Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of reviewing Kenna / A Transgender Life for Frock Magazine. In it, Kenna wrote of mental agitation, professional...moreEarlier this year, I had the pleasure of reviewing Kenna / A Transgender Life for Frock Magazine. In it, Kenna wrote of mental agitation, professional help, fear, and depression. What I remember most is being struck by the simplicity of her coming out letter, which never demanded acceptance, but which made it clear there is no room left for argument as she could not go on pretending or performing.
In her follow-up, I'm Not The Man I Used To Be, Kenna Henderson takes a very different approach. This one is less about gender and transition and more about the life experiences that make us who we are. She does, naturally, touch on her own transgender issues throughout the book, but more to illustrate the significance of those experiences.
It's a short read, but a fascinating one, written by a woman with a unique outlook on life. I guess you could call it a book of reflection, a collection of tales that turn a new eye on some of the pivotal events of her life. As Kenna says at one point, "Everything you do and experience helps to mold the person you become."
If you've already read Kenna / A Transgender Life and are curious about the man she used to be, then this is an interesting read. If you're coming across Kenna's story for the first time, however, I do suggest you catch up with that title before checking out I'm Not The Man I Used To Be.
In Ladyboys, Ladygirls And Those In-Between, the latest in a continuing series of tales inspired by true events, Chris Burrows changes things up with...moreIn Ladyboys, Ladygirls And Those In-Between, the latest in a continuing series of tales inspired by true events, Chris Burrows changes things up with a collection that focuses exclusively on the lesbian side of transgender exploration. As is always the case with Chris’ work, there is a wonderful mixture of sentiment and sensuality here, a natural merging of the innocent and the erotic – as you might expect when dealing with the love of one woman for another. Having Chris and Porn frame each story, with a little commentary at the end, lends the stories a note of casual authenticity. As erotic and adventurous as they are, each story sounds like something a best friend might regale you with over a few drinks – entirely believable, with an acceptable bit of embellishment (or, at least, poetic license).
The first story is a fun one, with a sexually frustrated young woman finding the man of her dreams in bar, losing him, and then finding him again . . . in the body of a beautiful woman. There’s some brief discussion of the differences between gender and sexuality, before Kelly discovers that Louise is just as good a lover as Lou. The second is the kind of tale more commonly found in online fantasy forums, with a woman returning home from a business trip to find her husband dressed as a very convincing woman. Again, there’s some discussion about gender versus sexuality, and about his support group, before she seizes the opportunity to enjoy having her very own “chick with a dick.”
After a few stories from the wife or girlfriend’s viewpoint, Porn brings us around to another fantasy-fetish type tale of a traveler, trapped by a snowstorm, who ‘allows’ himself to be ‘forcibly’ feminized, before discovering the joys of lesbian love. The next story continues with the transgender viewpoint, but is largely a story about relationships, with Christie enjoying her role in providing comfort to a jilted lesbian friend. The final story takes us all the way across the gender divide, with a pre-operative transsexual preparing for surgery, only to fall for the post-operative transsexual who helps prepare her for life as a woman using the strap-on dildo that rides where her own cock once sat.
Erotic, but intelligent at the same time, Chris and Porn are always good for stories that hit home, and which speak to the woman deep inside all of us – no matter how we define or express our gender.(less)
Over half a century later, a young boy stared into a mirror and saw himself cross-dressed for the first time.
I am Catie Maye. I am a transvestite.
And...moreOver half a century later, a young boy stared into a mirror and saw himself cross-dressed for the first time.
I am Catie Maye. I am a transvestite.
And so begins Catie Maye’s tale, a true story and cultural exploration of what it means to be a transvestite. It’s a story that explores the parallel lives of the cross-dresser, hiding the truth from others, lying to protect that oh-so-necessary form of self-expression, and battling the depression that takes root from the need for deceit.
As part of looking to understand himself, Catie dives deep into the studies and statistics surrounding cross-dressing. He confronts the assumption that cross-dressing is rooted in some sort of adolescent abuse, and destroys the accompanying assumption that all cross-dressers are gay. He reveals the surprising truth of just how many cross-dressers are married, how many of them are open with their spouses, and how few of them consider it a sexual fetish.
The entire book is largely an autobiographical tale, but one that’s intertwined with the studies and theories (many of them painfully dated, as Catie points out) that attempt to put that life’s story into context. Some of those statistics are fascinating – such as when the men first cross-dressed (4-6 years old), with who’s clothes (mom’s), and with what items (panties) – while others are surprising in their contradictions – with only 42% claimed to have ever felt guilty, but 77% having purged.
Risks and secrecy are a recurring theme of Catie’s story, to nobody’s surprise, but it’s sobering to realize how strong the need to express ourselves is, regardless of those risks. For some it’s the feeling of the clothes themselves, for others it’s a sexual sensation, and for others still it’s a way of dealing with stress. As Catie says, “I don’t dress to attract men (or women). I don’t do it for any reason other than to relax. Cross-dressing gets me out of myself. I don’t want to be cured because there is nothing wrong with me. I won’t ever stop.”
Where the story gets really interesting is when Catie talks about taking his cross-dressing public, and about learning to pass as a woman. It’s a funny story, with a young man in a wench’s outfit and wig, first trapped in a shed, then finding himself accidentally locked out of the house, but it’s all too easy to sympathise with the gut-wrenching terror of the experience . . . and the guilty compulsion to purge rather than deal with that fear again.
Rounding out Catie’s story is that of his wife, her discovery of his secret, and how they’ve come to terms with that aspect of his life. “To me,” she says, “it’s not the ‘dressing’ that’s the problem; it’s the secrecy.” Having survived (and strived) through that first difficult conversation, I can say her take on the situation isn’t unique, and should serve as something of a prompt for more men to come out and be honest with their partners.
Catie concludes his story with a chapter on ‘What Does it All Mean’ that attempts to summarize the salient facts and figures of the story. Rather than trying to define the cross-dresser, Catie’s goal is to dispel “the myths, social untruths, and pieces of pure gossip” and help promote a societal understanding of “whom and what we are.”
So, if you have ever wondered, questioned, debated, and doubted, believe that Men Can Wear Dresses Too.
Definitely a touching story, and one filled with a lot of emotion, but I had trouble connecting to the spiritual aspect, and found the search for bibl...moreDefinitely a touching story, and one filled with a lot of emotion, but I had trouble connecting to the spiritual aspect, and found the search for biblical justifications a little bit tiresome and unnecessary. I get that it's important to Rizi, and I'm sure many people will celebrate his continued faith in the face of the most heinous of acts, but I couldn't relate.(less)
Kenna writes of a childhood filled with loss and confusion, one where a young crossdresser, already feeling guilty, is further ostracized by the move...moreKenna writes of a childhood filled with loss and confusion, one where a young crossdresser, already feeling guilty, is further ostracized by the move to a new community and a new school for his last years of schooling. She writes of a life of wild swings, of embracing and indulging her femininity, and of rejecting and purging herself of every scrap of evidence. It’s a life that I’m sure may of us can relate to, particularly the guilty purges, and that honest shines through.
When she writes of spilling the secret to her wife, of having reached the “boiling point at which hiding something like this from the person you love most becomes terribly painful,” I literally had to put the book down and walk away. My own memories of that situation were just too intense. I shared her fear of ending the marriage with that disclosure, and of not wanting to hurt the other person . . . but no longer willing to hurt ourselves.
The framework of Kenna’s story is interesting, with the primary narrative centred around her decision to deliberately seek work as a woman. She admits to being completely unprepared, and to basically “winging it” as far as voice and mannerisms are concerned. There’s something comic-tragic in that experience, but it serves well to ground the rest of the story, in which she reminisces about the things in her life that brought her to that decision.
I found it comforting that hers was not just a story of transition, and of never looking back. Far from it. Kenna changes her mind about herself many times over, veering back and forth across the imaginary line of the gender binary, sometimes pushed, and sometimes pulled to the other side. When she ultimately does decide that it’s time to stop and make a choice, she does so by drafting a coming out letter that I think is quite remarkable.
It begins with the simple statement, “I can burden others with knowledge they would rather not have. Or, I can die knowing that I hid the truth from some of those closest to me” and goes on from there. She writes of mental agitation, professional help, of fear and depression, and of reaching a turning point. She doesn’t demand acceptance, but makes it clear there is no room left for argument. There is no cure. She cannot go on pretending or performing. She recognizes that it’s time to make a commitment, and to stick with it. Although there’s a brief epilogue, her story really ends with the fitting declaration, “Kenna would prevail.”
My Life Until Death is a strangely wonderful story, although it's not without its flaws. First, it could definitely benefit from the guiding touch of...moreMy Life Until Death is a strangely wonderful story, although it's not without its flaws. First, it could definitely benefit from the guiding touch of an editor, both to tighten up the prose and to provide a bit more flow to the overall structure. Second, even for a fictional autobiography, it does strays a bit too far into fantasy, particularly with the accidental surgery and multiple pregnancies.
Having said all that, there's a passion and an honesty to the story that can only come from someone who has lived the struggle, and that resonated with me. You can feel Robynn Penelope Mussell's pain in its pages, just as you can share her longing to be loved, and her desire to hold on until the very end. There's a wistful sort of wish-fulfillment to the entire story, and even if it does stray too far into fantasy, it's hard to deny that, at some time, we haven't shared those very same fantasies.
It was 2011 when Janet Mock, editor of People.com, came out as transgender in Marie Claire magazine. In just over 2000 words she went from being a res...moreIt was 2011 when Janet Mock, editor of People.com, came out as transgender in Marie Claire magazine. In just over 2000 words she went from being a respected editor to an influential spokesperson for the transgender community. Since then, she’s gone on to put a positive, professional face on transgender issues, appearing in the pages of everything from London Times Magazine to The Telegraph, and on such television shows as Huffington Post Live to MSNBC.
Of course, despite what seems like an overnight success, Janet’s life was not so different from any other trans woman, looking to cope with the struggle of her own identity. She talks about growing up in a world where being trans was not something you took pride in, or even talked about with anybody outside your immediate family. It was a world of dehumanizing depictions found in popular culture, usually played for laughs, for shock value, or trashy titillation.
Her story has all the hallmarks of the trans experience. She recalls being caught and scolded for wearing a dress at the age of thirteen. She remembers telling her mother that she was gay, unable at that age to separate gender identity from sexuality. With no concept of a trans identity, the idea of a thirteen year old boy becoming a girl was nothing more than a fantasy. Somehow, she still managed to express that fantasy with Wendi, who was the first to do her eyebrows and makeup, and who continues to serve as her makeup artist today.
Janet was fifteen when she told her family that she wanted to be called Janet, following that up by declaring to her teachers and classmates at school that ‘she’ was to be called ‘Janet’ and ‘she’ would be wearing dresses to class. For the most part, her acceptance at school was positive, but there were challenges, such as the chemistry teacher who continued to refer to Janet as ‘him’ and as ‘Charles’ at every opportunity, and the principal who scolded her for dress code violations.
More than anything, Janet’s story is one of triumph. She acknowledges the challenges, the disadvantages, and the issues she faced, but never dwells on them or lets them dictate her story. Instead, she constantly takes charge of her life, insisting that her mother take her to the doctor for hormone treatments, coming out to her first boyfriend, and then coming out to her estranged father with a touching, heart-felt letter and a copy of her yearbook photo. When she talks of her father writing back to tell her she “looks nice,” I’ll admit to shedding a few tears, even if he goes on to caution he’ll need time to come to terms with ‘Janet.’
There is some darkness to her tale as well, particularly surrounding her life as a prostitute, but she owns that life, owns her choices, and almost justifies them as a means to an end. She doesn’t sensationalize it, even if it does end with a Pretty Woman type proposal (which she rejects), and it is here that Janet steps outside her own story to talk about the risks of suicide, HIV, and rape. Ultimately, Janet’s story is a journey of self-revelation, of understanding who she is inside, and of taking steps to realize that on the outside. It’s an extraordinarily emotional tale, raw and honest, but at the same time polished and profound. She doesn’t try to make herself out to be the perfect woman, and makes it very clear she never set out to be any kind of role model. Instead, Janet shares with her past, invites us to reminisce, and promises a brighter future – something to which we can all aspire.
Subtitled as it is, “The Story of One Individual’s Odyssey through Crossdressing, Alcohol, Escorts, Strippers, Sex, and Money,” My Transvestite Addict...moreSubtitled as it is, “The Story of One Individual’s Odyssey through Crossdressing, Alcohol, Escorts, Strippers, Sex, and Money,” My Transvestite Addictions really doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It’s an extraordinarily candid look at the life experiences of Jack/Jacquelina, alternately amusing and horrifying, cautionary and inspiring.
The story begins with the harsh contrast between a 10 year old lying in the comfort of his own bed, full of innocent prayers for God to turn him into a girl overnight, and 47 year old laying on the cold floor of a jail cell, tortured by questions about what left him broken and bleeding . . . and where he goes from there. It’s a shocking contrast, and one that serves to set our expectations for what’s to follow.
Make no mistake, both Jack & Jacquelina are responsible for actions that many readers may find distasteful, but you can’t help but understand – and even appreciate – the thoughts, feelings, and desires behind those acts. We may shy away from stories of anonymous, public sex; heavy drinking; acts of violence, and dangerous, expensive indulgences with transsexual escorts; but we can’t help but confront the doubts, feelings, and insecurities behind them. Clearly, we don’t all deal with our issues in the same way, but there’s a commonality to our issues that’s important.
Something that may jump out at a lot of readers is the terminology and phrases that are used throughout the book. Jack makes no attempt to be politically correct, to pick and choose his words, or to tailor his comments not to offend. He uses terms that he himself admits may be controversial, but which are honest reflections of the world in which Jack & Jacquelina have battled for so long. As uncomfortable as they may make some reads, it’s important to note that he never uses terms like ‘shemale’ maliciously, and never refers to anyone as a ‘tranny’ out of spite. Instead, he adheres to the lexicon that shaped his development, the words that defined him and those around him at the time, regardless of how they may be viewed today.
Over the course of the story, we see Jack & Jacquelina battle for supremacy, with both controlling aspects of his life, but neither representing the whole of who he is. Eventually, he comes to a conclusion that I suspect many readers may share . . . and others might wish they could:
“I am both Jack and Jacquelina. I do not have to choose between the two. When I feel like Jack, I’ll dress as Jack. When I feel like Jacquelina, I’ll dress as Jacquelina. I’m both male and female, depending on my mood.”
In Jack’s case, his crossdressing started out rather innocently – despite those childhood dreams of femininity – as a bold, daring, exhibitionistic form of self-expression. It only evolved into an addiction, and became paired with his other addictions, because of his personality.
Throughout his life – and the course of the story – Jack ‘blames’ a lot of things for his problems. Genetics, hormones, and chemicals in the brain are all suspect. Similarly, the inability of those around us to acknowledge, understand, and accept anything that varies from the norm is presented as an easy target for blame. Ultimately, however, this is a story of personal responsibility, one that acknowledges blame and excuses are “a bit of a cop-out.”
While those of us who fall anywhere outside the rigidly defined binary of male/female can be said to have something important in common, some bond that connects us, a key theme of Jack’s story is that, deep down, we are all different. We are human, we are complex, and we are individuals. We cannot be easily defined or explain away, and we need to allow ourselves the freedom to explore, and to discover just who and what we are. For most of us, those explorations aren’t likely to lead us to the extremes that he experienced as Jacquelina, but if they should, we can take some solace in the fact that we are not alone.
Jack’s is a difficult story, full of as many highs and lows, and one that may be seen to have an rather open-ended, happy-for-now ending. Like so many of the great stories of addictions, this is a story of a long, winding road-trip through the emotional and sexual psyche. There’s no promise of eternal bliss, no easy answers provided to the question of gender, and no definitive declaration of what makes a transvestite versus transsexual. Instead, it’s simply the story of a journey – one that is not yet complete – and the lessons learned along the way.
Although somewhat awkwardly told, Playing Darlene: The True Double Life of a Public School Teacher & Professional Dominatrix is a fascinating peek...moreAlthough somewhat awkwardly told, Playing Darlene: The True Double Life of a Public School Teacher & Professional Dominatrix is a fascinating peek at the business behind the world of bondage and domination. It's a business in which Darlene found herself entirely by accident, fuelled not by fetish or fantasy, but by circumstance and curiosity. As a result, there's a sense of almost clinical detachment to her recitation of scenes and players, lending the book a sense of authenticity, free of any emotional embellishment.
While there is an emotional component to her story, it is relegated to the introduction and conclusion of the tale, leaving the reader to piece it all together and judge for themselves both the impact of that component as well as the significance. Personally, I would have liked to see a bit more emotional reflection throughout the story, but the separation does make for an interesting read.
Darlene's style is simple, straightforward, and almost conversational in nature - precisely what you would expect from an ESL teacher. She keeps the more risqué details to a minimum, restricting herself to the essentials. That's not to say this is a tame read, not by any means, but when she does write about a submissive ejaculating all over the floor, you know it's an essential element of the scene, and not just an erotic embellishment added for the sake of the reader enjoyment. Had she wanted to really elaborate, this could have been a much longer (and much more arousing) tale, but it would have lost its focus in the face of the erotica.
One of the things Darlene does exceptionally well is build the profile of her clients and customers. Again, she resists the temptation to make them characters in some erotic adventure, instead keeping them honest and, most importantly, human. She lets us know what they need, what the crave, and what they enjoy, but doesn't attempt to imagine any dark-and-deep backstory about what sends them to a professional dungeon. Even the more outrageous customers are kept restrained (no pun intended) by the matter-of-fact telling of her story.
Like I said, there is a strong emotional component to the opening and closing chapters, and it really casts a different light on her story. It's a really sad commentary on life when the traumas of a child seem more fantastic than the tortures of a Dominatrix, but it says something important about our world and the way we react to it. Perhaps that is why Darlene held so much of herself, back, but only time and (we can hope) a second volume will tell.
Although already an accomplished novelist at the time, it was the publication of She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders in 2003 that first made Jennif...moreAlthough already an accomplished novelist at the time, it was the publication of She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders in 2003 that first made Jennifer Finney Boylan a household name - and which firmly established gender issues as a topic of popular discussion in the process.
Says Jennifer of that seminal volume, “at first, I thought of She’s Not There as a kind of ‘once-off,’ after which I’d return to fiction. But, oddly, I hit some nerves with readers.” She found herself drawn to writing nonfiction, and since gender issues were very much at the centre of her life, it was inevitable that gender would become a topic she returned to again and again. “You could make a lot,” she muses, “if you wanted, out of the fact that as a man I wrote about things I had to invent, and as a woman I’ve been able to write about things that are true.“
Anybody who has ever given it even a moment’s passing thought knows that it is not easy to step outside the so-called ‘norm’ and embrace a gender identity or expression that lies beyond the traditional gender binary. There’s a world full of fear and prejudice out there, and the sad truth is we all too often have to accept the loss of friends and family in order to find peace and happiness within ourselves.
When there are children involved, however, the situation gets even more complex. Fortunately, Stuck in the Middle with You does a wonderful job of exploring the role that gender (and gender change) plays in parenting, and demonstrates that the health and happiness of one’s self and one’s children can coexist peacefully. That’s not to say it’s all fluff and laughter – there are some deep thoughts and some painful tears involved, but time, love, and caring heal most wounds.
When asked if, in writing about the lives of her children in Stuck in the Middle With You, she found herself at all sensitive to potentially negative reactions, Jennifer scoffs. “I think the only people who will react negatively . . . are people who have issues with trans people existing in the first place.”
As a second-time parent, going though the infant/toddler stage all over again, I was really struck by her doubts and fears regarding what secrets her boys might be hiding. I do wish we could have heard more from her children, and learned more about their rough edges, but it’s comforting to know that our children can take after us, and can learn from us, without actually becoming us.
An interesting aspect of Stuck in the Middle with You is the ‘Time Out’ Conversations with other parents that fall between the chapters. “I wanted to make the story about more than just me for a change,” says Jennifer, so she “turned to the moms and dads and “former children” that I knew, most of whom are writers, and asked them to talk to me about their own experience as parents, or about their own parents.”
At first I wasn’t sure what to think of those conversations, but I slowly began to see how their placement enhanced the story, adding a new perspective to things. The more we heard from other parents, the more it becomes clear that so many parenting experiences are universal, and not unique to any gender.
Jennifer takes the bold step of concluding the book with an interview of her partner and herself, conducted by novelist Anna Quindlen. Jennifer and Deirdre talk about stereotypes and secrets, about Maddy versus Daddy, and even answer a few difficult questions. It is Boylan, of course, who gets in the last word, but not before her partner has a chance to pull all the threads together in a family portrait that’s not much different from any other.
While not as ground-breaking as her first two novels, Stuck in the Middle with You is a welcome addition to the shelves upon shelves of parenting books out there, and one that offers a unique perspective for all genders.
With I'm From Driftwood, Nathan Manske collects 50-plus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Stories From All Over The World. It's an admir...moreWith I'm From Driftwood, Nathan Manske collects 50-plus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Queer Stories From All Over The World. It's an admirable effort, with some really interesting stories to enjoy, but I have to be honest in that I found it rather heavily weighed on the 'gay' side, with few 'transgender' stories, and even fewer 'bisexual' stories, and somewhat uneven in terms of quality.
I know, life stories are just that - life stories, and not literature - and Manske is limited by those stories the community care to share. In terms of demographics, he may very well represent an accurate cross-section here, but I simply would have liked to see more balance. That's probably a personal complaint, coming as it does from one of the under-represented demographics, but it's a complaint all the same.
Some of the stories here were quite fascinating, containing moments of humour, sorrow, and anger. If there's a common them to them, it's this - while words and actions do indeed have power, even a quiet form of acceptance can be stronger than the most vocal rejection. There were a few stories in which I could see myself, moments and confrontations I too have shared, but for the most part I felt like a sympathetic ally, standing outside the story.
I don't mean for this to sound like a negative review, because this is an important collection, and I think it's wonderful that so many people have shared their stories with the i'm from driftwood project. It does reflect the individuality within our shared circumstances, and there's an authenticity to the words that you wouldn't otherwise find in a memoir that lifts, borrows, and edits the tale to fit a larger theme.
From its deliberately provocative title, to its unusual narrative style, to its heavy layering of religious themes, to its reliance upon deception and...moreFrom its deliberately provocative title, to its unusual narrative style, to its heavy layering of religious themes, to its reliance upon deception and coincidence, this was a book I was prepared not to like. The term hermaphrodite itself seemed like a slap in the face, especially since any hope of finding a mythological theme to serve as a justification for the term was erased the moment Jamie’s boyfriend invited her study the Bible with him.
The problem was, by that point I had already fallen in love with Jamie, and I wanted to see her safely through the story. I felt the need to protect her, to embrace her, and to support her through to the end. Sure, she’s a little too perfect, a little too innocent for a college student experiencing her first taste of freedom, but she absolutely compels the reader’s sympathy. And, as jarring as her narrative leaps between genders can be, they create a fairy-tale kind of magic that is undeniably attractive.
So, I persevered for Jamie’s sake, continuing to follow her on this difficult journey to womanhood. I can’t say that I ever became comfortable with the religious themes, but I did come to appreciate them in a way I had not expected. As we progress through the story, we learn that it’s the love of family that is holding Jamie back, and the love of the Church that empowers her to move forward. Without the spiritual acceptance of those around her, and her involvement with the Church orphanage, Jamie would likely never have found the courage to claim the gender that was rightfully hers all along.
What bothered me instead was how so many friends and family seemed to take it upon themselves to force their help upon Jamie, often in rather deceptive ways. It can be argued that the end justifies the means, but in a book that has such a spiritual core, those deceptions are even more pronounced. Jamie may not be manipulated in the way that we expect, or by whom we expect, but the manipulation is still there, and still makes your skin crawl when you really think about it.
On a positive note, the book does a fantastic job of detailing the variety of intersex conditions, the challenges they represent, and the different ways in which people come to deal with their situations. I was delighted by how much I learned from the story, enough that I was willing to forgive the idea that so many intersex individuals might so naturally converge on one small college town.
In the end, this is a rather nostalgic read, full of old-fashioned values and progressive ideals. The writing is strong, the characters are likeable, and you cannot escape becoming emotionally attached to Jamie. Despite the details that bothered me, I quite enjoyed the read, and was rather delighted by the way in which everything came together in the end.
Although Everett Maroon's Bumbling into Body Hair is subtitled "A Transsexual's Memoir," he initially comes across as genderqueer (as opposed to trans...moreAlthough Everett Maroon's Bumbling into Body Hair is subtitled "A Transsexual's Memoir," he initially comes across as genderqueer (as opposed to transsexual), which adds a rather unique aspect to both the story and his development. There's a sense of self-discovery, self-definition, and (ultimately) self-recognition that accompanies the story, providing us with insight into the doubt and confusion that so many transgendered individuals experience, but are reluctant to share.
Make no mistake, by the end of the tale, Everett does successfully transition from female to male. That's not a spoiler, just an acknowledgement of the author's place within the story. It's okay if you're not quite sure what a transsexual is, or how one goes about becoming one, because for much of his life he didn't know either. It's only through his interactions with others, his often ill-conceived attempts at self-expression, and his conversations with a therapist that he comes to understand and accept the boy inside the geek.
This is an honest, heartfelt, and often self-depreciating journey, full of humour and heartache, marked by an awkward relationship triangle that seems to do as much to hold him back as it does to propel him forward. It's often a frustrating read, making you want to pull him aside for a heart-to-heart, but the way in which he bumbles through those challenges is what makes the read. There's no narrow-minded focus or pinpoint goal being pursued here, no realization of a lifelong dream. Instead, what we have is a personal journey through what makes a man . . . even if he wasn't quite born that way.
As I was reading it, I kept thinking that the book's only real failing was its lack of emotion. Everett comes across as upbeat, friendly, and optimistic, but I felt as if he wasn't being entirely open about the negative emotions in his life. Things like being rejected by family, being spit on by strangers on a bus, and breaking up with friends and lovers are almost shrugged off. The expressions of pain and sorrow that we know he must be feeling simply aren't shared with the reader. It wasn't until the last 50 pages or so, when he has a conversation about how differently men express their emotions, that it all clicked. That emotional detachment isn't a failing on his part, but a representation of his true gender.
Overall, an interesting story, and a unique perspective on the journey of gender. I think what I appreciated most was that while Everett may question his gender and his gender expression, he never wavers in his sexuality. He raises some interesting question as to whether being seen as a 'straight' couple negates his being a lesbian, but he never lets those questions interfere with his affections. All too often it seems the issue of sexuality gets all muddled up and confused with gender, the two intricately tied together, but Everett's journey is definitely one-sided . . . as it should be.
I'm not really sure what can I say about Kate Bornstein's new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, other than WOW! This an amazing, intense, heartfelt...moreI'm not really sure what can I say about Kate Bornstein's new memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, other than WOW! This an amazing, intense, heartfelt read that's goes far beyond questions of gender and sexuality to examine, really, what it means to be human.
Written in a casual, conversational, sometimes rambling manner, this is a very easy book to enjoy. One of its many quirks that I found so delightful was the way in which Kate would tell a story, swear it was the honest-to-gosh truth, then turn around a page or so later and admit that it was a lie. In most cases, they were stories she believed wholeheartedly for years - until she shared them and was promptly shot down by her brother. It's a quirk that not only adds a bit of a comic feel to some chapters than definitely need a pick-me-up, but it's also a playful element that ties into Kate's personality.
Really, this is three memoirs in one, as the extended title suggest:
A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The true story of a nice Jewish boy (1) who joins the Church of Scientology (2) and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today (3).
Let's start with the nice Jewish boy. Kate (then Albert) realized at the tender young age of four-and-a-half that she wasn't a boy and, therefore, must be a girl. With that self-realization, a youth of lying to the world, putting on an act, and hiding her true self began. She doesn't spend a lot of time wondering why she was different, or looking for answers (biological, psychological, theological, or otherwise), but there's one passage early on where she talks about her mother's previous miscarriage that ably demonstrates how she has so creatively imagined herself:
"Now here's what I think: I think no one knows what the previous tenant of my mom's uterus had left behind for me to pick up and use. I'm sure that girl body had been meant for me."
It's clever and simple, and the kind of imaginative leap you can only make if you are well-and-truly comfortable in yourself.
The Church of Scientology occupies a significant portion of the book, but as interesting as it is to peek behind the curtain, it does tend to wear thin quite quickly. The attraction of Scientology, her life within it, and (most importantly) it's continuing impact upon her life is important, though, and it frames perhaps the saddest, most heartfelt element of Kate's memoir . . . but more on that later. To me, the appeal of Scientology has always been inconceivable, but I can't say there isn't something beautiful and profound in its appeal to Kate:
"...they [the Church of Scientology] said I'm not my body, and I'm not even my mind. They told me I am a spiritual being called a thetan - from the Greek letter, which we were told meant perfect thought. Male and female is for bodies, they told me. Thetans have no gender."
Definitely an interesting thought, and you can clearly see how the theory so hooked a confused young transsexual. What follows is, no matter how you want to put it, a life inside a very closed cult, including an extended period where she lived at sea, with nobody around but other members of the Church. It was a life of spiritual, mental, and financial slavery (although Kate never uses that word), and one that ultimately cost her the love of two ex-wives, her daughter, and the chance to ever see the grandchildren that would come later. The chapter in which she describes her Excommunication made me so furious, I literally threw the book across the room and let it sit on the floor for a good week and a half before I could pick it up again without feeling the urge to tear it to pieces.
It's definitely the low part of her life's story, but it's true what they say - at least when you hit rock bottom there's nowhere to go but up.
The third part of Kate's story is the most fascinating aspect of the book, and even if it's filled with pains of its own, the sorrows of her transition are both honest and (largely) self-inflicted. Really, Kate begins her entire life over again (several times, in fact) finding what should have been solace and support though the medical community, except she chose the wrong doctor, one who held her back rather than helped to guide her forward. It's not entirely clear what an impact the unprofessional nature of that relationship had on her transition until she moves on to a new doctor, one who has her best interests at heart.
"When I was a girl, I was a thirty-eight-year old man and I had to make up for lost time. It wasn't easy. I had to learn girl from the ground up, just as I'd had to learn boy. It wasn't pretty."
When Kate says it wasn't pretty, she's right. Her transition is marked by stories of self mutilation (cutting), drug and alcohol abuse, anorexia, and more. She clearly struggled hard to become the woman she is today, and even if we know she's a stronger person for those struggles, they are still hard to share. Relationships were, as you might expect, particularly troublesome for someone struggling as much with her gender as her sexuality. While some may argue she simply traded one cult for another, Kate's immersion in the BDSM lifestyle was absolutely fascinating for me, and probably the point at which I began to first notice real, genuine, powerful emotion coming through her story.
As ultimately uplifting and inspiring as her story may be, however, it's framed by a sadness so deep, it's difficult to experience. She begins and ends the book with a virtual shout-out to her daughter, a heart-felt plea for understanding, acceptance, and simple acknowledgement. It's a testament to the intensely personal nature of her final passage, the raw openness of her plea, that she was able to so completely overcome those feelings of rage and betrayal I originally felt over her excommunication. Instead of throwing the book across the room and wanting to tear it to pieces, I instead clutched it to my breast and cried for what might have been . . . and for what, if there is any justice in the world, still might be.
This is an eclectic (and beautifully illustrated) collection of material that serves to explore, examine, and explain the experience of a stunning you...moreThis is an eclectic (and beautifully illustrated) collection of material that serves to explore, examine, and explain the experience of a stunning young woman who is her own body of work. Judith Rudakoff has gathered actors, playwrights, professors, critics, and Arsenault herself to dig deep beneath more than 60 surgical augmentations to reveal how and why a young man named Rodney has invested $200,000 in becoming someone who is almost more than woman.
As the book reveals, Arsenault is definitely not your average transgender woman. Creatively subversive, she is very much aware of herself a biological and emotional paradox. While many might call her journey an obsession, calling her unreal, unreasonable, and unnatural, it’s a deliberate expression of her need to physically realise the impossible contradictions within herself.
The chapters are deliberately arranged to contrast one another, rather than to form any sort of cohesive story, but opening with Sky Gilbert – drag queen and veteran of the stage – is a perfect move. His is one of the most accessible chapters in the book, and really serves to begin building an understanding of the subject. Todd Klinck’s reminisces of Arsenault during her sex trade days is a definite eye-opener, but one that paints an important picture of how our desires can shape ourselves.
While it would have been very easy to approach this as either a celebrity expose or a fawning tribute, Rudakoff takes a very balanced (if sometimes dryly academic) approach to exploring Arsenault. Ironically, for someone who has deliberately chosen to retain her penis through all the surgeries, Arsenault often comes across as kind of a radical feminist. She very clearly understands the contrast between the impossible, unattainable image of beauty she has worked so hard to created, and the passionate, determined, proud woman at its core.
Both a work of art and the artist behind that work, Arsenault has made a career out of exploring herself through photography, theatre, and writing. Her own contribution to the text, in which she talks about travelling and performing in the Yukon, is absolutely fascinating. She talks (or rather performs upon the page) about removing herself from the anonymity of big city life, not wanting to become an event, and ultimately finding the freedom to be herself.
A few last pieces follow, exploring theatrical, cultural, and religious thematic threads within Arsenault’s work, concluding with her one-woman play, The Silicone Diaries. The script provides a fascinating glimpse into how all the elements of her life and her work come together. While it can be argued that it should have come first, allowing readers to begin with that very theatrical introduction, Rudakoff cleverly forces us to evaluate the work separate from the woman.
It’s a rather dense text at times, with some arguments that certainly went over my head, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. What’s more, once you read through her play, peruse the photos that follow, and then revisit a few chapters, the experience changes . . . just as Arsenault herself does, time and time again.
Truly a woman who has seen, done, and survived it all, Christine Beatty is a writer, musician, and a transgender activist. She was one of the first tr...moreTruly a woman who has seen, done, and survived it all, Christine Beatty is a writer, musician, and a transgender activist. She was one of the first transsexual women to openly perform as a heavy metal musician (which is what originally brought her to my attention), and the founder of Glamazon Press, an independent publisher dedicated to TS/TG authors.
Not Your Average American Girl is a story that opens from a rather tenuous state, beginning with a rehab diary, and looking back at the events that ultimately pushed her to the brink one time too many. We meet her at her most vulnerable, and that really sets our expectations for the story to follow – no matter the ups and downs, we know that it’s going to be the downs that define it.
It sounds strange to describe the act of reading a book as physically and emotionally exhausting, but that is precisely the case here. As we follow Christine through the first few decades of her life, we bear witness to one painful challenge after another, to one crippling setback after another, and to the ways in which she escapes (rather than surmounts) each one. In reality, there’s only one challenge at the heart of it all, but her inability to successfully cope with being transgendered continually places her in situations where bad decisions almost seem inevitable.
Whether it’s attempting to hide her femininity behind a military uniform, avoiding it with the pretence of a 'normal' heterosexual marriage, or flaunting it with a prostitute’s fetish attire, there’s a common theme to Christine’s pre-rehab life of looking for solace in all the wrong places. Given the obstacles in her life, it’s no mystery that she would so often look for a means of escape, even if her steady decline into a life of drugs does make for a frustrating journey. What makes that journey so much harder to follow is the fact that she’s such a charming, captivating personality – the kind of woman who encourages feelings of friendship, even in her darkest moments.
By the time she has her (literal) sword-swinging break with reality, we realise that being condemned to the forced detoxification of a prison cell is probably the best end to which she could have come. By the time we, and the story, catch up with the diary-writing Christine, out of prison and on the eve of graduation from rehab, the story begins the process of redeeming itself (and her). Despite family rejection, a failed marriage, the alienation of friends, lost jobs, and the looming spectre of HIV, Christine seizes the opportunity forced upon her and begins dealing with (rather than escaping) her gender issues.
The challenges never stop – more than once she’s forced to abandon her hormone treatments and postpone surgery because of her HIV status – but she learns to deal with them without escaping into the oblivion of drugs. That's not to say every decision is the right one, or that she doesn't continue to struggle with the harsh reality of integrating her true, feminine self with society, but we see her rapidly maturing before our eyes. In many ways, the latter part of her story is even more exhausting than the first, but only because we know how hard she’s trying, and we know that, outside of a few lapses, it's all without the safety net of chemical oblivion. We can see a glimmer of feminine hope on the horizon, and even if it seems to keep teasing her by moving further away, we can’t help but share Christine’s determination to pursue it.
What's more, we can't escape the absolutely certainty that she absolutely deserves to achieve it.
In the end, Christine’s story is one of hope . . . of triumph . . . of a spirit that refuses to be broken. It’s not the easiest journey in the world, but the challenges makes the destination that much more important. A large part of what makes the book work so well is that she has such an engaging voice, and writes with such honesty and candor. There is a wide range of emotion captured here, but every one is both deep and sincere. In the end, Christine is most definitely not your average American girl but, then again, neither are we.(less)
I stepped somewhat awkwardly into the pages of Porn's Stars Book II – and it had nothing to do with the gorgeous black stilettos I was wearing at the...moreI stepped somewhat awkwardly into the pages of Porn's Stars Book II – and it had nothing to do with the gorgeous black stilettos I was wearing at the time! Having come to know Chris fairly well over the past year, opening the book was like walking into a strange restaurant for a first date with an old friend. As excited as I was about getting to know one another better, I found myself mentally counting the steps between the restaurant and his apartment. Even as those black stilettos were anxiously tapping away beneath the table, in my mind they were already laying in a heap (alongside his own) beneath the bed!
Much like his earlier collection, Confessions of a Transvestite Prostitute, there is a wonderful mixture of sentiment and sensuality here, a natural merging of the innocent and the erotic. The narrative framework is interesting, in that it places a pair of storytellers between the author and the reader, distancing us a bit from the subjects, and yet creating the space necessary to lose us in the stories. The stories being related by Chris have come, second-hand, from the lips of the lovely Porn . . . but are told in the first-person, as they were originally related to Porn.
Like I said, it’s an interesting framework, but it lends the stories a note of casual authenticity that really works. As erotic and adventurous as they are, each story sounds like something a best friend might regale you with over a few drinks – entirely believable, with an acceptable bit of embellishment (or, at least, poetic license).
These stories are as much about feeling sexy as they are about being sexy. Chris and Porn do a wonderful job of setting up each story, introducing us to the original storytellers, and creating some appreciable context for their adventures. We’re invited inside their heads to experience both the joy and the anxiety of getting ready for a date, of preparing for an adventure. A significant portion of each story is devoted to the game of seduction, to either the choosing of a partner, or the choosing by a partner. By the time we make it to the bedroom, we like the characters, and we want them to enjoy themselves – and not just because we want to vicariously share in that enjoyment.
As much as I enjoyed the erotic aspects of the book, however, it’s the narrative bridges between the stories that I think really push this collection to a higher level. Porn is a bright, perceptive, open minded young transsexual, and her thoughts on gender and sexuality are as simple as they are significant. More than once I found myself thrusting the book in the air with an excited “Yes!” or an emphatic “Exactly!”
Highlights for me included the story of Kristy, a heretofore heterosexual crossdresser who engages in a safe bit of flirting with an online admirer, only to find herself unable to resist his insistence that the meet in person; Jane, the transvestite who encounters the ‘drab’ version of a fellow crossdresser, and finds (to her delight) that Andy is just as desirable as Candy; and Katy, the beautiful transvestite who gets lost in the pleasures of a photo shoot, finding herself uncontrollably aroused by the experience.
If you’ve yet to experience the joys of Chris and his writing, then this is a perfect opportunity to slip on those boots (or shoes, if you prefer), adjust that dress (or skirt, or pants), and get comfortable. Even though this is the second Porn's Stars collection, it can certainly be enjoyed on its own. I must caution you, though, that it will leave you wanting more!(less)