Gender at the Crossroads of the Political and the Personal
Sep 19, 2016
18 Min read time
When your father is trans, memoir is both personal and political.
Morris (2011) by Trisha Shattuck. Oil on canvas. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
In the Darkroom
Metropolitan Books, $32 (cloth)
From This Day Forward
directed by Sharon Shattuck
Artemis Rising Foundation and Fork Films
To qualify for gender reassignment surgery, a prospective patient often has to present what is called a “plausible history.” To the medical and psychological gatekeepers—and, arguably, to many people, both trans and cis—only one transgender history is plausible. The feeling of being in the “wrong body” must arise as early as consciousness—must be, in other words, innate. It must manifest itself in tastes and behaviors characteristic of a diametrically opposite gender. A child born with female genitalia, say, would want to play with trucks, a born-male child to wear a tutu. The candidate deemed likely to succeed also must pass as a member of the chosen gender—that is, be read by others as unambiguously masculine or feminine.
Emerging from the operating room, the person is encouraged not so much to construct a history as to demolish one, replacing decades of idiosyncratic childhood, adolescence, or younger adulthood with a conventionally gendered narrative. Plausibility of one gender equals plausible deniability of the other. This narrative allows for only two genders, a maximum one per body. The protagonist is she or he. “Ve,” “xe,” “ze,” and the singular “they” do not exist.
In her 1987 “transsexual manifesto,” “The ‘Empire’ Strikes Back,” music producer and transgender theorist Sandy Stone called the plausible history a “series of erasures” and its construction a process of “learning to lie effectively about one’s past.” In fact, once this narrative was laid out in 1966 in Harry Benjamin’s long-dominant work The Transsexual Phenomenon, people seeking sex reassignment surgery—or, as it is now called, gender alignment or gender confirmation—quickly learned the magic words, memorizing Benjamin’s textbook profile to dispense it to medical authorities. If regurgitating the plausible story is a means to an end, however, it does not come without cost. “What is gained is acceptability in society,” Stone wrote. “What is lost is the ability to authentically represent the complexities and ambiguities of lived experience.” Of course, other transgender people may have felt that Benjamin had put their lived experience into words, giving it the imprimatur of science.
Things are slowly changing. After a long, fraught political process, the American Psychiatric Association revised the entry on “gender identity disorder”—now called “gender dysphoria”—in its latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Queerness, like gayness, is no longer sickness. “Gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder,” says an APA fact sheet. The deciding factor is “clinically significant distress associated with the condition.” Some transgender people would like GID—or GD—out of the bible of psychopathologies altogether. But insurance won’t cover treatment without a diagnosis—and that gives the shrinks the last say. Gender dysphoria remains a condition whose symptoms look suspiciously like the old pink-or-blue syndrome.
What gives someone the right to represent the 'truth' about someone else?
“Who is telling the story for whom?” Stone asked. The same question confronts the memoirist, whose story inevitably encompasses other people—lovers, friends, family. What gives someone the right to represent the “truth” about someone else? The memoirist must set these questions aside and deal with the consequences later. (Rarely are there none. After I wrote a family memoir, my mother stopped speaking to me for two years.) But what if the consequences are more than personal? What if the subject of the memoir, simply by being herself, is freighted with outsize cultural or political meaning? What if her body and self-presentation draw the fear, prurience, disgust, or adulation of strangers?
“Today as in the past, transsexuals often appear as symbols of something larger than their own everyday selves,” Joanne J. Meyerowitz writes in How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (2004). They are feared as the agents of social anarchy yet also condemned as the last holdouts of gender essentialism. Psychologists theorize the etiologies of their “deviance”; queer and critical race theorists laud them as an advance guard against myths of racial, ethnic, sexual, or gender purity. Transgender people seeking medical intervention are called both self-indulgent techno-consumers and also victims of an opportunistic medical industry.
Second-wave separatist feminists have a particularly odious relationship to transwomen, whom they’ve barred from festivals and meetings and vilified as imposters, intruders, and predators. In fact, Stone’s essay was a response to “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male” (1979), in which radical feminist Janice Raymond proclaimed: “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” The fantasy of the transgender wolf in sheep’s clothing has been reprised in today’s bathroom debates, and with it the spirit of Raymond’s tract. In August 2016, a radical feminist group called the Women’s Liberation Front (WoLF) initiated a lawsuit against the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education, claiming that the government’s new inclusion of gender identity under the category of sex to extend to transgender persons protection from discrimination “effectively renders Title IX meaningless, as females can no longer be recognized as distinct from males.” The suit alleges that the policy will allow men to dominate women’s sports and expose girls to sexual harassment in bathrooms and locker rooms—precisely the moral right’s argument. At this moment of unprecedented visibility, inspiring not just greater tolerance but also greater backlash and violence, it is no wonder transgender people are wary of misrepresentation by non-trans politicos, TV producers, journalists, fashion marketers, or, I’d assume, memoirists.
Susan Faludi’s memoir In the Darkroom and Sharon Shattuck’s film From This Day Forward are both works by cisgender feminist daughters about their fathers, who are both transgender women. This makes the authors answerable to more than their own imperatives, or even their parents’ feelings. The cisgender memoirist representing a transgender person carries a responsibility that is not only personal but also political. Whether they confront it head on, as Faludi does, or obliquely, as Shattuck does, they must grapple with a question that has vexed LGBTQ sexual politics and rights struggles for decades: Is trans (or gay, lesbian, or bi) biologically essential and innate, an ahistorical phenomenon just now being recognized? Or is the identity “trans,” like gender and sexuality themselves, socially constructed—ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving that arise in a particular culture and time? Conceiving trans as essential can yield political rights; you can’t be penalized for something you didn’t choose to be. But essentialism has a way of sliding back to the, well, essentials: the notion that there are two distinct sexes, each of which is linked to one of two “opposite” genders. Nor does being “born this way” shield transpeople from the wrath of those who see them as “abominations” of nature.
Each in her own way, Faludi and Shattuck sensitively honor their responsibilities, both personal and political. They are doggedly curious yet respectful of their parents, Stefánie (formerly Steven) Faludi, Trisha (formerly Michael) Shattuck, and Trisha’s wife, Sharon’s mother, Marcia. The authors come to transgender and transsexualism with the intelligent humility Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” As feminists, they take for granted that the personal is political. Yet they don’t hew to the classic feminist methodology of deducing the general political rule from the personal example—including the correctness of essentialism or social construction in explaining the varied phenomena that fall into the transgender category. “My biggest goal with this film is to show people that LGBTQ people and their families aren’t different from anyone else,” said Shattuck in an unpublished interview. Yet the allure and power of both these works derive from their subjects’ singularity, of which gender expression is only one aspect. “I’m probably a poor representative of a transgender individual,” Trisha ventures in the film. The intimacy and specificity of these two works offer an implicit reply: Who could possibly be a good one?
• • •
If In the Darkroom begins with a gender-political stance, it is agnostic on the question of identity of any kind. “I’d never been clear what it meant to have an identity, real or otherwise,” Faludi comments when a friend suggests her investigations might uncover the “real Steven.” Indeed, more than anything, this book is a meditation on the fluidity of identity, and if there ever was a shape-shifter, it is Stefánie-Steven Faludi, née István Friedman—World War II document-forger and, later, photographic retouch artist, master of such techniques as “dodging” and “masking”; Hungarian Jew who saved his parents by posing as a Nazi turned fanatically nationalistic “real Hungarian”; and, finally, macho man turned girly girl.
This last transformation launches Susan’s plunge down the twisting, unlit tunnel of her father’s life when she receives an email announcing Steven’s physical transition to womanhood. “I have decided that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside,” reads the post, signed Stefánie. Susan endured a childhood under her father’s imperious, brooding, ultimately violent rule; after he stabbed her mother’s—his former wife’s—boyfriend, the teenager cut off contact with her father. Twenty-five years later, she finds it astonishing to think of that person as a male impersonator. In fact, even Stefánie, who insists the woman was always inside awaiting liberated, intimates that gender identity is a slippery thing requiring vigilant upkeep.
“You can’t switch back and forth,” my father said. “You have to develop a habit and stick to it. Otherwise, you’re going to be a forlorn something, not a whole person. The best way is not to change someone into someone else, but to put the person back as the person he was born to be. The surgery is a complete solution. Now I am completely like a woman.”
Masculine gender was a performance, but femininity is authentic; gender is fixed yet must be self-policed. “Completely, I thought, or completely like?” asks Faludi, summing up the essentialism-constructionism quandary.
From the first father-and-child reunion in Stefánie’s reclaimed hometown, Budapest, the father rattles this distinction. “Since when had I become the essentialist?” Faludi chides herself, recognizing that within minutes of arriving at the airport, she is judging Stefánie’s purse-handling behavior as too careless and her silicone breasts as too rigid—“as if how one carried a purse were a biological trait. As if there weren’t plenty of ‘real’ women walking around with silicone in their breasts.” But Faludi is not just judging her father’s “unreal” female body. She is faulting her imperfect social feminization. Faludi’s got Stefánie coming and going, flunking her on feminine cred while rankling at the old-fashioned femininity the new woman has adopted—the makeup and clothes obsessions, the professed enjoyment of housework and male chauvinism. A long exploration of transgender history and politics ensues. But in the end, Stefánie is a person, not a text, and Susan is not just a feminist; she’s a daughter.
Nor is Stefánie just a transwoman. Activists often find it necessary to remind people that transgender people think about, and are, more than their breasts or genitals. In fact, most of In the Darkroom is dedicated to piecing together the sketchy, sometimes inaccurate, details her father has supplied about her life as an abandoned child, Jewish Holocaust survivor, husband, and father. Most baffling is the self-reinvention as “one hundred percent Hungarian,” a signifier that has undergone “a cascade of identity creations and identity breakdowns” of its own, with one constant: “The Hungarian was not a Jew.”
Identities are not linear or causal; they are cumulative, harmonious and clashing, confounding, a messy heap.
Faludi does not trace her father’s gender dysphoria to the traumas and ruptures of her childhood. Identities are not linear or causal; they are cumulative, harmonious and clashing, confounding, a messy heap that Faludi deftly sorts and describes. For instance, Stefánie mocks Budapest’s Jewish community elders, who could not or would not help her recover her family’s Nazi-looted property.
“Oh, we can’t do anything, Mr. Faludi,” she said, channeling Minnie Mouse. “We have to make nice with the authorities.” My father was wearing a rosebud-print housecoat and bedroom slippers—“my hausfrau outfit,” she called it—which only heightened the contradictions. Here was a Jewish man-turned-woman making fun of Jewish men for not being manly enough.
Near the end of her research, Faludi musters the courage to ask her father her side of the stabbing story. Stefánie insists that he, Steven, was the victim, spurned by his wife for insufficient masculinity. The answer is neither terribly illuminating nor exculpatory. As a woman, Stefánie is no longer physically violent. She is finally moved to apologize to her daughter, who acknowledges her own grudges, and the two arrive at a sort of reconciliation. But in spite of her hyper-feminine presentation, Stefánie comes through as controlling, evasive, and resistant to introspection to the end. She has gone to extraordinary lengths to expunge the man who was neither manly nor womanly enough; she has expurgated and rewritten her Hungarian Jewish autobiography. But István Steven Stefánie Freidman Faludi remains the same person. Bodies can be altered, birth certificates and passports newly issued, memories obfuscated. But, Faludi’s vivid portraiture shows, selves cannot be erased.
• • •
When you’re thirteen, your mom and dad mortify you even if you don’t have a transgender parent, director Sharon Shattuck notes wryly in From This Day Forward. So it was that much more difficult for her and her sister, Laura, when their father began walking around their small Michigan town in women’s clothes. Sharon also could not process her father’s request to wear a dress at the daughter’s future wedding. The girls resented their father’s female adolescence while they were suffering through their own. “He was choosing between his children and spouse and himself,” Laura says in the film.
Then, before the camera, Trisha tells Sharon there was no choosing. As a small boy meeting his first baby, named Trisha, Michael wanted to be a girl called Trisha. She regrets having “blithely” subjected her daughters to emotional confusion and social ostracism. But by the time she began to transition, it was either life as a woman or suicide. This did not mean that Sharon and Laura’s father had to choose between his family and himself, though. Through much struggle, marriage and family endured. The film’s title derives from the marriage vows; Sharon is engaged to be married when the film begins. She wanted to know why and how her parents stayed together.
If the first chapters of Michael-Trisha’s story are pure Harry Benjamin, the subsequent ones speak to the power of relationship to shape sexuality and history to shape gender. Shattuck and Marcia Livermore fell in love as a man and a woman. Early in their relationship, he put on women’s clothes and told her he cross-dressed. As long as it “stayed in the bedroom,” Marcia was cool. As parents in the 1980s, they were unconventional. A medical pathologist, Marcia brought in most of the bacon. Trisha, a landscape architect, stayed home and took care of the kids; she says she longed to be their mother. But as time went on, Trisha felt suffocated keeping her gender identity “inside” and began venturing out as a woman.
The couple took steps toward divorce, but the prospect of living apart broke their hearts. Trisha’s transition “stopped at bottom surgery,” because Marcia was still heterosexual and attracted to men. The two still have sex. But this is not to say that everything is copacetic. “Trisha is daily faced with a tightrope-balancing act of wanting to express her femininity but keep her straight-oriented spouse from losing interest in her,” Sharon said in an unpublished interview.
In the film, Trisha also talks about expressing her femininity. I emailed her to ask what that means to her. She wrote back:
I’ve evolved to believe there’s a spectrum of feminine expression. Fashion is just the layering on of attire to meet our daily and personal needs, with ‘dress’ suggestive of self-confidence and functional[ity]. . . . Can I run in this? Do I have freedom of movement? Does the fashion convey my confidence? I’m much less interested in frivolity.
I also asked if she’s a feminist. “I’m a radical feminist working for positive change for ALL women,” she replied. In fact, Trisha’s development as a woman comprises a sort of mini-history of second-wave feminism. She begins in lipstick, heels, and wig, gradually assumes a more utilitarian style, cuts her hair short, and today dresses alternately in men’s and women’s clothes depending on what she’s doing, like most Western women. Throughout the film the question of her wedding attire remains unresolved. She discusses it at dinner, lovingly fingers a shimmery gown on a rack. At the wedding, Trisha wears a tuxedo, beaming at the camera, her wife on her arm.
At some point, the daughters stop trying to explain their fathers and start simply to accept them.
Like Stefánie Faludi, Trisha Shattuck is more than her gender, and Marcia Shattuck is more than a cisgender woman married to a transgender woman. The film follows the couple as they hunt for mushrooms, prepare gorgeous vegan meals, and craft homemade wedding decorations. Trisha is filmed making her vivid paintings, plucking the banjo, and sneaking around the neighborhood surreptitiously planting trees. The family is bohemian, reflective, and principled. They’ve got the emotional and moral chops to weather the punishments—and there are still plenty of punishments in that small town—of a nonconforming life. The most critical element of the Shattucks’ marriage is something almost entirely missing from the millions of words of theory, psychological analysis, sociological and anthropological research, and political discourse about sex, sexuality, and gender. That something is love.
• • •
Here’s a confession. For a long time I was confused and sad—maybe a little hostile—about physical sex reassignment. Why did those eighteen-year-old Lower East Side baby dykes have to cut their breasts off and become “bois”? What if they changed their minds later? Wasn’t a lifetime of taking hormones going to cause cancer? I had watched commercial reproductive medicine sell women untested, minimally successful technologies in service of what I felt was a culturally pressured “need” to have biologically related offspring. Were the medico-entrepreneurs now profiting from what I saw as a momentary fashion in extreme essentialism, indelibly writing on the body the doctrine that only the flesh makes gender?
Feminism, moreover, still had—has—a long way to go to overturn the power not just of gender itself, but of men. I was unconvinced about the claimed subversive power of what literary critic Judith Halberstam called, in Female Masculinity (1998), “affirmations of different gender taxonomies,” which “begin not by . . . taking up a position against masculine power but by turning a blind eye to conventional masculinities and refusing to engage.” The traits of her gender refuseniks—strong and silent, tall, dark, and handsome—sounded a lot like male masculinity, only applied to nominal women. Gender, like capitalism, is adept at accommodating its discontents without disturbing its dominance.
But as I started reading, and knowing, more and more transpeople, they became less symbolic and more real, less political and more personal. How could I be radical about gender without taking a side on the essentialist-social constructionist battlefront—and without disrespecting my transgender friends and comrades? An answer came from the transgender activist, historian, and feminist Susan Stryker, whose Transgender History (2008) envisions bridges between liberation movements. “A feminism that makes room for transgender people still fights to dismantle the structures that prop up gender as a system of oppression, but it does so without passing moral judgment on people who feel the need to change their birth-assigned gender,” Stryker writes.
Gender identity—our sense of being a man or a woman or something that resists those terms—really is a very idiosyncratic personal matter. . . . We can be curious about why some people are . . . transgendered, and we can propose all kinds of theories or tell lots of interesting stories about how it’s possible to be transgendered, but ultimately we simply need to accept that some minor fraction of the population (perhaps including ourselves) simply is “that way.”
In a recent speech in New York, Stryker proposed a route beyond the decades of cisgender feminists and gay and lesbian activists “tragically misread[ing] transgender politics.” This toxic history can be reread, she said, through what the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein termed “reparation”—the working through of past psychological damage and loss to reconstitute a healthy, whole self. Stryker proposed the movements’ own reparative process, reclaiming the positive potentialities of the past to create an inclusive, loving movement for the liberation of all.
Faludi’s and Shattuck’s works offer the personal corollary to Stryker’s reparative feminist transgender politics. Both women begin with family rupture and unresolved anger, in which gender trouble plays a part. Both carry their mothers’ pain and discover their fathers’ pain, too. Both recognize their own part in past intransigencies. Both forgive and ask forgiveness. And at some point, both stop trying to explain their fathers and start simply to accept them. Asked in an interview what insight she’d gleaned into her father’s early desire to be a girl, Shattuck answered: “I don’t know what makes a person transgender or gay or bi.” What the project taught her is “to cut both of my parents some slack and to love and appreciate Trisha for who she is.” For her part, Faludi never got to know her father entirely, if any daughter ever does. But when Stefánie died in the hospital, the writer felt “oddly comforted” that her father had breathed her last in the women’s ward.
In the Darkroom and From This Day Forward answer Sandy Stone’s call from thirty years ago. Not just exhumations of memory, they are protests against erasure: truly plausible histories that represent the complexities and ambiguities of lived experience—trans, cis, and in between.
September 19, 2016
18 Min read time