Gender Changer

originally published in Out Behind the Desk: Workplace Issues for LGBTQ Librarians, edited by Tracy Nectoux (Library Juice Press, 2011)

I was the proverbial “pre-homosexual” boy. I liked playing with the girls — hopscotch, jacks, jump rope, Barbie dolls, and “house” — and had crushes on the boys. Did I want the boys to like me or was it that I wanted to be more like them? I couldn’t quite figure it out. I often envied the boys’ physical prowess, their artistic ability, or their ease in moving through the world. I knew not to confess that I found them handsome and wished I knew how to be more comfortable with them, with myself. I was slow to understand my physical attraction to men. Recently a friend I’ve known since the first grade out of the blue told me she’d always known I was gay. Really? I didn’t actually come out to myself until I was nearly twenty.

When I first came out in the early 1970s, it felt weird dancing with another man or holding hands in public or kissing. Of course, once I moved to San Francisco everything was much easier. Here, being a member of a sexual minority was increasingly acceptable if not downright chic. Since then, I have been out with friends, family, co-workers, in school. I don’t think I ever attempted to “pass” as straight. It seemed much too challenging for this somewhat effeminate boy with a sibilant “s.”  On the rare occasion when someone assumed I was straight I was flummoxed.

I attended Bellevue Community College and the University of Washington, but then stopped out, moved to San Francisco, and came out as a gay man When I returned to college at Berkeley in the mid -70s, I plunged into sociology courses on women and the family. These courses, and the powerful women who taught them, revolutionized my thinking. Feminism made so much sense to me; its political framework seemed incontrovertibly necessary. I wholeheartedly embraced feminism’s message about the “evils of patriarchy.” Was I allowed, as a man, to call myself a feminist? I wanted to be part of this movement but was afraid of inadvertently being insensitive to the sisterhood. From whom could I solicit permission to join this club? I finally found an uneasy foothold as a male feminist, someone many women still viewed with understandable skepticism.

I had no intention of becoming a librarian when I decided to apply to Berkeley’s Library School. While working as a paraprofessional in the library at the San Francisco Art Institute, I learned that I was entitled to receive reimbursement for half my expenses if they were directly related to my job duties. I managed to obtain a grant for the other half. I figured having good research skills would stand me in good stead whatever I decided to do. I thought I knew a lot about libraries having used them since I was a kid, including eagerly searching each installment of Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature for new articles about movies.

Library school was a good fit for me: I was surrounded by books and intellectually curious people. With students nearly as nerdy as myself, I debated the choice of main entry, Library of Congress Subject Heading, or Dewey Decimal Classification.

After a somewhat circuitous path, I ended up at the San Francisco Public Library, where I was eventually named head of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center.  While I like to say I was in the right place at the right time, I also believe my skill set was well suited to the demands of the job. During my tenure I learned a lot. In fact, I think I learned more in that period than in the 38 years preceding it. And much of it turned out to be things I’ve had to unlearn.

At the Hormel Center, I learned about the complicated intersections of sex and gender, including sexual orientation, transgender and intersex issues, bisexuality, and more. When the Center opened as part of the new main San Francisco Public Library in April 1996, it represented the first permanent research center in a public library devoted to the documentation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history and culture. In addition to books, magazines, videos, photographs, posters, pulp paperbacks, recordings, ephemera, and memorabilia, the Center holds archival collections of personal papers and organizational records.

To all outward appearances, I stand at the apex of the world’s pyramid of race and gender. Inhabiting this 6’ 3” tall, white, male body, I have the luxury of being able to play with labels. Inside I feel powerful, but in a different way, hidden from most people’s view. In a childhood fantasy I imagined that underneath the façade of a bookish, nerdy, overweight kid was actually a superpower, someone who hadn’t yet come into his own, and whose abilities would one day amaze everyone else. Today I may not feel superhuman, but I do know that I am privileged: I pass as a man. No one hassles me on my choice of public bathrooms or confuses their pronouns in referring to me.

I enjoyed my exalted position. When I was named one of San Francisco’s fifty most influential gays and lesbians by the local gay weekly newspaper, the Bay Area Reporter, I tried not to let it go to my head. I met many fascinating people, many of them celebrities in the queer world whose faces I’d seen in the news, whose books I had read and whose films I had viewed. I collaborated on several programs with the New York Times’ “Times Talks,” with the GLBT Historical Society, and other prestigious local and national organizations. I made many mistakes in the course of my time at the Hormel Center. I was publicly accused of plagiarism and censorship; I lost friends and made enemies.

At work, I was responsible for meeting the informational needs of an unpredictable constituency of users. As I worked to develop the Hormel Center’s collection scope statement, I tried to imagine who might be using the Center and in what ways. Novels, non-fiction, periodicals, films were all obvious collection development areas. And I learned that my understanding of sexual orientation, and even of gender identity and sexuality were relatively narrow.

In 1994 I met Susan Stryker and we began collaborating on Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (Chronicle Books, 2006). As we became friends, I realized I was receiving a crash course in Transgender 101. Susan is a brilliant writer, historian, filmmaker, and influential transgender activist. Originally a biological male who loved women, when she transitioned to female, Susan explained that, as is often the case, her object choice didn’t change, and thus her identity transformed into that of a lesbian. As we researched and wrote our survey of the Bay Area’s queer history, Susan patiently explained the dynamics of gender dysphoria. She answered all of my probing questions, often using her own experience as an example. I remain impressed by her knowledge, patience, and ability to guide me to a deeper understanding of transgender issues. As proud as I am to have co-authored my first book with Susan, I am prouder still of our enduring friendship. Her lessons have served me well; I am now better able to understand others’ prejudices and misconceptions on transgender issues, as I patiently attempt to dispel them.

Similarly with bisexual issues, I was educated by people I knew. I learned from several female friends who had lived for many years as lesbians before marrying men and having children. Had they been gay and were now straight? Were they always bi? Is female sexuality more fluid than male? It was confusing, as my friends answered my increasingly personal questions and I read probably the single most helpful anthology of voices, Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out, edited by Loraine Hutchins and Lani Kaahumanu (Alyson, 1994). I came to understand the frequent feeling of bisexual invisibility, the challenge of being “seen,” and the difficulty bisexuals have being accepted in either straight or gay communities. This is often compounded by those who come out as “bi” when they are really afraid to identify as homosexual. No wonder there was so much biphobia. I took all of these issues as a personal challenge to try to help dispel this lack of understanding.

In 1998 the Hormel Center and the Harvey Milk Institute, a now-defunct San Francisco-based LGBTQ educational organization, co-sponsored a Butch/FTM [Female-to-Male] Conference. The library’s Koret auditorium was filled with people on the spectrum between male and female, young and old, black and white, straight and gay. The pain and passion in the room were palpable.  Butch lesbians raged as they described the betrayal they felt by their sisters who had deserted them by becoming men. FTMs wept as they described the alienating journey to realize their long-hidden dreams of living as men. It was only a beginning in an ongoing and often uneasy dialogue, but it awakened me to an even wider range of experience. My ongoing struggle with homosexuality seemed almost inconsequential compared to what these brave people were experiencing. I admired all of them for being brave enough to participate in this intense clash between the personal and the political.

Others who have helped inform my attempts to understand what it means to transcend the gender binary include James Green, Loren Cameron, Jordy Jones, Kate Bornstein, Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, and Martine Rothblatt’s Apartheid of Sex. These courageous people have helped open my heart and my mind. When I saw “TransForming Community,” the powerful evening of transgender and genderqueer spoken word presentations curated by Michelle Tea at the LGBT Community Center, I sponsored a repeat performance some months later in the library’s auditorium.  I was pleased and proud to hear the audience’s positive reaction to these provocative pieces.

One afternoon on a coffee break at the Ramada Inn across the street from the library, I noticed the lobby was filled with large, hairy men. I had inadvertently happened on the International Bear Rendezvous, the annual gathering of gay men who take pride in their heavy set, hairy bodies. As I looked at the young chubby-cheeked faces with sparse facial hair, I suddenly flashed on the fact that many of these guys looked to me more like Female-to-Male transsexuals than the butch representations of masculinity they aspired to be. Perhaps it was the testosterone, a hormone that must course naturally through my own body, but about which I know little. A friend and I still jokingly quote another friend’s offhanded comment, “He could pass for FTM,” as code for someone’s ambiguous gender identification.

That friend was David Cameron. When David approached me about doing a program on intersex issues, I worried about betraying my ignorance yet again, but agreed to host it.  David quickly educated me about what I had previously known as “hermaphrodites,” lent me several rare VHS documentaries, then directed me to the website of Intersex Society of North America. Soon I was ordering books and videos for the Hormel Center’s collection, meeting with intersex activists and helping to dispel the misinformation that seemed pervasive and prevalent. In fact, David and I are currently coauthoring a chapter on intersex resources for librarians in the new edition of the classic Gay and Lesbian Library Service (McFarland, 1990) now being edited by Ellen Greenblatt, tentatively titled Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and the Library.

During the current national struggle for and against the recognition of “gay marriage,” I realized that the determination to maintain marriage as between a man and a woman was extremely problematic. Who is defining the terms? What about my intersex, transgender, and genderfluid friends? Is gender dependent on the number of one’s chromosomes, genitalia, public presentation, personal identification, or what?  While I certainly understood the struggle for equal rights, I personally did not want to embrace such a patriarchal institution.

I am simultaneously thrilled and saddened by the ongoing dialogue between articulate members of the queer and trans communities. The issues are complicated and confusing, genderbending, and mind-boggling. The anguish and anger are inspiring. It’s hard to change deep-seated beliefs, but I know from my own evolution that it can happen. Just when I think I comprehend something, I realize I don’t understand at all. And the more I fail to understand, the more I realize the need to screen another documentary, moderate another panel, or host another presentation to elucidate the dilemma. I feel as if this struggle, painful as it can be, is creating a new world, one richer and more hospitable.

My eyes were opened again when I attended a sensitivity training workshop for library staff led by Marcus Arana, from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. I had known Marcus for years when I witnessed the reaction of some of my colleagues who absolutely could not and would not believe him when he revealed that he had been born female. Their minds were blown and I watched their beliefs about sex be slowly reassembled in that drab conference room.

I delight in recalling an instance years ago when the Chief of the Main Library introduced me as “the gay and lesbian librarian.” She, of course, meant that I was the librarian in charge of collection development for gay and lesbian subject areas, but I heard it a different way. She was right, I felt like both a gay and a lesbian librarian.

My friend Kim Klausner recounted a long-ago conversation in which her partner, Susan Stryker, had made reference to “male lesbians.”

“Do you mean like you,” Kim asked Susan, “or like Jim Van Buskirk?”  While I laughed, I also felt I had been seen.  For an anthology I co-edited entitled Identity Envy: Wanting To Be Who We’re Not: Creative Nonfiction by Queer Writers (Harrington Park Press, 2007), my writing partner Andrew Ramer contributed a personal essay called “Tales of a Male Lesbian.” When I read his piece, I realized I was not alone. His identification with lesbians in Park Slope, Brooklyn, was almost interchangeable with my experience in Berkeley, California.

My boyfriend also teases me. For example, one year at the GLBT Pride parade he made himself a button that read, “I’m not a lesbian, but my boyfriend is.”  I admire him as he walks through the city daily wearing a pink Tinker Bell backpack.

I have tried to remember the adage: sex is what is between my legs; gender is what is between my ears. I’m still confused about my identity. I still don’t feel I fit into the mold of a gay man. For ten years a small empty container marked “Gender Changer” was pinned above my desk into the wall of my cubicle. When my department head jokingly gave me the package, with its label reading “9 pin female-to-male gender changer wired straight through,” I had no idea it once contained a piece of common computer hardware. From time to time I glanced up to ponder the package, priced at $2.99, wondering about the magical gadget it once held. Despite my fantasy of a Gender Changer that would make transitioning from male to female as easy as plugging in a piece of hardware, perhaps what I actually envision is much bigger. I dream of a world in which all of us can safely be who we really are. The fluidity of gender-changing people makes more room for all of us.

The courage and commitment I see around me each day reminds me that the world itself is changing, and for that I am profoundly grateful. And that change is coming about largely because of dedicated people willing to challenge the status quo and come out as who they are: librarians working from within and activists working from the streets, authors writing books, filmmakers making films, and people all over the world making sure that libraries are a source of information for absolutely everyone, no matter who they are.