How FTMs Hijacked Gay Activism (Part 1)
Gays and transsexuals had a contentious relationship. So why did gays start fighting for "gender identity" protections?
This is a two-part essay. You’re reading Part 1. Part 2 is linked at the bottom.
After universities evicted their gender doctors around 1980 and the Erickson Educational Foundation faded with its founder, the transsexual movement floundered. Then in the early 1990s it came roaring back under new management. Activists were now leading the charge, not doctors, and they were furiously angry at the medical establishment, feminists, the media – and gays.
This is the story of how “transgendered” activists hijacked the gay rights movement. Today in Part 1 I’ll discuss the fraught relationship between trans and gay people. I’ll also introduce you to Jamison Green, an FTM who felt rejected by lesbians. Next week in Part 2 I’ll show you how Green and other FTMs coerced gays into fighting for trans priorities like “gender identity” legislation.
The terms FTM and MTF became mainstream in the 1990s to describe individuals who identified as the opposite sex. I’m using them because they’re clear and concise. I don’t like that they imply the individual changed sex but I trust you, Reader, to see through the ruse.
“Transgendered” in the early 1990s was an “umbrella term” that basically meant gender-nonconforming. Transsexuals, erotic cross-dressers, and short-haired women were all herded together under that word. Beware! Though still de rigueur in 2000, the “-ed” suffix was considered offensive by 2014.
“[Feinberg] had begun transitioning from female to male in the 1980s before deciding to live again as a masculine woman with some surgical body alterations[. She] became one of the chief architects of the new transgender sensibility, as s/he struggled to define and occupy a space on the borders and intersections of conventional gender categories.”
Feinberg and her disciples prattled on endlessly about how transgenderism could be observed throughout history, in all societies. But the truth is — at least in Stryker’s telling — it owed its life to gender doctors. If Feinberg hadn’t found herself in medical limbo then she might have just gone on identifying as butch.
“Transsexual” in the 1970s referred to a special type of person who needed to have transsexual (genital) surgery. By the 90s, it seemed to reflect more of a spectrum. A woman who identified as male and took testosterone was transsexual, and demanding “gender confirmation surgery” might earn her a distinction like “high-intensity transsexual.”
I synthesized that from definitions of “trangendered” offered by 1990s writers linked throughout this week’s post and next. Of course, these figures didn’t all agree with each other, or with themselves over time, or with themselves in the same document …
Not all transgendered people were MTFs or FTMs. Some transgendered people identified as the correct sex. Others had gender identities that today we’d call nonbinary.
“Trans” means anyone who identified as trans-whatever, or some synonym of trans-whatever … really the word means my fingers are tired.
The “transvestites” of the 1970s became “cross-dressers” in the 1990s. I’m not sure that transvestite ever had a stable meaning – some sources used it only to describe men who got off on dressing as women, while others used it for anyone dressed like the opposite sex.
What matters is that cross-dressing men gained status, going from seedy non-transsexuals in the 1970s to paragons of transgenderism in the 1990s. In a 1996 article on transgendered people’s “fight for respect,” for example, The New York Times interviewed a man named Alison who “spends about 80 percent of the time dressed in women's clothes and 20 percent as Al, in men's clothing, showing that 'we don't have to live in gender boxes.'’'
“Gender nonconforming” describes masculine women and feminine men of any era. Unfortunately, I cannot define masculine or feminine.
Transsexual v. Homosexual
In the 1970s and into the 80s, gays and trans people weren’t understood as natural allies. Transsexuals were known for hating gays (two references there). The most established transvestite orgs adamantly declared their heterosexuality. Some lesbians shot down the idea that MTFs were women. Some lesbians viewed FTMs as “self-hating lesbians.” The relationship between cross-dressers and gays in Stonewall-era NYC seemed fraught with conflict, as I discuss below – two rival clans forced to drink together because the same few bars were willing to serve them.
And yet nearly all transsexual women were attracted to women, according to gender doctors, including relatively more credible ones like Ray Blanchard. Historian Joanne Meyerowitz noted that many transsexuals thought they were gay before deciding they didn’t fit in with gays. She told the story of a woman named Tom Michaels who, in Michaels’ words, “joyously discovered the homosexual world” around 1950 but was “quickly disappointed.” Michaels decided that lesbians “were not like me, not at all.” She ultimately sought transsexual surgery.
One theory for Michaels’ despair: she was a man. Another theory: she was rejected by a woman.
Note: I call women “lesbians” if they habitually seek sex with women, regardless of how they self-identify, because sexual orientation is based in biology. You can’t just say you’re not a lesbian because you don’t like the other lesbians. Even if you grow a beard.
You can’t just say you’re not a lesbian because you don’t like the other lesbians.
A 90s Take on the 70s
In Stonewall (1993), historian Martin Duberman dramatized conflicts between 1960s and 70s “street queens” and gays through the personage of Sylvia Rivera.
Born in 1951, Rivera was a man who liked to have sex with men. He experimented with estrogen and transsexual identity when he was young but soon dropped the bit, opting instead to identify as a transvestite or queen. Duberman quoted him saying “I am not a woman! I happen to be one of the boys!” and characterized his identity as “a man with a penis who liked to dress up as a woman.” Nevertheless, Duberman used female pronouns for Rivera throughout the book.
Duberman acknowledged Rivera’s heavy drug use and reputation for violence, and his obnoxious behavior like rolling with a crew that would “go ‘liberate’ an all-gay male or all-lesbian bar.” He quoted Rivera addressing lesbians as “dykes” and “bitches.”
Yet it was an affectionate portrait, crediting Rivera’s dubious recollections and implying that people who shied away from or argued with the “fierce harridan” were jerks. (Duberman himself referred to lesbians as dykes.) Some lesbians within Rivera’s gay activist circles objected to men like him “copying and flaunting some of the worst aspects of female oppression.” Duberman painted these feminists as Karens, even blaming Jean O’Leary for Rivera’s mental health problems: “the angry public confrontation … would lead [Rivera], as an aftermath, to attempt suicide[.]”
Duberman described a comrade, Judy Rathill, who “accepted and respected” Rivera. She “assured” Rivera she was “not a dyke, but a woman.” To me this read like a woman placating a man by rejecting “dyke” identity, and insinuating some lesbians weren’t real women. But Duberman skated past the pathos, noting all the nice things Rathill did for Rivera and nothing else about her.
Nice lesbians cater to degenerate men — I mean, transgendered people.
(Stonewall vet Fred Sargeant recently wrote about Rivera’s mob ties, which “made the gay movement’s attempts to escape the clutches of the mafia more difficult.”)
The Self-Confident Jamison Green
Jamison Green was a technical and medical writer who lived as a lesbian in the Bay Area until transitioning to “male” in the late 1980s, when she was around 40. A straight-identified girlfriend had suggested transition to Green years earlier, but she didn’t take the idea seriously until she saw the FTM Steve Dain on TV:
“I saw Steve Dain. He was handsome, articulate, self-confident, poised. And I thought, ‘That’s me if I’m successful. I could be him.’”
By the way, the “straight-identified girlfriend” character shows up repeatedly in stories about FTMs of this period and earlier. I wonder how many transitions were pushed forward by these supportive, well-adjusted women who had no ulterior motive.
Anyway, Green felt alienated by the lesbian scene. In 1994, she told the New Yorker:
“I was excluded from lesbian events even before I started the transition. I was just too male–not butch but male. I crossed some line somehow, and everyone, the other women, felt that there were things about me, despite my female body, that were just not female.”
What does “too male” mean? I can only think of one context where women describe another woman that way: jokingly, when that woman is acting … self-confident.
In Becoming a Visible Man (2004), Green explained why she was more enlightened than other lesbians:
“I needed to combat the lesbian-feminist doctrine of male evil–that all men are bad–which I knew was wrong because I had always had close friends who were male and had good relationships with my father and brother. I saw that doctrine as hypocritical, too, because many lesbians approved of masculine traits in women, but despised them in men.”
Wait, didn’t Green say to the New Yorker that lesbians rejected her for being masculine? It all fits if you believe that even before her transition they didn’t perceive her as a woman, but as a man.
When Green’s book was published I was 19 and sensitive to charges that lesbians hated men. Where did that smear even come from, I used to wonder. Well, apparently one source was Jamison Green.
In the same memoir (which won the Sylvia Rivera Award), Green described her sexuality:
“[M]y early attraction to girls, stimulated by my experience of myself as different from them, while largely unexpressed, was subsumed within my sense of my body as male[.]”
My early attraction to girls was stimulated by my experience of seeing their breasts. I guess Green’s sexuality fits a more male-typical pattern.
Green wrote that “many transgender kids are, like I was, tempted to take on those homophobic projections [of bullies who perceive them as gay] and identify as gay or lesbian.” In other words, she believed her lesbian identity had never been authentic.
After many relationships with women and some sex with men she found “more like sport,” Green was — as recently as I could find — married to a woman and identifying as “bisexual.”
FTM International (1986)
Meyerowitz pegged the 1980s as the time when:
“the process of transition increasingly occurred in social settings in which individuals watched their friends undergo the shift from butch lesbian to FTM, admired the process, and followed suit.”
In 1986, Louis Sullivan founded a support group for FTMs in San Francisco that would become FTM International. Like Green, she’d been “validated” and “encouraged” to transition by Steve Dain, according to Stryker. (Reading between the lines of Green’s memoir, it sounds like Dain charged a consulting fee to her mentees. But that’s just a hunch.) Sullivan died of AIDS in 1991 – unusually for FTMs of the era, she identified as a gay man – and her friend Green took over the growing organization.
Since its inception, the trans movement had been advanced by elites: media-savvy doctors, the FTM heiress Reed Erickson, the MTF tennis player Renee Richards. Its grassroots organizations tended to fizzle out. In Stryker’s words, these were “small-scale, largely self-financed homegrown resources, which enjoyed a few years of influence and significance before sinking beneath the waves of time[.]”
FTM International wasn’t a powerhouse, either. For the year 1995, for example, it reported bringing in around $7,000 in revenue. But it organized conferences in the 1990s and produced a newsletter. Perhaps most important, it served as a launchpad for Green.
FTMs v. Surgeons
In the 1970s, “transsexuals” were defined as people who demanded and needed genital surgery. That was the litmus test that separated the men from the lesbians.
In the 1990s, many FTMs were leery of phalloplasty. Unlike in the past, when transsexuals lurked in the shadows and let their doctors do the talking, FTMs were now speaking up publicly about why they didn’t want to gouge out a chunk of their thigh and sew it to their crotch. Good for them – but if they weren’t crippled by penis envy, what made their psyches different from lesbians’?
Bewildered Gender Doctors
The 1994 New Yorker piece I quoted above was authored by Amy Bloom, a journalist, fiction writer and therapist. Bloom interviewed gender doctors and FTMs about the genital surgeries on offer: phalloplasty, in which a pseudo-penis was cultivated from skin grafts off another part of the patient’s body, and metoidioplasty, which involved slicing around the exposed part of the clitoris (enlarged by exogenous testosterone) to make it hang out.
Gender doctors rallied behind phalloplasty, the more expensive and elaborate option. Don Laub, a plastic surgeon, described a hypothetical FTM patient (“the husband”) and her wife:
“[M]aybe the wife says, ‘We want the metoidioplasty.’ And the husband says, ‘We do? I don’t think so, honey. I want the phalloplasty’ And that relationship is in trouble. Because, for the most part–again, if money is no object and this is a younger man–he wants a penis. Men want penises.”
Laub noted that without phalloplasty, the couple couldn’t have penile intercourse. (They couldn’t have that with phalloplasty, either, unless they employed “external devices.”) He disparaged metoidioplasty for producing “penises” that looked like they belonged to small boys.
“I don’t really understand why they have this surgery,” said his associate (a female gender doctor) about metoidioplasty. “I mean, if you’re going to have a penis …”
Laub’s sulky take on post-metoidioplasty sex between women:
“It’s only about an inch and a half, maybe two inches. So they can go on having the kind of sex they had before. Dildos, whatever.”
Sorry to be pedantic at a moment that really calls for a joke, but many lesbians aren’t interested in simulating man-woman sex and don’t own any strap-ons.
Bloom called out a fascinating disconnect between FTMs and the medical establishment:
“Many of the [trans] men I interviewed preferred metoidioplasties but never for the reasons offered in the literature or by the surgeons. The gender professionals say that patients choose metoidioplasties because they’re older and don’t want to go through the more complicated surgery, because they have other medical conditions, which contraindicate surgery, or because they were lesbians before transition and their partners don’t like the idea of sex with a man. But every transsexual man I spoke to who chose metoidioplasty said, in essence, ‘I don’t need a big, expensive penis; this little one does just fine, and I can use the money to enhance my life.’ It was like interviewing a bunch of proud and content but slightly bewildered Volkswagen owners and, across town, some slightly miffed and equally bewildered Mercedes dealers.”
Notice how Bloom privileged patients’ perspectives over doctors’ and identified a greedy impulse in medical practice. This marked a break from the journalism of the 1970s, which let gender doctors control the narrative.
The characterization of FTMs’ girlfriends (“their partners don’t like the idea of sex with a man”) seems off-base. These women were faced with the proposition of squashing inert fleshwads into their vaginas. A man-loving straight woman wouldn’t swoon for this either.
Jamison Green challenged the premise of phalloplasty in a 1996 FTM newsletter:
“In operating rooms across the country, trans-identified men continue to happily sacrifice their bellies, forearms, thighs, and whatever tissue and tendons are left, in pursuit of the Magic Phallus, and there are more than a few of them on crutches for life as the result of such operations. Many more bear hideous scars on large sections of their bodies in exchange for a tube of skin that hangs ineffectually, forever dangling, a mocking reminder that they cannot ‘get it up.’”
Interestingly, Green’s surgeon was Laub.
Reductio ad Absurdum
In 1997, Bet Power, the leader of an East Coast FTM org, alleged that her friends were boxing her out of a speaking slot at their upcoming FTM conference in Boston. Power was a woman who identified as a man – and before that, as a lesbian – but had never taken testosterone or sought surgery to appear more masculine. She called herself “transnatural.”
Power fired off a missive to her distro list of FTMs:
“Who is benefiting more from this conference – the medical providers or all FTMs? Only two FTMs are in fact scheduled to be key speakers, both of them in the medical process. The remaining conference speakers are medical providers.”
Power was begging to present at the Boston conference on “reclaiming our own from lesbian literature and history.” While it’s not clear what she wanted to be, I think I know what she didn’t want to be: a lesbian.
Part 2 of this essay is available here.
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