My sisters: a gay man learns to love trans women: once he was embarrassed and threatened by transgender women. Now author Patrick Moore knows better: breaking all the old rules, gay and straight, trans people are the core of the queer civil rights struggle.
Throwing on my bathrobe, I wait until I can no longer hear the voices before rushing out of the cabin. I have miscalculated, however, because I am no more than a step or two outside before I run directly into two men who are leaning against the lodge, quietly smoking.
Our eyes lock, and there is a look from one of the men that I have never seen before. He smiles, nods, and says to me, "Good morning, pretty girl."
That distant memory surfaced recently when I was thinking about my journey toward understanding, accepting, and loving transgender women as an important part of the queer community. The emotions I felt on that day were different from those I normally experienced around straight men. Fear was replaced with the discomfort and shame of being identified as something I was not and did not want to be.
Although I was frequently harassed and even beaten up because of my effeminacy as a child, it was only when I was mistaken for female that I resolved to become more masculine. From that day forward, although I have my feminine side, I have always dressed and acted in a way that is more butch than I actually am.
All of this is important to me because, for the past several years, I have been given the opportunity to interact with transgender women and have been forced to acknowledge and examine my discomfort with them. I was woefully uneducated on the most basic concepts about gender; the word itself seemed academic and remote. Although I had been an activist for years and lived my adult life in New York City and Los Angeles, I was ignorant about what it actually meant to live in a body that doesn't match one's soul. And I am not alone. I know so many gay men, progressive in every other way, who view trans people as embarrassments or threats.
Strangely, I have never really known a transgender man, but my life is full of trans women. Like many important personal transformations I've undergone in the past decade, my experience with trans women was made possible through my work at the Van Ness Recovery House in Los Angeles's Hollywood. When I worked as a peer counselor there, I was confronted with the difficulties experienced by the large number of transgender female residents. Many of the women I met at the Van Ness House had worked the streets just to survive, developing addictions and contracting HIV along the way.
While it is true that my experiences with these women are skewed because they were all recovering addicts, I was given the gift of being in a setting where there was a commitment to discuss any and all subjects with honesty. And these seemingly broken-down women taught me as much about trans life as I ever taught them about staying sober.
The misunderstandings about trans life in the gay male community are evident in the large number of gay men I know who still have a difficult time differentiating between a drag queen and a transgender woman. Many gay men willfully refuse to accept the difference between playing a stereotype of a woman and the very real pain of being a woman in a body that is male.
While I had at least moved beyond that thinking when I arrived at the Van Ness House, I still harbored a suspicion that some trans women identified as female because it made it easier to have sex with men. As a gay man who tends to sexualize every relationship, I got caught up in irrelevant questions such as whether trans women who have sex with men are straight or gay. I had to learn that their desire to live female lives had little to do with sex. Although most of the trans women I met in recovery had a lot of sex, it was often about survival rather than pleasure. The challenge for them was not to find sex but to find out what it meant to live as women with self-respect and integrity: a dream too large and unimaginable for many of the troubled people I met.
The residents and staff of the Van Ness House all responded to my lack of awareness with great patience. At first the easiest emotional response for me was pity. The transgender women became little sisters and dress-up dolls to me. And many of the women were all too happy to focus on their appearance as they lived in terror of being "clocked"--street slang for being identified as trans or being called a "brick"--a derogatory term for a trans woman who appears masculine.
My fantasy of fixing the lives of these women by helping them to-pass as "real" women was totally smashed with the arrival of a trans woman who could easily have been a fashion model. She was chic, gorgeous and absolutely full of self-hatred. This beautiful, well-spoken woman had spent her life in both expensive hotels and emergency rooms, flying first-class one day and being homeless the next.
This woman, whom almost any straight man would desire, taught me that many transgender people struggle with self-esteem regardless of how they present physically. This, of course, was a threatening revelation for a man who had lived the stereotypical gay life of pretty places and pretty people, interspersed with the most self-destructive behavior imaginable. As with gay men, fixing the outside does nothing to address the self-hatred that continues to bubble underneath the surface.
Transgender women have given me a very special gift over the past few years by helping me to remember that although I was taunted with insults like "faggot," what I was truly shamed by was the question so many of us face early in life: What are you? A boy or a girl? Whether asked innocently or viciously, it is that question that haunts us. As a gay man who had become a bit smug in the acceptance I now find in the world, that question is a reminder of how narrow the window of acceptance is and how easy it would be to leave behind those whose very essence threatens the mainstream. The fact that transgender people challenge both gay and straight ideas of respectability puts them at the core of the queer struggle for civil rights.
I still visit the Van Ness House regularly. Some of the trans women I met there have made better lives for themselves, while others have returned to the streets. But I have changed. The other night I ran into a young trans woman I met while working there. I no longer pitied her. I no longer wanted to dress her up or fix her. I didn't have to figure her out. I was simply glad to see her. My hope is that many other gay men will have the luxury I had to ask questions, be honest about their fears, and learn to love trans women as our sisters.
Moore's new book, The Principles: Happiness and Integrity in Love, Health, Parenting, and Work, will be published by 12th Street Jam this spring. He is also the author" of Tweaked: A Crystal Meth Memoir.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Mar 27, 2007|
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