We were standing in our neighbors' house--I must have
been five or six--next to a diaper-changing table, where the moms were cooing over
a new baby. Suddenly I was dizzyingly puzzled by how adults knew whether that
blurry lump of flesh was a girl or a boy. My mother was quite impatient with the
question, saying that I already knew. "I don't remember," I insisted. "Yes, you
do. Think about the difference between you and your brother." What could she
mean? "In the bathtub," she coaxed. Still no insight. Finally, as if this were as
plain as the alphabet, she said, "Boys have penises and girls have vaginas." Oh!
That! That was a relief: The distinction was both simple and unimportant.

Almost everyone accepted these ABCs of sex, the idea that "penis"
equals "boy" and "vagina" equals "girl." But the growing and increasingly
significant transgender movement is asking us to believe that sex is not
always determined at birth. (Transgender is a blurry neologism. At its most
expansive, it takes in all people whose social gender is at odds with their birth
sex: weekend cross-dressers, drag queens or kings, folks routinely mistaken for
the other sex, and medically reassigned transsexuals.) The movement's organizing
and litigation efforts have already started making headway in public policy and
in case law; they have begun to change antidiscrimination statutes and
interpretations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act's prohibition of sex discrimination.

Who are these people? Why do they want to unsettle our visceral understandings
about the meaning of man and woman, masculine and feminine? Why are they willing
to provoke the anxious, derisive laughter and violence society aims at men in
dresses? And why should the rest of us care?

Film and video turn out to be the perfect media for exploring these questions.
Any movement of a despised minority (or, in this case, microminority) has to
begin by introducing its members not as some abstract and hateful idea but as
ordinary human beings. Transgender activism recently received a tremendous boost
from the Academy Award-winning feature film Boys Don't Cry, a breakthrough in
the media portrayal of transgendered people. Starring Hilary Swank and Chloƫ
Sevigny, the movie shows the final three weeks in the life of Brandon Teena, a
small-time hustler in Falls City, Nebraska, who was born female (as Teena
Brandon) and lived as male. This story--based on actual events in 1993--has an
intriguing M Butterfly plot twist: Brandon's girlfriends didn't know he was
female (or did they?). And it has a tragic ending: Brandon, an eager-to-please
adolescent as slight and nonthreatening as Matthew Shepard, was raped and
murdered by small-town losers way out in desolate flyover country.

Until Boys Don't Cry, American culture had treated the transgendered
primarily as pathetic jokes, Jerry Springer freaks, or RuPaul fairy queens who
bring tragicomic sparkle into our workaday lives. With Brandon's story, Hollywood
has offered arguably the first famous female-to-male (FTM) cross-dresser since
Joan of Arc--and portrayed a transgendered life not as a joke but as a nearly
classical and very contemporary tragedy.

Is it a coincidence that, in the wake of Brandon's death, there's
been a spate of documentaries introducing us to FTM transsexuals?

A subset of transgendered people, transsexuals medically pursue a body
that's differently sexed than the one they were born with. The desire to change
one's sex can be hard to understand for someone like me, raised on feminism's
premise that we can all accept our bodies as they are and that liberation comes
from shrugging off cultural pressures to alter or mark up or prettify our
outsides. And here's a confession: Since being a woman seems to me by far the
better deal, I was absolutely baffled about why any woman would want to become a

So I sat myself down in front of three documentaries about FTMs. In A Boy
Named Sue,
directed by Julie Wyman, a handheld camera follows Sue's medical
and social transformation into Theo; a large, blobby dyke who slouches gloomily
through life in sloppy men's clothes and a closely buzzed flattop becomes a firm,
balding, nice guy with a neat beard, someone who meets your eyes and is
irrefutably happier and more attractive. Directed by Bestor Cram and Candace
Schermerhor, You Don't Know Dick--which, despite the title, is neither
raunchy nor flippant--uses the talking-heads approach to introduce six FTMs,
thereby offering up an outline of a generic transsexual coming-out story: misfit
childhood, painful adolescence, epiphany and decision, coming out to parents and
co-workers and friends, horny transadolescence, and, finally, a better life than
before. Kate Davis's Southern Comfort-- the most sophisticated and moving of
these productions, well worth seeing when it's shown on HBO next spring, puts
aside the intellectual questions and lets us live with a small family of
transsexual friends as one of their number is dying. All three documentaries
offer the basic message of liberal tolerance: This is a regular person who
deserves to be treated with dignity.

The first thing many of us want to know is: Exactly what do you have to do to
change your sex? Although the popular mind turns immediately to genital surgery,
the two most important steps come long before: taking hormones and living full
time as a member of the new sex. For FTMs, that means shooting testosterone
and taking a new name. In A Boy Named Sue, we watch as Sue/Theo begins
intramuscular injections with an unnervingly fat needle and develops coarser
skin, a squarer jaw, a cracking and then deepened voice, an Adam's apple, a
beard, and male-pattern baldness--cues that fairly quickly make it easy to think
of Theo as "he." Many FTMs, if they can afford it, follow up with
mastectomies (or, as they say, "top surgery"). Note to the squeamish: I had to
leave the room as A Boy Named Sue brought me up close and personal into
Theo's chest reconstruction. Still, this intimacy accomplished its mission. I
started to grasp what tremendous desire and strength it must take to want, even
celebrate, this treatment.

For many FTMs, hormones and top surgery are enough: Their bodies feel
masculine, and others start calling them "he." Robert Eads, whose last year of
life we follow in Southern Comfort, says that while he took testosterone, "my
arms and hands got bigger. That's the hardest part: the bones grow and it hurts.
Had my breasts removed. And that was all I had to do." Some have one of two
possible operations to construct a penis; this can cost up to $70,000--without
necessarily leaving any sexual sensation, thanks to the complicated neurology and
hydraulics involved. But "being a man or being a woman has nothing to do with
your genitals," says Eads. "It has to do with what's right here--in your heart
and in your mind."

Few transsexuals any longer talk about being a man trapped in a woman's body
or vice versa. (That was a narrative required for a long time by gender-identity
clinics and sounded ludicrous to feminists like me who feel like a person who
happens to inhabit a woman's body.) Nevertheless, these FTMs do talk about a
discomfiting sense of mismatch with their childhood bodies. As Max Wolf Valerio in
You Don't Know Dick puts it, "Around the age of eight or nine I realized that
I had to get a handle on this thing, that I was not male, that I was not a boy,
that I had to deal with this." Puberty was still a shock, more so than the
usually unpleasant Alice-in-Wonderland experience of having your body suddenly
erupt in weird and uncomfortable ways. Says Loren Cameron, also in You Don't Know
"I kept always waiting for that facial hair to come in, and ... instead
I got breasts!" Robert Eads in Southern Comfort felt that his body was
betraying him when he was a pregnant, heterosexually married woman, even though
he wanted kids. "To be a man and to be pregnant--I can't explain it to you," says
Eads. "It was the worst and the best at the same time." In print, that comment
looks frankly psychotic. But after watching this skinny, mustached man barbecuing
for his family and friends, cuddling with his adoring and adorable toddler
grandson, and treating his girlfriend with kind thoughtfulness even while he's
desperately ill, I'm willing to suspend my disbelief and conclude that whatever
process develops sex or gender identity inside our brains happened differently in
Robert's than in my own.

So what's a second adolescence like? It will surprise no one that all these
FTMs report one thing in common: a stunningly boosted sex drive. Michael Kirk, a
Boston-area artist profiled in You Don't Know Dick, describes it well. "I used to,
as a female, crave love. I just wanted love and affection and all of that kind of
warm, snuggly, cuddling stuff," he says. "Testosterone has totally turned the
tables around. The sex drive needs to be fulfilled. Urgently! Now! I mean, we can
get to the relationship stuff later, when we get to know each other! This amazing
sex drive that men have--I don't think women can ever understand what that's
like--and I have no clue how a man can ever understand how women don't have it. I
just think it's this cosmic joke that men and women are so different and they're
supposed to be able to get along in intimate relationships."

Okay, so men are slaves to sex. That's hardly news. But are men and
women really from different planets? Or to ask a question specific to these
documentaries, how much do hormones change your personality? One of Michael
Kirk's daughters seems to feel that she's lost a mother. "My mom's not dead, but
I don't have a mom," she says. "That got a little painful. But I have Michael,
which is great." But in the same documentary, one of Ted Knupke's friends is
disappointed that Ted isn't more different; now the friend can no longer
believe that sex hormones are all-important in shaping our personalities. There
are enough FTMs who keep the accommodating politeness or social trepidation
of women--and male-to-female transsexuals who still have the confident
aggressiveness of men--that trans organizations now make a conscious effort to
give the female-born more chances to lead while the male-born learn to keep quiet
and listen. But really, it's unfair to generalize that broadly about trannies:
I'd never let anyone get away with that kind of unlicensed comment about
"genetic" women and men. We've all met plenty of shrinking-wallflower men and
obnoxiously aggressive women who haven't changed their sex. Perhaps we can never
know exactly which is the most significant spice in the stew of body, brain,
family, culture, and history that makes us who we are.

In fact, these guys have such a wide array of histories, temperaments,
attitudes, and experiences that the overwhelming rhetorical point of the
documentaries is how many different kinds of people change their bodily sex. Just
in You Don't Know Dick, for instance, one is a conventional home-owning
seminarian who becomes a mechanic; another, a police officer who stays on the job;
a third, a bohemian poet; a fourth, an intellectually quick painter; a fifth, a
therapist and trans activist; and a sixth, a bodybuilding photographer. A
married housewife becomes a promiscuous gay man; the seminarian remains single
and presumably celibate; a couple of ex-lesbians start dating conventionally
feminine heterosexual women; and a squeaky-voiced bodybuilder attracts a dykey
lesbian girlfriend and rides a motorcycle in San Francisco's Pride parade.
Southern Comfort's Robert Eads, probably like much of his rural Georgia peer
group, describes manhood and womanhood in sexist ways that make me grit my
teeth--and yet his idea of being a standard-issue heterosexual man is to get
involved with Lola, who is newly transitioning from male to female.

While I watched the documentaries, I couldn't help but hear, in the
background, an echo of the gay slogan "We are everywhere." Because it's much
easier to add than to subtract the effects of testosterone on the body, FTMs pass
just as invisibly as many gay people do, much more easily than do male-to-female
transsexuals, and certainly more so than many of them passed as masculine women.
In You Don't Know Dick, James Green--whose childhood pictures and home movies
show a child I would have assumed was a boy (not a tomboy)-- reports that he
switched bathrooms before using hormones. "In the men's room, nobody noticed me,"
he says. "In the women's room, people would call the police." In Southern
Eads recalls the time he was smoking his pipe outside Wal-Mart and
some other "bubba"--Eads does look quite bubba-ish--approached him and started a
conversation. Soon the stranger was inviting him to join a group called Take Back
Georgia. "They're out to overthrow the government," Eads explains. "Get them
carpetbaggers out of their back pockets and billfolds. It's a shoot-off of the
kkk and they're asking me to join. And I love it, I do! It just kind of shows
that if people give you half a chance they accept you without realizing it."
Which, of course, is the message of these documentaries.

But FTMs' ability to pass can backfire. Southern Comfort begins
with Eads--a skinny man in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots who has a droopy
mustache and a long, deeply lined face--smoking his curved pipe in his rural
backyard, behind his trailer. Roosters are crowing; the sun is rising through the
thick backwoods in Toccoa, Georgia. Eads sadly tells us about a morning when he
woke up "in a pool of blood," hemorrhaging from ovarian cancer. But even though
his friends called dozens of gynecologists and emergency rooms in greater
Atlanta, it took three weeks to find someone who would agree to see him. It was
probably too late already; he should have been getting regular gynecological
checkups but was too uncomfortable or too poor to educate doctors, nurses, and
receptionists who recoiled from the unfamiliar combination of a male body and
female innards. Nevertheless, it's inexcusable that someone in extreme need was
refused medical treatment. Yet precisely that happens often enough that many
transsexuals would rather die (often literally, one activist told me) than see a

So are transsexuals giving in to a kind of cultural tug to be more
gender-conformist? Is getting a mastectomy in order to become more like society's
idea of a man similar to getting breast implants in order to become more like
society's idea of a woman? That's not how they experience it. Lacking male
childhoods and adolescences, these FTMs know that they'll never be
stereotypical men, whatever that might be. A Boy Named Sue's Theo, for
instance, knows that other people's first impressions of him are just as wrong as
they were when people thought Sue was a guy. He calls himself "a big old bi
transman with a pussy," and adds, "Bet you wouldn't have figured that out!" Having
seen these documentaries and talked with a number of people who changed their
sex, I've started to realize that transsexuals don't conform to any stereotyped
ideas of how either sex should behave; rather, they give up a great
deal--beginning but not ending with family acceptance, money, and bodily
safety--to deviate drastically from what most people consider their "natural"

Perhaps this nonconformity is why transgender issues are increasingly
attractive to young people who were raised by feminist parents, attended school
with openly gay classmates and teachers, and are consequently shocked by the
punishment aimed at anyone whose birth sex and gender don't match up. From one
angle, trans activism is a straight shot from feminism. If women are free to be
basketball players and lawyers, why should men be penalized for dressing in a way
society thinks of as feminine--or for wanting to be women?

Trans activism at first focused on getting "T" added to "LGB" in
lesbian-gay-bisexual organizations. To many of us, that seemed cheap: Why were
they trying to get our attention, like a little sister annoying the household
teenager, rather than directly educating the more powerful mainstream? But lately
some lesbian and gay activists, such as Chai Feldblum and Tim McFeeley, have
started arguing that the best way for us all to move forward is by focusing on
our common deviation from sex stereotypes, whether in appearance and behavior or
in our choice of partners. Each of the four major lesbian-and-gay legal
organizations now has a lawyer dedicated to trans issues. The argument that it's
as discriminatory (based on illegal stereotyping) to refuse a man a loan because
he's wearing a dress as it is to deny a license to a woman who wants to marry
another woman has already started making inroads. In states as varied as Alaska,
Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Texas--and on questions ranging from
employment discrimination to inheritance--judges have been or soon will be
reconsidering the meaning and definition of "sex."

Watching these movies has left me keenly aware that any short guy with a beard
who passes on the street might have been born female. That thought makes it silly
to imagine a huge chasm between the sexes--and makes the line between men and
women seem almost as slight as it seemed when I was five.