|Review By: Rachelle Rose|
Two talk, two takes
It was a dark and stormy night during a long Melbourne winter when Charlie Boy and Rachell Rose — self-identified tranny boy and femme dyke — sat down to talk about language, gender, friendship and Leslie Feinberg’s new book Transgender Warriors.
Rachell Rose: Charlie, I gave you Stone Butch Blues didn’t I. What was that like? Because I guess it had more of an effect than I expected, thinking at the time that you were my butch dyke buddy.
Charlie: It totally turned my life upside down. It didn’t sound like fiction, and I thought, this is the solution to my problem — I thought it was just my problem. Thanks for the present. (Laughs).
RR: I made everyone I knew read it. It had a huge effect on me as well because it was at the time my identity as femme was developing. It made me feel like I had some kind of history, even if culturally dislocated. So, what effect has Transgendered Warriors had? Changed your life?
C: Completely. If anybody really wants to find out about the queer community, read this book. Because it has everybody’s story in it, not just transgendered peoples. It covers centuries of history which have been lost to most of us.
RR: Leslie’s writing is so accessible — I think that’s one of its strengths, it’s not convoluted, dry academic theorising. She talks about theory needing to be the ‘crystallised resin of lived experience’ It’s also the most beautifully designed book I have ever seen. Everything about it, from the feel of the cover to the layout is just exquisite.
C: And the amount of photographs from every culture imaginable, and historical documents. I carted this book around with me for four days, I read it at the traffic lights driving to work. I couldn’t put it down and I didn’t want to be away from it. I think this book can rock your foundations.
RR: One of the things that most struck me was how Leslie interpreted the lives of women who lived as men; people I have been used to calling passing women. What’s your reaction to the idea of passing?
C: If society were accepting of all the different genders on the spectrum, I would just be me, but the way I behave is identified as masculine so I’m labelled as a man. I’m only seen as “passing” if people know my history.
RR: Years ago I did a Lesbian Studies class at uni that studied the lives of so-called “passing women”. We were all very enthusiastic, like it embodied the political slogans we were so fond of, like “lesbians are everywhere”. I wonder if in our passion and need to claim our pasts, lesbians haven’t appropriated and claimed people’s lives that don’t just belong to our community. The lives of all of those “passing women” are just as much part of your history and your mythology as they are mine. If not more so.
C: The truth is so-called “passing women” lived as men, identified as men, and suffered the consequences of being outed. That needs to be acknowledged and respected. But it doesn’t mean that they’re not part of your community too.
RR: There’s a point Feinberg makes eloquently about some gay men and dykes facing trans oppression because their gender expression is at odds with their sex. But she also argues that transgendered people bear the brunt of gay or lesbian oppression too, because when bigots see transpeople, they just see “queer”, they know there’s something not quite right.
RR: Being around you the last couple of years has challenged me enormously. This is happening at home for me rather than somewhere out there as unlived theory. I think learning some flexibility and changing things like gender pronouns is actually creating new concepts for me in my head. It’s that whole relationship about reality and language and what shapes which first. Language is incredibly powerful.
C: There’s more inclusive, more neutral words to describe gender that are starting to be used in America. But until these are everyday words, other people won’t understand what you’re talking about. It will be hard, but it’s going to be a radical shift when those words — like ze and hir — become common terminology.
RR: I toyed with the idea of butch and femme actually being gender identities for a while. I’ve gone out with women that are often seen as men — which makes me look straight, which pisses me off no end.
C: People see me with a woman and go, oh you’re straight. They’re not meaning that in a nice way, they’re not saying oh you’re heterosexual, congratulations. There’s no place for us yet in the gay and lesbian community in Australia. I’m not straight, because I consider that conservative, narrow minded. Heterosexual, I don’t have a problem with, but I don’t like being called straight, because I think I’m as bent as everyone else —
RR — that you know! (Laughter). I guess that’s been a huge shift for you from having called the lesbian — and gay or queer — community home for three years. Moving outside of that and feeling not accepted by people that you had seen as allies must be hard.
C: That’s the problem, I don’t feel like I’ve moved outside of it. I get identified as straight, but I’m still welcome at some gay and lesbian venues because of people who know my history. If they took me on face value and had never met me, I wouldn’t be welcome either. I feel like I’ve been pushed out of the community and I want to fight to get back into it and say this is our community as well, as history shows.
C: If there were rights for transgendered people and categories for gender ambiguous people then a lot of what’s defined on sex and sexism would just come down in a screaming heap.
RR: Tell me again that story about the census form.
C: (Laughs). There’s only two boxes to choose from when they ask your sex. I can’t say I’m a male, because genetically I’m not and I don’t classify myself as female because I don’t feel that way, I don’t present myself that way. So I didn’t tick a box. I thought I’d be honest and leave it open because it’s ambiguous.
RR: If there was another box marked “other” and space for you to fill in, what would you write?
C: I’d tick other and write transgendered. And be proud of it. Fuck them, I’ve no reason to be ashamed of what I am.
RR: Reading this book and talking to you gives me flashes of near revolutionary fervour that I haven’t felt in years. There is the most incredible, exciting, frightening potential for change and a manifesto about gender that is starting to gather force.
C: But it’s got to happen. Time is running out.
RR: Leslie talks about “millions like me in America” —
C: — I just can’t get my head around it because of the few people that I know over here and in New Zealand, there’s just a handful of us.
RR: Before when you talked about “us” I had this sense of a big group of people you were referring to. Has this book changed the way you see the transgendered community?
C: Well it’s proved that there is a community, that there’s a history, or herstory or ourstory. There have been people like myself and other gendered people throughout time, that have been held in high esteem, that have been respected. I don’t consider myself any less worthy just because I’ve decided to accept the gender I am, and then tell people about it. I’ve always accepted the gender I am, but nobody’s ever believed me. (Laughs). So I used to go to bed as a kid and go ohhhh, I hope I wake up a boy, I hope I wake up a boy, and every morning I’d go ah fuck it didn’t work, OK, tomorrow night.
RR: Can’t live without community, eh?
C: No. We need to have people around us, we need a sense of belonging and support and encouragement. You can’t get that from yourself. That’s why I think it’s scary that some transgendered people go off and isolate themselves. They don’t reach their full potential because they’re denying part of their lives, they hide it away and pretend they’re like whoever they’re meant to be. Which they’re not. We’re special.
C: People close to me have told me I’m buying into the heterosexual world so I won’t have a hard life. “You’re buying into the easy life, you’re denying the woman inside you.” Crap! You think somebody would actually choose this out of all the other options for an easy life?
RR: It’s this idea that it’s much easier to be sexually attracted to women if you’re a man.
C: Yeah —take hormones, look like a man, you won’t face any oppression.
RR: But in Transgender Warriors, Leslie effectively counters that argument. If that were the case, then what about people in really privileged groups in society? Why are they still transgendered? And why do men become women?
C: Become women and have no rights?
RR: If you’re doing it for the privilege, why would you give that privilege up? And why would you, as a transgendered person, then choose to become sexually involved with the same gender? So you were a straight man, and now you’re a lesbian? You’re not earning any brownie points in the great patriarchal cosmos by doing that. The argument doesn’t work.
What would you say to Leslie Feinberg if you met?
C: Thank you. Thank you for opening my eyes and making me question myself and everything I’ve learnt, encouraging me to start thinking for myself. I used to think I was very well-educated, but I was just like every other sucker that ate it up and went ‘oh, yeah fine. That’s how it goes’. And if it wasn’t for Transgendered Warriors and Stone Butch Blues, I would probably be stuck where I was three years ago.