Across the transverse

Martin McClellan

February 17, 2016
"The hard part was sorting it all out. The hard part was taking a good look at everyone else and the way they looked at the world, which was a lot different than the way I was looking the world." - Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw.
"What if we're not trapped in the wrong body, but trapped in the wrong society?" - Juliet Jacques

There's an old Benny Hill sketch where his randy simple-minded character is walking down the street, behind a blonde with luxurious long hair. Hill excitedly preens and goes big-eyed as the camera male-gazes on swinging hips and rolling buttocks in tight hip-hugger jeans. Then it comes: the blonde turns, and we see that the character Hill has been lusting after is — reveal! — a dude. A mustachioed dude with flowing feminine hair. Hill gets that smooshed mouth disgust on his face, punctuated by an extreme closeup, and…punchline! Cue Yackety Sax!

The target of the joke is a bit unclear. Certainly, it was a against hippy culture and its permissiveness with tertiary gender characteristics in a way that the ethos of Hill's comedy found inappropriate. But the joke also turned against Hill, in that it shamed him for not being able to tell the difference between the genders. It brought to light a particularly uncomfortable aspect of interpersonal public sexuality: the idea of being fooled.

Part of Juliet Jacques' gender transition, detailed in her book Trans: A Memoir, was in making the decision to live full-time as a woman. If you are considering gender transformation, you must transform. You must start presenting as the sex you will be transitioning to well before you will be cleared for gender reassignment surgery. If, indeed, that is your goal. This step comes at the start of taking hormones, so many secondary characteristics of Jacques’ body still read as male, and knowing this, she was shy and more withdrawn in her gait and overall presentation.

Walking around her town, Brighton, she would get called out by men on the street with "bloke!", or in pubs with "I know what you are", once followed by a forced kiss. The message, of course: you are not fooling me. Whether it was said with anger and a threat of violence, or lewdness and a threat of sexual aggression was all the same. Jacques points out that both were dehumanizing on multiple levels, and assumed that she was cross-dressing as a sexual act, as a signal of sexual availability, instead of dressing as the gender most appropriate to her sense of self.

Given that half of trans people will be sexually abused or assaulted in their lifetime this threat is extremely specific, real, and terrifying. It is something Jacques, and other trans people, face every time they walk out the door.

So when we listen to stories of transitioning, one word carries the weight of intention, and the weight of alleviating conflicts before they have begun. The word is: passing.

Passing is an old word. In the noun sense, with a meaning of 'dying', the OED lists an entry from circa 1350: "Þou ladde me in-to passyng of deþ". It's also a transformative word, with many ascribed meanings.

There is also passing, as in not dealing with something: I’m going to pass on that; passing, like receiving something: can you please pass me the butter?; passing as in moving beyond another on a similar path, we passed on the sidewalk; passing, as in handing off responsibility to another, I’m passing this responsibility off to Susan; passing, as in a bill, gun control legislation has finally passed the House; passing, as in missing, in fencing, my thrust passed without contact; passing, as in advancing through steps, I passed section one ; passing, as in succeeding in a test, I guess I passed, since he said yes to going out with me again; passing, as in moving through, I passed through Snoqualmie on the way to Yakima.

All of these meanings could be metaphor for aspects of gender transition, but the most powerful meaning is, of course, passing, as in people read me as the gender I wish to present as.

Can you imagine the work that goes into this kind of passing? Rooting out, recognizing, and relearning parts of your gender presentation which you previously never considered consciously? Learning how to wear makeup? Learning how to sit, to smile, to walk, to talk — to walk in heels? Jacques learned that from an unlikely source: "I tottered in my heels getting out of the car, having hardly worn I them outside. I’d learned how to walk in them from a scene in the Simpsons, when Bart tries on Lisa’s shoes: ‘Heel, toe, heel, toe!’"

She began electrolysis to remove the hair on her face, she became more skilled with makeup, hormones softened her features, so she began to read as more female. And, she brought to her gait a new intention. Just walking down the street became easier. The transactions with others tempered by their simply either not noticing her, or reading her as a woman.

The street harassment didn’t stop, but it became less frequent as I became more confident, and I held up my head, slouching less. After a while, getting hassle felt like a surprise rather than an inevitability, and I felt angry at people for being gutless, rather than depressed. They always heckled me in packs, or from passing cars, and the only single guy on the street to laugh at me had an angry-looking dog, which stopped me from head-butting him Zidane—style.

Jacques’ prose is more reportage than polemic (appropriate, for a book that began as a series of columns for a newspaper). She describes her circumstances, her decisions, and the life she lived during this period of transition. She has a Proustian rhythm and pace that I felt more compassion for than, say, Knausgaard, who evokes this comparison regularly (by dint of volume, perhaps, more than content). Her evenness of voice, when discussing personal and emotional detail of the very intense and difficult parts of her life let the viewer share a comfortable intimacy with her, that I can only imagine was difficult to balance while maintaining a sense of self and privacy.

She must assume a level of compassion of the reader. But you feel her intended audience is people like her, who are either transitioning or want to understand what the path of changing your gender might entail. Her transition was informed by many trans writers, notably Kate Bornstein:

In particular, I liked her insistence that “everyone has to work about being a man or a woman”, implying that everybody has a gender identity to manage, but that “transgender people are probably more aware of doing the work”. Bornstein identifies neither as male or female and talked about how culture created gender, and gender roles. “No one had ever hinted at the, and so, standing out side a ‘natural’ gender, I thought I was some monster, and it was all my fault.”

Earlier on, she had trouble finding stories to identify with. The common one, perhaps born out of Christine Jorgensen’s celebrity, didn’t feel right to Jacques when she was younger.

…I wasn’t sure if that made me a ‘cross-dresser’, which seemed the least loaded term, or ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’. I didn’t much like any of those labels. Describing himself as a ‘male lesbian’, comedian Eddie Izard had reclaimed ‘transvestite’ from the old stereotype of high-powered men secretly masturbating in their wives’ lingerie….But the word still felt sexual in a seedy, lonely way… It was not a term I wanted to apply to myself. ‘Transexual’ wasn’t accurate either. You needed to be someone who’d been though some medical process to alter your body, right? I hadn’t, and didn’t plan to: they’re not like me either, I thought. All the documentaries and articles I’d seen told the same story: someone, usually decades older than me, who’d been born male but ‘always knew’ they ‘wanted to be a girl’, keeping their feelings secret while they started a family and career. When they finally came out, they faced a desperate struggle to stop people disowning them until their lives settled back into normality.

Later, she wrote about dealing with that cliche of being ‘trapped in the wrong body’:

Beneath my anxieties about where I went and what I wore, and how I was perceived and treated as a result, was a growing discomfort with my body. Often, my choice of clothing wa an attempt to make this visible. I felt no happier with the labels of ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ than I had during my teens, and I’d never seen this sensation of discomfort expressed other than in phrases such as ‘trapped in the wrong body’, which had never quite spoken to me. I didn’t like my facial hair, flat chest or genitalia, but I’d long known that I could change them. The more I read about Hirschfeld’s patients, or transsexual women such as April Ashley whose marriage had been declared void when her husband wanted to divorce her in 1970, a precedence which still stood, the more I felt trapped not by my body but by a city society that didn’t want me to modify it.

The word she was looking for, transgender, existed during her youth (OED records first use as 1974), but hadn't grown into common use, yet.

She peppers the book with sections that explore and explain topics such as “The history of the sex change”, “Gender Outlaws: the birth of Transgender theory”, and “Conundrum: the politics of life writing”. Jacques is an academic, and that word works for her prose in the sense that her research is sound and explanations clear, but not in the sense that the writing is dry or haughty. It is a history as well as a personal history. She marries her transition and research into the past with her teaching the reader about the things she learned on the way.

And in those histories, during her transition, Jacques finds out that her very being is political. It’s political in that changing gender is a transgression that society is extremely uncomfortable with, and actively against. It’s political in that there is a wing of feminism that completely rejects trans-women, and sees a woman who started life as a man to be an appropriation that is a function of male privilege (something Jacques investigated thoroughly).

There is one aspect to Benny Hill's sketch I didn't fully address earlier. Specifically, the sketch reflects the male view that women are sexual objects, and if a "man" dresses as a woman, and you find yourself attracted to her, she has "tricked" you. That, in fact, your sexual desire has been used against you (to wit, one way of reading the clip is that Hill is a proxy for the viewer, and by editing, he made you feel desire for the man, so you were the fooled party. He was pranking you). This is felt as an affront, and a violent one. When I hear the phrase toxic masculinity, this is what comes to mind. It appears to underlay a lot of violence against gender non-conforming people. And it is concentrated in the most heinous way if you are a trans-person of color.

In 2015, Fusion found twenty trans, and non-gender conforming, people were murdered. Of that, seventeen were people of color (which evokes another meaning of passing, for a light-skinned African-American to pass as white, as in Nella Larsen's Passing)). It was one of the most violent years on record against trans people.

Acceptance of trans people then is, quite literally, life-or-death. A book like Jacques, to the casual reader, may be a study in empathy — a way to understand what a fellow human went through. But, the readership is likely to be self-selecting. Very few people without that capacity for empathy will buy the book to begin with.

For a young transgender person, the situation may be different. The book would earn its title, but maybe as the root for another 'trans' word: transgressive. It is a book you could imagine hiding under mattresses, read away from any eye that might police the gender of the book’s owner. It could, quite literally, be a lifeline.

Of course, it won’t change that Benny Hill ogling character, played back on video loops. He’ll still run his eyes up and down the blonde’s body. He’ll still look gobsmacked as the man turns around and he’s made out to be the fool. Yackety Sax will still play. The clip will begin again: ogle, turn, sax; ogle, turn, sax; ogle, turn, sax; ogle, turn, sax.

But, of course, as Jacques shows, we don’t need to change the clips, only the mind of the person viewing it. Maybe they can move past it. You know, "passing", as in: leaving it behind us.

Books in this review:
  • Trans
    by Juliet Jacques

    September 21, 2015
    208 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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