We all hear lyrics completely wrong sometimes (and here are two great websites devoted to mis-heard lyrics, Pajiba and Kiss-This-Guy, which comes from the oft-misheard Hendrix line ‘scuse me while I kiss the sky in “Purple Haze”).

After a recent post in which I wrote about how I heard my own version of lyrics in Keith Urban’s “You Look Good in my Shirt,” so that I heard “You Look Good in my Skirt,” I began to wonder if different types of people might be inclined to hear lyrics differently from other groups. These groups might be national, linguistic, racial, local, and whatever-else-you-can-imagine, but I’m specifically thinking of transgendered people and how we might (mis)hear lyrics that no one else hears because these words tap into our subconscious minds in ways no one else experiences.

Sure, there are deliberately ambiguous and playful songs that we are all supposed to notice, like “Lola” or “Walk on the Wild Side,” and I’ll never forget when I heard those songs for the first time — my trans* ears just about jumped off my adolescent head! But there are also little lines that never failed to get my attention like the Beatles’ “Get Back”: Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman but she was another man, or “Polythene Pam”: Well you should see polythene Pam. She’s so good-looking but she looks like a man.

But I’m talking about songs with “normal” lyrics like the Keith Urban song mentioned above, or the song that always had the most intense mis-heard trangender lyrics (for me) of all time, Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl.” The first time I heard it, I swear I thought the singer was saying he wanted to BE Jessie’s girl, which makes this a song that yearns not only for love, but for a change in identity. The song is filled with opportunities to mis-hear, too. Take the chorus of “Wish that I had Jessie’s girl,” which is repeated throughout the song, for example, which I always heard (and still hear) as “Wish that I was Jessie’s girl.”

It’s a forbidden love, even in the “straight” lyrics of the song, but the way I heard it (and still sing it aloud in the car, I must confess) was about a doubly-forbidden love: the singer wants to take the girl’s place, so he not only breaks sexual orientation rules (until his sex change, that is), but he also breaks his vow to his friend, who apparently is happy with his girlfriend. The song is already disturbing for guys and their best buddies, but my version is much, much darker and takes us and the singer to very different psychological and sexual places. The trans* version of the song is less about covetousness, but about jealousy, for the singer is jealous of the girlfriend for a) being female and b) receiving Jessie’s love.

It doesn’t take much to see the trans* version of the song, either — there are lots of little interesting clues that sound like things trans* people say, like lyrics about “playing along with the charade,” “making a change,” “something’s changed,” “loving him with that body, I just know it,” “I look in the mirror all the time,” “wondering what he (she) don’t see in me.”

In the mirror sequence in the video, he smashes the mirror, repulsed by the fact the he can’t look good enough to be desirable, and Rick Springfield is such a pretty boy that it’s not hard to imagine him having trans* inclinations, at least in my version of the song. In his plaintive cry of “Where can I find a woman like that?” I always heard (and still hear) “How can I be a woman like that?”

Finally, at the end of the song, he changes from “I wish I had…” to “I want” Jessie’s girl (which, for me, is a change from the hypothetical wishing I were Jessie’s girl to wanting to be Jessie’s girl), and in this evolution of desire, we realize that this song has been a watershed moment for the singer, as he now understands that what he wants is more than a lustful wish, but a desire for personal change.

For some reason, I have been listening to a lot of country music on the radio lately, something I’ve never done before. Maybe it’s got something to do with getting older, losing my parents, having kids, or undergoing a transsexual transition. I don’t know. All I can say is what’s on the radio today isn’t my father’s country music. I will try to understand this trend more in subsequent posts because if my musical tastes are changing along with my sex, then I’ll end up spending more money on music than on clothes!

In this post, let me write about a guy I had heard on the radio a hundred times, but whom the DJ’s never identified. He had this one song where he’s licking his wounds and tells his lover to take her cat and leave his sweater, and that she’ll think of him. And he’s got this other one about an ex-lover staying the night and looking good in his shirt. Now you country fans are no doubt mocking me for being so ignorant, but until a couple of days ago (when a DJ accidentally told me his name), I didn’t know that this fellow’s name is Keith Urban. I was at the music store with the boys and I figured I’d see if he has any CD’s, and sure enough he does. I found the one with “You’ll Think of Me” and “You Look Good In My Shirt” and gave it a listen. Good songwriting, good musicianship, and an all-round fun listen.

But here’s where gender rears its ugly head. I was enjoying his song about this lover looking good in his shirt when I began to sing a slight variation, substituting “skirt” for “shirt”:

And maybe it’s a little too early
To know if this is gonna work
All I know is you’re sure looking
Good in my skirt

I pictured someone like Shania Twain singing these exact same lyrics and telling her ex lover who has spent the night that he sure looks good in her skirt. What would be the difference? Wouldn’t it be the same cute sentiment? Not on your life. The difference would be enormous — “normal” people would call it perverted, the thought that a) a man would wear his girlfriend’s skirt and b) she’d accept it, encourage it, and sing about it. It comes back to the difference in the words “feminine” and “effeminate” that I tried to articulate a few months back.

The ex-girlfriend sleeping with the singer and wearing his shirt in the morning is tender, child-like, and a little vulnerable. But the opposite, while it ought to connote the same tenderness, strikes us as odd, effeminate, and weak. Of course it’s ok for women to wear her lover’s shirt — who wouldn’t want to wear a man or be a man, honestly? But the opposite, for the lover to wake up and put on his girlfriend’s clothes, is comical because no “real” man would ever subject himself to that sort of ridicule or lower himself to the woman’s position. Femininity in men is frightening and pathetic, and men who seek it are wusses and women who encourage it are perverted.

Still, I’d love to see Shania Twain sing it that way. Or better yet, Keith Urban (who seems pretty secure in his sexuality) could wear a pretty skirt on stage and sing the song this way.

All I know is I’m sure looking
Good in your skirt

Transgender, transvestite, transsexual… what do they have in common? Gender variance? Sure, but I’m thinking of the Latin word “trans” and I would like to continue thinking about what it means to transit (i.e. cross locations from one place to another).

I have really come to find “trans” unfit to describe gender variance, and not that I have anything against “trans” — it works great in transgression and transform and transmit and a bunch of other handy words, but in matters of sex and gender and clothing, I just think it doesn’t work metaphorically.

As I write in my Trans101 page, it seems to me that the key things we are interested in are sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, and that all four of these variables are a spectrum, rather than a binary. It’s the gender binary that gives rise to “trans” words, and that’s what I have a problem with. If gender were a binary, to take one example, with “feminine” actions, beliefs, mannerisms, clothing, and so on on one side, and “masculine” ones on the other side, and there were absolutely no overlap and nowhere to stand in between the two poles, then “trans-gendering” would make sense. The term would mean that a feminine individual would cross the great divide to take on all of the attributes of the other gender. In that case, “trans-ing” is a good metaphor — it’s like trans-Atlantic voyage, starting on one side (Europe) and ending on the other side (America). You can’t call it Trans-Atlantic if you travel from Callais to Dublin, or New York to Nova Scotia, can you?

These variables (sex, gender, clothing) are not binaries in any sense of the word — they’re spectrums where the value of masculine gender can be anywhere from 0% to 100% on any given day — the same goes for sex and clothing. If that’s the case, then “trans-ing” is simply the wrong concept.

A person can

  • trans – sex
  • trans – vest
  • trans – gender

Conventionally thinking, we’d take this list to mean something like this, but it’s far, far more complex, as we shall see below:

  • trans – sex (i.e.men becoming women and women becoming men)
  • trans – vest (i.e.men wearing bras and women wearing jock straps)
  • trans – gender (i.e.men being feminine and women being masculine)

Sex (and trans-sexing)

We can start with sex, since it’s the category most easily argued about. There’s males and females, and nothing in between, right?. Well, I hate to break it to you, but no, that’s not the case, at all. Sex can be defined by genitals, by chromosomes, by biochemical hormone balance, by the presence or absence of internal organs. Any combination you can think of is biologically viable (penis + ovaries, XX chromosomes + lots of testosterone, and so on). I am not intersexed, or at least I don’t think I am, but many people are and may not even be aware of it. So sex may be defined as these previously-mentioned things, along with secondary sex characteristics, such as body appearance, body hair, breasts, and so on.

So when we trans-sex, just how many of those characteristics do we think we’re changing? What if you add breasts and lose body hair? Is that trans-sexing? I was trying to get at this concept in my “Minimalist Sex Change” post a month or so ago, but the idea is very relevant here. You can change some of these things and not others. What about removal of the beard and no more? Or all body hair and no more? Or growing/removing breasts and no more? Switching your biochemistry from a typical man’s to a typical woman’s, or vice-versa? Sex isn’t one thing, but it’s a lot of things. And even these variables have middle ground, and what do we do about that vast space between male and female, chromosomally, hormonally, emotionally, physically?

There is no clearly-identifiable sex binary outside of what we see in the beautiful people on TV and in advertisements, and thus, there is no trans-sexing. Why? Because there’s nowhere to start the trans-ing, and nowhere to end in the journey. You can’t cross from one place to another if neither place exists.

Gender (and trans-gendering)

I don’t really know anyone who is 100% masculine — or 100% feminine. Who would want to be around such people? If we list everything we can think of to describe masculine and feminine attributes, we’re going to see a lot of great qualities in both lists. I think men who are strong, compromising, nurturing, mechanical, gifted, funny, intelligent, etc. are a lot better than those who are just strong. Characteristics like strength, which isn’t gendered — I would hope that men, women, boys and girls all acquire strength in their lives.

You and I may argue about very small details, about whether they’re masculine or feminine, however, and I suspect we’ll get further in our discussion that way. Let’s start with makeup. It may be gendered or it may not be. Routine eye shadow may indeed be something that we see in western culture as gendered feminine. But not all makeup counts–how do you think Harrison Ford looks all beat up as Indiana Jones? I suspect they put dark makeup on him instead of actually beating him up. In fact, the more I think of it, makeup involves more about performance than about gender. If I want my eyes to be big and pretty, perhaps that desire is feminine-gendered, and I achieve that impression with eye makeup. But the makeup itself isn’t gendered.

Any more than silk or any other fabric is gendered. Or any color. Or a gesture. But even if these are gendered, they must exist on a spectrum from 0 to 100. And anyone trans-gendering wouldn’t really move from 0 to 100 in every single variable, but more likely shift a few variables this way or that. In other words, in gender, as in sex, I don’t think “trans-ing” is quite up to the task of describing just what kinds of shifts are possible, and that’s because gender, like sex, doesn’t exist in a binary, but in a spectrum.

There is no doubt that gender exists on a spectrum, and the levels of granularity are measured in the thousandths, not in halves or thirds. Our gender exists on that spectrum not as a dot, but as a powerful electron, zipping around in an energetic cloud, vectored up this way for a while, tilting down that way for a while, occasionally getting knocked out of orbit by an energy particle, maybe settling down in an oscillation around a relatively new spot on the spectrum.

Clothing (and trans-vesting)

You can in-vest, di-vest, and trans-vest. The first two make sense because in-vest means to clothe yourself and di-vest means to disrobe, or take off your clothes, “vest” coming from the word “dress” in Latin. Even though clothes typically fall under the category of “gender,” since “Trans-vesting” is such a big and taboo thing in our society, I figured I’d treat this one separately. Like sex and gender, above, trans-vesting implies a crossing from one set of vests to another set of vests. It is certainly true in certain periods that clothing is more differentiated in the sexes than in other times. It is also true that manufacturers of clothing make them, market them, and target them to men or women, but usually not to both.

Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s anything particularly gendered about clothing. You’ve got your pants, your shirts, your socks, your shoes. Yes, we have styles that we all say are masculine or feminine, but it’s us who makes them gendered through imbuing them with meaning.

Take brassieres. Clearly feminine clothing, right? Well, hold on. I don’t think bras are necessarily gendered. If we see them as functional garments, then we’d say they support breasts of women (and even men with gynecomastia), and that’s hardly a gendered function, but rather physiological. Bras can serve an artistic function — think of Madonna’s dancers or ask yourself why a garment would have lace on it if it’s strictly functional. Bras may mean torture and bondage to some people, growing up to other people, sexual arousal to yet other people — it’s the meaning we assign to bras that gives these garments their meaning, and not the bras themselves that carry any meaning.

Clothing, like sex and gender, falls over a broad spectrum. Men wear pink, men wear bras, men wear rings and earrings. Women wear blue overalls, cowboy hats, and work boots.

The problem with trans-anything is that the imagery depends on binaries to work because to “trans” requires a movement from one place to another, metaphorically. If gender or sex or clothing aren’t binaries, but spectrums, where exactly does the trans-er transit from and where does she transit to?

Since I don’t believe in these binaries any more, I don’t believe in trans-ing any more. If anything, we should come up with a term more like ‘vector” or “move,” employing the Latin migr (as in migrate) or mov (as in move) or a concept like “change,” using the Latin mut (as in mutate). So instead of getting all tongue-twisted around whether you’re trans-sexing, trans-vesting, or trans-gendering, you could say you’re sex-tweaking or gender-shifting or clothes-mutating. Anything but trans-ing.

The only catch is that it has be catch on, be catchy, be able to be caught by the general public, employers, friends, family, and journalists. After all, it’s one thing to describe yourself in all your complexity and richness and subtlety, but it’s quite another for someone else to get even a fraction of all that. As much as I dislike “sex change” for all its naivety and simplicity, it may be more accurate and easier to understand than trans-ing or any of my experimental words above.

See also “T”

I received a relationship email today from a salesman at Malloy’s, a high-end store in town where I’ve bought several nice Italian suits in the past:

George, We have received two medium and light gray suits from Zegna that I know would not only make great additions to your suit wardrobe but you would like the look of them. Please stop by this weekend and take a look at them.

It’s funny, but this feels vaguely sad to me as I realize I will never buy another man’s suit again. I have written elsewhere that I hold no grudge against my male self, and don’t fault myself for having turned out the way I have. I never hated buying menswear except for the feeling that I was shopping for an inauthentic self or that the salesmen made all sorts of categorical assumptions about me (and men, in general) that were not true. These little things aside, I have always enjoyed buying nice suits, ties, and shirts, and certainly enjoyed shopping for them much more than for jeans and work clothes.

My sadness comes, I think, from a sense of breakage — the particular thread of my narrative simply stops at this point, the thread (or theme) being shopping for men’s suits. The break is attributed to a transsexual transition, which becomes the agent of the breakage. When viewed this way, I think it’s easy to see how transition feels like serial abandonment of values, even as it’s also a story of the acquisition of new values. There are a hundred little rituals like buying men’s ties or being called sir or using the men’s room that grind to a halt, thus creating a sense of grief and loss — that is, if you choose to emplot the threads of the story as breakages.

However, what if they’re not breaks at all? As we do with Justin Tanis’s excellent observation that transsexualism may not be a curse, but rather a blessing or calling, what if we refuse to see transsexual transition as a collection of breakages and try to see them as a series of continuities? It’s more than a linguistic trick, but it does involve asking yourself, a la Derrida, “Are we positing a false binary here? Could go up one step in meaning to find a missing term that describes all the experiences of the closeted-male, the transsexual, and the post-transition female?”

In other words, rather than see my email from Malloy’s as a sign that signifies another loss, what if we read it as a sign of continuity of the value of desiring to look and feel professional, a value that simply has different modalities? If we do this, then my email invitation could simply be seen and felt as an invitation to allow Joyce to give form to her professional side, to continue her long-running trend of dressing up for class and for faculty meetings and for giving academic papers.

The false binary terminology is “male-female,” and the story takes on a feeling of loss or breakage when we think of shopping for clothes, but the new term, one which encompasses male and female, new professor and old professor alike, would be “professional,” which is quite capable of describing my transition in ways that do not suggest a sudden break in the narrative arc of my life.

So I’m feeling a lot better and a lot less sad.

But now I think of my often-felt sense of loss over these past 12 months and wonder how many of these signs I’ve seen and interpreted as breaks, when they just as easily could have been seen as reinforcing and continuing values and personality traits I already hold.