March into the archives : gender essay/fiction

The following short story was written for an anthropology class on gender in 1998. All of the best bits come from the work of Anka Radakovich, shown with Michael Jackson in the photo above. Sex and the City hadn't started screening in Australia yet.

“Sex is to gender as nature is to culture. Discuss”

An essay/mock-article/short fiction by Jason Richardson for ANTH2025

Before civil rights and the second wave of feminism, James Brown told a generation of sisters that “It’s a man’s world”. Well, I’ve always wanted to penetrate it.

You might expect this would require years of hormone treatment and extensive surgery but I’ve found a scoop. By switching gender identities I wanted to see the world through the male gaze. I’d deconstruct our differences. I wanted to test Simone de Beauvoir’s theory that the roles of male and female are shaped by our reproductive organs.

Think about it. Women, with our internal, squishy accommodations tend to be more self-protective and introspective. On the other hand, men, because of their fleshy protuberances are constantly reminded of their biological imperative: a mission discovered during puberty to spread the seed and conquer the planet. Women don’t make a big deal of what’s downstairs. After all, it’s one thing guys aren’t too judgemental about. Men are clearly more vain when it comes to genital appearance. That’s why they’ve built monuments throughout the world to resemble the phallus. It’s a man’s world all right. And for the full manly experience I needed my own Twilight Zone episode. Y’know, the one where Jane Doe turns into Joe Average and no one notices. The next best thing on offer was a reconnaissance mission as a gender spy. An undercover Bond girl. I’d once been told that I had balls. It was time to time to weigh them.

I arranged to collect the evidence and, ultimately, I wanted to rock the world with my counter-cultural excursion by writing the type of thing that makes footnotes for a decade.

An article that reappeared on reading lists throughout my years at university was ‘Throwing like a girl’ by Iris Marion Young. She was a phenomenological existentialist - which sounds like an overstatement for someone who makes sense of a phenomena such as nature. She argued that as a Western woman my understanding of femininity is based on a biological fact. That as a woman, my existence was shaped by my physical abilities and actions. I figured that if there were any truth to this, then by experiencing life as a man I could compare the theories and stereotypes to my gender reality. Furthermore, if I could pass as a man in the world, it would be because my actions didn’t unselfconsciously give me away as a woman.

To guide me out of the Yang - my big, black hole of femininity - I enlisted the skills of Alexis Jones. She runs a performance group - Feminine Disposal Unit - who promise a culture shock without leaving town. Something like an out-of-gender experience.
A passport to the Men’s room.

Alexis explained what was involved and suggested traits to incorporate into my new male character. “The trick to passing as a man is thinking and behaving rather than looking and acting” Jones encouraged. “If you feel confident then nobody will suspect. And rather than being bemused, you’ll be surprised at the man you’ve become”.
To begin we picked out a wardrobe. For it to fit properly I flattened my boobs with bandages. My make-up came off and I unclipped my hair. Finally, I removed my jewellery and put it into the toe of my heels. There was an eerie moment when I felt a sensation like the type of unconfidence that plagued me around puberty. It was gym changeroom all over again. The sentimental shiver passed as Alexis slicked my hair back and rubbed a dark powder onto my face.

Slowly I developed blackheads and pores and even a five-o’clock shadow. With a little more make-up she’d simulated an Adam’s apple and a cleft chin. Then Alexis applied the masculine veil of facial hair. Just an arch or three: a 70s cop show moustache and fattened my eyebrows. I was almost too stunned to stop Jones from applying a hairy mole upon my cheek. Almost.

After completing my disguise with a pair of glasses, I found myself wondering if the mirror never lies.

Surprised at the man I’d become? Horrified more likely.

If you’ve seen Herb Ritts’ photographs of Cindy Crawford in drag you would know why. I’d expected to look like a studly, young guy. Instead I looked like a freak, a short low life, a statistic from the column marked long term undesirable. If clothes make the man then the outfit and glasses made me Mike, an uneducated geek. A walking contradiction and I seriously didn’t want to recognise myself.

Before the shock wore off Alexis handed me a condom and a tube of some blue gel with the instructions to “Fill ’er up!”. The joy at shaping my own manhood did little to discourage Freud’s theories of penis envy but I was determined to have something match my expectations. Alexis was horrified at the thick balloon in my hand: “Don’t make it too big,” she warned. “Just remember you’ve got to wear it”.

After reconsidering how much weight my pants could hold, I began my life as a man. Alexis suggested I practice a masculine strut and with much gusto I gave her a walk-by. I was literally a step ahead on the path to manhood thanks to my research. It was a dramatic paraphrasing of Iris Marion Young’s observations. She noted that even in the most simple bodily movements you can detect a gendered style and extension. Men are typically more open with their bodies and their gait and the masculine stride is proportionally longer. A man will typically swing his arms in a more open and loose fashion and keep a ‘Reggae’ rhythm in his step. Alexis promised to read Young’s article and suggested it helps to visualise each movement as an athletic activity.

“While putting on your glasses you should be flexing your muscles. Because, men are by no means superior athletes,” observed Jones. “More often their sporting efforts are displays of bravado than genuine skill”.

We spent an hour evaluating each other’s deportment, swigging beer and smoking cigarettes, before dialling a pizza. We burped, Alexis farted and I became accustomed to re-adjusting my crotch. She emphasised the use of strong language for emphasis and warned against buying anything labelled ‘diet’ (though Pepsi Max is considered acceptable). A revealing lesson detailed men’s room etiquette. In public toilets Jones recommended avoiding both eye-contact and the trough (unless researching the phenomenon of ‘stage fright’). “Remember the mantra” said Jones in closing, “real men shake dry...”.

To test my disguise Alexis suggested a visit to a local nightclub. After spending the afternoon getting dressed and drinking beer on an empty stomach I was keen. She drove and, though a well-informed local, I was soon lost. Thumping music grew louder as we climbed the stairs and entered through a partition directly onto the dancefloor.

Writhing bodies surrounded us and self-consciously we joined the rhythm. I looked around at the crowd expecting to see strange looks at my awkward dancing. Instead, I saw tall awkward women dancing with a few men. Alexis grabbed my arm, led me over to the bar and ordered drinks. I asked where we were. “Just the place for a drag king” said Jones, “Sydney’s most popular transvestite bar. You’d think that if anyone could see through your disguise it would be a fellow cross-dresser”.

Apparently not. As we watched, topless she-males circled the bar. I saw one guy who had quite obviously applied concealer to the five o’clock shadow on his breast implants. A pretty woman who looked like a bad Joan Collins glided by, tweaked my drawn-in cleft chin and whispered explicit nothings into my ear. My bladder reminded that some beer was demanding an urgent exit, so I mimed to Alexis that I was going to the toilet and became very confused. Both the Men’s and the Ladies’ rooms were filled with men in dresses. The suffocating smell of ammonia in the men’s coupled with the stalls with no doors left me with no choice but to use the Ladies’. But when I tried to enter a bunch of guys dressed as women wouldn’t let me through. They thought I was a guy. I probably represented half of the club’s female patronage! My bladder was getting gender bent out of shape. So I went back to the Mens’ and hoped I wouldn’t drop my phoney baloney.

With a great sense of relief I headed back to the bar and found Alexis absent. She must be having better luck in the ‘Ladies’ I assumed and took a seat. Minutes ticked by and anxiously I began to look around the club for her. In the process I made eye contact with a she-man who started to walk over. “Buy a lady a drink?” she asked with a deep, hoarse moan. Before I could reply she ordered a Rum and Coke and a Clit-Licker.

She introduced herself as Julie and made small talk while I looked around hoping to spy Alexis. The drinks quickly disappeared. Twenty then thirty minutes ticked by and Jones still hadn’t shown up. Julie asked me to dance and before we’d got to dance floor had rubbed my chest and exclaimed “Wow, what pecs!”. Her suggestive dancing was exceptionally good and unnerved me. Flirting is a gendered language like French but at a transvestite disco the roles seemed hilariously wrong. Julie began to rub against me and I twisted out of her arms giggling. If a chick with a dick got it on with a woman crossed-dressed as a man: wouldn’t it be heterosexual sex? It was getting warm and I worried that sweat would wash away my masculine facade. I waved to Julie and headed out the door thinking to catch a cab back to Alexis’ for my car. The cool air hit me as the alcohol did.

Then Julie stepped through the door behind me. “Are you going to ask me back for a coffee?” Julie enquired.
That wouldn’t be such a good idea I said and started down the street. With long strides she walked up next to me. “Fine” she said, “it’ll be the cafe around the corner then”.

We sat at a booth waiting for the waitress. I nervously looked at the young guys across the room and Julie explained that sexuality was like a beverage: “Some people develop a taste for flavours that defy the menu. See, you’ve got coffee or you’ve got hot chocolate. But some people like mocha” she said with a wink.
The waitress arrived and asked our orders.
“Two mocha’s” said Julie.
“No I’ll have a strong flat white” I said as the waitress turned to leave.
“Men” Julie cursed under her breath.
Within hours of becoming a man I was being blamed for the entire sex. It was enough to make me want to confess but I decided to play devil’s advocate. “You say that like you’re not male yourself” I argued. “Are you a Decaf?”
“I’m not” said Julie flatly and annoyed, “I’m a transsexual woman”.
This was like a big, red STOP sign in front of my argument. “You’re gay, right?” Julie asked - now erecting an entire set of traffic lights.

I hesitated before nodding, considering that as a heterosexual woman this would make me a homosexual man. (Which reminded me of Valerie Solanas’ line in her SCUM Manifesto, that: “To be sure he’s a ‘Man’, the male must see to it that the female be clearly a ‘Woman’, the opposite of a ‘Man’, that is, the female must act like a faggot”).

“So remember how you felt coming out” she continued. “All the shit and innuendo, the homophobia - now multiply it. Trannies are ridiculed by society, misunderstood and rejected. My father and brother think I’ve betrayed manhood by transitioning to my true female gender. My self-fulfilment isn’t about sex, it’s about reassigning my anatomy. I’m genitalia-challenged” Julie said with a sad, wry smile.
“It’s the same old ism of fearing what you don’t understand” I offered, trying to sound sympathetic.
“Yes - but that’s not going to solve anything. Transphobia is just another word, a label to counter all the insults. Society has got two sexes and a few labels and it keeps things simple if it stays that way. Hopefully these entrenched views will change. People will realise that transexuality is not a lifestyle decision. It isn’t cosmetic surgery, it’s a medical condition called gender identity disorder”.
“That sounds almost hormonal” I injected. “But isn’t it just another word like transsexual? Another label with another connotation to detail another aspect of gender?”
“Well what is gender but a hormonal process in the foetus?” replied Julie. “Our reproductive organs aren’t who we are. Gender interprets nature with a series of labels, but really it’s a scale, a spectrum, like the DJ’s crossfader switch between two turntables. One record’s playing testosterone and the other oestrogen. They’re extremes of masculinity and femininity” she said, warming to the metaphor. “You can label different spots on the mix and maybe market them as a new song. But really, somebody just put my record in the wrong cover”.
We laughed.

Later, after my coffee and more conversation, Julie invited me back for a hot chocolate.

Novak, Julie. Transphobia in our Community, August 1997. Quirk, Canberra free street press.
Radakovich, Anka. The Wild Girls Club: Tales from Below the Belt, 1995. Random House, Melbourne Australia.
Radakovich, Anka. Sexplorations, 1997. Random House, Melbourne Australia.
Solanas, Valerie. SCUM Manifesto quoted in Greer, Germaine The Female Eunuch, 1970. Granada Publishing Limited, Aylesbury Great Britain.
Young, Iris Marion. Throwing like a girl: a phenomenology of feminine body comportment, mobility and spatiality, 1990 [1980]. Reading Brick.