Casa Valentina

Donna and I went to see Casa Valentina, the new Harvey Fierstein play. We saw it in previews, so this is not a review. The play is set during a spring weekend in the 1960′s, at a resort in the Catskills that caters to men who cross-dress. There once was a real place called Casa Susanna. It turns out that I have a lot in common with the guys who went there.


The real life patrons of Casa Susanna; found photographs.

Before I knew the words homosexual, deviant, gay, lesbian, butch, queer, or transgender, I cross-dressed. As often as I could get away with it. I did it as early as nursery school, refusing to put on a dress and insisting on wearing blue. I was a stubborn kid. I put on my brother’s clothes. Including his underwear. I had a separate male persona.

In cross-dressing circles there is a lot of discussion about whether the cross-dresser is transgender or an otherwise normal heterosexual guy who just likes to dress en femme. There are distinctions made between straight men who sometimes wear women’s clothing and gay men who do drag. There is an organization, Tri-Ess, dedicated to providing safe spaces for heterosexual men to cross-dress. They have a bill of rights for both cross-dressers and their partners (wives). It is a bit of a 1960′s throwback.

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This is the Ladies Room

Not my closet…but this is as close as I could get to what she looked like.

Not my closet…but this is as close as I could get to what she looked like.

She was in full young professional drag. A skirt suit and pumps. A look of panic flashed across her face. She started to turn around to walk out of the bathroom, and then turned around and gave me a long hard look. She didn’t say anything. She walked past me, entered a stall and closed the door.

Because I was already inside the women’s restroom, she assumed she had made the mistake. When she realized that she was in the right place, she gave me the contempt stare. Continue reading

Leaving Egypt

We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. The first night of Passover is next Monday. Donna and I are having eight friends over for seder. It is a feminist seder with an alternative Haggadah. I’m sorting through my recipes to decide what to cook. I’m sorting through how I am going to relate to being a transgender butch reading a lesbian-feminist Haggadah.

Second night seder is at BC and Ruth’s. It is a queer seder, with a lot of people I know from AIDS activism. I am more relaxed at it because I am not cooking. I bring one dish, home brined pickled salmon. It is easy to make; I just have to remember to start it five days in advance.

The Sinai Desert - Wikepedia

The Sinai Desert – Wikipedia

The Haggadah includes the retelling of the story of the Exodus. The story of Moses leading the Jews out of slavery, out of Egypt. It about their hesitation to leave, their doubts, and their impatience while wandering in the desert in search of the promised land. The rituals of Passover require us to experience Passover as if we personally went out of Egypt. It reminds us that liberation and transformation are possible. It reminds us that we are in the diaspora; we are still in the desert.

I am still searching for a place for myself within the Jewish tradition. I don’t want to make Aliyah to Israel or claim a birthright. I hated the gender rigidity of my synagogue and the language in the prayer-book. Yet I continue to experience myself as Jewish (cultural and culinary) despite distancing myself from mainstream Judaism and the state of Israel.

A few years ago, at second night seder, Richard challenged us to think about leaving our own Egypt. To whom, or to what, am I a slave? What does it mean to be free? From whom am I fleeing? Where am I trying to go? These are questions I’ve struggled with all year. My Egypt is not the Egypt of my ancestors; my Jerusalem is not an occupied city in contemporary Israel. Continue reading

Why I Hate Girl Scout Cookies

The Butch's DilemmaJust when I thought I had finally worked off the weight I put on between Thanksgiving and New Years, just when I was shaking off the end of winter sluggishness, just when I had dreams of spring asparagus and Alphonso mangos, Girl Scout Cookie season arrived.

I hate Girl Scout Cookies.  I hate everything about them. I bought four boxes at four bucks a pop because my office mates sold them for their daughters. My policy is to comply with most forms of work place extortion. I buy something (magazine subscriptions, crappy chocolates, raffle tickets) from everyone in the office who asks; I don’t want to be accused of being cheap or playing favorites.

According to the Girl Scouts, they sell 200 million boxes of cookies each year. Hundreds of them end up in my office. There are open boxes of cookies everywhere. For weeks. I can not get away from them. And, like a perverse version of the kid’s game Go For Broke, I have to get rid of my boxes without eating anyone else’s cookies. This year I have zero tolerance. I am not going to eat a single one. Continue reading

Gracie Saves the Day

gracie-saves-meThis week I was happy that I have a dog. Happy to have an excuse to take a walk and go up to the dog run. Dogs don’t think you are a freak. Dogs don’t need to talk everything out. I would say that dogs are simple, but Gracie is quirky. I’ve had her for over six years, and I still think of her as my “new” dog. I’ve watched Gracie, I’ve studied her, I’ve paid a lot of attention to her. I don’t completely get her. We are not a perfect match; but we are good enough.

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Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Right to Decide

The feminist who came up with the pro-choice chant “Our Bodies, Our Lives, Our Right to Decide” was probably not thinking about transgender butch lesbians contemplating top surgery. That slogan has been this week’s mantra. It has been a hell of a week.

I’ve struggled to understand why “suddenly” top surgery has become important to me. A few weeks back Donna told me to go ahead and start looking into it. She doesn’t like the idea of surgery, and when she stepped aside, I took it as a good sign. I made an appointment for a consultation with a surgeon in New York (Dr. Paul Weiss). Donna came with me. We liked him; he has no issues performing surgery on someone who is not on T and is not transitioning to male. We talked about nipple placement and keeping the nipple attached instead of grafting it back on. We went through his photo book. I was able to visualize my chest.

And then it hit me. It was my chest that I was seeing. It was the chest I used to have, the one I felt comfortable with and did not have to hide. I was not losing something I was getting something back. Continue reading

My Cow in Jodhpur

Another frigid morning in lower Manhattan. The priest from St. Paul’s stood on the corner of Church and Vesey. He was giving out ashes. The crowd came up from the subway, heads down, moving fast, checking their phones. A woman stopped, the priest said a prayer and made a cross on her forehead. She thanked him and moved away. I wondered if she was giving up meat for Lent.

I’m not religious. I’m skeptical of epiphanies, but sometimes I envy the faithful.

The closest I’ve come to an epiphany was in India. Donna and I were staying in a guesthouse in a quiet neighborhood in Jodhpur. A few boys were kicking around a soccer ball. We sat on a bench to watch them.

a-cow-in-jodhpurA woman came out of her house with a tray of pea pods. She brushed them into the gutter and went back in. A cow came by and ate the pea pods. Then the cow came over and nudged me. I rubbed its nose and scratched its ears. We locked eyes. I thought “I wonder what it would be like to think of a cow as my equal or as a higher being.” Continue reading