As puberty hits, teenagers will search for anything that they thing will help them to understand the changes they are going through. Books in the house or in the public library, sex manuals furtively obtained and swapped around the playground, soft-core pornography, late night television programmes, coded and not-so-coded messages in pop songs. In the seventies information about growing up straight is plentiful, if inconsistent. Information about growing up gay – well, there’s a little bit out there. Growing up trans – next to nothing.
Which perhaps makes it all the more surprising when I find the four sacred texts dotted around our house. I find them, I read them, I take their (mostly bewildering) messages to heart. By the time I have read them I know a little more, but am not necessarily much wiser about myself, partly because all four are so different from each other.
My father was not much of a reader. Harold Robbins found his way onto the bedside table, but mostly he favoured fiction about the war – Boldness be My Friend, The Cruel Sea. Text Number One turns up among this rather limited selection. Everything you Always Wanted to Know about Sex (but were afraid to ask) by David Reuben is best remembered now as a result of Woody Allen’s rather free movie adaptation. The original book is a distant memory for most, although parts of it remain vivid to me. In order to blog about it, I ordered a second-hand copy and I’m now reunited with this seminal text.
It’s a rather poor, nasty, judgemental book. As a child I find, and devour the sections on gender variance, which leave me tantalised but confused. Please note the following are Reuben’s opinions, not mine. Transvestites, it says, are largely heterosexual. Gay men, on the other hand, almost always sharply divide their roles into male and female, and the ‘female’ will often crossdress. There is an elaborate passage about a gay man attending a bar in drag, waiting for “homosexual romance to blossom”. The description mesmerises me when I first read it but I think, does this mean I have to be gay? The men who “claim to have been turned into women”, Reuben goes on, are really “castrated, mutilated female impersonators”, whose breast implants are “rock hard”. Re-reading it now it’s hard to escape how nasty and judgemental much of the writing is and of course, in retrospect, how ignorant.
The next two texts are found on a shelf in our dining room. The Love Machine is by Jacqueline Susann, best known for writing Valley of the Dolls. It’s the story of a television personality called Robin Stone and his lascivious adventures with a variety of women. Intensely searching its pages I somehow discover the section on his encounter with a beautiful Latin woman who he discovers, after the event, to be trans – “He had banged a goddamn transvestite”, Susann inaccurately writes.
Stone makes his discovery because he is a “supreme lover” but despite all efforts he cannot bring this woman to orgasm. Being rich and famous he of course never fails and so is baffled until the truth is revealed.
So the lesson of The Love Machine is that trans women can be beautiful but can’t have orgasms. When I first read it I am not entirely sure what an orgasm is but the thought of not being able to have them (as they seem essential) is unnerving. Later I will discover that, happily this is an oversimplification …
The third sacred text is on the same shelf. My mum is more interested in literature and flirts with the leading edge, so it is her copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn that I discover. Originally banned in the UK, it includes an unflinching (for the time) portrait of American gay and trans subcultures which, pre-Stonewall overlapped considerably.
Again I find this confusing, but I am transfixed by accounts of cross dressing and some fairly upfront scenes involving sex and drugs. A key early character is Georgette, a “hip queer” whose crossdressing is described in detail. In one scene Georgette visits an apartment full of trans women, some apparently beautiful. And then later there are descriptions of sexual encounters and a drag ball. The world it depicts is disturbing but alluring to me, and I struggle with the mixed feelings the book triggers for me, the thought that in order to embrace my feelings I might have to enter a different, and dangerous world.
The final sacred text is in some ways the most helpful, and portrays the most balanced view of what it’s like to be trans. Each month my mum buys Nova, which is perhaps the coolest women’s magazine of its day – beautfully designed, and yet serious, substantial and campaigning.
My mum tends to hang onto her copies, and in one issue there is an extensive article on British trans women. For its day, it is relatively respectful and understanding. For me, it brings the world of gender variance a little closer – most of the women are in London and there are pictures of them. One appears sad, but hauntingly beautiful. Sensitive descriptions of these women’s experiences are coupled with accounts of their medical treatment. That particular woman observes “They chop your chopper, but then tell you there’s no such thing as a sex change”.
One section of the article focuses on a transsexual commune that existed briefly in the seventies, in London. In London! That brings this strange world dangerously closer. There is a description of those living there watching television, one said to be “effortlessly pretty”. How much that phrase tortures me. I want to be effortlessly pretty, not some confused, ugly teenage boy. But, I conclude, that can never be.
Others depicted are harder to identify with – one (still calling himself Patrick I think) is described as having previously thought he was a dog. Some appear to be transitioning successfully while others struggle. There is an interview with Della Aleksander, a pioneering figure in the seventies. “Of course my children call me Dad,” she says, “I am their father”. How tough that must be, I think at the time, little dreaming that one day my children will have to consider what they want to call me.
I re-read the sacred texts again, and again, and again. Although they are confusing, they are something to hang onto. The Nova article makes the trans world seem almost in reach. I think about trying to find this commune, maybe visit it. The thought is tempting, yet terrifying. Although each of the sacred texts gives me a little more information, moves me on, they all also serve to confuse me. Without anyone to talk to, my thoughts about myself, and my unhappiness and discomfort, continue to intensify. I feel trapped as these feelings grow stronger. But seeking help feels terribly dangerous and, after all, who on earth could help me?