Forwarded by a friend.
>> From the Chronical of Higher Ed. dated March 24, 2000
>> Gaining a Daughter: a Father's Transgendered Tale
>> By LENNARD J. DAVIS
>> I look around and find myself, strangely enough, in the
>> women's lingerie section of the Kmart in an upstate New York
>> town. I am with my 19-year-old son, who is comparison shopping
>> for a pair of black tights. Some farm ladies are regarding us
>> with dubious glances. My son asks if I think medium is too
>> large for him. He stands at about 5 feet 11 inches. I really
>> have no idea what will fit him. Trying to be helpful, I
>> suggest that he might want to wear the fishnet stockings,
>> which seem to me a bit more goth, but he sticks with the
>> regular ones. Then we move on to the cosmetics section for
>> lipstick and hair dye. As I help him pick out a L'Oreal shade
>> called Parisian Black, I wonder to myself how I got here.
>> How indeed? A few days earlier, my son had arrived back from
>> his first year at college. The following morning, he sat me
>> down at the kitchen table and announced that he had a big
>> thing to tell his mother and father. My wife was on the
>> telephone, and as we waited for her to finish talking, my son
>> whispered, "I'm getting married." Then he added, "No, just
>> kidding." He was jumpy with nervous intensity. When my wife
>> sat down, he spoke: "I've been thinking about this for a long
>> time, and I wanted to tell you -- I'm transgendered!" He
>> looked pleased with himself and somewhat triumphant. My wife
>> and I looked at each other, confused and horrified.
>> He must have sensed that we were nonplused. So, being of an
>> academic bent, as we are, he began pulling out of his backpack
>> books with titles like My Gender Workbook and Gender Outlaw,
>> reading us long passages like the following, from Leslie
>> Feinberg's Transgender Warriors:
>> "Both women's and trans liberation have presented me with two
>> important tasks. One is to join the fight to strip away the
>> discriminatory and oppressive values attached to masculinity
>> and femininity. The other is to defend gender freedom -- the
>> right of each individual to express their gender in any way
>> they choose, whether feminine, androgynous, masculine, or any
>> point on the spectrum between. And that includes the right to
>> gender ambiguity and gender contradiction. It's equally
>> important that each person have the right to define,
>> determine, or change their sex in any way they choose whether
>> female, male, or any point on the spectrum between. And that
>> includes the right to physical ambiguity and contradiction."
>> As he talked, I tried to listen but could not escape the
>> sensation that I was in someone else's movie. I thought about
>> this young person and wondered if there was something I was
>> missing. He had always seemed to be a very masculine guy --
>> interested in girls -- who never once could have been mistaken
>> for a female. He wasn't effeminate in the least, and there
>> seemed to be no apparent prehistory to this moment. Later,
>> though, I recalled the many comic strips and zines he had
>> written featuring female main characters. They seemed, in
>> retrospect, to have been his alter egos.
>> My wife and I both consider ourselves progressive academics.
>> We have been willing to accept virtually any behavior from our
>> children -- from their experimentation with marijuana to
>> having their sexual partners sleep over at our house. We are a
>> poster family for permissiveness and have cruised fairly
>> comfortably from grunge through swing to goth. I've seen my
>> kids' hair go from brown to blue to green, as mine has gone to
>> gray. I followed my son as he crossed a police line and
>> grabbed a bullhorn at City Hall to protest budget cuts in
>> education; worried as he came back late from punk-rock clubs;
>> trembled a bit as he explained that he might be arrested for
>> defacing (or reconstructing, as he would say) corporate
>> billboards. We are feminists against homophobia. And I teach
>> courses with titles like "Women, Nation, Empire" and "The
>> Different Body."
>> Could anyone be more of a political ally than I?
>> Had he announced, "I'm gay," my wife and I would have been
>> relatively prepared to say, "Great! Who's the lucky guy?" But
>> transgendered? I didn't have much of an idea then what the
>> word meant. We asked some predictable questions. "Are you
>> gay?" My son laughed, "No, I love women. I'm completely
>> heterosexual." "So, do you want a sex-change operation?" "No,
>> I like my body the way it is." "So, what does this mean?" "It
>> means, I'm a girl. I want to wear dresses, makeup, and
>> challenge the whole patriarchal, bourgeois idea of gender."
>> My mind raced. We were having Stanley Fish and Jane Tompkins
>> over for dinner that night. I imagined my son swirling down
>> the stairs, arriving at dinner like Loretta Young in flowing
>> chiffon. How exactly would I explain such a phenomenon to my
>> guests over hors d'oeuvres? As it turned out, our son dressed
>> neutrally and got into an argument with Stanley over Bosnia,
>> not biology.
>> Over the next few days, my son continued to explain his
>> metamorphosis to us: "Michel Foucault says that gender is
>> socially constructed. So does Judith Butler." Foucault!
>> Butler! Those were the names of scholars I teach, now being
>> hurled like grenades at my feet. Those theoreticians believe,
>> as I do, that such seemingly fixed and essential things as
>> gender or disability are really pliable and plastic. It had
>> seemed fine to accept that gender was a social construction,
>> but now here was my child before me, attempting to carry out
>> in principle what I had been teaching only theoretically in my
>> courses. I suddenly felt rage toward those ivory-towered
>> theoreticians who glibly spout gender theories. Now I was
>> going to have to pay in humiliation and pain, in seeing my son
>> in a dress. Thanks, Judy!
>> The next few days were pretty intense for my wife and me. As
>> we sat up late discussing this alteration in our family life,
>> we quickly passed through the phases associated with getting a
>> fatal illness. First was denial, followed by the willing
>> accomplices of rage and despair. Acceptance kept its reserved
>> distance; the sticking point was the issue of wearing dresses.
>> I thought I could logically argue my son out of that penchant.
>> "If women are oppressed and femininity is a construct, why
>> should you essentially reinforce or parody the feminine? Isn't
>> that giving in to patriarchy? Reinforcing the gender binary?"
>> As a litigious academic, I could in a pinch come up with a
>> cogent argument.
>> Knowing my rhetorical strategies only too well, my son replied
>> that to break down the binary, we had to be able to dress as
>> we wished. In our culture, women could wear men's clothing
>> without any opprobrium, but men could only wear women's
>> clothing at their own peril. If a woman wears a tuxedo she's
>> an icon, as Marlene Dietrich knew, but if a man wears a dress
>> he's comic. Just ask Tony Curtis or Jack Lemmon.
>> He was right, no doubt, but no matter how rational our
>> discussion was, the dress became an eternal stumbling block.
>> As some friends of ours said later, our son had picked the one
>> thing that we, as progressives, couldn't accept. I continued
>> trying to argue, "How would you feel if you saw me wearing a
>> dress and makeup?" He replied, "I'd be so relieved." I
>> countered, "What would your roommate think?" I was figuring
>> that his Japanese friend, who was obsessed with technology,
>> would be horrified. "Oh, he's saving up his money for a
>> sex-change operation." My last round of armaments was quickly
>> being depleted. One last salvo: "Well, you say you like women.
>> What will they think of you wearing a dress?" He smiled like a
>> cat with a canary in his maw and confided, "It's the greatest
>> way to meet women," and winked knowingly. What could I say?
>> By now, I was beginning to understand a bit about this
>> transgender issue, although I'm far from an expert. My son
>> says that a transgendered person is anyone who breaks the
>> rules of the gender binary. By his definition, people who are
>> gay, lesbian, or bisexual are not necessarily transgendered,
>> since they define themselves by their sexual preference,
>> rather than their gender crossing. They would be transgendered
>> only if they attempted to break from the gender they were
>> assigned at birth, by redefining their identity through an act
>> of philosophical or political awakening, hormonal or surgical
>> intervention, or choice of clothing.
>> My son says that it's all about a person's right to choose. He
>> defines himself as a "transgirl." Some women may choose to
>> define themselves as men. And other folks may head for the
>> shifting middle ground of gender "variants," who like to keep
>> things ambiguous. Inhabiting the transgender territory are
>> drag queens and drag kings, "transgirls," "transboys," and
>> those who vote for their identity with anything from estrogen
>> to haircuts. A heterosexual male could be considered
>> transgendered if he were a cross-dresser, although a
>> cross-dresser is not necessarily transgendered if he only
>> likes to wear women's clothing but doesn't consider himself
>> female or a gender variant.
>> The possibilities are mind- (and body-) boggling. There are
>> relatively simple variations along the transgender continuum,
>> including male-to-female "post-op" transsexuals, such as
>> Deirdre N. McCloskey, the noted economist, or female-to-male
>> transsexuals such as Leslie Feinberg, the author of Stone
>> Butch Blues. Then there are those who adopt hormonally and
>> surgically the secondary sexual characteristics of the other
>> gender while keeping the genitalia with which they were born.
>> There also are bearded women, like the well-known circus
>> performer and gender activist Jennifer Miller. Intersexuals --
>> formerly known as hermaphrodites -- whose parents "corrected"
>> their gender, walk side-by-side in this movement with those
>> who managed to retain the organs with which they were born.
>> Then, on the genetic level, there are women who, according to
>> their chromosomes, should be male (they have female
>> genitalia, but they can't reproduce).
>> The old gender binary begins to look pretty Procrustean when
>> confronted with this welter of permutations.
>> My son is part of what might be called a "fourth wave" in
>> gender activism. The first wave was clearly the feminist
>> movement, followed by the next tsunami, as gays, lesbians, and
>> bisexuals established their identities as individuals and
>> communities. Then came a surge of queer activism, which
>> challenged even gay notions of what was normal. But to my son
>> and his peers -- who are mostly under 30 -- those three sea
>> changes now seem merely to be part of a conservative undertow.
>> This generation believes that earlier activists, while
>> challenging various kinds of gender abuses, still clung to the
>> notion of the criticality of gender per se. First-wave
>> feminists, for example, never doubted that being a woman was
>> essential to their mission. Likewise, although gay men,
>> lesbians, and bisexuals challenged the notion of mandated or
>> "normal" sexual preference, they saw their identity as defined
>> by a ratio of one's gender to one's sexual choice. That is, a
>> lesbian could only be defined as a woman who chose another
>> woman as a sexual partner. Even some conservative
>> post-operative transsexuals cling to the gender binary, saying
>> "I was born the wrong gender, and now I've become the right
>> Members of the fourth wave, who like to call themselves
>> "trannies" (perhaps in solidarity with 60's "hippies") see
>> challenging the fixity of gender as their most important goal.
>> My son reported to me that gender is so complex that there are
>> 100 genders, and that we can morph through 20 of them in a
>> single morning. He indicts the quotidian norms that force
>> people to subscribe to one gender, to be legally identified as
>> having one, and to be forbidden to use certain social spaces
>> by that specific aspect of identity. Indeed, the International
>> Bill of Gender Rights, drafted and adopted in 1993, lists as
>> fundamental the prerogative to define one's gender identity,
>> control and change one's own body, and have access to
>> "gendered space."
>> When my wife and I asked my son why he thinks he is
>> transgendered, his snappy retort was, "I don't know which
>> bathroom to use." When he is wearing a dress, should he use
>> the men's room or the women's room?
>> The transgendered concept allows for some interesting family
>> groupings. A father in a couple might undergo sexual
>> reassignment surgery and thereby become a lesbian, if he
>> remains with his wife. Or a cross-gendered bisexual can pair
>> off with an intersexual lesbian. A cross-dressing male can
>> live with a post-op male-to-female and appear to fit nicely
>> into the prototype of the typical American family. The
>> possibilities are limitless. They make Ozzie and Harriet look
>> like something from the late Devonian period, and Ellen
>> DeGeneres's coming out seem as staid as that of a debutante.
>> I understood all this intellectually, but I was taking a fair
>> amount of time to process it emotionally. My wife initially
>> insisted on an N.I.M.H. -- Not In My House -- policy in regard
>> to cross-dressing. That stance resulted partly from
>> embarrassment and shame about how friends and family might
>> perceive our son if they knew the truth.
>> Somewhat conveniently, the grandparents had already
>> transmogrified to that genderless beyond, so at least we
>> wouldn't have to explain the situation to them. Our
>> 16-year-old daughter thought the whole thing was kind of cool
>> and couldn't understand why we were so upset. "Some boys in my
>> school come to class in skirts or wearing lipstick, and we
>> think they're sexy." My brother, a financial analyst living in
>> the suburbs, was blase. His college-age son was open-minded,
>> having lived his four university years in a frat house, where
>> he had no doubt seen worse.
>> We were uncertain about what to say to our friends. The
>> artistic types were intrigued, and even offered some fetching
>> outfits, if needed. One male friend was judgmental, and said
>> our son was manipulating us. But that same friend sheepishly
>> admitted that, when his wife bought new high-heeled shoes, he
>> had to be the first to wear them at home. Another friend, who
>> is part of a gay couple, confessed that his dream was to be
>> married in a wedding gown, something his more conventional
>> partner just would not hear of. In fact, a lot of folks
>> stepped up to our confessional with Oprah-like stories of
>> their own journeys into the backrooms of sexuality, gender,
>> and fashion.
>> In the midst of all this turmoil, or because of it, my son
>> decided to go to an indie-rock concert in Washington State. He
>> would take a Greyhound bus and camp out. He asked me to help
>> him get organized, which is how I ended up in the Kmart as his
>> shopping consultant. He packed a few dresses into his
>> backpack, along with his other clothing, and left. All of us
>> felt relieved.
>> We began to get phone calls from bus stations scattered across
>> the country. At first our son was friendly, but one late-night
>> call from Fargo turned angry quickly. "I've been thinking, and
>> I'm really upset that you won't accept me for who I am." My
>> groggy response was that I was doing the best I could. "That's
>> not good enough. I can't believe that you, of all people, who
>> teach about the rights of people with disabilities, people of
>> color, working-class people, can't accept this. These are my
>> people! They are being discriminated against, cast out, and
>> you can't accept it?"
>> For the first time, I felt that he was completely right. I had
>> no counterargument. Whether I liked it or not, a
>> disenfranchised and despised group was in need of support;
>> what made it difficult to accept was the fact that my son was
>> in that group. I had to confront my own prejudices and realize
>> that I was a bigot. I, like many of my peers, thought that a
>> man in a dress was either humorous or pathetic, as so many
>> episodes of Monty Python or Benny Hill have suggested. It was
>> true that I didn't know whether to laugh or cry about my son.
>> My son asked that I read some of the books he had brought
>> home, and I agreed. I also ordered some books through
>> Amazon.com. (Then, when I logged on, I got helpful messages
>> like, "If you liked Transvestism: A Handbook, you'll like
>> Bound and Gagged.") I not only read through the material, but,
>> since I would be teaching a course in the fall called "The
>> Different Body," I decided then to put some of the books in my
>> syllabus. (It is interesting to me that my reaction, as an
>> academic, was to teach about what was mystifying and edifying
>> I've just about gotten used to seeing my child in women's
>> clothing. At first I experience a confusing, cognitively
>> dissonant moment, but then I remember that he is the child
>> I've known for years, with the same brio for life he's always
>> had, the same excitement over his ideas, commitment to
>> fairness and justice, and love for us. The only difference is
>> that he's in a skirt. I remember my mother's agony over my
>> long hair in the 1960's -- how she asked me not to come to her
>> place of business because she was embarrassed, and how much
>> that hurt me. I knew as a parent, and as an activist, that I
>> could not legitimately reproduce that rejection.
>> Our life has gone on. My son announced that he wanted to bring
>> his girlfriend, a "bidyke" as he described her, home for the
>> holiday season. I learned that the term "dyke" has now been
>> freed up from its dependence on sexual preference, and is an
>> operative word to describe a strong woman. When she arrived,
>> she seemed a bit androgynous, but not remotely butch. And she
>> wore a prom dress out one night. We all liked her, and it was
>> a memorable Christmas.
>> Meanwhile, my graduate course on "The Different Body" went
>> very well. The body in question was a little more different
>> than it had been in the previous year's version. But the
>> students were barely fazed by the transgendered component of
>> the course. They were blase, even when I told them about my
>> son or showed them pictures that I thought were pretty
>> shocking -- like a photograph of Tala Candra Brandeis by Loren
>> Cameron titled "Biology Is Not Our Destiny," depicting a nude
>> person with long, flowing hair, breasts, tattoos, and a penis.
>> It seemed to be all in a day's work for this generation of
>> cultural-studies adepts, brought up as they had been with
>> RuPaul and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I
>> shared with the class my son's zine entitled Boy Is Girl and
>> gave them his e-mail address so they could converse with him
>> about these subjects. My son was pleased with the
>> correspondence, and the students were, too.
>> The story is not over. In the months since his announcement,
>> my son's attitudes toward some issues have shifted. He has
>> come into conflict with more-conservative elements in the
>> trannie community who do not agree with his radical politics.
>> He has had to deal with the fact that some people within that
>> community do not regard him as truly transgendered, because he
>> hasn't taken hormones or had an operation. He is evolving a
>> position that I have come to respect and from which I have
>> learned a great deal. In many ways, he occupies a similar
>> position to the one I do in disability studies. I am not a
>> person with disabilities, and I have to negotiate that liminal
>> status on a regular basis. In addition, both he and I are
>> against the narrowness of certain kinds of identity politics
>> and see our goal as opening up the question of identity
>> through a notion of the mutability of the body. So, we talk a
>> lot about the ways in which our interests intersect. I've
>> helped him with his zines, and he's helped me with my course.
>> As an academic, my job is to learn from the world. And if that
>> world comes into my house in women's clothing, spouting Eve
>> Kosofsky Sedgwick, then I have to learn from that. As a
>> father, my pleasure is to love and accept my children. When
>> those two roles come together, in a kind of serendipitous
>> confluence, one must be quick to recognize the opportunity
>> that presents itself. My child and I have grown closer through
>> what might have been a terrible conflict, one that in some
>> families might have been the end of the line. What made a
>> better scenario possible was that same intellectual desire to
>> learn, to know, and to encourage that has been behind all my
>> teaching and scholarship.
>> The other day, my son announced that he wanted my wife and me
>> to refer to him as our "daughter." He asked that we not use
>> masculine pronouns or nouns to describe him. I told him that I
>> probably could not find it in myself to call him my
>> "daughter," that my sense of the English language was that it
>> was not sufficiently flexible, nor was I, to accomplish that
>> gender purification of my linguistic practice. This was
>> finally a moment, I felt, when the old binary dog couldn't
>> learn new transgendered tricks. We got into an argument, and
>> he hurled Judith Butler at me again. She was getting to be my
>> My son knew that I was writing this article, and he approved.
>> But when I told him that it would be impossible for me to
>> write this piece without using masculine pronouns, he was
>> upset. He suggested that I use "s/he" or "ze," and I responded
>> that I was sure the Chronicle style sheet was pretty limited
>> in that regard. After some discussion, he said, "OK, but just
>> do it at the end of the essay." So I told her I would. After
>> all, I figured, I wasn't losing a son, I was gaining a
>> Lennard J. Davis is a professor of English at the State
>> University of New York at Binghamton. His most recent book is
>> My Sense of Silence: Memoirs of a Childhood with Deafness
>> (University of Illinois Press, 2000).
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>>Copyright 2000 by The Chronicle of Higher Education
>Mark Connolly | The LEAD Center | University of Wisconsin-Madison
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