Woman Disputed

Bette Davis

BETTE DAVIS

The Gender Monologues
Woman Disputed
A Gay Pride Month Feature

In the years immediately following the Stonewall Rebellion, there was antagonism between feminists and Gay men. Drag was one of the main reasons. It would be an understatement to say that the catty Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland impersonations popular at that time shocked liberated women. Many were appalled. The sight of a cross-dressed Gay man made them seethe with rage; in their eyes, it was just another form of male oppression.

In his book Making Gay History, historian Eric Marcus discusses those early tensions with Jean O'Leary, a veteran Lesbian feminist. "One of the things (we) objected to was the transvestites," she told him. "The way we saw it was, here is a man dressing up as a woman, and wearing all the things that we (were) trying to break free of: high heels, girdles, corsets, stockings. All the things that were literally binding women."

The feminists didn't understand that some of the so-called drag queens were validating the female part of their personalities in the only way they knew how. Others were struggling to accept themselves as Transsexual women. Most Straight women, and even some Lesbians, were ignorant of these inner struggles. They didn't realize how much courage it took for a male to appear as female in those unenlightened times. All they saw were comedic and often vulgar representations of womanhood that they found offensive.

To be fair, Gay men often were, and still are, insensitive to women's oppression. That's why, in the 1970s, Lesbians temporarily abandoned Gay Rights groups en masse and joined the women's liberation movement. They didn't return in large numbers until the mid-80s, after AIDS had wiped out much of the male leadership and left a vacuum.

As I recall, the cross-dressing controversy was never resolved; it just got superceded by other issues. The more progressive feminists seem to have made their peace with drag, overlooking its disturbing aspects and embracing it as a political statement against gender role conformity; but collectively, there was no meeting of minds.

I doubt the concerns have disappeared altogether, but if the conversation is still going on, it's probably just between Straight women. I regret that the dialogue ended. Their lack of insight aside, feminists had some valid things to say! Lord knows, there's always been a bit of misogyny in the way some Gay drag performers depict women; but you know what? It's never really been about women. It's about femininity. More precisely, it's about Gay men, and Transwomen, too, respecting their own femininity. All these years after Stonewall, many of us still don't know how to do that.

During the 1990s, when trashy TV talk show fever was at its peak, I remember watching an episode of the infamous "Jerry Springer" show. Not surprisingly, it involved Transwomen: anything that smacked of cross-dressing was fair game for Jerry! The ladies were seated on Jerry’s stage, all done up in their most glamourous make-up, hair and clothing ensembles. Jerry’s audience was predictably vicious. They called the Transwomen "man whores". Near the end of the show, one of the Transwomen got into a shouting match with a female heckler. "Look at me," she demanded, rising from her chair. "Look at how sexy I am." Then she fluttered her hands along her thighs, torso and breasts. Even though she had far too much make-up on, the girl was actually quite beautiful. That is, when she wasn't distorting her facial features, screaming curse words!

I'm twice the woman than you are, b*tch, she spat. I can take your man away from you! Of course, these claims brought roars of derision from the predominantly Straight crowd. I felt bad for her, but ashamed of her behavior at the same time. Appearing on tabloid TV and courting ridicule is no way for transsexual women to respect their femininity! Viewers got a thoroughly distorted picture of transsexuality from that telecast, and from others with similar themes.

Of course, schlockmeisters like Jerry Springer exploit the sensational side of everything; it would be foolish to try to glean much substance from his contrived morality plays. Even so, this particular outburst resonated with me. It's because I've seen that kind of confrontation happen in real life.

Some Transwomen (and men in drag) seem insecure about their physical presentation. Accordingly, they play up the artificial aspects of femininity: the huge breasts, the heavily padded hips (sometimes pumped full of black market silicone), the impossibly big hair, the overdone makeup, the large quantities of perfume, the sky-high stiletto heels, the clinging, plunging dresses, the melodramatic gestures, the switchy Marilyn Monroe walk. They top it all off with a ferocious Bette Davis attitude: A razor-sharp tongue, an if-looks-could-kill glare, and an eagerness to pick fights. They're viciously competitive with other women (both transsexual and biological).

I've also seen Transwomen risk their lives by flirting aggressively with Straight men, even in the presence of their girlfriends! They've got to be half crazed to do that in my neighborhood; but they'll stop at nothing to erase the boundary line between themselves and a biological woman. Whenever I run into one of these poor, desperate souls, I wish I could say to her: If you could just tone it down a bit, you'd be so much more authentic! Your womanhood exists inside of you. It's not about the way you look or act, darling. You don't have to work so hard.

Either these individuals don’t know the difference between excess and moderation, or they believe excess is preferable. I'd bet on the latter being true! Much in the same way some heterosexual folk think Gay sex necessarily involves dildos, whips, slings and leather fetish gear, some transfolk think a woman has got to look and act like a Paris supermodel or a high-priced hooker. Those are caricatures of women! They're far from being the genuine article. I should know: I grew up as the only male in a house full of females.

While my mother, grandmother, aunts and cousins all had eccentricities to some degree, none of them were stereotypical. Their heels weren't so very high. Their hair wasn't so very big. Their make-up wasn't so very perfect. Their gestures weren't dramatic at all. None of them identified with Bette Davis (in fact, my mother despised her). They could be competitive, but not in a vicious way. They didn't wear their femininity like a chip on the shoulder.

Glamour certainly had its place, but they weren't obsessed with it. They didn't have to look stunning all the time. They weren't afraid to break a sweat or get their hands dirty. The impression of women that I got from my relatives was one of formidable inner strength and a capacity for hard work; they know how to get things done, and they do! They're a proud gender, too; the women in my household retreated into a private room if they ever needed a good cry. God forbid that anyone else should see! My Grandmother Jacobs used to tell her female friends: "In this world, sugar, you can't be weak. You've got to stand up and be a woman!" The remarkable ladies who raised me had a quiet, regal dignity about them. One of my high school teachers told me that I possess the same quality. If I do, then it's the most authentically feminine thing about me.

To be sure, I'm very femme, both on the inside and the outside. I still get mistaken for a woman over the telephone. But I don't deliberately mislead people. I don't play my femininity up, and I don't play it down. I don't have to, and neither does any other LGBT person. God gave His blended gender children exactly the amount of masculinity or femininity He wanted us to have; in order to access it, we need only be our natural selves. For many years, this has been my motto: All I have to do in order to be Gay is haul ass out of bed in the morning. It's the Lord's own truth! Some Gay men find that approach to life too boring. Well, I'd much rather be boring than fake!

The Gender Monologues continue with Part Four:
"The Myth Of Queerness"