THE LOCAL LENS
Discussion of the transgender population is hot news nowadays. From Caitlyn Jenner to the trans person next door, stories about trans people seem to be everywhere. It’s a controversial topic: Many people, for instance, admit that they still struggle with understanding how someone can feel that they were born into the wrong body. Even gay people struggle with understanding this concept. In fact, there’s a small movement currently within the LGBT community working to take the ‘T’ off the label LGBT so that it will read LGB, meaning lesbian, gay and bisexual. Sexual orientation, they say, is not gender identity. They are really two very different things: Somebody’s sexuality is about who they are attracted to sexually and romantically, while gender is about somebody’s sense of who they are as a guy, girl or something else, as opposed to what your physical characteristics, genes and hormones show.
The first trans person I met was named “Bradley.” I’ve changed his name here for I first met him in the late 1970s while living in Germantown. “Bradley” was a fellow writer who I bumped into at a book event at the Germantown Free Library. Over a cup of coffee after the event he asked me if I would call him “Becky.” I did a double take. Bradley had a masculine demeanor. There was nothing about him that called attention to himself. He was quiet and looked like a bookworm. While I had no problem calling him Becky if that’s what he wanted, I was naturally curious about what was happening to him. So he told me about the hormone shots he was taking and even indicated, by removing his sweater, his emerging breasts.
I had never seen that before and I was shocked. I had seen drag queens in Denver perform in cowboy bars, but they all had tissue stuffed in their bras.
I never saw “Becky” again after that coffee — not because I disapproved of him or what was happening to him, but because, as people, we had nothing in common. I wished Becky well and that was that. Deep down I did feel sorry for him though. It was bad enough that in the 1970s — despite the popularity of “cross sexers” like David Bowie and Lou Reed — being gay was still a dicey proposition, but to be trans or even a transvestite from Translyvania, could be downright dangerous when you weren’t in Rocky Horror territory.
Twenty years later one of my good friends who is gay published a personal dating ad. He was hoping to meet a fellow student so when Milo, a 24 year old music student, answered my friend’s ad, he made arrangements to meet. Milo, who described himself as being slight of build and kind of nerdy looking, expressed a similar desire to meet, and so the two met at Front and Girard because Milo would be traveling into Fishtown on the El.
“At that first meeting,” my friend said, “I got the distinct impression that Milo was an ultra nerd — black glasses, spotty beard, plaid shirt, knapsack and very pale looking. Yet there was something a little different about him that I couldn’t place, something odd, but I liked him all the same. So we headed back to my place where we watched a movie and ate popcorn and drank a little white wine. Things were going well until I got the itch to become intimate and that’s when Milo turned to me and said, ‘I have to tell you something.’”
My friend said that he thought that Milo was going to announce that he was already involved with someone or that he wasn’t attracted to him, but what he heard was this:
“I am a female-to-male trans person. I wanted to tell you earlier but I couldn’t. I’m sorry if I misled you. If you want me to leave, I will. I won’t hold it against you.”
My friend told Milo to stay because he wanted to hear his story. In fact, the two remained together for a couple of hours talking about Milo’s transition, although the hand holding had stopped. Milo, as it turned out, had worn a tight belt under a plaid shirt to flatten his breasts, but the beard was real because he had already begun treatments. In the spirit of openness, the two of them talked about everything, including why a heterosexual female would want to become a gay male. Milo would tell my friend that his transition had nothing to do with sexual attraction or desire or “meeting lots of men,” but that it was an internal, gender identity thing *thing? and that’s why it was important.
When it came time to say goodbye, conventional gender roles took over when my friend said he felt obligated to walk Milo to the bus stop, something he may or may not have done had Milo been a biological male.
When I published the two stories above in a gay periodical a couple of years ago, all hell broke loose. In a matter of days I was the most transphobic person on the planet because I was identifying both “Becky” and Milo by their biological gender and not the gender they identified with. As I told the editor of the publication, “Hey, who knew…. I thought I was being empathetic, sympathetic and honest. I thought trans people officially became the gender they identify with only after their complete physical transformation.”
I opted not to answer my critics and remain silent, which my editor admired, but it wasn’t easy. Unfortunately, overwrought attacks because of incorrect terminology or views are a problem inherent in some leftist circles.
Intolerance takes many forms, but this experience taught me just how isolated the trans community is and how much pain trans individuals experience. Sometimes when people are in pain they aim at the wrong target or they throw out arrows blindly, missing their real enemies. While I admit I still don’t completely understand the concept of being trapped in the body of the opposite sex, this doesn’t mean I cannot show empathy while dismissing any impulse to judge. I may not understand how a Hindu can worship a cow, but that doesn’t mean I am going to put Hindus on my personal enemies list.
I’ve discovered is that the trans “legacy” is essentially a very American story. Many early Native American tribes had a special place for men who identified as women. In Walter Williams’ classic overview of Native American sexuality, “The Spirit and the Flesh”, we learn of the existence of the berdache, or the Two Spirited-third gendered male, usually a gay man, who would often dress as a member of the opposite sex, take a husband or wife (Two Spirited persons were male or female) and live among the tribe as a shaman or holy person. Not only were they considered holy people with special powers, but they were believed to be able to tap into mystical realms. In many cases the berdache was considered the most important person of a tribe outside of the chief.
So there you have it. Being trans is not all glamour and posing for the cover of People Magazine. Sometimes it’s just an ordinary “next door” kind of thing.