The story of glamorous pioneer trannie Aleshia Brevard, who sliced off her own testicles on her road to femaledom, is a cut above the usual such saga, as it were. In fact, while some of The Woman I Was Not Born to Be treads familiar sex-change territory seen daily on The Jerry Springer Show, Brevard’s life goes way beyond the banal, spanning so many levels of identity crises and struggles for pride that her memoir becomes a panorama of 20th-century gender issues. Best of all, this trannie can really write! Her book is an exalted B-movie star tell-all (at times, it’s deliciously reminiscent of Patrick Dennis’s spoof Little Me) crossed with a real-life version of a dime-store novel (“I drove toward home, watching in the rearview mirror as Hank Foyle faded away”). Throughout, Brevard gives unexpected depth to the diva dish by lacing it with serious discourse about the restraining roles society makes us play and an intelligent grasp of queer, transsexual, and feminist history.
Your jaw drops when you read the sexy, outrageous details of Brevard’s life on the edge, made all the more gripping when she puts her story in its larger context. Brevard, now 63, was an effeminate rural Tennessee boy named Alfred who couldn’t wait to toss off all male accoutrements and convince the rest of the world of her womanhood. With the help of a friend, Brevard castrated herself because back in the ’50s, you couldn’t get that kind of service in an American clinic. As she writes, “Stormy made the initial cut, saw blood, and went outside to throw up. In mid-operation, I was left alone on a kitchen table draped with Lysol-scented sheets. I sat up and finished my own castration.”
In ’62, she completed her crossover via surgery and got herself a vagina—” ‘Good God!’ I shrieked. ‘This looks like something you’d hang in your smokehouse after a hog killing’ “—then promptly proceeded to pursue her idea of a straight woman’s existence. She assumed the role of the ultimate dimpled sexpot for a long line of often abusive men, while her unlikely career trajectory had her going from female impersonator to female vamp in TV variety shows and movies like Don Knotts’s The Love God? Most of the time, Brevard passed as a biological woman, relishing the chance to flaunt her way into acceptance, only to realize a sad truth we all could have told her about: Gals are treated as second-class citizens just like sissies are.
On her road to discovery, Brevard throws in wacky secrets (“Even with a painful rectal tear, I had a great 22nd birthday”) and showbiz peeks right out of a gender-bending version of Gypsy. She rebuked the advances of stars like Andy Griffith and Anthony Newley, who exposed himself in front of her before being sent home with his tail between his legs. While swatting hands and searching for respect, Brevard also managed to fend off a stalker, marry a gay guy, become a lesbian for a while, and work as a stripper in Reno, where the boss had Brevard drop her drawers, then decided, “Looks like a twat to me—and I’ve seen a million of ’em.”
Any guilt you might feel about devouring such a seemingly trashy read—which was none in my case—dissolves when you realize how invaluable this book is as a document of transsexualism in the pre-Stonewall era, when extra heapings of pain and torment drove people headlong into the genital guillotine. While Brevard dishes up Rabelaisian tales like a raucously wise aunt, she’s also willing to dig beneath the veneer of trannie mirth to get to harsher truths. What she finds is a society that punishes those who defy assigned gender roles because they upset the status quo. She uncovers a world that stigmatizes femmes and a gay community that’s deeply ashamed of drag; a women’s movement that generally leaves trannies behind and a transsexual community so anxious to blend in that it strives to erase all evidence of its maleness.
“As a woman, I was still the brunt of the boys’ jokes,” Brevard remembers. “At least they weren’t laughing at a faggot. They were making fun of a woman. Out of gratitude and relief, I laughed louder than anyone. . . . In my desire to please, I scripted a role of subservience, inferiority, and anxiety.”
Brevard’s multiple layers of self-loathing ultimately became even more oppressive than her heels and false lashes, but her loving mother (now deceased) kept her so grounded she might as well have been in flats and glasses. It was when the men finally stopped clutching at her that Brevard found her self-respect. “Distancing myself from the queer community,” she realizes, “I went underground to become part of heterosexual society. This translated into a denial of my transgendered history. To deny one’s history is to deny one’s self.” Well said, lady.