Below is my days’ work, an 8 page paper about transgender stuff. I don’t know if you’ll like it, or even think it’s good, but you have to remember I’m just aiming to get a low B on it. So it is what it is.
I spent the afternoon making JellO shots, I’ll post pictures tomorrow (if I can stand the sight of JellO). They’re currently too strong for my delicate sensibilities and I’m going to top them with whipped cream before I eat them.
It’s either the thunder storm that’s brewing or my gorgeous dress, but Cat is being extra snuggly. He’s currently curled up on my legs, listening to traffic outside. He’s nervous about thunderstorms, so I won’t stay out too late tonight and I’ll make sure to leave him some space in my closet to hide. We took a great (but short) nap this afternoon together. We’re finally bonding as far as snuggling in our sleep. Apparently, he feels comfortable around me now. He’s going to mad at me next weekend when I spend Mother’s Day with him at the clinic for the AIDs study.
I have an A- in Statistics going into the optional final. All I need to get a legit A in the class is a 92 on the final, so I’m going to take it on Monday. Great. Finals Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Bummer of semester. How am I going to have time to celebrate my almost graduation?
Cat hates thunderstorms; he might love my dress.
Tonight is my friend Dale’s birthday. I must go make myself presentable. Today I realize that I looked like I was channeling a cracked out Weird Al Yankovic. Or better yet, Mickey Avalon.
Reaffirmation of Heteronormative Spaces through Transgender Lives
Transgender narratives seem to reinforce the heteronormative social structure through the severity with which gender roles are embraced throughout the male to female or female to male transition process. Yet these narratives are also cemented through the creation and maintenance of the “queer spaces” in which many transgendered people live their lives. It is these very queer spaces that can lead to the violent reaction often seen from those not living in those spaces, possibly motivated by the fear of those spaces and the reflection of the normative structures within. Transgender narratives uphold sexual dimorphism and thus subtly reinforce class and gender stereotypes through the behavior and attitudes of the characters as well as the reactions of those around the transgendered character.
Judith Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place defines “queer” as “nonnormative logics and organizations of community, sexual identity, embodiment, and activity in space and time” (Halberstam 6). Arguably, all transgendered people within the narratives examined are living in some form of queer space and time, no matter their class or educational background. This is based on their own conceptions of community, their varied sexual identities and the ways that they perceive normalcy.
Brandon Teena, portrayed by Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, is living in a queer space that is at the same time of his own making and also out of his control. His organization of community is made up of people that he barely knows, yet feels bonded to. He lives and interacts with them, building a community with them.
The film Paris is Burning shows the creation and maintenance of family-style communities called houses. Every house has a position designated as “mother” and one designated “father.” Those two people help the others around them and work to help create a safe space for their “children.”
John, Lana, and the others are unknowingly participating in Brandon’s queer space because they too are part of a non-normative family. Lana and John, because of their distinct feminine and masculine characteristics, neatly mirror the principal mother and father roles of the normative family structure. As Lana begins her relationship with Brandon, John begins to feel threatened by Brandon’s masculinity. As a result of the fear that he feels, he reacts violently to the discovery that Brandon isn’t a biological man. During the bathroom reveal scene, Lana says, “Leave him alone,” and John replies, “Him?” This questioning of Brandon’s gender and sexuality show that John feels as though their brotherhood has been betrayed. Brandon has unintentionally let his queer space overlap with John’s normative space and John is unable to react to the intrusion any way but violently.
Transamerica’s Bree Shupack is a male to female transsexual, but before she can begin her transition she must address the issue of her son. Toby reacts in the typically masculine way once he finds out that Bree is actually a biological male, but unlike John, does not display the violent tendencies. His anger that lacks violence can be attributed to his juvenile status, and the fact that he and Bree are not fighting to share the same position of alpha male within a group. Toby has naturally deferred to Bree regardless of her female presentation.
Jennifer Boylan’s Jenny finds that her sons react without the anger or violence of masculinity, most likely because they are so young. They accept their father as a woman without question. “We need to come up with a better name for you than Daddy, if you’re going be to a girl” (Boylan 158). It’s obvious that the boys understand the masculine gender roles, but it’s also clear that they aren’t an absolute. “How about Maddy? You know, like half Mommy and half Daddy?” (Boylan 159). They are willing to see the transition as a blend of the past and the future and accept it without question. The boys are still young enough to bathe together and their passive acceptance of their father’s desire to be female shows that they have not yet begun to understand the pressures for male dominance that they will find as they mature.
Jennifer Boylan’s character Jenny in her memoir She’s Not There deals with normative fear as well, but on a different level. “Now, there used to be a James Boylan on campus….Are you his wife?” asks a former student, to which Jenny replies “He’s gone now” (Boylan 18). She repeats “He’s gone now,” speaking of her male identity in a dream. Jenny’s writing of her former identity as “gone” serves as a way to alienate her male identity and cement her as female in the minds of her readers. Her narrative is structured through an almost fictional viewpoint, incorporating elements of magical realism as a way to self-edit her experiences. The self-editing can be read as a way of normalizing her transition to show it as a smooth, positive experience rather than a painful one. Richard Russo’s afterword says “Jenny’s operation seemed almost an anticlimax. For her it was a natural conclusion, a resolution, really” (Boylan 289). Even though Jenny has found acceptance, her queer space comes from her inability to write without striving to maintain her normative space.
She unintentionally upholds the upper middle class dynamics and expectations of behavior and thought through her transgender narrative, making it less about her transition and more about the reactions that she expects or doesn’t expect from her transition. “Wouldn’t it be better, after all,” she asks, “to be like the couple we saw on our honeymoon, the husband who couldn’t’ talk and the wife who couldn’t hear?” (Boylan 109). To age as an older heterosexual couple would be the ultimate reinforcement of social norms, and Jenny is about to break with that, yet still attempt to maintain the relationship that she had constructed as a male.
Boylan writes Jenny through memories that seem to conflict the ease of her transition and her expectations. “In the long run, a transsexual who hopes to build a life around high heels and sponge cake is in for something of a disappointment” (Boylan 247). But just a page previous, Jenny says “For me the party was just beginning….I wore makeup on Sundays. I wore skirts when most other mothers were wearing yesterday’s blue jeans…Other women, especially Grace, looked on all this activity with annoyance, and who could blame them, or her?” (Boylan 246). Boylan’s understanding of the viewpoints of the people around her who are reading her narrative is explicit here. She explains her reasons for censoring herself and the narrative about her experience of transitioning, yet she sensationalizes the transition and delights in being able to tell about the feminine activities she engaged in.
Boylan exaggerates the feminine characters that she feels will help her pass as a woman. Her description of going outside in a skirt is somewhat dramatic, even for a partially fictionalized narrative: “The world felt raw and intimidating; the cold wind howled on my bare legs” (Boylan 70). While the vulnerability that is symptomatic of the female identity does indeed exist, the belief that a man who most likely wore shorts and walked through dark alleys for many years would be so overwhelmed by the thought of walking in a skirt that he’d nearly “perish from fear” (Boylan 70) is fairly extreme.
“…for example, he implies repeatedly that gender variance is an anachronistic marker of same-sex desire. Altman writes, ‘I remain unsure why just ‘drag’ and its female equivalents, remains a strong part of the contemporary homosexual world, even where there is increasing space for open homosexuality and a range of acceptable ways of ‘being’ male of female’ (91)” (Halberstam 37). Both Boylan and Bree Shupack contradict this statement with their over-portrayal of feminine characteristics in order to pass as female in society. Frye’s concept of drag as applicable to a heterosexual relationship also reinforces the notions that there is only one certain way to “be” male or female in a public setting, something that the transgender characters reinforce to the extreme. Coming from the opposite side, they see only one way to present, and that is by incorporating the characteristics that they see as either feminine and masculine and embodying them entirely. In Transamerica, Bree asks that Toby not refer to her as “dude,” something that wouldn’t normally bother most women, but bothers Bree because it makes her acutely more aware of her own status as a biological male.
Jenny assumes that all women drink Diet Coke, and since she does, too, that makes her a woman. “It would be my first official reintroduction to the college community since I’d switch from regular to Diet Coke” (Boylan 9). Her assumption shows that even though she has transitioned from male to female, she still believes that the outward “sex markers” make her feminine and relies on those as a way to communicate her identity. The feminine presentation reinforces stereotypes about women rather than recreating the feminine identity.
John unknowingly upholds the masculine stereotypes and expectations through his violent reactions to various situations in Boys Don’t Cry. After his daughter accidentally urinates on him, his reaction, rather than being one of comfort toward her, is of flight. Rather than trying to fully understand her situation, he selfishly leaves her feeling humiliated and unsure of himself in order to reassert his dominant masculinity after he feels that his normative space has been threatened. His protectiveness of his space will prove fatal to Brandon at the end of the film.
Brandon, as the only female to male transgendered narrative studied, does not constantly sustain and uphold the masculine qualities so expected of him, but his reluctance to do so leads to his death. In displaying qualities such as sensitivity, Brandon exposes himself as not being truly sexed male, although he is identifying as and living as one. His queer space, and the outright performance of his masculinity, is threatening to John and the others. Halberstam writes, “Sometimes the feminine character will be a man and the narrative will compel him to either become a male hero or self-destruct” (Halberstam 85). While Brandon Teena is not the feminine character, the female body still exists, creating an inescapable link between his existing identity and the one that he’s presenting, which can be read as a castrated male in order to explain his feelings as a male without having the biological characteristics, including a penis.
John’s masculinity is characterized in Masculinities as one who will “live fast/die young.” This type of masculinity is characterized as having run-ins with the law (which can be viewed in the scene where Brandon is driving and is pulled over for speeding, something John has encouraged, yet gets angry at him for doing), sparse employment history, use of drugs and alcohol, and the benefits of male dominance. John benefits from his dominance over Lana because he is able to control her actions, even as she resists. Her typically feminine submissiveness allows him to assert his dominance over her.
The lower class status that Brandon, John and Lana fall into forces them to use their gender roles to define themselves and express their power because they do not have any other means of asserting their power. Whereas Jenny Boylan can rely on her academic career, which involves publishing, speaking and teaching, none of the characters in Boys Don’t Cry are able to strive toward anything outside of their immediate financial survival. None of them have steady jobs and seem to live in a space that involves substance abuse and a generally transient lifestyle, furthering their isolation from the middle and upper classes and cementing their need to use physical strength as a source of gender role identification.
Jenny Boylan is able to rely on her class status as a buffer from the violent reactions to her transition, although in doing so, she maintains the lifestyle that she led before her change. Lucky to have kept her wife, Boylan maintains the heteronormative life she led before her transition, albeit she now does so as a woman. Boylan’s queer space shares space with her class status and is affected because of it.
The character of Bree Shupack in the film Transamerica, while more stably employed than Brandon Teena’s character, walks the middle line between lower class and middle class. She washes dishes at a Mexican restaurant and also does telephone sales in order to make ends meet and to pay for her surgeries. She shares the ability to pay for physical changes and to have sexual reassignment surgery with Jenny Boylan, something that Brandon Teena is either uninterested in and/or unable to do.
The transgender narratives show the characters as living in or coming into contact with “queer spaces” in their lives. These queer spaces, while at the same time removed from the normative structures, also mirror the same structures that they are not. Family structures are maintained and reinforced in the queer spaces, just as femininity and masculinity are taken to the extreme by the transgender characters attempting to create a sense of normalcy in their lives. The transgender characters all uphold sexual dimorphism because of their attempts to completely transition from one biological sex to the other through outward appearance and presentation. Rather than removing themselves from the normative spaces by entering their queer spaces, transgender narratives show that the queer spaces in fact mirror the normative spaces in structure.