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Arresting Dress: An investigation into crossdressing prohibition law

Prior to the California gold rush, San Francisco was a small coastal settlement of about 800 hundred residents whose greatest claim to fame was its fine port. Gold changes everything, however, and within two years the population had swelled to 35,000 residents, most of them male. This “peculiarity” of the population gave the town a wild frontier aspect. Prostitution, gambling, drunkenness and corruption were rampant. So was crossdressing.

The scarcity of women made crossdressing largely socially acceptable. In dances organized in the mining camps, some men took the role of women by simply wearing large colourful patches on their clothes. When proper feminine clothing was available, the crossdressing was more elaborate. Young George Dornin, who later became a Republican member of the state legislature, recounted in his memoirs a Fourth of July same-sex dance in which he was “made presentable as a young lady” and danced the night away. It is difficult to imagine a current politician admitting to such an adventure.

Sooner or later, however, San Francisco’s rambunctiousness had to be reined in. A vigilante committee was struck up to purify the city of corruption. By 1862, a number of “good morals and decency laws” were enacted and tucked within them was a prohibition against crossdressing. It would stay on the books until 1974.

This prohibition was a convenient catch all under which the city authorities could regulate all kinds of behaviour and “problem bodies”. Amid the backdrop of mass migration, the ideology of manifest destiny, the Conquest of California during the Mexican-American war, and the end of the gold rush, there were numerous intersecting cultural anxieties coming together. Crossdressing during this period was seen as a confusion of cultural meanings and the law was designed to sort them out.

The most obvious target was of course the trans population. Some trans folks argued they were not crossdressing at all, but were wearing their proper clothes, a reasonable argument in the current century but which evidently didn’t impress the judges in the nineteenth. If caught, they risked being sent to jail – for the wrong gender, of course – or even sent to a psychiatric institution.

Dick/Mamie Ruble claimed not to have any sex at all, and challenged the judge to locate femininity on their muscular body. “I couldn’t pass for a woman anywhere, even if I tried,” they said. (Physical examinations were sometimes necessary to ascertain which sex the authorities were supposedly dealing with.) Ruble was declared insane and assigned to the Stockton asylum. They remained there for 18 years until they died of tuberculosis.

The law effectively encouraged people to look for crossdressing criminals. One trans woman who had been jailed and fined but escaped the asylum continued to wear women’s clothing at home. She was harassed by neighbours who peered through her windows and reported her to the police. The law applied only to crossdressing in public, however, so she was saved from further prosecution.

Some other cultural anxieties playing out at the time were the women’s dress reform movement in which early feminists asserted the right to wear clothing that was ostensibly assigned to men only, and an influx of Chinese immigration.

Crossdressing law was a local innovation, but by the end of the nineteenth century it crossed paths with federal immigration controls. Chinese women who had been smuggled in and enslaved as prostitutes, for example, were seen as typical of all Chinese women. Chinese men who were often obliged to take on “women’s work” were portrayed as less than men. Gender deviance and deceit was linked to Chinese newcomers thereby establishing supposed gender normativity as a precondition to national belonging.

This view of society’s response to gender non-conformity takes Arresting Dress beyond the scope of a narrow investigation into crossdressing prohibition laws in San Francisco into larger territory. As author Clare Sears notes, the “law’s exclusionary effects continue to reverberate today. Questions of who can lay claim to public space, for example, re-emerge in police actions that profile poor transgender women as sex workers and frame homeless queer and transgender youth as public nuisances.” An interesting read.

Directory of Canadian Trans Activists

I’ve added two more names to the Directory of Canadian Trans Activists. I started this project in December 2020. It will likely be a while before it’s as comprehensive as it should be, but I remain undaunted and will continue adding biographies as I find the time.

Christina Strang

(b. ca. 1976) Consultant, researcher, social worker, author.

Part of the Toronto TS/TG community services sector since 1998, Strang’s work is community based and focuses on youth, lower income, street-active, homeless, and sex working trans people.

Coordinator of the Meal Trans program at the 519 Community Centre until 2002. Founded Trans Youth Toronto, a community-based program directed by and for trans youth. Principal researcher with the 519 TS/TG HIV/AIDS booklet project which worked with trans sex workers in Toronto to develop an information and resource campaign targeting TS/TG people involved in the sex trade. Titled The Happy Transsexual Hooker, it was Canada’s first safe sex resource for trans sex workers and trans women.

Gemma Hickey

(b. October 1, 1976) St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies (2003), Memorial University of Newfoundland. At Memorial, they served as General Director of LBGT-MUN (now Sexual and Gender Advocacy)

Hickey is non-binary. Their transition was the subject of the 2017 documentary film Just Be Gemma which aired on CBC Television and the Documentary Channel.

Campaigned for LGBT rights through involvement with Egale Canada (serving as president in 2005), PFLAG Canada, and Canadians for Equal Marriage.

Received one of the first non-binary passports issued by the government of Canada, which uses the letter “X” for gender. In 2017, Hickey became the first person in Newfoundland and Labrador, and one of the first in Canada, to receive a non-binary birth certificate.

Awarded a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for their contribution to LBGTQ2 rights in Canada. In 2017 was named a Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Champion for their longstanding commitment to human rights protection, particularly for LGBTQ2 people.

Trans stories through photography

I have been adding titles to what I have ambitiously named the Ottawa Trans Library and hope this project may yet get off the ground after the pandemic. It occurred to me I was getting bogged down with too many books on transgender studies, however, and so have added more fiction and poetry by trans folks and several titles that celebrate the trans spirit. I’ve just received two marvelous photo books that do just that.

OnChrisThe first is On Christopher Street, with photos by Mark Seliger and an introduction written by Janet Mock. Christopher Street is in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village and the book is a collection of black and white photos of trans and non-binary people. The subtitle to the book is Transgender Stories, but there is little text and the stories are mostly in the photos. Even so, it’s a wonderful collection.

The second book is To Survive on this Shore, with photos by Jess T. Dugan and text by Vanessa Fabbre. It’s a compilation of colour photos of older trans folks. (They define “older” as 50 plus; I thought 50 was the new 40!) Here are two sample photographs from the book.

John, age 69, had a psychologist assess him when he was going through extreme depression during his college years. The psychologist was astonishingly astute considering the era. He told John, “You have a male mind and personality in a female body…And it’s going to make your life difficult and you need to be aware of this.” That awareness helped him navigate a difficult life until he finally transitioned at age 63.

ToSurvive-John

The second photo from To Survive on this Shore is of Tracie, age 65. Tracie came out in the LGBT community of San Francisco in the early 70s when attitudes toward gender expression were fairly open minded. The bad old 80s came along, however, and she found temporary peace in drugs and alcohol. After a stint in jail, she joined an LGBT recovery program and began her long journey to acceptance. She works at the Family Health Center in support services. “As an African American trans woman, I have beaten the odds,” she says.

ToSurvive-Tracie

To Survive on this Shore, by Jess T. Dugan and Vanessa Fabbre is published by Kehrer Verlag, Berlin.
On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories, by Mark Seliger and Janet Mock is published by Rizzoli, New York.

A dose of inspiration

CBC’s As It Happens recently reported on the passing of 99-year-old trans woman, pilot and World War II veteran Robina Asti. Asti’s remarkable life of positivity, hope and generosity is recounted by Lambda lawyer Dru Levasseur, upon whose life she had a profound impact. When Asti was 92, she enlisted the aid of Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Project for help in securing survivor’s benefits that had been denied to her by the US Social Security Administration. Not only did she receive her benefits, her challenge prompted the Social Security Administration to change its policy regarding transgender spouses.

Her story is told in part in a moving Lambda documentary.

Uterus transplants for trans women?

A paper in the journal Bioethics presents a case that research trials should consider including transgender women as possible candidates for uterus transplants. The first successful birth after a womb transplant in a genetic woman occurred almost seven years ago. Since then, the procedure has seen significant clinical advances and over 60 uterus transplants have been performed resulting in at least 18 live births. It is the only temporary transplant in medicine, as the uterus is removed following pregnancy. Babies are always delivered via caesarean section.

The lead author of the paper, Dr. Jacques Balayla, says there isn’t an ethical reason for trans women being denied the procedure, although he acknowledges there would be social and religious objections. Although still only theoretical, the implantation of a donated uterus and gestation in the body of a trans woman should pose no physiological barrier if various conditions are met.

It’s quite the can of ethical worms we’ve opened up. Being predisposed to trans rights, I was intellectually in favour but also admit to being uneasy initially. (If I had these reservations, just imagine the howls from religious fanatics accusing doctors of “playing god”.) Technological advances usually proceed without much forethought, however, and I’d rather the medical profession consider these things now. I suspect there is a screening process for cis gender women for this procedure and that the same process would no doubt apply to trans women. It’s a very small subset of the population in either case, and the health and future of the child should be the paramount objective.

This discussion might be already be overtaken by news that Israeli scientists had successfully gestated hundreds of mice inside an artificial womb. Artificial wombs that “liberate” women from childbirth may be coming sooner than we think. It’s a Brave New World out there.

Mansplainers and other men to avoid

I once had a man explain something to me that I’m sure I knew more about than he did. It took me a minute to figure it out, but it suddenly dawned on me. “Holy shit! He’s mansplaining!”

MenToAvoidAs a visible trans woman, I didn’t expect it to happen to me. To mansplain something he had first to accept me as a woman, which of course pleased me, but then he turned around and patronized me for the same reason. It took me a minute to get my head around this.

In her hilarious little book Men to Avoid in Art and Life, Nicole Tersigni takes on the mansplainers, sexperts and patronizers by inserting her own captions into classic works of art. As the book blurb says, “less qualified men will dish out mediocrity as if it’s pure genius”. The long suffering looks on some of the women’s faces in the art she’s selected suggest women’s frustration is universal and timeless. The only problem with the book is the men who need it most are the ones least likely to read it. I also have a feeling they wouldn’t get the jokes.

MenToAvoidSample

transVersing: a small book of poetry and drama by trans youth

This is an interesting little book that came out of a project by Love of Learning, a St. John’s charity that provides at-risk youth with arts based training. The first half is a collection of poems and essays by six trans and non-binary youth that reflect their personal experiences. These pieces were then crafted into a play by Director Berni Stapleton and Assistant Director Sharon King-Campbell which constitutes the book’s second half. The play was performed by the young authors at the Barbara Barrett Theatre in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

TransVersing-smallThis must have been a rewarding experience for all involved. Poetry has a way of cutting to the core of one’s emotional experiences. While the individual contributions express the impact of bullying and alienation, there is also a sense of longing and discovery here that balance out the collection. It’s a credit to the playwrights that they stitched these disparate texts into a cohesive whole with some effective transition pieces that maintain continuity. It’s a Samuel Beckett-like play that I could easily visualize being staged. I could also see this being performed by trans youth anywhere.

Cheers to St. John’s activist and the Executive Director of Love of Learning Gemma Hickey for initiating such a worthwhile project, and St. John’s publisher Breakwater Books for turning it into a book. Trans youth need only opportunity to display their creativity.

Naming and deadnaming

My name is Tara. I don’t remember how I decided upon it. It seemed always to be in my mind somewhere despite my never having used it pre-transition. It was as if I’d been safeguarding it until I’d finally be able to live my life authentically. When that time came, I never thought twice about what I’d call myself. I knew I was Tara. This name which had seemed forever to be in my subconscious was now in the open, and I felt right away as if it had been mine since birth.

I have some dear cis friends whom I’ve known for a long time who early on sometimes deadnamed me. I tried very hard to be patient with them. “Give them time,” I reasoned. “They knew me that way for a long while.” Their period of grace did not last long, however. Hearing my previous name again became increasingly difficult for me. It reminded me too much of bad times I wanted to put behind me. I became irritable, and told them to “try harder.”

I’m not sure whether cis folks can understand how empowering it is to finally have a name you can relate to, and how disturbing it is to have your previous one disinterred. I didn’t hate my previous name when I was living with it. It was a fine name, and my reality at the time, but the speed with which I dissociated myself from it astonished even me. Seeing it in print or hearing it induced an almost visceral reaction from me.

I was in a great rush after I’d changed my name to remove the old one from every business, utility, charity and miscellaneous entity with whom I had a relationship. This was enormously time consuming, but for the most part it went smoothly. Sometimes it was even pleasant. I had a misunderstanding with Hydro Ottawa in which they thought someone new was taking over my account and told me the new person might require a credit check. I replied by email saying, no, it was still me, but that I’d changed gender. A woman from customer service answered by saying she’d change the records and closed by congratulating me. I was touched. It was not the kind of personal response I expected from a utility company.

Oh, but there are always companies and organizations that try your patience. There were several that I asked repeatedly to change my name in their records and they would repeatedly follow up by sending me mail addressed to my old name. I’m generally polite in my requests, even when I’m not feeling it, but once you push me too far, I’ll let you have it with both barrels. I keep the evidence of their incompetence and then hurl it back at them with withering sarcasm. Although it’s mildly gratifying to get an apology, it never quite makes up for the times I’ve had to endure being persistently deadnamed by their companies or organizations.

It’s taken many years, but for the most part I am no longer being deadnamed. My few remaining problems reside with zombie companies that mindlessly send out ad mail.

I was a Bell customer over ten years ago, and they have been trying to get me back by deadnaming me with ad mail ever since. There is never a return address on their envelope; just “Bell” in big blue letters in the upper left hand corner. I write “Refused. Return to Sender” on the envelope and pitch it in the mailbox, but six months later, here comes Bell again with another imbecile mail out. I don’t know what Canada Post does with the envelopes I return. I can’t blame them if they just throw them out. Which branch of this enormous company do they return them to? Even if they knew, who in Bell is going to take the time to find the department that keeps mindlessly sending these out. In Bell’s world, no one dies, no one moves, no one changes their name, and absolutely no one in Bell monitors the mailing list or whether their ad mail is an efficient use of their resources. Six months is up, send out another batch! Over and over. Year after year.

Remember what I said about being polite until pushed too far? Here’s my message to Bell, expressed in far cruder fashion than I’m accustomed to expressing my opinions: you’re a bunch of fucking morons.

Happily, not everyone in the world is. My cis friends more than redeemed themselves.

After I’d begun to get testy when I’d hear them deadname me, one of my friends was in a pottery shop in the Kawarthas admiring a tall glazed beaker. When she flipped it over, “Tara” was etched underneath. In the process of buying it, she got talking with the woman at the cash who it turned out was the potter and the Tara in question. My friend told her my story, wherein the potter disclosed she was a lesbian and told my friend that she wished me well. My friend’s gift made me feel that she knew what my name meant to me, and I loved the anecdote behind her buying it. My Tara pottery now sits on a ledge in my kitchen and I smile every time I look at it.

NFTU and Triple Echo

I haven’t been writing lately so to compensate I’ve scanned a few more issues of Notes from the Underground (NFTU), the Gender Mosaic newsletter. I’m filling in the gaps systematically, beginning with the oldest issues. These two are short ones of 6 and 8 pages from 1990. The complete list of uploaded issues is here.

TEVol3No1-medI also finally got around to uploading another issue of Triple Echo. The cover story to volume 3 number 1 is an exploration of the alienation most trans people feel. I reread it before uploading and think it’s still relevant 20 years later. This issue also contains episode two of my attempt at a graphic serial. It’s the story of Tara Taylor, Transwoman! who was involuntarily subjected to “transgender corrective surgery” by a virulently transphobic society, but who in this episode is finding herself again and recovering her will to fight. It was a great idea for a story, but suffered from a fatal flaw: I can’t draw! It was a failure, in other words, but an inspired one. Here is the list of uploaded issues of Triple Echo thus far.

1990 Vol 2 No 3

1990 Vol 2 No 4

Triple Echo v3 no1

Trans in Canada

Nova Scotia

November 2020 – Nova Scotia has expanded the criteria for breast reduction covered by the provincial health insurance plan.

People who are diagnosed with “persistent and well-documented gender dysphoria” and are approved for a breast reduction surgery will now be covered. Nova Scotia already covers breast augmentation surgery for transgender women and chest masculinization or mastectomy surgery for transgender men.

The new coverage provides an option for nonbinary individuals who wish to access breast reduction procedures. The change comes after Sebastian Gaskarth, a non-binary individual, made a complaint to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Gaskarth said the coverage “directly acknowledges that gender does not exist as a binary.”

British Columbia

January 2021 – The City of Victoria’s new Youth Poet Laureate is trans! James Summer was named to the post, a one year honorary position that will see him engage with local youth through the written and spoken word. Summer was chosen by a peer committee of representatives from Victoria’s writing community and will receive a $1,750 honorarium, as well as $2,000 of project funding. Summer said he hopes “to bring awareness about the topic of being transgender and to have important conversations about stigma and labels.”

Ontario

January 2021 – Jamie and Ruby Alexander are a Toronto father-daughter team that designs swimsuits for trans kids. The two are behind Rubies, a fashion business that specializes in formfitting clothing for trans and non-binary girls. Twelve-year-old Ruby, who came out when she was nine, said she was proud that trans kids could take part in activities without worrying about what they were wearing.

Ruby’s dad teamed up with Ryerson University’s Fashion Zone to design prototypes for bathing suit bottoms that use “a soft compression to provide a worry free fit.” Rubies has sold roughly 1,000 swimsuits in its first year. The company is also expanding into T-shirts and underwear.

Ruby writes a personal message to accompany every shipment. “There’s other trans kids in the world that need help, and I’m happy to see them smile, and I’m proud to be the person I am,” she said.

Book Review: Transgressive

This is an interesting collection of essays by an academically trained philosopher trans woman that explores various facets of the trans experience. Some are derived from her personal life, some are thought pieces on sex and gender while others are deconstructions of familiar transphobic tropes. She invites the reader to read these critically, but also notes that she does not presume to be speaking for all trans folks.

TransgressiveNonetheless, there are many ideas here worth considering. In my piece on trans woman love, I dismissed cisgender men who want to have sex with trans women but never a relationship as cowards intent on preserving their place in the patriarchy. Williams thinks their behaviour is more pernicious. For straight men, we are never women or even trans women, “but rather trannies, t-girls, gurls, t-gurls, transsexuals, TS, TS gurls, shemales, ladyboys, he/shes, chicks with dicks , and so on, and so on.” She argues that the fetishization of trans women’s bodies, seeing us as an “other” rather than women or even trans women endangers our lives. “Too many men want to fuck us (or be fucked by us) yet are so poisoned by transphobia that they reflexively feel the need to defend their masculinity after sleeping with us.” Too often this leads to assault and even murder. This attitude that cis gender men have that our bodies are exotic and otherworldly “like a living, breathing sex doll with ‘unique features’… is dangerous and fuels much of the transphobic violence against trans women.”

There are several chapters tackling transphobia including one on autogynephilia (AGP). I hadn’t heard that term in ages and thought it had been discredited, but as the chapter title says, it’s the “gift that keeps on giving.” AGP is an essentialist theory that divides trans women into two categories, one more legitimate than the other, but neither one especially affirming. Those attracted to men are “oppressed femme gay men who are struggling to survive and find men as dating partners” while those attracted to women are just “living out some fetish they have where they get off to the idea of themselves being women”. As Williams notes, Julia Serano and Zinnia Jones have already debunked AGP, and her purpose is simply to ridicule it. She does a good job of it, but given the resilience of the theory and the pervasiveness of transphobia I suspect we’ll need to be playing AGP whack-a-mole for some time yet.

There’s been a lot said about the pleasures and the politics, and for some people the necessity, of “passing” as cisgender and Williams throws in her two cents here too. This is a personal essay in which she expresses how she is “learning to say ‘fuck it’ to passing” while acknowledging the satisfaction she derives from being perceived as a cisgender female.

Transgressive is an enjoyable read, Despite being an academic at heart, Williams’s essays are accessible, often thought provoking, and provide texture to the already rich life experience that is being trans.

Regarding Two Trans Musicians

Despite being a music lover, I have never enjoyed techno or electronic music. Consequently I was unaware that Sophie Xeon, known as Sophie, the music producer who died accidentally at age 34, was a trans woman. When I read an excerpt from the book Glitter Up the Dark, by Sasha Geffen that was especially complimentary of her work, I thought I should see (or rather hear) what she’d been up to.

SopieTrueThe excerpt from the book that intrigued me referred to the track “Is it cold in the water?”: “It’s not hard to read the album’s middle section as a transition narrative: Is it cold in the water? Should I jump? Should I unmake myself, not knowing what I’ll be on the other side?” When I watched the video for this track, I didn’t get as much from it as the author did, but as I mentioned, I’m not attuned to electronica.

“Is it cold in the water?” is included in The Guardian‘s list of ten best  Sophie tracks so you can judge for yourself. Track 10 on their list, “It’s Okay to Cry”, moved me the most, as it’s a more conventional piece of music. Sophie was widely admired and undeniably creative. It’s sad she died so young. We’ll never know what direction her music may have gone and how she may yet have expressed the trans experience in her art.

At the end of the The Guardian piece about Sophie, there was a link entitled “Glenn Copeland: the trans musical visionary finding an audience at age 74.” Why is that name familiar to me, I wondered.

BGCopelandAlthough Beverly Glenn-Copeland didn’t sell many records 40 odd years ago, my sister was one of the few people in the world to buy one. It was a folk singer type album (see photo) with a few jazz flourishes which I liked well enough, but never grew familiar with. He was performing as a she at the time, but found his identity as a trans man in 1995 before coming out to the world at large around 2003. The Guardian article identifies him as Glenn Copeland, although he still uses Beverly Glenn-Copeland as a stage name.

Although he represented Canada at Expo 67 in Montreal, he never found musical fame and the lack of record sales spun his career toward kids shows like Mr. Dressup and Sesame Street, where he performed songs as a secondary character. He has a wise perspective on his career as an artist: “It ain’t for fame that we do stuff. I’m going to die relatively soon, from a statistical point of view. If I’m going to base how I’ve gone about my life on whether or not I’m going to get famous, it’s not going to be very satisfying in the end.”

About his transition, he is similarly philosophical: “If I had become better known when I was younger, I would not have been able to fulfil a part of what I’m here to do, which is to be able to say: ‘Yeah, this is a reality for me.’ In the 1970s, it was a burden. And even in 2005 it felt burdensome, because I was not yet totally comfortable just being. Now I am very comfortable being who I am, whatever that is, and however that changes. So the timing is right.” (These quotes are lifted from the 2018 Guardian article.)

Glenn Copeland’s music now is a fusion of new age, jazz, world, and classical influences. I’ve heard it called electronic music too, although it’s a world away from Sophie’s brand. And yet, in their own way there’s a spiritual element to both of them. I’m not sure whether Sophie would see herself that way, but in her art she appeared to be striving to capture the ephemeral.

A good sample of Glenn Copeland’s music is available on Bandcamp.

Blog

A Salute to The Kinks

I’m a music lover. During the darkest days of my early 20s, I relied heavily on music to make my life endurable.

One of my favourite bands since childhood was The Kinks, led by brothers Dave Davies, who was the guitarist, and Ray Davies, vocalist and principal songwriter. I loved them when I was a kid for their killer rock riffs (You Really Got Me), uplifting yet slightly melancholy ballads (Waterloo Sunset) and drily satirical observations on society (A Well Respected Man, Dedicated Follower of Fashion). There’s a lyric in the latter song that made me prick up my ears when I heard it: “And when he pulls his frilly nylon panties right up tight / He feels a dedicated follower of fashion” As a child with a secret, I clutched at the smallest of things to keep from feeling alone.

And then, when I was 15 years old, the Kinks released Lola.

LolaLola is the story of a young man’s sexual awakening at the hands of a trans woman. It opens with a guitar strum from Dave Davies that creates anticipation for the song that follows, which does not disappoint. Lola was released in 1970, just three years after homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales. Despite being a hit, it was controversial, with some radio stations fading the song out before Lola’s biological sex was revealed. Ray Davies responded with, “It really doesn’t matter what sex Lola is. I think she’s alright”.

I’d lost touch with The Kinks by the time their album Misfits was released in 1978. Society hadn’t changed much in the eight years since Lola’s release. The media’s interest in the album focused on Out of the Wardrobe, a song about a crossdresser. That song, and my love for the Kinks, was enough for me to buy the album.

While Out of the Wardrobe is a pleasant piece of whimsy (“‘He shouldn’t be hidden, he should be seen / ‘cos when he puts on that dress / He feels like a princess”), two other songs were more meaningful to me because they encapsulated the way I was feeling.

MisfitsThe title track Misfits starts slowly before gradually building in musical and emotional intensity. “You’re a misfit, afraid of yourself, so you run away and hide / You’ve been a misfit all your life / Why don’t you join the crowd / And come inside.”

‘I’m trying, Ray,’ I’d think. ‘But people won’t let me.’ I can’t listen to this song today without becoming emotional. It sends me right back to the dark place I was in at the time. The song concludes in a hopeful way, however, telling the supposed misfit (me), “This is your chance, this is your time / so don’t throw it all away.”

The other song on the album I loved was A Rock ‘n Roll Fantasy.

There’s a guy on my block, he lives for rock
He plays records day and night
And when he feels down, he puts some rock ‘n roll on
And it makes him feel alright
And when he feels the world is closing in
He turns his stereo way up high
He just spends his life, living in a rock ‘n roll fantasy
He just spends his life, living on the edge of reality

That was me. I turned my stereo way up high so often it’s a wonder I didn’t get thrown out of my apartment. Ironically, this was one of the songs I liked to crank up. Despite the depressing story, this song too ends on a hopeful note, with both Ray’s vocals and Dave’s guitar rising in a crescendo of empowerment that had me singing at the top of my voice: “Don’t want to spend my life, living on the edge of reality / Don’t want to waste my life, hiding away anymore.”

The Kinks weren’t solely responsible for getting me out of the deep funk I was in. I still had to do the hard work to come out and escape my “rock ‘n roll fantasy”. I needed hope to keep going, however, and I relied on music very much to deliver it. Music has the power to provide comfort and, for a short while at least, the power to free your soul.

Who Do You Think You Are?

In the late 70s and early 80s, all the trans women I knew classified themselves as either being transsexuals or transvestites. Both terms were coined by sexologists and medical professionals earlier in the twentieth century. It seems absurd now that the range of trans experiences could be distilled into two categories, and even more absurd that we should so easily adopt these categories without questioning them but the terminology we used to describe ourselves reflected the time in which we lived.

What transsexual and transvestite really meant was ‘having surgery and living invisibly as a cis woman in a cisgender, heteronormative world” and ‘everyone else’. There was another term that we used at the time, but it was not common because it described someone who lived as their true selves without surgery or the aid of hormones (although some may have obtained them illegally). These people were transgender, but they were rare birds indeed. “Passing” was pretty well a necessity and if you weren’t doing it, you weren’t making a living. Not in a “respectable” fashion, in any case. Transgender as an umbrella term to define the entire community was not yet common, although it was gradually coming into use.

Many transsexuals resisted the word transgender. It was important when they presented themselves to the gatekeepers who determined whether or not they had surgery that they fell under the strict medical definition of transsexual and that they were not “everyone else”. In the 80s, some transsexual folks used the term as a form of empowerment in which they perceived themselves as being superior to those not sufficiently “authentic”.

“Transvestite” is now largely reviled among trans folks, and though in the 1970s it was generally assumed to mean ‘crossdresser’ its original definition was similar to what we’d now call ‘transgender’. It was coined by German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) who wished to distinguish trans people from gays and lesbians, and to de-emphasize the pathological manner in which trans folks had until then been characterized. Hirschfeld believed that trans people lived on a spectrum and though the word in its etymology clearly refers to clothing, he emphasized that “clothing does not appear here ‘as a dead thing,’ that the kind of clothing a person wears is no arbitrary expression of a capricious whim but a form of expressing one’s inner personality, a sign of one’s disposition.”

HirschfeldBenjamin
Harry Benjamin (left) and Magnus Hirschfeld

The term ‘transsexual’ is now generally attributed to endocrinologist and sexologist Harry Benjamin (1885-1986), whose 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon was immensely important in outlining a care treatment for transsexual individuals. However Hirschfeld first used the term to describe those on one end of the transvestite spectrum who sought the help of medical professionals to live the life they wanted. Hirschfeld also shone a light on “female transvestites”, or what we’d call trans men, whose existence was of course widely denied for many years by people with an axe to grind. Hirschfeld’s pioneering book Die Transvestiten was – somewhat surprisingly – not translated into English until 1991.

Trans people were not initially in control of the terms that were used to describe them, and yet they had to take the good with the bad. We needed to be defined in order to advance our cause politically or move our lives forward personally.

We define ourselves now with an almost limitless number of terms. On the one hand, this is right and proper as people – trans and cis – express gender in a limitless number of ways. In another way, it’s also a little absurd.

Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin conducted one of the largest surveys of US trans folks, which they published in a book called The Lives of Transgender People. Their problem was that people used different terminology, but were often describing the same identities. Or they were using the same terminology but were describing different identities. How do you make sense of this? Some of the survey participants even refer to themselves as “tranny”. Tranny is now regarded as a derogatory term for trans folks, although somehow I can’t get too worked up about it. It’s fine when we use it among ourselves, I suppose, and less so when others do. Other people are wary of the word transsexual because it presumes that all trans people seek surgery or that medical treatment defines what it means to be trans. This is ridiculous, but I sometimes feel like I’m walking on eggshells, worried that what I call you may somehow offend.

I’m not sure whether all this is useful anymore. In the book The Trans Generation, one of the youths described themselves as “a demi-polyromantic, polysexual, gender-queer individual”. It’s nice that you know yourself so well, but there’s a good possibility that next week you’ll be someone else. We are too contradictory to be static beings.

After a while, our quest to define ourselves precisely starts to sound like navel gazing, or a game we’re playing while we wait for the important stuff that matters in our lives to get resolved. Cis men and women express their gender in many different ways, but they still consider themselves men and women. Maybe it’s enough just to be trans. As an adjective or noun, it covers the experience without unnecessarily restricting your self expression.