I grew into a young collegian steadfastly resisting my mother’s directive to butch it up, In high school, on the outside, I was relatively “normal” if I stayed still and didn’t speak, perhaps a tad bit fashionable in the language of the hip youth culture of the moment of the mid-eighties. This normality was one enforced by my mother, who refused to buy me the outrageous clothes I wanted, as well my own keen desire to survive high school intact. In those little hot houses of doctrinaire coercion passing for individuality, to stand out was to invite contempt at best, physical violence at worst.
There was one openly gay boy in my high school, Danny Lopez, a handsome Blatino who split his time between his father’s house on the East Side and his mother’s in the Anglo Westside. When he was with his father, he would be at my high school. He had a fashionable haircut, fashionable clothes, a red Honda Scooter, and seemed unashamed of his gayness, although he suffered the disdain of many of his colleagues, the usual suspects, and the sniggers behind his back even from his friends, even from me. His freedom to be himself was, in retrospect, predicated on his knowledge of an alternate world (the more liberal Westside of Los Angeles, with its nefarious gender-bending teen clubs like Odyssey) as well as a certain amount of money and an untraditional family (Did his family not care as much?). He ended up going to Vassar (natch), but dropped out after a year and returned to Los Angeles, to what ends I never found out.
Arriving at Prestigious Eastern U. accelerated and nurtured my own gay idiosyncrasy, and enabled me to come out as fabulously as could be imagined in the strange political and social moment of the mid-eighties, when Andrew Holleran observed that, due to AIDS, New York socialites were pronouncing gay as “not an option.” However, hope springs eternal, and never so much as in youth unleashed from institutional and familial constraint. Gay America was in health crisis of desperate proportions, but that fact didn’t really penetrate the stone walls or linger over the slate walkways of PU. The holocaust happening to several generations of gay men wasting away in distant, grey cities seemed, mistakenly as it turned out, to be as relevant to our lives as The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Quickly, I experimented with different styles of self-presentation: asymmetrical haircuts, big curly bowl cuts, hair gel, combed Caesars, jackets with fur collars, sleeveless purple shirts, pants the colour of goldenrod, platform shoes, jewelry (Oy, the bracelets!), all to a soundtrack of similar genderbenders: Culture Club, Duran Duran, Bronski Beat, Depeche Mode, The Cure, and the other mascara bands of the time, not to mention Jody Watley, a mascara band of one. I never used make-up though— I didn’t have the discipline to never touch my face or brush my hair over my forehead with my hand. At the end of my junior year I started to grow out my hair into what would eventually become quite the mane, tight luxurious Louis IXV pin curls when conditioned and set, a bird’s nest of frizzy bush when not. There was no unifying aesthetic theme (in fact it all seems from a distance rather half-assed), other than perhaps unleashing the Queen, breaking all the constraints my mother and masculinity had attempted to set for me.
Of course, the greatest asset of this Queen was not sartorial, but verbal. The minute I spoke, she came forth, imperious or ingénue, little girl type or Glamazon in ermine and deadly tacones. All that reading of literature in my teen years, Saturday nights spent with books, listening to the gallineros of my Beautiful Amazons (who never, of course, lacked for opinion), Sunday afternoons watching Hollywood melodrama with my mother, finally paid off. I could read like an expert, and quickly became known more for my cutting tongue than my disorganised look. As I read once online in a description of what one gay man did not want, when I opened my mouth a purse fell out, except in my case it was a purse coated in razors. Like the fierce pachucas who went out with razors in their big hair, my voice was ready for battle, all the wounds and hurts and silences of the past rushing forth like a tsunami. My actual voice, the instrument itself, only truly deepened at the end of my twenties, and in my late teens, I could still be mistaken on the phone for a sultry Brenda Vaccaro, ma’am-ed as much as anything else. Taken together, my college chums and I (for of course, as a teenager, I was lemming-like in my need for a clique) were not committed officially to the a code of gender bending, but we functioned that way, too sexually naïve to openly assert roles of top or bottom, still unjaded to the extent we could imagine a gay identity of indeterminate gender.
This unleashing brought me great joy, for it was like the millstone of masculinity was removed from my neck, and for once I could breath the sweet air of a certain type of freedom outside the rigors of masculinity. This was an illusion, of course, but for a brief time I could sally forth into the world determined to project the multiple image-texts of my own fractured relationship to the paragons of masculinity and femininity. From the former I felt excluded because I was not the fair-haired athletic boy on the sidelines of the green, verdant pitch, the one who walked correctly, who spoke correctly, who “liked” but did not “love” in Edmund White’s memorable literary characterization of masculine and feminine. I stood uncomfortably outside of femininity through the most obvious factor: that I was not, in fact, physically a girl, although emotionally and socially I had been raised as a kind of ur-girl, at the very least imbibing the cautionary values of Mexican and Chicana cultural femininity even as the body was not located in the transparent space where most of us assume gender, sexuality, and identity coalesce (i.e., I was missing a vagina, among other things).
Bookish, terribly ashamed of my body, not particularly athletic, and closeted, arriving at college was like embracing a version of myself I had been taught to hate. All of a sudden, the forbidden was accessible, the denounced a new value. The bubble of PU did not adequately prepare me for the rigors of the real gay world, with its strictures as demanding and doctrinaire as any present in heterodomination. But for a time, I lived outside these structures, originally in joy, and later in resentment. I entered graduate school living a peculiar fantasy as a middle-aged woman with a penchant for hair bobbles and cream-coloured clothing. I appeared regularly in my first class as a teaching assistant with my hair balled up on the top of my head in a messy bun, held by a paisley scrunchy. What my students thought of such a performance remains unknown, although at the time, it did not seem extraordinarily outside of the realm of the possible at that school, at that place.
During this period, I was regularly ma’am-ed in public, in spite of being 6’1” and having a small goatee. The public confirmation of reactionary gender identifications is not in recognising men and women as distinct and separate, but looking for the non-man, and therefore woman. In an Italian restaurant in San Francisco's very straight Marina district once, the waiter gallantly asked me what “la signorina” would like. I did not hasten to correct him, just ordered my plate of fettuccine as I brushed my silky hair off my face. He scrambled away mortified and I, I’m not sure what I felt. At one time, around the age of 24, every piece of clothing I owned was part of a particular colour palette: cream, ivory, eggshell, vanilla, light tan, sand, butternut, toffee, dulce de leche, crème caramel. One of the memories of my graduate cohort was me appearing before Big Time Semiotic Translator in our first-year pro-seminar wearing a braided ivory sweater, fanning myself vigorously and declaring the need for air conditioning, at the hottest time of the year, surrounded by people dressed appropriately for those in their twenties, and not their fifties. All I was missing was the Eileen Fisher twin set and discreet silver jewelry.
This look represented my strange attempt at WASP class. Whether or not I read publicly as man was less important than being The Queen, a task for which I was remarkably successful. At the time, I felt like a heroine from a bodice buster, wanting love on her own terms, desirous but wounded, sassy but smart: Stevie Nicks minus the coke. And I suppose on some level I did feel like a “girl,” Chelsea Clinton awaiting her transformation from ugly duckling to polished young lady: prudish, virginal, deeply romantic. However, as I moved out of the PU’s queer aura into the rigors of, on one hand, revanchist lesbian cultural politics that for the most part saw in me not an ally but a bitchy queen, and the hypercritical tribes of gay men, the course correction so desired by my mother began to appear, slowly, slowly. The irony here of course being that gender and its norms was increasingly policed and enforced by lesbians and gay men.
This enforcement of gender came, primarily, through the mechanism of sex. Gay men of my generation and those that came before may have emerged from the cauldron of adolescence with their bodies intact, but we brought along a host of remarkably simplistic and fetishistic masculine fantasies, most of which revolved around the recapturing of lost youth and its attendant masculinity, not unleashing the queen but snagging the quarterback. And these gender games remain deadly serious. Recently, at a BBQ, I noted that the self-described “Alpha-Wolf” host had Vanilla Brown Sugar hand wash in his bathroom, which he loved. Bringing my hand to my nose and smelling the deeply feminine smell, I remarked wryly, “So much for the Alpha-Wolf,” to which he did not laugh, or campily agree, but instead got pissed off. I was stunned by the depth of his self-delusion, although I shouldn’t have been.
My own transformation into a man was predicated on gay desire and gay coercion. Simply put, to get a date or get laid, with a body like mine, meant no mincing. My mother’s expectation of masculinity met, ironically and perhaps with more than a bit of tragedy, the very same sexual ideal held by most gay men.