Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Sandcastle Virtues

Once I knew a crossdresser named Monica. This was several years ago, when I was a regular in the transgender demimonde--the curious collection of repurposed-for-a-night bars and "safe" restaurants we frequented on the weekends. Given that most people in this world were closeted, or like me, semi-closeted--I was out to all the important people in my life, but the idea of going out in public during the day was still too frightening--and this was their one chance to "go out" (that's how we said it, too: "I'm going out this weekend" meant going somewhere crossdressed), after a while you got to know the regulars, the ones that were there every week: that girl who always wore pleather fetish outfits; the married couple that dropped in so the husband could dance and flirt with guys while the wife got wrecked at the bar; the very pretty, I-can't-believe-she's-forty crossdresser who had once run her own trans themed party but now was limited to a few nights out a month because she had a young kid.

Over time, Monica and I became close friends; I even saw her male self a few times, and later on she got to see mine when I invited her to my birthday. We both agreed that these "parties" were nothing more than an extension of the closet; we deplored together the awful dance music the hostesses played (not that it would have mattered much: it is a curious fact that most of the white, middle-aged CDs I knew didn't like to dance); we longed for something more than the desultory anomie of these Saturday nights, but neither of us was ready yet to try to do anything more.

Not everyone who came to these parties was a crossdresser. Some wives and girlfriends came, whose expressions ran the gamut from pie-eyed terror to exhilarated joy. We always looked at these women with curiousity, scarcely allowing ourselves to believe that it was possible to find a woman who could deal with--with all this. There were also the trannie chasers. They were a hard crew to figure out--perhaps because most of them were having a hard time figuring out their own attraction. Some wanted to crossdress but couldn't face their own fears; some wanted to suck a dick attached to something feminine, to mitigate their attraction to male genitalia; and a few just seemed to be turned on by trans bodies. The greater part of them were very shy, standing with their backs to the wall or the bar, always looking just slightly uncomfortable.

We all looked down on the chasers.

There was one group that we looked up to, though: the transsexuals. Relatively few ever came out to these nights, which somehow made us respect them more--they had done it, they had transitioned and they didn't need an extended closet to be women in. A few did come by, though, out of nostalgia, or maladjustment to their new lives; out of friendship for other transgendered people who hadn't transitioned, or out of a need for a safe space as they first began their transitions; out of curiosity or empathy or condescension. They fascinated us. These were people that were more than just women for the weekend; they were women period now, and their stories haunted and attracted us.

For a lot of crossdressers, the idea of transition is something that you never really ever let go of. I think this may be because as a transgendered person, you want to be the opposite sex, even if it is only for a little while; so to deny that you would want to transition is to deny that you want to be a woman, which is what you really do want to do. It's all highly confusing, and I think that was one of the reasons we sought out transsexuals: to find our boundaries, to compare stories and see where they were different, to listen to the struggles they had undergone in order to transition and silently do a secret accounting of our own lives and wonder if the price we'd pay would actually be worth it in the end.

But we were told--or at least we had heard--that there were real differences between crossdressers and transsexuals; that crossdressers never transitioned, that transsexuals were in such pain from their gender inconsonance that they had no other choice but to transition. And we believed those stories, crossdressers and transsexuals alike; we crossdressers told our wives and girlfriends that we weren't destined to transition, and transsexuals told the world that they weren't just men who liked to wear women's clothing.

There was one transsexual who was a regular. I didn't really know why Ingrid kept coming (and after a while, she just didn't), but I guess she fit into the category of people who were starting transition and needed a place to get their bearings. We were friendly, and used to talk politics and Japanese martial arts and the American songbook--she had a lovely voice and sometimes would sing a few bars of Cole Porter.

One thing about Ingrid did bother me, though: she didn't like Monica. Or rather, she thought she was a mess, directionless, and misguided. Now, truth be told, Monica's hairstyle was out of the Marilyn Quayle school of immobility, her clothing choices were pretty drab and uninspired, and her shoes--well, it's best not to talk about them. I had myself recently graduated from my evening-wear phase, when I would wear gowns and formal dresses out to bars and had started to dress in a fashion that I thought a woman of my age might dress. So that gave me license to be a bit of a snob, and I am ashamed to say that sometimes I snarked right along with Ingrid.

In the trans community, people tend to be judged on a scale that I will call--borrowing it from the world of drag--realness. This isn't surprising, given that the very drive that defines us as transgendered is to be the opposite sex. Realness is a troubling term, though. It's not that it's inaccurate--it very accurately describes the attitudes I usually encountered. But we made "realness" mean the same thing as "authenticity"--we based our perceptions of you as a person on how close you were to this ideal of "womanhood." Thus, people who wore everyday clothes were superior to people who wear fetishistic clothes; people who lived as women were better than people who only crossdressed on the weekend; people who had had the surgery were better than people who hadn't, or didn't want to.

Wearing pants was even somehow better than wearing a skirt--because real women didn't wear skirts all the time. (Neither do crossdressers in their everyday lives, but making that point hardly helped their case.) In fact, it was a bitter joke amongst us that if you started to show up wearing pants, it meant you were bound to eventually transition.

If I would sometimes put Monica down, I also defended her; I would point out that she was one of the sweetest, kindest people I knew, and that went a lot further with me than her fashion sense; and in any case, the more she came out, the better she looked. But no matter; Ingrid thought she was a hopeless case, and Ingrid was a woman of firmly-held convictions.

Besides, Monica and I were both crossdressers, and so clearly didn't know what we were talking about.

It's been a long time since I was a regular in that world, and I've learned quite a bit since then. One thing that I learned is that I wanted to transition, that the bright lines I had drawn were a lie; crossdressers really did transition. That led me to question other things, to wonder if being a transsexual actually made you more real; or was it that, crossdressers were perfectly real crossdressers? And that somehow, that wasn't wrong or something to put people down about? On one of my last trips out to one of these parties, I was sitting at the bar, silently smirking at this or that poorly-done outfit, when an elderly crossdresser came in. Her dress looked terrible on her, her lipstick was as crooked as a Vermont dirt road, and her wig was haphazardly clinging to the top of her head. But when I looked more closely, I could see the pure joy in her eyes, the incredible relief at being able to finally express this part of herself. And my smirk died a cold death on my face and I--I in my careful makeup and fashionable clothes--I was ashamed.

Since then I've learned much more about feminism and power structures; I see now that what we saw as realness was nothing else than judging people on their looks; that people have the right to define their own gender/personality/womanhood however they want to, and that makes it as real as anyone else's. I learned, too, how often it is in underprivileged communities that heirarchies arise, tiny parodies of the larger, oppressive order. I learned that trans people were hardly alone in equating realness with authenticity; everywhere I looked among the various underprivileged communities I encountered--female, feminist, people of color--I saw the same pattern of holding other members of your group up to your own personal ideal, and then calling them out on how far they fell short of it. People complained about it; long and bitter struggles took place with each faction trying to prove their authenticity to each other. And yet the patterns persisted, over and over and over again.

I last saw Monica four years ago, on my birthday. She wore a tasteful leather suit, a short wig, and perfect makeup--she looked, in short, the very model of a still-rockin' suburban woman in her 40s. She had begun to play electric guitar--she was a huge Kiss fan--and had even done her own drag act in Las Vegas. She was still one of the sweetest people I have ever met. And she seemed very happy.

I ran into Ingrid about a year later at a Julia Serrano reading. By that point I was well into my own transition; in fact, outside of onsite visits to my clients, I presented as female all the time. Ingrid, on the other hand, seemed to be much as I had last known her; she was presenting as male that day, which surprised me--it had been five years since I'd seen her last, I thought she'd have gone fulltime by then.

I wondered if she still though Monica was a mess. If she, and me, were still wedded to our fantasy heirarchies, our own petite power trips. I still wonder that about myself.

Despite our internecine conflicts, we still manage to gain a victory and then all of us move forward: sissies can get married just the same as the straightest-acting modern Mattachinist; the woman who clutched her pearls until her hands bled got to vote the same as a bloomers-wearing suffragist; and maybe, just maybe, one day crossdressers and transsexuals will both be able to pee in peace.

We are like children on the beach, building little sandcastles, while above us the guns of a real fort threaten our lives. And yet, rather than march together on that fort, we bicker over how grand our sandcastles are, how much better they arethan other people's, how beautiful, how necessary, how safe. And so we will stay until these sandcastle virtues are all swept away.

(crossposted from The Second Awakening)


VĂ©ronique said...

This is a beautiful, touching essay. Thank you.

ginasf said...

What I liked from this essay was how everyone needs to have their own search for groundedness and happiness. That one person's experience of themselves isn't worth more than another's. That we don't have to like each other (or hang out together) but we do need to respect each other's journey and experience. Your empathy shines through.

What I didn't agree with was the continuing insistence of how transsexuals are somehow 'higher on the totem-pole' than crossdressers and oppressing them. The reality is the vast majority of crossdressers don't transition and have no interest in transitioning. The vast majority of crossdressers live a relatively limited part of their lives 'en femme' and don't experience the realities of women's lives. They have entire male existence they value and are enriched by their CD experiences, but the male lives are complete in and of themselves. And these male lives have considerably more economic and societal power than transwomen who live as women 24/7. If there is some kind of transgender 'pecking order' it's within a very limited space and the men who are CDs have the power, not transwomen. Moreover, like it or not, since you brought up feminism, a lot of CDs have some very narrow ideas of womanhood and how to express it. I won't ridicule them for that, but neither will I respect their version of what it means to be a woman partly because they aren't really living it.

MgS said...

Just to ask a question ... but is the social structure described between the various subgroups of the transgender world not highly similar to the social structures that teenage girls create for themselves as they try to establish their place in the world?

Just thinking out loud here, but the similarities are striking, and it's almost as if there is a need to find one's own place in the world "a second time" when and while we are coming to terms with our respective degrees of cross-gender identity.

As an aside, I'm speculating wildly here - it's just an impression that has developed over time as I read more stories from those who transitioned while hooked into their local "Trans scene". I just quietly transitioned and never really hooked up with that community.

ginasf said...

@MgS: While there are some parts of the 'community' where it resembles middle school/high school in terms of being pretty (or let's say attractively passable) is seen as a kind of status. That's a rather surface view of its entirety. Status is also determined by one's finances and power within society. The interactions the OP is talking about mostly happen within the confines of the Internet, support groups, transgender conferences and a very limited number of events. What they don't take into account is the vast bulk of people's lives outside these spheres. A young, highly passable transitioning MTF might have a lot of some kind of status at a trans event, but be impoverished to the point where they can't even complete transition. They might well be kicked out of their families and communities. A not-especially 'real-looking' (to use the OP's term) CD might look downtrodden or awkward at a gender event, but will be far more likely to have a high paying job, wife, house and, when they choose to exercise it, more status within society. So, my question is, who really has the status? The OP or your question, don't really address this.

MgS said...


I was specifically considering the microcosm of transgender society/socialization.

All of the things you point out are very valid points, but they step outside of the fairly carefully defined world that the original post is speaking in terms of.

Yes, I completely agree that there is a much larger context that all of us live in - but I wasn't trying to ask that question. I was quite specifically considering the implications of a rather interesting subculture that has evolved between people with varying degrees of cross-gender identity, and how they mix/interact with each other as a community.

I use the term 'community' here very loosely. I am quite aware that the range of identities that fall under the transgender umbrella is huge, and they don't necessarily intersect that much, but where they do intersect, the pattern of interactions the OP describes are interesting in their own right.

ginasf said...

Agreed MgS. I just find myself unconvinced by what the OP wrote in how it removes our "subculture/community" outside the larger world when, in fact, it's very much a part of it. To view a support group or trans event as reality and the rest of life as something irrelevant is a kind of fairy tale I've heard repeated far too often. We all experience ourselves within the full context of our lives and societies.

C. L. "Cat" Minou said...

First, thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments (& compliments.)


Gina, ducks, I'm getting pretty confused about your takeaway from this piece. Please note that I used the past tense a lot. When I lived as a crossdresser, I (and most of the CDs I knew) looked up to transsexuals for the reasons I described in the essay. I was not in any way asserting that it was true that transsexuals were somehow a higher status, merely that we perceived them to be.

I won't argue most of what you say about CDs in general...except to point out that I've met many, many exceptions to some or all of those traits. That CDs as a whole could use some consciousness raising is something I agree with, and is, after all, part of helen's work, in My Husband Betty, her blog and message boards, and, well, here.

What I'm really puzzled about is why you're engaging (and using my essay to support you) in the very behavior I was condemning. The whole point was that by building up our own little divisions--sandcastling, if you will--we do nothing but retreat from the larger struggle. Setting up pyramids of power/privilege is the definition of kyriarchy, something I staunchly oppose and see as the real oppressor. That I chose to introduce the topic with some examples from my own life shouldn't obscure that point.

ginasf said...


I've seen a large number of commentators from 'the community' both in writing and on YouTube who have taken upon themselves to attack what they view is somehow elitism among gender-variant or trans people. Apart from a small number of HBS types (who criticize virtually everyone) most of these point out how snotty transwomen are (notice it's never about transmen) to their 'own kind'. And how ultimately regressive these transwomen are. IMO, your essay falls into this category (in it's subtext). Yet if you heard ciswomen refusing to be demonized because they commented/complained about the attitudes/economic power of many men you wouldn't criticize them for doing so... I suspect as a feminist you would, at least, listen to their concerns. Cat... there are divisions and will continue to be divisions. There will be divisions between CDs and transwomen because their experiences, identities and the way they're viewed by society is fundamentally different. There will be continue to be differences between these two groups because one group is overwhelmingly living in the world as women 24/7 and the other group is overwhelmingly living in the world as men. Whatever anecdotal differences you mention, that's reality. Which doesn't mean varying groups can't respect one another, respect the struggles of each group and be civil to one another and supportive. But sloughing off the unique insecurities and concerns of each group and trying to weld people into an artificial alliance (beyond basic political action) isn't about respect, it's about denial and appropriation. Cat, several weeks ago, I protested against the APA policies both for GID and 'Transvestic Fetishism' because both of those diagnoses are wrong. Don't try and pathologize transwomen as "the problem" in our community. In truth we, our safety, our rights, our limited economic resources and our medical treatment, are the most vulnerable link in the 'transgender' category. The kyriarchy does exist (too late), you've just got it ass-backwards.

C. L. "Cat" Minou said...

Gina, I'm sorry if you feel I'm silencing you; that's not my intent.

But I still think you're reading what you want into this essay. I introduced the feelings I (and the other CDs I knew at the time) about transsexuals as an illustration of how ultimately all our assumptions were wrong; my target wasn't trans women (a group I am a proud member of) but the pointlessness of power divisions in general. That is, my target is both the Kyriarchy and the idea of kyriarchy itself. I mean, how else do you take the whole metaphor of the sandcastle?

Continuing to define identities negatively (on what we, or they are not), rather than positively (on what we are) IMHO leads us nowhere but towards greater and greater segmentation: and what else is kyriarchy but that?

However, I invite you to come by my blog, where I have a more wide-ranging discussion of topics feminist and trans than might be visible in this brief essay.