Two months back, my therapist lent me a book she wanted me to read. Knowing I was in sort of a limbo at that point – I was going through a blah spell, kind of a strange middle ground between OK and depressed, a place where I didn’t feel very womanly but sure as hell didn’t feel like a man — she gave me the book, I believe, to help me sort out some of the feelings swimming around in that skull of mine.
It’s “Self-Made Man” by Norah Vincent. Vincent, a journalist, feminist and lesbian, left her job as a Los Angeles Times opinion columnist to go undercover as a man for 18 months. Think of it as a modern-day “Black Like Me,” except that, unlike John Howard Griffin, Vincent wasn’t trying to observe prejudice, at least overtly; she simply wanted to see for herself, and try to understand, the social differences between males and females.
The end result was a gripping book that rooted out every corner of my emotional room at one point or another and gave me some food for thought about my own trip. Vincent really didn’t know what she was getting into; I’m not sure I am sometimes, either.
It should be noted that Vincent, while owning some men’s clothes and shoes, had no desire to live as a man, aside from for purposes of the book, and no desire to transition, and said she got no pleasure out of cross-dressing. You can see for yourself on the cover that Norah, with her butch features, was able to make a very passable and credible Ned, thanks to a flattop haircut, a pair of glasses, Ace bandages or a tight sports bra around the breasts and a makeup artist who showed her how to create convincing a 5 o’clock shadow. She also took voice lessons and got some lessons in male mannerisms.
(One of the funniest parts of the book was when Norah, preparing to enter the world of dating women as Ned, enlisted the help of a male friend to help her with her manly cues. Her wingman had told her he would nudge her when she got out of line: “He spent our first night out together kicking me under the table.”)
She chose six milieus that she felt exemplified a broad spectrum of the male experience: joining a bowling league in a blue-collar town; going to strip clubs; plunging into the world of trying to date women as a man (via the bar scene and the personals); working in a couple of high-pressure sales jobs; living in a monastery; and, deepest cover of all, joining a men’s therapy group in the style of “Iron John” and eventually going on a weekend retreat. (The names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent. Or at least the potentially embarrassed or enraged.) How she managed to keep her disguise relatively intact is a miracle.
Early on, the author really pissed me off. The first experience, especially, with the bowling team, she came off as extremely bourgeois, effete and downright condescending. (She reminded me of the worst colleague I ever worked with – a so-called liberal who was the most intolerant and look-down-nose nasty person I’ve ever met. She, too, was butch in appearance, though femme in dress and hetero as best as I could tell. We came to verbal blows on many occasions, and they really took their toll on me. Probably took a few months off my life, too.) The guys, in Norah’s eyes, were a bunch of dumb yahoos living dead-end lives, creatures whom she would be mortified to have arrive at one of her soirees.
Her great personal revelation here seemed to be that hey, these uneducated, unwashed dumbasses aren’t as dumb as I thought – especially “Jim,” who had a good sense of humor that got him through a great deal in life (such as a wife suffering from cancer). Jim became Ned’s confidante, and when the deception became too much for Norah – the fact that she was betraying the trust of the people Ned befriended by not letting on who “he” really was – it was Jim she came out to, and he, in turn, paved the way when she told her other teammates. In the end, they really didn’t give a fuck – if anything, they now had a good explanation why Ned was such a shitty bowler: He bowled like a girl.
But to her credit, by chapter’s end, she had called herself out for the way she had viewed and treated them. And as the book progressed, and she became immersed in her Nedness, she had profound revelations and grew deep feelings.
Several revelations unfolded themselves to her as the book progressed. I won’t belabor you with all of them, just some of the bigger ones:
- Where women were about eye contact and communication, men often averted their gaze, and it wasn’t a sign of disrespect – it was, au contraire, a sign of respect for the other man’s territory. As Ned put it in the men’s therapy group – a response to which the group leader agreed – making eye contact with another man meant one of two things: “I want to fuck you or I want to kill you.”
- And being conditioned to be reserved, to be tough – to not show feelings, much less talk about them – was truly a defense mechanism against a rough world, and it could take its toll at times. But when a man shook Ned’s hand, it was a direct, straightforward, honest expression. When Norah received a handshake or hug from a woman, by turn, she felt the other woman was holding something back.
- Women were brutal to men in the hetero dating world; she wondered aloud how men and women actually came together. Women were extremely guarded and defensive because past experiences forced them to be; men were on the offensive because they felt they had no choice. As a lesbian dating women, Norah had at least the comfort of the camaraderie of womanhood. As Ned trying to crack the ice with women, he got a lot of frostiness; it was only after she revealed her true sex that the women started cackling to her like hens.
- Ned went on a lot of first dates, mostly not very good ones, and found that women were just as bad as men when it came to dating behavior, and that while women wanted a take-control man, they wanted him to be vulnerable at the same time.
- Having seen dating from the other side, Norah said she irrationally disliked women for a while after because of it. Typical male power, she wrote, was like a blunt instrument, but “laughably remedial next to the damage a woman could do with a single cutting word: no.”
- Norah said she never felt more feminine than she did in the role of a man.
- As Ned found out in his high-pressure, “attitude Red Bull” sales jobs, clothes make the man, and this was, at least in theory, a man’s world, Look the part, play the part, be the part. These “Glengarry Glen Ross”-styled jobs required a lot of balls, no matter what actually was (or wasn’t) between your legs, and in this case, the figurative set of cojones was not only a weapon (some of the things people would do to make a sale took a lot of guile and self-confidence), it was also a shield against a sad and uncertain world.
- From the strip club chapter (where Jim returns as an occasional wingman), she gleaned that some married men want the raw sex a club provides because while they want the respectability, love and companionship of married life, they don’t know how to resolve, as she put it, “the conflict between baseline male sexuality and the civilized role of a man.” Also, the strip world is a depraved, desensitized dead zone, full of dead souls for whom the thrill of sex ceased a long time ago but for whom it was still an addiction.
- In the constricted world of the monastery, where Ned drew withering reactions from the brothers and priests for being too free emotionally, Norah developed a new sympathy for boys and young men who, in order to live in the community at large, are made to suppress their emotions – well, all except anger – and suffer the damage the rest of their lives.
- While these men enjoyed the fraternal and paternal approval a monastery offered – hell, joining an order was a legitimate way of marrying other men, hetero or homo – they lacked the nurturing that came from a maternal point of view. As she saw it, they were all in pain buy with no way to communicate it.
- From the sales world, she learned that, as a man, pitching like a man was extremely important. Ned originally pitched in a pleading tone, but as it was explained to him, while it wasn’t unexpected from a woman, it was viewed as a weakness in a man and bred contempt in both sexes: “People see weakness in a woman and they want to help. They see weakness in a man and want to stamp it out.”
- Being around the guys in the therapy group trying to get in touch with their repressed emotions and resolve their anger problems – and, in some cases, some deep-seated Freudian hatred of their mothers or wives or other mother figures – Norah realized how anger, the one emotion men are allowed to have, is the one emotion women aren’t allowed to have.
Anyway, by the end, the deception of living as Ned – and the guilt that went with it – proved to be way too much for Norah’s psyche. She encountered a revelation she wasn’t planning on: She had a nervous breakdown. It first manifested itself when Ned asked one of the guys on the weekend retreat to cut him – to cut slices into his arms and legs as some form of bloodletting. She cut the experiment short at retreat’s end and eventually checked herself into a mental hospital (which, it turned out, was the launch point for another book of immersion journalism, “Voluntary Madness.”)
I returned the book to my therapist this afternoon. The part she wanted me to understand, when all was said and done, was the ending – the stress involved in living two lives.
I agreed with her. I told her I totally understand how rough it’s been at times to have lived as Fran and Fran, except for one huge difference between Norah’s situation and mine: Norah’s stress, and eventual breakdown, came from a place of deception – of living a fundamental lie, of betraying many trusts, of the accumulated guilt of doing it to so many people over a prolonged period. She might have been disguised as Ned, but she was still Norah inside. And while others were the guinea pigs, it was her who suffered the brunt of her experiment. She gathered some excellent observations about gender roles and the sexes, but at what price?
In my case, my double life the past couple years has had nothing to do with deception and everything to do with a smooth, safe transition, both for myself and everyone around me. I’ve done my absolute damndest to not make this a Jerry Springer/surprise moment with my family and friends (and a couple of thought-were friends, so it seems). The one time where I did pull a surprise, it was by accident and I felt badly about it, though it turned out well.
I invited some of my old Fresno Bee friends to the housewarming party my housemates threw for me last September. Everyone who came knew about my gender trip – all except for Ken, who I forgot to tell in the midst of getting ready. I didn’t realize it until just before the party started – oh shit! I just hoped that if he came, he’d be okay with it.
I was sitting with my friend Heather in the living room and Ken walked by. I thought, “How the hell am I gonna do this?” Anyway, he walked through a second time, and then a third, with a puzzled look on his face. He was definitely looking for me and wondering where I was. Time’s up; my hand was forced. Oh well, time to man up.
The blonde in the ‘60s style purple-and-silver-and-gold paisley shift dress got up off the chair.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
“Yeaaahh … I’m looking for Fran.”
“Trick or treat!”
Ken had a flabbergasted look on his face. I didn’t want to give the poor guy a heart attack. That would not have been a good thing for a hostess to do.
But he recovered quickly enough. And I told him the short version of the transition. And I apologized for not telling him ahead of time.
“No, I’m totally cool with it,” he said. We shared a laugh about it and he told me he was happy for me, and that I looked great. (The great surprise for my Bee friends has been just how well the fat, ponytailed Fran they once knew passes in her new life.) True to the good-natured soul he is, I knew deep down Ken would be fine with me, but you never know until you really know, y’know?
He called his wife at some point during the party. She had decided not to go, since she wouldn’t have known many people, but he related to me later that after he told her about the blonde hostess, she said had she known, she would definitely have come.
I was lucky. It was one person, one incident. But Norah really could have put her life in her hands had she made the disclosure to some of the people she encountered as Ned. They might not have been as forgiving as the men in the monastery.
Anyway, stress aside, the book did give me some insights into my own personality and my own interactions with the two sexes/genders.
I definitely am a woman in my thinking. I can be as straightforward as any guy, or at least reasonably straight with a hint of diplomacy. But I’m also gentle in my approach, I’m sensitive, and I’m definitely a lot more open with my feelings. Even with the repression I needed to get by as a male all these years, I was more open and sensitive than a lot of guys I’ve known.
Even now, when I hang with my poker crew as my better half, it’s still guy talk, often something sports-related – usually the San Francisco Giants or the NFL or, since many of the guys are/were Bee sports guys, something involving Fresno State athletics. And maybe sometimes music or a movie will seep into the banter. And, of course, there are a lot of putdowns at the table, often deadly humor. It’s safe territory. It’s fun. We bond. We don’t go deep, but we enjoy ourselves – except, perhaps, when we don’t get any cards to play with the whole night and end up down two or three re-buys.
But that said, I can’t do the guy thing on a regular basis. In some ways, I’ve never felt comfortable with the guy-talk thing. It’s really limiting. My whole life isn’t wrapped up in sports; even when I was a sportswriter for six years in my 20s at my first job, it certainly wasn’t. But I understand it for what it is – guys are trained/programmed to act a certain way, and in a group setting, it’s just what it is and I accept it, even when I don’t have much to say.
I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve always related better to women. I remember for a short while in sixth, seventh grade, I would hang with this one particular group of five girls in my class. True, I was attracted to a couple of them, but I kinda knew back then that no one was attracted to me, and besides, they kinda took me under their wing, their shelter, when I needed it. Maybe it was their nurturing nature, or their ability to show their feelings or their creativity or gentility without the stigma I faced, the way kids tried to beat it out of me both physically and mentally back in Prospect. But it was the first time I somewhat felt I was one of the girls, in an odd way.
I, too, felt the crush of rejection from girls early on, and basically stopped trying at an early age. Most of the girls I’ve gone out with have approached me. In a way, it was sort of reverse feminism, too – if you’re so liberated and attuned to women being equals, why can’t you ask me out? Or maybe I had always taken on the traditional girl role of being the one who needed to be asked out.
A good part of it, though, was that I was too beaten-down by my mid-20s to approach girls anymore. I just accepted that no one found me attractive. Maybe, in retrospect, I just wasn’t man enough for most women (and they’d be right – just how right we had no clue). Of course, when I was with someone, the whole self-esteem thing would also rear its ugly head on several occasions and sabotage at least a couple of my relationships – what do you see in me?
As I’ve also written before, my female friends have often treated me differently as a woman. They share things with me they would never consider telling me as a (seeming) hetero male. And I, in turn, share things with them I would never have shared with anyone. I mentioned this to one dear friend this spring when I met up with her in San Francisco, explained how my girlfriends now tell me things, and she cracked, “You mean like the size of their boyfriends’ dicks?” Well, not quite, but it was worth a yuk or two …
I’m one of the club now; they accept me as a girl. As much as it thrilled me to be accepted, I was initially weirded out to a point because, on some level, it was totally superficial – I dressed as a woman, so now they trusted me on a deeper level, even though I was still, essentially, the same person. I explained the dynamic last summer to my house mom, Nancy; she told me it’s because as much as women love their men, they still perceive them as a threat; I didn’t pose a threat.
And now that I’ve lived in two worlds long enough, I can tell you I definitely feel more comfortable in the realm of the female. But I can also tell you that, just as Norah, a tomboy from childhood, never felt more feminine than she did while masquerading as a man, I’ve never felt more masculine than I do as a pretty woman.
Part of it is the confidence – the balls – I was lacking as my male half. I do have a lot of confidence as a woman; I’ve been told often enough that it takes a lot of balls to be doing what I’m doing.
Also, I’ve had to boy-up as a defense mechanism at times, especially when I’m out in unfamiliar places. Projecting enough of a macho, don’t-fuck-with-me attitude at just the right time might very well save my life one day. It may make some transphobe/homophobe think twice about wanting to do something to hurt me.
So I’ve gone rather unexpectedly long-winded here, but the gist is that I do understand the stress of the double life, and thanks to Vincent’s book, I’m a lot more attuned to the dynamics of men vs. women. Or having some of both floating around inside.