Thursday, March 15, 2012

My Texas Debut

At 9:50 a.m. on March 14 at Stacey Pool in Austin, Texas, where I often swam before moving from Austin to San Francisco in 2004, I took off my shirt and got in the water.

I love swimming. It was one of the things I thought about a lot when deciding to have top surgery. With very small breasts, I could have gotten away with binding or even just having my nipples reduced if I didn't want to be able to take my shirt off in public.

The other men swimming at Stacey Pool on March 14 were old. One younger guy was pretty overweight, so what remains of my seromas didn't make me stand out all that much.

As I left, there was a bearded Texas hippie type preaching the gospel to a young blond lifeguard. There's a richness of experience in Austin that you don't get in San Francisco.

Later that day, I indulged my inner cowboy, who was bucking for attention while I was in Texas: I bought some cowboy boots at Allen's Boots -- one of the last real-Texas businesses on South Congress. (When I lived there, there was a gun store across the street.) I told the cowboy who rang up the sale that I hoped I would wear them because in San Francisco, you have to create your own space to be able to wear cowboy boots.

His response was "You're a Texan, man!" It was especially beautiful because he had already checked my driver's license against my credit card.

It was my last day in Austin. Later, as I changed planes in Dallas heading back to San Francisco, the gate attendant called me Scott, my last name, even though my boarding pass, as required by the FAA, listed my full name. I thought it was a clever way of not dealing with what he didn't understand.

But as I waited in the gateway to board the plane, he came up and asked me if I was [NAME REMOVED].


He continued, with a line full of people behind me, that my boarding pass listed me as [NAME REMOVED] and said that [NAME REMOVED] was female. Did I have an ID identifying me as [NAME REMOVED]?

I asked him if he'd like to see my genitals. Then I boarded the plane. Everybody knows Dallas sucks.

But, yeah, it's time to change my official IDs.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please consider making a small donation to help me finish paying for my surgery — or you may buy a photograph with proceeds going to the surgery.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How I Was Outed By the Nike Swoosh, and Other Tales of Sort of Passing

I recently started a new job in Palo Alto. I assumed during the interview process that, like previous employers, they saw me as a bulldagger who wanted to be called he. But when I started working there, not a single person made a pronoun slip. I am passing at work!

In addition to making me wonder whether I got the cock markup in my salary negotiations, this development has led me to reassess my assumptions about how others perceive me. Now I strut a little more as I walk into the gym (incidentally, it may be true that testosterone has made me enjoy sports a little more) — then suddenly I arrive at the door to the women’s locker room —  no way can I pass naked — at which point I put on my best I’m-a-girl-I-don’t-know-why-you’re-staring-at-me face and dive in.

Obviously, it’s time to have top surgery done. I also know it’s time because I’ve been “losing” sports bras at an alarming rate. I hate those things — not least because they’re expensive. I’ve only got three or so at a time and yet I somehow have to preserve at least one that’s not soaking wet or rancid smelling. When you’re transporting clothes to and from the gym 7 days a week and you’re a total dude, it’s no small task.

The other day I swaggered into a sporting goods store. Athletic socks: check. Now for another $45 quick-wicking sports bra. I went to the usual place. They weren’t there. I looked around and spotted an employee. As I approached him, I thought about how I was passing at work and made a mental note to act as if I were buying the thing for my girlfriend. First I try to call it a “triathlon top.” Blank look. Then I describe it — dismissively, like a guy might his girlfriend's lady stuff, which isn’t a stretch — as a black sports bra thing with the Nike swoosh on it. Except I make the swoosh pointing towards me, from my right to my left.

Will I ever stop making this kind of mistake? Or is it a mistake? I’m not undertaking to pretend to be someone I’m not, and I don’t want to lose the complexity of gender that I’ve been flagging for the last 15 years. But shouldn’t I be in charge of what I disclose to whom? Then again, how can you casually insert signposts like “when I was female” into idle chit-chat? I’m not ashamed, but I really don’t want to conjure up graphic visual images of my tranny cooch because that is goddamned private.

Except to the women in the locker room to whom I offer to show it, like a scar, to fend off their assertions that I must be in the wrong place. It’s the place that’s messed up, not me.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please consider making a small donation for my surgery or buy a photograph with proceeds going to the surgery.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A homeless man notices my transition

Ask your friends if you look different and you come up against a really strong social tabu against making dispassionate observations about someone's appearance. Should they admit they notice that whisker on my chin? Should they acknowledge that my neck is twice as wide?

You know who's not afraid to say you look different? Your neighborhood homeless guy. Mine is sweet and harmless and has lived on my block for as long as I have. He sees me going out, coming home, going out, coming home. It's a perfect opportunity to observe someone's physical appearance without any of the emotions or preconceptions that blind us to it.

A few weeks ago, he stopped me to ask a question. I thought he was going to ask me for money for the second time ever. But instead, he started to tell me about his friend Jet who was going through a change from a woman to a man, and — was I?

My answer was, I take testosterone, yes.

The other day he wanted to chat about it again. This time the case study was a lady cop he used to see who's now such a handsome man cop that he almost thought he should go for it. (Me: You should!: Giving encouraging dating advice to a 60-something guy who lives in his car.)

Then he asked, Are you a man stuck in a woman's body?

I didn't know what to say. But later, I came up with this: I'm a mostly masculine person in a fairly feminine body in a very gendered society.

Postscript: I just went out on a sailboat where the captain told us it was okay to use toilet paper in "the head" but please not to use feminine hygiene products. Then, looking at me and my gay male housemate, he added teasingly, "You got that, guys?"

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Is trans the new gay?

We’ve all heard about the tragically closeted homosexual of the 1950s or ’60s. It is hard to feel anything but pity when imagining what drove gay and lesbian people to marry, submit to blackmail schemes or abuse at the hands of police officers rather than be outed — or any one of a hundred other incomprehensibly self-hating acts we’ve heard about.

But recently I found myself in conversation with a trans man who is afraid to shower at the gym for fear that people in the locker room will challenge him for his lack of penis. I myself am wondering which locker room to use, and whether I should go to a different gym for a while so I don’t go directly from the women’s to the men’s at the same gym. Is this equally tragic?

Perhaps gym-going can never quite be tragic: point taken. But another trans man I know was driven from his job when his co-workers learned what was in his pants. Trans people are making choices every day, however small or large, about whether they can safely come out to people who have no frame of reference for transsexuality. It’s one thing to tell someone that you belong to a group that’s considered less than ideal: Imagine confessing that you may have to declare bankruptcy. But it’s another altogether to confess to something unspeakable, something that puts your very humanity in question.

Judith Butler wrote that the language that introduces your existence on this earth genders you (It’s a girl!) and when your gender is in question, your humanity may as well be, too. Am I a person or am I a Frankenstein? If I transition completely, will friends and family outside my queer bubble be able to see me as still me, with some important but ultimately cosmetic changes? Or will they see me as a costumed Cameron, an ersatz human being?

It’s easy to wonder how gays and lesbians of a bygone age could fail so tragically and so prolongedly to acknowledge what they so clearly (in retrospect) were. But that is only because we can’t imagine what it would be like to be so close to mainstream society’s damning view of us that we didn’t see it as a misguided absurdity.

As homosexual identities become increasingly socially acceptable despite pointed efforts by social conservatives to compare them to pedophilia and beastiality — things that clearly aren’t okay — transsexual identities have come to occupy the borderlands of what’s okay. At a recent talk, the black activist Angela Davis hammered on trans liberation as an urgent civil rights issue. She sees the historical pattern in which somebody is always left out.

Since 1970, the mainstream view has continued to judge gay identities, but it cannot pretend not to see them as human. Trans identities are just beginning to be seen as human in the Bay Area. Elsewhere, transsexuality remains a sad — and exotic — joke. I look with envy on trans men and women in their 20s, who have the luxury of never having known another way. They wonder aloud how their parents could possibly fail to support them; I marvel silently at the parents who somehow do.

I can still see quite clearly the image of trans people as hardly human. The ready accessibility of that image — the knowledge of how others may see me — makes it hard to find the causal self-confidence required to say, with feeling, that I am human, that being trans is not a tragic attempt at self-effacement but a simple gesture towards being myself, like cutting my hair short or refusing to work a corporate job. It is not a lie or a regret; it is a complex reality.

Gender is either a tragedy or a comedy but it can’t be both.

People always talk about how huge a decision transitioning is, and how permanent. But is it really any bigger than a tattoo you don’t much like, or a scar that resulted from something foolish? Every decision comes with the possibility of regret, but parents and other spokespeople for yesterday’s order of things wield the catastrophic permanence of particular decisions over us. The narrative evokes death just enough to engage in a dangerous echo chamber with the idea that trans people aren’t human.

There’s a certain biological inability to see yourself as something less than human. If you’ve been taught that trans is less than human, it’s fairly difficult to see with clarity that you are trans without also seeing with clarity — and serious mental health consequences — that you are sub-human. Look at me saying this so painfully clearly and still not being able to find an emotional way out of the paradox. Isn’t this the battle fought by early homosexuals who knew they were human even as they wanted sex and intimacy with people of the same gender — and even as they were forced into dangerous situations to get it?

The image was so powerful that the word homosexual had to be overthrown before real activism could take root. Just as now we are jettisoning the word transsexual (with its implied adjective, tragic) for its friendlier versions trans and tranny and for more specific (though still somewhat cyborg-ish) appellations like MTF and FTM.

But re-appropriating the word queer might have been the most important move of all, defining the queer ethos of irony, dark humor and welcome perversions. Will there be a defining twist be for trans people that renders the old views of them comic, absurd and harmless — mostly?

If you enjoyed reading this post, please consider making a small donation for my surgery or buy a photograph with proceeds going to the surgery.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

In which the curmudgeonly blogger goes to an FTM support group

I went to an FTM support group last night for the first time.

There were a lot of amazing things about it: About 30 people showed up, ranging in age from 17 to 50-something and equally diverse in how they’re transitioning and where they are in the process. One guy was from Scandinavia and another was from the Middle East. As we went around the room, several mentioned that their families were supportive of their transition, which kind of blew me away.

But, being by character far more predisposed to criticize than to join into any kind of group ethos, there were also inevitably several things that bothered me.

I went to this group in the East Bay because I’d been told the average age was significantly older than in the San Francisco group. I also hoped the bro-down coolness factor would be lower, which it was. But despite a range in age, there were several people there who had not yet graduated from college — and one who hadn’t graduated from high school. They were the biggest talkers in the group, airing their grievances with their parents. (What it is about youth that makes one take up so much space?) I felt compassionate but had a hard time identifying with them, since when I was their age it was still very difficult to come out as gay. I’d never even heard of transsexuality.

In fact, as a person whose friends are having babies, I found myself identifying more with the parents (who, in one case, were merely insisting that the youngin’ get regular gender therapy and come to the support group). I am, I’ve had to admit, kind of transphobic, which makes it that much easier for me to see where parents are coming from. In hindsight, I see how my parents, who grew up believing it was shameful to be gay, could have responded to me coming out by saying they worried my life would be awful and lonely. It seemed comically stupid to me at the time, but now that I keep running up against the image of the tragic transsexual in my head it seems less non-sensical.

Seeing the parents’ point of view made me realize that I want to approach the gender issue with my mother from a place of compassion, which made me feel good. But it also made me feel old — which isn’t unrelated to my ambivalence about making such a big change in my life.

The thing that really bugged me about the group was that two trans guys talked about their partners needing and demanding things from them emotionally in a way that really seemed to invoke the old “you know how women are” canard.

I was angry enough to compose a response in my head as I rode my bike to a doctor’s appointment (unrelated) earlier today.

Whether, as individuals, we think about it this way or not, transmen are one front in the war on the hierarchical gender binary. If we want support for our fight, we can’t be assholes to people holding down another front.

There is a stereotype that transmen become assholes, almost as if testosterone caused it directly. Like all other negative stereotypes, it’s hurtful to individuals — myself included. I am not suddenly the enemy — and I sure as hell haven’t gotten a promotion or a pay raise! Let’s not throw fuel on the stereotype that burns us.

A lot of the guys in the room talked about people in their lives blaming their transition for every annoying thing they did. I haven’t experienced that, but it scares me that I might. Imagine if every time you did something shitty or something that somebody you cared about didn’t get, they said it was because you’re gay. Ouch, right? But, to the extent that the people in the group were kind of rolling their eyes at women being women, they were doing exactly the same thing!

I guess I keep coming around in my thinking to a conflict between individuality and cultural norms. If you want to be read as masculine in our culture, you have to be read as male. So to be seen as who you are, you have to tithe at the altar of social conformity by altering who you are.

The most empowering stories of trans identity for me are those that don’t conform to the standardized narrative we’ve come up with to explain trans-ness: I was always a man; I’ve hated wearing dresses since I was a toddler; my boobs feel like somebody else’s. (I've never been girly, but none of these is exactly true either.) It’s like difference is a little oasis in a desert of sameness: I thirst for it, and I’m grateful when I find it.

If you enjoyed reading this post, please consider making a small donation for my surgery or buy a photograph with proceeds going to the surgery.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Misogyny Runs Deep, Even in the Gay-Lesbian-Trans Community

Scene 1: I met a young trans woman recently: a new-school tranny whose model of "woman" is a young radical who treats gender irreverently. I liked this person's style, but I found myself wanting to call her he. I wasn't sure why because I really didn't think of her as a man. A friend nailed it: After hanging out with trans men and butch dykes, he had probably become the pronoun I use to signify gender queer.

Scene 2: The same friend said she was experiencing a new world of pronouns — who ever knew this humble part of speech was so important? — in a group of gay men who sporadically referred to each other with the gay male she. As we talked about it, we realized that they were using she to signify cattiness, sluttiness, uptight bitchiness: all negative forms of stereotypical femininity.

Leaving the GLBT world briefly, let's talk about the workplace, where, because we don't really know one another, biases flourish unacknowledged and unchecked. My working hypothesis about my workplace relationships is that I get into political hot water because I act like a man when bosses expect me to act like a woman. A man can be more direct, more certain of his competence and right to exert it. A woman who acts the same way clearly doesn't respect authority and/or has a difficult personality.

Scene 3: My A-Number One worst experience with this was with a self-declared feminist boss who was consistently wowed by men who were no more impressive than any of the women in the office. I fantasized about making a silent movie of her interactions, showing how she barely made eye contact with female employees and giggled like a schoolgirl at everything the early-20s male intern said.

This boss, I'll admit, has some sort of gendered personality disorder: She is as "victimized" in her own mind as the most novice feminist and yet as oppressive a boss as the most old-school old boy. But her case is different only in degree from other female employers'.

Scene 4: I currently work at a large nonprofit whose ED is a woman who inherited the job after being the second-in-command to the organization's founding director, a man. She has hired a senior staff person, a man, who is utterly and completely incompetent at his job but makes up for it by being a first-class bloviater. About nine-tenths of what he says is name-dropping of one sort or another.

His role is to undo good decisions my immediate boss, a woman, has made, to hold up good work indefinitely by citing vague bureaucratic concerns, and to force bad decisions on us periodically. The ED has been told of his unprofessionalism and incompetence repeatedly, by several people (women). But his position is safe because he is her toady.

My boss was prepared to hire a new public policy consultant, an accomplished lesbian lawyer. The Bloviater wanted to split the policy work into two parts and give one part of it to a Chicano man, who comes from an activist background. (Incidentally, the nonprofit is decidedly, even proudly, more milquetoast than the Sierra Club.) My boss objected because it seemed unnecessarily complicated. The Bloviater responded by calling a meeting with both the lesbian lawyer and the Chicano man. Awkward!

It immediately became clear why The Bloviater favors the man: He's also a smoke-blower, and the two name-dropped each other into oblivion while the lawyer, my boss and I sat by. There was a quick reprieve in which work was accomplished when the ED walked by and waved for The Bloviater to step out and consult with her for a moment. He looked like a schoolboy tripping on his seat to get out of the conference room.

Now back to the GLBT world. It bothers me that one of the two most compelling reasons pushing me to transition is that I feel unseen and belittled when people out in the world call me she. As if she were less than he. But I think it's lesbians and some evolved, self-confident FTMs and straight women who know — really know and believe — that women are not less than men. To wit: my boss, the lesbian lawyer and I in that conference room, I'm sure, all saw the boys' antics as no more than comical.

And it's the knowledge that men aren't superior, I think, that makes trans men who pass continue to feel at odds with themselves: They benefit from a privilege that they know is absurd. A trans man recently told me that he didn't feel like "A Man," and was going off testosterone again. He'd been off and on it six times. Am I a Man, benefactor of a privilege based on false assumptions, or am I a Woman, belittled and unseen based on false assumptions? It's another version of what my worst female boss must experience.

Some women take the opposite tack, believing that women are better than men. I don't find this way of thinking helpful or accurate.

Scene 5: I go to a boxing class once a week. It's a friendly class with no face or body contact. The instructor is a femme-ish lesbian who, despite good intentions, has trouble calling me he. Her butch girlfriend is also in the class. The other regulars include a slightly butch Italian lesbian, a balding straight man and a really tall Pacific Islander woman, who's apparently straight though I initially mistook her for an MTF. The girlfriend and the straight man are the best boxers by far; the girlfriend is more standoffish and seems to feel more inconvenienced by lesser pugilists.

One day as the class was winding down, the instructor remarked that she was sort of glad the straight man wasn't there because it was nice to have just us —. Here she stopped and looked at me, and then defended what she was going to say since I'm open about not having been born a man.

But what did she mean exactly? If we'd been talking about oppression or gay culture, I would give no argument that a straight man would have been unpleasantly out of the loop. But we were boxing. I can only deduce that the instructor must have meant that in some way the class was more collegial or supportive that day. But it wasn't. How is it that the assumption that women are gentler than men persists in a class filled with biological females who run the gamut of gender identities and even continues to be seen as a good thing in a class where the explicit goal is to learn how to beat the shit out of someone?

That putatively "feminist" view of women also seems to transcend fact. When I commented to the instructor that both her girlfriend and I were more macho than the straight man, she agreed. So who exactly was praised by her remark? How does it support the cause of women's political and physical empowerment?

For me, the real claim of feminism is that women are equal to men — neither better nor worse nor all that different as a class of people. Making the difference smaller makes transitioning seem like a much more individual, personal act, and it's in that frame that it makes sense to me. I can't be asked to hold the fate of the binary gender structure on my shoulders and to have my particular shrug signify something in particular as it echoes through a series of subjective — contradictory, overlapping, emotionally charged — assumptions.

If you liked this post, please consider making a small donation for my surgery or buying a photograph with proceeds going to the surgery.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Bathroom is Like a Superhero's Phonebooth, but I'm Not a Superhero

I spend more time in the bathroom now that I’m trying to be a man than I ever did before. It’s weird because my utterly pragmatic approach to appearance, not even to mention home decorating, is one of the strongest suits in my masculine credentials.

The shot itself takes time. I don’t want any infections, so I’m careful. On a paper towel on the counter, I lay out the syringe, cotton ball and two needles — large to load up the oily testosterone, and small to inject it. (I tried to use the big syringe to inject once and I couldn’t even get the thing in. A doctor said, "Yeah, you have to harpoon it in.") I have to feel around to make sure I'm injecting in the magic safe triangle on the side of my derriere. Wipe off vial lid and injection site. And hold a cotton ball on the spot for a second afterward.

There’s a cleanup process, too (note: It’s tacky to leave your needles and vials around for housemates to see). The needles go in their special sharps container. Of course one recycles the vials. On a good night, I might even compost the (100% recycled) paper towel.

All in all, this takes about 15 minutes once every two weeks, significantly nosing upward my average-time-in-the-bathroom stats. Don’t be fooled: These stats are a more important measure of masculinity than any sports data ever was.

Have I mentioned that shaving your face is hard? My femme friend assures me that “electric razors are where it’s at,” and I know that if shaving ever becomes a real necessity I will succumb to the utter unsexiness that is the electric razor.

I may in the not-too-distant future also find myself obliged to groom body hair. There’s an electric razor designed for that, the femme — who's Jewish — tells me, which I imagine is a hot-seller in the Walgreen’s on Castro. It’s got some boring name with the word “Norelco” in it, which reminds me of my weird father, so I’ve already decided I will call it The Manscaper.

Thanks to the testosterone, I’ve also become a regular user of antibiotic gel to keep the pimples at bay. The gel has changed my life by eliminating — yes, eliminating — a long-standing skin problem which shall remain nameless but that really wore on my self esteem while naked. For years, I suffered in silence believing it was pure vanity to ask a doctor about something so minor, but now I’ve learned there’s nothing too small to ask a doctor about. And now that I’m on testosterone — and the magic gel — I feel much more comfortable changing in the women’s locker room at the gym.

The gel is delightfully easy to put on my face. But since I’ve been taking T, I’ve developed some minor but vanity-dampening folliculitis/acne on my chest, which means I have to apply the gel after bathing and before putting on my binder. Incidentally, the binder is another life-changing purchase, but it’s tight and made from thick-ish material, so the gel really has to go on first. I’m down to one tube at present and it always manages to be in my bedroom when I need it in the bathroom, creating the perfect scenario in which to walk from one room to another with no shirt on — which I can’t do because I have a housemate, but even on the incredibly rare occasion that she leaves the house, walking from room to room with my tiny breasts exposed just begs the question of how utterly satisfying and erotic it will be to walk about freshly showered and shirtless with my future man chest.

Assuming the man chest happens before I've hardened my contours and furred up my exterior (if I ever suck up the humiliation of being furry like an animal), I may find myself acquiring yet another bizarre girlish bathroom ritual: changing in the toilet stall of whichever locker room I decide to use at the gym.

If you liked this post, please consider making a small donation for my surgery or buying a photograph with proceeds going to the surgery.