Gender warriors

Female-to-males convene to talk about shooting testosterone, psychic hard-ons and passing for male.

Published March 7, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Like saints and nuns, many transgendered people meet the "greatest imaginary friend of all" at a tender age. God is the only one they can talk to: "I prayed every night that I would wake up a boy," is litany in the
female-to-male (F2M) transgendered childhood. A transboy believes in that
which adults, language and his five senses tell him isn't so. He's Joan
of Arc focused on the cross-dressing, true to the voice in his head and
ready to battle a world that insists on calling him "she."

When Beth Harrison Prado was 8, her mother told her that her wishes
would come true when she kissed her own elbow. In order to get the male
body she longed for, "I stuck my arm between the door and the wall like
this," she says hoisting her thick bicep with her other hand. "I pushed on that door until I broke the bone."

Harrison Prado, a self-described "stone butch who likes femmes" recently shared that anecdote to murmurs of recognition at the True Spirit Conference for F2Ms.

About 450 male souls journeyed to Alexandria, Va., for the three-day event, including some who have "transitioned" with testosterone
injections and surgery, some (mostly younger) who hadn't and others along the way. Though F2Ms frame it in more political terms, the Diagnostic and
Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) of the American Psychiatric
Association refers to the belief that one's gender does not match one's
genitals as "gender dysphoria." Gender dysphorics can include everyone
from transsexuals, who transition completely -- hormones, surgery, name
change -- to garden variety tomboys and sissies. The 1994
DSM estimates that one in 40,000 men is transsexual and one in 100,000
women is F2M transsexual.

What baffles outsiders is how unconnected gender dysphoria can be to
sexuality. Many F2Ms are attracted to men, but say they've always felt
like gay men themselves. Others must transition from being a lesbian lover
to half of a heterosexual couple and some are attracted specifically to
other F2Ms. Sponsor
American Boyz
invited an alphabet soup of identities to the 85-workshop event: "Butch, Transman, Gender
Outlaw, Transsexual, Drag King, New Man, Boychick, She-Bear, Shapeshifter,
Transfag, Tomboy, F2M, Passing Woman, Two-Spirit, Amazon, Tranny Boy,
Intersexual, Female Guy, Tranz, Boss Grrrl, Bearded Female, Transgenderist,
Sir, Kuramir, Hermaphrodite, Questioning, Just Curious or a Significant Other, Friend, Family member or Ally (SOFFA)."

The first workshop I went to was "The Interplay of Difference: Creating
Heterosexual Imagery," where a short, pear-shaped man with a wispy beard (a common look at True Spirit) spoke softly to six people with closed eyes.
He told them, "Picture your own gender for a few moments, then picture the
gender you're attracted to." Piles of crayons and paper were stacked in
the corner for drawing those images later.

The leader's soothing instructions were interrupted constantly by shrieks of laughter floating over from next door. I peeked
at my schedule and saw that the panel in the adjoining room was called
"Queer as Fuck." I snuck out of the fantasy exercise to join the rowdy
grrrls and boyz who were fighting categorization rather than redrawing it. The large room was jammed with college kids who looked even younger, like
teenage skateboard punks. They sported brightly dyed buzz cuts and mohawks,
heavy-metal band T-shirts and piercings through every dent or rise on
their faces. The most common jewelry was the angry-bull omega through the

The theme of the raucous rap session was the tension between "What the hell
are you looking at?" and "Hey, look at me!" Kid after kid professed
outrage at being treated differently because of her threatening, masculine
appearance, which inspired sisterly indignation. A few others bemoaned, to
similar encouragement, the loss of their radical look as they transitioned.
"I feel too normal as a guy," they whined. The loudest cheers went to a
green-haired butch who offered, "You know what really gets them? When they
ask why I have so many piercings, I tell them, 'It represents Jesus'
suffering on the cross.'"

Much of this seemed like standard-issue teenage rebellion, but self-awareness poked through occasionally. One sweet young freak pointed out, "When I get beat up for how I look, I think about how my black friends don't even have a choice, how they can't just take out their piercings like I can." Many of them seemed less like true gender dysphorics than kids, as their parents undoubtedly hope, going through a phase.

But the openness and experimentation of the queer-as-fuck kids has softened some of the F2M dogma. Throughout the weekend, older F2Ms thanked "all the young punks" for expanding definitions of transgender. The queer-as-fuckers don't worry about whether someone injects testosterone -- or "takes T" -- or whom he has sex with, two things that can cause F2M infighting or at least labeling.

The young set is also dragging transgender into the outside world: Their punk androgyny lacks the furtiveness the older F2Ms grew up with. When a workshop leader in his late 50s said, "And of course you're made to feel shame for being sexual at all," the girls with the shaved heads just looked blank. Then they happily blurted details about their strap-ons, labial piercings and range of sex partners.

The world is catching up; these little gender warriors are more likely to end up in a Benetton ad than in a Stonewall-type battle. But the young punks are merely the least abashed wing of a historically contentious subculture. F2Ms are engaged in an ongoing protest, not only against the gender police, but usually against all patriarchs, racists, some parents, jocks and cheerleaders, too. Most are well-versed in feminism, gay rights and other radical politics. Among the True Spirit workshops were "Our Role in the Revolution," "Working to Eradicate Racial Privilege" and "Trans Feminism."

Most of the F2Ms attending True Spirit pass as men, but they don't want to trade in their outsider status as "queers" for male privilege. They're like monks in, but not of, the gendered world, living a new type of maleness that doesn't oppress anyone. Mel, nee Melanie, who started "taking T" six months ago, explains masculinity as a psychological challenge rather than a set of characteristics or behaviors. "All the men in my family are assholes," he said. "So transitioning is healing that for me." It's not just loving the enemy, but becoming a better version of him.

So what happens when you throw testosterone into this volatile mix of feminist idealism and the longing to be male? The initial changes are much like those of male adolescence: cracking voice, wispy stubble, acne, increased sex drive. Gary Bowen, founder of American Boyz, underwent a profound metamorphosis when he started "T" a few years ago. He suddenly could understand male grunting and other nonverbal communication. He found it harder to think of words for things (but no, he's nothing like Homer Simpson). Strangest of all, he went from right-handed to left-handed.

He did not, however, feel compelled to smash shit up: "I felt more relaxed, happier in my body than I had my whole life." Mel and other new T-shooters also described greater energy and horniness, but again, not aggression or belligerence. Such testimonies make me wonder if "hormones" are a flimsy excuse for male violence. Perhaps socialized men give testosterone a bad name.

Mel's had no surgery; Bowen had chest-reduction surgery, but passed on the phalloplasty. Bowen shrugged, "If I have a spare $60,000, I'm going to buy a house, not a flap of skin I can't have sex with or pee through." Another option is metoidioplasty, a slight surgical extension of the clitoris, already enlarged by the testosterone injections, to make it resemble a very small penis.

Some F2Ms get testicular implants, but not phalloplasty, and some get hysterectomies. Many others, particularly younger butch punks, just leave their vaginas and clitorises in place and let the power of suggestion fill in the gaps.

Those flights of fancy were detailed in a workshop called "Cock Talk: A Discussion of Sex and the Erotic for F2Ms, Transmen and Butches." The panel was so popular that it had to be moved into a giant ballroom to fit everyone.

"Imaginary friend," took on a whole new meaning during Cock Talk. The penis is the invisible manifestation, the magically appearing stigmata in this faith-based masculinity. The ways the conferees transcended their fleshly limits sounded like a shared hallucination or a vision.

Workshop co-leader Harrison Prado claimed she could feel lust through her strap-on dildo, reading an impassioned essay about why she liked getting blow jobs. "By going down on the butch, the femme is honoring, validating what makes the butch a butch," Harrison Prado intoned in her gruff voice. "I have a very gendered eroticism when I'm with a femme, it's a psychic hard-on."

The young queer-as-fuck crowd chimed in. One pretty young dyke with a shaved head said, "I'm always packing [a strap-on] and I can come from a blow job, even with my eyes closed." Another pierced, buzz-cut college kid said her dyke lover didn't even need a strap-on; they could summon up a phantom cock. Others echoed this, including one baby dyke who said, "I'm so glad people are talking about this, because I thought I was losing my mind."

A scene in "Boys Don't Cry" captures this insistence on a personal vision of the body. One of the male goons who ends up killing him says to Brandon Teena, "Man, your hands are so little." Brandon replies, "They're not little, they're big." Not a disguise, not a deflection, but a simple denial of the facts; it reminds me of many conversations at True Spirit.

The transformative love light must be turned on to girl parts besides hands, too. Harrison Prado said she could only let fingers into her vagina if she thought of it as an "internal hand job." Workshop co-leader Stephen Whittle, a bald Brit who transitioned 25 years ago but never got below-the-waist surgery, addressed his reality gap the proper English way. "I just didn't look at my genitals for 21 years." His wife finally eased him out of his distaste with this F2M tautology: "You're a man, so those are male genitals."

Saul, a burly bearded man with a vagina who's dated F2Ms, said that everything must be discussed before F2Ms can start touching or even talking dirty. Some unreconstructed F2Ms call their vaginas the "bonus trannie hole" or the "manhole," he said. "A lot of them like their nipples touched, but you can't cup their breasts," because that means there are breasts. The nipples may perch atop breasts in this shadow world, but they float above flat pecs in trannie heaven.

By Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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