My name is Joan don’t fuck with me boys Crawford.
I am a gender detective.
I think of myself as twice born. Most of my childhood was a bad accident waiting to happen as I attempted to be the boy I knew I was, which set off serious institutional and parental alarms. Uncomfortable in my lean but female body, I spent a childhood of incarceration. Finally, at the age of 30, my body and I signed a peace treaty and I emerged as a monarch butterfly, having finally come to terms with being a transvestite/drag queen who is turned on by sequins and gold lace. A few birthdays and several stiff psychedelic whiskies later – I had a revelation that forever changed my life. I realized that the sequin was the basic building block of all life.
Because of my loud appearance, penchant for sleeping late, and a deep grainy voice, I’ve spent a lot of my life doing, shall we say, “odd jobs.” That ended a few years back when I bought a cheap 9mm Hungarian luger and a beautiful carved leather — lined in crimson velvet — shoulder holster and hung out my shingle as a private eye. I hired a former lover who is a great-undiscovered artist to paint the Egyptian Eye of Horus in gold leaf under my name, hoping this would influence the caliber of clientele contracting my services.
It was on my first assignment that I met my associate and fellow drag detective Norma Diva Dyke Desmond. I had been hired to investigate a drug smuggling case. It seems a manager of one of our finer fabric stores was importing white powder along with all that gorgeous cloth. I went undercover, posing as a store clerk. It was a tough case to crack, but I loved being surrounded by all that lush material. A week later the case was going nowhere. Clues seemed to be eluding me. I was about ready to give up when I noticed a new bolt of fabric had arrived. I sought refuge in the sensual comfort of the new bolt of lush gold lace tipped with smoky black highlights. As I began to wrap myself in the beauty of the fabric, I realized someone already had the same idea. Backing out, I grabbed my holster. I heard sighs of pleasure and thought I caught the reflection of sequins shining like mirrors on the tile floor. I gripped my gun firmly in both hands, finger on the trigger, and shouted: “Come out of that bolt of fabric with your arms raised.” I heard a nervous laugh like a hyena echoing through the beautiful cloth. A moment later I was face to face — or gun to face — with Norma Diva Dyke Desmond.
The magenta sequin band s/he wore around hir bright red henna hair disarmed me. Hir braceleted arms were raised, protecting hir face. I shamefully lowered my weapon. In a throaty but high pitch voice s/he admonished “sweetie, darling, be careful or you’ll hurt someone with that.” No one had ever talked to me like that. I entertained the idea that perhaps I had just met another person like myself — a transvestite/drag queen. S/he stood scared, but defiant. One hand rested firmly on the hip of hir soft pink and white flower print silk skirt. The other hand s/he held quizzically beneath hir three-day-old stubble on the chin of her heavily made up face. We drifted over to the sequin section while s/he recounted details of hir life. Before long, she had helped me crack my first case.
Norma defined as a young TG, a bit edgy over the trauma of being a male-born woman. S/he had left the farm s/he was raised on and headed for the big city in hopes of finding others like hirself and more tolerance for difference. Before finding either s/he ran out of money and had taken up, in desperation, with a not too kind T chaser who, besides paying her bills, also happened to be the drug smuggling manager of the fabric store.
With the case solved and Norma’s former sugar daddy sent up the river, Norma needed a job. In one afternoon our mission was clear. I would train Norma as my associate and together we would be gender detectives investigating gender crimes.
One drizzly windy autumn afternoon Norma and I were taking a fabric break from our busy caseload. Norma was enthusiastically redecorating the office in red metallic cloth accented by wild stripped and spotted animal print faux furs. We were both prancing around the office draped in some of the cloth when the door flew open and a skinny M2F girl ran into our office dripping wet and scared. S/he looked to be about l6 and was a good pass. Looking her over, my attention paused briefly as I caught the hospital bracelet still dangling from her wrist. I smelled danger, and she noticed.
“Please help me, they’ve been torturing me. I don’t want to be a boy, I can’t, please, don’t make me go back there!” Her nervous anxiety was infectious, and her eyes pleaded with all the intensity of a wounded and trapped animal. Somebody slugged me with a hammer in the place where my heart usually sits.
“Please don’t make me go back there,” she continued, “they’re evil, I couldn’t stand it, I’ll kill myself!”
“It’s OK, honey, nobody’s making you go anywhere,” interjected Norma, who seemed to have a good instinct for this. “Where is ‘back there’?”
“It’s a hospital, a prison, a mental hospital where they lock you in and torture you for not being the way they think you should be. I hate them.”
“Do you know why you were there?” Norma questioned gently.
“It was my parents, they hate me because I’m not a regular boy. They put me there so that the doctors could make me into a regular boy. But I won’t do it, I can’t. It’s all wrong for me, I just need to be a girl, I don’t know why, but I do.”
Hir frightened but strong brown eyes pleaded with us to help hir avoid going back. I tossed the red metallic cloth I’d had draped over my tailored coat and trousers over my shoulder holster, and gave her thin hand a warm shake.
“What’s your name, honey?” I softly asked.
As I introduced myself and Norma, who had shed hir cloth to reveal her tight red leather miniskirt, I noticed recent burn marks on Brenda’s temple, and knew they were caused by a recent episode of electroshock therapy. We had our work cut out for us.
Norma offered Brenda one of her large fake zebra print fur cloths. As s/he wrapped hir trembling thin body in the warm cloth and I fumbled to turn the thermostat up, Brenda recounted her story.
This one struck at our very cores. It seems Brenda had endured a life of institutionally sanctioned torture for being a woman in a male body. Hir absent parents were frequently out of the country arranging for large U.S. businesses to “relocate” (too kind a word, no doubt) in so-called third world countries. As a result Brenda was largely raised in a small town by hir Fundamentalist grandparents. Because they viewed film and TV as instruments of the devil, most of Brenda’s early awareness of transpersons came from the tabloids on the supermarket shelves. S/he embarrassingly recounted how tabloid stories like “Polluted Water Turns Man into a Woman” gave hir hope that s/he too could externally transform into a girl. In a dramatic attempt at self-transformation, s/he had submerged hir adolescent body in the muddy waters of the Rio Grande River, hoping it’s polluted waters would be the elixir to make her body female.
When nothing happened other than a severe case of mosquito bites, Brenda remained undeterred. S/he persisted in trying to live as the girl s/he was. In response, Brenda’s grandparents took it upon themselves to cast the “she devils” out of hir through religious exorcisms.
After she nearly drowned during an exorcism in which hir head was held under water too long, hir parents, whose sole religion is business, took hir to live with them. Their attempts to push hir toward gender conformity condemned hir to a different kind of hell. S/he was sent to a daily gender reorientation program at a local Gender Identity Clinic for young gender non-conformists. Brenda’s thin body had shivered ever so slightly as s/he recounted a typical day at the clinic, where any masculine behavior was reinforced and feminine behavior was punished. Hir vivid description of how s/he received blue tokens redeemable for rewards like money, ice cream, movies, etc. when s/he acted like a boy and red tokens redeemable for punishment when s/he acted like a girl made both Norma and I wince.
Under house arrest and guarded by parents who had become the gender police, Brenda’s life became unbearable. If s/he did anything “girl-like” or associated with girls, s/he was severely punished — often beaten — by hir parents. At one point the family was talked into allowing a “therapist” to move in the house to monitor and video tape hir behavior 24 hours a day. After a week of torture during which taped episodes of femininity would be used as evidence against hir, unable to hide her true feelings In order to avoid punishment, Brenda ran away. S/he was quickly caught, arrested and spent two tortured days in a juvenile detention center with boys who beat hir up and threatened to rape hir for being a “sissy.” Back in the gender prison of hir own home, no longer able to keep up a facade, Brenda slashed her wrists in a bathtub filled with blue dye and floating orange slices, to the Door’s song “This is the End.” As the song ended hir culturally battered body slid deep into the blood stained water.
Brenda woke up on the locked ward of a mental hospital, punishment for hir attempted suicide. Here drugs and electroshock therapy were employed to try and burn the woman out of her. The triumphant smile that came across her dark face as s/he dangled before our eyes the hospital keys s/he stole was the first we’d seen.
Norma and I, riveted to hir story throughout, both took a deep breath when s/he finished. Brenda raised hir hands dramatically, like birds in flight.
“I’ve had enough of their torture. I was headed to drown myself in Mother Ocean, when I noticed your sign with the gold Egyptian eye and the words ‘gender detectives investigating gender crimes.’ It looked too good to be true, but I figured I’d give it a try. So, instead of dipping myself into another watery grave, I decided to come through your purple door instead. Can you help me?”
Norma’s eyes clouded up, and I thought I could see the memories of hir tortured childhood re-emerging behind them. She had told me once about dressing in hir “girl clothes” in the sugar shack before school , childhood images that still burned like kindling in hir mind. Though my demeanor is stealth, I poured myself a whiskey to block out memories of spending a night in jail at l6 for running away from home, released only on the condition that I remove my jeans, boots and work shirt and put on hideous pink and white polka dot girl stuff. I had feared I would die on the long drive home and be buried as “just a girl.” As my mind returned to the present, I took a stiff drink and noticed Norma’s reflection in the mirror as s/he pulled hirself together.
Being a gender detective, I’d heard such stories before, but always about someone else far away. This was the first time I’d heard of such a thing in my own backyard. Although my blood was boiling, my head was clear. Clearly, our mission was twofold. We needed to try and bring some understanding about gender difference to hir parents, however difficult that might be with people who, according to Brenda’s description, saw everything in terms of dollar signs. We also, and even more importantly, needed to somehow dismantle the narrow-minded clinic’s system of systematic brainwashing and torture that they apparently routinely used against gender variant children.
First, though, we had to do something with Brenda. There are penalties for harboring minors, and I wasn’t about to get stuck with that payment. We couldn’t keep her at my place or Norma’s because that would be the first place the authorities would look, as soon as we showed up and opened our mouths. Fortunately, I’ve got an old friend who can always be counted on, especially when it comes to animals and kids who are being abused. She’s a sweet old soul, as loving and reliable as the day is long, and we took Brenda to this kind woman’s home, where we assured Brenda s/he would be safe. Although s/he looked a bit spooked, Brenda assured us that s/he would stay put. In return we had to promise to call every hour, and to warn her if anything bad might be headed that way.
With Brenda safely tucked away, our first stop was the home of Brenda’s parents. The address Brenda gave us led us to one of the more expensive neighborhoods in the city, where the large homes, ostentatious in their obvious wealth, were set in showcase yards isolated from one another by walls of lush greenery. As we walked up the neat brick walkway towards the front door of the white, modern, uncomfortable-looking house, a dog on a short chain in the side yard barked fiercely. Armed with pamphlets and books from PFLAG and dressed down, most of our sequins on the inside (and in our briefcases), Norma and I rang Mr. & Ms. Mamerika’s doorbell.
The woman who answered the door appeared to be in her late 50’s, dressed a bit too elegantly for home, but with a manner that said that she wasn’t going anywhere. Her face was drawn by lines of tension around her mouth and temples, as if she suffered from a constant, nagging pain.
“Yes?” she asked, curtly.
“Hello ma’am, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m wondering if we could have a few moments of your time. It’s about your son.” Even though I knew that Brenda was their daughter, they thought of hir as a son, and I needed to start this someplace that made sense from the parents’ perspective.
“Who are you,” she asked sharply, “and what business do you have with my child?” Her emphasis on my was clearly intended to demonstrate her ownership and, thereby, my lack of power in this situation. Which was true: in the eyes of the law, Brenda’s parents own her just as they own the dog that had barked at us.
“My name’s Joan and this is my partner Norma, we’re detectives.” I left out the gender part, figuring I better not tip my hand. If these folks were as transphobic as Brenda’s description of their actions implied, the very mention of the word ‘gender’ might put an end to any progress. I handed her the special card I keep for just such situations, the one with just my name and address and the words “Detective for Hire.”
“And what is it you want with my child?” This woman would have made a great drill sergeant.
“Well, ma’am, you see, we, my partner and I, that is, we received a phone call earlier today from someone who said they were your son. They were asking for our help and, even though they wouldn’t meet with us, we felt that we had to do something. So here we are. Can we please talk with you and your husband?”
Her eyes narrowed. “Now you listen to me, Joan and Norman, I don’t know who you think you are, but if you don’t leave right this minute I’ll have you arrested. And if I hear that you’ve spoken one more word with my child, I’ll have your licenses, both of you. Now get out of here!”
“But ma’am,” Norma piped in, “we’re just trying to help you and Brenda.”
My heart froze. Norma, in her inexperience, had made the mistake of using hir femme name. As I turned to Norma in shock, I could see the agonized look in her eye that told me she knew what she’d done. Ms. Mamerika looked like she was having a heart attack.
Her voice rose to a shriek. “How dare you! Get out of here right now! Bestor! Help me! Bestor, they’re after my child!” Then she screamed a thin, high piercing wail that cut like a stiletto.
By this time Norma and I were already in full retreat down the walkway. We jumped in my car faster than I’d ever have thought possible, and I gunned it out of there. We never even knew if Bestor showed up.
Norma sobbed all the way home, as I stewed in thoughts of lost licenses and the quality of life on the street. Back at the office, we collapsed amidst the fabrics whose magical ability to impart comfort had diminished considerably. We both felt lower than low. Now we’d done it. How would we ever make Brenda’s parents understand that s/he just needed love and acceptance, not discipline and brainwashing, if they wouldn’t even talk with us? And now they’d never do that. We’d be lucky if they didn’t come after us with resources that were clearly greater than anything we’d be able to muster in our defense. If Ms. Mamerika decided to make good on her threat, we were cooked. Not to mention what might happen if they discovered that we were keeping their daughter at a friend’s house. If that little secret got out, we’d be spending the rest of our days inspecting prison bars from the inside.
My long training, though, with the help of more than my share of hard knocks, soon got me thinking back on a positive track. There was still the clinic; maybe we’d have better luck there.
Just then the phone rang. My heart sank as I remembered the business card I’d left behind. This would be the police.
The voice on the other end was deep, intense, and carefully controlled.
“Hello, is this detective Joan Crawford?”
I swallowed. “Yes, this is Joan, can I help you?” Though I tried to sound confident, I surely sounded as guilty as I felt.
“This is Bestor Mamerika.”
My heart stopped. “Hello” I croaked, certain that he was about to announce the end of our careers as detectives.
“Is there some place that we can meet in private?”
Although it didn’t quite dent the floor, I think I seriously bruised the underside of my jaw.