Genderation X

You can change your body with surgery and hormones, but what happens after that might surprise you

Shadow Morton works over on Howard Street, in Stormy Leather's big, airy workshop a few doors down from the retail store, fabricating sex toys -- wrist and ankle restraints, collars, harnesses, cock rings, blindfolds, gags. Cutting heavy hides, sewing and gluing, punching and hammering demands strength applied in concentrated doses, coupled with a painstaking attention to detail. It's a perfect gig for Shadow, the pierced and tattooed version of wholesome stability, with his neat beard, thoughtful analyses of life and love, and careful, shy smile. Shadow Morton used to be a woman. Or did he?

Says a pal of mine who knew Shadow when (no one needs ask when when was): "Shadow was on this panel discussion for butch women, and she said that she'd considered changing gender but had decided against it. She said she didn't want dykes to perceive her as a straight man when it was dykes she was attracted to." My friend lifts her eyebrows, then urges, confrontation creeping into her tone, "Ask her that. Ask how come she changed."

We take gender personally, our own and everybody else's. And Shadow, who now identifies as a gay man, altered not only his gender but his orientation. Shadow insists he changed neither. He says his real orientation was covered over by his own homophobia. By sleeping with women, he was satisfying what he thought society wanted of him as a man. Now that he's free to be himself -- now that he's uncovered himself -- he realizes his primary attraction is to men.

Matt Rice doesn't have such a clear explanation for his migration from butch dyke to gay man. The change was entirely unexpected, and it meant breaking up a relationship with a woman Matt describes as "the most wonderful girlfriend in the world." It took a gay male friend to clue Matt in to what he was feeling. "He said, 'Matt, duh, you're gay!' I was floored."

What these men are saying -- what these men are living -- tells us not only that gender is infinitely malleable but that we need to question our concept of sexual orientation. If orientation is a turning toward, perhaps we have misinterpreted what it is that magnetizes us. Are we oriented toward a gendered body, or are our attractions based on that body's sameness or otherness to ourselves? Can the "flip" from lesbian to gay man that so distressed Matt Rice be explained by discovering who he was via the truth serum of hormones? Did he, as a transitioning man, become more aware of himself in relation to other men, a growing consciousness that eventually culminated in desire? Or did his orientation alter because of an overriding attachment to queerness, a political and communal alliance strong enough to break what seemed to him unbreakable -- his sexual attraction to women? And if that's so, mightn't it be said that Matt is angling for a new position of rigidity in the midst of fluidity?

Which would mean the only thing different about Matt is that his point of reference is newer than yours or mine. While we can intellectually accept that much of identity is socially constructed, that doesn't mean we don't cling like limpets to what we think defines us. Far from being a quirky little crowd on the furthest margin of the human stage, transsexuals have come front and center to raise the curtain on what most of us prefer to keep hidden. The human paradox becomes crystal clear: The moment we take on definition, whether that definition comes from ourselves or from society, doors start slamming shut in front of us, closing off options to who we can be.

There is nothing more defining to our identity than gender. If we're going to start juggling that around, we can be forgiven for assuming the rest of the balls will drop in a predictable manner, toward the earth rather than the sky. If we start out straight, we'll wind up gay, and if we start out gay, we'll turn straight. What could be simpler?

"Try living your life on a day-to-day basis as a gay man who doesn't have a dick," Matt Rice says. He spreads his arms, inviting me to picture the immensity of the problem, like being born a Flying Wallenda with no sense of balance. He can't escape at his job either: Matt works as a bartender at gay ground zero, the Lone Star Saloon on Harrison. "Fags feel they have permission to touch you anywhere," he says. "Fags grab my chest and I'm going, 'Who gave you permission to touch me?' They're like, 'She's so uptight.' "

"The whole she-he thing," I say sympathetically.
Matt nods. "Right. They tell me, 'I call everybody she.' But have you noticed they only use it when they want to insult someone?"

We are huddled around a table on the back patio of Red Dora's, the dyke-run cafe/arts salon at 14th and Guerrero, in the Mission District. Inside, against a backdrop of Tribe 8 CDs and posters advertising poetry readings and performances, a bunch of sixtysomething dykes wearing 49er jackets are eating poached eggs and arguing politics; the twentysomethings staffing the counter smile at them benevolently and dart by every minute or so to top off their coffee.

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