I had drinks with my butch mentor last night. I came out to her as trans and told her about my plans to start testosterone, and she was not pleased. This was my first encounter, really, with a lesbian who felt saddened and betrayed by my transition. I usually have a healthy suspicion of lesbians and make sure to ascertain that we are on the same page about trans liberation before I open up to them. But with this mentor, my desire for an older Daddy figure (our relation never did become sexualized) overrode the fact that she is a hardcore man-hating Marxist lesbian feminist (self-described). What can I say? I’m a sucker for queer Daddies. There is much to recommend her — she is handsome, smart, and challenging, and she interacts with me in the mode of joking and teasing. Temperamentally, we are extremely compatible. She’s also an irrepressible fount of fatherly concern and advice, some of which has actually proved invaluable in my life. Psychoanalyze me if you must; I have distant relations with my birth family and an unquenchable thirst for queer Daddies and mentors.
She is an informal adviser to a lot of grad students in academia, but our relation is qualitatively different. Maybe it’s the overt acknowledgment of the Daddy / Kiddo roles (names we only half-jokingly call each other), maybe it’s the erotic undertones (which I, as a faggot, am perhaps the only one to sense), maybe it’s the butch mentorship (which she is more invested in). I do feel a sort of transmasculine camaraderie with her, but I have also always felt that our genders and sexualities were SO different. She, on the other hand, persisted in seeing me as a young butch no matter how often I would give her hints to the contrary (she also has premature Alzheimer’s, which makes it easy for her to forget things that don’t fit her frame of reference). Last night, she brought me, as an offering, a cowboy shirt in a small men’s size that she had thrifted – a sort of hopeful symbol of butch continuity.
Coming out was bittersweet. She was OK as long as she thought that I wanted to be male-identified in a female body, even though she didn’t really get it. But she was taken aback when I told her that I wanted to start T. “Where does mourning come in to this?” she asked after two beers. “What is there to mourn?” I returned. It came out that it was the camaraderie of struggling through masculine-identifications in female bodies. “You’re just going to become some guy,” she said, the word “guy” dripping with disappointment and disdain. “The incongruence is more interesting to me” (of genders and bodies that don’t match up).
I found this sweet, primarily because I have a deep affection for her, and we never talk about how we feel about each other; the rule of our interactions is that every nice comment has to be ensconced in a teasing or sarcastic barb. She obviously identifies with me enough to have to mourn the loss of that identification, and that is touching to me. It’s just that, for me, transmasculine camaraderie exceeds the divides of different sorts of bodies, whereas for her, it doesn’t. As the conversation continued, we managed to suss out how deep historical changes in queer cultures subtended our feelings about with whom it was and wasn’t possible to enter into camaraderie.
The first history lesson was that of the total divide between gay and lesbian communities when she was coming out in the seventies. As I tried to communicate to her my sense of being similar to gay men and being attracted to them, she pointed out that this kind of identification was never a possibility for her. She grew up as a queer tomboy surrounded by gay men who ignored her entirely in favor of her cute, straight brother. There was no queer recognition across the sexes in the decades before the eighties. In the gay male community, women were utterly irrelevant, there was a near-complete ignorance of feminism, and, according to my mentor, every bad -ism was in full force. Lesbian feminism, though it had its problems, could at least boast of a political consciousness and a social-structural analysis.
AIDS was what changed all this, bringing gay men and lesbians together in though activism and queer politics, and creating the possibility for cross-gender identifications and solidarities around a shared queerness. As Women’s Studies programs became more established in universities, the eighties also produced a new generation of gay men nourished on academic feminism. This is the world that I was born into, in which gay men were friends, allies, mentors, objects of identification and desire. It was a profoundly different world than my mentor’s.
Then, in the nineties, trans liberation, the most sudden social movement to ever take flight, asked people to alter their understanding of a fundamental aspect of personhood – someone’s sex. (My mentor was clearly still rattled by the trans wave). For me, one of this movement’s most interesting effects has been a fundamental transformation in queer culture. From the divided separate spheres of gay men and lesbians in the seventies, to the political solidarity of gays and lesbians in the eighties, trans has, in some spaces, led to a porosity between identity categories and a shifting of the shape of queer culture itself. As former butches become trans men, some of whom date queer women and some of whom date queer men, and as genderqueers refuse to settle for female or male, queer sexualities, genders, and communities are entering into a state of flux. The result is the existence of queer spaces like the one in which I found myself in New York city, in which the presence of queer cis women, genderqueers, queens, trans men, and cis fags make most people’s sex/gender/sexuality a matter of mere speculation. Trans or cis, he or she, attracted to men, women, or some other category of person? For most people there, at least one of these questions could not be answered with any degree of certainty. This, I feel strongly, is my community, the one where I feel the most welcome and recognized. By contrast, the gender exclusivity of womyn-only spaces feels creepy to me. When someone like my mentor reminds me of the history of that exclusivity, I understand it better, but this doesn’t make me feel any more welcome.
Another characteristic of this transformed queer culture is that, though there remain tensions and conflicts between butch females and trans males, there is also the possibility of friendship and social interaction between them. I know of some pretty tight butch female / trans male friends, as well as of friendship groups that include both butches and trans guys. So for me, transitioning doesn’t impact my sense of camaraderie with my butch Daddy or mean that I am separating myself from her. If she sees it as a loss and a betrayal, it is partly because she is a man-hater, and partly because of her generation’s limited interactions with trans men. From our conversation, I get the sense that the trans men in her generation that she knows are straight or even married, not, queer folks with whom she feels camaraderie. She has no concept of the existence of a community of trans men who are queer, strongly politically-identified, and in solidarity with other queers of various genders.
The most obvious difference, of course, is that whereas before, transitioning was a last resort for the desperate, it is now an option for anybody who cross-identifies. As she put it, “Lots of people had dysphoria, but if you could suck it up, you sucked it up. You didn’t transition unless you couldn’t suck it up any more.” I heard in her voice a certain resentment (or was this my own projection?) of those who transitioned whose dysphoria she imagined to be no worse than her own.
For all of the above reasons, had I been in her generation, I would have been a completely different type of person, and would likely not have transitioned. And, as she put it, “I don’t know what I would do if I were part of your generation.” This is not just because medical technologies are more available now. The restructuring of queer culture has enabled types of affiliations, attractions, and identifications than could never have borne fruit before. For me, this is liberatory. For her, it is sad and unnerving. She fears and mourns the loss of young “butches” like me, the “end” of the butch narrative and of butch gender variance in general, and, most of all, young queer women’s disaffiliation with the term “lesbian.” Lesbian feminism, after all, was her movement. It was her political passion, her intellectual analytic, and her deep “tribal” affiliation. It is surely sad to experience the evacuation and supercession of one’s movement within one’s own lifetime. I would be similarly saddened if trans liberation lost steam and became outdated twenty years from now, or if the mixed queer community I love transformed into something unrecognizable that no longer included me.
It was productive to recognize how broad social transformations had both made my transition possible and scripted my mentor’s disappointment. Interestingly, talking to her gave me a new sense of pride in my current gender incoherence, making me wonder if I should stop my transition at some midpoint when I am plausible, but not seamlessly intelligible as a gay man. But it also saddened me deeply. It was the most intimate conversation we have ever had. It made me sentimentally aware of both her care for me and my own gaping hunger for parenting. But she also let me know that she felt betrayed, and thought that she would have to mourn our camaraderie. This is not an intimacy that I was trying to distance myself from or that I am willing to let go of. I am determined to maintain this odd mentorship of ours, across generations and identities. I want to show her that our camaraderie need not end when I begin transitioning, that she can be a butch Daddy to a gay trans guy, and that, unbeknownst to her, that is what she always was anyhow.