Friday, May 22, 2009

Sandcastle Virtues

Once I knew a crossdresser named Monica. This was several years ago, when I was a regular in the transgender demimonde--the curious collection of repurposed-for-a-night bars and "safe" restaurants we frequented on the weekends. Given that most people in this world were closeted, or like me, semi-closeted--I was out to all the important people in my life, but the idea of going out in public during the day was still too frightening--and this was their one chance to "go out" (that's how we said it, too: "I'm going out this weekend" meant going somewhere crossdressed), after a while you got to know the regulars, the ones that were there every week: that girl who always wore pleather fetish outfits; the married couple that dropped in so the husband could dance and flirt with guys while the wife got wrecked at the bar; the very pretty, I-can't-believe-she's-forty crossdresser who had once run her own trans themed party but now was limited to a few nights out a month because she had a young kid.

Over time, Monica and I became close friends; I even saw her male self a few times, and later on she got to see mine when I invited her to my birthday. We both agreed that these "parties" were nothing more than an extension of the closet; we deplored together the awful dance music the hostesses played (not that it would have mattered much: it is a curious fact that most of the white, middle-aged CDs I knew didn't like to dance); we longed for something more than the desultory anomie of these Saturday nights, but neither of us was ready yet to try to do anything more.

Not everyone who came to these parties was a crossdresser. Some wives and girlfriends came, whose expressions ran the gamut from pie-eyed terror to exhilarated joy. We always looked at these women with curiousity, scarcely allowing ourselves to believe that it was possible to find a woman who could deal with--with all this. There were also the trannie chasers. They were a hard crew to figure out--perhaps because most of them were having a hard time figuring out their own attraction. Some wanted to crossdress but couldn't face their own fears; some wanted to suck a dick attached to something feminine, to mitigate their attraction to male genitalia; and a few just seemed to be turned on by trans bodies. The greater part of them were very shy, standing with their backs to the wall or the bar, always looking just slightly uncomfortable.

We all looked down on the chasers.

There was one group that we looked up to, though: the transsexuals. Relatively few ever came out to these nights, which somehow made us respect them more--they had done it, they had transitioned and they didn't need an extended closet to be women in. A few did come by, though, out of nostalgia, or maladjustment to their new lives; out of friendship for other transgendered people who hadn't transitioned, or out of a need for a safe space as they first began their transitions; out of curiosity or empathy or condescension. They fascinated us. These were people that were more than just women for the weekend; they were women period now, and their stories haunted and attracted us.

For a lot of crossdressers, the idea of transition is something that you never really ever let go of. I think this may be because as a transgendered person, you want to be the opposite sex, even if it is only for a little while; so to deny that you would want to transition is to deny that you want to be a woman, which is what you really do want to do. It's all highly confusing, and I think that was one of the reasons we sought out transsexuals: to find our boundaries, to compare stories and see where they were different, to listen to the struggles they had undergone in order to transition and silently do a secret accounting of our own lives and wonder if the price we'd pay would actually be worth it in the end.

But we were told--or at least we had heard--that there were real differences between crossdressers and transsexuals; that crossdressers never transitioned, that transsexuals were in such pain from their gender inconsonance that they had no other choice but to transition. And we believed those stories, crossdressers and transsexuals alike; we crossdressers told our wives and girlfriends that we weren't destined to transition, and transsexuals told the world that they weren't just men who liked to wear women's clothing.

There was one transsexual who was a regular. I didn't really know why Ingrid kept coming (and after a while, she just didn't), but I guess she fit into the category of people who were starting transition and needed a place to get their bearings. We were friendly, and used to talk politics and Japanese martial arts and the American songbook--she had a lovely voice and sometimes would sing a few bars of Cole Porter.

One thing about Ingrid did bother me, though: she didn't like Monica. Or rather, she thought she was a mess, directionless, and misguided. Now, truth be told, Monica's hairstyle was out of the Marilyn Quayle school of immobility, her clothing choices were pretty drab and uninspired, and her shoes--well, it's best not to talk about them. I had myself recently graduated from my evening-wear phase, when I would wear gowns and formal dresses out to bars and had started to dress in a fashion that I thought a woman of my age might dress. So that gave me license to be a bit of a snob, and I am ashamed to say that sometimes I snarked right along with Ingrid.

In the trans community, people tend to be judged on a scale that I will call--borrowing it from the world of drag--realness. This isn't surprising, given that the very drive that defines us as transgendered is to be the opposite sex. Realness is a troubling term, though. It's not that it's inaccurate--it very accurately describes the attitudes I usually encountered. But we made "realness" mean the same thing as "authenticity"--we based our perceptions of you as a person on how close you were to this ideal of "womanhood." Thus, people who wore everyday clothes were superior to people who wear fetishistic clothes; people who lived as women were better than people who only crossdressed on the weekend; people who had had the surgery were better than people who hadn't, or didn't want to.

Wearing pants was even somehow better than wearing a skirt--because real women didn't wear skirts all the time. (Neither do crossdressers in their everyday lives, but making that point hardly helped their case.) In fact, it was a bitter joke amongst us that if you started to show up wearing pants, it meant you were bound to eventually transition.

If I would sometimes put Monica down, I also defended her; I would point out that she was one of the sweetest, kindest people I knew, and that went a lot further with me than her fashion sense; and in any case, the more she came out, the better she looked. But no matter; Ingrid thought she was a hopeless case, and Ingrid was a woman of firmly-held convictions.

Besides, Monica and I were both crossdressers, and so clearly didn't know what we were talking about.

It's been a long time since I was a regular in that world, and I've learned quite a bit since then. One thing that I learned is that I wanted to transition, that the bright lines I had drawn were a lie; crossdressers really did transition. That led me to question other things, to wonder if being a transsexual actually made you more real; or was it that, crossdressers were perfectly real crossdressers? And that somehow, that wasn't wrong or something to put people down about? On one of my last trips out to one of these parties, I was sitting at the bar, silently smirking at this or that poorly-done outfit, when an elderly crossdresser came in. Her dress looked terrible on her, her lipstick was as crooked as a Vermont dirt road, and her wig was haphazardly clinging to the top of her head. But when I looked more closely, I could see the pure joy in her eyes, the incredible relief at being able to finally express this part of herself. And my smirk died a cold death on my face and I--I in my careful makeup and fashionable clothes--I was ashamed.

Since then I've learned much more about feminism and power structures; I see now that what we saw as realness was nothing else than judging people on their looks; that people have the right to define their own gender/personality/womanhood however they want to, and that makes it as real as anyone else's. I learned, too, how often it is in underprivileged communities that heirarchies arise, tiny parodies of the larger, oppressive order. I learned that trans people were hardly alone in equating realness with authenticity; everywhere I looked among the various underprivileged communities I encountered--female, feminist, people of color--I saw the same pattern of holding other members of your group up to your own personal ideal, and then calling them out on how far they fell short of it. People complained about it; long and bitter struggles took place with each faction trying to prove their authenticity to each other. And yet the patterns persisted, over and over and over again.

I last saw Monica four years ago, on my birthday. She wore a tasteful leather suit, a short wig, and perfect makeup--she looked, in short, the very model of a still-rockin' suburban woman in her 40s. She had begun to play electric guitar--she was a huge Kiss fan--and had even done her own drag act in Las Vegas. She was still one of the sweetest people I have ever met. And she seemed very happy.

I ran into Ingrid about a year later at a Julia Serrano reading. By that point I was well into my own transition; in fact, outside of onsite visits to my clients, I presented as female all the time. Ingrid, on the other hand, seemed to be much as I had last known her; she was presenting as male that day, which surprised me--it had been five years since I'd seen her last, I thought she'd have gone fulltime by then.

I wondered if she still though Monica was a mess. If she, and me, were still wedded to our fantasy heirarchies, our own petite power trips. I still wonder that about myself.

Despite our internecine conflicts, we still manage to gain a victory and then all of us move forward: sissies can get married just the same as the straightest-acting modern Mattachinist; the woman who clutched her pearls until her hands bled got to vote the same as a bloomers-wearing suffragist; and maybe, just maybe, one day crossdressers and transsexuals will both be able to pee in peace.

We are like children on the beach, building little sandcastles, while above us the guns of a real fort threaten our lives. And yet, rather than march together on that fort, we bicker over how grand our sandcastles are, how much better they arethan other people's, how beautiful, how necessary, how safe. And so we will stay until these sandcastle virtues are all swept away.

7 comments:

  1. Hi, I came here from Sady's blog, and just wanted to let you know I'm reading and enjoying. Your posts are very moving. I've gotten a little teary while reading several times.

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  2. After reading about your mother in your last post, I have to wonder: would she have enjoyed talking to the women you describe at these parties any more than she did talking to the domestic goddesses in her own life? The discussions you describe, snarky references to fashion-choices and sexual "realness," sound too much like an episode of Sex and the City to appeal to a probable second-wave feminist like your mom (may have been.)

    I think that building sandcastles can be a fun diversion as long as we remember, even as we build them, that nothing stops the tide from washing them to formless sandy ripples in the end.

    -JulieM

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  3. Your second-last paragraph is a thing of beauty, especially the last line.

    You paint vivid pictures. Excellent reading.

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  4. I also wandered over here from Tiger Beatdown, and I'm really glad I did. This post was wonderful, and I'm really grateful that you decided to share it with the blogging community.

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  5. Fabulous writing -- love all the posts.

    One thought, it is interesting that men, transitioning, dressed as women, still have the very boyish trait of rule making and game building when no rules exit and no game has been designed. Compulsive rule making is one of the most noxious of the distinctly male behaviors, to me, the very font of oppression of women. It does apprear to be hard-wired, though. Let us know if this changes with time.

    Thanks, again.

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  6. Thank you all for your wonderful compliments.

    @Julie M.--well, my mom isn't a particularly ideological feminist; as a devout Catholic, she's even been pro-life for a long time (she's softened her stance on this recently.) But yes, she wouldn't have liked conversations about clothes and makeup either, and has mentioned that in the past, it's just that the domestic conversations stuck out.

    The rest of your comment I'll probably need to write a new post to address...

    @Anonymous (the last one): While I agree that the behavior of sandcastling is definitely something men do a lot of, my inspiration for the post had more to do with some recent sandcastling in the feminist community, specifically: the thread about the boycott of Feministing and Feministe as well as Bitch PhD's transphobic joke and asinine non-apology apology.

    Which isn't to indict feminists--but it's not to concede that trans folk sandcastle because they're really men (a debatable proposition) but rather human.

    There's likely another post in your comment as well :)

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  7. Just Some Trans GuyJuly 22, 2009 at 1:45 AM

    Let me assure Anonymous that trans men (who I'm sure Anonymous would refer to as "women dressing as men") are just as capable of participating in these little games and pissing matches. I do think it's a feature in a lot of disprivileged groups, unfortunately, an instinctive-but-harmful reaction to oppression from the privileged.

    I enjoy this blog quite a bit, Ms. Minou, by the way. Thank you for writing.

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