right now," sniffs transsexual activist Mirha Soleil-Ross.And while there is no small degree of wrestling for turf, the transgender trend is making more cultural space, community and services for the women who are taking the fashionable "what is femininity/masculinity anyway?" mindfuck to its logical conclusion by becoming transsexual men.Transsexualism has come to mean changing, or having a desire to change, aspects of one's physical sex through things like hormone therapy and surgery. (See sidebar.)"This isn't some sort of recently developed insanity as a result of the drinking water," Maxine Peterson, coordinator of Toronto's Gender Identity Clinic at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, assures me drily."What's happening is that there have always been out male-to-females (MTFs), but all of a sudden female-to-males (FTMs) are standing up and saying, hey, include me. The number of FTMs on our caseload is about the same as it always has been."But in the past, once they started hormones they would disappear and nobody would know."Rainbow FlagsAll the guys interviewed for this piece were previously dykes (most of the time), but contrary to Jerry Springer-esque mythology, a switchover doesn't necessarily have to do with a tranny's sexual orientation. It's about gender identity.Hence, a straight girl can want to become a boy but could still want to be with boys after she gets her new set of ... wheels. Which would technically, then, make her a gay man.And while much of the discourse around transsexualism happens in the context of queerness, there are many transsexuals who have no relationship at all to the gay/lesbian/bi or feminist communities and are quite happy to live out their lives far, far away from rainbow flags or political slogans.But the females who were bred in proximity to these radical worlds and still went ahead and decided they wanted to become male are the ones the women's community are primarily wrestling with, because, as they sing on Sesame Street, these are the guys in my neighbourhood.***At a local bar, I meet Jean/Bobby Noble, a member of the Fireweed guest editorial collective for the trans issue (at this moment officially called the transgender issue, though that may change) and a PhD candidate whose dissertation is called Masculinities Without Men.Bobby, with his brush cut and no-nonsense boy clothes, looks like your workaday butch dyke but says he lives on the slash between butch and FTM. While he's biologically still female, he quips, "If my students call me 'Miss,' they get an F."He says that while he's glad Fireweed is taking the trans issue on, he's a little worried."It's incredibly forward-looking of them, but it's not easy," he sighs. "If by transgender we mean transsexual, there are many trans men who have fully transitioned and no longer identify as women, if they ever did. They may not feel comfortable publishing in a women's space."Carmela Murdoca from Fireweed's board of directors admits that the TG issue is definitely pushing the journal's traditional lines-in-the-sand, and that to have people on its collective or in its pages who don't identify as women has forced a slight "revisitation" of their mandate.Panty Raids"The issue around men writing for Fireweed has been around for a couple years," she says. "Producing a transgender issue just sort of intensifies that."For their 25th anniversary this summer, the Michigan festival, for its part, is sticking to its women born, raised and living as women policy, though they've said there will be no "panty raids" at the door to check for appropriate genitalia.Not that everybody cares. At last summer's Son of Camp Trans -- the makeshift camp that Transsexual Menace activists set up adjacent to the main festival to protest being unfairly excluded -- there was apparently no shortage of high femmes, lesbian avengers, transfags, diesel dykes and plain old ordinary women who supported the trans contingent.I wasn't there. But the buzz seems to indicate that whether people were for or against the FTMs hinged partially on what they thought politically about their decision to become guys."The decision to transition has nothing to do with (violating anyone's) political consciousness," says Ross firmly.But the touchy question for feminism is, what if it does?"For a long time," says Ross, "there was a stigma in the lesbian community around people who wanted to transition. Especially for lesbians who had been politicized and worked toward empowering women and women's bodies, for someone to suddenly say, 'I want to change this female body' -- there was always the idea that this person is somehow a traitor and has gone into the oppressors' camp."Surgical Wand"When I started to come out as transsexual to butch buddies," says B.L., "I was gone -- bang, ouch, out! Rude. Nasty. I think there was a threat, like, 'Oh, I have more chin hair than you.' Suddenly, they don't know how to deal with you."Is FTM transsexualism spiriting away the political power of non-conforming females with a wave of the surgical wand, by simply turning them into men? When these "masculine" women jump ship, are they helping to keep the purity of patriarchal gender dichotomies undiluted?Are the transboys just copping out? Or, in the end, is this all just the logical outcome and should it be seen as the desired result of feminism's critical analysis of gender?"If we've worked so hard to define gender as a set of beliefs," says Bobby, "then girls can be boys and boys can be girls.""You have to have some criticism around masculinity," admits Kevin, a baby FTM with just two months of hormone therapy under his/her 30-something belt. (She's changed her name but still uses the female pronoun.) "Why are we choosing the strength of masculinity and not the strength of femininity?""It's part of the growing pains. Sure, it's problematic. But I don't think the people I know are shallow enough to see this as losing a sister in the struggle. That's an old 70s feminist thing."Who knows? Maybe in a few months we'll find we're complete-ly ostracized."She pauses."But I'm sure we won't be."***At the beginning of our interview, Jean/Bobby gives me a guide for non-transsexuals for writing about transsexuals. I've probably inevitably broken most of the rules, but one of them instructs me to ask myself what transsexualism tells me about myself.Easy, I think. I wear pigtails. My room is pink. I date boys (the originals). I am the simplest of the simple.But the guys seep into me. I have outraged dreams where someone has cut a photograph of my head out and put it on a male body. I wake up at 4 am suddenly stunned by what the guys are planning to do to their bodies and their lives, and think about how fundamentally that is going to change everything.Precious HomosAfter each interview, where they do manly things like drink beer and eat sausage and smoke and I sip tea and flirt, I get up and say things like "I'm just going to the ladies room" and am suddenly conscious that I don't have to think about which bathroom I'm going into to put my lipstick back on in.And I just want to say to those guys that I've done my goddamn women's studies and I'm friends with all my precious homos and I've waxed poetic about the constructions of femininity and masculinity, but this is too messy, too 3-D.I slowly realize how invested I am in the Bank of Men and Women. I have an account there. I opened it with flowers, and you are Fucking It Up.***There are many hardcore transsexuals who will find the entire line of questioning of this article flawed.They might say that it's all very nice for some prissy chick to flog her own gender-politics agenda on their backs, but she wasn't the one who had to go through life feeling like she was trapped in the wrong body, thank you very much."Trying to frame these issues as a feminist issue isn't seeing them on their own terms," says Ross."It is people who feel, for whatever reason, that they are not comfortable with their sex and want to change it. For me it's a false question.""This isn't my fight," says B.L. simply about female former colleagues who want to use him as a petri dish in their gender theorizing."There's this co-dependent thing. It's like they need something from me. But I've already put in my time, thank you. They still want to see me as a woman. Underneath it all, there is disrespect for the fact that I'm a guy."The choice made in this piece to focus on guys who were born female makes the same essentialist leap of logic.I don't talk about MTFs at all, even though they would definitely say they were women, and I care about the FTMs because I still believe they are "women."But when I ask Aaron, a young TS guy, if he misses Kathy the girl (his female name), he doesn't miss a beat."There never was a Kathy the girl."