Unlike any other book

August 25, 2010

This book blew my mind – the entire time I was reading it I never stopped thinking about it, that’s how much I cared about the characters. I put it on my “Want to read” list more than a year ago, and I finally revisited that list when the cover caught my eye. Luckily, the main library had it, and a few days later I was done. I don’t normally finish books fast. Normally, I read about 30 pages a day, or there are a few days when I don’t read it. Not so with this one – the different points of you and the addictive storyline made me continue even when my eyes were tired.

Excerpt #77: Dana. (I’m making this detailed and not leaving anything out just so you can see/I can remember what a thorough job they did of showing her point of view – how they get in her head so well and make us realize exactly what it feels like. It’s not just an inherent feeling that knowing something is wrong, it’s literally not being able to stand the body you are in…very hard to deal with. Anyways, the book explains it far better than I do, so…)
There are two worlds of people around me.
There is a world in which everyone knows I was born a man, and there is a world in which no one has any clue whatsoever.
Sometimes, the two orbits will overlap, and a person will discover rather suddenly my history with gender. If that person is particularly brazen – or, it seems, a reporter – he (and yes, in my experience more times than not it has indeed been a he will ask one or both of two questions:
Does it work? (Translation: Do you have orgasms?)
Did I ever assume I was merely a homosexual? (Translation: Isn’t this just about penetration? About wanting to be penetrated?)
The first question is actually much easier to answer than I imagine it is to ask. Yes, I can answer honestly, it works just fine. (Translation: Touch me right and you’ll have to peel me off the ceiling.)
The second question is more complicated, and it seemed to me that some of the folks from NPR – one engineer in particular – were always coming back to it. It was clear they were trying to be tolerant and open-minded, but their inquiries implied they suspected that I’d been driven to my decision by an army of unbearable homophobes.
Always, of course, they were forgetting completely one teeny-tiny detail: I was gay! I just happened to be a gay woman.
Now, in all fairness, I had indeed toyed with the notion that I might be a gay male at different times in my life, but it was always a desperate, and increasingly pathetic, fantasy. After all, even in this world it’s a hell of a lot easier to be a gay male than a transsexual.
More important, that second question assumes that gender is all about sex, or that sexual preference is at the core of our gender. I can’t speak for other transsexuals, but there is no way on God’s green earth I would have become a born-again woman just so the sex would be hot. No orgasm in the world is worth all that electrolysis.
Truthfully, I became an external woman because I have always been an internal woman. That’s all there is to it. And I’ve known this most of my life. I think I had the first solid clue when my sister was born. I was five, and my parents put her in my arms on the couch in our living room, and I was absolutely enchanted. I told them I couldn’t wait to have a baby emerge from my tummy, too.

And while my parents took comfort in the notion that my tantrum was simple panic because I had lost a monopoly on their attention, I knew the awful truth. The things I wanted most in the world were going to be forever denied me.
Worse, when I started elementary school, I learned that even small manifestations of femininity would be out of the question, too, and that my desires were, apparently, perverse. Yes, I wanted someday to have a real baby and real breasts, but at six, I would have been pacified with a plastic doll that looked like a newborn, and a couple of pretend diapers.
I knew, however not to speak up.
I knew not to ask for dolls that were babies, and I knew not to ask for dolls that looked like Amazon models with eating disorders. I knew not to ask for dress-up clothes and little-girl makeup, I knew not to pretend I was a princess or a mermaid or a bride. I knew not to be a girl.
At least I knew not to in front of my family and friends.
Sometimes in my room, however, when I had shut my door for the night, I would go to the store. I placed my desk chair behind my toy chest and put my plastic cash register upon it. And then I would be the sales assistant one moment and Dana the customer the next, and I would pretend to buy a frilly dress with pink floral edging along the collar and sleeves. I would purchase a handbag, long shiny hair like my mother’s – a chesnut-colored apron my parents never used would suffice – ad I would leave the emporium shaped like an hourglass Barbie. Then I would crawl back into bed and press my little penis and my little balls deep behind the fat on my six- and seven-year-old thighs, and finally I would fall asleep.
Some nights, I’d be crying. Some nights, not.
Sometimes I would take off my pajama bottoms and sleep in only my pajama top, pretending the loose shirt was actually a little girl’s nightgown. (44-46)

Excerpt #78: Allison, who is in love with Dana, and doesn’t know he is a transsexual.
Once, when I’d had a few glasses of wine, I found myself examining his face in the candlelight – first with my eyes, and then with the tips of my fingers – and I believe I almost asked him something. Why are you so beautiful? perhaps. Why are you so smooth? What is it about your face that I love?
But I didn’t. A big part of the allure was the mystery: A magic trick loses its luster once you know the secret. (64)

Excerpt #79, Allison:
In return, all Dana wanted for me was to be a woman. To be womanly. He would watch me shave my legs and my underarms, he would stare as I pulled on panty hose or a bra. He would want to see how I sat when I talked on the phone with Carly, and to listen in when I chatted at night with Nancy or Molly or my mother in Philadelphia.
“How would you butter your toast?” he would ask, and he would be completely sincere. The fact is, women do butter their bread very differently from men.
“Let me watch you climb into your car,” he would say, and I would show him.
“Brush your hair again, please.”
“Would you flip through a newspaper?”
“How do you pick up a pen?”
It was never annoying: I felt, simultaneously, like a cherished possession anda goddess. A woman loved on a variety of levels. A woman loved for all the right reasons, and for ones to small to matter in any other relationship I could have. The way I held a book when I read on the couch. The fact that I would sleep on my side five or six days before my period, because my breasts would be tender. The things I carried in my purse.
And so although I adore teaching – and although I had a particularly sweet and smart group of kids that year – there were some mornings when I could barely bring myself to put on my overcoat and leave the remarkable world I had in my house.

Excerpt #80, Allison:
“I mean, you have a daughter,” she said. “Carly, right? I know she’s away at school now. But I have to ask: What would you do if your Carly came home from college with a transsexual boyfriend or girlfriend?”
It was a great question, one that had certainly crossed my mind that winter. But it was also one that I’d been careful not to answer, always relegating it to a remote crevice in my brain. That won’t happen, I’d tell myself. It would be like getting daggered by lightning twice in a night. But the question clearly frightened me, because I knew on some level that regardless of whatever my final answer turned out to be, my initial reaction would be a shudder. No parent wants their child to fall in love with a transsexual. For the vast majority if the world, the only thing worse than having a transsexual for a son- or a daughter-in-law would be to have one for a child.
“If Carly came home one evening with a transsexual friend,” I answered, not exactly lying but certainly not telling the truth, “I would offer to make them both dinner. And then I’d put out clean towels in the bathroom.”
“I couldn’t do that,” Audrey’s mom said, and I thought her voice was going to break. “I’d be too busy crying. I’d be too busy crying for her and for me, and for her new friend.”
I curled my lips against my teeth, moved by her candor. I knew in my heart I’d cry, too. (204)

Excerpt #81 (Will, Allison’s ex-husband, divorced over a decade ago):
And I would allow to hug her as a friend. I would touch her the way I might have touched any of Allie’s or Patricia’s female pals, or the various women I knew who were married to my male friends. I would give her an embrace that was warm but not overtly sexual. I would shake her hand gently. I would not touch her legs or her hair, which for male friends are off-limits, but I would graze her arm with my fingers when it was appropriate.
But aren’t even those touches sexual?
That was the otherwise: For men, on some level, it’s all sexual. It might be that way for women, too, but I can’t speak for women. For men, however, it’s always about sex. We are what we are. Whenever I thought about touching Dana, I realized that I hadn’t ever touched a woman without understanding on some plane that we were different genders, and succumbing to the sexual charge – sometimes awkward, sometimes teasing, sometimes downright thrilling – that was as involuntary as it was inevitable. It was, in its own way, pro forma. Men don’t hug women without thinking of sex. It may be for the merest second, the flutter of a hummingbird’s wing. But it’s there and it’s real. After all, that’s a woman’s shoulder blade you are touching or patting or caressing for the briefest twinkling. Those are a woman’s breasts that are pressed against your chest when you squeeze her to you after a dinner party. That human being in your arms for an instant? Your bodies fit together, and the genome that limned you and the memes that control you…they understand this and crave her.
And so when I’d hug Dana or touch the inside of her palm with the inside of mine (a handshake, yet so suggestive) or my fingers would find their way to one of her arms, I would experience a sexual rippled and wonder why I had felt such a thing – why I had courted such a thing. And the answer would be because she was pretty and she was smart and she was feminine. The otherwise that was the euphemism in my mind for penis and balls and a chest with a rug would be subsumed by the scent of her perfume and the softness of her skin. The small of her back. The feel of her body forming itself next to mine for the split second that it takes to embrace as…friends.
Even the word transsexual had grown less disconcerting. Less foreign. It began to seem less like a scientific abomination – man into woman with the aid of hormones and scalpel – and more like a medicine. A woman healed.
One time when Dana was with Kevin, and Allie and I were alone, I asked her if she thought she was gay because she was attracted to Dana.
“No,” she said, and then she asked the question of me that only my Allie would ask. “Do you think you are?” (280-281)

Excerpt #82, Allison:
I found it interesting that when I was most angry with Dana that spring, I would inadvertently revert to male pronouns and a male image – to Dana Stevens before her reassignment. He used me, I’d think, and the image in m mind would be the man I’d once known who wore his hair in a ponytail.
But then I would think to myself, How? How had he used me? Yes, I’d wound up as his model woman – her model woman – but I was the one who had called Dana back in September after she revealed to me her intention on a cliff high in Lincoln. I was the one who had proposed that she move into my house. I was the one who had suggested she would need company in Colorado, and offered to go with her.
And, in return, I had received a very great deal. I’m not sure other people would see it that way, I’m not even sure Dana would. But I did, and I don’t mean simply the company or the conversation or the way my house seemed to smell of freshly baked bread all the time. Nor am I referring to the sex, which, though it often confused me, always left me deeply satisfied. More than any of that, first he – and then she – had given me the faith, however brief, that I might not wander unescorted through the rest of my life. We had been in love, and for months and months I had had hope – one of the greatest gifts you can give someone on the far side of forty.
When I would realize that, my anger would dissipate. I would no longer be mad. I would even feel a twinge of what might have been guilt. Or, at least, disappointment in myself. What did it say about me, I would wonder, that I could only love Dana as a man? Was I really that intractable, that emotionally obstinate? Or was sexual preference so profoundly ingrained in my gray matter and soul that even the desperate attraction I had felt for Dana the preceding September – a desire that in the days before our hike to the cliff may have bordered on rapture – couldn’t budge it?
The irony there was inescapable. It was the man who had made me angry, but it was also the man whom I seemed to love. (313)

-Trans-Sister Radio, Chris Bohjalian


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