I’m in Italy for the summer, and my friends on facebook tend to be pretty queer-friendly, so apparently I have been missing some kind of media (social and mass) frenzy around Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair Annie Leibovitz photo shoot.
Laverne Cox has rightly worried about the fetishizing of trans beauty; obviously, we haven’t made the world a kinder place if, in order to live as a different gender, you have to be gorgeous. Besides, anyone can airbrush someone into looking fabulous. A really talented photographer has to be like Plato, revealing the beauty that most of us, as a result of our general inattentiveness, ignore. People are like paintings; you have to stand in front of them, be quiet, look with rapt attention, and see what their body is saying to you. It’s hard work, especially in a culture that encourages you instead to wince in embarrassment at (or to shame for lacking self-discipline) the fat person, the person with the not-quite-right hair, the old person. (Okay, yes, it is hilarious sometimes to recall, “Is your hair on purpose?!”) I keep trying to convince my photographer friends that they should take on the real task of revealing the beauty in someone who at first might not seem so beautiful, but they would rather photograph either muscle boys or clowns or muscle boys wearing clown masks.
I am particularly fascinated by the fat thing, having found myself one day making love with this really sexy husky guy who became my husband. Early in our relationship, I remember telling some friends that heavy guys were really sexy because they tried so hard to please you. I would add that, at least in the case of my guy, who sometimes inhabits my fantasies as a Roman wrestler, he has taught me how erotically pleasing it is to be with someone who will never say no to any of your desires, whose attitude toward his and your body is “let’s give it a try and see how it feels,” who has never, ever made me feel ashamed of anything I wanted, and who remains utterly and totally nonplussed when one’s own body goes somewhere one did not necessarily want it to go.
(I have very vivid childhood memories of playing “Roman slave girl ravaged by the gladiator,” thanks in part to Quo Vadis, etc. Maybe this is also why I never felt that being short was some kind of erotic handicap, as I knew that some guys loved how small my hand felt in theirs.)
In Dancer from the Dance, one of Andrew Holleran’s characters says that the very worst physical quality a gay man can have is a small cock. These days, I think being fat trumps the small penis. Yes, both have found their admirers and their fetishists, but, as evidenced by, say, Craig’s List ads (one of my two go-to sources for information on current sexual pop culture,) people who would never say, “No guys with small penises” are more than willing to assert, “No fatties.”
Yes, people might say, “Must have at least eight inches” – and I am fascinated by the ads where the person says, “I’ve never done this before” but “you have to have eight inches,” as it so clearly illustrates that sex has almost nothing to do with biology and everything to do with fantasy. (Don’t you wish you could be there to see that guy trying to take eight inches up the butt for the first time?!)
But note that this is a positive way of framing the desire. Not “no princess tiny meats” (which is how Kenneth Anger said the coroner referred to poor, gorgeous Montgomery Clift) but “no chubby/heavy/fat,” etc. I would venture to say that really cut abs or a huge chest makes up, these days, for other shortcomings, and if he’s a bottom, the whole issues is less pressing.
While we are on the subject: I also find it somewhat confusing that, according to X-tube (yes, my other go-to source), most daddies seem to have really big bellies. Search the videos and see if you can find a thin older guy. Similarly, daddy seems to really mean grand-daddy. It makes me think of my recent experience at the Pitti Palace, staring at one of the most famous and important paintings in all of Western art history, Giorgione’s “The Three Ages of Man.”
But this is not one of those tiresome pleas for more visibility. As long as I’m not in the painting, I can pretend I’m whoever I want (though I will admit that looking in the mirror and seeing yourself turn into your parents is a little disconcerting, as you probably never imagined either one of them as particularly sexy.) And personally, I look forward to grandpa sex sometime soon, depending on how long I manage to torture myself every day with those forty minutes on the cross-trainer.
I was at a conference recently with someone whom I first assumed identifies as either a butch lesbian or an FTM, a category of persons that seems of late to be the equivalent of last year’s mixed race baby – very in demand. But of course this might be my perspective. As someone who feels chiefly attracted to men, I always find these girl boys kind of sexy.
Anyway, having recently read T Cooper’s Real Man Adventures, I was acutely aware of the necessity of referring to someone with the correctly gendered pronoun. Unfortunately, I did not know if my colleague identified as a woman or a man, and s/he had chosen a name that was itself genderless. But then I realized that perhaps the whole point was to undo gender as a category rather than transform oneself into an easily recognizable version of either a man or a woman. Confronting the undecidability of a body is of course far more challenging than categorizing someone as an effeminate man or a butch woman (not to mention the whole issue of when is now, when has one crossed the line from “comfortable with his feminine side” to “screaming queen,” for example). Perhaps my colleague was content being undecidable. The fact that undecidability is more challenging to our established notions of gender norms is perhaps (perhaps) well illustrated by the boom in chicks with dicks porn. The hybrid body is easier to swallow than the “I’m not sure what it is” one.
Tim Dean has written convincingly on the perils of the rhetoric of the “true” self hidden somewhere inside the body that sometimes characterizes trans discourse, the belief that, once one’s body has been aligned with one’s sense of one’s proper gender, the self will be beyond conflict, restored to an imaginary whole, and so forth – a self-defeating discourse of authenticity, as in “Now I can be who I really am.” All of us at times find our own gendered bodies alienating. All of us are subject to gender policing and experience moments of rebellion against that policing, consciously or otherwise.
I’m not really happy with this binary, conscious and unconscious, and lots of psychoanalytic criticism slides problematically between identity as a psychical process enjoined on the subject and identity as a kind of volunteerism, as in “we have to assume identities and then undermine them.” I find valuable the idea that there is something in each of us impervious to knowledge – so much so that we will always feel alienated from that thing we sometimes call our self or, even less rigorously, our identity, a word that apparently means what we call ourselves when we recognize ourselves (either willfully or “automatically” or “unconsciously”) as being part of a group of people who are like us. And anyone who has read my work knows that I have no patience for this word, identity. I just don’t get it. I’ve never felt like I belonged to any group. I survived by standing on the outside, feeling ready to run, if not also a bit smug and superior, while at the same time abhorring the idea of drawing attention to myself (because performers who needed to attract attention were undoubtedly inferior; real talent doesn’t need PR; it speaks for itself). The stakes were so high that making a mistake in public was unforgivable.
I know, some of you are saying this is an identity, too. Except I never felt, at least consciously, the apparent pleasure one is supposed to be [sic] in recognizing oneself. And part of me just thinks the question “Who am I?” is too boring to entertain, that anyone asking this needs to get busy being and stop worrying about what s/he is called. The real point, however, is that political affiliations need not be the product of identities; they can arise from moral and ethical commitments to valuing difference, for example, even if — perhaps especially if — heterogeneity is to some degree unthinkable.
Judith/Jack Halberstam is probably the most public example of an intellectual willing to inhabit the undecidable body. Though I think he sometimes acts too much the bitchy queen, she is someone whose work I admire, and I tend more often than not to agree rather than disagree with his/her scholarship. At an earlier point in my career, she (and at that time she was still only Judith) was very kind to me at a conference. This might sound like a small thing, but conferences are extremely anxiety provoking. Am I too visible, am I invisible? Am I strident, am I obsequious? Am I obnoxious, am I brave?
People are living their genders in increasingly complex ways, choosing different degrees of body modification, for example, and this certainly is fascinating and, if we can risk the term, liberating. Part of the appeal of Italy for me is that men here have such a wider range of fashion choices in terms of gender, and, having dressed in navy and brown for a good deal of my adolescence, (so as not to draw attention to myself; the whole process was set in motion one day in the fourth grade, when Jackie Tetzloff told me that, in my print shirt and plaid pants, I looked like a “Polack”; that changed, however, in the late 70s, with polyester shirts printed with Impressionist paintings and platform shoes that made my knees bump the bottom of my desk at school, and my best friend Jena, who gave me a make over), I love wearing Etro and Dolce and Gabbana in particular, None of that black Armani or Versace stuff for me.
Academics adore self-flagellation, and so there has also been a great deal of taking ourselves to task around our neglect of trans issues. This seems particularly true of academics and intellectuals who once identified as gay or lesbian. We seem obsessed with reminding each other of the raw deal we have given trans folks. I always mistrust gushings of liberal guilt, as I wonder what they are masking.
It is utterly natural that anyone who grew up being called a fag, fem, or fairy might be mortified by people thinking that he might secretly be trans. And I can imagine many gay men themselves having to face a moment of “could that be me? Is that why I liked playing with Barbie dolls and dressing up as a girl? I’ve always felt different; I’ve always felt more comfortable around first girls and then women. I was the only man allowed in the women’s dorm at Goddard College. Could I secretly be . . . . ?
Given the ways in which, since the 19th century, some Western conceptions of sexuality and its relationship to gender, the untying and retying, yes I am a third sex, no, I am a man who loves other men, yes, I have fantasies of being a woman, no, I have never had such fantasies, yes, I imagine my asshole as a man pussy, no, the appeal of a vagina is a mystery to me, yes, I am as masculine as any ‘normal’ man, no, I don’t give a shit about how other men live their gender, yes. I am effeminate, so what? no, gender is not a zero sum game . . . .” So, if we don’t get the trans thing right, give us a (temporary) break. We need time, too, to adjust to undoing ourselves.