One girl was called Jane Marie
Another little girl was called Felicity
Another little girl was Sally Joy
The other was me, and I'm a boy
-- the Who
Everything was fine until George Jorgensen Jr. came along.
In 1951, surgeons in Copenhagen turned the Bronx-born George into Christine, and a nation scratched its head.
"Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell," the New York Daily News trumpeted. Jorgensen made a successful career in show business, but she also tried to familiarize the public with new nomenclature. She wasn't gay. She wasn't a transvestite. She was a transsexual. She made right what nature could not.
How ridiculous was that? How could nature be "wrong"? It's really quite simple: You've got a penis, or a vagina and breasts, and those tell you all you need to know. The clothes you wear, the person you fall in love with, the job you take.
And if you want to get technical, whip out the microscope and check the genes. XY gives you the testes that make you a man, and XX gives you the ovaries that make you a woman.
As far as anyone knew, Jorgensen was born with the right ingredients: XY, testes, penis. Sex is straightforward, and if you can't see that, you're out to lunch. This "transsexual" business must be a psychiatric disorder.
It's simple. You can't be an XY and be a woman. Right?
And if you're an XY attracted to other XYs, you must be gay, right?
And if you're a gay XY, you wouldn't call yourself a lesbian, right?
And if you're a gay XY, you'd wear men's clothes, right?
And if you're a nelly gay XY, you'd wear really gay men's clothes, right?
But what if you're an XY with a natural vagina and breasts, you wear a dress and makeup every day, and you're legally married in Texas to an XY with a penis who wears really gay men's clothes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?
What do you call yourself then?
Does it really even matter?
For most people, it does. Society likes labels. And if Christine Jorgensen had trouble explaining one new label 50 years ago, she'd have a hell of a time with the labels some people are inventing for themselves every day.
Here comes Dick, he's wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, y'know she's sporting a chain
Same hair, revolution
Same build, evolution
Tomorrow who's gonna fuss?
- the Replacements
Here are two labels everyone agrees on: Sex, as noted researcher Milton Diamond puts it, is what's between your legs; gender is what's between your ears.
Here's a label that might take some getting used to: genderfucker.
Twenty-six-year-old Naomi Toledo calls herself a genderfucker. She calls herself a faggy boi dyke. She jokingly calls herself a gay man trapped in a lesbian's body.
For clarity's sake, the catch-all for this gender-exploding is "genderqueer." Genderqueer is a little of this, a little of that, and none of the above. You can be a straight genderqueer, but for the most part it's an anti-label teens and young adults are using to carve out a niche in the increasingly politicized GLBT community. For years, gay men had to be butch or nelly. Lesbians had to be butch or femme. Each role dressed and acted accordingly. But what if you don't feel comfortable in any of those roles? What if you're a lesbian who wants to dress femme, act butch and spend most of your time with nelly gays? What if you're a gay guy who benches 300 and likes to wear a purse? What if you're that same guy, only you're straight? That's genderqueer. It's not just crossing the lines, it's erasing them.
Toledo, of Houston, wears her black hair in a Mohawk, with two long, thin blades of hair jutting past her ears. Her delicate face is free of makeup, and her ears are pierced. Left eyebrow and spot under her lower lip, too. She sings and plays guitar in an industrial band called Leatherbal. She has a pit bull named Sid Vicious.
On a brisk February night, she sits outside the Starbucks on Montrose, chain-smoking and gamely discussing her underwear. She wears a black sport coat, a purple button-down shirt and blue jeans. And, as will be revealed, buttoned boxer-briefs.
A few years ago, when she lived in Austin, she was buying shirts at Express Men's and stumbled into underwearland. That's when the boxer-briefs called her name. She knew she wanted a pair, but the thought of the trip to the checkout counter terrified her.
"I remember that day, being so scared," she says.
But she made it, and she's grateful she did. There is nothing more comfortable, she says, than buttoned boxer-briefs.
On a trip to her parents' house in Houston, armed with a load of dirty laundry, she figured she better warn her mother about the underwear, lest they wind up in her brother's room.
"Just to let you know...these are mine," Toledo told her.
She recalls her mom's exact words: " 'They're cute. Throw 'em in the wash.' No questions asked. And that's the reason I love my mom."
Like other genderqueers, Toledo came out twice. Once, as a 19-year-old Rice undergrad, when she told her parents she was a lesbian. Then, less than a year ago, when she came out as genderqueer. The interim was rough. She felt pigeonholed.
"It was easier for me to come out as gay than it was for me to come out as a boi," she says. "It's uncharted territory to a lot of people...When you come out as a lesbian to a straight person, they know about the terms 'butch' and 'femme,' and they'll look at you and prejudge you and go, 'Okay, she's much more butch than femme.' But I don't like the word 'butch.' I'm not butch."
She grudgingly accepted "butch," because she thought it was all she had. But she thought her butch persona would scare off the women she found attractive: women who are feminine in appearance, but with dominant personalities. Would anyone like that want to be with a butch-dyke-by-default?
"It was a matter of my own insecurities," she says. "Will I ever even be able to get a date if I'm extremely masculine, or not at all? Like, where do I need to be to attract others? And it finally came to the point where it's like, 'This is stupid. Why am I so concerned about attracting someone else when it should be about being okay with who I am?' Because really, that's the most attractive thing of all. Being secure in who you are and being confident. There's nothing more attractive than that."
A few months ago, some of Toledo's friends, who previously identified as lesbian, started thinking of themselves as genderqueer. In a bid to expand the circle, Toledo created the Texas Bois and Grrls Who Love Them MySpace group in January. The group has more than 130 members.
"When I go to Chances on the weekends, I see a lot of those typical labels," she says. "I see the femmes, I see the sporty dykes, I see the hard-core stone-butch women. But I also see now, within my group of new friends, genderqueers and genderfuckers and boi dykes. It's nice to start to see people able to not feel like they're tied down to the butch-femme aesthetic."
Girls will be boys
And boys will be girls
It's a mixed up, muddled up
Shook up world
- the Kinks
Caitlin Ryan, a social worker and researcher at San Francisco State University, is one of a few people following the genderqueer emergence.
For the Family Acceptance Project, Ryan and colleagues are interviewing hundreds of lesbian, gay and bisexual white and Hispanic youths (ages 13 to 25) to study the impact of family acceptance and rejection on their health and development. As can be expected, Ryan says that rejection experienced in youth can lead to high-risk behavior later.
The parents of gender-nonconforming kids feared for their children's safety later in life. They replaced their boys' dolls with trucks. They believed it would be easier on everyone if their kids followed the rules.
"A lot of it had to do with 'What will the neighbors think? What will other people think about me as a parent?' " Ryan says. "As well as 'I know that my child is going to be abused by their peers because this isn't what is considered to be normal.' "
But she also saw, among many of the kids, an approach to gender more playful and expressive than many adults in the GLBT community.
"Gender is one way that young people, that adolescents, can express who they are. They can unpack it in a way that their parents or their grandparents couldn't do," Ryan says. "So it's a way to be their generation, and not be an adult."
But this playfulness doesn't negate their parents' concerns.
"There is a certain kind of harassment that just targets people who are gender-nonconforming, and that is particularly extreme in middle school and high school," she says. "It shakes [some people's] very core sense of organizing the world...blue is for boys and pink is for girls...and when you start to shake that up, it really confounds people's basic sense of what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman."
That's where organizations like the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition come in. GenderPAC's mission is to "end discrimination and violence caused by gender stereotypes by changing public attitudes, educating elected officials and expanding human rights."
GenderPAC's Web site includes a memorial to (mostly) young people murdered for blurring the lines. People might be familiar with one victim, Brandon Teena, a Nebraska woman living as a man who was killed by two men she had accused of rape six days earlier. Her story was made into the popular film Boys Don't Cry. By the looks of it, more movies are waiting to be made.
Austin, 1999: Eighteen-year-old Donald Fuller, who wore a dress and called himself Lauryn Paige, was stabbed to death and left in a ditch.
Cortez, Colorado, 2001: Sixteen-year-old Fred Martinez Jr., who wore makeup and a tissue-stuffed bra, had his head smashed in with a boulder. His 18-year-old killer reportedly told friends afterward that he had "killed a fag."
San Jose, 2006: Three men in their mid-twenties are sentenced for strangling transgender teen Edward 'Gwen' Araujo in 2002. Two of the men had had sex with Araujo on multiple occasions before discovering his true sex.
Araujo's case is not unique, in that many of the victims listed on GenderPAC's site engaged in risky behavior. Many did not inform sexual partners of their true sex. Others prostituted themselves.
"A lot of young people lack most fundamental rights when it comes to their gender, which mainly, you know, is the rights to self-expression and security of person," says Sam Sewell, GenderPAC's Youth Network coordinator.
She adds, "Many students don't believe their schools are safe if they...are gender-nonconforming. It is a gay and lesbian issue, but it's also a very straight issue...Because gender affects everybody. It's just this huge spectrum, and we're constantly caught up in this binary construct of male versus female, and you have to be in that category."
GenderPAC's Youth Network program has chapters on college campuses in 24 states. (Sewell says the University of Houston has a chapter; however, it doesn't seem to be a particularly effective one: Sewell had difficulty contacting members and could not make them available for interviews.)
She says the Youth Network has persuaded 50 universities to add gender identity and/or gender expression to their nondiscrimination and EEO policies. The network also has a high school outreach program.
That high school and college outreach probably would've benefited people like Toledo, or her friend Monique Jamail.
Like Toledo, Jamail came out twice. She was 14 when she told her family she was a lesbian. She graduated high school in Houston in 1999 and moved to Austin, where she still lives. Shortly afterward, she had a feeling something was missing. She felt disconnected from her body, but she kept the feeling at bay until about a year ago.
"It's almost like when you can't stand things anymore," the 25-year-old says. "It kind of hits you like a brick, and you're just like, okay, you have to do something about it."
Like Toledo, Jamail has a delicate, feminine face punctuated by piercings and a shaved head. Of her many tattoos, the most special might be the kissing seahorses on her stomach. Seahorses are bona fide genderfuckers. The males give birth. Jamail is also quick to point out that they mate for life.
Jamail's biggest concern is the space above the seahorses. She hates her breasts. If she weren't a large C-cup, she says, she'd probably bind them. Toward the end of her last relationship, she couldn't even enjoy sex because of the damn things.
"I don't want them," she says. "They're in my way. I look at my profile in the mirror and I go, 'That's not right!'...After a while, you're just like, 'God, just give me scissors, I can't stand them anymore!' "
Jamail plans to have top surgery in a year. But she doesn't want to be called a man. Right now, the only thing she wants to be is comfortable in her own skin.
"It's kind of funny to say 'who I am,' because really on the outside, it's just your shell," she says. "It's not really who you are on the inside. But the hardest part is trying to say, 'This is what I need on the outside to feel like who I am on the inside.' And that's really what it's all about."
She grew up playing with GI Joe and wearing her brother's hand-me-down jeans. The last time she wore a dress (outside of an S&M ball) was at her sister's wedding. She was the maid of honor; her sister picked the dress. Jamail at first refused to wear it, and the two eventually compromised. Jamail got to wear a sleeveless and backless gown so she could show her tattoos. She swapped heels for Doc Martens.
"I think I'm feminine, but that doesn't make me a woman, because there are feminine men," she says. "But I don't really see myself having the genitalia of a man. I mean, it's still kind of in question, but it's not one of those things 'Oh, I know I'm definitely meant to have that.' It's not like that with me; it's still so up in the air."
Strong inside but you don't know it
Good little girls they never show it
When you open up your mouth to speak
Could you be a little weak?
Being up in the air is one of the benefits of being genderqueer.
Transgender writer and activist Kate Bornstein says she never had that option. Born Albert Bornstein, she never felt like a man. She says doctors told her that sexual reassignment surgery would probably solve that. So, in 1986, she went under the knife. She spent the next few years contemplating suicide.
The problem was, she wasn't sure if she felt like a woman, either.
"There was no room for neither/nor," she says from New Jersey, where she was scheduled to give a talk at Yale. When her doctors recommended surgery, "I bought it hook, line and sinker, and they put me on this medical cattle-trough down toward surgery. No choice, you know. You either stayed the way you were or you got everything modified."
Afterward, she had trouble finding common ground.
"I felt I was a woman and I was still attracted to women, ergo, I was a dyke," she says. "Fine with me. It wasn't fine with the other dykes, not in those days. And they questioned -- 'How can you be a woman? You don't have any of the socialization we've had'...and it made sense. So I said, 'All right, I'm not a woman, I'm a transsexual woman,' and that kind of mollified everybody. And then I realized, well, what am I saying here? If I'm not a woman, not a man, well, I guess I'm neither. And at that point, it was one of my many forays to the edge of suicide. It's not a pleasant place to be -- neither/nor -- when the culture says there's no such thing."
Bornstein also was told she should follow the old-school tranny code: Erase the past.
"It's mind-boggling, but transsexuality seems to be the only condition for which the therapy is to lie," she says. "And I didn't want to do that anymore."
Her struggles with gender identity were the basis for her first book, 1994's Gender Outlaw. She followed that with plays and more books, including the forthcoming Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Teen Suicide.
Connecting with gender-questioning youths is important because, she says, "Transgender has always been the territory of old farts, and now it's got some real juice behind it."
She calls genderqueer "a gender version of beatnik, hippie whatever you want to call it. It's punk. It's that kind of radical voice and expression against conformity...I think it's cute, I think it's smart, I think it's really, really powerful."
Denise LeClair, executive director of the International Foundation for Gender Education, also sees power in genderqueer.
"For people who are genderqueer, they're celebrating it," she says from her office near Boston. "They're not going to apologize for the fact that they look different."
At first glance, you'd probably call LeClair a transsexual. She wouldn't disagree, but she prefers other descriptors. Stepparent. Soccer mom.
"At this point, the term 'straight woman' would also apply," she says.
While she likes the term genderqueer, she says many older gays and lesbians think of "queer" as an insult.
"They don't see any redeeming characteristics in it," she says. "And it's just the word that people would yell before they tried to hurt them."
And, she says, gender roles can be just as oppressive in the GLBT community as elsewhere.
"If you look in personal ads in the gay community, you're going to see the word 'straight-looking' [or] 'straight-acting' in most of those ads...because people want to be with somebody who's not going to call attention to themselves," she says. "So even if you don't care that your boyfriend is really flamboyant, you know that if you're out with him, you may be more likely to get attacked, or that you're going to have less acceptance from family and stuff because you're more visibly gay. And ironically enough, that visible gay thing is usually more of an attribute of gender expression, although most of these people would say that they're not transgender."
Gender conformity is what makes a movie as supposedly controversial as Brokeback Mountain a big hit.
"These are manly men," LeClair says of the film's protagonists. "They're actually really conforming to their gender roles, and because they're not breaking any other boundaries, they're being circumspect about which things they cross over, then people are going, 'Oh, wow, isn't that a beautiful story.' But throw in one single boa into Brokeback Mountain and the whole thing goes away. You got nothing."
Started at the age of four
My mother went to the grocery store
Went sneaking through her bedroom door
To find something in a size four
-- Green Day
But if ever a gay cowboy rode the plains in a Stetson and boa, you can bet he had an overbearing mother and didn't bond with Dad.
Or at least that's what the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality has concluded. The California-based organization's plethora of physicians, psychologists and laypeople claim homosexuality and gender-bending are disorders that can be cured.
NARTH director Joseph Nicolosi didn't have a lot of time to talk, but it didn't really matter, because as far as he's concerned, it's pretty cut-and-dried. When asked if there could ever be an instance of a person eschewing their gender role without ever having suffered emotional or psychological trauma, Nicolosi said, "No, of course not."
Ergo, any little boy who prefers Barbie over Tonka trucks "did not disidentify with the mother and bond with the father."
Pennsylvania physician Richard Fitzgibbons's research supports Nicolosi's assessment. Fitzgibbons, a NARTH member, requested that the Houston Press e-mail questions about his gender identity research, but he failed to reply.
Fitzgibbons's research shows a slippery slope. In one paper, a boy goes from playing with Barbie to being a gay alcoholic prostitute with HIV in four paragraphs.
"Today, many adults try very hard not to impose rigid gender stereotypes on young children, but this push for gender openness can lead parents to ignore the symptoms of gender identity conflict," Fitzgibbons wrote in the June 2001 issue of the Catholic magazine Lay Witness.
If little Billy reaches for Barbie or little Sally likes her GI Joe, parents should treat it "as a cry for help," he wrote. And sometimes it's even worse than Barbie. Sometimes it's Disney.
Fitzgibbons writes: "While doll play for healthy girls includes mother/baby play and fashion/ dress-up play, boys with gender identity problems focus almost exclusively on fashion/dress-up. Some may be fixated on characters such as the Disney villainesses -- the wicked stepmother in Snow White or Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians."
So far, research supporting the notion that homosexuality and gender identity require warped minds belongs mostly to religious fundamentalists. For one thing, NARTH-supported research labels most gender-bending as gender identity disorder. However, the clinical definition of GID is a person's persistent belief that they are actually the opposite sex, and has little to do with challenging gender stereotypes.
And according to Eli Coleman of the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, "For the vast majority of people with gender identity disorder, they have no more incidence of child abuse in their histories than people who have a clear gender identity that is concordant with their biological sex."
Coleman heads the university's 35-year-old Program in Human Sexuality, where experts research everything from sexual compulsions to transgender health to HIV prevention.
"Now, are there individuals who become confused about their gender identity as a result of some sort of abuse and trauma? That's certainly possible," he says. "But to make it a generalization that most of these people [are traumatized] is simply not supported by the evidence."
Coleman doesn't see a biological impetus for genderqueer; he says it might just be a transitional phase until a person finds the gender role he or she is comfortable with.
LeClair says that might be part of it. And that's what makes it so great.
"Maybe later on they'll decide that they're gay or that they're transsexuals or that they're cross-dressers," she says. "Or that they're straight and this is just something that they like to do every once in a while."
I'm out here on my journey, trying to make the most of it
I'm a puzzle, I must figure out where all my pieces fit
Like a poor wayfaring stranger that they speak about in song
I'm just a weary pilgrim trying to find what feels like home
-- Dolly Parton
A little while ago, Jamail joined a female-to-male transsexual organization.
She's feeling things out. She's always admired the form of the upper male body. She'd like to have pecs instead of breasts. But she's not sure she wants to be a man.
For a while, she says, "I thought, 'Maybe I'm going to be one of those tranny bois...' I'm still not sure about that, which kind of makes me think that's not exactly it...So then we go with what's left. Somewhere in the middle."
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That somewhere, genderqueer, works for now. Jamail has learned to trust herself. She's learned that confidence comes from comfort with who she is, no matter what that looks like on the outside.
One of the best things she ever did was shave her head. She even tells a self-described cheesy story about it. It was four or five years ago when she finally decided to do it. She had always changed hair styles, and often cut it close, but never that close. But something told her to do it, that it would be all right.
Afterward, she stepped outside, and it started to rain. It was the first time she felt rain on her bare scalp; it felt so good that she started to cry. After a moment, she went back inside to look at herself in the mirror again. It was like seeing herself for the first time. She hasn't grown her hair out since.
"I see my face," she says, "with nothing in the way."