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A Way Out of the Gender Mess

By Perry Brass

Editor's Note: Photos in this article are of famed Florida female impersonator Logan Carter, a.k.a. Roxanne Russell. Logan's life (1954-1988) is being celebrated by the historian Dr. James T. Sears in the second volume in his series of Southern gay histories due out in 2001 and titled 'Rebels, Rubyfruits and Rhinestones'
 Photo: D. Pittman For the past several months I have been witness to a flap over the Internet about gender. Or "transgenderism"--the idea that some people are unhappy about their birth-assigned sex roles, and want to assume that of the opposite gender.

One of the leaders in this fight has been my old colleague from Gay Liberation Front days, Jim Fouratt, who has taken the position that transgenderism, for the most part, does not exist. That "trans" people, as they are called, are simply gay men and lesbians who can not accept their own homosexuality.

They are, in his eyes, latent lesbians who have decided to become men, rather than face their lesbian feelings, and latent homosexual men who wish to do likewise, rather than lead a tango with the guys of their dreams. In their dreams, they only follow: they are always women, because, according to Fouratt's theory, they can not internalize themselves as men who are attracted to men.

In plain words, they have to be women to be attracted to men.

This may be simplifying the argument. But basically what it is saying is that for some people, the choice to be openly gay is a thousand times harder than the choice to change sex assignment--and therefore gender--even though doing that, especially today, with expensive invasive surgery--is no piece of cake either.

In fact, it can be a disaster, with botched surgeries, disfigurement, and under-the-counter, bootleg hormone treatments leading to cancers, etc. The avenues for the victimization of transgendered people are very broad. So, the question is: why do it?

But, there really aren't too sides to this coin. In fact, I'm not even sure there is one coin. Gender, as opposed to bio-sex roles, is more like one of those faceted disco balls. It spins off constantly changing refractions of itself, depending upon the ball's movement and which facet is being hit by the light.

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Certainly in this argument, there is class. It's not exactly a secret that as you head farther down the class ladder, gender roles harden. I grew up in a public housing project among what we used to call in the South "poor white trash" people.

(Okay, today they are still called poor white trash; but some people can't get it into their heads that this is not always a pejorative term: I'd rather be real poor white trash than the imitation chic, yuppy dreck that I see all around me, with the imitation Cartier pens sticking out of their pockets; however, who am I to cast aside personal diversions .. . ?)

So, basically, people from this p.w.t. background see two models and that's all, folks. They are, in this order: football hero. Prom queen.

You're either one or the other. Daddy or Mommy. And often, by the time you are sixteen for boys and fourteen for girls, you become a Daddy or a Mommy. (As Irving Berlin said in "Annie Get Your Gun," "Folks is dumb where I come from/ They never fuss or bother . . . ")

 So, growing up in the very dippy South where I was brung up, I got to know, real quick, boys into drag. I also got to know some exceedingly butch girls. If you were going to be a "sissy," you had to be a sissy all the way. The same thing goes for being a man.

In Latin cultures, this spawned the cult of the macho and the maricone. The macho could get his coals hauled by the maricone--that is, he could "play the man's role," without ever becoming a maricone. Of course, everyone knows that whether you pitch or catch, it's all still baseball.

Homosexually, the fucker is just as "queer" as the fuckee. But as we trade down in class territory, we try to alter the menu to our own bent tastes: kind of like the thrill of "having it your way" at Burger King.

But even at Burger King, you still don't get it all your way: no matter how you slice and dice it, pitch and catch it, you're still queer. This means that for many "trans" people, if in their own cultures they cannot accept being a "gay boy," it's easier to become, in their minds, a "straight girl."

In some communities, among Latinos, blacks, and poor whites, especially, this has led to a whole scene of street kids who are desperate to become the opposite sex. Gender to them means sex assignment. It is impossible for them to feel good about themselves while they feel bad about their "betrayal" of their own biologically assigned sex roles. They cannot be boys having sex with boys; they have to be "girls." (Or the obverse, for butch young women.)

To them, in America certainly, in a country whose thinking has been shaped by a frontier mentality of male assertiveness (but, I must say, not necessarily male domination: people forget that in many Western parts of the U.S. women got the right to vote, divorce, own property, etc. decades before they did in "enlightened Europe"), being soft, tender, and responsive is a betrayal of what masculinity, evidently, "had to be."

Much of this American reconfiguring of masculinity (which reached its most brain-dead, hard-assed apotheosis in the 1950s, after World War II) has to do with industrialization: with constantly alienating human beings from their own authentic feelings. Thus the "Yup, nope, shoot first" Gary Cooper model (which, by the way, Cooper knew was pure fraud: there are more than rumors that the very pretty, young Coop started out as a male prostitute in Hollywood) became constructed as men found themselves more and more distanced from Nature itself, from any closeness with their own primal, nurturing, deeper emotions.

logan2.jpg - 51.31 K So, as Daddy found himself less of a farmer, cowpoke, and huntin' man and more of an assembly line cog or a desk jockey, he had to instill in Junior all the "rugged indee'widjalism" that he never had himself. Among the martini and countryclub set, this was looked upon with a kind of wink.

Growing up as a poor relation to spoiled rich shits, when I left the various housing projects in which I abided (always with names like "So-and-So Gardens" and "So-and-So Estates") and went forth among the landed Southerners I was s'posed to emulate, I noticed that the rich (always crueler than the poor) did not spit in your face for just being a sissy, but for being a moneyless one.

Now, you don't have to win at "21" to see that this does put a class spin on the "issue" (or problem) of transgenderism. And you can even push it a bit further to see that there are people who do internalize their class values harder than others.

They are less forgiving on themselves: if they just chilled out a bit, as the kids say, and possibly relaxed into their own maleness or femaleness without all the class/cultural baggage around it, they might actually find themselves happy with own their birth assignments.

The writer/explorer/former husband, etc. Jan Morris (nee James Morris), who achieved absolute fame when he became a she, once said that what convinced him to transsexualize himself was his desire to have "men open doors for me." He wanted to be in that courted, catered to, passive, softer, more receptive role that he felt belonged only to women.

Well, I hate to clue Jan (once James) in on this, but I've been opening doors for men before I learned how to eat corn on the cob. I've also had men bring me flowers, chocolates, send me exquisite little presents, call me "honey," etc. and I never felt that I had to get my little Bobby cut off to do it. I've been a seductive and seduced "young" man for a very long time. I've enjoyed that role, and it has never occurred to me that it is not "male" either to be it or luxuriate in it.

Still, this may be only a rationalization. Perhaps Morris really wanted to say something else. She really felt that she wanted to have the door opened for her because she was a woman, and not in spite of the fact she'd been born a man.

This may put a deeper, stranger, and more tangled course on the argument, one whose path or paths become so knotted that it's impossible to untangle them and find a clear way out.

 But I do feel I have found a little clearing here, one that can lead us back into some kind of understanding not simply of what it means to be a man, but to be attracted to men.

What I am saying is that I believe it is very much possible to be attracted to someone who is transgendered BECAUSE that person is transgendered. I know I have felt this in my own attraction to transgendered men, that is, to women who have become men.

I know that I find something about the harder outside of their "maleness" meeting an inner warmth of femaleness that is overwhelming to me.

In a gay culture that fetishizes huge muscles and big dicks and a totally two-dimensional, flat brain space, some of the transgendered men I have met have been voluptuously mesmerizing. I want to spread them on toast. Slurp them down.

I would not feel this way if they were women. I would feel differently. There would be some barrier between them and me that would keep my batteries from charging. There would not be this delightful tension and history and mystery going on all at the same time. There would not be this thing that says I want to "sixty-nine" to the very end of you, and then come back to a creature like myself.

Now, this feeling, this tongue-tying lurching towards, let's say, men of "less determinate gender," that is (in plainer terms), "exquisitely tender men," is as old as the hills. Shakespeare is filled with it. In Shakespeare's time, boys played young girls on the stage and it was common for a boy to portray a girl who, in the play, was playing a boy.

In "As You Like it," one of the characters falls in love with a boy, feels himself totally drawn to "him," without knowing that, in fact, the "boy" is a girl masquerading as a boy. The boy's inner girl is attracting him. Shakespeare knew that the girl would be played by a boy: so the "normal" man finds himself mesmerized . . . really macerated, by the sugary sweet delights of a boy under the "form" of a girl.

In Mozart's delicious opera "The Marriage of Figaro," Cherubino, a boy of sixteen, is smitten with love for women. All women. He sees them both as lover and mother. He is constantly in trouble with his teenage horniness, which becomes a joke among the beautiful women in the Count's court who tease him for it. Finally, as a table-turner, they dress him up as a chamber maid to deliver a note to the philandering Count, who starts to hit on him.

Now, Mozart and (his librettist) Lorenzo Da Ponte, knew that here we have a hyper-sexualized older man enflamed by a young boy who is never completely taken to be a young girl. The more sophisticated audiences of Mozart's day certainly saw the attraction of the boy within this girl and they laughed at it, but it didn't bother them to the point of rage.

They knew that there is a girlishness within (okay, for p.c.'s sake we'll say "some") boys and boyishness within "some" girls that is delicious and transforming. It is also vulnerable and open to exploitation, which has been an age-old issue within any society: how to keep this gender "wobble" within bounds.

 So if this attraction to transgenderism is so real, so total, on the part of the attracted, why can't it be equally real on the part of the attractor? To see yourself as a man with woman's roots and love this aspect of yourself, to feel every fiber of it within you . . . doesn't this transcend class, race, or background? I see this argument as something that needs an artistic model rather than a political or biological one. And here we are dealing with Art itself, in that Art is always a matter of choices.

The artist must make the choice of how big the work of art will be, how long (art always has a beginning, a middle, and an end: if not, we are dealing wit Nature, the greatest artist, surely); what medium to use and what its function is.

The artist must make these choices out of many possibilities. So in this way the transgendered person is creating him/herself as a work of art, which becomes in a way a loving offering to his own deeper self (Art is always an offering: it needs an audience, even if the audience is some darker, more private aspect of the artist).

But this "art"-ificiality bothers some people. We live with the consumer illusion of "naturalism" all around us: the kind of naturalism found in Nature stores at shopping malls; or in the tasteless "breakfast spread" called "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter." (It ain't.) That we live now in an artificial environment, devoid of most authentic human contact, bypasses most Americans; but the "artificiality" of transgenderism hits them directly on the noggin.

We are dealing here, then, in an inner "mythology," the belief that there is, inside us, a territory of what we really are. This flies in the face of the current "wisdom," which is to have our mythologies sold wholesale to us by the media: the great washed-and-deodorized out there want Barbara Walters and Dr. Laura to tell them who's kosher and who isn't. Like these two famed media bitch's amazing depth and background is going to figure anything out. (Barbara got her Ph.D. in fawning over celeb couples; Laura Schlesinger's was in the refinements of Beach Volleyball.)

Uh uh.

Now in my own inner mythology, there is the Divine Male. Open, warm, sensuous, He is everything that terrifies most American men, queer or not. He is strong, vulnerable, fuckable, suckable, and sucking. Godlike, and devilish too. He is Tom Cruise in a prom dress; Bill Clinton lavishly giving Monica a blow job . . . and it doesn't take a lot to see who Monica is this time--

(Yeah, he's the one writing this piece. . . . )

At the other end is the Divine Female. Assertive. Leonine. Huntress. Mother. Venus: goddess of War and Beauty. So, if the genders do have all of these seemingly contradictory private aspects within them, why would some people still want to flip over to the other one?

The answer to that is not something that I have inside me. Nor, I think, does anyone else. Certainly not generations of smug, psycho-analytic schnorers who think they have all the answers. Or p.c. mavens who assert they can still tell you how to think. Or the little overpaid dumbshit kids (the ones who should be out in the playground, but are now running some NASDAQ corporations) telling me who "sucks" and who doesn't.

(As a dedicated queer boy, like President Clinton, I enjoy sucking.)

But I certainly can see the possibility of gender flipping. Certainly if the gender climate within you is so stormy that this is the only way you can rest happy. The only way you can feel yourself, finally, in alignment with both great mythical poles of Maleness and Femaleness. If you authentically feel, within, that that perfect balance comes from somewhere other than where you were born . . . I can understand that.

Because I also had to leave where I was born. Like most gay men, I am a refugee from my own turbulent growing up. Within me are the nightmares of those strange, twisted elements of being Jewish, sissified, and "poor white trash" in a housing project in Savannah, Georgia. I had to leave all that, but I still take some of it with me, every day of my life.
Perry Brass's latest book, his eleventh, is Angel Lust, An Erotic Novel of Time Travel. For the last ten years, his books have been about flipping through identities.

You can learn more about them and reach him through his own website,

He will be reading from Angel Lust at A Different Light Bookstore in New York on Thursday, April 20 at 7 p.m. For more information: 212 989-4850.

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