Do trannies belong in the lesbian and gay movement? There’s been a lot of skirmishing over that question, in such debates as whether antidiscrimination statutes should include “gender expression” or whether the creaky Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival should admit male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals. Seeing how despised trannies are, hearing the familiar accusation that they’re going “against nature,” I’ve wanted to side with them—but I hadn’t seen why they couldn’t accept the bodies they’d been dealt, like the rest of us.
Don’t we all wince at the gap between who we are inside and what shows up in the mirror—especially past age 40? Didn’t feminists and homos aim to open both “woman” and “man” to a wide range of possibilities—masculine, feminine, and in-between—without surgical intervention? That’s how I saw things—before a revelatory conversation turned me around.
It seems unfair to discuss other people’s bodies without exposing my own sex-and-gender story, which starts with a nightmare. I was an adolescent just beginning to have terrified inklings that I might be (oh God, no!) like Miss Olsen, the gym teacher. Suddenly in my closet there appeared an enormous hairy man dressed up in girls’ clothes, menacing behind the louvered doors. I’d wake up petrified. Though obvious now, this nightmare took me years to decode: I was afraid I was not really a girl at all, but a man in disguise.
What stopped my nightmares was feminism. Feminism taught me that I had a woman’s body, therefore I was a woman. It was an unspeakable relief to know that, no matter how confident my stride or how queer my desire, I am what woman looks like. That was true when I wore a baby-dyke buzz cut and got stopped at women’s rest rooms; it was true when I was playing with girliness, wearing long dresses and letting men flirt with me at parties. I had a female body; all the rest was Play-Doh. The guy in my closet disappeared.
Then came the sex wars of the 1970s. As butch and femme lesbians explained that their look felt as “natural” to them as unisex overalls then did to me, I came to a new understanding of what’s now called “transgendered.” Slowly I saw that what defines you as queer has shifted across cultures and eras: Sometimes it’s the sex you have, and sometimes it’s the sex you appear to be. Many of us who are homoqueer, or queer in our sexual desires, are also at least a little genderqueer—more butch or sissy than we’re supposed to be. To many in my generation, homosexual desire feels like the most queer thing about us. But that’s because we entered history at a post-Freudian moment when everyone—not just homos—was seen as defined by desire.
A century ago, the pansy was the real queer; macho men, whomever they fucked, remained normal guys. For lesbians as well, genderqueer (a masculine woman) has at times trumped homoqueer (a woman who has sex with a woman) as the defining stigmata. This model may be upon us again. As many gender-passable homos win a place at the Thanksgiving table, our genderqueered sibs are still beaten, fired, harassed, and murdered not for the sex they have but for the sex they appear to be.
Psychological researchers have found that one’s understanding of gender is fixed somewhere between ages two and five, and rooted as profoundly as the sexual object of one’s desire. Apparently, most people feel comfortable within some “natural” gender range, from which we select the elements of style that are read that way to our culture. Some of the more extreme elements—nose jobs, boob jobs, face-lifts, spending half one’s life pumping iron—strike me as body hatred. Which is how I thought about transsexuality.
As a feminist, I could stand up for girls too butch or boys too fey. And I could almost understand MTF (male-to-female) trannies, since men so cruelly punish other men’s gender deviation. We girls might be free to tromp around in Doc Martens with free-range leg hair, but let a boy wear a dress and he risks a trip to the ER, courtesy of his local masculinity patrol. That point of view was reinforced when many MTFs told me that, yes, if the culture allowed men more gender variety, the need for surgical intervention might dwindle.
But the recent wave of FTMs absolutely shocked me. These were butch dykes with full feminist politics who already could sleep with girls and dress like boys. Were they surrendering, late in life, to the idea that gender and sex had to match up? The idea of being a “man in a woman’s body” seemed ludicrous and archaic. The whole point of my feminism is that I am a person in a woman’s body; that what you feel inside is correct no matter what you have outside. What were they thinking?
So I asked. I asked a lot of people. I read a lot of things. Nothing helped—until I talked with Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who generously kept answering when I asked questions that were way too personal: “I did not transition because I think one must have a male body to do certain things or behave in certain ways. Not at all. I did it because I was miserable having a female body, and I’m so much happier having a masculine body. I prefer to have facial hair, more muscle mass, denser bones, rougher skin, no menstruation, no breasts, less body fat, a penis rather than a vagina, etc. The desire to have a differently sexed body is the essence of being transsexual. It is a very immediate, somatic, physical thing. It is the difference between living with a degree of unhappiness and misery I wouldn’t wish on anybody, and feeling good.”
I got it. I’d been like those straight folks who recoiled from the idea of bedding someone of the same sex—until they understood that heterosexuality felt exactly that unnatural to us. I had cringed the first time I heard of someone castrating her breasts. How could you excise those curious little animals, always sniffing the world? How could you close off that secret sense of dampness? But that’s because I enjoy my body. Shannon was telling me that some people don’t, waking up daily to flashes of: Wrong! Wrong! This doesn’t belong! If that’s transsexuality, it’s beyond argument: It’s an interior experience of something so basic it makes life worth living. From that perspective, medical assistance seems more like a heart transplant than a nose job.
Of course, that conversation hasn’t settled all my questions. But why should this be simple? Transwomen and transmen are asking us to reconsider very basic things: What makes you a woman? What makes you a man? “Reason not the need,” King Lear begs his daughter when she asks why he wants to keep his retinue. When human dignity is at stake, we must sometimes take each other’s desires on faith.
Besides, we’re stuck with each other politically. Six-year-old boys called “faggot” probably aren’t being chastised for their sex lives. And even the most lipsticked lesbian betrays her sex role when she goes muffdiving. What I think I’ve finally gotten is this: We have no choice now but to expand not just our wardrobes but our politics.
E J Graff is the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press).