On June 5, 1981 the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This was 4 days before my 9th birthday. Over the next 18 months, other cases were discovered in cities throughout the country. This disease was originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency (GRIDS). By August of 1982 it had been renamed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). By May of 1986, the virus that causes AIDS had been isolated and was named HIV. I was almost 14.
Spending the first years of the AIDS epidemic in a fundamentalist Christian setting strongly colored my initial impressions and understanding of this disease. So many in the Christian community saw this as a gay disease that was God’s wrath for living a homosexual “lifestyle.” It was almost inevitable that my own beliefs would mirror those of the community around me. I am ashamed to say that for many years I felt little remorse or sympathy for the thousands of people, primarily gay men, who died horrific deaths from AIDS. So many of us stood by and did nothing to help, believing that those who died deserved their fate. Many prominent Christian leaders would justify their inaction by blaming the victims, quoting Romans 1:27 “In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.” (NIV 1984 edition)
These years were also the beginning of my own understanding and exploration of sex and sexuality. I discovered I was gay during the same years gay men were dying in record numbers. AIDS was in the news a lot then, and those around me used it to demonize gay men and their “perverted lifestyles,” saying that those who were afflicted were under God’s wrath. AIDS became just one more punishment I had to try to avoid, just one more reason I had to find any way I could to stop being gay. While trying to run away from my own sexuality, I also turned my back on thousands of people who, I was convinced, deserved their own deaths. It wasn’t until years later, when I left Christianity, that I realized just how terribly wrong I had been.
I can never make up for my early beliefs about AIDS and those who contracted the disease. I can never apologize to those who died while I believed their deaths were somehow just. I was part of the problem that allowed thousands to die needlessly. My community stood by in approval merely because those who were dying were part of a marginalized minority. A minority I now belong to.
I’ve grown a lot since AIDS was first discovered. I have broken free of the early programming that the disease is somehow God’s wrath. However, I am still ignorant of the full personal impact of what it means to live with HIV or have loved ones who have been lost to AIDS. This epidemic has had an incalculable effect on the gay community and on gay culture, but my only part in this history is one of which I am deeply ashamed.
We will never be able to fully deal with the AIDS epidemic until we end the stigmatization of those who are touched by the disease. Standing now as a member of the community that has born the brunt of the devastation from HIV/AIDS, I can work towards cultivating greater empathy and understanding, not only in myself but in the world around me.
People often question why the trans community is included with the LGB community since gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. While the two are separate, going through my own transition has shown me that they may be more interrelated than I previously believed — but that is for another post. Many people believe, erroneously, that the trans community was lumped in with the LGB community, almost as an afterthought because the T community did not have anywhere else to go. But it was actually the LGB community that came out of the trans community, both of which originally came out of the intersex community.
At one point in history it was believed that all people who did not conform to societal gender norms were intersex. It was known that there were people who were physically intersex so it was just assumed that people who went outside of social or sexual gender roles were mentally intersex. If a woman wanted to have sex with other women it was assumed she wanted to be a man and if a man wanted to have sex with other men it was assumed he wanted to be a woman. We still see this type of thinking in some heterosexual people towards effeminate men and masculine women. Of course this does not explain masculine gay men or femme lesbians, but it is this type of thinking that causes those who are not gay or trans to view us as all the same. It was because of how we were perceived by the cisgender heteronormative world that originally made us natural allies.
As sexual orientation became understood as something distinct from gender identity, the different factions of the LGBT community started to emerge. When we were all marginalized equally it was easier for the community to bond together against our shared oppression. But as some parts of the community began to gain acceptance in society, it became harder to keep community cohesion and unity. Each segment of the LGBT community started to identify their specific needs and only wanted to fight for those things that would further their own goals. Granted, there have been some voices in the community that have spoken to the necessity of keeping some kind of alliance even while we push for different goals. But often there has been a lot of conflict around what direction the LGBT movement should take as a whole, as if we can only do one thing at a time. Those in the marriage equality movement get frustrated with those pushing other agendas like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) saying that marriage equality will gain us more acceptance from mainstream society. Those in the DADT repeal movement argue that gaining the federal acceptance of open military service will gain us more acceptance. Those fighting for the ENDA complain that marriage equality or open military service doesn’t mean much to someone who can’t find job to support themselves. Within our community we find a myriad of things that threaten to fracture a cohesive movement towards equality, from socioeconomic disparities, to disagreements on effective strategy, to outright bigotry and prejudice.
While the LGB community and the T community often have different political agendas, it has not generally been the political differences that threaten to split the community in two. It is rather the need to create and reinforce a distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. Some in the LGB community fear that associating themselves with the T community reinforces the fallacy that gay people who do not follow societal gender norms are really trans and want to be the opposite sex. Some in the T community fear that even though they identify as straight, staying in the LGB community reinforces the fallacy that they are really just gay people who couldn’t handle being gay. Both of these fears, while not uncommon, seem to be rooted in internal bigotry and prejudice. As one group’s acceptance in society increases, they try to distance their association with others in the community whom they see as a hindrance to full acceptance. They don’t want to be associated with the more fringe elements in the community and will do whatever they can to show how they are not like “those people.” Unfortunately those of us in the trans community see this within our own ranks. It saddens me that the LGBT community not only has to fight bigotry and oppression from mainstream society, but we have to fight it among ourselves as well. It seems as though our desperation to be seen as legitimate or acceptable to others causes us to be willing to throw overboard the most marginalized among us.
But we should not be struggling for acceptance. That should not be the goal of any segment of the LGBT community or any other marginalized community. We do not need acceptance in order to have equality under the law. Acceptance would be nice, but acceptance and equality are not synonymous and we should never make the mistake of believing that they are. Bayard Rustin once said “The job of the gay community is not to deal with extremists who would castigate us or put us on an island and drop an H-bomb on us. The fact of the matter is that there is a small percentage of people in America who understand the true nature of the homosexual community. There is another small percentage who will never understand us. Our job is not to get those people who dislike us to love us. Nor was our aim in the civil rights movement to get prejudiced white people to love us. Our aim was to try to create the kind of America, legislatively, morally, and psychologically, such that even though some whites continued to hate us, they could not openly manifest that hate. That’s our job today: to control the extent to which people can publicly manifest antigay sentiment.” And the way to create that kind of society is to fight for the right of every person to live the life that is best for them, as long as they are not harming anyone else. No one should be prevented from expressing their true self in whatever manner they wish. This applies to everyone equally. Respecting another person’s right to live whatever kind of life they see fit to live does not mean I have to like the person or approve of what they do. But as long as they are not harming anyone else, they have the right to their life every bit as much as I have the right to my own.
We have to fight bigotry wherever we encounter it, whether it is in mainstream society or in our own communities. We cannot allow our own prejudices to rip apart our alliances. We have to stop focusing our energies on fighting each other and start focusing on creating an equal society that respects every person’s right to live as they so choose, no matter what anyone else thinks of their choices — even we ourselves.
There are some things in life where imitation just won’t do. Peanut butter is one of them. Gender is another. I had come to a point in my life where I was finally free to explore my own identity and figure out who I wanted to be. I had thrown off an oppressive religion and an abusive marriage, but was not quite ready to throw off the the belief that I had to be a woman just because my body looked like one. I did not know how to be a woman because I had never felt like one. I had always felt male. I thought that if I could just make myself be comfortable with being a woman, then that would somehow automatically make me feel comfortable with a female body. I tried desperately, but the more I tried to force myself to be a woman, even a butch woman, the more I felt like an imitation.
Let me first make one thing perfectly clear. BUTCH WOMEN ARE NOT IMITATION MEN! Yes, I am yelling because I want to be absolutely certain that everyone reading this understands that my experience does not translate to every butch woman. Butch women who are women identified are every bit as much women as those who present as more feminine. I could not be a butch woman because I am really a man.
When I first came out as gay I did not know very much about gay or lesbian culture. I knew almost nothing about the lesbian community. The only things I knew were the stereotypes of androgyny and butch/femme. I did not feel brave enough to come out as butch right away so I first tried to go the androgyny route. I fought the butch label because I was afraid it would remind me too much about how I had always wanted to be a man. But the draw, the longing to look and feel more male, was too much to resist and eventually I identified more and more as butch. I was right to be wary of it, though. As my appearance changed, the inner conflict grew. I was elated with the ability to embrace my more masculine side. But it made living in a female body more and more uncomfortable. The more I looked male the more I wanted to just be a man.
Just as I tried to bury my homosexuality in religion, once again I attempted to bury my transsexualism in religion. This time it was a feminist separatist version of paganism called Dianic Wicca. I had been leaning towards a pagan belief system after leaving my Christian faith when I came out as gay. I was just beginning to explore the pagan community where I was living when I found a group of women who practiced in the Dianic tradition. I was immediately interested due to the strong focus on the female as deity and the emphasis placed on social issues of equality. I thought that if there was anywhere I could learn to be comfortable with being a woman it would be here. I took their introductory class to learn more about them and what they believed. That is where I first encountered the phrase “Women born women” and their beliefs and teachings on transsexualism. (Essentially, they believe that transsexualism is a by product of strictly enforced gender roles and that if we were able to do away with gender roles people would no longer need to transition. They also believe that sexual reassignment surgery is mutilation.) I did not agree with their beliefs on transsexualism, but I did find their spiritual teachings to be similar to my own beliefs at the time. Because I was so focused on making myself comfortable as a woman I never imagined that the trans issue would affect me. I thought I had finally found my spiritual path, so I signed up to take their 4 year Priestess training course in the hope that I might one day become ordained. I focused on my spiritual training and tried to convince myself that my body issues were due to the patriarchal misogyny of society instead of my own feelings of being male. I had previously blamed my body discomfort on being overweight so it was easy to add on blaming the patriarchy for making body size such an issue for women. It was easier than admitting that parts of my body did not belong there and other parts were missing.
During the first year of the training course I started to talk with other women about body acceptance and how they overcame body issues. I tried setting up a habit of doing self blessings focused on different parts of my body with special emphasis on the female parts. I tried doing this in a mirror a few times but it was too distracting since I never really recognized myself in the mirror. I tried speaking positive affirmations of love to my body even when I all I could feel was loathing for the body I felt had betrayed me at puberty. It seemed that the more I tried to love my body, the more I hated it.
When nothing else worked, I decided to take yet one more step along the path to masculinity. I decided to grow a goatee. I had started growing facial hair around puberty for reasons that are as yet unexplained. Over the years the hair grew in thicker and darker to the point where I usually had to shave on a regular basis. It had finally gotten thick enough on my chin that I could grow a small but significant goatee. After a few weeks of letting it grow out, it was nicely visible and I was the envy of many of my butch friends. But something happened that I did not expect. Once the goatee had grown out, one day while looking at myself in the mirror, for the first time in memory I had a glimpse of recognition. It was a startling experience. I was exuberantly happy and terrifyingly afraid all at the same time. The recognition of myself was like a powerful drug. Just having the goatee satisfied me for awhile, but the image in the mirror still wasn’t quite right. The facial hair fit, but I still couldn’t stand to see the rest of my body. I wanted more. I needed more. But the only way to get more was to do the one thing that had truly terrified me my entire life. I had to finally admit that I’m really a man.
Continue to Embracing the man
Some may ask why I ever stayed with my husband for so long. I asked myself that many times. The biggest reason was because I could not overcome my fundamentalist Christian faith and my belief that adultery was the only permissible cause for divorce. The only way I could give myself permission to leave him was to redefine adultery to include more than just sexual infidelity. I had to allow myself to believe that he was unfaithful to his marriage vows in how he was treating me. Looking back on it all now I lament that I held on so long to a belief system that caused me to feel trapped in an abusive relationship. But it was the only belief system I had ever known. I didn’t know anything else, so when I left D, not only did I feel betrayed by him, I felt betrayed by myself and everything I ever thought I believed about the world and about God.
For many years afterward, I struggled trying to keep a faith that had held me captive in a situation I would have gladly died to escape. But when I began to pull out the threads of incongruity that had imprisoned me, my entire world view started to fall apart. The incongruity of the fundamentalists belief that an abused woman should stay submissive to her husband, especially if he calls himself a Christian, was the first thread. The incongruity that I had an attraction to women that I could not control, but somehow God was going to judge me for, and send me to hell because of it was the second thread. These two started a chain reaction that eventually caused me to question everything. Each thread caused a heart wrenching tear to the fabric of my world view. Each thread creating a wound that left a little scar as it healed. Eventually, by the time I finally cleared away all of the things I no longer believed anymore, I didn’t seem to have anything left.
In addition to trying to sort out my spirituality, I also had the difficult task of trying to find myself. When I first left D, the friend I stayed with was shocked at just how much of my own identity and preferences had been subsumed by him. Whenever asked about my preference for anything, my first instinct was to respond with what I knew to be D’s preferences. It took considerable effort to figure out what I liked and what I wanted. I had been cut off from myself for so long that sometimes I just didn’t know.
In a very real sense, the failure of my marriage and subsequent dismantling of my fundamentalist Christian world view were the first step in my process of finding and becoming myself. As I began to shed the old belief systems it was time to find what I did believe about myself and the universe.
I was left very disillusioned when my Christian world view was left in shambles by my lived reality. I wasn’t ready to give up all spirituality, though. I had always felt close to nature. Out amongst the trees was one of the few places I could ever really find peace, so it seemed logical to gravitate towards nature religions. I had befriended a woman from work who was pagan. I began asking her questions about her beliefs and paganism in general. She considered herself to be Wiccan and we discussed various forms of paganism. I was first drawn to Druidism due to its emphasis on tree lore. I eventually settled into a more Wiccan belief structure. Not really ready to become too involved in a new religion, I maintained a solitary study and practice and did not actively seek out group rituals.
During this time I was becoming more comfortable in my gay identity. I never really took on the lesbian label although that is what most women who love women call themselves. For me it always felt too feminine. Too close to calling myself a woman, something I semi-consciously tried to avoid. When I first came out I still had the long hair I wore throughout my teen years and my marriage. The fundamentalist Christian view was that it was shameful for a woman to have short hair. As I became more comfortable with being gay, I drifted more and more to the butch end of the spectrum. My hair got shorter and shorter until finally I just got men’s haircuts at a local barber shop. I had hoped that becoming butch would help me feel more comfortable in my body, but actually it had the opposite effect. The closer I looked to male, the more I longed to be a man. My mother was still having a very difficult time adjusting to me coming out as gay so it never entered my mind that being a man could be an option. Since I couldn’t be a man, I would have to try to find a way to be comfortable being a woman.
Continue to Trying to be a woman