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.
The sweetness of this scene — like a queer Norman Rockwell painting, late-morning light streaming in the front windows, curling the corners of fliers that have hung too long in the sun, the older women with windmilling hands and intense voices, unaware of the fondness of the younger women's gazes — makes me wonder how Matt can bear to leave dykedom for the man-eat-man world of the Lone Star. It seems depressingly allegorical that we've been banished to the dark-as-a-Dutch-landscape patio, where the steady mist of a gunmetal gray February sky occasionally marshals enough energy to splatter us with a few drops of rain. But the real story is more pedestrian: We've relegated ourselves to the back yard 'cause the third member of our party, Jonathan Weiner, wants to smoke. [page]
I've never met Jon before, though I've seen Matt around dyke events since he arrived in San Francisco in '91. At age 26, after two years of hormones, Matt looks bigger, huskier, and more settled in a body that never before seemed to fit him. He was an uneasy woman who often dealt with her awkwardness by letting others take the lead; now it's as if he's heaved a sigh of relief and let himself spread out into the psychic and physical space he craved without knowing it.
Jon, at 24, looks five years younger, and, with his crew cut, like he just stepped off the bus at boot camp. A clown and a rebel, he's the one who'd drive the drill instructor around the bend. Jon recently discovered he loves to dress in drag; he calls what he was doing before — when he was a woman — “reluctant drag.” The two bump shoulders, spar like overgrown puppies. Jon defers to Matt, who is both calmer and more sarcastic. Matt seems to have taken charge of his life in a way he had not earlier, but his face is as open and mobile as ever.
Four years ago, at an International Mr. Leather contest, Matt bumped into several FTMs (female-to-male transsexuals), including Shadow. Matt had never heard of FTMs, but he immediately understood that these men held a key to the puzzle that was Matt.
“You know how you get one of those moments of clarity? It was seeing them that put that mirror to my face, showing me people on the outside who looked like what I felt on the inside. They were people who could talk about feelings in a language I didn't have. I followed them around the whole weekend like a puppy dog.”
Within months Matt had moved to San Francisco, changed his name, and begun attending FTM meetings. “I was still living as a dyke, a dyke called Matt, and I had a girlfriend. I considered myself a dyke. I was very male-identified, but I was a boy dyke, you know how that exists now? I kept going to the meetings and talking about it for a long time. I needed to be sure I'd made every attempt to live my life the way it was set up. But the longer I was aware of the difference between my body and my identity, the more difficult it became to live my life.”
While Matt was wrestling with his identity, other people were wrestling with Matt. “They'd say, 'You don't want to be a man! Eww, yuck, you'll get hair on your back!' I'd say, 'I'm not a man, OK? I'm very male. I am not a man.' When I did make the decision to start hormones, people asked what it meant to me. I said it meant I was going to make my outside match my insides a little better.”
He didn't expect a perfect fit. “In a lot of ways I still feel like a dyke. I didn't feel like a man, or that whole sexist bullshit of what a man is supposed to be. My identity as a man is something that's developing very gradually, still coming into existence. That was something I didn't foresee.”
“So your body didn't feel right?” I hazard. He certainly seems more at home in this bigger, blunter, paradoxically more graceful Matt. But my keying on physicality diminishes what's far more important — Matt as social being. “I'm not a transsexual whose issues are with my genitals,” he explains. “It was with my gender role and how I was living in the world, how people perceived me, the way I interacted with people.”
“So the stereotype of being a man trapped in a woman's body didn't fit you at all?”
“No, it wasn't that clear. I was a little butch girl. I was very eager to please my mother, and I wore dresses when she expected me to. There were no role models for butch women when I grew up. There were gym teachers, so of course that's what I wanted to be.”
“Or a Girl Scout,” Jon puts in with a smirk.
Matt rolls his eyes. “Jon is such a nelly freak.”
“Becoming a man has gotten me more in touch with my feminine side,” Jon quips, referring to his foray into drag shows, where, he notes dryly, “I don't have to stuff my bra and I don't have to tuck.”
“Some might call this is a long trip around the world to come back to the same place,” I observe.
Matt chuckles. “That's what the guys at the bar say. 'Why didn't he just stay a girl?' ”
“But I'm not a girl, I'm a drag queen,” Jon says, smiling at the guys' dimness. “I was always a drag queen. Now that it's not expected of me, it can be fun.” He pauses to light a cigarette with half-soaked matches, an operation that takes three of us. “Being a dyke and then being a gay FTM challenges things,” he says after we reinvent fire. “You don't have credibility with a lot of people 'cause they're like, 'How can you be a dyke and now you're gay?' And I'm like, 'I don't know. I'm as confused as you are.' ”
“Thank you,” Matt tells Jon, presumably for acknowledging the confusion he too feels. “I remember when I liked nothing better than chasing around the club after cute dykes. But something changed.”
“It must have been a shock,” I say.
“Were you upset?”
“Yeah, 'cause I really loved my girlfriend.” He ponders. “I don't see women as being any different from me, but women see me as being different. And I have to respect that.” Which means he can't come as close, both physically and emotionally, and it's clear from Matt's tone that this lesson has been wrenching. “There's this whole part of me that's really involved with taking care of a woman. That's how I was brought up in the dyke community.” He had expected lesbians to accept him as he saw himself, as non-gendered, fluid Matt. “But why should dykes be different from anyone else?” he asks. There's pain in his shrug. [page]
“Does being a gay man mean sleeping with men?” It seems like a dumb question, but I have to ask. I'd seen Matt back when with women in those clubs, and it was one arena where butch Matt cavorted with both confidence and unadulterated delight.
“Yeah. And you know, I've had so many people say to me, 'I wish you were a real boy, 'cause if you were, I'd marry you in a second.' Finally I said to one guy, 'How would you feel if I said I wished you were white?' What they're saying is I'd be OK if I'm something I'm not and that I'll never be. So how do I find someone who's evolved enough to not only understand my structural differences but be able to appreciate them?”
The two engage in a spirited discussion of where to find these exalted beings. Jon thinks straight men are the answer: “If they're straight, they won't have a problem with my body … possibly.” Even Matt seems to agree: “Straight people are so respectful.” But finding true love (or maybe even a date) sounds harder than hard; in other words, scarier and more difficult than it is for any old joe out on the street, who's having trouble enough, thanks, without conflicted gay men (men Matt has dated are pressured by their pals — “Whatsamatta, can't you find a real man? Are you straight now?”), abusive dykes (one woman, upon being introduced to Matt, yanked on his tit and said, “He looks like a she to me”), and the effects of raging hormones (Matt: “Your body is going through puberty and menopause at once, and your brain is on a completely other track where you're traveling a zillion miles an hour trying to adjust to the differences in your social and public and personal interactions”).
All that's before anybody even climbs into bed. “Having sex for me is much more emotionally involved than when I was a dyke,” Matt says. “When I was a dyke, I had sex all the time and it was fun. Now there has to be a much deeper level of intimacy before I can take my clothes off with another person. I need to feel safe and supported for who I am.”
He shakes his head. “In a way I'm still gender dysphoric. When people used to look at me, they'd see a woman, and that's not what I felt like on the inside. Now when people see me, they see a guy, but that's not about my past history. When I realized that — ” He lifts his hands and makes a silent shriek, The Scream in Matt-face.
“But isn't it like that for everyone?” my confrontational friend asks. “No one sees anybody's past.” Exactly. What it really means is that altering our gender rips away the blinders that hide how little any of us are ever seen — and how little we see. It's a moment of clarity most of us would rather forget.
How many FTMs become gay or bisexual men? That question was answered in a graphic way at mid-August's first FTM Conference of the Americas, held in San Francisco, which attracted some 250 FTMs and another hundred interested parties, among them significant others and those considering the change. A board and pushpins were provided along with a map of two axes: male-identified to female-identified on the Y axis, straight to gay on the X.
“There was a cluster of pins in the upper left corner,” relates David Harrison, creator and star of the much-praised one-man theater piece FTM. “Those were the ultramale and ultrahetero. Then the rest of the pins were in this really wonderful blend, all scattered across the board. There were so many gay-identified men at the conference even we were surprised. I'd say close to half. There was so much excitement and interest that a newsletter is in the works — Trans Fag Rag.”
The pushpin exercise raises some obvious questions: We assume people change their physical gender because they identify deep down as the opposite sex, yet many of these men were scattered across the female-identified area. Is this because the change has freed these men to express qualities they'd suppressed before? Did most men know they were gay before the change, or was it a shock? How many had been oriented toward men all along?
James Green, newsletter editor of Oakland-based FTM International and a longtime transgender activist, says no statistics have been gathered to answer these questions, but he's willing to hazard a few observations. “People assume all FTMs come out of the lesbian community. I can't tell you how many people I've met who've had no connection with a gay subculture. Of course, a lot do, but we need to remember that for many people, the lesbian community was not 'the right place' but more like 'the only place.'
“Other people have a real identification with being gay, and what that means to them is being attracted to women. They haven't thought beyond that.
“Furthermore, these are people who have fought very hard to be who they are and where they are. They've struggled to break down barriers, so they don't want to limit themselves with definitions — or anyone else either. Some guys won't define themselves as anything other than 'man.' That's what they've fought so hard to be.”
More “scientific” answers will have to wait for someone's unwritten book. But what the pushpins illustrate beyond doubt is the paucity of all our ways of referring both to gender and to transgendered people. Sex change, FTM, and MTF (male to female) start one place and end another, signaling a radical leap between polarities that often leaves out the most important information — and in many people's experience is simply false. The terms also encourage erroneous assumptions that, like Frankenstein's monster, take on lives of their own; in last month's Out magazine, an article suggests that the social aims of gays and transgendered people are in opposition, because the latter group favors rigidly defined gender roles. [page]
Transgender, across gender, is more to the point (at least it allows for layering and subtlety), but by singling out some people to so label, it excludes everybody else from acknowledging the nuances that are part of all of us — and excuses us from understanding how we all accommodate society's expectations. It's much easier to say, “That's his problem, not mine” — as if any of us could escape the consequences of living in a world in which gender determines so much of who we are or could become.
Shadow Morton was described to me as a man both angry and eloquent about his summary dismissal from the dyke community. But when I meet him for a quiet Mexican meal at Mission Villa, with its dim lights and tall-backed booths, I get the impression that this is an old subject, one he's moved past. After twice as many years on hormones as Matt, he's full of enthusiasm about his life as a gay man. Perhaps we need to mourn what is lost before we can begin to embrace what's ahead.
Blond and cleanshaven but for a small beard, 33-year-old Shadow looks like exactly what he is — an articulate, thoughtful gay man. “What I was doing in the dyke world was trying to be a straight man,” he explains in a careful, measured voice. “I would grow up, find the perfect woman, we'd get married, have 2.5 kids, and live in a house with a white picket fence.”
Shadow identified with his brothers as a child and couldn't understand why his mother wanted to dress him in girls clothes. “I'd chuck the underwear she was giving me and go into my brother's dresser and take two or three of his. I was so headstrong about it that my family quit fighting me about it. They just hoped it was a phase that would pass.” He grins. “It didn't.”
When he was around 12, he figured that if he had a woman's body and felt the way he did, it must mean that he was lesbian. That same year, he went to the first gay and lesbian march in his hometown of Sioux Falls, S.D. “I scared the snot out of them,” he recalls. “They wouldn't touch me with a 10-foot pole.”
In 1977, when he was 15, he read about a female-to-male transsexual in a magazine. The article got him thinking — that and his dismay with the way his body was changing. “It was going in a completely different direction, and I had no control over it. I felt completely betrayed. I shut down and became neither male nor female and functioned that way for a very long time, even within the dyke community.”
His lesbian pals tried to get him to tone down being so male. “I'd go over to my male friends' houses, and I'd say, 'I don't understand this,' and they'd say, 'Well, we don't understand it either. Why can't you just be who you are?'
“There were key differences,” Shadow remembers. “I was much more emotionally detached. When I was with guys — and I don't mean sexually, I just mean on a comfort level — I didn't have to explain myself, I didn't have to process things. With women, I was constantly explaining my motives, my words, my actions.” He lifts his eyebrows, trying to communicate how exhausting and frustrating this was. “And when I look back at attractions to different women, it's stuff that would happen in a Harlequin romance, like I was trying to fit into a book.”
I remind him what he said at the butch women's panel, about not wanting to change gender because he was turned on by dykes. He smiles, not at all defensive.
“Surprises, surprises. I'd been with women for 12 years, and I figured that was where I was supposed to be. But when I started paying attention to what triggered my sexual arousal, I figured out it was gay porn and watching other men's bodies. I thought, 'Maybe it's just 'cause I want that body so that's what I'm attracted to.' ”
“Did this start before the hormones?”
“No. Before I started the hormones, I had a very clear-cut idea of where I was going to end up. But once the chemical was in my body, everything around my sexuality changed. I'm happy as a pig as a gay male. I don't have to change my politics; I can still be queer. I love gay men. And I don't have to worry about going out there and trying to fit into heterosexual society. I watch my sister at it, with her husband and her kids, and it doesn't make sense. It's like a totally foreign concept to me.”
He begins to tick off how it works for him. “I don't tend to be a monogamous person. I'm not looking for Mr. Right. Tricking is just fine by me. I have to be very open about my process and who I am before we do too much, unless we just keep it oral.” He pauses. “I'm still watching my friends die around me. There've been lots of people I've taken care of, and there isn't always time to wrap myself in latex when the person's getting sick. I've been stuck by needles twice helping with injections.” He lets out a deep breath. “I get tested on a regular basis, and I'm as safe as I can possibly be.” He pauses again. “It's hard getting dates. I think I've learned how to handle rejection in a very creative way.” [page]
“You tell him pretty quickly?”
“First date or two. I'll go have coffee and talk before I'll be sexual with him. Get a better feel for who he is. Early on in the hormones, I went with a guy to his place and as soon as I told him, I didn't know if I was going to live. It's the most violent reaction I've ever seen. He started throwing things, smashing things — ”
“Heterosexual panic,” I say.
Shadow nods. “When someone says to me, 'If I went to bed with you I'd be straight,' I say, 'Tell you what. We'll go to bed, we'll fuck, and then you tell me whether you've been in bed with a guy or a woman.' ” He laughs. “It's a great line. It's worked several times. And there's no argument once we get done. What women have been telling me for years is true: 'You fuck like a guy.' ”
Men like Shadow and Matt and Jon are not what the doctors had in mind when the fledgling practice of gender reassignment came into being.
“They were invested in taking sissy gay boys and transforming them into straight women,” Shadow says, “and taking tomboy women who were socially unacceptable and changing them into straight men. When a few of us started popping up who didn't fit those categories, they freaked.”
Lou Sullivan is famous in the FTM community and beyond as a man who knew what he wanted and refused to back down. In the late '70s, he presented himself to the medical establishment for what he was — a biological female who had been living as a gay male. Over the course of years, he tried to get treatment but was refused several times, due to the prevailing opinion that there was no such thing as a gay transsexual — he was told, in fact, that he could not be FTM because he was gay. This shortsightedness likely had roots in the erroneous assumption that transsexuals are homosexuals who can't accept being gay and who therefore must alter their biological sex — ergo, all transsexuals desire to be straight, which segued quite nicely with what the doctors wanted anyway.
Sullivan was like a bucket of ice water thrown on that bit of wishful thinking. Naturally he was treated as a misguided anomaly. But he neither changed his tune (many transsexuals are still forced to lie, telling the doctors what they want to hear), nor did he quietly slink away. He wrote letters, made phone calls, brought pressure from other doctors and transsexuals, and in 1986 founded FTM (which later became FTM International), partly as a resource for other men who were held hostage by recalcitrant doctors, partly as an educational and lobbying organization. Finally, years after he began his determined fight with the powers that be (and for some transsexuals, this phrase could not be more appropriate, since their ability to be is at the mercy of a medical authority's subjective judgment), Sullivan was allowed to transition.
In December 1989, the FTM newsletter announced that providers would no longer discriminate against gay FTMs; it must have been a sweet victory for Sullivan, who had tested positive for HIV in '86. He died of AIDS in March 1991, after handing off the newsletter to James Green, a man he knew only slightly but a prescient choice, since Green has walked well in Sullivan's big shoes.
“We can credit him with raising the medical profession's consciousness of a separation between gender and orientation,” Green says. Sullivan's insistence punched holes in closed minds, and his questions challenged the way all transsexuals were treated. In some localities the situation for transsexuals is changing rapidly, though sign-offs from a therapist are still required for every phase, including hormones.
Until very recently, the rules transsexuals had to abide by were draconian and downright dangerous — like requiring people to cross-dress for up to two years without benefit of hormones. Only after this trial by fire was the person allowed to begin hormones. After another specified passage of time, an FTM could undergo the “top” surgery, to remove the breasts and reconstruct the chest, and later, if he could afford it, he could whip out a cool $100,000 for the “bottom” surgery, in which a penis and testes are fabricated — or substantially less for a procedure in which the clitoris is freed and the labia formed into testes. During or after the surgeries, the patient was encouraged to move to a different area, take on a new name, and not associate with other transsexuals. A successful transition meant being able to pass even with one's wife.
It's easy to see how this script would appeal to heterosexual doctors, and how repellent it would be to queers who teethed on Stonewall. Being in the closet is being in the closet, and besides, not everyone wanted to take the same path. At a February FTM meeting, Alice Webb, a longtime gender psychotherapist and one of the gatekeepers who establishes guidelines for who receives care and on what time schedule treatment is parceled out, tried to convince a somewhat skeptical crowd that the medical establishment really was raising its consciousness, really was hearing what transgendered people had been trying to tell them for years: that all of this is a lot more complicated than anybody wants to believe, and that it would benefit both parties if doctors would work in partnership rather than as Orwellian social police. Webb said the prime aim of the medical community now is to bring people to where they feel comfortable: If that means hormones and no surgery, fine; if it means surgery and no hormones, sure; if only the top and not the bottom, great. This would have been heresy even five years ago, and to many doctors still it means stranding people in a freakish no man's land. [page]
But with the opening up of options — and with telling the truth (not everyone feels trapped in the wrong body, as we've learned on talk shows infinitum) — comes other questions. Who chooses such a difficult path?
A friend — certainly not the one who's miffed by all this — is in the process of making the change. She (she hasn't changed the pronoun yet) and I spend a lot of time talking about our childhoods. “But it was the same for me,” I cry, again and again.
“Precisely,” she says, and fixes me with insistent eyes. She thinks I'm way deep in denial land, thinks I should be plunging that needle into my hip. I talk to other people with childhoods similar to mine. They're not bounding off to “Tranny Tuesday” at the San Francisco Department of Public Health's Tom Waddell Clinic either. Did my friend's discomfort reach a point she could no longer bear? Or is it that just about any day of the week I'd choose discomfort over change? Coward or not, I can't help but believe most of the denial of who I am comes from the outside, not from within. If I altered my gender, who would I be satisfying, me or them?
“I am a transsexual man, and in my opinion that's a different gender from what people commonly think of as 'man,' ” says David Harrison in his soft British accent. Gone is dreary late February, with its fitful rains; we're basking in the bright March sun on the plant-filled patio at Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint, at the con-fluence of 16th, Market, and Noe. A couple of squat tiki gods, a few orange-and-purple-flowered lantanas, and a passel of succulents masquerade as a trop-ical paradise. What's surprising is how well it works, though there's plenty else to see through the cutouts in the fence, what with the constant parade of queerdom up and down Market Street.
David is 36, a gentle, sweet man who began hormones about two years ago. He beams when he tells me about his recent chest surgery and shows off his pecs with barely concealed glee. “I feel more identified as a male than I thought I would. But the irony is, as David I'm more able to express what one would call female qualities. What's actually happened is that a whole barrier has come down. I'm far more open and nurturing than I was as Katherine.”
“Like it's coming from more of a real place?” I ask. By which I mean how it would be if nine-tenths of you had been locked behind a wall — when that wall cracks, there's so much more of you to see and to feel and to be.
“Yes, exactly,” he says. “And I am a pansexual. I use that word because I don't like the word 'bisexual,' which assumes there are only two genders. But I'll tell you, sexually these days, men turn me on more than women do. In terms of what I fantasize about and look at on the street, I look at men.”
David, who sells subscriptions for the San Francisco Ballet, is the creator of the theater piece FTM, which opened here in the spring of '94 and then traveled to Santa Monica, Minneapolis, and Saskatoon in western Canada, where David's family emigrated when he was 12. He hopes to stage the play in San Francisco again this spring. “I love acting,” David says. “I went to acting school when I was 19, and I learned how to play women. It was really bizarre. Even though I looked feminine, I couldn't link it up. It was very difficult for me.”
“What did that mean to you?”
He shakes his head. “It had nothing to do with being transsexual for me.” At the same time, David came out as a lesbian. “During the late '70s I was into lesbian paganism, really getting into my body as female and doing a lot to accept my body as female. I never disliked my breasts as flesh. What I disliked was that I had no choice in the matter.”
“You didn't feel connected to them.”
“Yes. I had nice breasts, but they would have looked better on somebody else. We used to joke with the MTFs, maybe we could trade some things.”
About 10 years ago, David trained for a sex information hot line and met his first transsexuals. He became lovers with two male-to-female transsexuals — “at different times,” he hastens to add. “Vicariously, indirectly, I began to deal with some of my gender stuff through being with these two people.” He describes the process as opening a big, black box that had sat padlocked in an attic for a very long time — opening it for a second and then slamming it shut again. “It was much too scary to even think I could be that way.”
During that same period, David was working as a dominatrix — “a very femme top,” which became the subject of his first play, Permission. “I'd go to these sessions wearing a garter belt, stockings, corset, the whole deal. It was totally acting. And I'd think, 'These guys actually believe I'm a woman.' ” He still sounds astonished, as if the shock will never wear off. “Part of me was standing outside thinking, 'This is so absurd and funny and ridiculous.' I liked the sexual energy, but I never had a boyfriend. I could never get into that. There's something about same-gender relating that has always not only been a major turn-on, but in here, up in my head, it just makes the most sense to me.” [page]
Then one evening (“Winter solstice, actually; Dec. 21, 1989,” says David) David's world turned upside down, when he went to see Kate Bornstein's play Hidden: A Gender, about Bornstein's experiences as an MTF. Thinking it terrific, he went backstage and introduced himself. It was the start of a 4 1/2 year relationship. “Kate made it really safe for me to look at my gender. I was so terrified. I have never been so terrified of anything in my life. I would have these dreams, go through these bouts of feeling … physically weird in my body. I'd wake up expecting to see a male body, feel a male body.
“Over a period of some months I had between 50 and 75 dreams about waking up and having had the surgery and what I would look like. More dreams about the chest stuff than having a penis. This is something a lot of people misunderstand. It's not an intellectual change. I was kicking and screaming and fighting it. I did not want to be a man in this culture, but my psyche was pushing me in that direction.”
Part of why he fought so hard was that he was worried Kate would no longer be attracted to him. And shoved way underneath was the fear that he would no longer be attracted to Kate.
“That it wouldn't be homoerotic? That you would change?”
He nods. “That I would be attracted to men.”
“Though your sexual orientation had always been toward women.”
“Yes. And it was the shattering of a … for me it was a shattering of illusions. When we met each other it was like, thank god, where have you been all my life? Here was this relationship I always wanted, and then we both changed. It's like, now what? I'm a new person, I'm attracted to men. I don't know if what I wanted before is even applicable.”
“Because you feel so different?”
“Yes.” He sighs. “Kate was hip to it before I was. I just don't know anymore. My sexuality keeps changing.”
David has put a couple ads in the personals section of the Bay Times. “Mostly men who identify as heterosexual answered. I said, 'I have female plumbing, but I look like a guy. You may not be attracted to me.' And I wasn't what they expected. They expected a butch woman. I got really tired of that. Though one man … he said that after being with me he realized sex was not about bodies, that sex is about erotic energy between two people. People need to see gender beyond a certain set of genitals or a body type and look instead at what that person is exuding.”
I asked unflappable Shadow if he thought the soul was gendered. He considered the question in his measured way, took a sip of his 7UP, and said, “I don't like the idea of a gender continuum because it's so linear. I see more a sphere, of which you can take cross-sections, slicing them horizontally, diagonally, or whatever. You'd find something different all along the way.
“I think of souls as a multidimensional part of ourselves that are temporarily in linear time. But we still have the capacity to experience all those dimensions. A lot of gender folk are going beyond the physical realm of gender and taking it to a spiritual realm.” He shakes his head. “The human race is so caught up in categorizing itself, into putting everyone in little boxes that keep everything separate. But so many people are coming together and blending, whether about gender or race or culture, that those boxes are no longer applying. As we're moving into that evolution, people are freaking out, because there's no longer a nice set order to how things are supposed to be, and that's frightening to a lot of human beings.”
I picture Shadow, over coffee, delivering the news to a prospective date. How he must hate it! And I remember when a butch pal of mine — you might call her a “fuck buddy” — told me over dinner that she was moving in with her lover, a lover she'd never mentioned during the two years I'd known her. “But why have you never talked about her?” I asked.
“It's not a her, it's a him,” she said, her face practically in her plate. I was speechless. And while I sat there paralyzed, I was desperately thinking, I've got to say something, she's drowning, say something, but for far too long I could not. Such are the certainties of the assumptions we live by, and the sick free fall when those assumptions crash into hard reality.
Transsexuals live in the real world of fluidity that almost no one else wants to see. Who cares to remember that who we think we are might not have all that much to do with us, yet it governs almost everything we do? It's like being the one sober person in a roomful of drunks. “Come on, join the party,” everyone else sloppily entreats. There's a certain satisfaction in staying sentient, but it must also be damn lonely.