Body Vs. Soul

This branch of the rainbow family includes women rebuilt as men, gals who were born guys (some of them lesbians in male bodies), cross-dressers, drag queens, and some folks who say gender no longer means much

Today, instead of insisting that someone be in one of only two roles, it's considered more important that they live comfortably, even if they end up somewhere in between. Of the PHS's clients, two-thirds opt for hormones, Bockting says. Only one in five opt for sex reassignment surgery.

Interestingly, he notes, far fewer FTMs opt for genital surgery. That's in part because of the size of the population (he estimates that there are three times as many MTFs as FTMs) and because the surgery itself is more invasive and more experimental, with less reliable results both aesthetically and functionally. It's also more expensive, with figures ranging from $40,000 to $70,000.

For now, at least, the fact remains that there are limits to what surgery can do. Both MTFs and FTMs need to live through something like a second puberty. They need to get to know their bodies all over again. They need to learn to act like men and women--and to assume society's roles for them. And if they succeed at that, they often discover a need to connect to a community of people who have shared the experience.

"We can only do so much in terms of physically changing someone," Bockting explains. "They need to accept and grieve the fact that they can't be born again in this lifetime."

 

The pronouns are extremely important. "She's a transsexual. She lives full time. He's a drag queen." Morgan O'Sullivan pauses for a moment, then explains. "The reason I say he," she says, nodding toward a petite man wearing heavy pancake makeup and a silky robe, "is because [I think] he identifies as a gay man."

O'Sullivan is standing in the upstairs lounge of the Gay 90's, a downtown Minneapolis bar. It's late Friday night and the lounge, smoky and hot, is packed with people who've come to watch the drag show. Many of them have spilled over from the Pride block party a few streets away. O'Sullivan shouts over the loudspeakers, which are disgorging the booming, crowd-pleasing strains of ABBA and Dolly Parton. She knows all about each of the performers. You see, before, she was Morgan Taylor, drag queen.

Some of these performers are drag queens, too. For the most part, that means they are gay men who dress ostentatiously in women's costumes for show. But some are transsexuals, born into one gender (male, in this case) but feeling like they belong to the other (female). Some plan to alter their bodies through hormones and possibly surgery. Some "live full time," which means they live completely as the opposite gender, though they may not undergo hormone therapy or surgery. There are nuances to the distinctions, but they all fall under the umbrella term transgender.

Morgan O'Sullivan is a striking woman. She's 36, 5-foot-11, with a pile of auburn curls atop her head, smooth skin, light eyes, and a voice that's both soft and sandpapery. She walks--or, more accurately, struts--with confidence. She had her breasts augmented last September and they are, as she puts it, "quite large": 44 DD. "But they don't look that large," she insists. "I'm big-framed."

If pressed, she will admit that she still has her penis. But she hates to be asked.

"That's always the first question," she complains. "Do you still have your penis? Are your breasts real? They're such personal questions. You wouldn't ask a genetic person."

Though she does plan on eventually having sex reassignment surgery, she's not in a rush. "Who knows where I'll be in five years? I know I won't be a man in five years. I might have a vagina. I might not. No one's going to know if I have it or not," she insists, wondering aloud why people are so fixated on it. Then, offering a coquettish little mind game: "How do you know I don't?"

In a world so eager to define gender based on anatomy, is there really any room for a place in between? And, more important, how do you get past the labels, and start focusing on the person?

O'Sullivan started the transition from male to female four years ago. It's been complicated, expensive, and painful. She's spent about $20,000 so far on laser treatments, electrolysis, hair extensions, and those breasts. Later this month she plans to have surgery to lift her brow and lower her forehead. If she wants to have the sex reassignment surgery, it will probably cost $10,000 to $15,000.

All of which is why O'Sullivan is amazed when people act as though she somehow opted to be the way she is. "Do you really think I'd choose to go this way?" she asks flatly. "It's not fun. I wish I had been born a female. It would have been a lot less painful."

And a lot less lonely. "I'd love to be in a relationship right now," she says. "Am I ever going to meet anyone?" True, that's a familiar refrain to most single people, male or female, gay, straight, or bisexual. But for transgendered people, dating and relationships are even more difficult.

She herself is drawn to masculine, heterosexual men. "Even if I did have the surgery, I'd have a vagina, but I'd always have that thrown back at me: You were born a man," O'Sullivan laments. "I wish I were attracted to women. It would be easier. Gay men aren't attracted to me. Why would they want to be with me?"

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