"Straddling Sexes" "Young lesbians transitioning into men are shaking the foundation of the lesbian-feminist world" - Louise Rafkin, Sunday, June 22, 2003 SF Chronicle
Rocco Kaisaris has agreed to meet me at a Mission Street cafe. Kaisaris is 23 years old, a hip-hop musician and an FTM - a female-to-male transgendered person. Born female, for the last two years he has been injecting male hormones (although unlike in the evolution of a transsexual, his gender change will not include genital reconstruction). I've yet to meet Kaisaris, so each time someone pushes through the door I make an assessment. Male? Female? Kaisaris?
After only 20 minutes, it becomes clear why the notion of two genders has become so limited: I can hardly tell who is what, or was born which way. The sinewy, bald African American athlete settled in with a newspaper looks female, but under those sweatpants could just as easily be male. Over in the corner, the chubby white person in a baseball hat hunched over a laptop playing solitaire seems male - but with a second glance I get she is female. I simply can't tell about two Latino youths at the next table - tattooed, pierced and (mostly) beardless.
Kaisaris arrives wearing a trucker's cap, retro cowboy shirt and baggy jeans. He looks like a cute teenaged boy. It's easy to see why a group of sorority girls at a Midwestern university where Kaisaris recently performed were freaked out to find out he was born female. They found him cute, too.
Kaisaris (whose male name was chosen by his Greek-Italian parents) began his journey toward manhood four years ago, though he had always felt male, and had never felt comfortable thinking of himself as female. At first he figured he would enter into what is being called the realm of "gender queer," or third sex: someone neither male nor female. "At the beginning, I was a dyke that wanted sideburns," he says.
Now, he finds himself less and less identified with the lesbian community, and more and more walking through the world as a man. He is often called sir, or buddy, or son. Kaisaris, as a feminist, says the entry into the society of men makes him somewhat uncomfortable. Though he is now afforded certain male privileges, he finds himself in the quirky position of becoming a man-hating man. "It's like being inducted in an underground society," he says with due seriousness. "My responsibility is to become a decent man."
A boom in the number of people transitioning from female to male (referred to as FTMs) has been stirring up controversy, even within the lesbian community. There are those who are feeling curiously uncomfortable standing by as friends morph into men. Sometimes there is a generational flavor to this discomfort; many in the over-40 crowd feel particular unease. Having lived through the fiery feminist years, when challenging male power was central to a particular agenda, some lesbians have gone so far as to say they feel betrayed by those "transitioning" - the street parlance for crossing genders. Twenty years ago life as a butch lesbian seemed the obvious path for a masculine- identified gay female. Now, young lesbians immediately enter a community in which the option to change genders is readily available - an option that some say they might be taking up too lightly, injecting their bodies with testosterone and having radical breast-reduction surgery before they've had time to explore who they might be as adults. (Very few FTMs undergo genital reconstruction: The operations are costly, painful and have yet to produce a fully functional penis.)
Within the gay community, discussion about the FTM trend has been conducted mostly in private. Critics of the movement fear being accused of narrow- mindedness; most gay people understand the strain of living without social acceptance, and have suffered the effects of legal and political prejudice.
But in whispers, questions abound, none of which can be answered simply. Most FTMs say they feel no connection to their female bodies, and have always wanted to be, or already feel male inside. But in a culture where men have more freedom than women, how many young girls have not dreamed of being boys? If all women who ever felt alienated from their feminine bodies became male, would that leave many out? Even a supportive therapist who works with transitioning FTMs (and who insisted on anonymity) voiced concerns about what she sees as an idealization of the teenage boy body in the FTM community. "It's a Peter Pan syndrome," she says, "many of these young people are not that different from their anorexic sisters - the thought of growing into an adult woman's body seems terrifying."
The fear of deconstructing these issues publicly is so huge that many asked to comment for this article refused to be named. And many who did comment voiced their opinions in "off the record" asides. Off the record there is discomfort about the growing numbers of FTMs. Off the record, there are those who acknowledge the stresses of being FTM - the probable loss of family, friends and the serious issue of being misunderstood by most everyone - are problems mitigated by the curious pleasures and privileges of living as a man. "I could sit in a sports bar smoking a cigar, having a drink," I was told by one FTM, "and I felt safe. No one was wondering if I was available, to anyone, for anything."
The number of FTMs now in the Bay Area is impossible to figure; speculation runs from the mid-hundreds into the thousands. The first Bay Area FTM newsletter was published in 1986, and the third inaugural meeting called a year later brought out 10 FTMs at various stages of transition. By 1995, nearly 400 FTMs attended a public conference. Support groups have now been outnumbered by Internet chat groups offering community as well as practical information about hormones, doctors and legal issues, but make it difficult to take a head count.
Despite anecdotal evidence and a buzz that has terms like "T" - street shorthand for testosterone - popping up in daily conversations, numbers are also elusive because definitions are hazy. Though most FTMs do take hormones, some don't, and choose instead to cross dress or bind their breasts to create their identity. And though many FTMs remain visible and active in the urban lesbian community, others disappear into the suburbs. The sexual orientation of FTMs runs the spectrum, from those who identify as heterosexual and pair with straight women, to those who are attracted to men and identify as gay - and, of course, all possibilities in between.
Jameson Green, now 54, is a highly respected leader in the FTM movement. Green, bearded and balding, is attractive, the kind of man most women would want to see more of: kind and open, a good listener.
A lesbian for 22 years, Green began his transition in 1988. As an educator who speaks widely on transgender issues, and author of a forthcoming book called "Becoming a Visible Man," Green says the concerns now being raised about FTMs are not new. In the early '90s, he says, transsexuals sometimes thought that butch lesbians were in denial, while it was common for FTMs to be rejected by the lesbian community. Green says he sees the current wave of young FTMs as positive. Access to Internet communities, therapy and self- confident role models can only help alleviate the difficulties felt by those who transitioned in earlier times with relatively little support, he notes. As for any concern that young people may be transitioning recklessly, Green says what's needed is tolerance, not judgment.
"Whether we are deliberately experimenting with our gender/body relationship, or whether we are trying to address a painful lack of gender/body alignment, everyone should have the right to express themselves honestly and wholly," he says. "Not having our experience does not give others the right to judge us, but because others cannot relate to us, they often assume that right. We owe it to the younger generation to use gender less oppressively."
Dr. Deborah Brown, a physician at Dimensions, a clinic geared toward treating FTM youth, concurs with Green. "Society had to be ready to receive these young people," she says, noting that the FTM movement has been growing steadily for years. Brown sees some patients in their early teens, some who come from as far away as the deep South. (Underage FTMs must be accompanied by their parents for treatment.) "Transitioning is much easier here than it is where they come from," she says.
Medical treatment begins with counseling. After three months of "gender reassignment therapy," a prescription for testosterone is written to treat the diagnosis of "gender identity disorder." At that point, testosterone is the marker by which the commitment to living as a transgender person becomes visible. The drug is injected on a biweekly cycle, and within weeks brings on a variety of effects including increased body and facial hair, a deeper voice, an enlarged clitoris (often paired with an increased sex drive), a growth in muscle density, changes in fat distribution (fat moves to the stomach area, off the hips), the cessation of menstruation, and a thickening of the facial bone structure, particularly the jaw and eyebrow ledge.
Despite concerns, long-term health implications of the hormone seem slight, though there have been few serious studies. Generally FTMs are at risk for the same potential problems faced by biological men, namely the risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. If the desired goal is to pass as male, starting hormones young is advantageous: if the T takes effect before the growth of breasts, hips and other obviously female attributes, there are fewer physical counteractions to battle.
If T injections are stopped, physical changes do not reverse. Still, says Brown, most young FTMs start T on a very low dose and those who change their minds about transitioning, do so fairly quickly.
Historically, it's been butch lesbians who have been the most angered about what sex crusader Susie Bright has gone as far as calling "butch flight." In 1984, Bright's magazine, On Our Backs, featured her butch lover, Honey Lee Cottrell, in the debut centerfold. In an era when butch-femme identity was just re-emerging in the lesbian community, it was a daring act of butch- appreciation.
Cottrell, a photographer, now 57 with a shock of white hair, says her gut feeling is that those who are transitioning leave her alone in her battle for acceptance as a masculine lesbian. "What happened to cross dressing and taking on masculine drag? I fought very hard for butchness to be viewed as a badge of honor," she says, "and I feel as though there are less people now to fight the fight." Still, as someone who has fought for freedom in both sexual and gender expression, Cottrell say she is extremely aware of the divisiveness of her viewpoint. "At one time in history I was accused by the lesbian community of betrayal because of being butch. I'm certainly not out to disrespect anyone else."
Others freer with their disapproval are less free with their identity. "M" is a 40-something butch dyke - "10 on the scale of butchness," she claims. With a buzz cut and in a motorcycle jacket and leather chaps, M pretty much appears male - unless ones take notice of her ample chest. M, too, is uncomfortable with being targeted as anti-FTM. Still, she's concerned about what she calls misogyny within the FTM community.
"How is leaving femaleness behind supportive of female power?" she asks. M claims a hierarchal view of masculinity has developed in the lesbian community;
she's heard young butches say that if they don't transition, they fear they won't get dates. A recent controversy at a woman-only sex club at which FTMs wanted to participate in the group left M fuming.
"They can't have it both ways," she says. "They can't support women and women-only communities and then, as males, demand to be included." (An ongoing struggle at the Michigan Womyn's Festival for trans inclusion cuts to this core issue: The festival, which operates under a "woman-born woman" policy, is being increasingly and vigorously challenged. Where does one draw a gender line if there is no clear line?) Yet in a moment of raw honesty, M admits that if she were suddenly 20 years old again, she might be lured by T, and perhaps even by top surgery.
"In this climate, it would be hard for me to come into my power as a butch woman," she says. "I'd also be tempted by a working penis if such a thing were available," she says with a laugh.
In the '90s, Harry Dodge ran the Bearded Lady Cafe, a notorious Mission District stomping ground for edgy performance artists and musicians. Now living in Los Angeles, Dodge recently acted and produced a feature film in which she plays a female who lives as a guy but who is still obviously female. In work clothes and with a scraggly goatee, outward appearances faintly suggest that Dodge is male. "Some days I'm a guy, some days I'm not," she says,
easily and without irony. "I'm not quite willing to say ÔI'm a woman,' but I do want to be in the practice of redefining the word." Dodge recently met a 23- year-old lesbian with a mustache who had been called a wuss for not taking hormones.
"Maybe we didn't do a very good job as butch dykes to be role models to the younger crowd," Dodge sadly muses. "Maybe we didn't do enough to make our butch lives attractive." Still, she says, although she's not interested in transitioning, she thinks the current climate might help gender definitions become more flexible.
"Why don't we stop the unqualified use of masculine and feminine?" she says.
"As long as we keep using these words the word Ôwoman' will never be big enough to include all of us." Dodge, like every person interviewed, is genuinely sensitive to seeming critical. "The main thrust of my life is to support people in exploring themselves," she says, "even if that seems extreme. "
Since 1995, Karlyn Lotney has been teaching sex education classes and hosting a popular monthly cabaret as her alter ego, Fairy Butch. A recent Fairy Butch event brought hundreds to a trendy Mission club: a young, enthusiastic crowd happy to dance, drink, ogle the strippers (both female, butch and trans) and enjoy Lotney's clever banter. Sans the blatant sexual references and colorful sex-toy raffle prizes, Lotney's sassy shtick could easily entertain audiences in the Poconos.
Lotney, heavyset and handsome, appears as male in her black jeans and T- shirt. She - her pronoun choice - has always felt bigendered, and emphasizes the importance of being authentic to one's sometimes complicated gender identity. Identifying both as a butch dyke and trans, Lotney recognizes the paradox in claiming two identities, but says her gender never fit readily into the structure of male or female. Several years ago, as part of a campaign to stop procrastinating about bettering her life - "fix teeth, lose weight, bring ideal of physical and sexual body in line with internal vision" - she began injecting T. Her breasts shrunk, her voice dropped and although she's been off T for some months now (she was concerned about hair loss, among other reasons) after T she has been generally treated as a male.
"I was a very butch dyke with 46D breasts," she says, noting that before her transition she felt harassment on a daily basis, the effects of which took a toll on her mental health. Still, she makes it clear that how she is treated now as male - generally better than before - was never the goal in making her change.
"I did not take T so I could pass as male and have an easier time in public, " she says. "People bend over backwards to call me sir now, whereas before I made them think outside the traditional gender norm. But by no means do I think all of us freaks should change - people's behavior should change."
About a third of Lotney's audience could be transgender, and as an obvious role model to this community, Lotney is careful to emphasize that the decision to transition should be made consciously. She does see a FTM movement in the younger queer community, and she sees it as a positive move toward widening the confines of gender. "Trends are exciting; they present new ideas and information," she says. Besides, she notes that most effects of transitioning can be undone if someone changes their mind. "Even a mustache can be removed with electrolysis."
But for some the faster a transition can occur the better. Out in the Oakland 'burbs Jay Steinberg, a technical writer, 36, is healing from his recent breast reduction surgery and watching T take effect. His decision to transition was made last fall, and after only a few months on T, Steinberg's demeanor has dramatically changed. Physically, his neck has widened, his hips have narrowed, and his face is noticeably coarser. The anxiety he exuded before his transition is almost gone; his self-deprecating Jewish humor is lighter, more ironic. He says he's pleased with the way things are going. Recently he posted himself on a "Hot or Not" Web site, and eagerly tracked his approval rating - 9.3 of a possible 10. "Apparently I'm a hot man," he says, with a Jay Leno smirk.
Steinberg is one person not afraid to admit that passing for male has its upside. "Even store clerks are more cordial," he says. "The benefits of being male are real, and anybody who doesn't admit it is kidding themselves. Of course there's also the downside - I might well go bald."
Lest anyone think losing one's hair is the only drawback to the going FTM, Dylan Vade, a lawyer and co-director of the Trangender Law Center (TLC), is ready to set them - well, not exactly straight. Vade, 34, identifies as queer or as a "tranny-fag" (his attraction is to other FTMs and to gay men). He's slim, and in cool pants, a bright shirt and a buzz cut, looks like a trendy gay teen. As a member of the TLC, Vade offers free legal advice and law workshops for transgendered people, advocates for public policy in areas of employment, housing and health, conducts training for professionals dealing with transgendered clients and works to fight discrimination in schools. (Mark Leno recently pushed through a bill that, if passed, will clarify the illegality of discriminating against transgenders in employment and housing.) TLC also tracks legal struggles: Two cases in California have ex-spouses of FTMs challenge the legality of their marriages in order to sever the parental rights of their FTM co-parents.
Vade is also active in a campaign to promote gender-neutral toilets in public spaces; FTMs often face embarrassment - and worse - when entering single-sex bathrooms where they are told they don't belong. Vade also says the legal system - jails, passport offices, even the DMV - can snare those who don't land within simple gender definitions. There is a high incidence of hate crimes against transgendered persons, Vade says.
A letter published on a popular FTM Web site lists further downsides of transitioning: "never having a 'normal' body"; "the emergency room can become a nightmare"; "educating people about transgender issues will be a part-time job -- it can be boring and wearing and exhausting"; "people will ask you rude questions about your genitalia for the rest of your life."
Like Vade, Mateo Cruz, 24, is transgender activist. A coordinator at the Pacific Center, an East Bay resource providing support services for transgendered youth, Cruz first worked for lesbian rights before transitioning and speaking out as an FTM. Lecturing at a local private high school last month, Cruz, 24, tells the audience of teens that his religious parents nearly stopped talking to him when he came out as a lesbian. He thinks a recent letter explaining his transition may end his relationship with them for good.
The teens are clearly charmed by the flamboyant, articulate Cruz.
Specific issues affect minority FTMs, Cruz says. "Different elements in a culture define masculinity and can make it harder to transition." Macho men are the standard in the Latino culture, though Cruz himself is the furthest thing from uber-masculine. For him, transitioning was only possible after becoming comfortable with the idea of transitioning into an effeminate man. The teens ask respectful questions. After his presentation, a gaggle of girls approach hesitantly to say how sorry they are about the situation with his family. He smiles; they giggle. The interaction falls squarely under the umbrella of flirting.
While Cruz was able to reconcile his cultural issues, if not his family, with his gender change, African American Renata Razza, 30, has concerns. The self-identified gender-queer has considered T mainly because she, too, feels a masculine body would more accurately reflect her internal experience.
"Although it's a biological fact, I don't feel an identification with being a woman," she explains, "but am I ready to walk through the world as a black man in America? Not now."
Razza cites the possibility of police harassment and high level of general discrimination as a few of the harsh realities behind her hesitation to join ranks with African American men. "Transitioning for white people and people of color is different," she says. As a small person, (she is 5 feet, 1 inch), a gender change would greatly affect the ways Razza relates to men of both races.
"As tough as I try to be, I just don't have the skills to face off with other men," she says.
Perched in an especially curious position in the FTM movement are the lesbian partners of those in transition. Queer-identified writer Michelle Tea (author of "Valencia") has been partnered with Kaisaris, the hip-hop musician, for four years. Lately they have been wrestling with the changes resulting from Kaisaris' gender transition. Tea, whose self-definition has always been outspokenly queer, now finds herself faced with the odd reality of being read as heterosexual. "I'm this big lesbian writer who now has this boyfriend," she says. Although she has always felt bisexual, Tea finds it difficult to come to terms with being in relationship with a man. However, she says, not doing so undermines the reality of Kaisaris being male. "Men are such a part of the ruling class," she says. "I have so much resentment about their privilege and the way the world works for them."
Tea soothes her discomfort with a hopeful long-term view. "The more people deconstruct gender, the more we all will benefit."
Certainly the FTM movement challenges us all to examine gender differences, while providing curious insight into sexism on an individual basis. Perhaps the growing ranks
of FTMs will eventually serve to bust open a binary gender system that , but no longer - or perhaps has ever - accommodated the true range of gender expression.
It seems much too soon to answer these questions, and the myriad of others that arise when the itch of the FTM issue is scratched. What seems most true is that individually everyone wants everyone to be happy - and that sometimes happiness comes to some through changes unfamiliar to others. In 10 years, will Tea and Kaisaris be quietly living in the suburbs, for all practical purposes a married heterosexual couple?
Hard to say, says Tea. Kaisaris, for his part, is just ready to get on with his life. He says he simply feels "magical."
Louise Rafkin's last piece for the Magazine was on Po Bronson.
URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2003/06/22/CM254728.DTL </lj>