Having downloaded the 1994 article – The New Yorker’s online archives for subscribers are amazing! – I felt an immediate kinship. There was the photograph. Loren Cameron (back in 1997, I got him to come and speak at Harvard when I was a student there; I don’t know if I ever connected him with the article until now) and James Green, staring at themselves in the mirror. It’s a strange picture. It is black and white, and stark feeling. Cameron’s side is to the camera; Green’s real (non-reflected) body isn’t visible, but their mirror images put their faces in view. It’s oddly suggestive of not wanting to be seen, yet wanting to see oneself.
I felt the same reaction now I felt nineteen years ago: they look like men. And, smaller, that flip of jealousy: I want to look like that.
But, reading through, I discovered I had largely forgotten the content of the article. Indeed, all I remembered closely was the detailed and graphic description of a phalloplasty (including the phrase “pulsing hot dog” of flesh). The article is so biological, so oriented on surgery, on sex as physical, as transsexual as a series of actions to complete a transformation.
The start of the piece is the only place where gender is explored and where interviewed FtMs say things that I might have then (and do now) found resonant. Things like the fact that they never felt comfortable with coming out as lesbian; that they had always felt misunderstood and unable to communicate exactly why. But much of it, I think, distanced me back then from the idea of transsexual (the article doesn’t use the term transgender) identity. In 1994, at 16, I think hormones and surgery seemed unrealistic, scary, a huge and unimaginable leap. I liked that image at the start: the two men gazing at themselves, as if in awe of their own bodies, the realization that they had been women. I just didn’t want to go through everything the article described.
Indeed, it wasn’t until I met transgender people who weren’t taking hormones and who hadn’t had surgery, yet were living as the other gender that I came out. For me, it has always been about gender rather than about sex – a distinction buried by the 1994 article. And that’s what I take away from this piece and the topic of terminology. There it is: the term is transsexual. Sex. Body. Biology. The change. That was the description and depiction of the identity back in the mid-90s.