February 28th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Tiresias Wrecks

Saturday afternoon at our town's small local adult-oriented science fiction fannish "relaxa-con," in the quiet of the afternoon with hardly anybody else in the main Hospitality Suite, I was sitting there soaking up free caffeine, resting a bit after too little sleep, and reading a book that I'd eagerly bought since seeing the author interviewed by Keith Olbermann. When I got to chapter 4, I turned to the two or three people sitting next to me and said, "Oh, you've got to hear this. Mind if I read you a couple of pages?" I gave them the capsule background to that point, and then read about five, maybe six pages from the beginning of the chapter. They urged me to keep going. When all was said and done, which is to say by the time the crowd would let me stop, the Hospitality Suite was packed to near capacity with people who had been sitting or standing there listening to me read for anywhere from two to three and a half straight hours. What the heck held the attention of that many science fiction fans, from a wide variety of backgrounds, with a variety of other activities going on? Norah Vincent, Self-Made Man, chapter 4: "Love."

Norah Vincent explains that she has always been a very masculine woman, not merely tomboyish but freakishly masculine. In addition to being a lesbian, she is so deep into the "butch" spectrum as to come perilously close to what used to insultingly be called a "bull dyke." One of the great frustrations of her life was that while men treated her like a lesbian, both gay and straight women treated her almost like a man. Then, after a couple of costume-partyish experiments with masculine drag, she became obsessed with the idea of spending a long time "passing" as a man. Her thought was to spend several months body sculpting via diet and workouts, taking voice and acting lessons, perfecting makeup good enough to pass even under prolonged exposure in broad daylight, and constructing a masculine version of her resumé and wardrobe; almost everything that would have been involved in gender reassignment except the hormones (which, as a masculine lesbian, she doubtless thought she didn't need) and of course the surgery itself. Having done this, she planned to live for anywhere from six months to two years (it ended up being about a year and a half) in her new role, and in particular, spending as much time in male-only and primarily-male environments as possible, and then write a book about what she'd learned.

In addition to being great material for a book, she thought it would be a wonderful experience to be finally given the respect, the power, the authority, and the opportunities that had been denied to her for her whole life. (For example, she thought it would be great fun to finally be able to ask out good looking heterosexual women without being considered creepy for doing so. No, really, she actually thought this.) Instead, a year and a half as a man put her in a mental hospital. She was well familiar with gender studies, and knew what men said about how hard it is to inhabit a masculine role, what prices in health and sanity we pay for the things she perceives as privileges. She felt comfortable that since it was obviously worth it, or society wouldn't preserve those privileges at that cost, she wouldn't have any problem paying that cost either. Besides, as an extremely masculine lesbian, she felt like she was the next best thing to a heterosexual man to start with, so how different could it be? But she was reminded at the very beginning about the old classic Shel Silverstein/Johnny Cash song about fathers knowing they must toughen their sons up if those sons are to survive, "A Boy Named Sue," and failed to process the importance of this. As tomboyish as her upbringing was, she had not spent 35 years being toughened up. Thus under-prepared for the specific pressures and pains of her new life, and loaded down with free-floating guilt from living a lie and stress from the effort of maintaining the deception, at the end of the experiment she disintegrated into near suicide. It's a gripping read.

The experiment, as it evolved from her plan, took her through men's-only life in only-barely overlapping stages. The easiest male-only venue for her to infiltrate was a men's-only bowling league, where she learned that virtually everything she thought she knew about white, working class, heterosexual men was not merely wrong, but humiliatingly wrong; she learned a little bit of contempt for her own native liberal, educated, upper middle class and privileged, artistic and literary, freethinking and/or bisexual and/or gay and lesbian New York City subculture, which in many important ways just couldn't measure up to these ordinary guys. A couple of these guys, before and even after she came out to them, indulged her curiosity about what it's like to visit the seediest, most "high mileage" strip clubs as a man in the company of men; it brought her some insights, but sickened her to the core. (No shock; the seediest places have the power to sicken me, and I like strip clubs, both as a security employee and as a customer.)

After a little while of that, she she almost certainly moved across the country, since there are discontinuities in who she was hanging out with, and began the next phase of her experiment by meeting heterosexual women over the Internet and through a speed-dating service, asking them out on dates, and eventually getting herself into a romantic relationship that had bright red disaster flags hanging over it from the first few minutes of the first date. After that mess, she leveraged her memories of a Catholic childhood to help her survive a three week retreat in a Catholic monastery; by now, personality disintegration was beginning to set in, which is why her presence there even as a man nearly wrecked the place, even while teaching her (and them) a lot. After the monastery, she moved again, and took up a brief stint in a high-pressure door-to-door sales job in the most male chauvinist firm she could find. Finally, noticing her own growing distress and deciding to bring the experiment to a close, she moved yet again and infiltrated the Men's Movement, and it was her (unfairly prejudiced, as she admits in hindsight) terror of what those men would do to her if they caught her out that was the straw that broke the camel's back. The book then wraps up with her description of what it took to recover, and what she learned about herself and about gender from the breakdown and recovery.

Now, here's the thing: for all of what it cost her, I consider her experiment to have been a raging, almost unqualified success. No, she didn't discover much of anything that hadn't already been written or said elsewhere, in feminist gender studies literature, classic literature and mythology, psychology texts, and/or the writings of the men's movement. But the quality of her anecdotes, both the experiences and her descriptions of them, bring badly needed new clarity to the existing body of widely-scattered and poorly explained insights into this old, old subject.

Periodically, I review books that I really liked and say, "You must read this book." Not this time. This time I'm going to go farther than that, and phrase it as close to a command as I can get away with. You absolutely must buy this book, if at all possible. If you are a North American, European, or Latin American man, woman or person of indeterminate gender, and you are pre-pubescent or older, and you can read written English, then not only is it absolutely essential that you learn what's in this book, that you equip yourself with her stories and the process by which she came to her insights, but you will agree with me afterwards that you have a half dozen, a dozen, maybe more friends who can't afford this book and must read it as soon as possible. You're going to be loaning this one out as fast as possible, in descending order of reading speed, trust me. I may have to pick up an extra 2 to 5 copies myself, just for lending. It's that important, and that good.