Sunday, January 19, 2014

SEX FROM INSIDE Part 5 "Free Radicals"

For this post I’m relying again on the testimony of others, this time an article in the online magazine Aeon, which I highly recommend as explorative but not exploitative.  (Both Aeon and the article.)  It’s about transgender people, surgically converting, from inside the experience.

Christine Jorgenson was the first transexual person I knew about -- 1952, just as my adolescence began.  I thought about it quite a bit.  There weren’t many photos.  At school they were just getting around to showing us the Walt Disney films about birds and bees.  Since my maternal grandfather had been one of three brothers who ran a construction company, my mother and her sisters had been praised by him as being “as good as boys” which is what he had really wanted,.  So my mother believed girls should be tough but boys were fragile.  She taught me to drive a nail straight.  

Her other influence was hormonal:  my father traveled for a living, she was home alone in a big wartime city she didn’t know, and she was scared in spite of the automatic pistol in her nightstand.  That meant high adrenaline during gestation, which tilted me towards high androgen, which meant I was a stubborn and aggressive kid.  Her mother (my grandmother) was a scaredy cat by nature and since my mother was the oldest, and HER father (my grandfather) was often away, I think she tried to put up more bravado than she had courage to support deep down.  When adolescence began, my high androgens meant it hit a little harder than the more feminine girls.  Bees, hell.  It was a whole hive.  

But the next maternal influence was the message “do not get pregnant” driven straight as a nail.  I was a social disaster anyway until I found dramatics.  I never wanted to compromise and neither did I want anyone attaching to me.  I wanted books -- worlds -- universes -- experiences impossible to share.  If an alien had appeared, I’d have been holding out my hand to it.  As it turned out in 1953, Etta May -- a very large black girl -- showed up and I tried to make friends.  But she was already a woman and saw I was still just a child.  When I got to the reservation (as close to another planet as I could manage -- the Peace Corps hadn’t quite kicked in), the fact that Bob was twice my age -- therefore from a doubly foreign world -- thrilled me.  He was as much a parent as a lover -- a little confusing, but comfortable.

The next transexual I paid attention to was Jan Morris, not least because of Morris’ fine travel writing.  I was grown up enough to value the interior of people, the experience instead of the obvious appearance.  When I hit menopause and had no particular difficulties except that it was slow, a gynecologist put me on strong doses of estrogen for a few months.  I went off the meds cold turkey, not least because the emotional cycle (taking estrogen, then switching to progesterone) threw me back to the seventh grade:  Miss Jekyll and Ms Hyde.  It was amazing from the inside, not just a matter of behavior, but a whole outlook on the world like going back and forth between black-and-white and technicolor.  At one point in the cycle I wanted to make a little nest and cuddle; at the other I was all rooster with spurs sharpened, dominating the pecking order.  The administration didn’t appreciate this.

At an earlier point, between teaching and ministry, I spent five years as an animal control officer, essentially a deputy sheriff responding to animal complaints and emergencies.  I was the first woman and wore the same uniform as the guys, which didn’t fit very well -- the shirts had too much shoulder and not enough chest.  But I liked the Smoky Bear hat until someone stole it out of my truck.  The job was almost like a gender swap, but a matter of presentation.  Women who encountered me in the ladies’ room did alarmed double-takes.  A man almost punched me in the nose until he registered I was female.  I wore big earrings and lots of perfume to give people some clues.  But I could NOT act wimpy while dragging the corpse of big dead dog to the truck.  Nor did it mean that whatever men were around were inspired to be gentlemen who helped.  But my boss said I had balls, and he was an old cop, so he knew. 

When I was actually in the ministry, dressed up and being hugged -- whether I liked it or not -- all the authority I had had with a badge and a hat brim pulled low was gone.  I could use strong language and gestures for emphasis, but most people interpreted me as a kind of auntie who could be safely ignored if not opposed.  It was possible to take control, just a little harder.  Theatre training helped.  I had to pay attention.  Because of the congregation’s projections, being a minister is like having pockets full of catnip, but it isn’t dangerous so long as no tigers are in the house.  I was only asked for sex twice, both times in Canada, men I hardly knew.  I am no femme fatale so I had no repertoire of responses.  I said,  “I’m not the temple whore.”  And I said, “For that I charge a lot more than I do for ministry.”  They just shrugged.  Women never could quite decide whether or not I was lesbian.  (Not.)  Others figured I was Mom. (Not.)

In the end I realized that part of the problem was staying in homes while I was circuit-riding.  They saw me in my pajamas with my hair on end and their kid on my lap.  I needed the big desk in a carpeted office to be a convincing marriage counselor or power agent of change.  I should have worn that medieval academic black robe that signals seminary, but since I was serving small fellowships there was usually no pulpit to wear it into.  When I went back to teaching for a couple of years, I discovered that the students would not respond to a teacher who didn’t dress up like a television lawyer: suit, heels, hairdo.  They said that’s what “professional” meant -- enough money to buy good clothes.  But they only meant female teachers -- they didn’t care what male teachers wore.  Sweats. Jeans.

Here’s another article for you to ponder. 

Gender cues may impress high school kids, but the heart of human beings is infinitely variable and the things that really count are beyond gender, always a unique mix of internal and external, heritage and new territory.  Jan Morris is not the only person to stay committed to someone despite a sex change, nor are medical sex changes the only transformations that change people’s style and identity.  Age is one of the most potent shape-shifting forces.  Exploring other “planets” of place or vocation will do something like that.  It’s a wonderful gift to have a partner who accepts variability and offers a stable place to nest between treks to the top of Mt. Everest, as Jan Morris’ wife did.

But being celibate, solitary, preoccupied is my choice and I like it, though it offends others, esp. those who want me to do things for them.  Sometimes I think it’s the most perverse choice of all and there are people who would agree with that. But inside a person is where the sex changes are always happening most deeply and subtly.

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