Performing TransLesbian

by Nancy Nangeroni and Gordene MacKenzie


…There is an erotic and identity dimension I longed to travel to with my partners that I have only recently begun to explore.  The erotic vehicle to those experiences I only dreamed about is gender….


I love women, I love living as a woman, but I did not grow up as one. I spent many long years living with the unfulfilled need to live as a woman, and the desire that arose in me whenever I met a woman that I found attractive.  Lesbians, it seemed to me, had it best: they got to be women, and they got to love women.  What could be better?


It was not wrong that I was born male, but simply one more piece of evidence that I was ill fated and destined to suffer a life tainted by what seemed a fetishistic compulsion which would surely prevent my attainment of my true potential – let alone the happiness of a fulfilling partnership.   While I mourned my lot, I nonetheless accepted it.  It never occurred to me that my desire to experience life from the perspective of a girl or woman might be an expression of  a healthy interest in exploration and learning — albeit along a dimension towards which those around me remained unaware or uninterested.


At some point during my youth, I heard about Christine Jorgenson, the first widely-publicized transsexual.  I felt a kinship to her, and secretly harbored a desire to be like her.  But I couldn’t see how to get there from where I was, so I contented myself with the promise that I would  at least live the second half of my life as a woman.


As I grew older, and found myself strongly attracted to women, I despaired.  I  thought I could never be a real lesbian.  I was born male, and, even if I changed my sex, I knew that that wouldn’t make me a “real” woman.  I could pretend to be one, and get my body surgically altered to look like one.  If I kept my mouth shut, I might even pass as one. But I would always know that I had lived my youth as male, except, of course, for those few precious moments of liberation when I gave rein to my transgender desires.  I have always known that, not growing up female, I was not privy to the formative experiences – positive and negative – that I presumed to be common to women.  My desires were buried so deeply, I never spoke to anyone about them.  Because of this nobody told me that all woman do not feel the same, and that Lesbian desire is not uniform, but highly diverse.


So I struggled with the question, if I lived as a woman, then, what would that make me?  And, more importantly, who would love me? Lesbians (I presumed) wouldn’t because I would not be the kind of woman they wanted.  I had lots of male experience, and was moving, in many ways,  I thought, in the opposite direction.  I saw myself moving away from masculinity – and all that it implied – towards femininity.  I was trying to escape from a life that was overly mechanical and isolated.  I was seeking connection with my sensuality and escape from conditioned gender roles. I refused relationships with women who would depend on me to care for them, without being willing to care for me in return.  I was a holdout for true partnership.


I recall a period in my life when I  listened  to an  audio tape  that gave me the hope that I could attain whatever I wanted in life.  As I listened to the tape daily, over and over, burning the lessons into my mind on my lunch hour, I repeated to myself, “I want to live as a woman.”  And I heard and accepted the admonition to have faith that, for every desire which is created within us by the  forces at play in our lives, the fulfillment of that desire is also created by the balance of those same forces.  So I came to trust that, since I am a  product of life’s endless diversity, someone who would find me attractive must also exist.  Whether they might be lesbian or not, man or woman (or something else), I couldn’t begin to imagine.  I simply trusted that they were out there, somewhere, and that I needed merely to be prepared to recognize them when we met.


I have never succeeded in looking for love; rather, what real successes I’ve enjoyed in discovering intimacy have always developed by chance.   At one point, some years before my transition to living as a woman, I had a conversation about love with my (very Italian and catholic) aunt, who is also my godmother.  She asked me about my love life, and I told her it was not going so great at that time.  She advised me, “You’ve got to merchandise yourself.”  Coming from her experience, she meant to put myself forward, out front.  And so I set about to do just that, to present myself to the widest possible audience, in the hope that somewhere out there, a person would take notice with whom I might form a real partnership, a meeting of mind, spirit and body in joyous collaboration.


The truth is, I’ve been a show-off my whole life.  First on violin, then at sports, I’ve always reveled in whatever attention was available for the doing of something that others could not do. In my mind, performance was key.  I thought  it was the means by which I would finally achieve my happiness.


Strangely, it wasn’t until I decided to take the most intense risk I could imagine – ultimate humiliation – and ‘out’ myself as transgender, that I gained some insight into my personal process of performance as a (misdirected) means of acquiring loving attention. When I finally accepted gender as a performance in which I was free to perform according to my own direction, I somehow acquired the perspective to recognize much of my struggle to perform in other areas of my life as misdirected effort.  I recognized that what I really wanted in this life was loving attention and connection with others. The stunts I was performing might indeed win me some passing recognition, but would never bring me the intimate connection I desperately needed.  Moreover, my dependence on performance as a means of acquiring attention was probably doing more to keep me from having what I wanted than anything else.


With this recognition, I resolved to seek loving attention and connection more directly.  I still enjoy performing in a variety of ways, as a writer and activist, radio show host, musician and more.  But recognizing that my need for loving attention and connection is best fulfilled by giving loving attention and connection has proven far more effective and satisfying than any amount of performance ever could.


As I’ve moved, in intimacy, out of performance and into a more conscious sharing, I find that it takes careful consciousness on my part, in intimate moments, not to fall into the initiator role.  Years of training, or simply hormones, ingrained a habit of responding to my excitement with action.  I tend to think of this as masculine, though others may feel differently.  When I am with a lover, and begin to feel excitement, I feel a tendency to assert myself and my needs.  I want to grab my partner and make things happen.  It is so easy for me, and guaranteed to keep me from getting what I need — to be intimately loved and cared for by another.  When I am the initiator, I make things happen, my partner responds to me, and together we embark on a sensual journey of my direction.  But my greatest joy is that of discovery, which comes more abundantly when I share or follow the lead of another.  I am learning, in intimate moments, to quell my urge to surge, and instead to take a turn at letting my partner drive.  I am learning to remain present in each moment, to let go of control or even knowledge of our direction, to encourage my partner’s explorations and participation which, added to mine, set our course.  I am learning to replace my fear of non-performance with an acceptance of an outcome that is not predetermined, and will not always result in crashing orgasms.  In the absence of fear, I am more genuinely present, and the connection I experience with my partner is more intensely intimate than sex ever used to be. When there is no precedent, every act must be creative.  The demand to be present and aware is unrelenting, but the rewards are the joy of discovery and the fulfillment of cooperative creation.


… We are standing staring into each other’s eyes the tip of your breast pressing into my breast.  Our nipples find each other on our bodies which have become beautiful quicksilver mirror maps of pleasure.  Your tongue traveling in the circle of my mouth.  I don’t think I have ever kissed anyone so long or so differently….  My face and tongue do not travel all over your face and tongue only in search of my own pleasure, but move through you as you move through me in a symphony of constant communication…. My tongue probes yours and the cavern of your lips and mouth as our bodies merge together.  We hold each other so tight…. lost in the pleasure of each other.  Our bodies transcend gender, yet it is the launch pad we have sprung from.


And yet, I feel greater uncertainty on approaching intimacy — especially with a new lover — then ever before.  Where do we go when there are no roles, no pathways, no established norms?  How can we connect physically, when neither of us knows what we will do together, how we will please each other?  If my new lover is a lesbian, what will she expect of me, and how will she relate to the fact that my genitals are unmistakably male in appearance?


…As you move your long honey spun fingers down the slope of my back you are my first lover to remark that I have a guy’s ass.  You quickly spin to every gender ambiguous site on my body — where the hair grows proudly across my small breasts and long giant hairs sprout from the mole in the middle of my right arm.  As we lick each other’s ears, we find it all.  Your body is beautiful.  Small breasts standing up in the moonlight.  Your whole body a lunar surface with 2 navels.  The second one made from the terrible tubes they put in you after your near fatal motorcycle accident that left you split open, hanging between life and death, man and woman.  I see your 2 navels as a sign that you are twice born.


To be a lesbian can mean erotic desire, sex acts, and/or a political identity.  However, I flounder at what this, or any other identity, means when applied to myself.  Identity seems to me to be a guide to performance, the very thing that I have at long last escaped — at least for a time — in my relationships.  “Lesbian,” which cannot hope to define all the complexities of my identity, nonetheless may serve as a type of shorthand to represent an aspect of my public performance of self.


As I enter into a relationship with a new woman friend, I begin to experience what it means to be a lesbian — not because I am a lesbian, but because I am performing what passes for lesbian. I am a woman being with another woman in an intimate relationship. As I walk down the street in Albuquerque with my lover, I begin to feel the heat of public scorn, I begin to fear the consequences of simply walking down the street with an arm around my lover.  I begin to experience what it is to be a lesbian.  I begin to know the real risk of imminent danger to myself and my lover.  I begin to know the oppression of presumed immorality, of hostility that poisons casual encounters for no reason, with no warning.


I could walk down that same street, the one which brought me fear yesterday, by myself, and escape the oppression.  The difference is not in who or what I am, but rather in my performance.  Yesterday, I performed a lesbian act, and for it I am damned.  Today my lover and I are less publicly demonstrative, and we are presumed simply two women.  There is no hostility in sight.  The lesson of identity as performance is vivid.


At the same time, calling myself lesbian  is a decision I make, a political decision, about how I will associate with others.  It’s about what role I  choose to play.  Will I assert my belonging with others who call themselves lesbian?  Will I expect admission to spaces closed to all but those calling themselves lesbian?  Will I expect to be treated in the same manner as those who call themselves lesbian?  Will I defend this identity against all who challenge my right to claim it for myself?  And will I present myself as an object of attraction to lesbians, and will we love, touch, play, sleep with, suck and fuck each other?


…Moving across the ocean of your shoulders with my kisses, I am carried to the shore of your mouth by a wave of gender blowing like a warm breeze through us….Trying to excavate the intensity and complexity of my feelings for you as I hunger for your presence, I anticipate the exact moment your body will arrive in my universe.  The orbit of my desire surrounds you like we surround each other in a sea of arms and hands circling our bodies….


Looking back, I can see that I grew up resentful of being denied access to experiences that were freely enjoyed by the women around me.  It was clear to me then that my penis was the reason used to justify this exclusion.  Had I grown up a woman, I would surely have felt just as resentful of the limitations placed on me for my lack of a penis, and eventually found buried beneath years of denial and repression an overwhelming need to live as a man.  I doubt if I would have been any better off than I am today.  I am a product not just of my place within the gender belief system of the culture, but of the whole system and the way it hurt us all.


As I move into tomorrow, and consider my politics and where to place my activist effort, I have to remember that oppression is based not on what I am, but rather on what I am presumed to be.  Oppression does not ask how you wish to be identified.  It takes one look, nails a label to you and proceeds to dispense perverse justice upon your body. I don’t have to feel like a lesbian to suffer the consequences of being presumed one.  I just have to look like one.


Identity serves a crucial role in the emergence of any liberatory movement.  It provides a haven for those seeking liberation along the dimension being challenged.  By claiming a new, transgressive identity, those challenging the status quo can identify with one another for collaborative effort and mutual support.  In claiming the identity, there is a presumption of some shared oppression, and some common desire to stand against the imposed suffering.  The new identity can be a rallying point for the formation of new alliances and coalitions.


Within a more established movement, identity too often becomes a limiting factor which is used to exclude others and assert control over the movement’s agenda.  For years now, some within the gay liberation movement have used the term “sexual orientation” as a identity-defining litmus test to exclude genderqueers and narrow the scope of queer activism.


Because this is such a repressed society, we find liberation through liberated identities. Once we’re free, we’re able to really grow and develop politically, and then can learn to appreciate the pitfalls of identity and learn to surf identity. Identity-based movements need to grow beyond the identities that established them, because basing a movement upon an identity always privileges those who sit in judgement of who gets to be included in the identity, and fails to liberate those at the margins.


…I am entering your soul through the long lashes surrounding your eyes, lost in the sequined slopes of our bodies where there are no rules.  We are making love on the borders of sex and gender, blissfully exploring the peaks of our desires…. Loving you there are no road maps, only wild fractals where chaos is the only map for our desire….

Traveling beyond the linear, we become stems and flowers, all at once. Pushing past the front and the back doorways, opening all the windows to our bodies. Capturing the cross-dressed  negative imprints of our souls on all the mirrors, the house of our love rattles from attic to basement.  We are creating new doorways.  Our genitals touch in a new and open Universe.


Moving into the new millenium, I and my trans sisters can finally rejoice in our increasing acceptance as women and lesbians.  Michigan Women’s Music Festival notwithstanding, I find myself routinely accepted (and often invited into) women’s and lesbian spaces these days.  I was even invited to write this essay on lesbianism. For that acceptance and inclusion, I am completely grateful.  But I join with all who challenge us to be impatient with the politics of identity, and insist instead upon a focus on the mechanisms of oppression.  To dismantle these with minimal destructive impact on surrounding wildlife, our vision will need to be sharp and clear.