Life Before Words, by Laura Shepherd

November 26, 2012 in Androgynous, Coming Out, Community, Cross Dressing, Culture, Gender Binary, Gender Identity, Gender Non Conforming, Gender Queer, Identity, Member Submitted Articles, Society, Trans, trans history, Transgender, Transsexual by Emma

Laura ShepherdI had no words. I identified my feelings, watched myself develop rituals and deceptions, got caught and was punished, ridiculed, humiliated, saw who I am, what I am, all without a word for it. No objective ability to say it is real, it has to be real, we have a word for it.

Pictures came before words, from a library book. They were not necessarily flattering portraits.

“Man at home being a woman, Long Island, 1966”, the caption says, and there is a naked man, shaved arms and legs and pubic hair, with testicles tucked up in their original slots above the Cowper’s glands, and penis bent tightly between the legs so you can’t see it at all. It looks like he has a vagina. He wears a short hairstyle and makeup. He has the hint of breasts. He looks at the camera like he is not sure it is really there. That is the way I felt when I first saw the photo – I was not sure I was seeing it. It was the first time I had known others did what I did privately when no one else was home.

“A young man in curlers at home on West 20th Street, NYC, 1966” the caption says, and there is a person with their hair in curlers and very thin lines where eyebrows usually grow. He has long fingers which cradle a lit cigarette between their tips. The image is closely framed – you only see his shoulders and face, and the arm whose hand holds the cigarette. He is wearing mascara and eyeliner. The acne-scarred face has cheeks drawn in, like he has just taken a drag from the cigarette but not yet exhaled. A wisp of smoke rises chaotically from the glowing ember on the end of the cigarette. His nails are neatly manicured, long and pointed, with nail polish. This fact makes me realize he isn’t just dressed like this for the photograph, but that this is how he dresses. He goes to the grocery store wearing fingernail polish. I heard a voice say, this is possible.Wipe Out Transphobia

“Transvestite with torn stocking, NYC, 1966”, the caption says. There is a person who looks like a woman sitting cross-legged on a bedside with the thigh hem of her right stocking torn. I had stockings I stole from my mother just like those.

The photographs of Diane Arbus were the first images I saw of people like me. Adult people like me. They captivated me. They haunt me still. The introduction describes the subjects as abnormal and freaks. The background of the photographs suggests something other than prosperity and integration in society. There are no other people or animals in the images. There are no plants, no food, no books, no magazines, no TVs. That and the stark, full-frontal poses make the subjects seem lonely and alone. The drawn shades convey nothing if not secrecy and the need to preserve it. They told me that it was possible to live this way, but only in darkness, secrecy and friendlessness. If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

The word I came away from the photographs with was transvestite. I looked it up in a dictionary. The first word of the definition was abnormal. For the next two decades of my life I used those two words – transvestite and abnormal - to describe myself to me, in the privacy of my own head and the despair of my own heart.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t about sexual arousal and gratification, but about physical congruence and social engagement. It was understood to be about sex. What’s going on in bed, what’s going on in your pants. That’s what gender non-conformity stood for. Perversion.

When you grow up in a world where only one or the other is possible, and you do not see yourself as the one you are, you must be the other. There was no spectrum of possibility. One. Or the other. The opposite sex.

We had so few words.

Wipe Out TransphobiaI remember having to remember to say Black and not to say Negro. I remember when people complained about the ruination of a perfectly good word when gay came to mean homosexual. I remember when non-conformity was clinical, and was named with clinical words: homosexual, transvestite, fetishist. (The three went hand-in-hand, like Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow).

There was the odd celebrity freak.  On the way home from the Korean War, Christine Jorgensen stopped off in Denmark for a sex change.  Terri Toye had a sex change and became the model-of-the-moment for a few magazine issues. A Chicago ophthalmologist got a sex change and became the professional tennis player, Renee Richards.  They were women trapped in men’s bodies. They changed their sex. No gentle euphemisms like gender reassignment surgery. Tell it like it is: genital reconstruction surgery.

Then, the GRS program at Johns Hopkins was closed for ethical reasons and nobody did sex changes anymore.

I found gay people. I gravitated toward lesbians, toward herbal teas, autoharps and mountain dulcimers. I saw kinship in struggle for freedom of expression, for liberation from the patriarchy. I learned instead that I was the patriarchy incarnate, appropriating womanhood and femininity for what, everyone swore, was power or perversion. It didn’t matter I was willing to surrender my privilege and my penis. The fact they were there in the first place said all there was to say.

Until the internet, I wasn’t someone you knew. I was someone you talked about. Now I speak for myself. There are others like me. I can hear them.

Now we have words. We have so many words, we have words whose meanings change, depending on who uses them and where they use them, yet everybody understands. We have spectrums everywhere, in this digital age, things that were, in a former analog era, only binary.

My private shame is now a public party. Everybody’s genderqueer when you really think about it. It’s a lark. It’s a political expression. It’s a movement. Buy-in to dysphoria and diagnosis is sell-out. This is radical.  This is freelance.

I’m not trying to get a rise out of anyone. This isn’t play, for me; I’m serious. This is my life.

I’m a gender-dysphoric, binary-encoded classic transsexual.  That means my body doesn’t match my female identity and I need to spend some time in the shop. I know it sounds so ‘last century’ when I put it like that. But in that last century, that’s all that was possible. That’s the point.

I long to know what happened to the young man in curlers, to the transvestite with the torn stocking, to the man being a woman on Long Island. I know now the photographs were only moments in time, the subjects’ lives fuller than the frames of the images, my only glimpse into their existence. These are portraits of transgender people before they knew they were transgender. Before anyone knew.

If you didn’t live when there weren’t words, you cannot imagine what it was like to know and not to be able to name it, to look at those three images and think, abnormal freak in the same flash of synapse that you think me, and to believe it, never to have the affirmation of transgender or genderqueer enter the private repose of your head.  To believe that all that is possible is shame and secrecy, an inevitable outcome of the perversion to which you, in your moral turpitude, are helpless and enslaved.  To know without words, without ability to articulate to yourself what you know, with no vocabulary to initiate dialogue.

And still, to pursue it.


A Wipe out Transphobia Member Article
Written and Submitted by Laura Shepherd