When I think back upon my twenty-seven years of life two things come to mind. Oh, dear god, I’m nearly thirty! and the fact that I have been living openly as a gay and gender-fluid person for a full decade now. The last ten years have not been easy but I count them among my happiest yet because I was able to live them as myself.
One of the few things that kept me going through the lonely years of my early twenties was the music of the German musician Anna-Varney Cantodea, best known as the sole participant in Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows. Her music appealed to me for several reasons. The music, image, and lyrical content all appealed to me in a manner I had not yet found in any other band or musician. Much of this appeal to attribute the content of her lyrics, which are not only quite imaginative and clever but always intensely emotional and sincere. It might all seem rather melodramatic to other but, as a passionate person myself, it complemented my own personality perfectly.
Although I can relate to many of the experiences and sentiments Varney expresses in her albums, Les Fleurs Du Mal struck a particularly intimate note. It tells a bittersweet story about a complicated love affair with a man who cannot accept Cantodea’s queer status. Despite all her efforts to comfort and love him, the album ends rather sadly, with Contodea renouncing sex and love in The Virgin Queen, but despite this and other undeniably sad elements in the album, the tone is not despairing. In fact, it’s frequently playful, humorously ironic, and confident.
“Hänsel, call your soldiers back, this witch sticks to her gingerbread.
Girlfriends, wives or fiancées will save your sacred straightness from disgrace.”
“Some men are like chocolate,
but most of them are like shit
and if you don’t have the experience
to spot that tiny difference
you’re likely to fall for all of it.”
“Quickly erasing your lust, all we inspire is disgust
But then, of course, you can never be sure
and that’s the face that’s frightening you!”
The music is rather difficult to describe, apart from it being a complex interplay of numerous instruments and sounds. Overall, it tends to be more upbeat and funky than most of her album tend to me. To make things even more unusual, Cantodea hired a boy’s and men’s choir to performed some of the vocals. Not all Sopor fans enjoy this element–a friend one mine even deemed it “too gay”–but in my estimation the choir vocals really compliment the sound and tone of the album.
The album was originally released in both a limited edition box-set and vinyl. In 2007, when they were first released, these were the only copies available commercially. I actually both the album after only hearing the song La Morte D’Arthur but, a risk I only take on bands I like a lot. I wasn’t disappointed. The artwork imitates an Avon cosmetics catalogue, advertising products promises to hide the signs of sexual attraction and mock romance. Fortunately, the album has also been released both digitally and on a standard edition CD.
Whether you enjoy goth music or not, Les Fleurs Du Mal deserves your attention. It tells a unique story, one we seldom see in music generally, and does so with such sincerity, imagination, and power.
When I look back on my love life prior to meeting my husband I cannot help feeling uneasy about discussing it. My love life was almost void of physical interactions yet it was filled with emotionally intense interactions that shaped how I perceived and evaluated myself. My first boyfriend lived many miles away and over the seven months of our relationship (and the year of strained friendship that followed) we only spent three weeks within touching distance. A friend of mine at the time dismissed it, insisting that the distance did not make it a real relationship, but despite my friend’s objection, it felt very real to me. We were emotionally involved and committed to a relationship, even if it was primarily long distance and dramatically shortened by mutual discontent. It may not seem like much to other people but these experiences have had a significant impact on my life. Strangely, it was the lack of activity in my love life was a part of a more complex and personally painful problem.
I got off to a slow start. I wanted to date more than anything after I came out but I was rather shy about. The internet helped to compensate for my social anxiety and connected me to many people I would never have known without it. However, even as I was making friends, I wasn’t having much luck meeting guys and it was largely due to my purposefully androgynous appearance. I did not fit the masculine type these men wanted. That I preferred to wear skirts instead of pants was enough of a reason to reject me outright. This kind of rejection is always painful to me and has frequently intensified my gender dysphoria. On a number of occasions, I was bluntly told, “If I wanted to date a woman, I wouldn’t be gay.” The fact that I was and intend to remain physically male did not make a difference to them.
My first boyfriend was not exception. He liked me at first and flattered me with many compliments but all throughout our short relationship he frequently tried to turn me into the kind of man he actually wanted. He openly told me that he thought I wasn’t cute enough and discouraged me from wearing women’s clothing. f course, he wasn’t always as mean as this and we had our good times but our problems never went away. It became increasing clear to me that he would never accepted for for what I am and this hurt me considerably because I sincerely believed there would be no one else for me. The pain became so bad that I started cutting myself, punishing myself for not being the person he wanted me to be, and even spent two nights under psychiatric observation after I stabbed myself with an X-Acto knife.
The only men (apart from my ex) who expressed an earnest desire for me were what are colorfully known as “tranny chasers.” These are men who are specifically attracted to transgender women or crossdessing men. At the time, I thought little of it. I was young, inexperienced, and eager to make a connection. Their attention gratified my need to feel attractive and wanted by men but interacting with these men quickly became unsatisfying and even humiliating.
Our interactions were pretty simple. They would send me a message, complementing my appearance and bluntly asking for pictures or for an exchange erotic emails. I was young and assumed this was typical for gay men. After a while, it became clear to me that the exchange was unequal, tilted forever in their favor because I was eager to gratify their desires for the mere promise of reciprocity. Many of these men became hostile when I refused to continue with these types of communications and several harassed me online for months afterward. (That’s in addition to the daily onslaught of harassing messages I got at the time from perfect strangers on social networking sites.) One man, in particular, pursued me for more than year. Of all the men I interacted with online, he was the only man I ever met in person or slept with. I took his consistent interest as a positive sign and, fortunately for me, he turned out to be very nice. Even when I broke promises to meet him again, he never became hostile or angry. However, as nice as he was, his interests were still exclusively sexual and was, to me, just one of many reminders of my undesirability. I was the mistress and nothing more to these men, without much hope of ever becoming the bride.
When I talked to a few of my friends about these experiences, they encouraged me to take it as a compliment. To be honest, I dearly wanted to take it as a compliment. To some extent it was nice, as sex often is for many people, but at the end of the day, it was all that I had or felt that I could expect. The inevitable disappointment this type of sexual contact entailed haunted me every day but I could not entirely draw myself away from it because my loneliness always returned. Although I stopped interacting with “tranny chasers,” I still sought out casual sexual encounters. Since I lived with my family at the tome, could’t drive, and had little money, I rarely ever met any of men with whom I made plans. When I look back now, I’m glad my circumstances had prevented me from taking on easy hookups. At the time it frustrated me but I do not doubt that the alternative would have been much worse.
Memories of my sexual past still evoke some pain but the wounds I once carried with me have healed. Time can heal some wounds but love is by far the stronger remedy and I found that with me husband. He gave me all the things I had always wanted but could never get from other men—romance! He took me to restaurant and bars, gave me gifts and introduced me to his friends. He wasn’t embarrassed to be seen with me. For the first time, I felt genuinely and completely appreciated and loved. He did not make me feel ashamed of my appearance as my first boyfriend had but embraced it. Before I met him I did not think I would ever find such a person, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have him in my life. With him by my side, I can finally close an unhappy chapter in my life and live as I always wanted to, a valid person worthy of love.
Today my husband and I are celebrating our second wedding anniversary. It also happens to be the fifth anniversary of our first date. It’s a great convenience having only to remember one date for two significant events in our lives. It wasn’t entirely intentional either, as it was the earliest time we could schedule or civil ceremony following the repeal of Prop 8.
Our civil ceremony was very simple. We went down to our local courthouse, alone and without any friends or family, and tied the knot. Some of our family members were upset by our not arranging a ceremony but having one was both beyond our means at the time and not the most appealing option.
Speaking for myself, I’m not one for elaborate ceremony. They make me nervous. Nevertheless, I do somewhat regret having the opportunity the throw the bouquet. I can just imagine my best friend shouting at me from the crowd of our friends and family, “Gene, you’re not supposed to aim!”
For my husband, our civil ceremony holds a special meaning. His maternal grandparents both served during World War II and got married as soon as they could after the war. They weren’t even officially discharged from service and went to the courthouse in their uniforms; and since they had come alone, a witness (an old man who hung around the courthouse precisely for this reason) was provided. Coincidentally (or perhaps providentially), their wedding anniversary also falls on July 23rd.
They marriage didn’t require much to be special and that’s how my husband and I felt about ours. We love each other utterly and we felt confident about our future together pretty early on in our relationship. My sister-in-law frequently makes beeping noise and announces them as the “perfect relationship alert” whenever she observes us being affectionate towards each other. I don’t think she’s far off. I could not have asked for a more supportive and understanding husband.
My androgynous appearance and preference for women clothing, rather the conventionally appropriate dress for my sex, was a problem for my first boyfriend and frequently discourage a number of homosexual men from ever considering me seriously as a partner. My husband, on the other hand, appreciates my sense of style and finds it compelling for many reasons. My husband had not been very lucky in love either and fear, as a result of too many disappointments, that he would never find anyone who could tolerate him.
Even as same-sex marriage has been universally legalized throughout the US, it remains a controversial topic—even among queer people. Some reject it as a symbol of middle class values and the perpetuation of systemic power structures while others regard it as meaningful expression of their commitment and a necessary legal provision.
Personally, I do not regard civil marriage, as it currently exists, as the final or best form. Marriage should not be the means to gaining citizenship, healthcare, or financial support. We can and should do more to provide for the fundamental needs of all citizens. With the current health care system in place, we making important stride towards fulfilling these ideals but we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, civil marriage establishes a necessary legal relationship between two individuals. It makes your spouse you next of kin and gives them the responsibility for making medical decisions when you cannot. While these privileges can be given through wills and advanced directives, it is convenient to have them specified in one legal document. For queer individuals without supportive families, this legal provision can be of consequence. Civil marriage won’t solve many of the social problems affecting queer people but neither will it’s abolition.
Of course, there are those who oppose same-sex marriage on the unreasonable notion of heterosexual superiority but those opinions are hardly worth discussion here, as they have been so widely discredited by intellect far greater than myself.
My attitude toward civil marriage is fundamentally practical and pragmatic. Aside from certain legal provisions and rights, I demand little else. The rest is between my husband and my self, the love we feel for one another and the life we intend to share together.
Several of my friends and family have asked me whether I mind being addressed as ma’am or in the feminine by strangers. The answer is no. While I tend to use masculine pronouns, I feel comfortable using or being addressed by either pronouns. This is why I describe my gender identity as fluid/androgynous. This does not mean that pronouns are unimportant to me but rather that they are two facets of my self identity.
Even as a child I wasn’t perturbed when people mistook me for a girl and I still don’t react that way. I actually rather enjoy it. 🙂
My androgynous appearance has a funny way of bringing out the worst in some people. Ever since I came out during my senior year of high school and began dressing flamboyantly (or wearing dresses, make-up, etc.), I have frequently encounter harassment from strangers. For the most part, I can cope with it–as I have very supportive friends and family–but I must confess that it does rather get to me, especially when it occurs frequently or when the threats are violent or made by groups of persons. Humor has often been my coping mechanism and it is with a humorous perspective that I see many of the encounters I have had, with special exception to the violent threats I have received.
* * *
A while ago I crossed paths with two young boys who live in my neighborhood. I was on my way to a grocery store when the older of the two called after me, “You look like a guy.” I turned around and replied, “That’s because I am one.” The other boy, in a smart tone, said, “But you’re wearing a purse?!” I replied, with a grin and a flourish of the hand, “That’s because I like it.” Their curiosity seemed to be satisfied and I went on my way.
I have found that my ambiguous appearance (I think my sex is dead obvious but, then again, I have insider information) brings out a peculiar and frequently embarrassing side of people. They gawk, comment, and talk behind my back. It has been a long time since I have felt ashamed, humiliated, or intimidated by these incidents, largely because most of these people apparently have no talent for public ridicule.
When I was active on public social networking websites (you-know-where) I would receive nasty insults by private message. One writer compared my appearance to Michael Jackson’s but I fail to recognize the resemblance. After all, I have a larger nose.
Others have called out to me from their moving cars, rendering their intended insults rather weak and inaudible. It is very difficult to feel threatened or even insulted when my offender comes and goes in a flash. On one occasion a Spanish-speaking woman called out, “puta,” a word which means “whore.” I’m not sure why she assumed I would know the language but she is fortunate that I at least knew that one; otherwise her message would have gone nearly unnoticed and possibly misunderstood as mad ravings.
Those who have chosen to speak behind my back, oftentimes on the bus, attempt to discuss my sex covertly. They lean in to each other and whisper, making a scene of themselves as they attempt swift glances back at me or as they pass me in the aisle. It amazes me how much people will say as long as they think they are unheard. My partner has given stern looks to several bus gawkers and talkers. One woman even approached me after taking a series of photographs of me with her camera phone (I would have said something if I had only known for certain that she was photographing me) and asked me if I had any tampons. I politely responded with an informative, “No.”
There was even one occasion where I was insulted directly over the phone. A man who messaged me online gave me his phone number. Curious, I decided to give him a call and when he answered all that he said was, “Don’t call me again you fucking fag.” I did as he bid me, which was fine by me anyway, and proceeded to write his number on bathroom stall walls whenever the opportunity arose. Nowadays I would never do this but at the time it amused me immensely.
Still, of all the perplexed people I have encountered, those I find the funniest are those men who look bewildered when they see me leaving the men’s restroom and have to check the door again before they can enter with their senses intact. Attendants at Ross have consistently called after me as I casually enter the men’s fitting room, frantically informing me that I am going the wrong way. I am not at all upset by this and will gladly use the women’s facilities but it can become a bit annoying being frequently told I don’t know where I am going.
Quentin Crisp was, as he put it, a “self-evident, effeminate homosexual” and made queer advocacy his life-long cause. He lived much of his life in London, England, and in 1980 moved to New York where he lived out the rest of his life, dying his hair blue and bowing in respect to the Hell’s Angels. From his youth onward, he wore make-up, nail varnish, sandals, and wide-brimmed hats–all pf which would have been perceived as inappropriate even for a women of the time. He was utterly and irretrievably true to himself and paid a price for it. He was harassed, physically assaulted, discriminated against (grocers would not sell him food, so he relied on vitamin powder and what his friends could give him), and alienated even from the society of other homosexual men. Despite living in poverty for much of his life, he managed to live in his own way–initially making a living as a sex-worker, a commercial artist, and, later on, an an artists model in college art classes.
In the 1960’s he wrote a memoir about his life, called The Naked Civil Servant, and appeared in a short documentary (a segment for World in Action) in which he discussed the circumstances of his life and the impact of heterosexism. In the 1970’s, a television film was made (starring John Hurt) based on his memoir, the success of which made him internationally famous and an hero to many. He has since remained a hero, not only as a pioneer in queer advocacy but as an intelligent and witty commentator on popular culture and lifestyle.
The success of his memoir led to the writing of a number of other books. Over the years I have read most of his published work and would like to offer my own recommendation.
Crisp wrote three memoirs, including The Naked Civil Servant (1968), How to Become a Virgin (1981), and Resident Alien: The New York Diaries (1996). All three stand out to me as excellent books. Crisp was very good at telling stories and this shows in all of his autobiographical works. Resident Alien sets itself apart, however, in one important way; although Crisp made his unhappiness no secret, one sees a much more vulnerable and sensitive side to him in this, his last, memoir. Crisp had a habit of using humor to cope with unpleasant experiences and emotions but, while Resident Alien is full of humorous anecdotes and observations, he expresses his fears and attitudes more directly here than in his previous memoirs.
For a time in the 1980’s, Crisp wrote a series of movie reviews for the New York magazine Christopher Street. A collection of these reviews were punished in 1988 as How to Go to the Movies. His reviews are thoroughly witty and intelligently written. Although he criticizes many of the films he writes about, he admits to enjoying them all (thought he did seem to enjoy some more than others). What struck me most about his review, though, was his positive tone. Critics are known to tyrannize over taste with their acerbic wit and frivolous distemper but his tone is thoroughly respectful and, though he makes plenty of jokes at the expense of the films and their actors, none come off as mean.
The Problem of Style
Crisp wrote several books on lifestyle, including How to Have a Lifestyle (1975), Doing It with Style (1981), and Manners from Heaven (1984). His first book is uncharacteristically serious (that is, relatively humorless) attempt at defining his modus operandi for style, a theme he would later improve upon in subsequent works. Manners from Heaven is funnier but I found his advice at times uneven. At times, I fear, the narrative is too serious and conflicts with the humor tone he tried to create.
Doing It with Style is, in my opinion, the best of his books on style. The humor is pitch perfect and his arguments, though tongue-in-cheek, bear an undercurrent of serious truth. Those who are familiar with his one-man show will likely enjoy this. The humor, message, and pacing is the same but both stand on their own–while they share various anecdotes and jokes, there are many that are entirely unique to this book, as well as to his one-man show.
Fiction and Poetry
Crisp wrote two novels, Love Made Easy (1977) and Chog: A Gothic Fable (1979), and one poem, called All This And Bevin Too (1943). Unfortunately, copies of these works can be difficult to come by.
Chog is really the only exception and, in consequence, the only title among these I have read, Chog is in every way a gothic novel. Naturally, his humor takes on a much darker tone in such a thematic setting. The story revolve around the various inheritors of an old many estate and the dastardly deeds they are willing to commit in order to acquire and maintain their inheritance. Many of his characters are thoroughly nasty and none are spared from a cruel, gruesome fate. Although I found the last few paragraphs too expedient, I enjoyed every other aspect of story.
Coincidentally, Love Made Easy was made into a film by the same name. Hopefully, I will have a chance to read both the book and see the film in the near future; in which case, I will append this post to include information regarding it.