Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The closet corrodes your soul

Cross-posted from my personal trans blog.

I’ve talked before about the value of being out of the closet – the global political value. But being out can be valuable in a more direct, immediate way. It can save us from the closet.

When I first started cross-dressing, I knew that it was not acceptable. I had heard so many people making fun of transvestites that I didn’t think that anyone would value or support me if I told them I was one. For over a year I did my cross-dressing in secrecy and isolation.

One day my mother came into my room and said, “This closet is a mess! I’ve given you so many chances to clean it up. Now I’m going to do it.”

I said, “Okay, Mom, but just don’t open the top drawer.”

“What’s in the top drawer?”

“Just don’t look in it.”

“Angus, what’s in the top drawer?”

After a few more rounds of this, I told her. Her response was not as bad as it could have been (the horror stories we’ve heard about teenagers being rejected by their parents, thrown out of the house, beaten, or even killed), but it was not encouraging. I won’t go into too much detail, since she apologized for it many years ago, but she was ashamed of me, and worried that I might be gay. She insisted that I go to therapy, which was probably a good idea, but I didn’t even mention cross-dressing to the first therapist. The second one was helpful in various ways, but not with regards to this issue.

I avoided talking to my mom about cross-dressing after that, until I came out in general. That meant that I was pretty much alone in the closet for another fourteen years. And that time was hell. I don’t know which was worse, the feeling of shame when I cross-dressed, or the feeling of relief when I purged. Every time the topic came up in general conversations with anyone other than my mother I had to remain silent, afraid that I would be ostracized if anyone found out. The chronic fear of being found out was a source of discomfort throughout my teen and college years.

Since I’ve come out, I know that there is a group of people that I can rely on, who have shown me that they support me no matter what I’m wearing. I don’t need to feel ashamed around them. Even if I don’t feel comfortable telling absolutely everyone, it’s still liberating to know that there are many people who don’t judge me for my gender expression.

Unfortunately, it took a long time for me to feel comfortable coming out. I had to tell one person at a time, until I knew that there were enough people who supported me. This is why one of my goals is to encourage widespread, open, vocal support of non-conforming gender expression, so that the teenagers of tomorrow can live outside the closet.

A simple thing you can do for trans people (whether you're trans too, or not) is to say something supportive every time the topic comes up. You can do this for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, cyclists, or any disenfranchised group. You might want to have a handy phrase or two ready ahead of time. And if you can’t think of anything supportive to say, educate yourself!

Tenured radical on Chaz

Claire Potter at Tenured Radical on Chaz Bono and Transition


Famous people live in bubbles; the children of famous people also live in bubbles, and benefit much less from the experience.  Witness Chaz, the only child of Salvatore "Sonny" Bono and Cherilyn Sarkisian, otherwise known as Cher. One of the many criticisms that will doubtless emerge about Chaz Bono's revised history that centers his gender transition and his new life as an embodied man will be some version of this: how can a person who has had access to every possible advantage represent himself as an average transman?  To this I have two answers: Everyone's life is worth saving, no matter how rich his parents are, and; One of the ways that rich people are different is that their books get published and distributed widely when other, equally good or better, books do not.  Get used to it.

Timed to come out together, Transition and Becoming Chaz, tell Chaz's story about his journey to a fully male identity.  They are part of an activist project, in which Chaz hopes to use his fame to reach out to other people who may be struggling with their own or a loved one's gender transition and promote tolerance towards queerly gendered people.  They are also a long-term public relations project, through which Chaz has struggled to represent himself rather than be represented by the tabloid press.  Together, for those of us who are more up to speed on trans politics and trans studies, these newly released accounts of Bono tell us less about the world of gender politics and gender transition technology than they tell us about the world of celebrity.

However, those who simply take celebrity for granted and know bupkis about transgender or transsexual lives, may learn some things they need to know.  For example:
Kids who grow up into people who want to transition have very active inner lives that are gendered differently from the way their bodies present.

Puberty stinks even worse for trans people than it does for cisgendered people.

People who transition from female to male may initially come out as butch lesbians (but not all butch lesbians identify as trans.)

Parents often do not respond well to gender transition.

Girlfriends who appear to be on board with gender transition can still be self-centered and mean.  Sometimes they bail out.

Injectable testosterone works faster than Androgel.

Lots of psychotherapy is recommended. 

Having lots of gay friends doesn't necessarily make a person sophisticated when it comes to actually having a queer kid.  (Cher is an excellent example of this:  did I say that lots of psychotherapy is recommended?  And Sonny, who seemed not to care that he had a queer kid, cosponsored the Defense of Marriage Act.)

Having lots of psychotherapy, a big book contract, and the admiration of thousands of transmen doesn't mean that when people call you fat, weird and ugly; or make sexist, homophobic and transphobic jokes at your expense, it doesn't hurt.  A lot. (Editorial clarification:  Chaz has always been attractive, but in his new incarnation has an inner confidence and a sunny smile that makes him about as good or better looking as any other middle-aged Italian American guy.)

OK, so for those of you who knew fewer than five of the things I listed above, you should go read the book. If you have limited time, are only interested in the FTM part of Chaz's life story, and are curious about the nature of celebrity, I would say watch the movie.  The first two-thirds of the book are a revision of Chaz's coming-out-as-a-lesbian story (which someone of my age might recall was pretty awful) that accounts for his male identity.  It also includes a survey of Chaz's descent into drug abuse, which is a cautionary tale worth reading.  Having known several people who became addicted to drugs like Vicodin and Oxycontin, this actually can happen to anyone. Chaz was getting legal scrips for so much high-dosage Oxy that he had to go to a hospital pharmacy to get them filled, and even the pharmacists did not bat an eye, much less call the DEA or the California medical licensing board.

I am not sure whether it will matter to you, but:  there are better books about trans lives out there, and if you follow the links in this post, you will find them.  Chaz speaks only for himself but, in trying to reach a far broader audience (in what has to be a rudimentary general education project if it is to succeed in Omaha as well as in Los Angeles), the book tends not to be very aware of its own limitations.  Chief among these are the essentialist story it tells about gender, the book's main preoccupation; and its failure to address class, age and race. 

Transitioning to a male body and a male social identity are quite different experiences for different people, as are the life histories that lead up to these transitions.  Although there are common themes, transmen have very different life stories, as do transwomen.  Generation matters: there are a significant number of people, particularly very young ones, for whom challenging gender as a system of power means living between or outside categories as a genderqueer person.  So Chaz's story is the 100-level course.  If you want the 200 level course, go to Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, The Transgender Studies Reader (Routledge:  2006); if you want a better memoir, and one that tells the MTF story where our heroine gets to keep the girl and the kids, my favorite is Jennifer Finney Boylan, She's Not There:  A Life In Two Genders (Broadway Books, 2003).

Which brings us to class.  While having access to lots of money hasn't made Chaz's life a happy one (one might argue the opposite, in fact), the book has nothing to say about the vast number of trans kids who are entirely without resources, even to feed, clothe or house themselves.  It is a sad fact that most people in America are poor, whether they are gender normative or not.  It is a sadder fact that vast numbers of gender non-conforming youth are bullied at school, abused by their families, and end up on the streets fending for themselves.  Many of these kids, particular male-bodied trans kids, are sex workers, as their foremothers were.

It is also the case that Chaz appears to be choosing trans children as his issue, having been a neglected and abused child himself, and it may be that as an activist he begins to hone in on the cross-class dimensions of this issue as well as the surgical abuse of intersexed children. Childhood was a bad time for Chaz, and while his boyishness is the part of that story that is central to the book, he was alternately cherished and neglected.  He  suffered emotional abuse from one nanny in particular, who terrorized him when his mother was absent for large stretches of time. While we don't get details about his upbringing that stray far from the gender story, Chaz seems to go out of his way to understand and account for his parents' lapses, and being a victim of the press himself, is probably kinder to them than they deserve. 

One result of parental neglect was that Sonny and Cher failed to notice that their child went to any number of schools but didn't really learn to do anything except to be a public person:  everything else he has taught himself.  In a way this doesn't seem odd, given Sonny and Cher's route to success.  Cher was singing professionally at 16 when she teamed up with her 27 year-old partner, and my guess is that one or both were high school dropouts. Chaz was repeatedly pulled out of school by Cher to accommodate her career, and allowed to make his own decisions about whether and where he attended school (this meant living in New York with friends and attending the High School for Performing Arts) by the time he was fourteen.  While Chaz returned to college in mid-life, his only real work -- other than three years of trying to break into the music business -- has been to use his celebrity to do political advocacy, mostly for GLBT rights.

Don't imagine that Transition will give you many insights into the inner life of a transman the way lesser-known, but more complex, autobiographies like Jamison Green's Becoming a Visible Man (Vanderbilt,  2004) and Max Wolf Valerio's The Testosterone Files (Seal Press, 2006) will.  The story Chaz has to tell is a carefully crafted one that is intended to educate, but not to reveal much about who he really is or what he really feels. Because of this, the most affecting moments are not in the book, but in Becoming Chaz when we watch Bono watching his mother in the well-orchestrated television appearances and interviews that are designed to voice her support for him.  And yet, even then, she can't seem to bring herself to refer to Chaz with male pronouns.  Like, ever.  Which is a little strange given the fact that she is an actress.  The expression on Chaz's face as Cher "forgets" her lines, over and over, is unforgettable, as is his rush to forgive her for doing so.  Nothing in the book is so ambivalent or complex as these moments when gender is temporarily displaced by the drama of the celebrity child.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Almost a Transgender Role Model

Here's a cross post from my blog, www.ninaherenorthere.com

I really wanted Chaz Bono to be a transgender hero. By sharing his transition in his film, “Becoming Chaz,” and in his memoir, “Transition: The Story of How I became a Man,” he is offering gender-questioning people an intimate entry into his personal experience. With his fame, he is raising much-needed awareness about a marginalized population. But as I, a writer releasing my own transmasculine memoir on the same day as Bono, follow the coverage of his story, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion media train wreck.

The New York Times article, “The Reluctant Transgender Role Model,” by Cintra Wilson, is the latest troubling piece. Wilson, in what must be an attempt at humor, investigates Bono’s motivations with questions about celebrity damage, gender-bent Oedipal revenge, and reclaiming childhood attention. I imagine Wilson aims to connect with skeptical mainstream readers, but those types of questions push well past curious and cynical to downright ridiculous.

In a cultural climate that forces transgender people to explain themselves at every turn, I cannot be too surprised that Bono plays into another story of overcoming pain and suffering, of transition as the last resort of the suicidal. As a transgender person, I find this narrative exhausting and self-victimizing. Why do we, as trans people, need to keep proving how awful our lives are in order for people to accept us? What if we modified our bodies, not “amputated” parts of them as Wilson so crudely states, because we thought our lives were so beautiful that we wanted to experience them in a vehicle that allowed us our deepest comfort and truest self-expression?

Bono reiterates the standard transgender narrative of identifying as a male since childhood, using as evidence gender stereotypes like “playing sports” to reinforce his case. Once again, it’s hard to blame Bono. The criteria for Gender Identity Disorder (GID) in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders refers to gender stereotypes in its diagnosis. Although the article claims GID was only classified as a mental disorder until 1999, this is incorrect. A diagnosis of GID is still required for many trans people seeking gender reassignment surgery, and reinforcing gender stereotypes is the necessary proof. While I cannot question Bono’s experience, I can challenge his facts and make it absolutely clear that his experience isn’t shared by all of us.

Bono says, “There’s a gender in your brain and a gender in your body. For 99 percent of people, those things are in alignment. For transgender people, they’re mismatched. That’s all it is. It’s not complicated, it’s not a neurosis. It’s a mix-up. It’s a birth defect, like a cleft palate.”

First I’d like to know where Bono confirmed the gender in your brain and gender in your body theory. Sure, researchers are looking for hard proof of transsexualism, but they are having about as much success as they are in finding a definitive “gay gene” or “gay brain” structure in homosexuals. The nature vs. nurture debate will continue in gay and lesbian research circles just like the essentialist vs. cultural construction debate will continue in gender research circles. To fall completely to one pole as Bono does with essentialism is to ignore the very complicated topic of gender presentations, expressions, embodiments, roles, and identities as lived in our culture. To Bono’s claim of mismatched alignment for transgender people, this is a gross misrepresentation of all of us.

“Transgender,” in its most common usage, is as an all-encompassing term and self-defined identity available to anyone who doesn’t fit into the man or woman boxes. Transsexuals (female-to-male/FTM like Bono; or male-to female/MTF) are the most well-known group under the transgender umbrella. But there are many trans people who live and identify outside of the stifling constraints of the gender binary. Some pursue hormones without surgery; some pursue surgery without hormones; some choose only to adopt a new name; some use the gender-neutral pronouns “ze” and “hir”; some use self-identifying words that encompass both man and woman, like genderqueer or gender fluid.

Therefore, the conclusion of Wilson’s article relating to diversity is correct, except that Bono actually reiterates the black and white of gender identification by wedding himself completely to the notion of a woman becoming a man. He may offer an alternative understanding of black and white, but as for ushering in a complete wheel of gender (not sexuality as Wilson mistakenly writes) into the mainstream, Technicolor Bono is not.

It’s time for an understanding of transgender experiences and identities to reach mainstream audiences. Bono is, with his celebrity bullhorn, an ideal candidate to be a transgender role model, but after I read that he once had a tolerance for women that he no longer has, he cannot be my hero. I do hope that his story is the starting point, an impetus to expand the conversation beyond sensationalism, gender stereotypes, and the Fashion & Style pages. But this poorly fact-checked article by Cinta Wilson makes me nervous that many will now claim to know about transgender people, and about me, because they read or saw something about Cher’s kid.