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the albatross

"The Albatross"
by Charles Baudelaire

Often, to pass the time on board, the crew    
will catch an albatross, one of those big birds    
which nonchalantly chaperone a ship    
across the bitter fathoms of the sea.    
Tied to the deck, this sovereign of space,    
as if embarrassed by its clumsiness,    
pitiably lets its great white wings    
drag its sides like a pair of unshipped oars.    
How weak and awkward, even comical    
this traveler but lately so adroit -    
one deckhand sticks a pipestem in its beak,    
another mocks the cripple that once flew!    
The Poet is like this monarch of the clouds    
riding the storm above the marksman's range;    
exiled on the ground, hooted and jeered,    
he cannot walk because of his great wings.    

    translated by richard howard

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Imagining Trans People

I had a dream in high school. The most effeminate boy in my class was trying to have sex with me. When I protested, he said it's all right, and he revealed that he had a vagina instead of a penis.

I didn't think much about the image of a man with a vagina. All the dream did was add more heft to the question that dogged me for decades--why do I feel so gay when I am attracted only to girls?

And it has taken until now for me to connect that image to the subject(s) of my current favorite magazine, Original Plumbing. Now that I have, it has brought back another memory whose persistence has confused me.

My fascination with female bodies preceded my erotic attraction to girls and, at an early age, I was a secret subscriber to Playboy under the nose of my father (who would likely have been proud, or at least relieved, had he found out). I was frustrated by the lack of genital explicitness in the pictorials, and I was positive there was something amazing between women's legs that they weren't letting us see. I didn't know what it looked like, but I had no reason to assume it wasn't an appendage something like my own. Locked away in my bedroom, I examined the glossy pages with a magnifier to discover the forbidden female sex organ. Then one day, I found it!

The model was hanging off the side of a pier, one leg straight, the other bent. Her pubic thatch was clearly visible, and hanging from it, set off by the dark wood of the piling, was her thing!

It was much lighter than the tanned skin of her hips, and it was wedge-shaped, tapering down to a couple of soft, nubby tentacles at the end. It was so clearly defined, I couldn't believe their censors had missed it! I had a tantalizing new shape to complete my mental image of the female form.

Many days, if not months, passed before I figured out that the appendage was in fact her foot, tucked up under her bent leg and stabilizing her as she hugged the piling. Not long after, Hustler came out and swept away the bulk of my misconceptions about female genitalia.

I'm pretty sure the dream about my effeminate school friend was several years after the Playboy episode, but it is awfully pretty to think about myself entering adolescence with the idea that gay boys have vaginas and girls have external genitalia. I now live in a world where any gender presentation could come with any permutation of genitalia and orientation. I like those odds!

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FivestarandJez hdrorton

FivestarandJez hdrorton
Originally uploaded by IdentityTBD
I was watching Fivestar Francisco (left) perform at the Queer Open Mic in July 2008 when I first recognized that my attraction to women had nothing to do with them acting/looking feminine.

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Taking Tiger Mountain

My first music idol was Brian Eno, and I had two things that connected me to him: an object and a memory. Unfortunately, the memory was a fiasco.

When I get interested in a subject, I pursue it obsessively until I find its worthiest parts—the persons or works that stand an order of magnitude above the rest. In drama, it was Samuel Beckett (and later Caryl Churchill); in fiction, Joyce and Beckett again (and later Barbara Kingsolver).

In music, in the beginning of 1976, it was Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, beginning with their collaborations (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star and expanding out into any other project either of them touched. Their music entered me more deeply than any other--and still does.

It was early 1978, and I had already moved my focus from music to drama, when one of them came to NYC to perform. It was Fripp, and he did the most extraordinary and evanescent thing ever. First, he performed a live improvisation using his Gibson Les Paul guitar and a tape-loop system (Frippertronics) based on the one developed by Eno for the Fripp & Eno recordings. Then—and this is the evanescent part—he rewound the tape and played it back, improvising alongside the recording of previous improvisation.

After the concert, walking back to my car with my friends, I saw Eno huddled against the cold in a doorway and chatting with a very beautiful Asian woman. I was quick-witted, so I was not worried when I walked up to him that I would find the words to briefly express the vastness of my respect for his music and move on.

Instead, the words that came out were: "You know something." Or more likely: "You know something, man."

He asked me, "What? What do I know?"

But I was incapable of advancing on my initial point, so I merely kept repeating it.

He finally turned back to his, doubtless more productive, conversation. And I went off, humiliated.

I've met lots of remarkable people over the years, but the one I passed on an opportunity of meeting stands out. It was Samuel Beckett. I had professors who knew him personally, and a few of my classmates either corresponded with him or went to meet him in Paris. I wrote a dissertation on Beckett, and visited France during that time, but I never asked my connections for an introduction. I'm certain now it was my failure with Eno that made me let that opportunity pass.

And I never figured out what that thing was that I thought he knew … until yesterday, watching Todd Haynes' film Velvet Goldmine for the umpteenth time.

Glam rock was already over by the time I got interested in music, and Eno had traded the glitter look of his Roxy Music and early solo album covers for something more minimalist and androgynous, but recognizably masculine. He had also returned to using his first name, Brian, instead of going merely by Eno.

Velvet Goldmine
is suffused with Eno's glam-era music, and the character Jack Fairy, an amalgam of many proto-fabulous rockers beginning with Little Richard, resembles no other (excluding filmmaker Jack Smith) as much as it does the Eno of that period. It is Jack Fairy who introduces the film's main character, a simulacrum of David Bowie, to glitter.

Just as Eno helped reshape music with synthesizers, tape recorders and non-traditional instruments, it is probable he helped evolve the aesthetic expression of gender, at least for a time, by not confining himself to the trappings of his assigned gender. He used his body as a gender synthesizer.

That is what I do now.

That was the secret knowledge he had, and I lacked, when we, both dressed as males, converged on a street in SoHo in 1978. 

My body is a gender synthesizer.

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Skirting Anxiety - The Herr-a-Chick Routine

I made my début as a gender-variant comic in October at the late and much-lamented Herr-a-Chick. There was no video recording of the performance, but this is what I said:

Okay, I admit it. I am a threat to the sanctity of marriage.

Consciousness is my superpower.
Self-consciousness is my kryptonite.

I believe that a man in men’s clothing is redundant.

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in gender.

My name is Dana  Morrigan.
Let me know if I pronounced that wrong. 
It's brand new and I haven't fully memorized it.

I started taking medical marijuana …
for my short-term memory loss. …
But you know I think it's just getting worse.


I was raised a nice Jewish boy
in the Catskill Mountains in New York
"the Borscht Belt," a summer resort where
generations of comics made their names.
My heroes were comedians
I was sure I'd grow up to be one.
But I never got around to it.

Instead I became a writer…
of wrongs.

I became an English professor
who taught like a comedian.
Then a copywriter who wrote like one
and who spent too many idle hours
watching comedy on TV,
until finally…
my day job gave me up.
And here I am.

So, one day I'm watching Comedy Central
and I become fascinated by this stand-up comic.
I see all these similarities 
in our body type, hair style,
skin tone, posture, gestures,
fashion sense ¬—
Hawaiian shirt and jeans, my work uniform for years —
then the comic refers to herself
as "the most stereotypical Lesbian 
you will ever meet."

That's the day I discovered I had a hidden a-gender,
And I've been trying to unhide it ever since.

 [iremoving sweatshirt]
I don't need to do bicep curls.
My biceps are naturally curly.

I'm the feminist … guy I know.

Does this butt make my pants look big?

I was aiming for flirtatious,
but I can't tell where it landed.

As Jessica Rabbit said,
"You don't know how hard it is to be a woman
looking the way I do."

So I've been paying attention to my gender
for about 18 months now.
It's easy to do!
You just have to separate yourself
from every obligation you have in the world,
and every received idea in your head.

It had to be done.
A gender never tested is no gender at all.

People ask, "Why do you want to change?" 
but I'm not trying to change …
just trying to restore my default settings.

The baby of my genderqueer identity 
was thrown out with the bathwater
of homophobia
and I labored for decades
under the delusion that I was a man.

So I'm not just exploring my femininity; I'm excavating it.

I should have known masculinity was a mask;
they even abbreviate it that way.

I asked this married couple out for a drink,
they said they were "cocooning."
That's not cocooning, it's just exhaustion.
I cocooned for a year and a half 
look how I turned out.
listen to the voice of experience
it's only cocooning
if you metamorphose.

Growing up, I compared myself to all the wrong people.
And I had all the wrong heroes.
Like, I loved the Dick van Dyke Show,
and I ended upworking as a head writer
just like Dick van Dyke's character.
I was living out a Rob Petrie fantasy,
when I could have been aspiring to Laura.

Or really, somewhere between the two.
I came pretty close with my main role model:
Harpo Marx.
A man who wears a wig, plays a harp,
and spends half his time chasing women
but who is ultimately harmless.

Harmless. That's the kind of man I grew up to be.
A sheep in wolf's clothing.

All labels should be considered provisional
and my current one  is "genderqueer." 
Also known as "gender-nonconformist"
which I take as a great compliment.

I've looked at binaries from both sides now.
But I always seem to find myself in the middle.

What can I say? I am a freethinker
and I'll be one
until I can figure out a way to charge.

But some people are uneasy
once you step outside the gender binary.
So I tell them
If you have to call me something
Call me Male-ish.

I'm writing a book about my life.
I'm going to call it "Tits on a Bull."

I've also got a new reality show in development:
"So You Think You Can Lap Dance?"

You know, when I first heard of pole dancing,
I had a radically different idea of where the pole went.

Even my better angels are a little devilish.

I had a writer's block for many years,
which ended when I came out to myself.
It's great to feel like an artist again.
When I'm creating is when I most feel
I have transcended gender.

Actually, I have a theory
I think "artist" should be reclassified
from a vocation to a gender.

An artist is not something you become
it's something inside
crying to be let out,
like a Pomeranian with a full bladder.

If you write poems, it's not because poetic things happen to you,
but because you are sensitive to the poetry
in the things that happen to everybody.

And, if you're an artist, self-expression is at least
as urgent a need as employing your sex organs,
no matter your gender or orientation.

And I mean "artist" in the broadest possible sense —
painters, pastry chefs, performers —
If you earn a living in a creative field,
or your day job is the hell you have to endure
to support your creative habit,
you're an artist.

Now think of famous people
who epitomize their gender …
for boys, say Jesse "the Body" Ventura
and Arnold Schwarzenegger,
for the girls, Anita Bryant and Sarah Palin.

(When Palin resigned as Governor of Alaska
she said she could be "more effective
outside of government."
I thought, at last we agree on something.)

Now, ask yourself:
with whom do you feel more of a kinship…
The Terminator?
or Vincent Van Gogh
Virginia Woolf
Allen Ginsberg
Kurt Cobain
Marilyn Monroe
(I'm guessing there's at least one person
in the room tonight that, one time or another
identified with Marilyn!)

Now. Those of you who identify with the artists.
How many of you
have had a less than perfect history
with relationships?

Welcome to my gender!

So I lived in the straight world,
and now I'm the new queer on the block.

[Dangerfield voice]
I tell you. My queer cultural literacy is so low,
I don't even know what network Ellen is on.

Used to to think none of "LGBTQ" applied to me.
Now I'm an L, two Ts and a Q!

I was married -- twice -- but it didn't work out.
One of us was a Lesbian … but never her.

Marriage was a nice place to visit,
but I wouldn't want to live there.

I think possessiveness is anti-social.

And they're still trying to sell us
on the idea of saving sex for marriage.
Every other thing we do in life,
from sitting on a toilet to brain surgery,
requires education and training,
but two virgins are supposed to
get into a room together
on the most stressful day of their lives
and figure out how to please each other
from scratch!

Committing to have sex
only with the first person
you fall in love with
is like committing
to take legal advice
only from your pediatrician.

Living as a man, I grew to accept disappointment.
I called myself "a cockeyed pessimist."
But I'm becoming an optimist now,
finally looking for the silver lining,
like … so what if I can't have a baby?
I can still shop in maternity stores.

I waited for years to hit bottom,
when all I needed was some nice dyke
or transguy to tap it.
Where there's a dildo, there's a way.

My time's about up,
but if you remember only one thing I said tonight
let it be this:

A man in men's clothing is redundant,
but anyone else in men's clothing …
should take me home after the show.

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(drag) king for a day

(drag) king for a day
Originally uploaded by IdentityTBD
The first time in decades that I put on a costume was at the request of one of the other Copy Directors at my former agency (the dude who played the Dude) for Halloween in 2007.

Though I identified totally with the Dude, and not at all with Walter, I threw myself into the role. My posture changed, my voice deepened to the lowest octave in my range. I grunted and growled and strutted and was abrasive and dumb and spoke in perpetual insults and boasts.

I built my portrayal of Walter out of all the aspects of masculinity that I personally detested. And when I stopped playing the role at the end of that work day, I couldn't get back into the male character ("Dr. Dave") that I had been playing for the previous 20 years. I had neither the desire nor the ability to continue in that role.

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chalked message of pride

From Leslie Feinberg's photostream on Flickr.

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Hidden Hero(in)es

I had few role models growing up.

My sports hero was Art Shamsky of the New York Mets. Amazingly, I got to see him a few times--amazingly, because he wasn't exactly in the starting line-up. He usually came in late in the game when a left-handed pinch-hitter was needed. He was the closest thing to myself in baseball--a slow-running Jewish lefty power-hitter with a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Shamsky came to Monticello Raceway one summer with a few teammates to sign autographs and answer questions. My question ("who makes your glove?") and his funny answer ("U.S. Steel") were reported in the sports section of the Times Herald-Record. They reported that the question had been asked by "a young lady in the crowd." My premature debut as a femme.

Then it was Harpo Marx, after I read his autobiography, Harpo Speaks. He presented himself as an innocent, which is how I saw myself--and I totally identified with his submissive relationship to his brother Chico. 

Then there were the people I couldn't recognize as role models, because they represented roles that were not available to me. But I idolized them. They were free-spirited women who lived unconventional lives.

The first I can recall was Juliet Mills as Pamela Piggott in Billy Wilder's Avanti! Miss Piggott goes to Italy and has an affair with the married son of the married man with whom her free-spirited mother had had a "same time next year" affair for decades. It's the man Mills has the affair with, Jack Lemmon, who is the film's main character. She is the catalyst for positive change in his life. But I never identified with his desires or concerns. It is my enduring ambition in life to be a free spirit and a catalyst for positive change. As a married man with a job, I was unable to be either.

The other free spirit I recall spending a lot of time thinking about was Shirley MacLaine as Jennifer Rogers in Hitchcock's black comedy The Trouble with Harry. Where Juliet Mills was blond and dressed in frills and ribbons like a girl's doll, Shirley MacLaine was redheaded (like me) and tomboyish and…sexy! And in touch with her sexual nature in a way that awed me. It comes through in this 6:30 clip--stay 'til the end of the clip to hear the line that is etched in my brain: "Lightly, Sam. I have a very short fuse."

I spent a lot of time looking for women that reminded me of these archetypes, but when I found them I never wanted to be a man to them like Jack Lemmon or John Forsythe, MacLaine's love interest in TTWH. Now I know: I wanted to be one of them--a free-spirited woman living an unconventional life.

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