Nonfiction...Transgender Life

In another section, I've provided a list of my published works of short fiction, with a brief synopsis of each story.  I thought about doing the same with my nonfiction, but then I realized that, apart from a few pieces I wrote years and years ago, all my nonfiction takes the form of personal narratives.  Even more, they are narratives about being transgender.  Maybe I'm a one trick pony, or maybe I'm obsessed with this topic, but gender -- in general as well as my own particular experience -- is a theme I can't get away from.  Not in my fiction and especially not in my nonfiction.

So... what I thought I'd do is this: for each nonfiction piece I've published, I'll write not only a synopsis but an extended context and explanation, trying to flesh out some of the pieces of transgender identity.  Lately, I've been finding myself wanting to take a (short) break from fiction and return to a few personal essay topics that have been haunting me.  Perhaps blogging on this topic will inspire me!  I'll try to add an entry on an essay every week until I've worked my way through everything that I've published.

1. How the Tuba Relates to Transgender 

2. The Inspiration of Elvis 

3. Transgender "Abroad"

4. Figuring out the Steps

5. What Makes the Man

1. How the Tuba relates to Transgender

I grew up in a (wonderful) family where music was important.  None of us was particularly talented, but that didn't mean we wouldn't try. My older brother had been launched on piano (which he loathed) and then violin (ditto, and the cats hated that too) before finally settling on trumpet.  When it came time for my musical endeavors to begin my mother (wisely) sought to avoid the same mistakes (this is the better part of being the younger sibling; everything's had a trial run) and asked me what I wanted to study.  Guitar was the answer and that lasted a year or two (see the essay for more detail on why it ended).  The guitar gone, I had to pick something new.  Me: Bagpipes?  Mom: No.  Me: Piccolo?  Mom: No, but flute's like piccolo... and that's the germ of this essay.  

It was published in a great online journal, Word Riot.  They didn't like it in essay form and asked me to revise to make it a story.  I kind of did.  I kind of wish I'd revised it more.  (But isn't that always the case?)  

Here's the link:  Back of the Band

At the bottom, I'll post the original essay (which I'm still fond of)... click here to go to it.

I loathed the flute.  Everything about it was wretchedly feminine.  This essay tells the tale of how I managed to finagle my way from playing the flute to playing the tuba in seventh grade.  The essay ends, as most essays do, well before the story is actually over.  I played tuba all through high school and into college and beyond.  The longer I have played -- and by now I've played in marching bands, in dixieland bands, in church services -- the more I realize how this instrument helped me as I made my transition from living as a woman to living as a man.

Simply put, playing the tuba was the first concrete way I had of placing myself on the margins, of being able to say and show that I didn't want to belong or conform.  At this point in my life, I have been out as transgender for seventeen years.  I am used to being the only transgender person in the room, the only transgender person someone knows.  But back in seventh grade, I wasn't clear how to be the only anything. The tuba taught me that -- or at least it made it easier.  It's an instrument that stands out, particularly a sousaphone, towering above the rest of the band.  But the player him or herself disappears, swallowed up in all the chrome.  I liked that too.  It's an easy instrument to hide behind while at the same time there's nothing apologetic about it (unlike, say, the bass clarinet, which just seems kind of sorry for itself).  I like the tuba's mix of brashness, how in-your-face it can seem, combined with its unassuming nature.  The bass line, hanging out deep under there. Necessary but often hardly noticeable.  Just like gender. 

2. The Inspiration of Elvis

In addition to playing the tuba, singing has always been favorite activity of mine.  (In fact, possibly the only hint of a regret I have about taking testosterone is that my voice has changed and I really can't sing anymore... I just don't know it like I used to.)  I loved musical theater as well.  Car rides with my parents (and every trip in rural Maine meant a long car ride) were accompanied by tapes of Broadway musicals, all of us singing along.

As I look back on the musicals I did, starting in elementary school, I see a pattern: I was always cast as the witch, the wicked stepmother, the older and sinister character.  Or I was in the chorus.  But there was one exception... and that's the topic of this essay... my Elvis impersonation.

I used to think I was somewhat unique in my fixation with Elvis, but he is quite the queer icon. For me, he presented a paradigm of masculinity that was so much a performance, it made me feel: I can do that!  The very notion that "Elvis impersonator" was a recognized quantity suggested (subconsciously) to me at age ten that impersonation was a valid pursuit.  I wasn't aware at the time -- or I didn't perceive it as such -- of wanting to be a man.  But it was fun to act like one, and acting like Elvis was a legitimate means of acting like a man.

This essay was originally published in Tiny Lights, winning their 2008 Personal Narrative Prize.  Here's a link to the essay.

As with the other essay, I've pasted a slightly different version below (I think I had to trim it down for publication.)  Give it a read... and let me know what you think.   "The King and I"

3. Transgender "Abroad"

The next piece of nonfiction I published took a big jump in terms of topic, leaping from those awkward first few months at the end of high school (where "The King and I" concludes) when I had just come out as transgender, and landing a little over a year later.  In the intervening months, I had finished up the year at Exeter, graduated, worked as a cook at a summer camp in Maine, gone off to Harvard, had an eventful first-year there, had a steady girlfriend, declared Earth and Planetary Science as my major (the first of three) and then headed off to Wyoming to work on a dude ranch for the summer. That's when this narrative occurs.  I know that Wyoming isn't really abroad, but it certainly seemed like a foreign land.

I can't now accurately reconstruct enough of that time period to say with any surety what I was thinking.  But  I know that I conceived of the idea of heading west sometime in the middle of my freshman year.  Cambridge seemed flat and gray.  And I felt trapped... that year of college landed me in a lot of competitive courses and a lot of large lectures where I lost in the crowd: 300 person chemistry classes, core curriculum courses with 500 students. At the same time, I was also standing out.  I had come out as transgender to my dorm, worked with the GLBTA, and started some queer activism on campus.  That meant articles in the Harvard Crimson, which led to some larger newspaper articles (I'll blog more about those later, I think) and a degree of notoreity on campus.  Somewhat good, somewhat bad.  So, by the end of that year, I was looking for a place where I could be lonely, where I could be myself and also not myself.

Heading out to Wyoming, I was terrified and thrilled; it seemed like a huge test... I'd go somewhere where no one knew a thing about me and see if I passed as a man.  This essay, published in Conte in 2008, just scratches the surface of what that summer meant to me.  It's a time that I often go back to and try to make sense of, not just why I did it, but how it still shapes the way I think about my own gender.  It really did define for me that feeling that I am transgender rather than either gender -- though, admittedly, this essay doesn't fully delve into that.

But, I hope you enjoy reading this piece:  Here's the link to the published version...

and if you'd rather read it on this page, click here.

4. Figuring out the Steps

One of the biggest struggles I've had, ever since coming out, has been the question of how to be out.  It has always felt strange to say, my desire is to live as a man... and then be out as transgender.  Of course, in a context where I was known as a woman (i.e. where I grew up, of the high school I attended), it made perfect sense to come out -- but then I was asserting a male identity.  But, once I'd left those places and no one knew that I had ever lived as a woman, why should I keep coming out?  

This isn't a question I've answered.  In fact, I come back to it more often than ever.  It drives right to heart of identity: do I want to live as a man or do I want to live as transgender?  There are difficulties both ways.  This essay, originally published in The 13th Warrior Review in 2008, starts to push towards this subject.  When I arrived at Harvard, I was both in and out (I went to college with a number of high school classmates who knew, but mostly I lived as a man without others knowing).  It was the first time I'd had to ask myself: do I want to come out?  What will it cost me?  What will it gain me?  What would be most true to who I am?

I did end up coming out, and doing so in a fairly major way.  By the end of my freshman year and especially by the start of my sophomore year, I'd become inescapably transgender -- a presence on the campus.  This was the time I started getting some attention from the press (Washington Post, Details Magazine, an eventual appearance on PrimeTime Live).  This was also a time when gender identity was being intensely studied -- really for the first time -- in an academic setting.  Life at college began to take on a petri dish sort of feeling.  So, in the course of a year and a half, I'd gone from living in the land of ignorance to living in the land of over-explanation.

This essay tries to sort out my feelings on that transformation by looking at being transgender through learning (and relearning) Square Dance.  

Here's the link to the original publication:  13th Warrior

And, as with my other pieces, I'll post it below:  Circle Square

5. What Makes the Man

Coming out of the same era -- the first few years of college -- the next piece of nonfiction offers a different perspective.  If the contra-dance story concerns the frustrations of negotiating gender identity within the LGBT community, then this is piece looks at the frustrations of negotiating gender identity within the straight community.  

As I look back at this time, I was wrestling with the idea of what it means to be a man.  I didn't want it to be defined by biology, certainly.  And I was just as uncomfortable with it being defined by behavior.  It seems so artificial to claim that mean act a certain way and women don't.  But then, what's left?  What is gender besides appearance and perception?  Everything else is internal -- feelings and understandings -- that aren't (always/often) made manifest to others.  Judith Butler made the claim that gender is performance, a claim that emphatically declares that gender is external, how we present to others.  

When I arrived at Harvard, few people knew that I was transgender, and I took a while deciding whether I wanted people to know or not.  I mentioned this above.  And in this essay, I turn to look at the very twisted feelings of being thought to be a man by others.  It did then and it still does now feel duplicitous to have people assume I am a guy (even though, to my mind, I am... and that is how I want to be perceived/treated). As a freshman in college, it was thrilling -- I could pass! -- but also frustrating: part of me felt silenced.  I both wanted to measure up to gender standards and wanted to transcend them.  

I don't know that I've found any clear answers to this conundrum.  Still, I turn the same questions over in my mind: can I, should I, measure up to society's estimation of "man"?  And if I do, then why do I only feel "right" if people know I am transgender -- am I telling them for my sake or for theirs?

The essay was initially published in Flashquake Magazine, a great online journal that has since disappeared (so sad).  It was then published after that in HBOMB magazine, an alternative publication out of Harvard.  You can read it in their archives or read it on my site here.

6. A Religious Experience

In what often feels like a past life, I was a religion major (I switched around a lot in college, from geology to biological anthropology... but eventually got to religion and from there pursued a graduate degree in the field as well). Religion has always been a presence in my personal life -- from the hour-long drive to Hebrew School from my home in rural Maine, to the Jewish Students Organization's weekly services at Exeter, to Hillel at Harvard and now as an adult and a member of a conservative synagogue.  Yet, for all that I've consistently belonged to (and studied) the Jewish religion, I've often felt at odds with it.  I think that is a common theme for many transgender people.  But for me the strange feeling comes from the opposite direction as well: many of the transgender people I know have no religious affiliation, or even a hostile one to the faith in which they are raised.  At Harvard, I was a member of a group called BAGELS (a GBLT group for Jewish students.  I can't remember exactly what the acronym stands for... I just recall that they tried to get a T in there, but there isn't any bakery product called a bagelette) and something I said there still strikes me: I described myself as feeling like an odd man out in a group of odd men out.  That is, being transgender made me odd, but being actively Jewish in a group of transgender people made me odd even in that group.

A good friend of mine asked me to write about the connection between my religious faith and my gender identity, and so I wrote this piece.  I had completely forgotten about it until a friend of mine mentioned having found it on an internet search. I guess it constitutes my first published piece of writing.  Go figure.  I wish I had the time to go back and rewrite it: much of it has stayed true, but I think I've also learned a lot more about religion since then... a lot more about myself... and a lot more about writing.  But, all that aside, I figured I'd include the link to the piece in its original form.  And maybe someday (summer vacation?) I'll have the time to undertake a thorough rewrite and post it below.  For now, I hope you'll enjoy the piece... HERE.
At the first rehearsal of the Oxford Hills junior high school band, there were 36 flute players.  I was one of them.  Flute was, for whatever reason, the instrument of choice amongst the girls in this corner of western Maine.  Perhaps they flocked to it because its high pitched trillings seemed more feminine than the blattings of a trombone, or because the embouchure left their lips kissably pursed, rather than the squinched, rabbit-like mouth of a clarinet player.  Or the size – the flute is more accessory than instrument and, much to the dismay of our conductor, the portly Mr. Spath, the girls of the flute section could easily place their instruments on their laps, leaving both hands free to apply makeup, brush hair, or fix skirts.
I had not wanted to play the flute.  I was, at the time, a resolutely butch twelve-year-old with short, dark hair about to crinkle and curl with the onslaught of puberty.  In my small Maine town, I was somewhat anomalous for a number of reasons; mine was the only Jewish family in the town, which was difference enough to render all my family members odd.  On top of that I was smart and bookish, a tendency that landed me with the nerds in school.  To cap it all off was my undeniably masculine demeanor – despite being fully female, my friends were almost exclusively boys; I preferred flannel shirts and jeans to skirts and blouses (though my mother had not given up trying to get me in a dress for special occasions); and my musical tastes tended towards Elvis and kd lang, not the New Kids on the Block.   Older women were always trying to kick me out of the ladies’ room, and the question most kids asked when they met me was: are you a boy or a girl?  My reply was always succinct, firm, and only slightly sarcastic: I’m a tomboy.  Emphasis on that second syllable.  Said resolutely, it could leave my questioner with a veneer of doubt about my identity, and I liked that. Clearly, I would never have chosen such a girly instrument as the flute.
But my mother was a firm believer in the importance of music; my older brother was ensconced 3 rows back in the band, seated in the trumpet section, where he and Billy Morton squirted the butts of the clarinetists (also an instrument played exclusively by girls, though less attractive ones than the flute players) with valve oil.  My mom had started her campaign to get me to play a musical instrument years ago.  It happened to coincide with a visit from my crazy aunt, who was headed out of the country, leaving her guitar in our possession.  Cheapness and convenience won out over my mother’s disinclination to encourage me to be at all like her nutty sister, and guitar became my instrument.  I took lessons and practiced and loved the guitar, despite my hands being much too small to adequately make the chords (I would often sneak my thumb from behind the neck to cover a string when my teacher wasn’t looking), but one day my mother packaged up the guitar and mailed it off, saying her sister wanted it back. I suspect this was a cover story; the truth was that I had recently discovered my true talent as an Elvis impersonator, and I think that it was too much for my poor mother to witness: her only daughter with painted sideburns on her face, hips swinging behind the guitar and singing “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hounddog” in a gravelly near-baritone.  Sending the guitar away must have seemed like a way she could prevent any more gender confusion on my part – a definite action in the face of her considerable and increasingly consistent dismay.
So it was to be a new musical instrument for me, and my mom, gamely trying to cheer me up from the loss of my guitar, offered to let me make the selection.  Bagpipes were my first choice.  Rolling her eyes and swearing off of future democratic endeavors, my mother called the local music school – sadly, they had no bagpipe teachers (I’m not sure she didn’t pay them to say this).  My next choice was piccolo; I think I had in mind the drum and fife of the revolutionary war, which is what we were studying in fifth grade at the time.  Seizing her opportunity, my mother signed me up for flute lessons, assuring me that it was the first step towards learning the piccolo. Grudgingly, I attended my weekly lessons, where my teacher had a high-pitched laugh and was most interested in confiding in me what she regarded as the most important trade-secret: which brands of lip gloss wouldn’t smear onto the mouthpiece.  I had no interest.  It was some small consolation that at my fifth-grade recital, I played “Love Me Tender,” alternately playing a verse on the flute and then singing a verse with my best Elvis voice.  My mother wouldn’t let me paint on any sideburns for the performance, and the audience wasn’t sure whether to laugh or clap, which could well be a metaphor for most of my childhood.
And now, two years of playing had brought me to this: the last row of the overpopulated flute section of my junior high school band.  What Mr. Spath thought as he looked out over the sea of flutes in front of him, I do not know.  He was a round man, and the exertion of conducting left him flushed and sweating within the first few measures of a piece – the front row of the band was a dangerous place to sit for this reason – and he was additionally cursed by his first name, Blaise.  As my friend Rocky had pointed out over lunch one day, if it had been Blaze, it would be the perfect soap-opera name for some chiseled hunk.  But replace that bold z with a susurrant s and all the glamour went out.  You were left with the cheerful, rotund, perspiring, and hopelessly fey Mr. Spath.
That first rehearsal, with fully three rows of girls clasping their silver flutes, heads leaned close together, whispering, Mr. Spath must have known that he was desperately outnumbered.  Gazing out across the expanse of woodwinds, did he select those whom he thought would not protest? (In addition to being butch, I was a goody-two-shoes, inclined to obey.)  Did he, with insight and compassion, perceive that I was not meant for the flute section? (I was, after all, the only one not fixing my bangs at the moment.)  I may never know, but at that second he delivered me from the feminine ranks of the woodwinds – with a gesture of his fingers and a brief set of instructions, six of us flute players were told to pack up our flutes and go to the instrument closet.  I’ve come to regard this moment as prophetic, indicative of my ultimate deliverance and transference from the ranks of femininity entirely.  At that second, as I pulled the pieces of my flute apart and placed them in their tiny case, I felt the fluttering of a possibility.  Anything that Mr. Spath might want of me -- even the triangle; even having to sit next to Dan, the acne-laden player of the bassoon, an instrument that sounded like a sick goose, made you red-faced with exertion, and couldn’t even be heard over the rest of the band -- would be better than the flute section.
The honks, squeaks, and shrills from the outside indicated that the remainder of the band was warming up.  The six of us stood amidst the racks of the store-room a little glumly, not talking.   Now that I think of it, Mr. Spath had really selected the social rejects, myself included.  Was he, still smarting from his own childhood, which must have been miserable (c’mon…Blaise!), trying to save us from the hair-sprayed social tyranny of the flute section?  Mr. Spath entered the closet, took our flutes, carefully stacking the cases like so much cordwood, and walked us to the back rack.  The cases here were larger, rectangular but slightly bulbous; I could only guess what they held. Gone were the days of the insubstantial wisp of an instrument.  These cases meant business.  The three smallest girls were given trombones – Mr. Spath took one out of its case and showed them how to put it together, then sent them back to join the band.  I didn’t know any of these three well; skinny girls with lank hair and shabby jean skirts, they seemed to be what we called “hot lunch” kids.  The trombones sealed their fates as unpopular – what girls could possibly look good honking away on one of those? -- resignedly, they lugged their heavy burdens back to the crowded band room.  The scenario was repeated with the next two girls, who were each given a euphonium, which left just me and Mr. Spath in the depths of the instrument store room. 
Pushing aside the other cases, Mr. Spath stretched to the far reaches of the rack, then tugged mightily on an elephantine case.  The sweat beaded on his brow.  With an ominous scraping, the case fully emerged.  Grimacing with the effort and exertion, Mr. Spath wiped his brow and patted the case, “every band needs one!” he said cheerfully.  One what? Sweaty conductor?  Wildly butch flute player? With a smile, trying perhaps to allay the doubt that must have been easily readable on my face, Mr. Spath declared, “look, just do your best today, and we’ll start lessons tomorrow.”  He turned to rejoin the band, whose blatting and squeaking had long ago given way to screams and thuds, indicating that the obligation of warming up had yielded to the adolescent urge of boys to harass girls; it sounded like the brass section had attacked the flutes and the clarinets. (In the scheme of the band, only the saxophone and percussion sections were mixed gender and therefore on the sidelines of any conflict.)
Left alone in the closet, I undid the latches on the case.  Within, nestled in blue faux velvet, was a silver tuba and the singularly most unhygienic mouthpiece I had ever seen.  I hoisted the tuba from its case and, sitting right there on the closet floor, unflinchingly belted out my first note. I was in love.  At the end of the first rehearsal, wherein I mostly discovered how to empty the spit from the tubes and occasionally gave forth a tremendous, flatulence-esque tone, which Mr. Spath either ignored or couldn’t hear over the equally dubious efforts of the rest of the band, I put my tuba back in the case and headed home.  Why did I love it?  Was it being alone and unique – the only tuba in the band – after belonging to a veritable army of conformist flute players?  Was it the size and the bass tone, together with their connotations of masculinity, that intrigued me?  Or was it the thought of the look of horror on my mother’s face that would greet me when I came home toting this tremendous instrument and a failsafe excuse: Mr. Spath said I had to quit flute!
As if sensing the reception it would get at home, my tuba case got stuck in the bus door as I tried to disembark.  Sandy, the bus driver, had to let other kids out the rear emergency exit so that she and I could push the case from the inside while the others pulled from the outside.  Finally disgorged from the bus, I dragged the case up to my front steps, where my mother’s reaction was as excellent as I had expected.  I had hardly crammed the case through the door when she was on the phone with Mr. Spath, protesting his decision.  The call was short, and I kept the tuba, though I doubt her acceptance had anything to do with my glee or Mr. Spath’s persuasiveness; in the face of my brother’s and my own teen years, my mother had decided she needed to marshal her strength and choose her battles carefully.  Playing tuba was better in her eyes than no music at all, or perhaps she had just grown sick of hearing “Love Me Tender” on the flute. 
Once inside the house, with the exorcism of the hated flute complete, it is almost as if I could see my future unfurling before me.  The tuba changed everything.  From front-row seats in the woodwind section where utter girliness was expected, I had been shunted to the margins, the last row of the band, the outer fringes of the ensemble, where no one was watching, and certainly where there were no expectations of prissiness.  That day I took a step out of my life as a girl and into my life as a boy.  As I sat on the couch and fumbled through a scale for my mother, who did her best to feign admiration, (just as she would do her best to accept my announcement of being transgender five years in the future) I knew that if I could ditch the flute, I could probably do anything.



The King and I

                There is some debate about what began my habit of impersonating Elvis.  According to my mother, she took me during my February vacation from fifth grade to see a community theater production of Grease and, inspired by the hip-swinging, sideburn-wearing “teen angel” in the show, I began my own imitation of the King.  But as I recall, I went with my friends to skate at the roller rink on a slushy winter day, where a fifties and sixties band was playing, (ah, those were the eighties in rural Maine) and was smitten with their rendition of “Heartbreak Hotel” (which, by the way, is not a very skatable tune).  Whichever version you accept, by that spring I had entered my elementary school’s talent show as an Elvis impersonator sporting tight black jeans, painted-on sideburns, and accompanied by my friend Sam on keyboard.
                One could consider this more than a little odd, I suppose, given that I was a ten-year old girl, the daughter of the town lawyer in a somewhat forgotten corner of western Maine.   But by this point in my life, only my mother expected me to be normal – my classmates and teachers accepted that I was introspective and bookish, uninterested in much of what my classmates paid attention to.  I was a feral child: when the weather was good, I spent most of my time in a tree house, and when the weather was lousy, I fought with our cats for a seat near the woodstove and read.  Unlike the boys in my grade, I wasn’t interested in football or fishing, and unlike the girls, I wasn’t interested in boys or makeup.  My friends were those who were similarly socially outcast – we played chess, ran the class newspaper, and mostly stayed on the sidelines.  I’d always felt closer to the boys my age, drawn to the outdoors and to rough housing.  Mostly though, I had always felt different, a sort of difference that made me shy and reclusive, unsure of who I was or what I was meant to be.
                But Elvis impersonation opened a new door – all of a sudden I wanted to be front and center; I wanted to perform.  Much to my mother’s dismay, my hip-swinging ways were not a stage that I went through.  From the age of ten on, Elvis impersonation became my means of maintaining an alternate male self, a way for me to explore being masculine in a (mostly) accepted manner – it was my first foray into dissident gender expression.
 In every sense, Elvis marked a turning point.  I broached the piggy bank on my desk for the first time in living memory and purchased two tapes from a music store in Portland, Maine; they were the first cassettes I ever bought, and I had to beg my parents for a tape player.  At the book store, a more familiar haunt, I purchased a volume on Elvis filled with glossy photographs of the King. I even bought a low-budget documentary of Elvis, with his Ed Sullivan appearances, the concerts where his adoring female fans passed out, and the leather outfit he wore in Vegas.  But my family didn’t have a TV, let alone a VCR, so I had to take the video with me to friends’ houses and force them to suffer through it with me.  While other girls might have invested similar amounts of money purchasing posters of their beloved teen heartthrobs, the similarities between their obsessions with Kirk Cameron and mine with Elvis ended there.  Whereas they bought Bop!  and drooled over the pictures of the New Kids on the Block, fantasizing about kissing and dating the boys pictured therein, I pored over the photos of Elvis trying to figure out how I could get my hair to look like that and whether I could convince my mother to buy me a leather jacket like Elvis’s.  Though typically I couldn’t care less what I looked like, and was berated by my parents and peers for my birds’ nest of hair, boring corduroys, and plaid shirts (everyone was wearing neon then), in the name of Elvis impersonation I would spend hours in front of the mirror, agonizing over my appearance.  I perfected the lip curl, almost a sneer, and the toss of my head.  I could swivel my hips and stand on my toes to shimmy.  I asked my mother to buy me mousse and gel – she got quite hopeful that I was finally interested in hair styles – and spent hours trying to form the perfect ducktail coif.   
                That my newfound talent was more than a momentary fancy, that it was, in fact, a piece of my destiny, should have been evident when I arrived at camp that summer.  While my classmates were sent off to scouting camp, (or, if you were really unlucky, Bible camp) I had been attending a nearby music camp for a few years.  Nestled in the piney woods of western Maine, it was, ostensibly, your typical Maine camp experience, with a waterfront, hiking trips, and campfire sing-alongs at night.  But the entrance road was dotted with practice cabins (I thought they were outhouses the first time I visited) named Beethoven, Mahler, and Stravinsky, and rather than be dominated by a sports-driven color war, daytimes were filled with orchestra, musical theater, chorus, and jazz ensemble.  In short, the camp was full of all sorts of artsy, alternative types – just what was not present in my rural Maine public school, where teachers, students, and expectations of conformity were hopelessly mired in the 1950s.
                The first day of camp that year, after unloading my trunk, bidding farewell to my mother, and getting settled in the Bluejays bunk (girls’ cabins were birds, boys’ cabins were fish),  I went to audition for the musical. These shows were typically large cast productions that allowed the younger campers (of whom I was one) to fill in the chorus, play the lesser roles, and occasionally, if the play called for it, be the children in the cast. (Last summer the musical had been Little Mary Sunshine: I’d played a schoolgirl and had a brief solo during the number “Playing Croquet.” I think my lines were: “Hitting the ball through the wicket/Pushing the ball isn’t cricket.”)  The senior campers got all the leads, so I didn’t expect much – maybe a line or two or maybe I would be cast as a tree, which would at least spare me the ignominy of trying to dance with a croquet mallet. 
But this summer’s musical was going to be Bye, Bye Birdie, and as the drama director John explained the plot to the assembled mass of campers, my heart began to pound.  The play, which tells of the last public performance of Conrad Birdie – a thinly veiled Elvis substitute – before he is inducted into the army, was perfect for me.  One by one, other junior campers shuffled up to the stage, sang a verse of “America the Beautiful,” gamely tried a few dance steps, and generally seemed already resigned to their peripheral roles.         
                But as I reached the stage, I felt a buzzing rise through my body.  The heat and vibration settled in my ears; I like to think the ghost of Elvis was whispering to me.  Abandoning my typical shyness I declared that I needed no piano accompaniment.  Curling my upper lip into a practiced sneer I belted out “All Shook Up,” complete with pelvic thrusts.  There was total silence in the theater.   I was an 11-year-old girl with closely cropped brown hair (my mother had cut it short because she was sick of fighting with me to brush it), wearing the ill-fitting navy shorts and white polo of the camp uniform.  With scabby knees and mosquito bitten arms, I was as far from a teen heart-throb as you could imagine.  But then John stood up, clapping, and declared: “We have our Birdie.”  I just about died with happiness.
Each afternoon that summer, after swimming lessons in the icy lake, after rest hour in Bluejays bunk, and choir practice in the concert hall, I’d take to the stage.  As Conrad Birdie, dozens of girls swooned and screamed when I entered (granted, they were scripted to do so).  I got to wear a black suit for my first number, strum an electric guitar, and be adored by the leading lady, Kim – a seventeen year old senior camper. Of course I was completely smitten with her from the first rehearsal on – she was tall, (This presented a large problem as I was significantly shorter.  I had to wear risers in my shoes during the performances.) mature, and, in my eyes at least, utterly gorgeous.  There was, of course, a kissing scene, and although the play called for Kim to swoon upon being embraced by teen-idol Birdie, I was often the one upon the verge of collapse.
                How the director got away with casting me as Conrad Birdie, I do not know.  He was an older man in comparison to the other counselors, who tended to be in the midst of or right out of college.  Tall, funny, and amiable (at least when he wasn’t in hysterics over our inability to act or dance or sing), I now realize that John was rather flamingly gay.  But at the time I thought of him as merely dramatic.  It seems improbable that he would cast an 11 year old girl as the male romantic lead, but this was music camp.  Arguably I was butcher than many of the senior boys.  And, as John kept saying, I did sound exactly like Elvis.  In fact, I can recall only one major issue arising from his bizarre casting choice.  It was during the dress rehearsal; I had my hair done up in a massive pompadour – accomplished with copious quantities of Vaseline – and fake sideburns.  I even had tufts of fake chest hair emerging from the top of the v-neck shirt of my costume.  The cast had just worked its way through “Lot of Livin’ to Do,” and though I thought we had sounded good and hadn’t totally botched the dancing, John was having a heated argument with Gayle, the vocal director.
“We need to stuff his crotch,” John insisted, waving his copy of the script at me.
“No, we don’t need to stuff her crotch,” Gayle replied testily.
“Just a little.”
“John, she’s an 11 year old girl.”
“I know – that’s why we’ve got to put something down there.”
                In the end, John won, and I graced the stage the next night in my hi-rise shoes, tight black pants, and a well-placed sweat sock.  The king might have felt slighted, but I was in heaven.  As I sang, shimmied, and shook my way through the musical I could feel the skin of my present self dissolving.  Reality gave way to potential.  As the girls of the cast swooned around me, and the boys shot me jealous looks, as Kim – drop dead gorgeous in her costume and curled hair – kissed me on the lips and pledged her undying love, I knew what I was meant to do in life.
                I’d like to say that when the show closed I packed my bags and headed to Vegas, where I have been living as an Elvis impersonator ever since.  But in fact I and my packed bags only made it back to Paris, Maine to settle in for a few more years of trying to survive public school before I headed off to a prep school in New Hampshire.  In the wake of my performance as Conrad Birdie, which my parents sat through alternately horrified at what they had raised and grateful that no one else from our hometown was present that evening, I once again retreated into my introverted, detached self.  Future musicals saw me cast as a wicked stepmother, a sexy vamp (what was the director thinking?) and then, in quick succession, a crow, a homeless person, and a cornstalk – roles that fittingly sublimated gender entirely.  I faded into the background, lost my interest in the stage, and generally tried to forget what it felt like to be Elvis. 
                As I headed off to prep school two years later, my hair grown long at my mother’s insistence, she optimistically packed a few skirts for me and chatted amiably with my roommate’s parents about their daughter’s Laura Ashley comforter.  My quilt had the Green Giant on it.  I had saved the labels from cans of peas and sent them in.  I don’t know whether my mother or my roommate was more mortified.  As my parents drove away, leaving me at school, my father’s parting advice was:  “You’re normal.  Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not.”  No one did.  I successfully submerged my strangeness under a veneer of normalcy.  If I did somewhat odd things, like join the model railroad club (club is slightly euphemistic: there were only two members) and spend my free time building Plaster of Paris mountains while my peers gravitated towards French Society or Economics Club (deemed to be better for “college suck” as it was called), I was scarcely beyond the pale of normal and certainly not frighteningly so.
                When did that veneer give way?  Was it one afternoon in my dorm room, listening to Elvis croon “(I wanna be) Your Teddy-Bear,” searching my face in the mirror, trying to see past the mass of curly hair and find the Conrad Birdie I knew lurked below the surface?  I know only that I went away for the summer after my junior year and returned for my final year on campus, my hair cut short, wearing a coat and tie (boys’ dress code), and asking everyone to call me Alex (not Alice). 
                If there was shock or refusal over my desire to live as a man, I don’t remember it.  Chiefly, I was concerned about passing as a boy.  I still lived in my girls’ dorm, but I wanted desperately to be treated as and recognized as a guy.  I was asking the teachers and students to put aside what they had come to know me as for three years.  I was nervous; I felt exposed and unsure – could I really do this?  But then there was one Monday morning meeting – it was barely winter, the school year still felt new – when the whole school crowded into the assembly hall. 
One never knew what to expect from assembly.  Sometimes it was the head of the school talking about comportment in the dining hall, sometimes a professor up from a college in Boston to talk about environmental policy.  This morning there was a drum set and several amps on stage.  I filed in with the rest of the seniors, who were chatting happily (amplified music guaranteed a cover for conversation or, depending on the student, homework).  Three poodle-skirt wearing ladies took the stage; my worldly, sophisticated classmates snorted derisively as the group sang “It’s my Party” and “Leader of the Pack.”  I was carried back to the roller skating rink of my youth, to where it all began for me, when, at the end of a song, the lead singer spoke into the microphone: “Now we need a volunteer who can sing like the King.”  Before hands could be raised, before I even thought about how strange it would be to get on stage in front of my peers, I had jumped from my seat and leaped up the steps to join the band.  With hardly a pause, I heard the opening chords of “Blue Suede Shoes.”  One of the singers pressed a microphone into my hand, and, forgetting that I was wearing my school tie and navy-blue blazer, forgetting that I was a recently emerged transgendered person, forgetting that I spent the last three years at this school trying to blend into the background as a normal girl, I began to sing.  My lip curled into a sneer, and I threw in a few pelvic thrusts for good measure.  If I closed my eyes I could imagine that swarms of girls were swooning around me once again.
                I can’t say whether I sounded at all good; it had been a while since I had practiced my Elvis impersonation.  But I do know that when the song ended, the lead singer tried to hug me.  I offered her my hand to shake instead (I was that kind of kid).  And as I turned to leave the stage, she said into the microphone, broadcasting to all my peers and teachers: “too bad he’s so shy.  He’s awfully cute.”  Two small, masculine pronouns.  I might as well have been told I was Elvis reincarnate.  That day, I was the King.

Sleeping Indian 

Brandi’s hand moved from the radio dial to my leg, resting lightly on my denim-clad thigh.  Beyond the windshield, the road was swallowed by the night, the car’s headlights barely scratching the surface of the dark. 
“I just love Dwight Yoakam,” Brandi said, her voice slowed by a southern drawl and booze.  “Don’t you?”
Her hand squeezed briefly before she grabbed the wheel again to negotiate a curve.  Below Dwight’s singing, I heard the sounds of Mitch and Laura making out in the backseat.  The last time I’d turned around, not too long after we left the bar in Cody, Mitch had Laura’s shirt bunched up around her neck, his hands working at her bra.  I wondered nervously just how far along he was now. 
“I just love the way he plays guitar.  I saw him once in concert,” Brandi continued, oblivious or ignoring the noise from behind her.  “He’s dreamy.”
Her hand was on my leg again and her eyes kept flicking from the darkness-soaked road to my face.
“Oh shit,” I thought, “Shit, shit, shit.”
The road was bumpy; I couldn’t see the turns before we made them; everything was spinning.  Dwight crooned, Mitch kissed, Brandi squeezed and steered, and I thought I was going to die.  The headlights caught the aluminum sign at the entrance, sent it glaring into the night: Castle Rock Ranch.  We bumped a few more feet along, then Brandi pulled in by her trailer.  I opened my door and puked.  Perfect.  This was the best thing I could have done.  It guaranteed I was done with Brandi for the night.
Mitch zipped his fly and half-carried me to my bunkhouse, laughing gently at me.  “Man,” he said.  “That girl wants you.  You gotta get yourself some of that.”  The screen door slapped shut behind us.  He dropped me on my bunk and headed out, back to Laura no doubt.  The noise of the door had woken the four other guys in the bunkhouse and Gary, who had a bunk to himself in an alcove, stuck his head out and looked at me.  I kicked off my boots and stretched out on my bunk.  Then the room spun around me; I lurched, thinking I might puke again.
“Piss drunk?” asked Gary, “Keep a foot on the floor and the room won’t spin.” 
With that, he left me alone.  The room stayed still, my foot grew cold, and I woke the next morning, achy and cotton-mouthed, feeling like I’d made a narrow escape.
That was my fifth night in Wyoming.
The next morning, Gary woke me up by snapping his fingers over my ear.  The bunkhouse was still dark as he hissed at me: “Get up!  I’ll start breakfast, but you better get your ass to the kitchen quick.”  He left, easing the screen door shut behind him.
I rubbed my gummy eyes and looked around. The other three guys were blanket bundles, asleep in their bunks.  So I could risk it.  I grabbed my towel and a set of clothes and tiptoed to the bathroom at the end of the bunkhouse.  The bathroom without a door: two toilets, two sinks, one shower, which, thank God, had a curtain.  I stepped into the shower stall, stripped, turned the water on.  So cold at first, blasting away the fog of sleep and the beery hangover, then warm.  I washed and, as I always do, saw what there and what was not there.  There: two small but insistent breasts, reminding me I was female.  Not there: anything between my legs.  Anything, at least, that Brandi might have been groping for.  The sight of my pale breasts and arched hip bones filled me with disquiet, a sense of vulnerability.  I have never felt my body matched what I should look like, but the feeling of weakness, the danger of exposure was greater, more intense, here in Wyoming, here in this bunkhouse.  It was a feeling of not belonging, not just in my body, but in this place.
I stuck my face under the stream of water once more before turning the shower off.  A quick rub dry with the towel, an even quicker pulling on of my clothes, still inside the curtain’s privacy.  Damp, but at least no longer naked, I walked back to my bunk, past the sleeping forms of Mike, Ray, and Greg.  My bunkmates were good guys, hard-working, funny.  But I preferred them asleep. Awake, they were prone to rough-housing, faggot jokes, conversations about girls, masturbation, and all other sorts of late-adolescent male topics I knew nothing about.  I pulled on my boots and headed out after Gary, giving one last look at the sleeping guys.  “They’re going to kill me,” I thought, as I gently shut the screen door.  “If they find out, I’m dead.”
Outside it was gently light, cool.  I heard the tumble of the river, the south fork of the Shoshone, high with snow melt from the mountains, as it rushed behind the bunkhouse.  Away, to the north, rose the ranch’s namesake rock.  The gray sky beside it was shot through with pink and gold – a typical sagebrush sunrise.  As I walked past, the horses rustled in their paddocks.  The shivering fear of discovery left me, even the banging headache of my hangover felt reduced.  I breathed the dry air, looked at the red rock – there was a reason I had wanted to come to Wyoming.
The kitchen was large enough for me and Gary if we each stayed on our own side.  By the time I got there, he had the pancake batter mixed and was working on eggs. 
“Make the coffee.  Then do the biscuits,” he yelled at me.
He loved giving orders.  At least with Gary I wasn’t worried about my real gender being discovered – I’d have to dance naked in front of him for that.  He was older, maybe late forties, and wrapped up in his own world of self-defeat.  Never married, never settled, cooking at a place until he drank himself out of the job.  He lived to tell me what to do.  The day we met, he had dubbed me “Harvey” on account of the fact that I was a Harvard student, and nothing pleased him so much as bossing me about the kitchen with this name.  “Harvey, clean the grill.”  “Hey, Harvey, don’t they teach you how to cook rice at that school?”  So long as he could tease me and order me around, Gary would see no further into any matter.
The first set of guests, dudes we were supposed to call them, hadn’t arrived yet, so only a handful of ranch employees were around cleaning out cabins, fixing up the grounds.   I heard the mess hall door slap shut behind Darryl, the owner, and his wife and kids.  Darryl had run the ranch for about ten years; he was a big man, with a booming voice.  When he’d picked me up at the airport three days ago, he hadn’t bothered to mask his disappointment in my appearance. 
“I thought you’d be taller,” he said as he loaded my backpack and guitar into the ranch truck.  “And you’re gonna have to get rid of that earring.  This is Wyoming.” 
I took out the silver hoop right then, just as I would tuck into a hamburger, ending seven years as a vegetarian, that night at dinner.  “This is Wyoming,” I thought to myself.  “This is not just another summer job washing dishes.” I looked at the silver hoop in my hand, felt briefly like a coward, a traitor.  But maybe I wasn’t so much forsaking who I really was as reinventing, getting the chance to be what I wanted to be.
After Darryl, the guys from my bunkhouse came in, heaped their plates with eggs and biscuits.  They were the general laborers of the ranch: cut the grass, fix the fences, pick up the garbage.  The girls followed in a cluster, five of them, all friends who attended Ole Miss together.  They were the maids, the babysitters, with ponytails and pink shorts – girls who loved horses and kids and spoke sweetly in their southern drawls.  Brandi smiled at me as she took some pancakes. 
“I hope your head feels better than mine,” she said.  “Lord, I am not going to be good for much today.” 
I smiled back but couldn’t think of a thing to say.  What does a transgender guy who fears for his life in rural Wyoming tell the Mississippi Belle who has a crush on him? Nothing.  Smile.  Nod. 
Last in were the wranglers.  Josh, the head wrangler and his four assistants: all college age or a bit older, all real men.  The stubble on the cheeks that I did not have, the t-shirt pulled tight across the flat chest that I did not have.  Their Levis worn snugly, loose only at the bottom for their boots.  Looking at them, trying not to look at the big belt buckles, the tight legs of their jeans, I was glad for my apron, tied modestly around my waist.  Its starched white cotton was the best disguise for covering my chest and legs.  A blank front.  Perfect.  
I wasn’t hungry and Gary didn’t like it when the kitchen help ate with the customers, so I took a cup of coffee and stood outside the kitchen’s back door.  The sun was full up.  In a few hours, I’d be able to smell the sage and the mesquite, the fragrance driven into the air by the day’s heat.  Until six days ago, I had spent my entire life on the east coast, unaware how I was hemmed in by the leafy green.  The West shook me with its open country, the scrubby brush of the ranch giving way to buttes and then mountains past that: everything you could want to see, all at once.
The thin spire of Castle Rock sent a shadow across the near pasture.  I set my gaze beyond the red rock, focused on a mountain with a long ridgeline marked with a couple of irregular bumps.  The bottom of the mountain was cloaked with evergreens, but the top of the ridge was rocky and open.  Unlike the more distant peaks, this one was free from snow.  In the empty morning air, it looked close enough to touch.  That one, I decided, that mountain was the one I’d climb on my first day off.  The decision was like a handshake with fate.   I was here; I could do this.  God, how I wanted to be here in the midst of this beauty, this unbelievable place.  And God, how terrified I was of the people eating eggs and biscuits behind me.
I heard the chairs scraping on the mess hall floor, signaling breakfast’s end and the start of my job as a dishwasher.  I went inside before Gary could yell at me, filled the sink with hot soapy water to soak the pots.   After the coffee, my mouth was dry and my head still throbbed, beating out a question against my skull: what am I doing here?  And if they knew?  What would happen to me?
Once the breakfast dishes were cleaned, I took a break and walked to the lodge, which was next to the mess hall.  Yesterday I’d helped the girls clean the windows and had noticed a topographical map of the area on the wall.  The sunlight gleamed off the bare wood of the lodge’s walls, lighting the glassy eyes of the elk head over the fireplace.  I leaned close to the map, found the south fork of the Shoshone twisting across the valley, looked for the sharp bend that I knew marked the ranch.  The area was so vast, the terrain so spotted with buttes, ridges, outcropping, let alone mountains, that Castle Rock itself got no mention on the map.  But I found my day off mountain without problem, the elongated ridge to the northeast clearly marked: Dead Indian Mountain.  Someone, probably Darryl, had neatly crossed out ‘Dead’ and written ‘Sleeping’ above it.  (No doubt the Cody chamber of commerce had changed the name in a wave of political correctness.)  Sleeping Indian Mountain.  A euphemism that would hardly fool a kid.  It somehow seemed fitting for me.
Gary took the afternoon off, and I had the kitchen to myself to prepare everyone’s dinner.  I left the radio tuned to the country music station.  I might as well get used to it, I figured, and besides, it was that or talk radio.  Gary had left me a list of things to do: organize the storeroom, check the inventory, sharpen the knives.  Delightfully mindless tasks.  I opened all the windows to let in the smell of sage and took a deep breath, relieved to be alone with my thoughts.  Wyoming.  My college friends thought I was crazy for working out here, but I knew it was where I wanted to spend the summer.  I’d seen pictures of the mountains, the red rock, and thought, I have to go there.  At the time, being transgender didn’t seem like a big deal.  I’d been living as a man for two years and doing just fine in Boston.  But I hadn’t thought of the close quarters of the bunkhouse, the macho attitude of the wranglers, the possibility that a straight girl would fall for me.  I just wanted to be here, to hike the mountains, work in the kitchen; if I fit in with the group, great, but I wasn’t asking for anything except space to do my own thing, and it seemed to me that the West had plenty of space.
I served up the steak and potatoes that evening without trouble, cleaned the kitchen, and headed to the bunkhouse.  The other guys were already gone when I got back – probably their night in town at the bar.  So I took out my guitar to play for a bit.  Within minutes, Larry, one of the wranglers, showed up at the screen door.
“Hey, Alex, come on over.  We’re just hanging out,” He said.  “Bring your guitar.”
I snapped the case shut and walked alongside him, trying to match his long strides. I was suddenly nervous again, thinking that most of the tunes I knew were Ani Difranco, Indigo Girls.  The closest I came to country was kd lang.  Everything about me felt like it would give me away, my walk, my height, my tenor voice.  The weight of what I was, or was not, settled around me, even as my boots stirred up red clouds of dust from the road.  The sun was setting – Castle Rock was already a silhouette. I looked at the outline of the Indian mountain, definitely sleeping peacefully, not dead.  It was a dark lump against the blue-black sky. 
Larry held the door for me.  The trailer’s living room was full of wranglers and the Ole Miss girls.  A game of spades was underway at the kitchen table.  Brandi’s head turned as I walked in; she smiled.  And though I didn’t want her smile, couldn’t, to be fair, to be safe, want it, I smiled back.  Was there a little less weight on my shoulders?  The group made room for me at the table, and I played a few rounds of spades before the guys cajoled me into taking out my guitar.  I played “Brown Eyed Girl” and “The Day the Music Died” – songs that everyone could sing along to. The couples that had already formed that summer leaned against each other – a cowboy and his girl.  Brandi sat next to me, and I was saved by my guitar, which covered my chest and lap; it was my shield, all the defense I needed to keep her at bay.  And I thought, this is good, this is what I can be.  
Soon enough, people began to drift away, say goodnight. The wranglers were headed off early the next morning to bring in the rest of the ranch’s summer horses (which ran wild in central Wyoming all winter, a concept I still couldn’t wrap my mind around.  Eastern horses spent all winter in their barns or carefully swaddled in blanket coats.).  The girls had their first day off tomorrow and were headed in to Cody for ‘real food’ (“Oh, God, no offense!” They all told me, remembering that I was someone who cooked their food.)  and a movie.  Brandi stood up with the other girls.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night,” she said. “Maybe we can get our next day off together.” 
I felt Mitch dig his elbows into my ribs, heard him laugh, “She wants you, man.  Don’t puke this time.”
I held my guitar in front of me like a talisman, wished her goodnight.  If only there was always something to hide behind.  The light from the trailer quickly faded into the night.  I walked carefully through the darkness.  I mean, after all, what is gender?  What did it matter? That I’d been born and raised as a girl, spent seventeen years as my parents’ daughter, my brother’s sister, knowing all along that was not me.  What did it matter that night in Wyoming, under the quiet stars?  I wanted to open the silence, tell it who I was.  There was no light for shadows, for silhouettes, no sense of where I was.  Yet I felt so there, as if the mountains were mine, promised to me.  I was a child of this country.  What did it matter?
It didn’t matter.  And so, the next morning, a gorgeous morning, after I startled (or perhaps they startled me) a pack of pronghorn antelope outside the mess hall, I filled the sink with hot, soapy water and began to wash the breakfast dishes.  The kitchen door opened behind me, and I figured it was Gary coming in to start on lunch.  But it was Darryl’s voice I heard.
“Alex,” he said, “come to my office.”
All the panic was back.  I turned, hands dripping, and followed him to his office.  We both stood, his desk between us.  I in my apron, he in his cowboy hat.  His mouth open.  Closed.  Open. 
“Are you transgender?” He asked, not exactly making eye contact.
Whatever I had expected, it was not this.  Not this burly man standing, shy and quiet, not the word transgender.  Maybe, “Get off my ranch, faggot!” Or something of the sort, some inarticulate western rage.  For a second, I, too, did not know what to say.  But there was no point denying it.
“How did you find out?” I asked.
Darryl pushed forward a piece of paper on his desk.  “This,” he said.
It was a postcard, a picture of some bucolic New England farm scene on the front.  On the back, a note scrawled in the handwriting of a college friend, just a quick few lines hoping I was well, enjoying the mountains, that it wasn’t a problem being transgender in Wyoming. 
No, not really a problem.
“Pack your stuff and get off my ranch,” said Darryl.
            I untied my apron, that thin layer between the world and myself, laid it on his desk. 
A short time later, Greg came into the bunkhouse.  Without a word, he hefted my backpack on his shoulder.  I carried my guitar behind him out to the truck, slid it in the back.  I didn’t know what Darryl had told him, but the ride down the twisty, bumpy road was silent.  I rolled down my window, let in the sound of the rushing south fork and the red dust.  The road curved and the ranch disappeared behind us.  Soon our tires hummed on pavement.  Looking back, I was surprised to see the outline of the sleeping Indian from the other side, the bump of the nose, the long and spreading ridge.  From this side, the resemblance was more apparent; I could see the headdress, even the jut of a chin. 
The cows thinned out and we began to pass houses.  Finally, Greg turned to me.  “I’m sorry you’re going,” he said, not taking his eyes from the road.  I was too.  “Darryl can be a real asshole, I guess,” he continued.  We passed the first store on the outskirts of Cody, the first gas station.  “I think you’re a good cook, a real good dishwasher,” he said, his cheeks flushed with the effort of this compliment. 
“Thanks,” I said, meaning it.  He parked near the center of town, stayed in his seat while I unloaded my backpack and guitar.  The truck pulled away from the curb.  I turned my head, trying to look around the square outlines of the hotels and shops in downtown Cody.  The snow-capped fringe of mountains was visible in the distance. I even thought I saw the tip of the sleeping Indian’s nose. 
I settled my backpack on my shoulders, lifted my guitar.  I hadn’t wanted to be a dishwasher anyways.


Circle Square


Square dancing happened the first and third Tuesdays of the month in the old Baptist church on the fringe of Harvard Square.  It had been quite a while since the church had seen any Baptists.  The basement had been given over to a host of local activists: advocates for the legalization of raw milk, an anarchist action group, a pro-hemp organization. We danced over them all in the main sanctuary.  The pews had been removed long ago and the wooden floor was perfect for the shuffling patterns of an old-fashioned New England contra dance.
In some ways I was not your most likely candidate for square-dance attendee.  My freshman and sophomore year at Harvard I was busy making waves as a transgender person on campus.  (I was interviewed on PrimeTime Live and in the Washington Post, Details Magazine, and other publications.)  Sexuality and gender identity were pressing issues on campus, and I found myself caught up in the movement: we lobbied the school to add gender identity to the non-discrimination clause, to provide bathrooms that were gender neutral, and to address gender identity more systematically both inside and outside the classroom.  We organized protests, sit-ins, kiss-ins, die-ins.  Mostly, we talked, endlessly, tediously, about who we were and what that meant.
On a good Tuesday, about thirty people would turn out to dance.  Dress was casual, with a little dance flair (skirt with petticoat or belt with a large buckle), and the average age of group was probably 62.  Where once the pulpit had stood, the band assembled – an unpredictable assortment of instruments, some weeks a violin and guitar, other weeks a full woodwind section, plus a piano.  The most important man in the room was the caller, Earl, who had a dusty-sounding voice, soft and covering everything.  His careful intonation guided every dance.
I had come to being transgender in what could be, I suppose, considered a traditional manner, if such a word can be applied non-ironically to the description of coming out. I had been a life-long tomboy, (I would have been a card-carrying one if they had given me a card to carry.) consistently mistaken for a boy when I was young.  I delighted in this, once fooling a teacher for an entire quarter (I told her my birth name, Alice, was given to me because my parents liked Alice Cooper) until she sent a report card home to my mother which read "Your son is doing well with the material."  My mother quickly set the record straight.  But by my junior year in high school, I had finally come to terms with the fact that I was not meant to live as a woman and by my senior year in high school, I had found the terminology to match what I was feeling: transgender.
I stumbled upon the dance my sophomore year at Harvard.  Outside the church, which I happened to pass on the path between my dorm and my Wednesday morning queer theory class, there was a small poster tacked: “Square Dancing.  All invited.  No partner needed.  Bring soft-soled shoes."  Those sounded like expectations I could meet.  In the world of over-caffeinated undergraduates, life was a swirl of hyper-analysis, everyone always looking for meaning. Square-dancing seemed the perfect antidote.
I first learned to square dance in middle school, during gym class.  The school authorities of Paris, Maine (a rural community in the western section of the state) had decreed that in the winter season of gym boys would learn wresting and girls would learn gymnastics.  I therefore approached the winter with equal parts dread and jealousy. Dread of Mary Lou Retton-esque flips (or flops in my case) and jealousy of the grappling and thrashing the boys would have permission to undertake.  However, it was the late eighties and the ideas of sensitivity and political correctness were beginning to arrive even in the outer reaches of the country, and Paris, Maine was certainly an outer reach. Consequently, just as I arrived in junior high, the school introduced a third option: those interested in neither wrestling nor gymnastics could learn to square dance.   This was a godsend (though at first I was admittedly disappointed that they wouldn't let me wrestle with the boys).  Not only did square dancing provide an option that did not require me to wear spandex, I also got to escape the horrible company of prissy girls who lived to turn cartwheels and strut across the balance beam.
As you might imagine, the group that elected the square dance option was composed of nerdy, delicate boys and brawny, awkward girls.  In the first class, Mrs. Crabbe (pronounced Kray-be, not Crab, unless you wanted detention) assigned us all partners and told us to practice spinning.  I was paired with Tommy, a soft-spoken boy who liked math a bit too much. I was about a foot taller than he was and neither one of was crazy about putting our arms around each other.   His face was directly level with my breasts, and my voice was a good octave lower than his.  It was awkward all around.  But we spun each other, Tommy's feet sometimes leaving the floor, and made it through that first hour of gym.  None of us would admit to liking square dancing, but at least it was an hour of gym class when none of us would be teased or taunted or the last picked for a team.
Sophomore year in college felt a long way from junior high. Square dancing was now not just the lesser of two evils, it was a perfect sanctuary from frenetic, meta-everything life of my peers.  By the time I was a sophomore, I was deeply immersed in Harvard's queer activist scene.  Arriving at college, an only recently emerged trans-person, I came on to a scene that was at once dividing like a zygote and stewing in its own juices. 
I had thought that being transgender defined me.  In fact, when I had come out in high school (following the bi now gay later pattern) first as a lesbian then as transgender, I felt comfort not only in finally being able to live as a man, but also a release from the expectations of a label.  Nobody in high school knew what transgender was.  Nobody could come up to me and say (as they did when I was out as a lesbian) "Oh, yeah, I have an aunt who's gay and she says…" Being transgender meant that I made my own rules; no one else could claim my turf.  Not so at Harvard.  The mid-nineties meant that everyone was scrambling for a label at the same time that everyone had transcended all labels. When I said I was transgender at the first BGLTSA (or whatever the acronym was) meeting, I was showered with questions.  Was I pre-op, non-op, third gender, or no gender?  It seemed like everyone had definitions ready to account for every aspect of gender.  My existence had been theorized and jargonized so much so that I was rendered unsure of what I was anymore.  It was the tendency of my peers to define, refine, and define again, an inescapable cycle where words were chosen over meaning.  Any sense of self was drowned in semantics and signifiers. 
But every other Tuesday, I would head to the Baptist church.  When I arrived, the other regulars would say, "Our young man has come again this week!"  Everyone else was well over fifty and most were closer to seventy.  My sophomore year, I was not yet on testosterone; I looked, on a good day, like a fifteen year old boy.  I don't doubt that some of the older folks knew that I wasn't "really" a boy, yet they never treated me with anything but acceptance and appreciation. This may have partially been due to the fact that I knew how to dance, and I wasn't constantly stepping on my partner's toes, though I did have a tendency to place my hands on my partner's shoulders, rather than waist, which definitely threw some of the women for a loop. 
When I first started attending the dances, I liked the idea that I was being transgressive, that I was bending another generation's ideas of gender, even if they didn't know it. But mostly I liked the dancing.  We started every session with a traditional New England style Contra dance.  A line of men facing a line of women.  No ambiguity.  No crossing over.  Once the music started, the lines would step towards each other, and each pair would swing or turn before shuffling off to a new position, lines intact, everyone facing a new partner.  In the course of an evening, I would dance with a dozen different women, most of them older than my mother.  Holding their hands to allemande, grasping their waists to turn them around, ("Don't spin me too fast, young man," said one woman every time I was partnered with her.)  the steps and the movements took me right back to my junior high school gym class.  I felt almost impossibly distant from my sullen resignation as an eighth grade girl being waltzed around by a sweaty-palmed boy. Who knew that six years later I'd be on the other side of the same dance steps?  I certainly never imagined that I would voluntarily seek out square dancing; but it was now, as it was then, a sort of escape.
As much as the twice-monthly dance was a celebration of overcoming that childhood gender boundary, it was also a chance to flee the campus world of gender-in-a-blender that my peers found so fascinating.  In the Baptist church hall, there was no liminality, no third stream, nobody analyzing the perfomativity of gender roles.  The music and the dances were timeless, essential.  I often wished I could climb to the old choir loft and watch the dance from above, the rigid lines dividing into swirling couples, which reeled across the floor, then reforming under the careful cadence of the caller.  To sink into the rhythm of a dance was to sink into myself in a way that the ceaseless questioning and theorizing of my contemporaries never allowed me to.  Yet for all that the dance called me from the bustling world of my generation, it was not just an escape, not a chance to hide.  I had no illusion about getting back to a golden age, no belief that the past generations were superior to m own.  But there was an appeal in the clarity, the simple rules, the beautiful patterns, and always a partner for my self.
In junior high, Mrs. Crabbe would press 'play' on the tape deck and "Turkey in the Straw" would burst forth from the speakers.  After a few sessions, my feet moved automatically: heel, toe, heel, toe, slide to the left.  Some unfortunate boy would grab my waist and I would silently swear that someday soon I was getting out of this place. 
By the time I got to college, it wasn't a question of getting away anymore: I finally felt like I had arrived, if not in the world of my peers than at least in the world of my self.  The steps were the same, but I had changed for the better. Perhaps the most profound thing about square dancing is that, if you do it right, after all those steps and spins and turns, you end up exactly where you started.


What Makes the Man

At the start of my freshman year, I had been living as a man for about 13 months.  I arrived at Harvard galvanized by my senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy, where I had delighted in kicking up a ruckus by living my final year as openly transgender.  I remained in a girls' dorm (Though a student's rather shocked mother asked me on opening day whether the dorm was coed – I was thrilled.) and played goalie on the girls' varsity hockey and lacrosse teams – I'd pull off my helmet at the end of games and the opposing team would glare at me, somewhere between alarmed and outraged.  One opposing coach tried to get the game thrown out.
In short, I was a liminal figure, occupying that androgynous zone granted normally only to the very young.  With most people I met for the first time, I passed as a guy, but I lived in surroundings where I had been known as a woman.  Given the entirely new context of Harvard, I wasn't sure what others would make of me.  Or what I would make of myself.  
That fall, I moved into my single room on a men's hall.  The hall had two bathrooms designed with modesty in mind: a single toilet with a door and a single shower with a curtain.  As is wont to happen in randomly assigned freshman dorms, I scarcely saw the guys on my hall. The moment of gender demarcation that I had expected to come from living with men and sharing a bathroom with them never came.  (In fact, I was a little disappointed.  I had practiced all summer to be able to pee standing up – I used a rolled up clear plastic coffee can lid as a funnel – in anticipation of using communal urinals.  But my hallway provided me no such opportunity.)
As defining moments will, mine came when I least expected it.  It was a sunny day in late October, and I was outside, killing time before my next class.  That class was introductory Italian taken in order to fulfill the foreign language requirement, which I had not passed out of despite years of Latin in high school.  O tempore.  O mores. Or something like that.  I rather enjoyed my Italian class. It was led by a native Italian named Gloria, who was tall, blonde, and prone to clothing her curvaceous figure in rather clingy attire. I fumbled my way through basic phrases and a baffling book entitled "L'imbianchini non hanno Ricordi."  It had something to do with a corpse that turned out not to be dead after all.  Or at least that is what my translation rendered as plot.
Abruptly, another student joined me in the sunshine.  It was a fellow freshman, a crew jock from Connecticut, P. Wellington Wadsworth IV, known as Wells.  "So, what do you think of Italian? What do you think of Gloria?" Wells asked.  I attempted a feeble response, "She seems really…" but Wells cut across my reply; extending his hands about a foot in front of his chest, he said: "Great tracts of land, huh?"  In that instant, I was, I admit, both excited and gratified.  This was a guy – and not some weedy, pimply excuse for a guy, but a second boat, tall and handsome guy – sharing casual, straight, sexual innuendo with me.  I felt like I had aced some sort of test.
As soon as this wave of exhilaration had washed over me, I was clouded with doubt and guilt.  Weren't Wells' comments rude and inappropriate?  In order to be transgender, in order to live as a man, did I have to sacrifice my feminist ideals?  If I had overheard his comments when I was a sophomore or junior in high school, during those years that I had lived as a militant (well, kind of, as much as Exeter would allow) lesbian – when my Latin teacher used to call me "Alice with a Y" in mockery of my preferred spelling of womyn – I would have attacked Wells for objectifying and belittling a woman.  Had I changed that much?
In truth, what had changed was that I was not overhearing this remark – I was its intended audience. My reaction weighed heavily on me as defining what it meant to be a guy and what it meant to be transgender.  If I wanted to pass, to be a man, did I have to answer his remark in an approving fashion? Would any reply short of agreement and acceptance signal that I was not a man but someone who used to be a woman?
Wells was, by now, expounding on Gloria's physical attributes beyond her acreage, as casually as if he were talking about last night's game.  Jumping in, I said, not quite truthfully, "I hadn't noticed, Wells.  I'm more interested in trying to understand what she says." "Who cares about that?" he shot back.
For the following months I went over this conversation in my mind. In class, I tried to keep my eyes averted from Gloria's voluptuous spandex-clad form, but couldn't help noticing Wells' ogling.  In that room, it was so stark: Gloria was a woman, Wells was a man, I was a pathetic in-between not quite on either side.  I had tried to live as a woman and knew that I was not a woman on any standards – especially Gloria's.  I was trying to live as a man yet not conform to patriarchal expectations.  Would I be forever in the gray area?  Or would I somehow make it onto the same playing field as the other guys?
Ultimately, satisfaction came one class when Gloria, desperate to get more people talking, asked each of us to describe our ideal mate. With limited vocabularies, we could not be too picky: the class chimed in with preferred hobbies, "footing," "musica," or with physical attributes, "bello," "bruno." Then Wells spoke up, "Alta, bionda…" Gloria smiled a bit as she recognized her description, and Wells continued in English: "How about you?" Her smile widened and she replied, "Belli scarpi.  Good shoes."  Wells' eyes fell to his dirty Nikes as he clearly contemplated his downfall.  I looked at my own brown Skechers; they were a far cry from fine Italian leather, but on these terms maybe I could be a guy after all.

2 comments:

  1. I'm really happy to have stumbled upon your blog and read this great piece about you growing up. Knowing the kids you were talking about made this even more of a fun read for me. I know exactly the flute players your were talking about. On occasion I would hear bits and pieces of your story from Seth or other Oxford Hills kids. It's good to hear you're doing well. I'll check out your book too!

    Jon Whitehead

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indian College Girls Pissing Hidden Cam Video in College Hostel Toilets


      Sexy Indian Slut Arpana Sucks And Fucks Some Cock Video


      Indian Girl Night Club Sex Party Group Sex


      Desi Indian Couple Fuck in Hotel Full Hidden Cam Sex Scandal


      Very Beautiful Desi School Girl Nude Image

      Indian Boy Lucky Blowjob By Mature Aunty

      Indian Porn Star Priya Anjali Rai Group Sex With Son & Son Friends

      Drunks Desi Girl Raped By Bigger-man

      Kolkata Bengali Bhabhi Juicy Boobs Share

      Mallu Indian Bhabhi Big Boobs Fuck Video

      Indian Mom & Daughter Forced Raped By RobberIndian College Girls Pissing Hidden Cam Video in College Hostel Toilets


      Sexy Indian Slut Arpana Sucks And Fucks Some Cock Video


      Indian Girl Night Club Sex Party Group Sex


      Desi Indian Couple Fuck in Hotel Full Hidden Cam Sex Scandal


      Very Beautiful Desi School Girl Nude Image

      Indian Boy Lucky Blowjob By Mature Aunty

      Indian Porn Star Priya Anjali Rai Group Sex With Son & Son Friends

      Drunks Desi Girl Raped By Bigger-man

      Kolkata Bengali Bhabhi Juicy Boobs Share

      Mallu Indian Bhabhi Big Boobs Fuck Video

      Indian Mom & Daughter Forced Raped By Robber

      Sunny Leone Nude Wallpapers & Sex Video Download

      Cute Japanese School Girl Punished Fuck By Teacher

      South Indian Busty Porn-star Manali Ghosh Double Penetration Sex For Money

      Tamil Mallu Housewife Bhabhi Big Dirty Ass Ready For Best Fuck

      Bengali Actress Rituparna Sengupta Leaked Nude Photos

      Grogeous Desi Pussy Want Big Dick For Great Sex

      Desi Indian Aunty Ass Fuck By Devar

      Desi College Girl Laila Fucked By Her Cousin

      Indian Desi College Girl Homemade Sex Clip Leaked MMS

      Delete