Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Wow. It's not easy for transgendered people to live the life and change to the body that matches their mind even now. Reading Christine Jorgensen's autobiography (Christine Jorgensen: A Personal Autobiography) makes it clear how much more so it was fifty years ago.

George Jorgensen was born in 1926 in Manhattan and had a quite normal upbringing, but was somewhat unusual from the earliest years -- the incident in which the teacher puts him down in front of his class and his mother for keeping a piece of needlepoint in his desk is the most evident example, but George had enough other characteristics that were considered "feminine" that his older sister Dolly wrote a college thesis on him. (On the other hand, a girl would probably not have been encouraged as much in photography by his parents, who took out a loan to pay for his tuition at the Photography Institute. It's interesting to speculate how Christine's later life would have been different if she'd been female from birth.)

The young adult years are the most fascinating time to read about George's inner life. Modern readers may wonder if he would have considered himself a homosexual man if he'd been born in a more accepting time -- he admits to having been in love with a man on at least two occasions before his transition, but still reacts with revulsion to being propositioned by a homosexual man. However, during his time doing clerical work in the U.S. Army, just after World War II, he noted that "During the months in service, I had seen a few practicing homosexuals, those whom the other men had called 'queer.' I couldn't condemn them, but I also knew that I certainly couldn't become like them. It was a thing deeply alien to my religious attitudes ... furthermore, I had seen enough to know that homosexuality brought with it a social segregation and ostracism that I couldn't add to my own deep feeling of not belonging." And later, "I always wanted the things girls wanted, because somehow I felt they just naturally belonged to me."

The first few doctors George consulted with in the U.S. seemed to think he needed psychiatric help, but his own library research revealed works such as Paul de Kruif's The Male Hormone and other information on the hormonal differences between men and women. Having used the G.I. Bill to start at the Manhattan Medical and Dental Assistant's School, he was able to get hold of estradiol tablets (a form of estrogen) and dose himself with this female hormone to find that "the great feeling of listlessness and fatigue, which often seemed to be with me even after a full night's sleep, had disappeared. I was refreshed and alive...At that point, I believed I had stumbled on the first step toward a solution that would allow me to live the life my heart and mind had told me I was intended to live."

Advice from some more open-minded medical men led George to Denmark, where he had relatives, with the hopes of going to Stockholm, Sweden, where some cases of sex-reassignment surgery were rumored to have been done. As it turned out, Copenhagen, Denmark, also had similar research going on. George became the subject of many tests -- comparing how he felt with and without his estrogen dosage, among others. Dr. Christian Hamburger, in charge of George's situation, "impressed upon me that no irreversible step, such as surgical removal of the male glands, could even be considered until all of the experts involved had thoroughly examined every possible avenue of knowledge." (Perhaps it is the era in which Jorgensen wrote the book, or a wish to gloss over male/female differences, but specifically male or female body parts are almost never named in this book -- just male or female "glands," and other terms that play down the physical differences most people think of as the most obvious determining factor in gender.)

Finally, the first of three operations took place, this one to remove the testicles. (Later, a second operation would be a penectomy, which required greater care because of the necessity to keep the urethra functioning to remove urine; the third operation was the plastic surgery to create a vulva and vagina.) It was after the first operation that George started dressing in female clothes, applied to the U.S. government for a passport with the new gender and the name of Christine Jorgensen, and first wrote to his family in the U.S. about his transition. His family were surprised, naturally, given that this was the first they'd heard of the existance of any sex-change operation, much less their child's desire to have one; but eventually they were accepting. "They still don't understand this, Chris," [Aunt] Augusta said, "but you are their child, and if this will bring you happiness, they're all for it." Would that all parents were so accepting.

During the recovery period from the second operation in December 1952 is when the news broke in America; exactly who among his parents' friends talked to the media was unknown to Christine until much later. But Christine began receiving calls in a Denmark hospital room, asking how she felt, "how tall I was, what my waist, hip, and bust measurements were and whether I slept in pajamas or a nightgown...or what?" The tendencies of the media, then as now, were for the titillating, and Jorgensen notes that "it seems to me now a shocking commentary on the press of our time that I pushed the hydrogen-bomb tests on Eniwetok right off the front pages." Since Christine was in Denmark, the Jorgensen family in America were badgered by the press even more than they normally would have been. Christine's absence, and then her agreement to an exclusive story for one magazine, encouraged the press to print the flimsiest rumors. While the decision to have a series of interviews with one journalist, who was also given information by Christine's doctors, probably did lead to a more accurate, less sensational series in the one publication (American Weekly), its short-term results were that a lot of junk appeared in other venues.

Jorgensen's account of her new fame, the reaction to her return to the U.S., and her realization that being a photographer and filmmaker would probably not work as a career when what people wanted from her was more exposure to her as a woman (and this being the 1950s, that meant making public appearances, eventually as a singer and dancer) occupy the rest of the book, written 15 years after her Denmark operations. Some people believed Jorgensen was a cross-dresser whose operations were fakes; others were far more accepting (and both Christine and her doctors received hundreds of letters from people wanting to go through sex-change operations themselves). Clubs who originally booked her nightclub act changed their mind and refused to have her appear on ground of "immorality" (despite the fact that apparently her act was far cleaner than many nightclub performers'). The City Council of Boston banned her from performing at clubs in the city, and she was blacklisted from entering New York's Stork Club as a patron. And when she was briefly engaged to a man, New York's Marriage License Bureau refused to grant her a license to marry a man, despite an American passport and New York driver's license identifying her as a woman.

The reprint of the book contains some photographs and information in the preface from after the original publication date, but Christine's own story is the most fascinating part. It is a book that would probably be more comprehensible to a person who does not understand the transgendered than someone's more recent experience would be, because it is so grounded in the mainstream culture of the past, familiar to people of conservative social views. But it also provides the history and background for a lot of current transgender/transsexual and even other "genderqueer" culture because Jorgenson's case forced the U.S. to confront the possibilities.

Friday, September 24, 2004

As I start this entry, my brain is singing a song used in Spunk, a stage adaptation of some of Zora Neale Hurston's stories I saw years ago. I only heard the song once, at the one-time-only performance, but the tribute to Zora Neale Hurston at the end of Marita Golden's Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex has put it back in my head.

I'm white. (At least as far as I know -- three of my four grandparents are from the South, after all, which is where most American black people were until around World War II. And Golden does say that as many as 40% of white people in the U.S may have black ancestors they don't know about or don't acknowledge.) And I've read many books about women in society, women's self-image, the influence of the media on what women think they should look like and how they should act -- all by white authors. Most of them mention that black (and Latina) girls grow up with less pressure on them to be rib-countingly thin, and generally I thought "That's cool; at least there are some sub-cultures in this country that don't drive women toward anorexia."

Some of the books did mention that among black Americans, the lightness or darkness of one's skin can be a social issue, determining one's acceptance in some groups. (If the subject got half a page in those books on women in general, it was a lot.) Don't Play in the Sun helped remedy my ignorance. Its title comes from the author's mother calling her indoors as a child with the words, "Come on in the house -- it's too hot to be playing out here. I've told you -- don't play in the sun. You're going to have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children as it is." Words that struck Golden, and words that struck me -- a mother speaking with complete frankness for her child's best interest as she sees it, the way my mother did when she told me I had no common sense. And boy, when such frank words stick in your memory, the urge to prove them wrong lodges just as firmly in your head. I'm not surprised that Golden says she became a great adherent of the "Black is Beautiful" and Black Power movements which coincided with her college years. I am surprised to see her uncover so many examples of color prejudice within not only Golden's generation, but her children's age group. The European standard of beauty remains dominant, which is harsh to the darker-skinned or those with African-looking features. The girls in the tight dresses in the videos on BET are light-skinned blacks if they're not Latina or Asian, and they have longer hair than I do. Successful black men marry lighter-skinned women, but when Golden discussed this with her husband and castigated the men for their choices, he came back with, "The really dark-skinned brother . . . how many dark-skinned women do you think would give him any play?" People still worried about what their kids would look like (a concept foreign to me -- the closest I ever came was idly wondering whose eye color would be dominant). But I know how it is to feel you're not reflected in your world. I know not feeling attractive. I'm not skinny, I'm not blonde, I wear glasses and read all the time. I once wrote an essay called "A Doll Like Me" about the comparative rareness of brown-haired dolls in a world of blonde baby dolls and Barbies. How much harder must it be when it's not just a hair color you're looking to see reflected? In high school, we read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, about a little black girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wants blonde hair and blue eyes -- and feels maybe she wouldn't be abused in her life if she had them. The book didn't make as much impression on me then as Morrison's Beloved, perhaps because Pecola's mental escape method was so different from mine. Maybe it would make a bigger impression now.

After discussing the disadvantages that the lighter-skinned black person can experience in the U.S., such as exclusion by darker-skinned people for being "too white" and sexual pressure and exploitation because of their perceived "beauty," Golden looks at the situation in other countries. Even in Africa, the Western media have influence -- the idea that women in Nigeria would use chemical creams to bleach their skin boggles the mind. But it goes to show the spread of ideas to places where they are even more ridiculous than where they originated.

The book ends with dark-skinned female role models -- India.Arie, Venus and Serena Williams, and the aforementioned Zora Neale Hurston. I hope that role models like these help everyone accept that beauty, talent, and strength can be found in any place on the range of colors of humanity, and that books like this make people, white, black, or any other tone, think about how they view skin color and features instead of resting blindly on old prejudices.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Recent reading has essentially been variations on the theme of "why are we this way?" where "we" can be individuals or an entire society. How did we become what we are now? All these different takes on different aspects, different problems add up to an interesting look at modern life.

The first book I read was The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David Shipler. I am just barely out of that category by some definitions and definitely in it by others: I earn a low enough amount each year to get the United States' tax system's "Earned Income Credit." My income is low enough to get me free antidepressants from Wyeth's "Accesss to Care" program (thank goodness, because otherwise I would have to pay, literally, over four dollars per pill for the anti-depressant pill I take each day). And yet I don't feel poor most of the time, partially because my expenses are comparatively low -- I'm not supporting children, nor a car (car payments, insurance, and gas add up to a pretty big chunk out of a monthly income -- on the other hand, if I drove I could probably earn more) and I have no debt. I know, however, that one major medical problem could sap my savings in a brief time and put me into a deep financial hole. So I know where the people in The Working Poor are coming from. The book goes through a lot of situations that make people who are generally willing and able to do something in their lives have to scramble to live from paycheck to paycheck -- be it the problem of child care sucking up all that they can earn in the jobs they are qualified for, decisions in their pasts coming back to haunt them in the form of convictions, bankruptcies, or lack of education, or things that happened to them beyond their control, such as childhood abuse, and the resulting psychological problems -- this last seems truly overlooked in discussions of poverty I've seen before. It truly makes you aware that simply commanding people to get a job will not fix anything, and should probably be read by anyone before they dare to hold an opinion on welfare systems.

Tom Schachtman's The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America seems unrelated to The Working Poor at first in its discussion of the simplification of language, vocabulary, and the points being put across in words in the modern U.S. However, after its discussion of the changes over the last century in American language complexity, the book goes over American educational systems, popular culture, and politics, arguing that all of these are snowballing -- less literate Americans choose less complex entertainment and require less in-depth summaries of political issues, so politicians and the makers of entertainment dumb things down more, which gives the public, now an audience instead of participants, even less practice in understanding, so people trying to get a message out have to simplify still further, ad infinitum. I've always been a reader who watches comparatively little TV, and so my vocabulary and leisure choices have always stood out -- I feel comfortable in a sub-society with people I'd consider my fellow geeks, and after teaching university courses for several years, I had my own proof of how incapable some students of the American educational system could be of writing coherent papers or doing their own thinking. Thus Schachtman was probably preaching to the choir with me -- but I had never thought specifically about how this affects the political process. I certainly agree that if those seeking to represent the American people would express their own positions in more than sound bites, and if Americans would bother to listen, our country would be much better governed.

A different sort of articulation is covered in Audrey Nelson and Susan Golant's You Don't Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes. It is a natural follow-up to well-known books like Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand in that it goes into not the words we communicate with, but the body posture, gestures, tone of voice, placement with respect to others, type of listening and even clothing that can affect one's message as much or more as the words spoken. (The clothing issues are very similar to those raised in John Malloy's The New Dress for Success for Women.) It's not just gender differences, either, as any parent who has shouted "Don't roll your eyes at me!" at their teenager as much as my mother did to me can affirm. Some of these things are comparatively obvious -- men are socialized that big boys don't cry, and their attitude toward visible emotions differs from women's -- and some that don't register consciously, like the difference between men's and women's most common gestures (nodding, for example, tends to mean "I agree" for men, and "I'm listening" for women, a difference that can certainly lead to misunderstandings). Each chapter ends with "Gender Prescriptions" (and not only for one gender, either!) but as many useful tips can be found outside of these summaries. Perhaps teaching people to be aware of these nonverbal messages could ease their ability to communicate a verbal message more effectively.

The body can communicate to others, but it can also store one's own memories sometimes, as explored in Maggie Scarf's Secrets, Lies, Betrayals: The Body/Mind Connection. "Body memories" -- unpleasant flashbacks of physical sensations -- are a familiar topic from the sexual abuse survivor forums I used to spend a lot of time on, and the idea that a physical stimulus can bring back conscious memories (Proust's famous madeline cookie dipped in tea inspiring Remembrance of Things Past, for example) is nothing new. But the idea that body sensations could be used in therapy to get over trauma has not received enough attention, even though tension from an emotional state can cause all kinds of physical results and continues whether or not a person is even consciously aware of their emotions. Scarf focuses on two particular therapy methods, EMDR and psychomotor therapy, neither of which is terribly well known -- but if they can work as well as the cases highlighted in the book, they should be. The case studies, including the author's own life story, keep the book fascinating while exploring the results of both "big-T Trauma" and "little-t trauma" (Scarf's distinction between life-threatening events, such as wars and national disasters, and smaller but no less earthshaking personal events such as finding out about a spouse's infidelity), and the way physical carriage, alertness, and other symptoms are affected by such events. It's yet another area that needs further exploration.