COMES NATURALLY #155 (April 7, 2005)
Copyright © 2005 David Steinberg
JAMISON GREEN, SEX, GENDER, AND THE QUESTION OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A REAL MAN
Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green, Vanderbilt University Press, 2004, 222 pages, ISBN 0-8265-1456-1, $24.95.
I first met Jamison Green at a party in San Francisco. I was introduced to him by my good friend, journalist Marcy Sheiner. Marcy had interviewed Jamison a year or so earlier for a feature story she was writing. The two of them were so taken with each other that they had quickly moved into a powerful primary relationship that would last for seven years.
I could see immediately why Marcy was so taken with Jamison. He was attractive, soulful, and perceptive, with quiet, watchful eyes, a playful smile, and a relaxed social manner that projected an appealing mix of confidence and vulnerability. He and I both had roots in the then-thriving California pro-feminist men's movement, and we made a strong and immediate connection with each other, comparing notes on the ins and outs of moving beyond mainstream perceptions of male roles and masculinity. Within an hour we managed to tell each other how we felt about everything from being devoted fathers to the dilemmas of being distinctly shorter than the average guy, from relationship quandries to feminist politics, from the importance of building community with like-minded men to what mattered most to each of us about sex.
Because Marcy had told me the story of how she and Jamison met before I met him in person, I never had the experience of knowing Jamison without also knowing that he was transgendered. I certainly never would have guessed any such thing had I not been told. Even with the cognitive information that Jamison had spent the first forty years of his life in a female body, and even though we were quickly talking about personal issues that related directly to his being transgendered, talking with Jamison felt very much like talking to many of my other male friends. Indeed, what struck me most about Jamison was not how different he was from me, but how much the two of us were alike: Two men sorting out what it means to be male in this particular society at this particular point in history. Two men trying to understand who we most genuinely are, and who we most deeply want to be, as men. Two men trying to resolve the conflicts from having notions of masculinity that clashed with so much of what we had ingested from the world around us about men, masculinity, and male gender roles.
Most significantly, I think, I felt comradeship with Jamison because we shared a firm belief that it was profoundly important for people to remain true to their innermost sense of self and personhood, even when such fierce insistence on personal integrity threatens being misunderstood, condemned, marginalized, isolated, and even punished -- by loved ones, family, friends, and more distant acquaintances, not to mention society at large.
It was only gradually that I came to understand how important a person Jamison was in the then-emerging movement for female-to-male (FTM) transgender visibility, public understanding, and political equality. For years, Jamison was president of the largest and most influential FTM organization, FTM International, broadening that organization's outreach and ability to provide a broad range of resources to transgendered people throughout the U.S. and the world. As long as I've known him, Jamison has traveled the world (continuously, it seems to me, though I know he has also managed to fulfill the duties of a full-time day job and maintained important relationships with his partner -- now wife -- and daughter), speaking about transgender issues and being a political advocate for transgender rights. At his 50th birthday celebration several years ago, I came to understand how influential a person could be in other people's lives as was moved as one person after another spoke of how Jamison had impacted their lives. Several people said quietly that, were it not for Jamison, they doubted whether they would still be alive.
Now Jamison has published his first book, Becoming a Visible Man -- a thoughtful, powerful, moving work that addresses the issues of gender, personal choice, self-validation, and political action on a broad range of different levels.
Most fundamentally, perhaps, Becoming a Visible Man is an immediate and personal account of Jamison's personal odyssey through the tangles of gender roles and gender identity, the story of how he came to understand that he was not a tomboy, not a lesbian, but actually a man who happened to be living in a woman's body. But Becoming a Visible Man is much more than just an account of one person's gender identity journey. It is also a perceptive, complex analysis of how gender identity and gender expectations function in society, and an opportunity for Jamison to discuss his philosophy and political perspective about what it means to be a man, about sexuality, about dealing with family conflicts, about how best to work for political and social change, about the dance of staying true to oneself while being buffeted by the expectations and emotions of the people most near and dear to us. Jamison takes his readers through this wide spectrum of issues with a combination of insight, emotional vulnerability, and remarkable compassion for the difficulties that non-transgendered people face when trying to understand such a basic challenge to what most of us grew up believing was a simple, bipolar, either-or, male or female universe.
It's appropriate that Becoming a Visible Man is all at once a transgender history, political manual, biomedical textbook, interpersonal relationships guide, and philosophy treatise. Stepping outside of societal gender norms is a fundamental act of civil disobedience, such a challenge to conventional notions of how people and society are (and should be) constructed. Coming to the realization that your body and your inner sense of gender do not coincide, and deciding to act to bring those two parts of yourself into congruence, requires a person to question him/herself, life, relationships, and society at the deepest levels. Stepping outside assumed notions of how things are supposed to be also gives a person the opportunity to see both themselves and the world around them with unique clarity and perspective.
Happily, Jamison Green has been able to use his personal history to arrive at complex, thoughtful perspectives on the variety of issues raised by sexual mutability, and he is able to write about those issues in ways that can be enlightening to people both within and outside the transgender community.
A few samples, from Becoming a Visible Man:
On the nature of arriving at a clear notion of one's gender: "A gender quest is... a kind of spiritual quest. It is our willful destiny to find that balance, that strength, that peace and logic of the soul, that underlies the agony, the frustration, the desperation and anxiety of living on this earthly plane."
On the use of gender as a tool of social control: "Somebody's got us by the balls and they don't want to let go. Who is that somebody? Who is so afraid of losing control? Of what are they going to lose control if people are allowed to freely express their gender(s)? What is preserved by denying the legitimacy of transsexual and transgendered people? What is destroyed if we are acknowledged?... Are we really so unsure of our gender identities that we think everyone would want to change their sex if they could?"
On the myth that transsexual people want to change their gender: "I am a man who lived forty years in a female body. But I was not a woman. I am not a woman who became man. I am not a woman who lives as a man. I am not nor was I ever a woman, though I lived in a female body, and certainly tried, whenever I felt up to it, to be a woman. But it was never in me to be a woman."
On what it means to be a man: "What makes a man a man? His penis? His beard? His receding hairline? His lack of breasts? His sense of himself as a man? Some men have no beard, some have no penis, some never lose their hair, some have breasts; all have a sense of themselves as men.... Transsexual men may appear feminine, androgynous or masculine. Any man may appear feminine, androgynous or masculine.... The crux of the matter of gender for anyone is their own visibility and sufficient external confirmation of their gender identity."
On sex and masculinity: "I relish my erections and crave release from them the same as any other man. But it is not a penis that makes me (or anyone else who has one) a man.... Without [a penis], a man would still be a man. With it, if he's lucky, he's a man who can urinate in a standing position, deposit sperm close to a cervix, and enjoy orgasm -- important activities, no doubt, but there are other ways to do all of those important things. These are not the requirements for being a man."
On the relationship between the movement for transgender rights and the movements for equality of all sexual orientations: "The inclusion of transgendered and transsexual people in the civil rights efforts of all the national gay and lesbian groups in only a few years, and the willingness of these groups to realize that the discrimination against them extends beyond the bedroom and beyond their sexual object of choice is a significant evolutionary achievement that will continue to transform the way society on the whole things about sexuality and about difference."
On the emotional risks, and possibilities, of being a gender outlaw: "Loneliness is the mark of difference. Breaking gender boundaries can make us into proud rebels, defiant contraries, or rugged individualists for whom loneliness is an emblem of courage and determination.... Once people can look beyond surfaces, once they learn to see the qualities that make us who we are... it's possible to let go of preconceptions and see valuable human beings."
On the importance of being true to oneself: "Being true to oneself creates the integrity and self-respect we need to have if we are to extend that respect to others.... If society can learn to incorporate and value transpeople in all their variation, most if not all of the other social problems that arise from intolerance and mininformation may be manageable [as well]."
The issues raised by transgender people are important, not just because it's important to extend equal rights and respectability to all people, but also because the questions raised by the possibilities of gender mutability are relevant to all of us, even those of us whose bodies coincide nicely with our internal sense of gender. Growing transgender visibility and political activity gives us all a chance to notice how deeply and powerfully we turn to bi-polar gender distinction as a way of ordering our world and our relationships.
Even more fundamentally, transgendered people can be way-showers to all of us about the importance of maintaining personal integrity in a world that asks us to compromise core aspects of ourselves in the name of everything from sexual morality to financial success, from social acceptance to familial approval.
Becoming a Visible Man is a wonderful, thoughtful, and complex exploration of all these issues -- an important read for transgendered and traditionally gendered people alike.
Three books edited by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex: Fine Art Sexual Photography Comes of Age," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.
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