Real Women Can Have PenisesTransparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers
By Cris Beam
New York: Harcourt, 2007, 323 pp., $25.00, hardcover
What Becomes You
By Aaron Raz Link and Hilda Raz
Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007, 296 pp., $24.95, hardcover
The Testosterone Files: My Hormonal and Social Transformation from Female to Male
By Max Wolf Valerio
Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006, 343 pp., $15.95, paperback
Reviewed by Jacob Anderson-Minshall
From the opening pages of Transparent, author Cris Beam plunges readers into a colorful but dangerous world, where disadvantaged, often homeless, transgender teenagers struggle to survive on the streets of Hollywood:
Santa Monica Boulevard’s got the sun-bleached chain-store feeling of most of L.A. [But] if you’re a transgender girl… you can learn which dance clubs, like Arena (with its crudely painted ocean mural on the outside), let in underage kids and have go-go boxes for dancing…you can walk with a friend to the Jeff Griffith Youth Center…and a pool table with no billiard balls, and you can hang out until the place closes at six o’clock without cars stopping you on the street and asking, “How much?”
Entering this world nearly by accident after volunteering at a one-room, basement “high school” for gay and transgender youth, Beam develops a deep emotional connection with several trans girls of color whom she continues to mentor for years. She traces her commitment to these girls—particularly to Christina, who becomes like a member of Beam’s family—to the reverberations of her own difficult childhood, which Beam allows to inform, but never overwhelm, the girls’ stories.
Beam doesn’t pull her punches in exposing the darker aspects of these girls’ experiences: rapes and beatings, abandonment by their birth families, hustling for cash, blackmarket hormones, and dangerous “pumping parties,” where trans girls seeking curves inject free floating industrial-grade silicone—from hardware sealants and adhesives—into their breasts, buttocks, hips, and cheeks. The girls are often driven by parental (in)actions, even at the expense of their own well-being. Desperate to understand how her mother could have abandoned her for crack, for example, Dominique tries the drug herself, and immediately becomes addicted. She ends up committing a felony and is sentenced to a men’s prison.
To illustrate the broad diversity found in the trans community, Beam describes a “drag mother,” Foxx, who mentors younger girls and tells them, “‘Real women [can] have penises.”
“Cause who are you pleasing if you cut it off?” Foxx will saucily quip. “Your man or yourself? Girl, you got to please yourself in this world, and real women can have a little something extra between their legs if they want to.”
Although Beam admits she “felt a shiver of discomfort” when she first heard this sentiment, she comes to accept that “the brain and the heart are the only organs with a gender, and…all genital modification or lack thereof is simply a personal aesthetic choice.” After all, Beam argues, if genitalia are kept covered like “wounds and secrets,” then a “a penis is something that is between a woman and her partners.”
Throughout these stories, Beam weaves useful reference material about trans people in history, medical procedures, and standards of care. She discusses the problems that arise when institutions maintain strict, binary sex segregation—the reason some trans activists believe such governmental regulations are the greatest threat facing trans people today.
Beam rarely missteps, but when she does it’s because she’s strayed from her own perspective and the girls’ descriptions of their lives and motivations. Analyzing the girls’ attraction to super-feminine self-presentations, Beam relies on a third party, Alexis Rivera, who claims that “transwomen were raised as boys and learned to see women through the eyes of their fathers or other men around them.”
Albeit a transwoman herself—and a caseworker who has interacted with dozens of trans girls—Rivera’s argument suffers when she admits her own stepfather, who raised her, did not teach her to objectify women. Any contention that applies to everyone but the person making it should raise readers’ suspicions. Furthermore, a cursory glance at the popularity of the Pussycat Dolls, pole dancing, and thong underwear for adolescent girls should be enough to convince readers that non-trans girls, too, can be drawn to sexualized feminine presentations, even when they—like most American children—are raised by women.
Do daughters belong to their mothers while sons belong to their fathers? This seems to be one of the arguments of the unusual memoir What Becomes You, which offers the perspectives both of Aaron Raz Link, a gay trans man, and his mother, the feminist scholar and poet Hilda Raz. “We’re all unreliable narrators,” Link argues. “Which is, ultimately, what the book is about. Both art and family teach a larger vision, a shared vision, of identity.”
Born a feminist’s daughter, the Jewish, Nebraska native never saw himself as female:
I could see myself in Harry Earles in Freaks, a dwarf with the face of a baby doll talking about how people never took him seriously as a man. I could even see myself in Johnny Eck, handsome, talented, “the boy with half a body.” But I never saw myself as a woman.
Link began to identify more with monsters than with a particular gender. He admits this made his transition difficult. “No one can improve their situation much without seeing it clearly, and the more necessary the transformation, the more likely that seeing the current situation clearly will make it impossible to survive.”
It takes the biologist Link three decades to gain the perspective needed to transition from female bodied to male bodied. When he does, his science background enables him to make some intriguing correlations, such as relating transsexual body dysmorphia to “alien limb” sensations, in which victims fail to recognize limbs as their own:
[Dr. Oliver] Sacks described a patient who had lost ownership of his injured leg. The presence of a detached limb in his bed horrified him so much that he repeatedly tried to throw it away, with disastrous results. Many transsexuals try to remove the foreign body parts themselves if surgery is not available.
When he was seventeen, Link himself told his mother he wanted “some female organs removed.” She threatened to call the police. Instead of that drastic measure, Link turned to birth control pills to suppress his period and later had endometrial resection prior to his medical transition.
Believing that his gender is the result of a minor biological variation, Link argues that psychiatrists are attempting to define a physical condition as a mental illness: “gender identity disorder.” Conditions such as autism and epilepsy were given similar treatment, Link explains, “because they have no obvious cause and make normal-looking folks perceive and behave in scary-seeming ways.’
Link reimagines the term “sex-change,” arguing it’s not the transsexual person who undergoes the procedure. Describing his cousin’s reaction to Link’s planned gender reassignment surgery, Link says,
In that strange unguarded moment, I saw that what was moving beneath my cousin’s suddenly unfamiliar features was his picture of me. He was having a sex-change operation.
Offering only a brief account of the changes he undergoes on testosterone, the once celibate Link reveals his need for sex is elevated to the level of “say, food”:
[Y]ou find yourself doing what my old friend Joe used to call the please-baby please-baby please… now I’m that god-awful dog the neighbors had that wouldn’t quit humping the furniture.
When Link contends, “Being a man, like being a woman, is something you have to learn,” he seems to be recalling feminist tenets, but he hardly comes across as a feminist—particularly in his mother’s recollections. When Raz reveals that her “daughter” frequently demanded, “What patriarchy?” it begs for further analysis. Unfortunately, when it comes to her son and their relationship, Raz admits, “Analysis is beyond me.” This is unfortunate, because analysis would serve What Becomes You well. The work’s efforts to provide a variegated perspective on Link’s experience suffer further when Raz’s contribution is restricted to a mere seventy pages, and constrained by Link’s directive that she write about her life, not his.
Unlike Link’s linear style, Raz’s stream of consciousness flutters from Link to herself, to a Polish Holocaust survivor who thought she smelled foul to others, to quotes from Eudora Welty. The past, present, and future are clumped together, sticking where they touch, like static cling. Raz’s surgeries and Link’s mirror each other, blend together, become one. Link sacrifices his breasts to gain a man-chest; he has his female organs removed with relief. Meanwhile, Raz is far less thrilled to lose a breast to cancer, her ovaries and uterus to previous aliments. She writes of her own surgery in poetic prose that is like a waking dream:
Somewhere in my nighttime hospital room, a woman in her seventh decade, her waist as small as a girl’s, floats and touches. When I moan she takes my head in her hands, promises in a whisper, “Sometimes in our lives we all need help.” She helps me. My thank you note to her is burned work on iced linen.
Despite the constraints, Raz manages to explore the multiplicity of truths and fictions that make up Link’s personal embodiment. “Part of the truth is that for thirty years what seemed an irrefutable fact—I was present and saw myself giving birth to a daughter—turns out to be fiction.” She explains how she interpreted her child’s non-conventional gender expression:
I thought she was growing up butch. To be butch meant to be rebellious, unconventional, independent. I assumed that Aaron’s rejection of everything female, including his body, had more to do with rejecting women’s roles and behavior than with being a man.
Raz comes to understand that “Sarah” was nothing more than Raz’s “hopeful projection into a future generation more generous to women.”Addressing the changes in their relationship—and Raz’s expectations—wrought by Link’s transition, What Becomes illuminates the strained relationship between a mother and her and son:
“Women want daughters like water,” I mutter to Aaron.
“Why?” he asks.
I don’t have an answer, yet. He asks why women love other women better than men…He says he can’t see how I’ll ever love him as I loved Sarah. I don’t love men as I love women.
Born in the guise of his mother’s daughter, and privy to the conversations women keep secret from the men in their lives, “[Aaron] says that he has heard this man-hating talk since he was a small child and we mistakenly thought he was a girl. Then and now, he is hurt as a man,” writes Raz. Now that he is her son, it is as though he no longer belongs to her, Raz says, “He is a man, which means, not like his mother.” In the end, she seems surprised to discover that they remain close and share commonalities. “Surely,” she concludes, “my mother would be astonished that what becomes me also becomes my son.”
Neither abandoned by nor close to his mother, trans poet Max Wolf Valerio writes in his edgy and thought-provoking memoir, The Testosterone Files, “My mother has had a difficult time with the change…[she] forbade me to set foot on her reserve ever again.” The American Indian-Latino Sephardic Valerio was best known pre-transition as a lesbian feminist with a piece in the essential feminist-of-color anthology This Bridge Called My Back. His memoir provides insight into the dramatic changes a female-bodied person undergoes on testosterone treatment.
Organized into three sections, Testosterone Files opens when Valerio is at the height of his transition. (Like Transparent and What Becomes You, the Testosterone Files primarily takes place in the mid to late 1990s):
My values and beliefs undergo a cataclysmic reevaluation as I transform. I say over and over again, “If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be just another dude standing at Frenchy’s gawking at girlie magazines or beating off in video booths, I would’ve said you were crazy.”
Then Valerio travels back a decade to explore his lesbian years, weaving in childhood memories and experiences. Far from Link’s celibacy, Valerio eagerly explores sexual expression within San Francisco’s vibrant lesbian and punk communities. During these years he begins to question his actions, his thoughts, and his very identity as the awareness of his male self stalks him.
When he first makes his transition, he feels conflicted. “After being a lesbian feminist, becoming a man is something that I feel uneasy, even a bit guilty, about.” But he quickly becomes an eager “voyeur” to his transition. “I’ve become an audience to my demise as a woman, as a lesbian.” It is in his voyeuristic approach—and his ability to locate himself within the community around him—that Valerio’s strength as a storyteller lies. While What Becomes lacked analysis, Valerio provides it in spades, monitoring and assigning meaning to his every transformation and other’s responses to it.
Extrapolating from his own experiences, Valerio argues that fundamental differences between the sexes exist, rooted in hormonal influences rather than socialization. While Link equates his new sexuality with love, Valerio associates it with aggression. He says women in his audiences have cried at readings he’s done of the graphic and frank chapter “Cock in my Pocket,” about his heightened sex drive and capacity for rape: “My god, if this is how men feel, how come they don’t rape more often?” Valerio learns from non-trans mentors how to control his drives and express them in non-violent ways. While he still believes in feminism, Valerio says, his politics are now mediated by his experience of manhood. “I’m now more empathetic to men’s lives and experiences. I see that guys have it rougher than I’d imagined.”
Taken together, these memoirs explore the relevance of feminism in trans lives, a relevance that may differ across boundaries of race, class, gender, generation, sexual orientation, and educational background. The primarily poor, Latina, high school dropout girls of Transparent have no formal introduction to feminism, and the oppression they experience because of their racial, economic and transgender identities is far more obvious than their oppression as females. Still, they incorporate feminist tenants of choice and control over one’s own body into their lives, decisions, and arguments.
Meanwhile Link seems to be rebelling against and rejecting his mother’s feminism while simultaneously utilizing feminist-like critiques of social inequalities, [trans]gender oppression, institutional control of trans bodies, and discrimination against gay men. The former lesbian feminist, Valerio, has become an unapologetic male who believes that women deserve equity, but argues that real differences exist between the sexes, and that societal conventions are often in place to manage those differences. “There is,” he writes, “a reason, a biologically encoded impetus, for many of our cultural preoccupations, rituals, and symbolisms.”
Like Valerio, I too was once a lesbian feminist. I’m thankful that I haven’t experienced the dark sides of masculinity that he describes, but I recognize that not doing so may simply be an effect of my disability, which keeps me homebound, and the medication that treats my condition, which also depresses my sex drive.
As a trans man I remain committed to feminist principles and the lesbian community. But, like Link, I find myself saddened by the level of androphobia that seems rooted in the behavior and conversations of many straight women. And I worry, sometimes, that the only thing preventing me from objectifying women could be the side effect of a pharmaceutical cocktail.
Jacob Anderson-Minshall is a transgender writer whose syndicated column, TransNation, appears in queer publications from San Francisco to Boston. He co-authors the Blind Eye mystery series with his wife. Blind Curves is available now.