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-casa-susana

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.

Casa Valentina explores what it means for each guest to have a haven, where they can dress en femme for the weekend. It shows their ambivalence at presenting male, and the pleasure and freedom they experience in dropping the pretense and letting their feminine side “out” in company. It is about the price of suppressing one’s gender and one’s sexuality; of having a secret other life.

Weegee. Lesbians in NYC in 1946.

Weegee. Lesbians in NYC in 1946.

It is relatively easy for me to cross-dress in my ordinary life. Butch lesbians wear men’s clothing all the time. I don’t think of it as drag or being en homme. I think of it as being me. It is much easier (in contemporary American culture) for women to go out in men’s clothing than for men to go out in women’s clothing. This was not always the case; in New York there were laws on the books that cross-dressing was illegal unless the person wore at least three pieces of gender appropriate clothing. The law was invoked when the police raided clubs or bars. It applied to both men and women,

There was a time when I tried to wear women’s dress pants and blouses to work. I hated it. I looked ridiculous, and I reverted to men’s or at least man-tailored attire. If I always had to wear “real” women’s clothing when I left the house, even slacks and a blouse, I would probably commit suicide. Or become a recluse. I don’t think I could compartmentalize being butch into a weekend only thing.

cross-dressing-butchLike men who cross-dress, I have periodically tried to give up cross-dressing and go “normal”, but I can’t. I purged my most masculine outfits when I thought I should make an effort to find women’s clothing that looked good and fit properly. I purged my most feminine clothes when I realized that I would not wear them, that I feel miserable when I think about wearing them, and that I can not expect myself to wear them. The transgender undertow repeatedly pulls me back to the masculine shore. For my own comfort I should stay there.

The transgender undertow is the subject of the second half of Casa Valentina. It is increasingly hard for the main character (and owner of Casa Valentina) George/Valentina to maintain a split life. Fortunately for me, there is no split. I no longer have a secret male persona. I may be living on the border of butch and transgender, but I am living as Jamie, no matter which way I go.

Note: The play opened to mixed reviews – here is a link to the review in The New York TImes, which I think is accurate.

15 thoughts on “Casa Valentina

  1. txbridgefarmer

    I like how you said wearing women’s clothing looked ridiculous on you. I’ve always thought the same thing… If I wear women’s clothes, I stick out MORE and look even more awkward than wearing men’s.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I know, people always use the expression “football player in a dress” to refer to the stereotype of what trans women look like, but I think it is really what butches look like when we try to put one on (or as Lea DeLaria said – a bull dyke in a china shop).

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    2. Jamie Ray Post author

      Argh. I hate wordpress some times. My reply to you went under the wrong comment. So I will copy and replace it.

      I know, people always use the expression “football player in a dress” to refer to the stereotype of what trans women look like, but I think it is really what butches look like when we try to put one on (or as Lea DeLaria said – a bull dyke in a china shop).

      There. That is better.

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  2. gok9go

    Jamie, you have captured a heartfelt truth (and promise) to yourself in the following words: “I may be living on the border of butch and transgender, but I am living as Jamie, no matter which way I go.”

    My wife will occasionally bring up the skirted suits (drag) that I used to wear for my corporate job back in the early 1990s. I could deal with that because the suits were tailored, as were my Oxford cloth shirts–if I ignored the skirt, I was in a suit. When I moved to a smaller branch office of my company, I switched to khakis and (men’s) blazers. That was far more comfortable. Sometimes I chuckle about my justification of ignoring the skirt to concentrate on the regular suit part, but at the same time I wish I could never think about those skirts again (let’s not talk about the fact that I also wore hose…).

    Nowadays I am fortunate to be on a college campus, so it’s jeans and a sweater, button-down, or polo (weather-dependent) for me. If I had to pass the three pieces of “gender appropriate” clothing test, I would fail. But, that’s fine with me. Something that has come up over the years is that I am just me–I dress how I am comfortable and make no apologies for it. It’s harder when I have to “dress up” for an event (e.g., wedding, conference presentation), as men’s dress pants don’t fit me as well as my jeans (darn hips!). I remember censoring which patterns on shirts (particularly the flannel shirts) I would and would not wear–is that pattern too male?–but I have opted not to worry about that anymore. If I like the pattern, then it’s fine for me.

    My wife and I talked yesterday about how much easier it is for female-bodied folks to wear men’s clothes than for male-bodied folks to wear female clothes. I think people like you and me who traverse the butch/trans/non-binary waters are fortunate. It doesn’t mean that it’s easier and that everyone will accept us, but it’s nice to have the freedom that we do have. At the same time, sometimes I wonder if I am invisible in a sense, because folks have accepted me as I am and as I dress without knowing the thoughts that run through my head daily (especially every time I have to use a restroom in public). And can we get some new pronouns please… 🙂

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Never wore a skirt suit or one of those floppy tie things that made a big droopy bow. But I did wear chinos or wool slacks or pleated cords – and I kept going back and forth between ordering men’s (feel good fit bad) and women’s petite (fit Ok but feel bad). On those rare occasions when I could find women’s pants that fit but really looked like men’s pants I was in heaven and would buy them in every color available (or at least in light tan, dark tan, light olive, dark olive, gray, navy etc.). Thankfully the last ten years or so our office went more casual and I can wear jeans or chino’s in.

      There really is no male equivalent for what we do – if I guy came in wearing jewelry or women’s jeans he’d have a much harder time of it.

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  3. Alexis

    As a woman attracted to female masculinity, I’ve always worn trousers to every professional job interview — because (as a sister femme put it) “we know and love women who can’t wear skirts.” In our small way, we have tried to do our part for gender nonconformity by rejecting the easy normative of skirts-as-what-professional-women-wear (and normative femininity), on principle. (Skirts and dresses are often best for when you’re out with your partner, on a date.) But, as a person who came out into the lesbian community (formally, officially) in 1982 and tailored her own Carhartts to fit her own small female body, I’m well aware that these choices are of a different order from the necessity of living dyke, or butch, or trans in a binary culture.

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  4. Jamie Ray Post author

    Carhartts must have been tough to take in – you practically need a drill press to make a hole, much less a seam!

    Women fought hard for the right to wear pants in any situation they wanted – and for it not to be just the province of butches – I thank all of them for their fight. I can’t imagine living in a world where women couldn’t/shouldn’t wear pants.

    The interesting thing about gendered clothes is that the same clothing that is gendered female here, is gendered male in other cultures. In Southern India, many men wore lungi (a knee length wrap skirt) because they are traditional and very cool in humid heat – and a lot of women wore salwar kameez (a tunic shirt with leggings). I actually would have been comfortable in some of the salwar kameez (they came in some great fabrics) if they were for men instead of women. And yes, I agree, that if it is beautiful and comfortable why should I care which sex it is supposed to be worn by? But unfortunately I do.

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  5. tsoihawk

    This is a great post. I’m finally finding some time to read some of my followers’ blogs, and I am certainly glad I stumbled onto this. I wish I’d read this before I tried to sleep last night. I was full of anxiety about ‘am I trans? Am I not? Am I androg? Wtf am I?.’ I don’t know many people who are actively skirting the edges; therefore, I am now a devoted reader of yours. Thank you.

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    1. gok9go

      I think that it’s becoming more and more okay to embrace being somewhere on the gender continuum instead of deciding to go to the opposite binary. I imagine that there are some folks who transitioned from one binary to the other who would have hung with us “somewhere in the middle” if that had been a more visible option. There are a few folks who are out there speaking for those of us in the middle: Lauren Lubin (WeExist), Micah (Neutrois Nonsense), Ivan Coyote and Rae Spoon (Gender Failure), to name just a few. (This is definitely not an all-inclusive list.)

      When we accept that we are non-binary or just “somewhere in the middle” and change (or don’t change) to make us more comfortable to be us, I think we do ourselves a wonderful service. If there is no socially-constructed box that fits us, then we must make our own or we must insist on “other” or “not applicable.” I am transitioning from me-to-me (that would be M(e)TM(e) or FTM(e) or FTN(on-binary), depending on how you look at it).

      Let’s find these folks like us who skirt the edges and become our own support group and cheering section. Let’s also strive to find resources for our significant others to help them understand. 🙂

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      1. Jamie Ray Post author

        One of the problems about labeling when you are non-binary is that it is like saying what color you are on a spectrum that is continuous – exactly what shade of blue-green are you? Even saying you are non-binary puts you in a 0/1 set up of binary vs. non-binary. It drives me nuts. Meanwhile, Donna will claim that I am transitioning; while I claim I am not (at least not to full-blown-male) – I feel like I am becoming more myself. Or as Gracie would say “Who let the selfs out?”

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  6. gok9go

    I like “Who let the selfs out?” 🙂 I don’t like non-binary as much as I like “somewhere in the middle.” However, “somewhere in the middle” is still between two things. Perhaps gender is more 3-D than 2-D.

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