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.
DEPARTMENT OF STATE: It doesn’t say you had complete sexual reassignment surgery.
ME: I see. Well, what does complete sexual reassignment surgery entail?
DOS: Um. [Ruffles papers]. It requires, um. It requires full, complete surgery.
ME: What is full, complete surgery?
DOS: What you are calling “bottom” surgery.
ME: So essentially, in order to have a passport that I can safely travel with, I need to disclose what is in my pants.
DOS: I suppose you could put it that way.
ME: So I could have a penis and giant boobs but you’d still let me have the M?
DOS: I didn’t make up the rule, sir; I’m just telling you what it says.
ME: Did you have to tell the government what is in your pants in order to get your passport?
DOS: Uh, sir, I did not have to, no.
ME: Does it seem fair that I have to?
DOS: I can’t speak to that.
DOS: I’m sorry. I just need evidence of complete sexual reassignment surgery, and then I can process your application.
ME: The doctor says he considers it full sexual reassignment surgery.
DOS: It needs to say complete.
ME: Okay, so you’re telling me I need to go to Zagreb, Croatia, and spend like fifty thousand dollars on a far-from-perfect procedure that would give me essentially a limp piece of sirloin hanging between my legs for you to issue me a passport with an M on it?
DOS: Again, I didn’t make up the policy. I just need something that says you’ve had complete sexual reassignment surgery.
ME: I have completed my transition.
DOS: Not according to the guidelines.
ME: Whose guidelines?
DOS: The Department of State’s.
ME: What about my guidelines? What if I’m okay with how I am? Actually, why don’t you just tell me how many inches of penis the government requires to decide I’m male?
DOS: [Agitated] I don’t know.
ME: No, seriously. How long? Because maybe I’ll just make it under the wire.
DOS: I don’t know.
ME: Okay, then. What if I don’t have either? Like, what if you can’t tell? What do those people get?
ME: Or… [raised voice] what if I don’t want to discuss with a complete stranger and put down on record with the government what I have down there, because it’s nobody’s business except mine and whomever I share it with? ²
ME: [Calmer] This is just intensely personal, and I’m uncomfortable having to talk about this with you just to be able to travel freely and comfortably in the world.
DOS: I can assure you it’s not entirely comfortable for me either.
ME: I know you’re trying to help. Can I ask you one more thing?
DOS: [Sighing] Yes.
ME: All those guys in Iraq getting their genitals blown off by IEDs, do you make them change their passports from M to F when they come home, because they don’t have penises anymore?
DOS: I don’t know what you want me to say. Send me a letter that says you’ve had complete gender reassignment surgery, and I’ll process your application.
…Which I took as tacit permission to forge a document with the required wording. Two weeks later in the mail was my new passport with the correct gender marker on it.
Less than a year after that, once President Obama’s appointees had some time to review the old policy on issuing passports to transgender citizens, the State Department’s rules were loosened. Now all you need to get your gender changed is to present a letter from a physician stating that you have undergone clinical treatment for “gender transition.” Which is appropriately, graciously vague, and means you can be on hormones, not be on hormones, be on a low dose of hormones or a full dose of hormones, have had surgery, have not had surgery, have had one kind of surgery but not others, and so on.
I had a feeling the guy I talked to at the State Department knew that the new rules were coming. (Transgender legal advocacy organizations had been working to educate past administrations for years; this was the first one willing to budge.) Or maybe I was just telling myself he knew that as I repeatedly practiced forging a signature and Photoshopping letterhead—and tried desperately not to think about the fact that I was defrauding the government and would of course ultimately be caught and end up in federal prison for several years for my brazen counterfeiting scheme.
But how would they determine which prison to throw me in?
¹ This was shortly after Barack Obama became president and Hillary Clinton secretary of state.
² On that note, what the hell is up with the Transportation Safety Administration’s new full-body scanners at airports? The ones that reveal intimate contours of travelers’ bodies, i.e., take three-dimensional images of your completely NUDE body underneath your clothing, aka strip search you without probable cause, aka violate the Fourth Amendment and the Privacy Act (images are sometimes stored, and they reveal things like prosthetic breasts or testicles, colostomy bags, catheters, and other potentially embarrassing—not to mention private—details on all kinds of people’s bodies).
So essentially, any time I travel through an airport where one of the new scanners is in use, if I suck it up and go through the machine (instead of drawing extra attention to myself by requesting an invasive, time-consuming pat-down instead), I am outed. And ashamed. And standing there on the yellow footprints for a couple of minutes hoping I don’t get harassed—or worse—when stopping by the restroom prior to boarding my flight.
* * *
Born in the Wrong Body
If it all sounds contradictory, that’s because it is.
I think about new money. I think about immigrants. Lady CEOs.
No matter how much you grow, how far you travel, how high you reach—how deftly you pass—you will always at least in some small way wonder. You will cut an eye back over your shoulder every now and again. To see who might be coming up from behind, or looking at you funny. You hear Jay-Z do it in some of his songs. Jews do it every day, it eats away at their colons, two thousand years of running and fretting over some form of “The Nazis are in Pasadena.”¹ Martha Stewart must do it, too, in a rare flash of fragility—perhaps on the darkest of the 150-some-odd nights she spent in the pokey—think, Do they know what I really am? Can I keep it all up and pull this off? ²
I don’t care if you are the richest motherfucker on the planet, you came from nothing and now have everything. Sealed away forever are your Midwest trailer park beginnings, and your seventh-grade-educated mom and ninth-grade-educated dad are currently tucked into a luxurious, Scotchgarded, overstuffed sectional in front of satellite TV in the new split-level you quietly purchased in their name within a gated suburban community. TiVoing the fuck out of Dancing with the Stars and Two and a Half Men. The Voice. Making enough Frito pie to freeze and eat for a whole week. You will always harbor a little of that in you.
Or maybe you have done everything possible to shed that, and you don’t have it in you at all. There is not a single external indicator, you are instead an Incredible Hulk of a man: five foot ten, thickly bearded, with a Barry White–deep voice, muscles out to here, a don’t-fuck-with-me set jaw. I know transmen like this (albeit not green-skinned ones). And on the flipside, I know transwomen who are petite and gorgeous and svelte and delicious in ways that Beverly Hills and Hamptons housewives pay hundreds of thousands of dollars on operating tables in hopes of becoming. NOBODY WOULD EVER SUSPECT! is the go-to, generous compliment nontrans people always give us. I NEVER WOULD’VE KNOWN! had you not told me you weren’t born female. Or male. Or poor. Or in another country.
But it’s not about what others think you are.
It’s what you think you are: what you fear, what you project—even unconsciously, unintentionally. Maybe during one of those moments of weakness. Or in times of illness, or failure. Even if it’s the last thing in the world you intend to do. It radiates invisibly, hisses out silently to all but you. But waiting to be confirmed by somebody who is not you.
There are always people who pick up whiffs of something being off in others. Just slightly askew. One tick from normal. It is not on your person, cannot be discerned from your twenty-five-thousand-dollar pair of sunglasses,³ the framed Ivy League diplomas on your wall, your bison ranch in Wyoming. Your perfect English. Or that formidable, bulging package you’re rocking in your jeans. It’s nothing anybody could put a finger on (or five). But it’s there. Behind your eyes beneath those sunglasses. Or in the way you imperceptibly fix your head like a spaniel, listening and observing for that instant when everything can turn, and you will be exposed for everything you really are. Which is not what you really are, of course it’s not. But it’s what you know most people will forever think you are if they ever discovered the TRUTH. And that’s why it’s contradictory: I’m just living my life and don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks—AND—I am TERRIFIED EVERY SECOND of being FOUND OUT.
I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I don’t sweat every minute of my daily life. It’s way more subdued than that. In fact many days I don’t think about it at all, not consciously. A lot of the time, I am most comfortable with people who “don’t know”: mooky guys selling me a new set of tires at the garage, tattooed girls fixing me espresso drinks at the coffee shop, old Christian ladies I help with their bags at the grocery. Some dapper gay dude cruising me on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. I don’t sit there through every interaction wondering, WHEN WILL THEY FIND OUT?
You understand? I am at my best when the world sees me for what I am, when people assume I am nothing but what they see before them. When every new person I encounter, each new day, is fresh and pure and baggage-free. IN THE MOMENT, as fucking BUDDHIST as it gets. Let go of expectations, control, preconceptions, the past, the future… and there I am in the hardware store, and the cotton-candy-haired old lady ringing me up gives my well-behaved and handsome dog a cookie and says to me with a tear pooling in one eye and the thickest Southern drawl: “You are just the kindest and sweetest man for adopting a pit bull and helping him be such a good citizen in this world. It’s all how the owners raise them.…” It’s as though it’s the first time a stranger has ever addressed, accepted, and approved of me and my deeply misunderstood and discriminated-against dog, and it feels right. I feel right, even though in truth I feel no different than I’ve felt all along.
And I am at my most ill at ease when I am, say, sitting around a dinner table over the holidays with my parents,4 my wife and children, maybe an aunt and uncle, and half a dozen cousins, various spouses. Stories about the past inevitably bubble up, and the hostess is all, “What can I get you to drink, sir” (to me), and the waiter’s all, “Are you ready to order, sir?” (again, to me, within earshot of the whole table), and I’m just sitting there, a fairly normal-looking guy with his wife and kids and extended family, and they’re all Texan and thus a little bit tipsy and a lot of loud, and I’m giving my kids paper on which to draw exotic fish in hopes of keeping them conscious through dinner because of the time change, and everything looks pretty fucking simple and straightforward, and in some ways it is. But actually it’s not, because there I also am, trying to remain present and in the moment, but I’m instead bracing myself against the booth, constantly, anxiously scanning a few seconds ahead in time and wondering, WHEN IS SOMEBODY GOING TO REFER TO ME AS ‘SHE’? Any second now it’ll pop out, here it comes…BOOM! from a cousin, in reference to me: “Remember how she used to always flip the finger in photographs? No wait, that was her brother!” HAHAHAHAHA. And then shortly after, POW! there’s the name on my birth certificate, the one I’ve never really been called, not by my parents, my brother, my friends, EVER IN LIFE, except for official purposes (transcripts and schools and jobs and such), but that magically tumbles out of the mouths of family members now that I’ve really not been using it for something like twenty-five years. And then for a moment everything in my life feels wrong (if only to me and perhaps, if she’s within earshot, my wife), so wrong like it’s always been wrong, and there never was any right, even though I still pretty much feel precisely like I’ve always felt. I’m the same person no matter what people call me. Even the ones who remember the day I was born. Who held me. They of course don’t have the power to change what I am, to take anything away, I remind myself. Okay, maybe they do for that second, but then I come right back to level, thinking, Maybe we just don’t spend as much time with family anymore. Which I promise myself never to do again. That is, until the next wedding or bar mitzvah, or the holidays.
I don’t know how many years it will take of me looking how I look, sounding how I sound, being addressed how I am addressed in the world, before some people will use the right pronoun. Or at least not use the wrong one. Maybe it’s out of stubbornness, or perhaps they just don’t care enough to make the effort or truly understand why they should. I know it’s not malicious—they rarely know when they’ve done it. It’s hard to make big changes. I get it. In fact I think I can safely say I know that better than most. But it nevertheless feels like a complete negation of my very existence, almost every single time. And I fucking hate how I grant people that power over me, even for a second.
A) “Of course I’m going to publish this book under my real name. I don’t give a fuck who knows, and if anybody has a problem, including my kids’ fucking friends’ parents and our neighbors, then we don’t need them in our lives anyway.”
B) “Gee, I sure don’t want to get strung up from that award-winning, historic maple tree at the end of the block.”
And my wife’s:
A) “I love and support you and your work and am 100 percent behind anything you choose to do.”
B) “Do you think that the prowler who was fixing to throw a brick through our glass door but instead dropped it on the porch when the dog barked at three a.m. last night was a hate crime?”
It is far simpler to say something was broken and needed fixing. That God made a mistake. That a boy brain was accidentally installed in a girl body. Or vice versa. Because most people understand mistakes. Even God botherers understand mistakes: love the sinner, hate the sin. Understand something mutating and just needing a little adjustment to be made right. Because anything else is too complicated. Demanding. Not black-and-white enough. Too gray. Too man-without-a-penis. Too woman-with-one. Does. Not. Compute.
My truth is, I wasn’t a “man trapped in a woman’s body,” and I didn’t “always know.” What was there to know? There were no role models, not even a beaten, raped, and murdered Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena winning an Oscar to give me “hope.” The only images I had were shameful, fleeting ones of sad, hulking men in ladies’ clothing, bad makeup, and cheap, crooked wigs. Patchy thrift store rabbit furs tossed over linebacker shoulders. Hissed asides about “transvestites,” reviled by society and not fooling anybody—even themselves.
Sure, I knew something was different about me. But every kid with half a brain and a third of a heart feels that way, and I guess I just wasn’t smart or brave enough to figure it out on my own: I know, I’ll just change into a boy! I acted like a boy (whatever that means). I acted like myself. I wore board shorts and T-shirts. Did tons of sports, climbed hillsides, played in Dumpsters, got in fights. Overall I was a pretty happy, well-adjusted kid. Outgoing, social, curious. Of course I got made fun of—the “dyke” barbs stinging the worst, for reasons I hadn’t even begun to unravel. But didn’t everybody’s major, glaring area of vulnerability get massacred when they were kids?
Somehow, despite every external message to the contrary, I suppose I was always fairly comfortable living in my person. I never demanded to be called by a boy’s name or cut off all my hair; I didn’t start “developing” and then freak out and try to destroy the parts of me that didn’t feel quite right. I certainly didn’t like parts of my body as I grew older, wore big T-shirts and didn’t celebrate any changes (except getting a drivers’ license), but I didn’t know that wasn’t what everybody felt.
AND THAT YOU COULD DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT, ANYWAY.
Sometimes I look at my twenty-three-year-old friend Hunter, who began transitioning in early high school, and I’m like, YOU LITTLE PRICK. FUCK YOU that you get to go through life with your new name and your altered birth certificate, and nobody knows but your parents and your sister, and a few neighbors and friends of your choice, and wherever you go, you’re just “the new guy”—in college, grad school, at your internships—and your parents helped you and supported you and signed fucking papers to let you see a therapist and get hormones and surgery and all these things that I didn’t even know existed when I was your age. Mostly because they didn’t actually exist; there were maybe one or two people out there who were furtively experimenting with that sort of thing. Okay, maybe a few more than that, but you couldn’t just punch it up on the Internet and see thousands of photos of chest surgery results and an endless stream of meticulous blogs detailing every facet of transition, minute by minute, day by day. And there weren’t big city clinics, and peers to talk to, a boundless supply of sterile syringes, and armies of people—male and female, straight, gay, whatever—who would still want to have sex with you (without paying for it). And support groups for parents whose kids think they want to change their genders.
And other times I look at Hunter and I’m like, Hey, dude. How are you doing? It’s been a minute. I’m glad to have a little tranny brother, because there are things you (and a small handful of my other older buddies) understand that most people cannot. Good luck with that retreating hairline, bitch!
Kidding! I’m just jealous.
So, it took me a little more time. Sometimes I wish it hadn’t. It was about information, or lack thereof. I frequently wonder whether, had I been born in the nineties instead of busy graduating high school and college, would I have chosen the path that Hunter did? When Hunter did? Would I have chosen a name like Hunter? Or Cole, or perhaps Tristan (likely the three most popular FTM names on record, by the way)? Would my folks have kicked me out of the house like so many (still) do, or would they have driven me to the LGBT health clinic in Los Angeles to get me started on my “journey” in a safe, supportive, healthy way?
I know what I would like to think, but the truth is I have no clue.
I sometimes think that I wish I had just been born male, and didn’t have to become a man over my lifetime. But I probably more often think the opposite. That I am happy with where I started. Because it has made me the person I ended up. Barf. And I love my body just the way it is. Barf again. And my wife says she loves me and my body exactly how I am, which I don’t believe because of something (personal) she said to me one time. Which I probably took the wrong way and totally out of context, naturally, because it was vaguely related to my biggest fear about my inadequacies and how they will one day cause her to fall out of love with me and leave me for a real man, like Harrison Ford.
The truth is, the only thing I would change about myself, the single thing I hate and consistently wish were different and never waver on—and KNOW that life would be significantly better if I could just attain… it’s not that much to ask, and it may sound vain but I really don’t care… I would sincerely like a measly three or four more fucking inches of height.
¹ As my family used to say, given we were living in Southern California.
² Not to mention: Does this knit poncho make me look fat?
³ “They’re, like, four carats of diamonds, and then they’re golf python, and they’re made of gold…I’ve got insecurity issues apparently. Hahahaha!” —Dana Wilkey on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, season 2, episode 5
4To be fair, there were two occasions—one in July 2010, the other in December 2011—when my mother stroked my face in a sweet, motherly way and said, “You look so handsome tonight.” Which was, if I’m being honest, extremely touching and generous, even though I was embarrassed both times (for myself, of course, not her).
* * *
The following is an open letter to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, written by Bonnie Fuller (editor of the website “Hollywood Life: Your Celebrity News, Gossip & Style BFF”). It appeared on January 4, 2010, and it is reprinted here exactly as it appears on the blog.¹
Brangelina—what are you doing to poor Shiloh Jolie-Pitt? Your 3½ -year-old daughter is getting dressed in boys clothes so often by you that the New York Post even described her today as your “son.” And no wonder. She was photographed in daddy Brad Pitt’s arms, heading in to the Broadway show, Mary Poppins, on Jan. 3, wearing a boy’s (literally) Burton ski cap and black puffy jacket.
In recent photos she’s been decked out in a fedora, tie, camouflage pants, boy vest, pirate sword, navy knit skull and crossbones hat, black jeans, gray jackets, black and white skull socks and sneakers. Even the stuffed animal she carries is blue.
Never ever is Shiloh dolled up in anything remotely girlish. Her blond hair is hidden under hats or left unbrushed and pushed to the side of her face.
Her sister Zahara Jolie-Pitt, however, is allowed to have her girly touches. HER Mary Poppins hair was pulled into a purple barrette and a pretty bracelets [sic] escaped from under the arm of her coat.
And you’re not dressing your little boys like girls!
So Brad and so Angelina—what’s up with the cross-gender dressing for Shiloh? Did YOU both want another boy, not a girl? Maddox and Pax weren’t enough? Aren’t you worried that you’re going to confuse little Shiloh? Give her gender identity issues? Isn’t it hard enough to grow up without your parents dressing you like the opposite sex?
A shrink says yes.
“Angelina has said she was bisexual in public—this is her bisexuality coming through. She’s saying “I’m not going to teach my daughter gender—let her pick,” believes psychologist, Dr. David Eigen.
But will it confuse her? “Yes,” says Dr. Eigen. “She is being guided into a bisexual role. Her mother is projecting this onto this particular child—she has chosen her as her favorite. I think this is an issue.” Such an issue that Shiloh is already insisting she be called by a boy’s name, “John.” Brad apparently told Oprah that Shiloh insists on being called “John, I’m John,” he explained, “It’s a Peter Pan thing.”
Peter Pan Thing, my ahem! Brad, does Shiloh even know what the color pink is? Has she even seen it? Why do you let little Shiloh be dressed this way?
“All I can say is that Brad must be whipped if he allows this,” believes Dr. Eigen.
Wow! Brad you’re whipped! Now, come on—time to get up your gumption for the sake of your daughter and let her be a girl, if she wants to be.
¹ Accompanying the item is a reader poll posing the question, “Do you think it’s wrong to dress Shiloh like a boy all the time?” Current results: 42 percent voted “Yes! She’ll be gender confused,” while 58 percent voted “No! Who cares what she wears—she’s probably a tomboy.”
AN OPEN LETTER TO BONNIE FULLER FROM SHILOH JOLIE-PITT
T Cooper is the author of several novels, including the bestselling Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes, and The Beaufort Diaries. His nonfiction work Real Man Adventures was recently released in paperback by McSweeney’s Books. Cooper is also co-author (with his wife) of a four-part young-adult book series called Changers, the first installation of which will be published on Feb. 4, 2014 by Akashic Books. (Check out the related empathy project launching alongside the book at WEARECHANGERS.ORG.) Cooper’s shorter work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Believer, O: The Oprah Magazine, One Story, Bomb, Electric Literature, and many others. He has also written for television. You can read more about his work on his website. Real Man Adventures adapted here with permission from McSweeney’s Books.