Monday, April 14, 2014

Pushing the envelope: love story, with transman

Sunshine Mugrabi's memoir, When my Boyfriend was a Girl, is a love story. In many respects it's a conventional love story: two people meet, there's chemistry, each has reservations about wading in too deep or too fast. One gets over those reservations before the other, arguments ensue, tension escalates ... and maybe they make it, maybe they don't.

But this memoir has a twist. And that the title gives away the nature of that twist doesn't diminish the freshness, honesty, surprise, or emotional resonance of its story. Not a whit. Because the two things that matter most about When my Boyfriend was a Girl are:
  1. it's a conventional love story about people who most readers won't easily imagine in a conventional relationship: a bisexual woman, and an FTM transsexual; and,
  2. it richly illustrates why those categories -- bisexual woman, FTM transsexual -- are not the defining elements in a human love story.
The memoir, published just last month, is well written and tightly paced. As dramatic narrative, it zigged and zagged -- between obstacles Sunshine and Leor encountered and the ways they found to surmount them -- a little too predictably for my taste; but as I read I weighed the book's narrative structure against the truth that zigzag is how relationships unfold in the real world. More importantly, that very same dramatic 'ordinariness' goes to the heart of the book's core message: a relationship with a transsexual is, well, a relationship.

Consider how the author treats physical love. Here's a beautifully lyrical passage, one of my favorite in the memoir:
When I crawl back in beside him he is lying on his side, his breathing now heavier, coming out thick like a train engine. With my arm across his waist his warm hand takes hold of mine. I inch closer, pressing my body against his naked back. Dreams invade my brain, of dresses and high heels. I yawn and press myself closer to him. The curve of his waist is reassuring to me, a shape I've come to know and love. All we have is now, I tell myself. The darkness coils around us and I fall fast asleep.
Full disclosure: Sunshine is an old friend. We've known each other since the late 1980s, when we lived together for a couple of years in a communal house in Berkeley. More to the point of this post, Sunshine and I were both a part of the Oakland/Berkeley chapter of a 90s-era activist group called Queer Nation -- we called ourselves Queer Nation - East Bay. Queer Nation chapters sprang up all around the country around that time, modeled on the original founded in New York in response to violence -- physical and rhetorical -- against gay men and lesbians.

Queer Nation was all about pushing the envelope. Our core M.O. was to pick a public space that wasn't known for being friendly to displays of same-sex affection, show up without prior notice, and flamboyantly make out. Public transit stations, pubs, malls, bowling alleys... Sometimes we made a point of picking places where someone or a couple had been hassled or assaulted for Living While Queer.

Here's Sunshine -- neé Dewitt -- from a cover article about Queer Nation - East Bay published in the weekly East Bay Express on 15 Feb 1991. (The article, Loud and Queer by Linnea Due, is a great read, but too far back to be available in the paper's on-line archive.)
Sunshine Dewitt, her easy-to-read expressions radiating both her humor and her passionate commitment, describes the action at Raleigh's, a bar and café on Telegraph Avenue. "Raleigh's has these big picture windows facing the street, so that action was really successful just on the level of visibility. We were forcing people who claimed to be tolerant -- whatever that means -- to really see us. People are so clever at avoiding gay people in action, and this was one time we were in their faces, they had to see us, and it just upset people so much. It really did start a controversy. There was that article in the Daily Cal afterward, ranting that we were trying to imitate straight people by kissing in public. As we walked in there, I watched a straight couple kissing, and I thought, well, obviously kissing is allowed in here. It was just so powerful to see two men kissing after seeing the same boring image of a man and a woman, a man and a woman..."
The group of QNEB activists being interviewed (in my living room) goes on to explain how most of us took exception to UC Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Cal, characterizing our activity as imitating straight people. Then the article's author quoted yours truly:
Queer Nation goes out into places that are predominantly straight, where gay people don't normally congregate as queer people, but it's not so we can be like straight people. If we can pass as straight people, we can go anywhere. Everybody's known that as long as queer people have existed, you can go anywhere as long as you don't show who you are. The point of Queer Nation is to make it possible for us to go places and be ourselves ...
And a few paragraphs later, Sunshine again:
"We will never assimilate," Sunshine says. "That's the thing for me. We're not going to look the way straight people want us to look; we're not going to act they way they want us to act."
We were a couple of decades younger then, and more prone to making absolutist pronouncements than we might be today. And while it's true there are plenty of people and governments still arduously channeling the spirits of Anita Bryant and Jesse Helms, nowadays queer people and culture are a lot more visible in movies, television, music, and books ... and most of us feel safer -- if not necessarily safe -- when being ourselves in many major urban environments and in some smaller cities and towns in the U.S. In places where, in the 1990s, we couldn't comfortably or safely hold hands on the sidewalk or make out in a college bar, we can now choose to get married.

When my Boyfriend was a Girl acknowledges the conflicted feelings that many queer activists who came up and out in the '70s, '80s, and '90s hold about 'mainstream' goals like winning the right to marry or serve openly in the military. When Sunshine first broached the topic of marrying Leor (and Leor first shied away from marriage), that goal was still aspirational in the U.S for same-sex couples (which isn't a category Sunshine and Leor fit, by the way).

Here, from the memoir's seventh chapter:
In these dark days before gay marriage is legal in any state of the U.S., I know I have a bit of a tough case to make to Leor, who will no doubt play the solidarity with our gay and lesbian allies card. So I begin to amass a large and growing arsenal of good reasons why we should consider getting married. [...] Yet, I know in my heart that Leor and I would be breaking some major, unwritten rule if we were to take advantage of the fact that we could pass ourselves off as a straight couple in the eyes of the law.
Sunshine's focus on The Marriage Question was -- for me, during the hours I was immersed in reading When my Boyfriend was a Girl -- the least compelling aspect of her memoir. But unlike a large number of LBGTQ people, marriage was never important to me. My partner and I had been together for a month shy of fifteen years when the Supreme Court ruled last June for same-sex marriage in a pair of major victories for the gay-rights movement, as Adam Liptak of the NY Times put it. I'm not saying I was indifferent to the ruling -- far from it. I was and remain glad that same-sex couples who do wish to are now (and finally) able to marry. For myself, however, I never longed for a government-issued certificate to ratify my commitments.

For Sunshine and Leor, the question of marriage was a lot more complicated than it could ever be for two male or two female partners. Here, from near the end of the book:
"Leor, I don't know if I can go on," I say. "It's just too hard to be in this limbo. Everyone we know is tying the knot. Straight, gay, whatever else. If you don't want that..."

"We can't be what marriage is about," he says, cutting me off. "Can't you see that?"

A single tear slips down his cheek. The sight makes my heart lurch inside me [...]

Later, much later, I will recognize how difficult it was for him to say these words to me. To say out loud that he can't live up to the fantasy I have built of what and who I want him to be. That he fears the pressure on him to be the husband I expect. That as a differently gendered person, he would never be the man I thought I wanted.
If I were to wish for one thing more from this memoir, it would be just that: more. Especially, I'd wish for more of Leor's experience as his relationship with Sunshine evolves.

After finishing the the last page of her postscript, I gave a lot of thought to the author's decision to focus so tightly on the question whether she (bisexual woman) would marry her beloved (FTM transexual). Leaving my own ideas about marriage aside, I realized that this authorial decision makes shrewd emotional and rhetorical sense.

Here's the thing: for the overwhelming majority of people of all sexes and sexualities, marriage is a familiar and significant aspect of life and culture. Most people grow up expecting or hoping to marry, and (according to U.S. census data) most people do so. And, hey, I cry at weddings myself! Making a lifelong pledge is a big, deep deal ... even if married partners' promises don't always last as intended, when a couple makes them they are sincere and moving expressions of love, loyalty, and commitment to honor and care for another person.

Tying the freighted question of making and celebrating commitment to another human being to the trajectory of Sunshine and Leor's relationship makes their love accessible. That accessibility extends even to readers who have never knowingly met a transexual, and imagine that loving such a person is radically different from love as they conceive and experience it.

To paraphrase a famous literary lesbianWhen my Boyfriend was a Girl makes crystal clear that however unique the particulars of a relationship, a marriage is a marriage is a marriage.

And in making that case, Sunshine Mugrabi is still pushing the envelope.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Radical conservatism vs the radical left
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Five ways to look at a high school bully
Making a world where queer kids thrive

3 comments:

  1. "[A] government-issued certificate to ratify ... commitments" is an oddly reductive and dismissive way to characterize legal marriage. I see legal marriage more as a way to protect my personal commitments from those outside my relationship. Fortunately neither Kent nor I have family hostile to our life together but the law takes biology for granted as trumping affinity so I'd rather have the law on my side (i.e., marriage) than have the law's default position be that Kent & I are strangers. We don't have kids but if we did I would feel even more strongly about this.

    I cry at weddings, too. (I stopped teasing newlyweds about their upcoming divorces when too often the joshing turned out to be on the mark. I got superstitious, in other words.)

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    1. I wouldn't presume that others see marriage the same way I do, Glenn. But even so, your characterization boils down to a convenient packaging of contractual declarations, commitments, and relationships that could be effected by other formal, legal agreements (and for many years were so effected, by those who could navigate and afford the complex steps). Having marriage available to whoever wants it is way better than not. That convenience is not trivial, not least in the 'navigate and afford' department. But to me it's still a formalism whose importance is dwarfed in comparison to personal relationships and commitments, and not nearly so pivotal an event as many people make of it. There's more to be said about the role of marriage in limiting the range of relationships that most people easily conceive as primary and deeply committed ... the idea that nuclear family is the only thing one circles the wagons around. But that's another blog post, or a book, or several.....

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    2. When you boil down a head you get a skull. Which is always smiling! :-)

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