Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Be thyself

Elizabeth Gillies: a picture of self-fulfilment? 

Another year ends. Do I know myself better than when I blogged this time last year? I fear not. Themes emerge, fuse, re-form, but no solid shape emerges from the swirling mist…

The impossibility of ‘purging’

I’ve never engaged in the physical ‘purging’ so common to crossdressers. An instinctive hoarder, I like to hang on to my schmutter, especially as I sometimes find new uses for long-overlooked garments. But periodically I make an attempt at mental purging – putting trans thoughts out of my mind, filling the head with ballast. Other sufferers will tell you it doesn’t work. I tried it in October. My resolve lasted all of two weeks – just long enough for me to start asking myself whether it was a compulsion or an addiction, this thing I feel.

Yes, I have a compulsion to crossdream, but I can only enter that state through the body, so I have to bathe and depilate before I can engage the mind. But if you think of it more as an addiction than a compulsion, it ought to be possible to beat it. If you get a ‘high’ from it – and I do – then it does have characteristics of an addiction.

Either way, contact with the living, breathing family over the Christmas period is a reality check. It’s so much harder to get into the ‘zone’ afterwards. Reality is a powerful solvent of fantasy.

Rebirth as imagined family

They say ‘you’re only young once’, with a finality that precludes argument. But what if they’re wrong? What if you could go round again, take another turn on the carousel, do it differently – do it as a girl?

I wrote in April of the curious fantasy of being my own ‘daughter’. Almost as soon as I’d hit on the idea, I ring-fenced it in imagination. So powerful is the incest taboo that it censors thoughts even before they rise to consciousness. And yet, where is the offence here? I have no daughter, so to imagine one as a fully grown woman arousing desire in the male beholder isn’t so outrageous. And, like a myth, the idea makes sense of contradictions in experience and bridges unexplained gaps in self-understanding.

I’m reminded of the Greek travel writer Pausanias (2nd C AD), who recorded a novel variant of the Narcissus story, in which the youth falls in love with his twin sister rather than himself (Description of Greece, 9.31):

[7] On the summit of Helicon is a small river called the Lamus. In the territory of the Thespians is a place called Donacon (Reed-bed). Here is the spring of Narcissus. They say that Narcissus looked into this water, and not understanding that he saw his own reflection, unconsciously fell in love with himself, and died of love at the spring. But it is utter stupidity to imagine that a man old enough to fall in love was incapable of distinguishing a man from a man’s reflection.

[8] There is another story about Narcissus, less popular indeed than the other, but not without some support. It is said that Narcissus had a twin sister; they were exactly alike in appearance, their hair was the same, they wore similar clothes, and went hunting together. The story goes on that Narcissus fell in love with his sister, and when the girl died, would go to the spring, knowing that it was his reflection that he saw, but in spite of this knowledge finding some relief for his love in imagining that he saw, not his own reflection, but the likeness of his sister. (tr. Jones/Ormerod, 1918)

Thwarted creativity

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known” said Oscar Wilde. How I would like to believe that. (Of course, some would say that Wilde’s greatest work was his personality.) My own experience is that self-invention through crossdressing and transgender fantasy (if fantasy it be) runs counter to my own reawakened literary creativity. The two are in competition for my attention. If only they were aligned or were twin faces of the same phenomenon, I might have a rosy future.

Thus, at year-end 2015, I am still in conflict. A long-dormant creative self has reawoken. At the same time, she has become more insistent, laying claim to all my free time. If only she were my creative self, there would be integrity of personality. But she is not that (unless I can somehow make her into it). A physical presence much more than a spiritual one, she demands a continuous act of improvisation to sustain her. If I am not aware of her body through the senses (touch, sight, smell), she evaporates. Such insistent corporeality might be put to work by a performing artist – a dancer, perhaps – but it inhibits the writer.  

Reasons to be hopeful

My own uncertainties represent the tiniest of microclimates. Out there, in the wider world, serious climate change is occurring. British actress Rebecca Root, who starred in a trans-themed sitcom on BBC television, declared in April that “2015 is going to be the year to be trans”. There’s never been a better time to revolve questions of personal gender identity, even if it remains easier to revolve than to resolve. “From Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair front cover, to the upcoming Eddie Redmayne film The Danish Girl, in which the British star plays a transgender character, trans issues are in the cultural spotlight like never before.” Thus the HuffPost enthused, flagging up a forthcoming report on transgender equality from a committee of the UK Parliament.

To quote Wilde again: “’Know thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written”.

I wish my readers a happy, hopeful and self-fulfilling New Year!

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Creativity

A crossdreamer's great-granddaughter: Dree Hemingway

Transsexuals tend to possess a high degree of artistic and general creative ability. On that point the pundits seem agreed, and it’s music to my ears. To liberate creativity I need to relocate my ‘deeper female self’. Latterly I’ve been trying to find that self by outwardly transforming the body and appearance; and yet the state that I enter as a result is antithetical to any ‘creative’ work other than impersonation and performance. Unless self-invention is as valid a form of creativity as literary endeavour, it simply won’t do.

Something is askew. My channels of creativity have been blocked since I was in my twenties. Is that because I resolved, as many a gender dysphoric male before me, to use outward appearance to ‘pass’ effortlessly as a ‘man’? Was I always a transwoman who took the easy option? And how does that relate to creativity? Looking back, I think that anxiety about gender identity when I was younger may actually have stifled creativity. Unable to recognise it for what it was – we’re talking about less enlightened times and a less self-knowing me – I perceived only a miasma that choked me: the recourse of reason was to run from under it.

Some artists may canalise their creativity to conceal gender dissonance. Hemingway is often cited as the archetype of the macho prose stylist:

Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old.*

This is handsomely put but obscures the evidence, especially from his unfinished novel The Garden of Eden, that the old bruiser was an active ‘crossdreamer’ with gender issues a-plenty. (Watch out for Jack Molay's forthcoming post on this topic.) 

More typically, an artist will harness, as I was unable to do when I hit my ‘block’ all those years ago, their crossdreaming to the wagon of self-expression. Freud speculated when writing about Leonardo da Vinci that creative people possess greater cross-sex identification than others. Coleridge said that a great mind has to be “androgynous”.** Virginia Woolf developed the idea in her classic essay of 1928, A Room of One’s Own, where she asserted that to be an ideal writer, one ought to be

woman-manly or man-womanly… Some collaboration has to take place in the mind between the woman and the man before the art of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated.

She glossed Coleridge as meaning that the “androgynous mind” is a mind resistant to gender distinction:

He meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent, and undivided.

In her essay, Woolf praised a number of famous “androgynous” writers, including Shakespeare, Keats, Sterne, Cowper, Lamb, and Coleridge himself. She was unsure, however, of the soundness of Milton and Jonson, Wordsworth and Tolstoy, saying that they had “a dash too much of the male”, and Proust, since he was “a little too much of a woman.”

Anyone brought up, like me, in the slipstream of the Women’s Movement of the 1970s is schooled to be suspicious of such efforts to ‘gender’ the brain. But the anecdotal, if not the empirical evidence, is so strong that it’s hard to resist. I used to be friends with a talented violinist. Her repertoire was dominated by Johannes Brahms. I once said to her, “You play a lot of Brahms, never Beethoven. Why is that?” Her reply came clearly from the heart, not from any feminist textbook: “Because Brahms is a female composer. Beethoven feels so male.”

So what is to become of me?

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” Those beautiful words from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:12) have always moved me, though I’d scarcely call myself a believer. They speak even to the secular, even to the God-forsaken obsessing over self-realisation, to describe a hoped-for epiphany at some point in the future: a knowledge which is both active and reflexive. Hitherto I saw only a dim reflection of reality. If and when my creativity is set free, I shall see “face to face”.

* Ursula K Le Guin, ‘Introducing myself’ in The Wave in the Mind, 2004 (quoted in https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/17/ursula-k-le-guin-gender/)
** Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table Talk, 1 September 1832

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Where now for Glamourpuss?

Felicity Jones: Glamourpuss with a degree from Oxford?

At the end of last year I described how I was ‘standing at the door’, poised on the threshold. What, gentle reader, you may ask, has happened since? The internet is a seducer. I had spent the previous year reading everything I could find on ‘crossdreaming’. I joined several online support groups and discussion forums. And the more time I spent on these sites the more convinced I became that the answer to my self-questioning lay in transition. I booked a couple of sessions with a therapist. He charged through the nose and, I’m tempted to say, talked through his arse. Well, that’s not quite fair – he radiated sweet reasonableness amid the soft furnishings of his consulting room, but he didn’t tell me anything that I hadn’t worked out for myself. I returned to the seductive wiles of the online world: a cheaper option. Siren voices (hiding behind pseudonyms) spoke of the colourful life that was mine for the taking if I grasped the nettle of self-actualisation. Usually, this seemed to involve rebuilding one’s body in some way.

Yes, the cybernaut can easily drown. Did I stand firm, like Ulysses strapped to the mast? Did I heck. But I did find an e-book, by Felix Conrad, that kept me afloat, and I commend it to your attention.* Felix is a ‘life-coach’ who has written a self-help manual for those of us with moderate gender dysphoria. He sees that ‘spending a lot of time on trans-related websites can make a crossdreamer see the path of transition as easier than it is’. His alternative, which he calls ‘fusion’, is to integrate the ‘deeper female self’ into your existing male body and celebrate what you are. What you are is transgender, or as he prefers to call it ‘consummate’, not burdened with a ‘disorder’ but blessed with a ‘gift’. For ‘those who seek to reconcile both their male and female nature without medication or surgery’, there is sound common sense between these pages.

Normally, I’d shy away from self-styled ‘life-coaches’, but I was hooked by his approach because I found ideas that I had arrived at independently (witness earlier posts in this blog) were mirrored in his own writing. I’ve complained here of my frustration with a female self who monopolises my free time, of a frivolous young woman preoccupied with clothes and body-image. Felix calls this character ‘Glamourpuss’. She is the ‘superficial female self’ who ‘hijacks a call to action by the deeper female self’. When that deeper self seeks assimilation, the crossdreamer thinks, under Glamourpuss’s malign influence, that this means ‘permanent union with the visible signs of womanhood that he believes define a woman’. However, although there are defences against her, there’s no shifting Glamourpuss ‘because she’s seated in your sexuality and your sexuality is a component of your being’. She’s ‘like family’. And here I find another striking correspondence. He compares the experience to ‘having a wild daughter you have to keep in check’. In my self-investigations, that simile is literalised: I imagine this turbulent female presence who shares some of my DNA as the daughter I never had.

When standing at the door, Felix implies, we should apply the ‘happiness test’. Will transition make me happier? He clearly tabulates the pros and cons. Likewise the barriers to ‘passing’ are set out, with a list of physical differences between male and female anatomy that remind one of the obstacles facing the transwoman on her journey. All this is well said.

I have reservations, though. Felix has invented a new term, ‘femephilia’, to describe the sexual drive towards cross-gender behaviour. I find the word inelegant but I understand the motive behind its creation: to salvage the descriptive function of the term ‘autogynephilia’ while divesting it of its toxic baggage.

I also struggle a little with the notion of a ‘deeper female self’, a term used repeatedly in the book but not systematically defined.  Sometimes manifesting as a ‘guardian angel’, she represents ‘all female behaviours, ideas, tastes, which are not sexual’. Elsewhere Felix has endorsed a ‘Unified Transgender Theory’, and I guess the ‘deeper female self’ equates to the ‘gender core’, an idea which is developed in this Unified Theory.** If Glamourpuss was all about the body, the deeper self is a state of mind. But maybe this is opening up dichotomies where they were better avoided? The suspicion creeps in that the whole edifice rests on a mind/body dualism, not to mention a form of gender essentialism.  An alternative hypothesis might be that the ‘gender core’ isn’t exclusively one gender or the other. Suppose it was 75% female and 25% male. If you had a male body, for much of your life the minority core could coexist with the outward body, but then at some midlife crisis point the majority female core might burst through; but the minority male core would still be there, reinforced by a lifetime of outward habit.

What’s for sure is that gendering the brain is a hell of a lot harder than sexing the body. I like Felix’s idea that there is no such thing as ‘cross gender arousal’ – only what outward observers fail to recognise as the ‘sensuality of true gender’.*** But how to account for the ‘femephiliac’s’ experience of masturbation? What’s the relationship between mind and body (for we know that both are involved in sexual pleasure)? Rendered virtually impotent by phytoestrogens, a crossdreamer tucks his diminished penis between his legs, closes his eyes and imagines vividly that what’s between his legs is a vagina. He gets mentally aroused by that action and can even proceed to orgasm. But that physical reaction is coming from his residual male equipment. The sense of arousal in the brain and the sense of arousal in the groin are two interrelated processes. The ‘gender core’ is a product of the brain – and that may well be female – but at the same time the brain is instructing the crossdreamer’s male-bodied groin to feel aroused. There may even be a feedback loop – the brain instructs the groin and then, in turn, the physical reaction in the groin triggers a mental reaction. So where there’s a mismatch between gender core and physical sex, a gap opens up allowing what feels like a sense of heterosexual attraction to one’s own feminised body.

Still, reservations aside, Felix Conrad has made an important contribution to transgender studies and, at a practical level, he has persuaded this crossdreamer to pull back from actions he might live to regret. I salute him.

* Autogynephilia: Everyman's guide to autogynephilia, crossdreaming and late onset transsexualism (2015) [available from Amazon or via the author's website]
*** http://transcendmovement.com/crossdreaming-as-a-symptom-of-being-transgender

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Indeterminacy

Karen Gillan goes stateside

Some days it feels more like ‘possession’. Not the medieval kind where the Devil has sent a succubus to torment me. I know that she is an emanation of my mind, but still she takes me over, and my will-power, normally so strong, is broken because her presence is welcome and exciting. Sometimes she sticks around all day – recently that’s become her habit – and we spend a pleasant but wholly unproductive day, she and I. It is literally like being taken over by another body. In my workaday male body I’ve been suffering from backache; when I ‘become’ her, my pains disappear in her younger body. How uncanny is that? And yet she is not ineluctable. She can be banished by obligation. On working days, and on the eve of working days, she makes herself scarce. Thankfully.

It’s frustrating. As an intellectual, I bring my full cerebral firepower to bear on this problem, yet still I can’t ‘crack’ it. I can’t explain adequately what I feel or why I feel whatever it is I feel.

One reason for my incapacity may be that I’m trying to make distinctions where, in reality, none exist: there are no hard edges, only fluid contours, blurred lines, fuzzy between-states where one thing merges into another, perhaps even chrysalis states where one thing metamorphoses into something else, or pregnant states where one thing is born from another. It might help to think of both gender and sexual orientation in these terms.

The rational mind cannot grasp a phenomenon whose nature is indeterminacy. That said, I never cease to be amazed at the mind’s creativity, its power to invent fantasies, to tell itself stories that make sense of whatever weird shit it’s experiencing at the time. For much of 2014 I was sustained by two fantasies: sometimes I was a hot British actress appearing on an American talk show, like the lovely Karen in the photo above; sometimes an upmarket escort, a sort of Belle de Jour character. By December I was disappointed that both had run out of steam. One night before Christmas I fantasised I was my transitioning self, in bed with a cis man who’d never been with a trans woman before. The brain was inventing stories to make sense of shifting reality – the gender/sex relationship. I think the idea of being a trans woman or of undergoing transition had itself become eroticised. In my fantasy I was explaining to the (inevitably faceless) man: “Have you been with a trans woman before? I’m pre-op… Just so you know what to expect. Or what not to expect!” Fantasy, like myth, has power to bridge the contradictions of existence, but by its nature it speaks untruths.

In what sense is she ‘me’? She is ‘me’ as I might be (or would be?) if I’d been born female in 1990, rather than male in 19--. But that’s a meaningless counterfactual. If I’d been born in 1990, then no way could I have been born to the person I called mother. How can she share all or part of my genetic material? One solution – I surprised myself by stumbling upon this idea – is if she were my daughter. Here is a plausible counterfactual – that I married my on-off girlfriend in the late ‘80s and we had a child in 1990: a girl, tall like her parents.

I internalise an ideal femme and I externalise my vestigial male self as someone who looks at her and desires her. This was fine when my vestigial male self was either a client paying for her sexual services or a middle-aged talk show host flirting with her. But if I think of her as my ‘daughter’ while simultaneously thinking of myself as her ‘father’, then she cannot be arousing to me. Place her opposite her ‘father’ and the mechanism falters, bumping up against the incest taboo. To him she will always be his ‘little girl’.

And yet the alternative is too hard to bear. That she’s not ‘me’ at all, or any part of me – she’s just a character I play, an escapist fantasy. Thus is she reduced to a drag act, and a particularly ineffectual one at that, since I’ve never dared present it in public.

One way out of this impasse is to say that the arousal I sense when putting on her clothes or looking at my female body in the mirror is not the ‘autogynephilic’ response of a male to an internalised female but the bodying forth of the woman who was always within me, repressed, breaking through the restraints of years and coming to realisation of the sensual potential of her own body just as a cis woman might do when she masturbates. But does it have to be 'either/or'? Why not 'both/and'? Here’s what I mean about indeterminacy. One of these personae might merge into the other, or mutate into the other. Or perhaps they both ‘exist’ simultaneously, but the mind struggles to contain two contradictory concepts, so tries to privilege one over the other (or eliminate one altogether).

Can I apply this principle of non-differentiation to my other half? Instead of asking “who in the world is she?” perhaps I should stop interrogating myself (and her). I know some unalterable facts about her: her name, her age, something of her appearance and tastes – not much else. Can’t I leave it at that? Just let her be. Accept her as a real presence. She doesn’t have to be sustained by elaborate fantasies or analysed half to death with psychobabble, for – whoever she is – she is me.