Alison Bechdel—namesake of the famous Bechdel Test— is one of the most well-known lesbians in the world. But if the option had been open to her when she was young, she recently said, she might have been transgender instead.
"I would've just gone down that road if it had been there," the cartoonist told the New York Times in an interview this weekend. "But I'm so glad it wasn't." Here's the exchange:
Q: In “Fun Home,” you wrote about becoming a connoisseur of masculinity at a young age. Today a young person like you would be more likely to identify as transgender than gay. Is the butch lesbian endangered? A: I think the way I first understood my lesbianism, before I had more of a political awareness of it, was like: Oh, I’m a man trapped in a female body. I would’ve just gone down that road if it had been there. But I’m so glad it wasn’t, because I really like being this kind of unusual woman. I like making this new space in the world.
Q: Among lesbians of a certain generation, there’s an ambivalence about the emergence of the transgender identity. A: I’m not totally tapped into that world, but I feel like people are more open to the genderqueer identity — they’re trans, but they’re not necessarily having surgery. There’s less of this binary pull, I think.
This raises some questions. If the "road" to transition is more open than it was before—and seen and talked about more often—how does that affect people with more in-between gender identities? Is there really “an ambivalence” among older lesbians about the transgender identity? What about the next generation?
Meredith Ramirez Talusan, a writer and artist, discussed these issues with Alex Myers, a novelist and professor of English. What follows is an email exchange between the two, edited for clarity and length.
First of all, just to provide a little bit of background for people. The two of us were both undergraduates at Harvard in the late 90s. Alex was already trans-identified at that point. I identified as a gay man until 2002, though I was gender-nonconforming in college and incorporated women’s clothes into my wardrobe all throughout. I was careful though to still be identifiable as a man, and only dressed in ways that might identify me as female at parties and clubs.
Because each trans person has a different experience, I’m sure the answer to this question is highly individual, but it’s still worthwhile to talk about social trends because trans people, like any other group, are influenced by larger cultural forces and the prevailing politics. And I think the answer to the question of whether it’s easier to transition now than in the past is complicated, because gender is deeply and weirdly complicated.
In terms of what is the most commonly-recognized experience of being a trans woman—experiencing gender dysphoria and wanting to be have a female body and identity from early childhood—I imagine that it’s easier to transition now for most people. There are many more resources now than when I transitioned, and the fact that trans has so much more visibility in the media means that in general, trans people are more aware and have more role models compared to when I was coming of age.
Bechdel’s interviewer observed an “ambivalence” among older lesbians “about the emergence of the transgender identity." I myself have encountered a number of older trans women a generation prior to mine, in their late 40s and 50s, who feel like the increased visibility makes it harder just to disappear into womanhood, which is a particular type of model of being trans. They feel like once they transition, they should just be seen as women like all women, and their trans identity should cease to be an issue. Some advocates see this as politically limiting, but the term “woman of transgender experience” has been coined precisely to allow women who feel this way to still identify themselves as part of the trans umbrella. On the other hand, I definitely know trans women who just want all the advocacy to go away, because it potentially calls attention to their trans status and they’ve experienced a lot of trauma around that, so they don’t want to recall it, they just want to disappear into womanhood.
I feel like I caught the tail end of that model when I transitioned. At a certain point, I decided to experiment with dressing in explicitly female clothes and found being perceived as a woman really freeing, because I was allowed to express significant parts of myself that I suppressed when I identified as a man. At the same time, I wasn’t deeply alienated from my body the way a lot of trans people I know describe their experience. For me it was more like life as a man was okay but I didn’t know what I was missing until I explicitly identified as a woman.
But once I was in the period of dressing in women’s clothes and wearing makeup a lot, it became really difficult to be in this in-between state where I was doing that but identifying as male, or even risking being perceived that way by other people. I’ve always “passed” as a cisgender women to some extent when I wanted to, even before I transitioned, but having a totally flat chest and angular features still gave me away periodically, and I had really really scary experiences of being groped pre-bottom surgery that I don’t care to recall, but needless to say there were a lot of safety issues with being female-identified and having my pre-medical transition body. And circa 2002, the message in all the trans circles I moved around in was that if you’re guaranteed to pass post-hormones and bottom surgery (and I was judged to be one of those people) then you should transition and be “stealth,” as in try to forget the fact that you’re trans. These messages definitely influenced my decision to transition, and also to not reveal my trans status except to intimate partners and close friends for many years.
Though I feel like if I were coming of age now, I would be less likely to medically transition just because there’s a broader range of gender identities available, from agender identities, to genderqueer trans femmes, or even femme-identified gay men. “There’s less of this binary pull,” as Bechdel said. I feel like if I were exploring my trans identity now, I would be more likely to express myself in more overtly feminine ways and identify as genderqueer, which I do now, but I feel like because I’m more comfortable in my female body post-medical transition, my genderqueer identity is less prominent than it would have been had I not transitioned medically in the first place, or transitioned to the extent I have.
What about for folks on the other end of the gender spectrum, Alex? What do you think of Alison Bechdel’s comments about how someone in her position growing up now would be more likely to transition?
So fascinating to compare our experiences!
I came out as transgender in 1995, a few days before my 17th birthday. In 1995, transgender was a pretty new term and new concept, and I was considered “very young” to have come out as transgender. Again and again, in those first months of living as a guy, when I went to LGBT groups, the older transgender folks would comment: you’re so young! I wish I’d come out when I was that young. Then they’d usually lapse into one of two tales: the story of why that would have been impossible (what the world had been like when they were 17 and living in Hoboken), or the story of what their life would have been like if they’d come out that young. (My favorite comment from this sort of conversation was a thirtysomething FtM who said, if I’d come out at seventeen and started taking testosterone, I might have grown another inch or more!)
There was one other factor besides my age that was atypical: though I started living as a guy at age 17, I had no physical transition beyond cutting my hair short. I didn’t take testosterone (I started taking T at age 24) and I didn’t have surgery (still haven’t). I didn’t even bind my chest or stuff my crotch. I also, for the record, didn’t have to buy any new clothes.
In short, I stayed very much who and how I was—I simply had shorter hair and a new name (Alex instead of Alice) and new pronouns. I stayed where I was, too, and that was also different from the older generation of trans-folk: many of them had needed to leave home or the communities where they lived in order to become who they were. I got to remain who I was, where I was.
On the other hand, there was one way in which I was typical for FtMs. Prior to identifying as transgender, I had been out as a lesbian. I came out in ninth grade, the year that went away to boarding school.
I had grown up in rural Maine, and I had been a resolute tomboy (so were many of my classmates and, for that matter, many of their mothers; when I brought a lesbian friend of mine home once over a long weekend, we drove through town and she was agog at all the women in flannel shirts, jeans, and workboots: are they all lesbians? She asked. No, they’re Mainers, I told her). I was a tough little kid, and also a bookworm and a nerd, and I had known (and articulated) since the age of four (I have a distinct memory involved The Dukes of Hazard)that I either was a boy or wanted to be a boy or someday would be a boy. I just couldn’t figure out how to do it.
The logic of my coming out as a lesbian worked something like this. I knew I was attracted to girls, not boys. I knew that I wasn’t like other girls – I didn’t share the same interests. I knew two lesbians: one was a teacher at the school and the other was a former camp counselor of mine (a music camp. Where else?). Both of them were quite butch. The equation in my head worked something like this: if you look like a boy, you probably want to be a boy, and the closest that a girl can get to being a boy is being a lesbian.
It took two years and two things to demonstrate that I was not, in fact, a lesbian. The first thing was meeting other lesbians and discovering that, gasp!, not all of them wanted to be boys or even boy-like. The second thing was meeting transgender people. That was the light-bulb moment; it was the instant at which I said: oh, that’s how you do it. You can be born a girl and then live as a boy. Done. I came out the day after I met my first transgender person.
In the years since I have come out, I have worked as an educator and advocate for transgender rights. I have spoken at dozens and dozens of schools. Each year, I am asked to speak to younger students. Each year, I am introduced to younger and younger students who are out as transgender. When I started my work, I spoke exclusively to high schools and colleges. This year, I have spoken to lots of third and fourth grade classes and done trainings for Pre-K-second grade teachers. I have met out trans students who are 6, 7, or 8 years old. When I meet with them (and often with their parents as well) the crucial factor that seems to have allowed the child to come out is awareness.
I don’t mean the child’s awareness. I mean the parents' awareness.
As a child, I was aware of who I was. I said it often enough: I am a boy! Or I want to be a boy! Or I wish I was a boy! It was everyone else: parents, teachers, the world, who said: No, you’re a girl.
Now, the concept of transgender is out there so prominently—and so positively—that when a child says the same things that I did, the parents (in some cases) recognize it as indicating that their child might well be transgender. And that no longer seems like the end of the world.
Over the years, I’ve tried living as a guy and not telling anyone I’m transgender. That never works. Though I pass quite well, I hate the feeling that I’m hiding something. It suggests that I’m ashamed, and I’m not. My wife and I look like a straight couple, and we do the best we can to come out as who we are (transgender and bisexual). But queerness just isn’t necessarily visible.
So between now and my first e-mail I saw “Fun Home” [Bechdel’s graphic memoir, which was adapted as a musical] last night, which was just…. a lot, really moving. You need to see it if you haven't already. I thought of a couple of moments from it when I read your response, especially when you wrote that you didn't change clothes to change gender. That seems to be at least partly a generational shift because a key scene in the show was Alison as a 60s kid being forced to wear a dress.
One of the big differences in American culture between boys and girls is that girls have a lot more flexibility in terms of wardrobe. It's become acceptable for girls to wear jeans and flannels but it's still a taboo for boys to wear dresses, Jaden Smith notwithstanding. That difference in flexibility extends to adulthood, which may partly account for some of the differences between MtF and FtM communities. In the U.S. when I was coming of age, there was an accepted culture of butch dykes but not one for femme gay men, who were generally marginalized and even ridiculed in the gay community. So I didn't really feel like my identity even had a point of contact in gay male culture, especially because I wasn't particularly interested in drag and making my femininity theatrical.
The other moment was when you mentioned that you came out as trans right after you met your first trans man, and the moment when Alison saw her first butch dyke is a key point in the musical. What's funny to me is that you're really the first out trans person I ever met! I mean, I grew up in the Philippines where there's an established third-gender, male-assigned people who are highly effeminate, but you're the first person I met who openly identified as someone living as their felt gender who was assigned a different gender at birth. And even though it wasn't clear to me at the time, interacting with you definitely had an effect because it was around that period that I explicitly questioned my gay identity, and identified that even though my body was coded male, I felt like my internal gender identity was squarely in between. And for years I thought this to myself and wondered what it would be like to transition, but didn't think it was worth the bother since I wasn't miserable being male-assigned. This is of course part of this myth that you have to be in complete duress to transition, which was prevalent during that period, this double-edged sword where on the one hand you have to present yourself as desperately dysphoric for the gatekeepers to view you as a transition candidate, but then they also say you have to be in therapy for years to be allowed to transition because you're so mentally ill.
I recognize that I have passing privilege and that I'm generally perceived as a woman post-transition, but my internal gender identity is closer to the middle of the spectrum. The funny effect of that is how after going through this super-girly phase, my presentation has shifted back toward androgyny over the years. I wear makeup super-rarely for instance, and have worn my hair super-short (though it's only partly shaved right now).
The last thing I want to address in your response is your work with schools and trans kids, which sounds amazing and wonderful. I've been in touch with a number of parents of young, trans or gender-nonconforming kids too. Parental support is obviously super-important, though school and community and societal support is also vital, and one thing I've noticed is how there's this pressure to clearly identify as one gender or the other in the cases I've observed, so the school and community wouldn't find it "confusing."
Like with one of the kids I know, it felt like there's pressure once she decided she's trans to really clearly mark her as female in terms of clothing, etc., like she had to be as girly as possible so as not to be ambiguous. And, I don't know. I guess that perturbs me a bit, as though the way a kid should feel about their gender should be determined by the gender perception of others. I wonder how you feel about that, and whether you've observed this with the kids and schools you work with.
Yes, I agree that women have a larger degree of flexibility in their "gender range" with regard to hair and jewelry and clothing and mannerisms. That certainly makes it much easier for a woman/girl to "play" with gender expression in so many ways without ever making a statement (beyond perhaps being a tomboy, which isn't a pejorative).
To an extent, I think this has to do with our society's patriarchal mindset. It "makes sense" for a girl to want to be a boy: that's a "move up." Therefore, anything that a woman does to be more masculine can be read as a power play rather than as having something to do with gender specifically. That's why, I think, there's a lot more media interest in trans-women. For a boy to want to be a girl makes much less sense; there is a clear loss of status, which makes the transition more mysterious and dramatic. At least I think that's part of it.
For me, this made getting out of being a woman a little stickier. Maybe that's what Bechdel is getting at. There's a lot more room for a girl/woman to maneuver in her gender—you can be pretty butch and still adamantly be a woman. When I came out as transgender, a lot of my lesbian friends had the attitude: you're taking the easier route. I don't deny that I get male privilege, but the real reason that it is easier to be a guy is because that's what I am.
However, to pick up another of your threads, I would say that I have slid back and forth on the gender expression spectrum as well. At first, I wanted to be a man. Period. Maybe not even be out as transgender. I tried that and didn't like it (for a variety of reasons). Now, I try to be as out as a I can be with people who know me, and pass casually as I move through the world otherwise. But I have changed one minor aspect of diction…I try not to refer to myself as a man and prefer instead to say I'm a guy. That's the closest word I can find. Transgender, yes. Queer, absolutely. But "guy" is the gender moniker that feels right for me.
Where do I fall, where do I fit in? I don't know. The state of Maine changed my birth certificate and the federal government changed my passport. I'm "male" on both documents. But, you know, that just doesn't feel entirely right. I have breasts and a uterus and a vagina, and I'm not changing any of that. Clothes on, I look like a guy—I look male. Clothes off, no. For me, this just intensifies my belief in the separation of identity, expression, and biology.
In terms of your last question, the schools and kids I've met run the full gamut. There are several students I've worked with who are young and very gender-fluid: a girl one day and a boy the next. The teachers have learned/been trained to ask for the preferred pronoun and name on a daily basis. There are other places where it is as you say: go from one end to the other. This is actually the area where folks have the most questions when I give my talks (in part, this is likely because I mostly talk at high schools and so they are curious about me at their age). When I came out, I was still in Boarding School, and I returned for my senior year as a guy after three years there as a girl. I followed boys dress code, coat and tie (so one end of the spectrum to the other) but still lived in a girls dorm and still played on girls sports teams. For me, this was comfortable and safe. It was a place where I knew I belonged, where I was established, and I could push against that established identity. If I'd been in a boys dorm, I would have been scrabbling for a handhold.
But on the whole, I find that most (especially older) people are very uncomfortable with the in-between, fluidity and androgyny. They can "deal with" transgender so long as it conforms to the binary. Otherwise, it is confusing. I think that this relates in a larger way to identity, which I view as a process, and about which I reserve the right to change my mind. It isn't problematic for me when a friend who has long identified as a lesbian falls in love with a man and then identifies as bisexual…or what have you. So many identities are mutable and fluid.
Alex Myers is a writer, teacher, and an advocate for transgender rights. His debut novel, Revolutionary, came out from Simon & Schuster in 2014 and is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and two cats. More information is available at alexmyerswriting.com.
Meredith Talusan is a transgender writer, artist, and advocate whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, The American Prospect, VICE Magazine, and Matter among other publications. She can be found on Twitter @1demerith and at aselfmadewoman.com.