Comes Naturally #65 (November 14, 1997):
Embracing the Transsexual Menace

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Spectator Magazine - November 14, 1997
(c) David Steinberg. All rights reserved.

Embracing the Transsexual Menace

Another Radical Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Maybe it's just me, but over the past few months, it seems that every time I turn around there's something new in the mainstream media about transsexuals. I'm not talking about transsexual hookers showing up on TV talk shows, set up so the audience can cluck their tongues about how awful and intriguing these freaky people are. I'm talking about newspaper articles, TV news features, and films addressing the real issues raised by transgendered people in serious, respectful, even positive ways.

At first I thought it was just a fluke, but since it keeps happening it's beginning to look like something significant is swimming around in the grand collective unconscious. How can it be that an issue as radical and provocative as the mutability of gender is gaining prominence and even favor in people's minds?

I mean regular people's minds, and not just within twenty miles of Nob Hill, either.

Sympathetic awareness of transgendered people is not new among the sexual lifestyle explorers of kinky San Francisco, whether they be political sex radicals or hipper-than-thou poseurs. The complex and important issues about the nature of gender raised by the growing movement of transgender activists, issues whose relevance extends far beyond the transgendered community, have been widely discussed in radical and alternative media for some time. It was exciting and courageous, but not exactly surprising, when Cleis Press recently published Pat Califia's clear-headed and insightful historical overview of transgenderism, Sex Changes. You can count on Pat Califia to talk about whatever is currently challenging and provocative in the areas of sex and gender, and Sex Changes puts her calm, lucid mind out there on the edge one more time.

It's when thoughtful consideration of transgender issues starts to crop up as part of the scenery in what I think of as the regular world that my surprise meter starts jumping around. Consider the following:

Helen and I are out at the movies (one of our favorite places to be), settling in and munching our popcorn, when what pops up on the screen but a trailer for a film, "Different for Girls," a drama about a maleto -female transsexual. In the rapid-fire, sound-bite style of trailer essentialism, we are shown a woman who returns to her hometown for her high school reunion and encounters her old buddy from back in the days. Except that back in the days she was a boy not a girl, so we watch her old bud go through the predictable double take, and the "what-the hell??" confusion, and the mind reordering, and the ohmigawd. As a matter of fact, in the space of a few quick seconds, we go through it with him. The point of view of the trailer, and presumably the film, is to enjoy a friendly chuckle at the poor boy's non-malicious confusion (which is, after all, our own), with the moral of the story apparently being that, hey, in the end, we're all just who we are, so why don't we all just drop the preconceptions and the judgments and just accept each other and get along anyway? Not a bad piece of political education for a couple minutes of film watching.

There's a kind of film that has become less than surprising, that centers on the theme of basic acceptance of gays and lesbians. We were about to see "In and Out," a grand and delightful bit of gay-acceptance advocacy, the latest and most broadly effective film in that genre since "La Cage aux Folles," that is currently raking in money at box offices around the country.) But extending the courtesy of acceptance and the influence of film advocacy to transsexuals is something else again. I had stopped eating my popcorn. I was totally amazed.

I was even more amazed when that Sunday, in the San Francisco Chronicle Datebook section, there was a feature on "Different for Girls" giving the Chron's Edward Guthmann an opportunity to ask actor Stephen Mackintosh intelligent, normalizing questions about what it was like to play a transsexual ("Transsexuals are often played as freaks, but you've made Kim seem downright average"), complete with a sidebar, "Boys Will Be Girls: A History of Transsexuals on Film" -- a list of celluloid representations of transsexuals, ranging from "The Christine Jorgensen Story" (1970) through "The World According to Garp" to "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." (Oddly, "The Crying Game" was missing.)

A couple weeks later we were out for Sunday breakfast -- enjoying eggs, coffee, sunshine and the Sunday paper at a local outdoor cafe' , and there on the cover of the Chronicle's Sunday section is an immense, half-page, nude-to-the-waist photo of James Green, his riveting face heralding a thoughtful, thorough, well-researched, distinctly positive feature about James by Chronicle staff writer David Tuller. Titled "A Self-Made Man," Tuller's piece -- covering three full pages and complete with over a dozen photographs -- includes intelligent, unsensationalized interviews with James, his accepting brother Eric, his romantic partner (Spectator contributor) Marcy Sheiner, surgeon Gail Lebovic of Palo Alto's Gender Dysphoria Program, and Larry Brinkin of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. The article gives, as well as one can expect from a single piece in your favorite family newspaper, a level-headed, judgment-free introduction to the issues -- medical, emotional, psychological, sexual, and relational -- involved in femaleto -male gender reassignment.

Then, just last week, we're curled up in bed watching the news, and there on ABC's Prime Time is an extended feature about a charming young man, Alex Myers, an undergraduate at Harvard who, we learn, happens to have a woman's genitals. The positively cherubic young man responds to the probing questions of reporter Elizabeth Vargas (who is doing her best to exude tolerance and sensitivity but is continuously being betrayed by her face and, particularly, her mouth which keep tightening into twitchy and twisted expressions of discomfort bordering on total revulsion) with an easy, relaxed innocence guaranteed to win the hearts and sympathies of all but the most rigidly entrenched of viewers.

"I knew my entire life I was not a woman," Myers explains as matter-offactly as if he's talking about why he chose Harvard over Princeton. "I'm more comfortable being addressed as a man than I am as a woman, but my true identity is transgendered.... [Coming out] is the most natural thing in the world to do if it's who you are."

"Some people would wonder if you are the way you are because something traumatic happened to you as a child," Vargas suggests sincerely, her lip curling just a little.

Myers shrugs the inference away. "I had a very normal, very happy childhood," he says simply.

Turning to Myers' distinctly regular-looking, bright-eyed girlfriend, Vargas asks if she's worried about her transgendered boyfriend who has the anatomy of a woman. The cheerful young woman is as undefended and forthcoming as Myers.

"I have worried before," she smiles, "but now I mostly realize that he has such strength of character that, wherever he goes, he will make his own place there."

The camera cuts to a long shot of the boy strolling around campus with his brightly colored backpack, the epitome of privileged undergraduate normalcy. What could be more natural?

Now remember, we're talking national network news here, not some madefor -San-Francisco local news production. People in Ocala and Sioux City are being told in no uncertain terms that boys with vaginas can be charming, well-adjusted, bright, successful young men just like anyone else if they're given the room to define their identities and their life choices for themselves. Keep that in the back of your minds, ye willing absorbers of insidious media bias, when next you think about what it means to be a man or a woman. Or, for that matter, the next time you're shocked to discover that your teenage daughter wants to do something else that's unconventional, like write morbid poetry or fly airplanes or study Buddhism or have her eyebrow pierced or keep a vibrator in the drawer next to her bed.

Kind of puts everything into perspective, don't it?

As Basic as It Gets

There's more going on that I won't even take the time to go into in detail. Like the fact that Ru Paul's TV talk show ("the girl with something extra") is such a hit that's it's gone to every day. Or that Veronica Vera's School for Boys Who Want to Be Girls is so immensely popular in New York. Or that there's yet another new film out, "Bugis Street," about life among the transsexual prostitutes of Singapore. Or that response to the Chronicle's story about James Green was positive enough that KPIX is about to make the story into a TV feature.

Maybe I'm naive to be amazed, but I can't get out of my mind that, of all the issues pertaining to society and the socially-defined nature of reality, gender identity is about as basic as things get -- even more fundamental than the other stalwart institutionalizations of the Way It Spozed to Be, like marriage, work, and family.

The social order is already struggling to come to grips with the fact that marriage tends not to last until death do they part; that people need more to feel fulfilled in their lives than sacrificing forty hours a week, year after decade, to put bread on the table and a Lexus in the garage; that family, nuclear and extended, is as likely to be destroy individuals as it is to be a nurturing source of stability, safety, and support.

But there has always been the immutability of gender to fall back on as an unmovable touchstone in these turbulent times -- an easy-tounderstand, boy or girl, blue or pink fundamental division of the world into he's and she's, odds and evens, ones and zeroes [sic]. The first question on everyone's lips after a baby is born -- Is it a boy or a girl? -- has always been easy to answer. Now, even that bit of residual certainty is being challenged and, along with the predictable (if depressing) reactions of extreme and even violent upset and resistance, damned if we aren't beginning to also hear influential voices suggesting that maybe we just ought to loosen up and welcome even this complexity into our everyday lives.

How does this come to pass? And why is there now, all of a sudden, such a flood of positive perspective, even intrigued infatuation, with challenging traditional notions of gender?

James Green, the leading advocate and educator on transgender issues who was the subject of the Chronicle's feature, sees the current positive tilt as the fruit of years of growing transgender frustration. Tired of suppressing their identities out of shame and fear, tired of being outcast and violently attacked for their difference, transgendered people have, in the last six or seven years, been refusing to remain silent and invisible in the face of traditional definitions of gender. They have begun talking to each other, creating support communities, and advocating for equal rights and respect.

"Gradually," says Green, "people decided to stop disappearing, to stop pretending that they were just like John Doe or Jane Doe." As transgendered people began speaking out and making their existence known, other people became aware that they, too, had personal issues relating to gender, important issues that they had been hiding from others, and often from themselves, for their entire lives. As these people also began to go public and to talk with each other about their feelings -- and as transgender activists became more vocal and more politically skilled -- some inevitably gained access to the media. Books began to be written, plays began to be performed, films began to be made that incorporated the real characters and concerns of transgendered people.

What is perhaps most interesting, and most potentially influential, is that something in these public expressions of gender rethinking seems to be ringing a resonant bell for many more people than the relatively small community of people who define themselves as transsexuals.

"Deep down, we all know what's right and wrong," says Green. "We all know that, if someone's not hurting us, it's wrong to trash them because of who they are. And I think, also, that deep down all sorts of people are realizing something very fundamental about the human condition when they start questioning traditional notions of gender."

There is indeed something immensely appealing and empowering about challenging the hegemony of any rigid, restrictive rules about who we are allowed to be as human beings. While gender, on the one hand, can be a supportive and comforting source of identity, rigid gender notions and roles are also commonly restrictive and limiting, often putting us at serious odds with fundamental things we know, or more vaguely sense, about who we really are and who we most want to be.

Maybe that's why the idea of breaking free of gender determinism -- and breaking free, as well, from the binary notion that people must be either male or female, that there are only two gender choices available -- seems to carry with it a sense of liberation, as well as the more predictable feeling of uncertainty. Maybe that's why people become exhilarated, more than they ever would have expected, at the idea of taking more control of their lives and daring to be, more fully, who they feel themselves to be with regard to their gender. Maybe, to cite an incidental example, that's why tens of thousands of people in Internet chat rooms are seizing a new opportunity to play at inhabiting a different gender from who they are in their off-line lives.

As the cover of Pat Califia's book Sex Changes asks, "If you could change your sex as effortlessly in reality as you can in virtual reality, and change it back again, wouldn't you like to try it at least once? What if we all helped each other to manifest our most beautiful, sexy, intelligent, creative, and adventurous inner selves, instead of cooperating to suppress them?"

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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