Reflections of a Many Gendered World

The girl moves down the aisle, her lips mouthing the words to the song as she dances. Her short dress clings tightly to her hips, and her slim body moves rhythmically to the beat. She appears to be about 20, and in her platform heels she stands nearly six feet tall. The crowd is cheering wildly, and dollar bills find their way inside her dress.

Near the front, a young couple is whispering to each other. One appears to be a man; the other a woman. The one who looks like a man steps toward the dancer, displaying a dollar bill. Though the person has short hair and wears men's clothing, in the aisle where the light is brighter we can see she is really female. For a moment they embrace; and then her dollar finds its way into the dancer's cleavage.

The dancer moves onto the stage at the front, with the light trained on her. Or should we say "him?" The dancer is a drag queen, a female impersonator. His admirers include men and women of all sexual orientations.

"I love to be around feminine people," confesses the masculine lesbian. "Where can I admire feminine beauty more than here?" Tonight the universe has been turned on its head, as a masculine female expresses her admiration for a feminine male. Even her lover, a lesbian "femme," appreciates femininity in drag queens as well as in herself.

While the drag queen himself may be exclusively homosexual, his fastidious imitation of women shows his love and admiration for them. "I love women; I just don't want to sleep with them," says one drag queen.

One of the prevailing myths in our culture is that there are two kinds of people, masculine "men" with male bodies and feminine "women" with female bodies. Drag smashes through that barrier in our minds and turns everything backwards on us, until we're forced to question the basic assumptions of our everyday life. And drag, as we'll soon see, is only the tip of the gender-variant iceberg.

"My body looks nothing like a woman's," says Janee Starr, the currently reigning Miss Gay Tucson America. Out of drag, he looks like a tall, slim, clean-cut young man. But see Janee in makeup, wig, heels and a coordinated outfit, and we see a statuesque beauty who looks like she stepped from the pages of Cosmopolitan.

A different image of femininity is that of Lucinda Holliday, who was Miss Gay Tucson 1994. As Lucinda, Larry Moore performs as a bawdy, heavyset woman whom he describes as "larger than life and just the right size." Though he recently stepped down from his official role of promoter of the Miss Gay Arizona-America pageant, Larry will continue to be in the forefront among female impersonators in Tucson.

Drag is an international phenomenon. In Mexico, despite the machismo culture, there is a long tradition of Travesti shows, a tradition that continues among Mexican-Americans in Arizona.

Emmanuel, whose drag name is Andrea, currently reigns as Miss Gay Hispanidad-Tucson. At 28 he's a slight, soft-spoken Mexican-American man. Growing up in Nogales, Ariz., Emmanuel was 16 when he realized he was gay. At the age of 20 he began doing drag shows. "Looking at yourself in the mirror, you know how good you look, tricking men that you look like a woman, looking so different, and doing shows for the community," he says.

Like many drag queens, Emmanuel only dresses as a woman when he's performing. Though he presently has a male lover, Emmanuel loves the attention he gets when he performs. "Most of my friends are drag queens," he says; though he also has straight friends, both male and female. Alexa, a friend who performs with him sometimes, is a pre-operative male-to-female transsexual; she plans to have an operation and become a woman some day.

LIKE DRAG QUEENS, women who dress as men often do so to express another side of themselves. When they do public performances in masculine attire they're called male impersonators, or drag kings. "Boys 'R Us" is Tucson's newly formed troupe of resident drag kings. Ranging in age from 18 to 30, they also vary, offstage, from very feminine to extremely butch.

Jonna, whose drag name is Maverick, is one of the drag kings in Boys 'R Us. She came out as a lesbian at the age of 20, after divorcing her husband. At 27 she has been performing in drag in Tucson for about three years.

As with queens, drag kings attract a mixed audience, with a slight preponderance of lesbians. "I am attracted to the message that being a male impersonator can send," says Jonna. "We're sort of trying to get our audience to question what gender means, to get them to think about this sort of nebulous concept, and express our ideas about how rigid gender roles in society hurt us."

As for her life when she's not performing, Jonna says, "I go through phases where every day I wear makeup and I'll be more interested in dresses and clothes and things like that. And then I'll go through phases where I'm just not, and I'll wear jeans and a T-shirt and spike my hair and run around being more butch. I just think gender should be fluid, and we shouldn't be forced to be one or the other."

Jonna's girlfriend is about her age; they've been together over a year now. Jonna says her girlfriend is more butch than she, but seldom dresses up in drag herself. However she is fully supportive of Jonna's performing.

The middle-aged person known to the Tucson lesbian community as "Sonny" has never regarded being masculine as a masquerade. As a young girl Sonny was a tomboy. "I could climb a tree as fast and just as far as any boy in the neighborhood," she says. "I started my coming-out process in 1970. At that point I came out as a bisexual. I was 22. I didn't become exclusively lesbian for another 10 years."

More years went by before Sonny realized her identity as a butch woman. "I stopped doing the femme thing about 1982. In '88 I cut all my hair off."

In addition to being active in the lesbian and transgender communities, Sonny is an Apache medicine woman. Though she never met her genetic father, she knew from an early age that she had Apache ancestry through him. "I started studying Native American religion when I was 13," she explains.

According to Sonny, all Native American traditions honor Two-Spirited persons like her: masculine females as well as feminine males. "Our job is to pray for the people. Two-spirit people are considered spirit-touched."

Sonny has a sweat lodge in her back yard, where respectful people of all backgrounds are invited to come and experience the ceremonies. Usually sweat lodges ceremonies are either for "men" or "women." But this isn't necessarily based on biological sex, but rather on spiritually based gender identity. "For anybody, if they identify as male, they sweat with the men," Sonny explains. "If they identify as female, they sweat with the women. What's going on under your clothes is none of my business."

Sonny has been with the same girlfriend, Tonii, for the past four years. Tonii also has Native American ancestry. "I'm Blackfoot and Cherokee," she says. "Plus Jamaican, French Creole and Black American." Like Sonny, Tonii tried to be heterosexual as a teenager. But at the age of 19, after a series of unsatisfying relationships with males, she came out as a lesbian. Unlike her partner, Tonii doesn't identify herself as exclusively butch. "I walk right down the middle of the road," she says.

IMAGINE IT'S SATURDAY night AND we've been invited to an exclusive house party near the edge of town. In the living room we see what appears to be a group of well-dressed middle-aged women. Only as we draw closer might we notice that most of these ladies are actually male. This is the monthly party of Tau Upsilon, the local chapter of the Society for the Second Self, or Tri-Ess, a national sorority for heterosexual male crossdressers. As with the drag queens, their makeup is impeccable. But they're older and more conservatively dressed.

Their love of feminine attire is potentially damaging to them professionally and socially. Some could lose their marriages, their children, even their jobs. Though a Tucson city ordinance protects transgendered people from discrimination in employment, enforcing that ordinance could prove difficult. Why do they dress up, then?

"I love being a crossdresser!" exclaims Sassi Anne Johnson, who looks from a distance like a typical middle-aged businesswoman. "When I get all dressed up in a smart outfit with proper makeup, wig, and a pair of low heels and I look good, I feel good! It seems to fulfill an inner need that I have but do not completely understand."

Yet it took many years for Sassi to accept her desire to wear feminine clothing, even though the desire goes back to the age of six. "The forbidden ground was my mother's lingerie drawer," Sassi remembers. "During this time my mother caught me three times that I remember. She managed to instill in me a good deal of shame, guilt and fear even at this age."

As Sassi entered her teen years her growing interest in girls magnified her interest in feminine clothes. "Somewhere in the early teens I got my first dress," Sassi continues. "My shame, guilt, and fear continued unabated."

Sassi married her present wife in 1965. "Since then we have had, if not a storybook, at least a very, very good marriage and relationship. . . . I felt no need to dress for the first five years of our marriage. . . . Then, after several years ... I bought myself a full set of lingerie, a skirt and a top."

"Finally, the fear, the shame, and the guilt became so pervasive that I threw all of my clothes out and made a solemn vow to never, but never do this again. Well, a year later, there I was in Sears, buying women's clothes again. For the next 25 years, I was firmly enmeshed in the purge/binge cycle that most of us are so familiar with, and desperately trying to live a lie."

In 1999, Sassi looked up "transvestite" on the Internet. "Thousands of Web sites revealed themselves," she says. "I began to realize that I was not mentally ill, I was not a pervert or a sexual deviant.... At least the stupid and expensive purge/binge cycle was broken.... Now my feet were firmly planted on the road to self-acceptance."

"I started dressing every day while my wife is at work (I am retired)," Sassi says. "I joined Tri-Ess and became the Newsletter Editor and Web Mistress for the local chapter.... I came to the realization that I had been born (blessed) with a strong feminine side to my personality, and that my crossdressing was merely a physical manifestation of that portion of my emotional makeup."

After much trepidation, in February 2000 Sassi told her wife about her crossdressing. "The results were far from what I had hoped for, but far better than what I feared. She did not leave me and we are still very much in love. She allows me the freedom to do 'what you have to do' (her words)."

While no one knows for certain, it's estimated that for every gay man who dresses in women's clothes there may be as many as 10 heterosexual males like Sassi. Like gay drag queens they usually start crossdressing in their teens, if not earlier. But as they get older, instead of outgrowing the habit as drag queens commonly do, crossdressers often feel compelled to dress up even more. Yet instead of going out in public in women's clothes, most of them dress up secretly at home.

Unlike the gay subculture, the heterosexual world offers little or no acceptance of male-to-female crossdressing, and there are no positive role models. Feelings of fear, shame and guilt are typical of crossdressers who aren't gay. The purge-binge cycle, of throwing away feminine clothing only to buy more later, is also common.

What crossdressers want most is acceptance and approval from women; but this is often difficult to find. After the repeated shaming Sassi received from her mother as a child, it's no surprise that it was traumatic for her to "come out" to her wife. Yet by that time she had received crucial help with her clothing, makeup and accessories from two women at a boutique in Phoenix where she shopped; this also helped her learn to accept herself.

Like Sassi, many crossdressers are married and want their wives to accept their femininity. But the wife may be repelled at the sight of her husband in women's clothing, presume he must be homosexual, experience his crossdressing as a rejection of her own femininity, or fear that if she stays in the marriage she must be a lesbian. Many marriages end in divorce when the wife discovers her husband has a need to wear women's clothes.

On the other hand, some wives learn to accept their husbands' crossdressing, even if they seldom welcome it. At most Tau Upsilon meetings some of the crossdressers have persuaded their wives to accompany them. In time some women learn to value the companionship of a mate who is gentle and empathetic, likes doing housework and understands fully why it takes so long to get dressed up and put on makeup.

LIKE SASSI, ANN Lorraine Jones looks like a typical middle-aged blond woman. She too has been happily married to another woman for decades. Yet even close up we're not likely to notice many clues to Ann Lorraine's male past. As a transsexual, legally and medically she's a woman.

Ann's father was very distant, and her strongest relationship was with her mother. "She wanted me to be a girl, and she treated me as a little girl." That changed "probably about the time I started school," Ann remembers. "That's the time I had to cut my hair. Since I had to be a boy, she did force the stereotype on me.... That's the one thing I remember that was very traumatic. I literally rebelled at being a boy."

After some experimenting, Ann found that the gay male lifestyle "absolutely doesn't interest me in the slightest.... I wanted relationships with girls.... The only means of survival was to give up on the rebellion and learn how to be a man."

After a failed first marriage, Ann married her present wife, Bonnie. "She and I tried to live the Mary Tyler Moore marriage," says Ann, but she felt she was living a masquerade. "The feminine desires that I had never really went away."

"Probably 10 years ago the crossdressing became a little more obvious," Ann continues. "It was about that time that I finally acknowledged that there was a God, and I came to a relationship with Him.... Yet there was one area of my life that I was hiding from God." The church that Ann and Bonnie were going to was one that practiced deliverance from evil spirits.

With that in mind, Ann went to a healer's home for a session. "The prayer was all about delivering me from this spirit of femininity," she says. "I remember opening myself, 'If this is not according to His will, I ask that Ann be cast out. I pray that everything that is not of Your will be cast out.'"

But the evil spirits that emerged from Ann were those of suicide and fear. "She tried to cast out a spirit of femininity, but there was nothing there."

Ann prayed, " 'Lord, I ask that you provide for me that level of femininity that is according to Your will.' I heard a voice that said, 'I've always known you were Ann.' I finally realized I was a transsexual. I realized the only way I can deal with this is to acknowledge that I'm female."

Though Ann and Bonnie had little money, "The thousand dollars that I had toward electrolysis never ran out," says Ann. By a series of miracles money came to pay for Ann's medical expenses. By Christmas of 1999, Ann was able to live full-time as a woman. "It was in March, 1999, that I got the name and gender changed." This involved a lot of legal pleading, but Ann was finally able to persuade the judge to officially recognize her as a female. "He wrote a court order allowing the birth certificate to be changed," says Ann

On September 11 of last year, Ann was in Thailand for her breast augmentation, tracheal shave, brow lift and scalp advance. Unable to cope emotionally with the news of the horror that was unfolding in New York, the Vietnam veteran asked to be put under general anesthesia in advance of the surgery. Six hours later she awoke to find, "The surgery was absolutely a success in every way."

Last February she flew to Canada for her sexual reassignment surgery. This is a complex operation that involves reconstructing the male genitalia into female organs. Ann returned to Tucson a few weeks later, fully a woman at last.

Like many transsexuals Ann says it's hard to predict which relatives will accept her and which won't. "My father accepts me," she says. But some of her other relatives, including her youngest brother, "couldn't handle it."

As for her marriage, the biggest threat is "a fairly recent law that says Arizona will not recognize same-sex marriage." But there are other, more established legal precedents for the continued recognition of Bonnie and Ann as a married couple.

Now 58, Ann is to outward appearances a blond, feminine, middle-aged suburban housewife. At the moment Bonnie is working full-time, while Ann stays home. While they were forced to leave the church they used to attend, they've found a home at the Cornerstone Fellowship, an Evangelical Protestant church that welcomes people of all sexual orientations. Ann has also been a leader of the Desert Girlz, the male-to-female branch of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance.

For Bonnie Jones, a petite woman two years younger than Ann, the transition has been difficult at times. No longer having a masculine "husband" to look up to, as women of her generation were conditioned to do, she has learned to find her own strength. Yet she has never wavered in her determination to stay in her marriage "till death do us part." Recently she's become active in Desert Partners, the branch of SAGA that's for partners of transgendered people.

While the statistics are conflicting, it's estimated that half or more of male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals come from heterosexual backgrounds. Many, though not all, become lesbian-identified after they transition to female. On the other hand a substantial minority are former gay males, who may become heterosexual once they're female.

TUCSON HAS ONE of the world's most vocal populations of female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals, who are also called transmen. SAGA was originally started by transmen, who called themselves the Desert Boyz. This is unusual, as in most cities FTM transsexuals, who are commonly indistinguishable from the rest of the male population, largely remain anonymous.

Transmen are often former lesbians who transitioned into heterosexual males. A good example is Michael Woodward, a 39-year-old transman who's active in the Desert Boyz. Michael notes with pride that throughout history there have been hundreds of examples of "Women serving in the military as men, since they couldn't as serve females. Then there was the bandleader, Billy Tipton, the trumpet player.... I think many, many women had lived as men. They were just naturally very masculine and considered themselves that way."

Michael came to Tucson about a year ago from Indianapolis, where he'd transitioned from female to male. He had always been a pudgy tomboy as a child and teen-ager. "High school was miserable for me, because I was finding myself attracted to girls, and having to deal with all that, plus I was too heavy, and I wasn't very feminine, and my mother desperately wanted a little girl.... As soon as I had any opportunity to be my own person, I immediately started letting myself be more who I really was...."

Michael thinks his sheltered Midwest upbringing extended his dilemma. "I'd never heard of an FTM. I was very butch, very masculine, and many, many times had said things like, 'if I could just get rid of these things on my chest,' and 'if I could just stop bleeding,' and all those female things about myself that I hated, but I didn't think I had any options. I didn't realize that I could actually do something about it."

Michael learned about FTM transsexuals from a friend who transitioned before he did. "As soon as I had a living, breathing example of a female who had transitioned to male, that was it... Within a year I had already started my transition.... I started going to their support group.... By the following summer, six months later, I changed my name, started hormones in December of '99. And then I had top surgery, in October 2000."

By "hormones," Michael is referring mainly to testosterone, which transmen affectionately call "T." By "top surgery," he means breast removal with nipple reconstruction; this is the most common form of surgery among FTM transsexuals. As with many transmen, it's the only gender-related surgery he's had. Some also undergo hysterectomies and a few can even afford phalloplasties, in which a penis is constructed, but the technology is still new, very expensive, risky and often not all that successful.

Before he became a man, Michael had two long-term relationships with women. "All of my relationships were very heterosexual-dynamic: I was the guy, and they were the girl." Now single, Michael dates women off and on, but doesn't yet have a steady girlfriend.

Other transmen have been luckier, and are still living with their former lesbian partners. The lesbian-identified partner of an FTM commonly goes through an identity crisis of her own: she wonders if she's still a lesbian now that her partner is a man.

Mike, a colleague of Michael's, is a former lesbian who's now living full-time as a man. Like Michael, he went through a "tomboy phase" as a child. "Where I fit wasn't in line with being a girl," he says, "but it wasn't as clear as some other people were." As a teen-ager, he sometimes wore feminine clothing. "I like to consider those my drag years," he says.

"I started my transition on hormones about three or four years ago," says Mike. Since Mike's lesbian partner shared his desire to become a man, they transitioned together from a lesbian female couple to a gay male couple. They had their mastectomies together, and were able to support each other in their journey together from female to male. Mike's partner had always felt attracted to men, and finally felt able to identify himself as a gay man after he and Mike had both transitioned.

Not all transmen are former lesbians. Some were heterosexual women who, after their transition, often found themselves identifying as gay men.

Whereas male-to-female transsexuals often complain they have trouble earning a living after they become women, some transmen boast that their earning power increases once they become men. Transsexuals thus demonstrate how gender inequality affects all people.

It takes immense courage to cross the gender line. Gender-variant people may face ridicule, discrimination, persecution, even death. According to the National Gender Advocacy Coalition, already this year at least 15 have been murdered in the United States alone. Yet most transgenderists see themselves as ordinary people, simply doing what they must to be true to themselves in a world where acceptance and understanding are often difficult to find.

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