Buck Angel, A Man With a Pussy: LGB Without the T

As transgenders push for respect, a rift grows with traditional gay leadership

As the undisputed king of transgender porn, Buck Angel thrives on his ability to deconstruct traditional notions of masculinity. He unabashedly promotes himself as a man with a pussy. Headlining the 2006 Black Party was a career high: "It was super-awesome—the audience was amazing," Angel says. "Everything was really positive."

That was, however, far from the universal view among the thousands of hyper-masculine attendees. The Black Party—the mega dance-and-flesh fest held every March at Roseland—reflects the hyper-masculine ideal that dominates gayborhoods like Hell's Kitchen, South Beach, and the Castro. Joe Jervis, live-blogging during the party, summed up the sentiments of many attendees: "Men who have been fucked, fisted, shackled, flogged, and pissed upon have finally crossed a lurid and yet rarely discussed carnal threshold. They have seen, in person, a pussy."

Angel himself concedes that his unconventional plumbing causes discomfort among gay men: "I don't conform to what you tell me I should do," he says. "The world is not black and white. Sexuality is not black and white. Gender is not black and white. And I'm putting that out there in your face."

Buck Angel: Too much woman for gay men?
David Hawe
Buck Angel: Too much woman for gay men?

Angel's performance at the Black Party was a direct challenge to the men who have pretty much run the gay-rights movement for decades. The transgendered—which encompasses anyone whose gender identity and expression doesn't fit into traditional masculine or feminine roles—may have helped instigate the 1969 police riots at the Stonewall Inn. But since then, the movement has endured an ongoing struggle to find its place at the table, even as it continues to become more institutionalized and more an accepted part of mainstream America.

Transpeople present a threat to the conformity of today's gay leaders. The faces of contemporary gay activism are the well-scrubbed visages of Ellen DeGeneres and gal pal (and soon wife) Portia de Rossi; Rosie O'Donnell and Kelli Carpenter; and such folks as Nathan Lane, Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson, and TV judge David Young. The Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation—two of the largest and most powerful national gay-rights groups in the country—put forward these trained spokespeople to mouth carefully crafted messages and talking points that effectively market their brand of lesbian and gay identity to a largely straight audience.

Despite some notable setbacks, this strategy has largely worked in creating what Suzanna Walters, chair of the Department of Gender Studies at Indiana University, calls "a model of tolerance and acceptance that perpetuates the message: 'We're here, we're queer, but we're no different than you.' That makes these mainstream organizations nervous about their hard-fought gains."


Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, a Washington-based lobby, believes this situation has created tension between the transgendered on the one side, and gay men and lesbians on the other: "It becomes easy then to blame some other associated group for attracting the hate and disrespect," she says. "So passable non-trans gay people suspect transpeople—or even non-passable gay people—of being the problem."

Race is another factor. Kai Wright, author of Drifting Towards Love: Black, Brown, Gay and Coming of Age on the Streets of New York, believes that discomfort toward transgender or gender-variant people (sissies and butches) remains particularly entrenched among gay men of color.

"We're more sensitive to it, because the amount of gender policing we do among each other—casually and socially—is striking: Are you man enough, women enough, the right kind of woman?" Wright says. "As individuals, we struggle with gender nonconformity, because it is something that has been thrown at us so much."

This discomfort can be far-reaching. After last year's Gay Pride March, a male bouncer followed Khadijah Farmer, a 27-year-old black lesbian, into the women's restroom of Caliente Cab Company and demanded that she leave because her appearance was too masculine. Farmer received a $35,000 settlement that mandated the implementation of transgender sensitivity training for the popular restaurant's staff.

Michael Silverman, executive director of the New York–based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, based Farmer's lawsuit on the city-wide anti-gender identity-discrimination law. The bouncer violated city regulations when he targeted Farmer because of what her lawyer described as "unconventional gender expression"—treatment hardly unique to Farmer. "Gender issues are still quite scary and uncomfortable for a lot of people," Silverman says. "It's sort of an us-versus-them, black-and-white, sun-and-moon scenario." But, he adds, "we aren't night and day, or black and white—we're all affected by these questions about gender-based discrimination."

The long-standing complaints by transgender activists that their gay counterparts haven't done enough are based on what they see as a visceral level of discomfort with the subject.

At least one prominent gay leader is willing to come clean about his own issues. Matt Foreman recently left his post as head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force for a position at a gay philanthropic organization. Before that, he headed the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's major LGBT political lobby. While there, he sparked widespread outrage among New York transgender activists over his decision not to push for trans protections in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act back in 2002. The bill had been languishing in Albany for three decades before it passed the state legislature. Foreman readily concedes that he feared including such protections would have jeopardized SONDA's passage. He maintains that gay-rights leaders have made significant strides since then: "The people who move the movement do get it," he says.


A highly contentious debate over the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act most clearly exposed the fault lines between the transgendered and the rest of the LGBT coalition. The bill was first introduced back in 1974 as a proposed amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act that would add sexual orientation to the federal non-discrimination statutes. As it turned out, gender identity and expression was only added to ENDA in the late 1990s.

Openly gay Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank introduced two versions of the bill last September—one that included gender identity and expression, and another that didn't—because he feared the inclusive bill did not have enough votes to withstand a challenge on the House floor. This tactic sparked the creation of a coalition of more than 370 local, statewide, and national LGBT organizations, largely spearheaded by Foreman, to support the inclusive bill.

However, the Human Rights Campaign remained conspicuously on the sidelines, even though the nation's largest gay-rights organization had endorsed Frank's bill. HRC has long faced criticism from activists for its perceived bowing and scraping to the D.C. status quo, but this latest maneuver caused Donna Rose, the only transgender member of its board, to resign. Activists staged boisterous and embarrassing protests outside the organization's annual black-tie dinners at the Hilton in midtown and in other cities around the country. The group Radical Homosexual Agenda unfurled a sign that read: "Can't Spell LGBT with HRC! Trans Power Now!"

Activists also unfurled a banner inside the hotel during HRC president Joe Solmonese's speech. Security guards quickly whisked them out, but the absence of two of the city's most prominent openly gay politicians, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and State Senator Tom Duane, who cited "scheduling conflicts," spoke even louder about HRC's freeze-out. "There was consensus and one rogue organization," Keisling drily notes.

An HRC spokesperson declined repeated requests to comment for this story. Solmonese, however, has gone on record saying that HRC had changed its policy and would only support a trans-inclusive ENDA. This declaration, however, arrived less than a month before Frank introduced his bill. Pauline Park is speaking for most transgender activists when she complains that HRC "values relationships with people in power and access to power more than people in the community."


New York congressman and mayoral contender Anthony Weiner spoke passionately in favor of a transgender-inclusive ENDA on the House floor: "We should also make it clear to those who are watching this discussion: We're not going to negotiate against ourselves," he warned. "Some things are immutable—there are some civil rights that are immutable—and this is one of them."

For his part, Frank tells the Voice that transphobia had nothing to do with his decision to remove gender identity and expression from ENDA; the votes simply didn't add up. But Frank concedes that the "ick factor" among many members of Congress presents a significant impediment to passing an inclusive ENDA.

"Sexuality is a tricky question," he says. "You get into transgender—it embraces all of that—and you have people's fear and dislike of things that are different. Nobody is more different to an average person than a transgender person, and that makes them nervous."

Frank also believes that transgender activists have relied too heavily on mainstream LGBT groups to push the issue. "They haven't done any lobbying yet," he complained. "They insist the gay community will do it, and they are wrong to say the gay community will do it. They have done a very bad job."

Keisling categorically denies Frank's claim. She says that Frank had given her and other organizations their marching orders before last fall's controversy erupted. These included increasing their grassroots efforts outside the Beltway and focusing on specific members of Congress, whom Frank himself identified. "The LGBT movement and our lobbyists, to a large extent, followed Congressman Frank's lead on education around ENDA," she says. "It was his bill."

Keisling also bristles at the suggestion that transgender activists are riding on their gay counterparts' coattails: "Gay activists and organizations were and are, in fact, a very important and effective part of the lobbying for the inclusive ENDA."

Foreman also blasts Frank's criticisms as a way to cover his tracks: "Contrary to Mr. Frank's assertion, all gay activists, including HRC, had been lobbying hard for the inclusive ENDA—not just last year, but for many years before that," he says. "When Mr. Frank and other House leaders turned tail, every single major national and statewide organization—with the exception of HRC and the Log Cabin Republicans—mounted an all-out effort to get the inclusive ENDA back on the table. The scope and depth of this effort surprised the House leadership, and must have embarrassed Mr. Frank."

If anything, the ENDA debacle has emboldened Keisling and her cohorts to lobby Congress even harder. Tammy Baldwin, an openly lesbian Democratic congresswoman from Wisconsin, described her colleagues on the Hill as receptive to their efforts: "People were getting calls in their district offices and in their D.C. offices saying, 'Support a trans-inclusive ENDA,' " Baldwin tells the Voice.

Activists continue to criticize Frank for a willingness to take the "T" out of the LGBT coalition: "Barney is a hero in many ways, but he's hung up on trans issues," Foreman said. "I was once too, so I know all these bullshit arguments inside out."

Frank calls "the transphobic thing" silly. "It's kind of an emotional outburst," he says. "It is easier to yell at your allies than to go out and convert your opponents."

Back in the clubs, bars, and dance floors where the real changes in consciousness occur, however, Buck Angel's career as a man with a pussy continues apace. And he remains as defiant as ever: "There are no rules, as far as I'm concerned," Angel says. "Nobody can deny I am a man. I am not conforming to anyone who says I'm not. Nobody can tell me different."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...