“Are you going to stop dressing like a gas station attendant now?” This wasn’t the first time my mother had asked me that. We’d been fighting about my appearance since the seventies, a decade that still employed gas station attendants.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
Happy Pride Queers! I know it was yesterday. That means today, I get to promote the book I wrote. It’s called Chemically Enhanced Butch. It’s a queer memoir, but funny. It’s the coming of age tale of the old school butch you’ve been waiting for. Look at that carabiner on my belt loop. You have to earn that many keys. I opened the last dyke bar in the upper Midwest to get those keys.
The bar didn’t last, because the best things in life never do, though I did accidentally nail some guy in the junk with that hammer. I eventually made the decision to grow my own sideburns instead of pasting hair clippings to my face, so I don’t know if I still get to call myself a butch, but I do, and we can talk about it.
“For the space of a song, I achieved the Rainbow Connection that Kermit the Frog had once promised me as a child.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
I’m of an age (fifty) when I can still remember Ronald Reagan and Tammy Faye (before she became a drag queen) and mullets unironically. I got to spend my twenties in San Francisco. That was the 90s y’all, RIP. So many girlfriends, so many drugs. I had a motorcycle and a mohawk. I really miss being that attractive, but I don’t miss being that dumb.
“But if I had to pick a moment in my life, like if a genie was forcing me, to go back and whisper some hard-won insight to a younger me, I would go back to early 1991, when I drove over that hill by Candlestick Park and saw the San Francisco skyline for the first time. I would tell that twenty- one-year-old dummy, “Pay attention. This is special. You’ll never see anything like this again.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
I didn’t take testosterone until I was 41, during my second semester at Harvard Divinity School. That’s another good story. Spoiler alert – it involves another doomed encounter with a pretty straight girl. Could my character be any more inevitable?
“She couldn’t have anticipated the out-of-control rock-’n’-roll semi, overloaded with grief and tornadoes, she was encountering when she made her first clever jest to me. She was just hoping for an escort into the forbidden roadside queer juke joint she hadn’t yet had the occasion to see.”
Ty Bo Yule, Chemically Enhanced Butch
Butches are hot and insecure, heroic and unsympathetic, well-meaning and woefully overwhelmed. We wrangle an unfathomable amount of complexity into that Dickie’s short-sleeve button up. Often we spend a decent majority of our energy trying to showcase our magic to our parents and normative society, in general. Alas, the only way their untrained eyes would ever be able to discern it, however, would be if we managed to change the world. That is why we spend the rest of our time pretending we are secret Hobbit superhero, unless we are busy getting a new cute girl an almond milk, half-caff, chai latte.
After decades of depression and terrible decisions, sifting through cliches and archetypes, some of us find a place in our bodies to negotiate a truce with our demons. I’ll take this happily ever after. That is an act of resilience and transgression that does actually change the world.
Come read my story. Be a pirate with me. Be weird with me. Have difficult conversations with me. If you’re a misfit, you’re not alone.
Links to buy the ebook on my homepage. Paperbacks coming in July.
“Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality. We have never been queer, yet queerness exists for us as an identity that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness’s domain.” Jose Munoz, CruisingUtopia
I think what is secretly seductive about fictional apocalyptic scenarios, especially ones that involve few survivors, is the allure of fantasizing about the ideal circumstances necessary for all of the horseshit that causes all of our anxiety to be completely erased. I think many start this kind of avoidance therapy early in life. It’s a little like praying for a snowstorm or a minor car accident when you fail to finish your book report the night before it is due. As we mature and our anxiety becomes more complex, so does the fantasy. In the increasingly elaborate best case situation (the one that is obsessively recreated in your mind) all of your friends would survive and your most beloved family members, though because of the state of crisis, all of their disappointment and failed expectations connected to you become meaningless. Debt, financial and emotional, is irrelevant. Your only New Year’s resolution is survival. Dominant regulatory norms for privileged attributes disintegrate. The complex, evolved global systems of oppressive power are reset. Your mother would finally understand your moral priorities and see your true leadership potential.
And, of course, you know you’ll be among the survivors. Because you’re good at surviving. And you think you already understand loneliness and deprivation. And maybe, all the dickheads die. Maybe the aggregate, dark forces of demonic global injustice are scorched and reabsorbed into cosmic dust. Wouldn’t that be dreamy?
Besides just incidentally roughing-out the origins of the Christian faith, I am merely trying to conjure a common state of mind that often accompanies the timeless suffering of just being human, tethered to social and cultural networks and relationships that sustain us and crush us. I think this perverted little end-of-times delusion is a gift of evolution to the human brain meant to temporarily relieve the burden of consciousness. Coming down from a particularly vivid round of daydreaming about a utopic apocalyptic outcome, or your off-the-grid, eat-pray-love Airstream fort can be harsh. Familiar interpersonal cramping sets in, the fit of your shirt reminds you that you haven’t been to the gym in two weeks, while your laundry, bills, and achievement deficiencies line up around your bed in blitz formation. Is it really just another Tuesday? Stupid apocalypse never shows up.
Another, more tangibly destructive way to try to escape your own existence, and one that I chose as a lifestyle, is torching the life you’re in, alienating people who could have cared about you, and hurling yourself at a new potential life, imagining that this time, you’ll be able to stay, and somehow, your own skin will cease being completely uncomfortable. Please keep in mind, anyone caught quoting Confucius (“no matter where you go, there you are”) at this juncture, shall be excluded from surviving the apocalypse in my head.
At the end of the 90’s, the end of my twenties, San Francisco had become uncomfortable. I was exhausted. The city that had been my refuge and my enlightenment, seemed equally exhausted by the 90’s. People were moving away. Some didn’t make it through the decade. The scene was changing, dissolving. Speed-fueled, dirty girl punk shows were morphing into straight-edge, academically-informed riot grrrl shows.
A subtle, but important transition. Heroin was the pace at which the city was now limping into the new century, subduing the exquisite anger that had been its hailing beacon. And, of course, I had sufficiently pissed off most of the people I knew and it was time to go.
I thought it was time to grow up. Certainly my parents were wearied by my lack of maturity. I thought I knew what adulthood should look like and that I should go there. I had lucked into a relationship with a woman who actually seemed to be a perfect match for me. Patricia is one of the smartest people I had met. She was unfailingly caring and supportive. She has lots of rad tattoos and cool fashion, and she actually loved me. I’m sure one may be able to anticipate in this story that I screwed this up as well, but for now, we had been together for almost two years when I had somehow talked her into moving to Minneapolis, where grown-ups have back yards and play board games.
I’m sure Patricia would have happily stayed in San Francisco. She’s one of those people who everyone likes and she can stay at the same job for years and years. Nevertheless, at the end of 1999, we packed all of our stuff onto a moving truck, put our two cats, some clothes, and anything of value (not much) into my 1966 Chrysler 300 and started driving out of San Francisco in the middle of a warm night, at the end of August. We had a difficult time finding a hotel that night because of a beanie-baby convention in Sacramento. We had no jobs, no place to stay, and we knew no one in Minneapolis. Minneapolis had no idea that we were on our way.
mine is white
I wanted to buy a house and have a grown-up job. Actually, I, more accurately, “envisioned” those things more than I’d say I “wanted” them. It’s what my new life looked like in my head. I usually have no idea what I want, or even what that word means. It is important to note that my visions usually come true and there is often unforeseen collateral damage. Yes, I am magic. No, I do not completely understand my powers, but four days after arriving in Minneapolis, we had an apartment and jobs.
We both got jobs working for the Wedge Co-op in their new produce distribution warehouse, Co-op Partners. Patricia still has that job. She does their books. I split my time working in the warehouse, driving a truck for them, and working in the produce department at the Wedge. We had both worked for the same woman-owned, woman-operated, organic produce distributor in San Francisco, so our expertise had extra-fancy liberal credentials. We had the usual, palatable urban and queer confluence of affinities. We were good-tipping, transgressive politics-oriented vegetarians, with tattoos, who liked to drink and smoke. We were the new butch/femme power couple in town.
With our exotic San Francisco mystique, and our charming demeanor, we made friends easily. In March of 2000, we closed on our house. It was a boarded-up, abandoned, 100-year-old mess in a South Minneapolis neighborhood that our new friends cautioned us not to buy in. (The same one that is, fifteen years later, to be the home of the new Seward Co-op, which is likely our fault.) To be fair, neither Patricia nor our realtor wanted us to buy this house either, mostly because of its condition, and maybe the smell, but my visions will not be denied. Patricia made the best of it, as she always did, while I set about acquiring new butch skills, pretending I knew how to fix-up our house.
My intention of becoming a grown-up seemed to be fleshing itself out. The house was becoming functional, though still very much in the style of a 90’s apartment in San Francisco. We had people over. We went out a lot. I became the warehouse manager at Co-op Partners which could be perceived as a real job. Our friends admired the stability of our relationship. We got a dog.
It’s hard to say whether I could have sustained that life, had my brain allowed me to enjoy it. I think lots of people fashion lives by assembling psychologically pleasing bits and baubles of expectations and accessorizing with personal cultural affiliations. Bargains on identities can be found at your local Home Depot, thrift stores, and antique architectural doo-dad establishments. I assume many are content with the identity that occupies their space, how it looks, how it is reflected by their community, their family. Some may even be happy. Some experience ennui. I just always felt like my brain was on fire and my face was melting.
Don’t get me wrong, I truly loved Patricia. I loved our house and our pets and our friends. I wish I trusted psychology more to enlighten me on the demon jamboree that has been banging out maniacal banjo duels in my head for as long as I can remember. I think the destruction began in 2003.
I was fat. That has always been a thing. I hadn’t ever been this big. Since I stopped doing speed in ’98 and started drinking nice beer, I had steadily packed it on. My job was less than satisfying. My boss was the most repugnant, vile person I had ever met. Edward, seriously, you are disgusting. Working for him gave me irritable bowel syndrome. The fact that I had never finished college actually caused me nausea every time I remembered it. I had also started wearing sweaters.
I hated being a grown-up. Patricia hated it too, but I think she was just trying to be supportive. One morning, we were having breakfast at The French Meadow on Lyndale. I had ordered a dish that normally came with poached eggs. I don’t like poached eggs, so I asked that they come scrambled or something. They gave me poached eggs. I spent the next three hours, outside, in my truck sobbing uncontrollably. I think I quit my job the next day.
mmm, scrotum toast
I applied to the University of Minnesota soon after. Because of the many F’s I had collected from dropping out of school twice, I had to go into an individualized degree program through the College of Continuing Education. This actually meant I could take any classes I wanted. I loved it so much. I had it in my head that maybe I wanted to go to grad school, too, so I took a language, Ancient Greek. My heart was actually touched by the beauty of something for the maybe the first time. I ended up with twice as many credits necessary for a degree, with a 3.94 GPA. I don’t know how people finish school in their twenties.
I had also started working out. I rode my bike everywhere. I even started taking yoga at the U. I lost all the weight and was probably in the best shape of my life. I eventually completed a real triathlon.
Patricia and I threw away our sweaters and remembered that we were cool in the 90’s. And even if we were actually nerds by SF standards, Minneapolis didn’t need to know that.
Our social circle also started expanding. We made friends with all the South Minneapolis hipster queers. We started throwing fabulous parties at our house that everybody came to.
Meanwhile, on the other side of my brain…I started spending more and more time at the gym or the coffeshop writing papers, or even sitting by myself on the porch, anywhere but in the house. My familiar, amiable daily suicidal thoughts were showing their more sinister sides. I wanted to run again. I didn’t know why.
That’s the part that torments and mocks your intellect. Compulsive, self-destructive behavior has never been sufficiently explained to me. Psychology can try to carve it up and name a disorder or disease specific to your behavior that is socially unproductive. Religion can talk about attachment as suffering or the seven deadly sins, which are just severe attachments that create hell in your brain. But those explanations are egocentric and diagnostically unsatisfying. We evolve on a much larger scale. Human culture, with its homogenizing nature, is arguably beneficial to tribes with more cohesive cultures, but I think the force of assimilation is also an elegant and cruel metaphysical test of evolution. If you fit in and thrive, it is likely your genes will be passed on, renewing an assimilating model of human. If you are shunned and alienated at a young age, you are given a second and much harder test. Your own brain will start to weed you out of the pack and no one ever suggests it’s a test. Depression may paralyze you and cause your own destruction. You start to believe that you are of no value to your own pack. Your compulsion to escape leads to all sorts of unsavory and dangerous behavior. You may start to have completely obsessive visions propelling you away from anything that makes you happy because you were not meant to be happy. Happy is for those stupid cake-eaters that fit in.
uh-oh thumbs down for nerds
There is a benefit to humanity that you give by running this gauntlet, however. If you make it through, it means you possess magic mutant rainbow unicorn genes and you really are the only hope for any further human evolution. It’s taken me a long time to realize that my torment was just a dare from Mother Nature. You think you’re acting out of desire, but really you’re just picking yourself off, or at least making yourself more vulnerable to predators.
There are many flavors of compulsion. Mine usually took the form of obsessive crushes on pretty straight girls. C’mon butches, back me up. This may seem benign until you start to recognize that the onset of these epic infatuations always seem to coincide with times in your life when you are closest to potential intimacy and stability. The objects of my preoccupation have never been meant to lead to a successful relationship (and never have). I think I have just wanted to win, like any masculine animal brutishly overpowering rivals, while also overcoming the obstacles of my own anatomy, and achieving some bullshit identity whose entitlements I will never really possess. Maybe I subconsciously believe it’s a way to earn my spot in the pack. As an added benefit, these episodes also completely destroy whatever life situation you’re in that was providing some measure of that completely foreign and unwelcome feeling of actual security and accomplishment.
where are her arms?
The first crush I had while I was still with Patricia was on my African History professor, which caused me to fail my final. The second was on my yoga instructor at the U, which resulted in me never being able to return to the athletic center. The third was ultimately fatal to my relationship with Patricia. Patricia was even smart enough to know that I was destroying something that I actually didn’t want to destroy and she wondered what the fuck I was doing. I felt like I was possessed. I felt helpless. I felt like a monster. It took over a year to exhaust Patricia enough to leave. I didn’t realize that I could disappoint myself that much or that I could be that sad, but I could not stop myself from wrecking everything and isolating myself.
The only helpful thing I had done, subconsciously, is back myself into a corner. I couldn’t run. I had a dog and cats. I had a house that was basically a psychic projection of myself. And there were a couple of people I couldn’t live without. One, in particular, I have known in all of my previous lives, and once I recognized him, I couldn’t just leave.
I met Benny Benson within a few months of my arrival in Minneapolis. I was pulling a pallet through the Wedge at 6am. As I passed aisle 4, I saw a new person stocking shelves. I thought to myself, “Shit, that’s cute. Look at that new baby butch who works here.” I introduced myself and asked if I could buy her a coffee. She said no and looked at me like I had poop on my face. Over the next few weeks, I saw little sporty spice roll into the Wedge with a super hot femme girl a few times, which delighted me more than it probably should have. We chatted occasionally at work and we were definitely drawn to one another, but there seemed to an odd barrier to our friendship. Then one night, I was playing in a Euchre tournament at Bar Abeline in Uptown. I saw Benny there with that same pretty girl, but the girl seemed to be on a date with some bio-boy and Benny was wearing blue eye-shadow.
The next day I approached Benny at work, confused, and asked, perhaps a bit too aggressively, “Are you a dyke, or what?” Benny started to kind of choke up and finally said, “I don’t know.” Instantly, I felt all of their pain flood into my own chest and knew it. I knew him. In my teens, I was sent a protector. In my twenties, I was sent a mentor. In my thirties, I was given a brother.
I took him to Cafe Wyrd and we talked about butch stuff and that pretty femme girl he’d had a crush on for years, but never kissed. I got him laid by sending an older woman after him. He still likes to bitch about that. Then over the next few years, Benny started going to gay bars and getting himself laid. He played softball with the lesbians who shave their legs. We didn’t actually hang out that much, except that we were the part of each others lives that remained constant no matter what other dumb shit was going on.
In Early April of 2006, I was in my last semester of coursework at the U. I was in a class called Dissident Sexualities in U.S. History which cast new light on my own history and provided new perspective on the communities I had known in San Francisco. I realized that the queers, in the 90’s, in SF, were special, and that it wasn’t just me that had gotten boring in my ridiculous quest to grow up. Across the nation, the gays were treating fabulous like herpes and liberally applying gay marriage ointment to stop the oozing of awesome. Rich old homos were publicly bitching about drag queens and leather daddies in the Pride Parade because we couldn’t scare the hets anymore if we hoped to be just like them. The Townhouse in St. Paul put a security guard outside the men’s room to check ID’s lest a transman tried to pee in there.
So that’s when the fire started. My marriage was ending. Unbelievable sadness worked with my socially reprehensible behavior to effectively burn all ties to the identity I had been crafting. I couldn’t run away, but I couldn’t find safety. The gays were now crusading for assimilation and vying for membership in the dominant paradigm by burning the heretic queers. Where would the misfits go? Where would I go?
Sanctuary. Apocalypse. Creating the circumstances under which the brutality of cultural norms could be suspended for a time, and not just in my head. In order to find the island of misfit toys, I had to build it. I really could see no other alternative for my life or my tribe.
The next morning, I went into work at Linden Hills Co-op, to stock shelves with Benny Benson. I told him I was opening a bar and I wanted him to be my bar manager. Without hesitation or question, he simply said yes. That was in April of 2006, we were open in February of 2007.
4/20/06 so high
It’s finally time to tell you how Pi Bar happened now that you know why.
“Nay, even in the life of the same individual there is succession and not absolute unity: a man is called the same, and yet in the short interval between youth and age, and in which every animal is said to have life and identity, he is undergoing a perpetual process of loss and reparation.” Plato, Symposium (207d-208d)
The self is always coming into being. That is the actual verb. (Yes, I did study ancient Greek.) In this quote, Plato (in the voice of Socrates) points out our common perception that identity and sense of self is commonly considered consistent or that there is some abiding authenticity that is as real as our physical being, that we are the same living being throughout our life. (The translation of “identity” is literally “to be oneself”). He is also identifying a “perpetual process of loss and reparation” – that it is the nature of our mortal existence that we experience continual damage that we (by our own physical and psychic abilities) resist in our inclination to repair and survive. Thusly, we are always in a process of coming into being, including our own identity as self-perception and an actor in the world. It seems illogical at times, how fiercely we struggle for consistency of identity considering the social disadvantage that occasionally that defiance can produce. Self-destructive impulses, fetishes, obsessions, and secret dark personalities co-exist and co-manage with our highest aspirations, heartfelt intimacies, and loves to consolidate and approximate a person. We begin to depend upon who we think we are at a very early age. A lifetime of submission or resistance to our experience constantly recreates our dependent attachment to our identity which gives the effect of a consistent identity while actually always changing.
What are the possibilities and restrictions on who we can be? How is it that we can look back to our earliest remembered experiences and see ourselves, already working with a set of skills, perceptions, and behaviors that we still utilize in adulthood when so much of our plot has yet to unfold? It is logical, if we are products of adaptive evolution, that we as individuals are creatures of an adaptive nature. It’s what we do. It also seems reasonable that the process of evolution has equipped us, at birth, with certain mental and physical capacities that allow our own unique interaction with our own singular environment. How much of our “identity” as an individual is cultivated as we adapt, even as infants and how much is who we were meant to be or born to be? Babies, while they are learning their language of origin are also learning the social and cultural relationships of power and gender that are simply another aspect of social communication. They become fluent in both by an early age. Have you ever experienced a two-year old lying? No one teaches a child how to lie, which makes this spontaneous competence in the manipulation of language and power seem a little eerie even if they’re not good at it. I think the potential for success as a human organism must have a biological component that we all come with. Little kids do all kinds of things that no one teaches them. We have the ability to create utilizing the rules we’ve been given. We have all inherited an evolutionarily engineered, bio-neurological glob of ability to ascertain and utilize an astonishingly complex matrix of flexible and restrictive rules of language and human relationships that are completely unique to one’s environment of infancy and early childhood. There are rules of gender just like grammar that we must master if we are to be a participant in our world. Our infant genitals determine our starting point on the local game board, but we all pick up on the rules for the other players, too. If the genitals are so important to the game, how does anyone get it wrong? The only difference, I think, between a little human, born with a penis who acts like a boy by the time he’s five and a little human, born with a vagina who acts like a boy by the time she’s five is that the latter has advanced mutant, unicorn genes that allow her more interpretive creativity. They both have learned correctly how a little boy is supposed to act.
I was a pretty big kid. I was 9 pounds at birth. By the time I was 2, I was 45 pounds. I entered kindergarten at 75 and was at least a foot taller than any of my classmates. I have theories about my size, mostly having to do with my body actually physically responding to an inner adaptive urgency to expedite self-sufficiency. Regardless of the cause, my size was part of my inner narrative by the time I got to school. I felt both alien and special, self-conscious and powerful. I knew I was different and that I was certainly not like other little girls, nor was I invited to play in the reindeer games of boys (unless my size and strength was required to vanquish an enemy). I was Ferdinand the Bull instead of a bully, but had a sense of responsibility associated with my superior strength and intellect. Little kids would come to me for protection. In this way, my size augmented my unusual gender expression. If I was invited to a slumber party with girls, I was the one who slept by the door to protect the rest of the girls. The boys, at recess, actually invented a unique game which was basically to see how many boys it would take to tackle me. My physicality made me masculine and it had its own genre of positive feedback in the form of a specialized outsider power in my social group. I think I was an alpha before I was a boy. But, power and masculinity are associated at an early stage in development. Kids know your gender and relative social position better than you do usually, especially apart from the gaze of grown-ups, who have an additional set of expectations. Children understand the language of gender and power long before they learn irregular semantic structure and socially established contradictions in values of gender and power.
In first grade, it was my turn for ‘show and tell’ which was terrifying for me. I had gone to some carnival with my parents and won a doll, I think for throwing a ball at something. I was more proud about winning than of the doll, but my mother suggested that I take the doll for show and tell. She also put me in a dress with ribbons in my hair. I remember being apprehensive, but even at that age, one has an understanding that it should be alright to have and display gender appropriate clothes and possessions, even though it is uncomfortable and you don’t know why. And of course, there’s mom’s face while she is trying to make her big scary unicorn into a pretty girl. She thinks I’m pretty, but I could see her discomfort at wondering why it feels peculiar to dress me this way. But we proceed through the apprehension, which evolves into our interminable collaborative routine of awkwardness and conflict, and I go to school. The teacher calls me up with my doll. She looks nervous, too. Even before I get out my story about how I knocked down the thing with the thing, all of the boys are shitting themselves laughing at me. The girls are giggling, too, but with a look of “oooh, I thought we were clear about you not doing things that we do.” Of course I run out of the room crying. I remember a sadness that was like mourning a loss associated with not being able to be like other girls. Even though I really never tried, it was an expectation that I could not meet and there was nothing more debilitating to me than disappointing my parents. There was definitely a felt deficiency related to the possibility of being like other girls that was also externally enforced. I don’t like being bad at things, even things I don’t want to do. I also remember a deep and clear anger after my first profound experience of public emasculation. I would never get to be a boy either. I was big and strong and good at sports. Other kids looked to me for protection and I was always among the first to be chosen for teams in P.E. That was my source of control and power in my social environment and even though it could be isolating, it enabled a sense of status in its eccentricity. It also made me good at being a boy. All at once, I knew others would always have inexplicable expectations on my masculinity, but I would never enjoy any of the entitlements of maleness. So mad, so, so mad.
How does this happen? How does a person, born with a vagina excel at acting like a boy by the time they even encounter an institutionalized peer group like day care or kindergarten? Why does a little gender queer continue to refine their non-normative gender expression even after they figure out that it pisses everyone off and it’s not going to help you get laid anytime soon? Some say we are born this way. There seems to be a common belief that one’s soul is gendered and one may be born into the wrong body. What this belief does is attempt to shift agency and thereby, a judgement of culpability away from the individual, allowing a possibility for social empathy and access to mental health care. If an individual’s gender expression is somehow innate, commonly contrasted with behavioral, it is somehow more understandable and forgivable, for the individual as well as everyone else. But, do we really want to make the argument that naturalized gender exists? Do we really want to go back in time and tell Simone de Beauvoir that yes, actually one is born a woman. Within the discourses of resistance to hegemonic social paradigms, the assertion that gender roles are socially constructed, is effective precisely because dominant heteronormative gender roles are fucked up, but seem timeless and pre-ordained. To proclaim them artificially made and imposed is to disempower them and reveal their artifice. This opens the possibility of social change in the relative power relationship and acceptable characteristics associated with prescribed gender roles. Though this only really happens at a glacial pace, it is an important rhetorical weapon for ongoing feminist deconstruction. However, for the gender defiant, like this transman, the idea that gender is merely a mutable social construct is initially unsettling on a personal level and leaves the transgender community politically vulnerable to a host of philosophical attacks on our authenticity – from liberal gays to conservative straights. Are we ridiculous children playing dress-up? Can we be “rehabilitated”? Are transmen assimilating an oppressive norm that harms the rest of the queer community? Gender is such a dangerous thing to fuck with because it is so foundational to all of our identities. There must be a way to reconcile these two divergent, yet philosophically important assertions. Gender is constructed, yet it is somehow real and important. It is essential to the way we move, and feel, and fuck, and love…but we shouldn’t take it so seriously.
Judith Butler is a classic rock star in this effort.
“Bound to seek recognition of its own existence in categories, terms, and names that are not of its own making, the subject seeks the sign of its own existence outside itself, in a discourse that is at once dominant and indifferent. Social categories signify subordination and existence at once. In other words, within subjection the price of existence is subordination.” ― Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection
Judy is so smart. Damn, I really wish I could sound that smart. An individual is “bound”, meaning obligated, to look for itself in the relational structures and language it has learned. These structures are “dominant” and “indifferent”. They were here before you and they’ll be here after you. Our identity is relational. We are social animals. Our identity, our “existence”, is continually reaffirmed or denied by our social environment. Our subordination is inescapable. We “seek” recognition as a boy or a girl, which is just a category, but our existence hinges on one or the other. Genderqueer is of course a category, but essentially an unintelligible category in most cultural paradigms. This is why I’ve spent most of my life in tiny, insular urban queer communities. We don’t like to think of ourselves as subordinate. We like to think we are originals, but we are merely a unique amalgam of pre-established social categories. Even our eccentricity is dependent on norms for its charm to be possible. It is important to realize also that this “subordination”, though inflammatory as a word choice, suggests the obligatory nature of gender that we commonly appeal to in the “born this way” argument.
Gender is “a stylized repetition of acts . . . which are internally discontinuous . . .[so that] the appearance of substance is precisely that, a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and to perform in the mode of belief” – Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Judy makes so much sense she makes me nervous. I think she intentionally uses language that belittles and mocks human experience. As she should, humans are ridiculous. The ones with the most power are often additionally assholes. She is making the point that not only is gender a social construction, but we are all also brainwashed to believe in it. That’s a great point. That’s an extremely uncomfortable point. Is she adding enough subconscious obligation to one’s gender role for a transman to feel like he’s not just playing house? Is she allowing enough agency for social transgression? I think Judith Butler is certainly smart enough to understand her project. I have often thought, though, as an academic, that she may be a little inexperienced when it comes to the weirdos. What does Judith Butler know about punk rock? This is what I want to know.
Noam Chomsky is a linguist, among other things. I once took a beginning linguistics class. They discussed his theory of deep structure or deep grammar. It is about a child’s acquisition of language. He theorized that a child is born with a hard-wired language template in place that merely plugs in the idiosyncratic features of the particular language they are exposed to. Evidence for this comes from children making mistakes like “I swimmed yesterday” instead of “I swam yesterday.” They understand the grammar rule that tells them to put an “-ed” on the end of a verb to indicate past-tense, but they have not mastered the irregular verb forms yet. When I heard this theory for the first time, it was a moment of epiphany for me concerning gender, even though nobody else seems to share my enthusiasm. Language acquisition cannot be detached from the rest of the communication skills we acquire. Social power dynamics and gender relationships must be included in total cultural proficiency. I am not the first to point this out. Judith Butler draws on linguistics, and indeed, Noam Chomsky’s language acquisition theory sounds eerily like Butler’s performativity thirty years earlier…at least in my head. Though Chomsky seems to have a sense of delight and wonder at human possibility, where I think Butler seems deeply disappointed in the human condition.
“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied…We thus make a fundamental distinction between the competence (the speaker-hearer’s knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situations)…The most striking aspect of linguistic competence is what we may call the ‘creativity of language,’ that is, the speaker’s abilityto produce new sentences, sentences that are immediately understood by other speakers although they bear no physical resemblance to sentences which are ‘familiar.'” -Noam Chomsky
So language, like normative gender roles, have rules which are fixed when we learn them. He makes a distinction between competence and performance. I think we more consciously choose our words than go to the closet and choose our gender, but trying to come up with an entirely original gender would be like me trying to spontaneously speak Martian. Once you are past puberty, it’s becomes increasingly difficult for a human to learn a new language. Actually, it starts becoming incrementally harder past the age of around four. So, my only reason for bringing this up is to say that maybe we don’t start out as a particular gender, just like we don’t speak a particular language when we’re born. We learn the rules of our native language and social dynamics and we don’t learn them wrong. In our mind, we correctly place ourselves within the matrix of social power and by the time we get to kindergarten, it’s too late to change it even after we figured out that everybody else thinks we’re wrong, or when we “produce new sentences…that are immediately understood…although they bear no physical resemblance to sentences which are familiar.” We are constrained to our own native grammatical laws and the gender dynamics we were taught, but our process of “free creation” can lead to unique performances, like poetry, especially as we further our mastery of the rules.
Often, the whole transgender discourse revolves around a very strict, non-feminist gender binary. The rigid pronoun insistence is exactly in opposition to the feminist effort to make pronouns inclusive or neutral thirty years ago. There is an actual experience as transgender that seems richer than the experience of cispeople. It is a gift of dysphoria. This word is also Greek. It means difficult to bear. It is often commonly used to indicate profound confusion or hallucination, but it is deep adversity. It has a passive sense which is to be born (carried) violently as if by a storm. Those are powered gendered norms that we are subordinate to which toss us about and are painful to bear. But, I am grateful to have been in the storm.
I occasionally experience a little melancholy or longing nostalgia when I think about my transition. I look like a man. For forty years of my life, I looked like a freak. That was my performance. Being a dude is less exhausting, but less fabulous in a way. It’s nuances like this that I don’t think academics understand fully. They only know about the non-normative narratives they’ve read about and happened ten years ago. They don’t know what it feels like to be a gangster. (Damn, it feels good, btw.) Academia is a locus of dominant power arbitration. There are many a treatise about what it means to write post-colonial theory in a squarely colonial institution. I don’t know if I can go back. Harvard almost killed me with its smiley-faced normativity. But now I’m a balding white dude, so I think gangster’s out too. I’m blogging.
By far, the most brilliant philosopher on the subject of the way I feel about gender is John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote the most amazing movie in the history of the universe, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. My first semester at Harvard, I watched Hedwig almost every single night. I had been ok being an unbalanced, cocky butch pirate around a bunch of queers in San Francisco and Minneapolis, but not even a childhood in the suburbs prepared me for that kind of elite, east coast, beautiful people, old money kind of soul-crushing polite exclusion. I don’t know what it was, but I completely unravelled. Hedwig was like going to an AA meeting. I was working the program and taking it one day at a time. Hedwig was my sponsor and my higher power. Every syllable of dialogue is brilliant and I’d like to share with you, ‘Wig in a Box’. In this one song, Mitchell conveys a complex theory of gender, including performativity, the feeling of being duped by social constructions of gender, envy and longing, the triumphal feeling of exquisite failure but doing gender better than any cis-counterparts, and of course the fact that no matter how much it sucks, unicorns have the wisdom and the shine.
I’ll measure time I’ll measure height I’ll calculate My birthrite Good Lord I’m big I’m heading on Man-size Got my leather boots on – PJ Harvey, Man-size
Are wet dreams common? For whom? I haven’t heard much talk about them lately. I have had one. It visited me when I was around sixteen. It was a ‘point-of-view’ production. I was driving an old muscle car with black leather bucket seats and a long-handled gear shift. I was alone, driving fast. I especially remember the sky as a hi-def, David Lynch dream sequence kind of hot orange. There were mountains on both sides and I was approaching a narrow, flat bridge across an impossibly wide and deep gorge. I felt rising pleasure and excitement. I looked down and noticed my big, hard cock in my own left hand. The mountains receded from around me as I drove faster onto the bridge. I watched myself stroke myself faster as I drove faster, not looking up at the road. As I was about to cum, the car/I veered sharply to the left, quickly breaking through the low guard rail and into mid-air. I never saw the bottom and I didn’t fall for long. I woke up sweating and panting with throbbing clit.
I am not someone who remembers my dreams often, nor even many singular waking events in my life, but this was an omen with no intention of being forgotten. The uncanny physicality of the actual dream and of me and of the darkness of my bedroom continues to stick to me, though it’s been almost thirty years (or more, my age is the most arbitrary part of this narrative). I immediately thought I had just witnessed how I died in a past life. This is hilarious, if true, that there may be some part of my eternal soul that is so fascinated with my own penis and touching it and admiring it that it not only caused my death at least once, but that this self-destructive compulsion follows me into every incarnation. I am still a little cockcentric, though I do not possess one in this lifetime.
Occasionally, I pull out this wet dream to help me think critically about gender. I think it is a versatile metaphor for gender experience. Had I been born with a penis, I imagine that I would have been experienced this dream as fairly unremarkable. Having a penis and dreaming about touching it probably doesn’t stimulate much analysis of the link between masculinity and a cock in cis-men. I have had sex in other dreams with my own body, but never resulting in spontaneous orgasm. I don’t recall ever having another dream where I so viscerally embodied an alternate flesh. It felt real. This sensation of ‘realness’ and its fickle presence is a bit of what I believe gender performance desires. It was probably the most experiential moment of maleness in my life, but much of the time, I don’t even know if ‘male’ is what I have wanted to achieve.
This vivid dream, an altered state of consciousness is not completely unlike the daily involuntary masculinity I perform. My masculinity perpetually defies the fact of my body. When I am alone, I must touch my female genitals to masturbate, though I may be fantasizing about having an erect penis and putting it where I imagine it would feel good to my phantom limb. When I am not alone, my gender performance, to the extent that it is successful and fulfilling for myself and others, must necessarily be collaborative. When I put my silicon penis on and have sex with my girlfriend, we must both suspend disbelief to achieve the desired intimacy. It is infinitely hotter to tell someone to suck your cock, than to suck your strapon. I cannot feel my penis inside her, but the illusion helps me orgasm nonetheless. Practically speaking, it might seem more desirable to have her go down on the anatomy I do have, but the reaffirmation of my masculine identity is just as important, if not more, than an orgasm. This is why stone butches exist. At least they used to.
When surrounded by other urban queers, being a masculine woman is an intelligible identity, easily integrated into social discourse, verbal and non-verbal. When in normative surroundings, the dominant paradigm polices and excludes and mocks the masculine woman. Cis-gendered, heteronormative people sometimes don’t like to play dress up with you and your arduously crafted gender identity. Suddenly, the recollection that your masculinity is a dirty adolescent dream you once had hits you like shame pie in your girl face. In the life of a young butch, those moments of cognitive dissonance assemble to form a relentless clown parade of humiliation. Oh, young butches, I just want to send you all to Pippi Longstocking Island with horses, and femmes, and proud moms who never want you to wear a dress, and dads you can beat at basketball.
At forty-one, I made the decision to transition. Into what, is unclear to me, possibly because I am one of those people who uncritically link maleness with penises. But, I love taking testosterone. Adult puberty is so much more fun than menopause. One of the multitude of benefits that I perceive for my life is simply the public plausibility of my act. It is exhausting to be a constant subject of internal conflict for others.
Once I had a dream that I was a man. I came all over myself, then I died. The body that bares the life that I have had deserves the entitlements it has earned and the pleasures it can experience.
Silence my lady head Get girl out of my head Douse hair with gasoline Set it light and set it free, PJ Harvey, Man-size
Suspension of disbelief or willing suspension of disbelief is a term coined in 1817 by the poet and aesthetic philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who suggested that if a writer could infuse a “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, the reader would suspend judgment concerning the implausibility of the narrative.