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That, But Not That

By T Cooper

Transgender Hiroes, by Chris E. Vargas © The artist

Transgender Hiroes, by Chris E. Vargas © The artist

Finally free to be me! is what looped through my twenty-three-year-old brain upon landing in New York in the mid-Nineties. At last, I had found my people: heavily muscled gays in tank tops strolling down Eighth Avenue beneath rainbow flags whipping in the breeze over every third establishment; hard lesbians with shaved heads and beat-up Doc Martens holding hands and making out on street corners; homos of every stripe enjoying late nights at Clit Club in the Meatpacking District, or Meow Mix on Houston, or the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. The whole city, it seemed to me, was buoyantly, boisterously gay. Exactly what I came for.

I plunged headfirst into the scene, fit myself right in (not to mention outfitted myself): I still remember the musky bouquet of the black shoe polish I routinely applied to the three-buckle, heavy-duty leather boots I bought on lower Broadway the week after I moved to the city. I wore those boots every day, even through that first summer when the thermometer pushed a hundred and there were brownouts and I had no A.C. in the tiny sixth-floor tenement walk-up I rented on the Lower East Side. I wore those boots for, I swear, eight years, until my ad hoc repairs succumbed to the deterioration of the soles, the heavy silver buckles ripping from the uppers.

Fuck you, Mom! Remember that thing you told me when I was in ninth grade, and we were lying in your waterbed, and Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt was on, and Dad came in all somber and sighing, pressed mute on the TV, and I sensed instantly I was in for some sort of “talk,” and before I knew it, you were telling me about your friend Arlene, the character actor who sometimes guest-starred on The Love Boat and M*A*S*H, and how the lesbian “lifestyle” she lived, and the one it seemed like I was surely on the path to living (because I was, in your opinion, getting too close to a new friend at school), would only bring me hardship and unhappiness as an adult? Well, you were wrong, Ma. Look how content I am now among my gays in New York City!

Except all of that was a lie. Okay, not all of it. But most.

Because those lesbians and gays of mid-Nineties New York were not my people. In fact, the first time I walked by the Stonewall Inn (after learning that it was ground zero for the entire notion of gay pride), I felt . . . nothing.

Well, that’s not completely true either. What I really felt, if I’m honest: repulsion. As in, that’s not me.

As in, could my mother and father have been right?

And if I’m not that, then what the fuck am I?

I never felt compelled to attend a single Pride parade in NYC. Didn’t see myself in the topless dykes on bikes, nor at the Dangerous Curves women’s dance party after the march. Nor alongside the hairy gays in harnesses gyrating beneath vodka advertisements on the floats. I couldn’t graft myself onto those or any of the other rainbow-flag-clad conveyances rolling down Fifth Avenue.

Marsha P. Johnson (left) at a gay-rights demonstration in Albany, New York, 1971. Photograph by Diana Davies. Courtesy New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Marsha P. Johnson (left) at a gay-rights demonstration in Albany, New York, 1971. Photograph by Diana Davies. Courtesy New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

I did go to Dyke March with some friends once, and there is a photo of me from that day, my arm slung around a girlfriend at the time, with marchers continuing down the block behind us. I am wearing a white ribbed Hanes ­A-shirt, jean cutoffs, short hair that’s a bit longer on top, greasy and mussed, because I’m twenty-­three and who gives a toss what I look like, right? And, of course, I’m in my signature black boots.

My coworker from the magazine where I was working as an assistant editor took the photo; she had been watching the march from the sidelines and spotted me in the crowd. I remember her calling us over somewhere before Washington Square Park and snapping it, then presenting me with a four-by-five print the next week in my cubicle.

I can’t adequately express how much I hate that photo. I hated it immediately then, even if I didn’t know ­exactly why. But I hate it more now. I hate my red, chunky face, which looks years older than it actually was. My chest is concave, like I’m trying to fold into myself, and unlike anybody else in the photo with or around me, I don’t look happy, or liberated. Because I’m not. Not completely.

Back then people assumed I was a lesbian, a dyke, or worst of all: a gay woman. Because there were no other options. But I never said that’s what I was, never “came out,” never used those terms to describe myself. The only thing that made vague sense at the time was “queer,” a designation that countered what many of us viewed as the homogenization and corporatization of gay culture. In direct contrast to Pride, I found myself more drawn to the electricity and irreverence that crackled through Tompkins Square Park when the drag queens would show up for the annual Wigstock parade each summer. But to me, “queer” still ultimately connoted sexual attraction—it signified who you wanted to fuck, and how, but not who you were. I always marveled at how my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters were able to locate their identities in relation to other people. The math everybody else seemed so proficient at—raised as a girl + attracted to girls = lesbian—simply did not add up for me. Because the more I let other people define me, the less it felt like I was real, or that I even really existed.

And then one day, I went to a reading in the basement of the old A Different Light bookstore on West 19th Street in Chelsea, where Kate Bornstein was signing her new title, My Gender Workbook. It was probably the first time I (knowingly, consciously) heard the word “trans­sexual” (perhaps she said “trans­gender,” but I remember it as “trans­sexual,” because that’s what we used back then). She signed a book for me, scribbling something about how whatever I’d just said made her blush—and that I was a cute boy.

Click.

Cut to: me at Century 21 across from the World Trade towers, copping my first three-pack of Calvin Klein boxer-briefs (à la Marky Mark grabbing his junk in the Herb Ritts photos). Soon thereafter, I started a drag king troupe, performing with a few friends on the Northeastern college circuit and all over NYC. Just before stepping onstage one night at the Slipper Room, on the Lower East Side, I (knowingly) met my first real live transsexual dude. He was in town from Germany and changing shirts in preparation for a cabaret performance after us. There were scars across his perfectly flat chest, and he had a mustache that wasn’t affixed with spirit gum. Despite the language barrier, I asked a handful of questions and got a couple of answers, and it became eminently clear who that unhappy person in the ­A-shirt, cutoff jeans, and beat-up black boots was—a man, trapped in a woman’s body.

No, I wasn’t!

There I go, lying again. I wasn’t “a man trapped in a woman’s body,” like on Maury Povich or Montel Williams. That’s a stupid notion. But I was a man—who suddenly needed to figure out how he was going to become one.

There were so few resources for people like me, like all of us in the nascent T category that was, even as late as 2007, deliberately left out of a federal bill seeking to prevent employment discrimination against lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. (Good luck on your own, transsexuals!) I know it seems hard to believe now, when those four letters, L.G.B.T., roll off even our ersatz president’s tongue, but we trans folks were the outcasts among outcasts.

I still cringe a little every time I see the blue-and-yellow Human Rights Campaign equal-sign sticker on cars and laptops, because that organization for so many years actively spurned the T (like, “Those freaks?”) whenever we asked to be included in their quest for equal rights and protections. And, of course, the Mattachine Society of the Fifties and Sixties was doing the same a generation earlier. Throw us off the boat so it’ll have a better chance of making it to port without all that extra weight (then maybe circle back later, half-heartedly scanning the surface for the few of us who survived, bobbing out there alone for so many years, waiting for someone to toss us a life preserver).

Only—and this has just begun to be illuminated in recent years, at least in a mainstream way—we Ts have been fighting alongside the Gs and Ls who didn’t want to fight for us all along. In fact, if it weren’t for us, Stonewall might not have happened, the bar itself might’ve ended up quietly shuttering like so many NYC gay establishments of yore, their owners finally throwing their hands up in the face of years of police raids, discrimination by the state liquor board, and ironfisted Mafia extortion and control.

It was transgender warriors such as “street queens” Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and countless other cross-dressers, transvestites, drag queens, transsexuals, and stone butches, who actually ignited the uprising in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969—and kept it going for days. It was they who had been fed up with near-constant police harassment and arrests for not wearing enough “gender-appropriate” attire—three pieces minimum was the law—that matched the sex listed on their I.D. documents. (Stonewall, by the way, was one of the only gay bars that would even allow these types of folks in—and they were relegated to a special room in the back.)

Nobody knows who threw the first bottle (brick, stone, coin) at police. Some say it was Sylvia. Others say Marsha—or one of the other trans women who showed up that night. Neither Sylvia nor Marsha would take credit over the years, though Sylvia always maintained she threw the second Molotov cocktail, and Marsha certainly threw a glass or two at a mirror.

Then there’s Stormé DeLarverie. I didn’t hear the name until I began wading through the world as a man, not too long after meeting that German guy on the L.E.S. Or maybe I did hear the name, but I didn’t really listen.

DeLarverie was a male impersonator, drag king, stone butch dyke, female-to-male transvestite (she’d be housed under the transgender umbrella today). Born in 1920 and raised in New Orleans, the child of a wealthy white man and a black woman who was a servant in his house, Stormé traveled the world, performing and singing as a male tenor for most of her life. She rode ponies in the circus, worked as a bouncer for the Mob in Chicago, emceed the Jewel Box Revue in the Fifties and Sixties, and dressed and comported herself as a man among the rest of the cast of men performing as women at venues such as the Apollo Theater. Her suits were always impeccably, enviably tailored, her hair a tight fade from her neckline up to a valiant widow’s peak.

That early morning at Stonewall, as arrests continued and the crowd swelled outside the bar, legend has it that a police officer initially mistook Stormé for a cisgender man, shoving her and yelling, “Move along, faggot.” But Stormé had had enough, and resisted—so he clubbed her in the face with his baton. She hit him back, hard. Other officers jumped in to restrain her. They threw her into a police car. Handcuffed and bleeding from the head, Stormé escaped to the cheers of onlookers before officers finally wrestled her back into the squad car. As the door slammed shut, she screamed into the crowd: “Why don’t you guys do something?”

And they did. With those words, the crowd erupted into a mob—and changed the dialogue, and thus history, for millions of L.G.B. (and T.) people around the country, and, one could argue, the world.

These days when I walk by the Stonewall Inn, I feel the opposite of repulsion. I see Stormé fifty years before, laying out a cop, right on the sidewalk there. She’s in men’s undergarments, and dressed on the outside like I probably would’ve been if I were alive at the time, living life like I might have—­spending as much time as possible onstage, under the lights, simply being seen for what she was: a guy with a story to tell. I also wonder whether I would’ve had the courage to throw that punch at the cop. I’d like to think I would have.

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