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Chest Pains

By Zach Ellis

Essay

itsababy

I’m going to tell you a story about breasts. Tits. Boobs. Bosoms. Chesticles. Headlights. Hooters. Jugs. Knockers. Melons.

Mine.

The first time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a fourteen-year-old girl. I was doing jumping jacks in our basement for exercise. He asked if he could join me. We faced one another, sweat pouring off my forehead. Journey was on the radio. We jumped at the same time, his middle-aged body facing mine. Steve Perry reminded me to not stop believin’ as I caught my father’s eyes, staring right at my tits. Just enough time for us to get out of sync. Just enough time for him to see me following his gaze. He walked away when the song was over. We never said anything about it.

The second time I noticed my father staring at my chest, I was a grown man.

realman_pb_cover_FINAL_PRWhy They’re Called Passports

Partial transcript of a telephone conversation I had with a representative of the U.S. Department of State ¹ [after having my passport renewal application rejected and returned in the mail]:

ME: I don’t understand what the problem is. You have my fee, you have my correctly filled-out application, and you have a letter from a surgeon saying that I had sexual reassignment surgery and have lived as a man for several years.

I learnt a lot about mistakes when I was a literacy teacher.  Literacy teachers aren’t just role models in terms of reading and writing — they’re also responsible for modeling self-esteem.  In fact, back when I was a literacy teacher, I’d intentionally misspell a word on the board, then look at it sideways.  “Hmm, did I spell that right?” I’d muse.  “Tom, would you check the dictionary?”  Not only would Tom leap at that dictionary, but he’d also love telling me how to spell the word correctly.  I’d correct my spelling, publicly, without any shame, and the more I did this, the more the kids would check their own spellings and help one another other out, instead of bullying one another.  Peace and much learning ensued.

Mistakes are how we learn.  It’s the same with sex and gender.  And in a culture of perfectionism, it’s hard to remember that.

I was musing about this when I read that sex columnist Dan Savage had been glitterbombed at the University of Oregon while he was giving a talk.  The glitterbombers, who called themselves the “Dan Savage Welcoming Committee,” announced that Savage was transphobic, a misogynist and a rape-apologist.  But Savage doesn’t dodge such accusations.   “I certainly have had a journey in the last 20 years — as have we all — on trans issues,” Savage recently said.  “When I started writing Savage Love 20 years ago, and you can yank quotes 15, 18 years ago and flat them up today and say, ‘You know, that’s transphobic,’ I’d probably agree with you. Fifteen years ago I didn’t know as much as I know now — nor did anybody.”

What I like about this is what it models for the rest of us:  We all slip up.  We all make mistakes.  What’s more important is that we try, learn, grow.

A friend of mine got upset recently when we were discussing the “gender binary” (the myth that there are just two genders and nothing in between).  We were talking about men’s and women’s restrooms, and whether, today, we needed them to be separate.  (My friend, incidentally, had always believed they should be separate).  I mentioned how hard it is to be a transgender male (for instance) in that situation.  Do you go into the women’s room, when you identify as male but are female in terms of biological sex?  Confusing, right?  Going to the restroom becomes a stressful experience.  People glare if you use the women’s because you are clearly male-identified, but you might have to wait for the stall if you go into the men’s.

In response, my friend felt terrible.  She hadn’t intended to leave anyone out.  But I reminded her that there was nothing to feel bad about.  When society teaches us untruths, it’s society’s fault.  And this is why we have to keep airing these issues and making mistakes, so we’re able to learn.

But while kids are attending sex education classes where the teacher is scared to speak, the students are afraid of being mocked, and the lessons themselves keeps to a careful script, how will they ever learn to ask the stupid question, receive a thoughtful answer, and change their minds?  They need to see adult role-models slipping up and owning it.  Not with condoms, consent and safe sex (those are basic building blocks) but with political correctness, sexual skills, and gender binaries galore.  They need to understand that making mistakes is how we grow.  Intellectually, they need to be adventurers, thirsty to explore, happy to learn.

So let’s go out there, adult people, and not blush terribly when we muddle up our pronouns, or say “fuck” when we didn’t plan to, or feel confused about the difference between water-based and gel-based lube.  Let’s get out there, and in it, and muck ourselves up.  Let’s ask the stupid question.

Because if we won’t grow, who will?

 

One day in grade six, Teacher asked us all to say aloud what we wanted to be when we grew up. “I’m going to be a doctor,” one boy announced as we all sat cross-legged in a circle. “I’m going to be a teacher!” a ponytailed girl called out with a raised hand. Another boy with red hair and freckles said he wanted to be a fire engine: a big, loud, red, fire engine. Teacher, a kind, grey-haired woman who always wore a blue, pleated skirt and held a piece of new, white chalk, corrected him by saying, “Don’t you mean you want to be a fireman?” “No,” the boy said, shaking his head. “I want to be a fire engine. A big, loud, red, fire engine.” Everyone laughed, but secretly I was scared that Teacher would ask me what I wanted to be. I was scared because I didn’t know what I wanted to be. There was no profession I could imagine myself becoming when I grew up. Would I even grow up? That was like imagining myself outside a forest when all around me it was dark and I was alone and really, if I’d been honest, although I already knew well enough not to be, all I wanted was to be at peace. Not a doctor or a priest or a football player—at peace.

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The impact of growing up “different,” more stereotypically feminine than masculine but unmistakably male, was dissonant, and divisive. I was, throughout my childhood, “at war” within: wanting to be like the other little boys, but knowing, or at least thinking, I was not. In what way I was different, I could never have articulated, but my “otherness” was isolating. While the “real boys” played sports, talked about guns, cars, and were generally aggressive, I was more interested in singing, drawing, painting, writing poetry, playing with dolls and baking with my mother in the kitchen. Crying came easy, I never understood cruelty, and was teased, both by my schoolmates and my two older brothers, for being “too sensitive.” Once, in grade six, I pretended to like guns so that the schoolboys would like me. It worked: For a week I was included in their fold. The sense of belonging, of finally being “normal,” filled me with joy. But it was only a matter of time before my true self shone through; and shone through it did: Like pentimento beneath the painting of myself, my “femininity” eventually surfaced, as did my dislike of sports, and I was once again excluded, banished, from all their activities.

There were other signs of my “differentness.” My older sister, once while we were watching television in the living room, noticed me sitting with my legs crossed at the knees and, in a frenzy, told me never to sit “like that.” Her look of horror made me panic. “You need to sit like a real boy,” she said. My body had deceived me; in a moment of forgetfulness, my inner self had again revealed itself in ways I didn’t like, or seem to be able to control. Long before I’d heard of words like “gay” or “homosexual,” all I knew was my internal compass of desire was directing itself toward boys, and not, as I’d been taught was normal, girls.

My own body could not be trusted; it was the enemy, and I questioned it repeatedly. Sometimes, during puberty, while lying naked in the bathtub after dinner, I prayed for God to make my penis into a vagina, and my flat chest into breasts. I’d stand and look at myself in the mirror, pushing my penis between my legs so that my body looked more like a body that was supposed to like boy-bodies. My prayers, however, went unanswered, and I remained out of synch, discordant to what was normal. I remained, to my bewilderment, a boy-body.

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A team of researchers, headed by Selcuk R. Sirin of Montclair State University (2004), have helped explain people’s negative reactions to male gender role transgressions. They found that “. . . men are punished more harshly than women for deviating from traditional gender role norms. This phenomenon, called male gender role rigidity, leads many boys and men to avoid developing or engaging in what society has prescribed to be feminine-typed gender role characteristics and stereotypically feminine behaviors . . . Other researchers have suggested that, for men, gender role rigidity might be a defense mechanism against experiencing anxiety associated with gender role violations” (“Differential Reaction to Men and Women’s Gender Role Transgression: Perceptions of Social Status, Sexual Orientation, and Value Dissimilarity,” The Journal of Men’s Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 2004, pp.129). This was certainly true for me. The anxiety that my own gender role violations might reveal the fact of my “differentness” is what, for years, kept me acting the part of a heterosexual—a “real man.”

Finally, at the age of 24, I came out to my parents as gay. “I am a homosexual,” I wrote in a letter that I left on their bed. The next day my mother, while we were alone at their house, told me that I wasn’t born gay, that I’d been “made into a pervert from some old man”—a reference to when I’d been sexually abused as a child, an event that we had never, in 15 years, discussed. In an instant I felt buried beneath the shame, and the heteronormativity, of her words.

In 1989, following a year of familial conflict, I left my hometown “to start over.” Soon alone, confused and depressed in an unfamiliar city, I sought treatment with Dr. Alfonzo, a psychiatrist referred to me by my then-general practitioner. “I feel like a crippled heterosexual,” I told him during my initial consultation. “How do I come to terms with who I am when who I am seems to cause so much pain and suffering to everyone I know?” Alfonzo explained the process of his treatment—a form of primal therapy—and I began therapy several weeks later.

During one of my early sessions, however, Alfonzo began presenting me with various causation theories, and said that he was sure I wasn’t gay because I didn’t have “any of the characteristics of a homosexual.” I asked him what he meant.

“Effeminacy, passivity, desperation to get a man, a drug addict, an alcoholic. You aren’t any of these things. The fact is, Peter, most gays learn their behavior. Therefore, it can be unlearned, though with great difficulty.” My greatest fear had always been that the sexual abuse had “created” my sexual orientation. Like my mother before him, I could not object.

Therapy intended to help me “feel better,” quickly morphed into treatment geared at changing my sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. Not only did the practice, a form of reparative therapy, not work, it also resulted, three years into treatment, in my near fatal breakdown precipitated by prolonged, excessive overmedication—one of the many ways Alfonzo’s tried to “flip me over to the other side.” The medications, some used specifically to deaden my sex drive, made me feel numb, lifeless and passive. Any light that had remained alive in me was switched off: erections were eliminated, fantasy and arousal eradicated.

If Alfonzo, or psychiatry, became my oppressor, then I was like the written word and the eraser erasing itself. Yet despite both our efforts, and over five years of several concurrent psychotropics, I still clocked in at a six on Alfonzo’s revised “Kinsey scale” of one to seven: men, not women, remained the object of my affection. Finally, when it was clear my same-sex attraction could not be changed, Alfonzo attacked my gender: the ways in which I’d been masculinised or feminized. Hiking, construction work, ditch-digging: all were encouraged, as if in doing them I’d become a “real man.” His methods weren’t that uncommon. Clinical counselor Alice Christianson (2005) noted that in some reparative therapies, “. . . the solution is to more strongly identify with one’s gender. Men therefore should learn to change oil as part of their therapy, while women should get makeovers” (“A Re-emergence of Reparative Therapy,” Contemporary Sexuality, Vol. 39, No. 10, October 2005, pp.14).

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In 1974, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders II; twenty years later, Jordan and Deluty (1995) found that 12.9% of therapists surveyed still believed that “. . . such a lifestyle [of the homosexual] is a ‘psychosexual disorder,’ and 5% claimed that it is a ‘personality disorder’” (“Clinical Interventions by Psychologists with Lesbians and Gay Men,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, pp.451). Christianson (2005) found that “Some reparative therapists have diagnosed homosexuals as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and then attempted treatment of the homosexuality as a symptom of one of these disorders” (ibid, pp.13). More recently, Eubanks-Carter and Goldfried (2006) noted that “. . . individuals who are having difficulty coming out as gay or bisexual may be misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder. . . [because the] problems that resembled borderline symptoms . . . were also consistent with a sexual identity crisis” (“The Impact of Client Sexual Orientation and Gender on Clinical Judgments and Diagnoses of Borderline Personality Disorder,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62(6), pp.751).

In 1997, two years after leaving the therapy, I filed a five-page letter of complaint with British Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, detailing Alfonzo’s treatment of my homosexuality as a disease. His 500-page rejoinder, received by the College two years later, discredited my complaint by qualifying me as suffering from “borderline personality disorder.” In 2001 I sued him for medication malpractice, once again citing his treatment of my homosexuality. Prior to our Examination for Discovery, in late 2002, defence counsel’s “expert witness”—another psychiatrist—interviewed me in order to write an “expert opinion” about my psychiatric history. Once again I was diagnosed with “borderline personality disorder, in which disillusionment with caregivers could be a feature.” That I had also, throughout my therapy with Alfonzo, expressed “intense anger and negative views” about both my parents—that I had experienced distress at their lack of acceptance of my homosexuality—seemed to further reinforce his diagnosis. I couldn’t help but surmise, after reading his “expert opinion,” that virtually all men and women whose families had rejected them for being gay—or, for that matter, any other reason—and who’d then expressed “intense anger” towards and “negative views” about their parents, would also be labelled as suffering from some sort of personality disorder. Psychiatry, it seemed to me, had become the science of drawing maps, and not the exploration of the territories they signified.

Coincidentally, following in the footsteps of the removal of homosexuality from the DSM II, Gender Identity Disorder (GID) reared its disordered head in the American Psychiatric Association’s third edition of the DSM (1980). According to the current DSM IV (1994),

There are two components of Gender Identity Disorder . . . There must be evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification . . . manifested [in boys] by a marked preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities. They may have a preference for dressing in girls’ or women’s clothes . . . Towels, aprons, and scarves are often used to represent long hair or skirts . . . They particularly enjoy playing house, drawing pictures of beautiful girls and princesses, and watching television or videos of their favorite female-type dolls, such as Barbie, are often their favorite toys, and girls are their preferred playmates. When playing “house,” these boys role-play female figures . . . They avoid rough-and-tumble play and competitive sports and have little interest in cars and trucks or other non-aggressive but stereotypical boy’s toys. They may express a wish to be a girl and assert that they will grow up to be a woman. They may insist on sitting to urinate and pretend not to have a penis by pushing it in between their legs. More rarely, boys with Gender Identity Disorder may state that they find their penis or testes disgusting, that they want to remove them, or that they have, or wish to have, a vagina (532-533).

The DSM IV goes on to describe GID in adults, which, it explains, most commonly manifests as a preoccupation “to live as a member of the other sex.” Considering my own cross-gender behavior as a child, and the fact that I developed into a gay man who’s accepting of the body he was assigned at birth—I have no desire “to live as a member of the other sex”—I can’t help but wonder if GID is the new euphemism for homosexual. Maybe the best way for psychiatry to diagnose and then treat the homosexual today is to diagnose and then treat the Gender Identity Disorder in children.

Kenneth J. Zucker, M.D., of Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health, and Robert L. Spitzer, M.D., of New York’s State Psychiatric Institute (2005), have argued against any type of “‘backdoor maneuver’ in replacing homosexuality” with GID, and yet they readily admit that some therapists continue to treat children with GID “in part, to prevent homosexuality” (“Was the Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood Diagnoses Introduced into DSM III as a Backdoor Maneuver to Replace Homosexuality? A Historical Note,” Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Brunner-Routledge, 31, pp.36). The American Psychiatric Association, meanwhile, is set to release its fifth edition of the DSM in 2012, with Zucker and Ray Blanchard, M.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, leading the committee for Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which was instrumental in having homosexuality removed from the DSM, has opposed their involvement with the committee, citing both as advocates for reparative therapies in gender-variant children.

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If I am a house with many rooms, all doors to each of those rooms open up into me, my gender and I: one person. In other words, were I, as the 10-year-old boy I once was, to walk into a psychiatrist’s office today, without a doubt I’d be diagnosed with GID. Almost all of its symptoms I displayed as a pre-pubescent child, and yet I’m convinced my “preoccupation with traditionally feminine activities” was nothing more than an early indicator of my homosexuality.

But maybe that’s the point.

As long as we live in a heteronormative culture that by its very nature, its “thought reform,” teaches children to see themselves as heterosexual and “gender-appropriate,” those children who are not—and there will always be children who are not—will continue to experience their bodies as discordant to who they’re told they should be. I could not, as a child, imagine myself a grown up because I could not envisage a life beyond the normative boundaries imposed on me as an atypical boy. In the binary world of gender-appropriate children, I didn’t exist.

It was after you slurred those filthy songs with a sweet voice, eyes rolling up to the colored gels covering the lights, thinking, “FUCK! They can make me beautiful,” that I decided I couldn’t look at you anymore,

The first time I met Tricky, she told me to pour her a double, baby, and so I did. On a good day she drank Stoli and soda, heavy on the Stoli, light on the soda, in a glass. On a not so good day she did away with the glass and drank straight out of the bottle. I had never seen thirst like hers.

She worked in the club’s office upstairs, answering phones all day in a voice clouded by cigarette smoke and dripping with honey, but she wished she could get her bartending gig back. There was a day last summer when I had to go to work, despite feeling like an emotional wreck. As I opened the door to the office and walked inside, Tricky took one look at me and asked me what was wrong. I broke down in tears and words and expressed that I had just left my boyfriend. I typically detest showing any vulnerability, especially at work, but at this point in my life my closest friends were either living elsewhere or just not around that weekend. I have a lot of “friends,” but only a few people that I really confide in. “Oh, boo, it gets easier, but for some of us, the ache never goes away,” she said, tears in her eyes. Her boyfriend had left her several months before, and it sure didn’t seem like it was any easier for her. She hugged me. I hadn’t hugged anyone in months. It felt good.

a frail six-foot tall child who chooses to sleep on tattered, burnt velvet couches in the humid basement, not even caring that rats bite your ripped knees and floured skin falls from your tiny finch-like bones.

Tricky was larger than life, an exaggerated woman, a singer prone to maudlin expression and verse, a bombastic designer with decorations not for the faint of heart. She painted murals in the club with vague images of herself all gussied up like a Storyville whore. She told me that she was going to take her panache for flower arrangements and start her own business. She told me that she could get us front row tickets to Madonna. She told me that a world famous photographer was going to do a photo shoot of her at the club, which is why she showed up to work one day in perfect make up and hair like Veronica Lake. But the world famous photographer never showed.

Or you sit, a defeated ghost of your former self, haunting the corner of my bar.

And then she lost her job at the club. I had a regular who was the head chef and manager of a party boat in Manhattan. He sought my help in hiring suggestions. I recommended Tricky. Chef Ted called me after her interview and thanked me for sending her in and that she was hired. “I told him that he had to wear a shirt and tie, you know, be a boy if he wants to work on this boat, because customers aren’t going to appreciate his other look. I don’t mind of course. But he can’t scare people here.” He nervously laughed when I didn’t.

You make a brutal gesture to me, pour you another, your mother is dying, you miss your boyfriend, you lost your job, you make no money at your new job, you are being evicted, you are disappearing. I do pour you another, but at the same time, I think about how I want to rip your hair out, strand by strand, with my teeth.

I felt guilty for enabling her habit, but sometimes I felt like it would just go away on its own. I know that sounds insane. I didn’t want to face reality, either, I suppose. Whenever I saw her, she knew what to expect, an attentive bartender, a drinking buddy, a shoulder to cry on…how could I deny her that? I suck at tough love and never had to do an intervention either, despite having a fair number of addicts amongst my friends. Sometimes I feel guilty for being able to handle my alcohol, being able to know when I need to stop drinking. I am a heavy drinker, but I am undeniably a responsible one. I don’t drink on the job. I don’t ever drink and drive. I don’t drink during the day, save for the occasional bloody Mary at brunch. I love booze, but I also know there is a right time and place for it.

When you aren’t looking, I take the stolen bottles, greasy from your grab, out of that bag you told me to hold for you. I noticed the plastic seals now slack and ripped back from fat glass necks because you were like an eager child unwrapping presents on Christmas.

I adore this photo because it reminds me of Tricky at her finest. Despite the spur of the moment pose, despite the shitty camera phone and the not famous photographer, she treated it like it was crucial. I will always look at it and remember her with love. That night there was an upcoming big event at the club and she had been decorating the basement bar area to look like the secret cave of a teenaged princess. She had hung pink and red chandeliers, arranged giant bouquets of stargazer lilies in glass vases tinted fuschia, making the dank basement where she slept smell divine. She put glitter everywhere that could take it.

I want to spit on you. I want to hug you, your heart is as huge as a magnum. I pour you another. And this, I vow, this will be the last one, ever.