The Case of Horizontal Hostility

Gordene MacKenzie

My name is Joan don’t fuck with me boys Crawford.
I’m a gender detective.

On most days I’m an over the edge drag queen/transvestite turned on by sequins and gold lace. I spent my childhood trying to be the boy I felt I was, feeling terribly uncomfortable in my own skin. Born female means something, and I didn’t like what it meant. I’d hit my thirtieth birthday before I finally saw the vision of a man in a dress literally sashaying out of my torso, and realized I had the good fortune to be a drag queen in a passing female body. Thirty years spent thinking I was cursed, then I finally wised up to just how lucky I really am. Just between you and me, though, I enjoy a tendency toward loud femme with a vocal masculine twist, like an olive in a dry martini, a combination which the generic bipolar gender population tends to find somewhat unsettling.

My volume gets turned up especially loud when I’m with my friend and associate Norma Diva DYKE Desmond. Norma’s the kind of girl who piles on so many layers of sequins she’s about to transmute into a whole new species. And, as happens with good friends sometimes, she’s dragging me right along with her, which suits me fine. When we’re not solving another tough gender crime we hang out in the aisles of the local fabric store, which tends to blast us right into ten dimensional hyperspace. You know what I mean….contemplating how all these luxurious bright fabrics make up the real DNA of life. It’s a nice break from our demanding workload and besides, Norma and I take great comfort in hanging over bolts of glowing fabric, knowing beyond all doubt that the sequin is the basic building block of all life. Outside the safety of the fabric store where all the clerks know us, Norma often runs into trouble because she sometimes doesn’t shave and the gender rigor mortised generics get all huffed up. Course, if you want our opinion, we think they should get over it and pay more attention to other life threatening stuff going on in this crazy planet. But then, who are we to tell them what to do?

Our most recent case was a complicated one. We were hired one day by a trans babe who skated into our office on plush velvet rollerblades, wearing a pair of killer sunglasses. Real cool. S/he wanted us to investigate why there was so much horizontal hostility in gender land. I didn’t want to take the case, figured it was beyond hope, a real self-confidence killer. I knew s/he was trouble, but Norma got real stuck on the babe. So I went along, like I always do.

Before our client skated out of our office s/he did two things. First, s/he left us a valuable clue that the Gender Movement is not a monolithic movement where everyone agrees with each other, but is far more complex. Secondly, s/he gave us a hefty retainer that helped embellish our wardrobe.

As drag detectives, Norma and I ritually begin each case with a change of outfits. This time we decorated ourselves to look like fractals. You know, beautiful colorful organic patterns, the building block of life stuff. Accomplishing that was no easy feat, but we were equal to the task. Before long we set out, fabulously attired in glittering rags, for gender land.

We knew from experience that horizontal hostility occurs when members of oppressed groups, weary from the battlefield of fighting oppression, spew napalm horizontally on each other, instead of the structures of oppression. The perpetrators of horizontal hostility, filled with repressed anger and eagerness for social change, may be unaware of the debilitating consequences of their actions.

Our mission was not only to crack the case of horizontal hostility wide open, but also to see if maybe we could offer suggestions on how to form coalitions across differences in a collective fight for civil rights. As I watched Norma stretching hir long legs, preparing to start our journey, I reflected once again how we are all products of a cruel and repressive gender system that deeply marks our bodies and souls. We’ve come to expect gender intolerance from society, but to suffer it from each other is especially painful.

As soon as we hit the street to start of our investigation, Norma and I, decked out in 6 inch rainbow fractal sandals, caught sight of a mirror glistening in the sunlight of a neighborhood garage sale. As Norma leaped out of the car — which hadn’t even gotten out of our own driveway — to check the price of the mirror, she was greeted with a loud cry: “Hey, what’s that — a man or a woman?” Knowing too well from past experience how quickly gender hostility could explode into violence, she jumped back in the car and I gunned it, tires and attitude squealing, refusing to be rendered powerless. Even though this was not an unusual event, she was shaken, and my heart cried out to her as I took her hand in sympathy. To be driven from our own reflections in the wider gender mirror was an act of extreme cruelty. We took perverse comfort in the fact that our gender expressions are loud enough to shatter their cultural gender mirrors. Whenever we don’t fit into rigid gender categories, cruel taunts, jokes, threats and violence against our trans bodies are a daily occurrence. If we don’t pass, we learn coping techniques or how to get out fast. I hate to admit it but the detour to hell shook my molecules, too.

We refreshed ourselves with a quick trip to the fabric store to stock up on more sequins. Holding the sequins in our hands we were transported to our first destination, the local trans group’s weekly meeting. This night, group members were discussing how to negotiate identity in everyday life. Norma raised her sequined wrist, recounting how we were driven away from the mirror at the garage sale by transphobia. The room fell silent. Finally, a transexual woman spoke up. She told Norma if “she” would just try and pass “she” wouldn’t encounter such problems. Now, I expect and can deal with some amount of transphobia from generics, but to be confronted with it in a space supposedly safe for exploration of gender expression is a bitter pill to swallow. As soon as the TS finished speaking, the room divided. Half of the group members thought Norma should pass or accept the consequences! The other half argued that gender for some was far more complex than being a man or a woman. Norma and I, ever prepared for just such an emergency, immediately handed out sequins to all, told them we loved all of their gender expressions and that the movement was big enough for all of us and needed all of our energies. Then we got out of there.

Back at the office I dressed Norma’s horizontal-hostility-inflicted wound with a shot of whiskey and a gold lace scarf. With the blissful ignorance of a newborn babe, I routinely checked our e-mail, only to find another bomb had dropped. Most of our email had been dumped because a debate on the internet was raging over a move to have trans rights included in proposed anti-discrimination legislation for gays and lesbians. At issue was whether cross-dressers, transvestites, drag kings, and queens etc. should be dumped so that only transexuals or those that passed could enjoy an end to discrimination. Wait a second! This was too close to home. What about the rest of us? As the Gender Liberation Movement has made us more aware of the complexity and diversity of gender expressions and negotiations and how they are interlocked with other oppressions why are some of us taking the role of oppressors by demanding gender conformity? As I dusted the napalm from my section of cyberspace, the phone rang. It was a call from a distressed trans sister and brother who tearfully recounted how one of our national leaders was in critical condition after a sniper bullet of horizontal hostility hit hir. It seems there had been an argument over what political tactics should be used in the fight for gender freedom. Another national leader, thinking her way was the only way, got a little trigger-happy and now both were seriously wounded.

By the time Norma and I arrived on the scene, our trans friend that took the bullet was recovering. We told hir that the movement needed all of our strengths and efforts. We need those willing to work within the system as well as those challenging the system. Social change will only occur when we are visible and unrelenting on all fronts. As we lovingly wrapped sequins and gold lace over her wound, carefully saving some for our other trans sister who inflicted the wound, I was reminded of a moving scene in the film “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.” In the scene three trans persons united across their differences climb in full drag to the top of a mountain. Looking out on the endless horizon they observe “all that space…it just keeps on going.” In the Gender Movement there is also all that space that keeps on going. Can’t we form coalitions across our differences and join the quest for Gender Liberation together? Maybe together, we can finally find the freedom and beauty that awaits us.

In anticipation of this happening, Norma and I are off again to the fabric store looking for more sequins, for celebration and/or agitation, whichever comes our way. After all, that’s what we do. We’re gender detectives. It’s a tough job, and we love it.

(summer 1998)

For more gender detective action, check out The Case of Mistaken Identity!