It’s been a while since a Five Questions With… Interview, but I can’t imagine a better re-entry interview than one with Max Wolf Valerio, the author of The Testosterone Files. Max and I “met” as a result of us both being published by Seal Press, and because we were both friends with the late, great Gianna Israel. His Testosterone Files are a fascinating account of his move from his life as a radical dyke and poet to being a ‘straight guy.’
1) I often joke that I only ever “passed” as a straight woman, and there were parts of The Testosterone Files that made me feel like you “passed” as as lesbian. Is that even close to right? How do you feel about your former identity now?
Yes, I definitely did â€œpassâ€ for a lesbian, a dyke, whatever you wish to call it. I was dyke-identified for at 14 years, and more, if you count my adolescence. Early on, I realized I was attracted to women, and so, a lesbian identity made the most sense to me. It was all I knew to name myself. The idea of transitioning in 1975 and before, when I was a teen, was completely off the map.
I am proud of the person I was as a dyke, and I learned a lot in my years as a lesbian. I understand many of the finer points of feminism, in all its permutations. Through lesbian feminism, I also came to an understanding and empathy for other types of radical politics. It was quite an education, and an amazing immersion in female life. Ultimately, dyke life is about immersion in female life I think, and it provided an axis for me as well as a point of departure.
However, as I show dramatically in The Testosterone Files, I was much more than simply a lesbian feminist or dyke. I was, actually, just as involved in the punk rock scene, as well as in being a poet who crossed all lines of identity and just â€œwroteâ€ and read for an audience that appreciated poetry as an art form period. So, this involvement gave me an â€œoutâ€ from dyke life and provided a portal to the fact that there is so much more out there in the world than simply lesbians or feminism. This portal would prove to be invaluable as I came into male life.
On the other hand, I think my perspective was a bit constrained anyway from being a lesbian all those years. I have had to re-examine many of my feminist beliefs and attitudes anyway, even if I was not entirely cloistered within the dyke perspective. Some of these attitudes no longer fit my male life, and I find them to be restricting. More importantly, I also have come to see that certain of these ideas were just wrong-headed, even if they served a purpose for me then. I mean, some of the anti-male attitudes, and anti-het attitudes that I absorbed. These attitudes and ideas not only do not serve my present life, they are not rooted in truth. I think I was often coming from a place of defensiveness, and I have learned, and am learning, to drop that.
Even so, I have many fond feelings about my past dyke life, and about lesbians in general, and will always feel related.
2) You mention friendships with various trans women before, during and after transition, and those friendships seemed to mean a lot to you. What was it about those friends – as opposed to those with trans men – that you found valuable?
As I write about in The Testosterone Files, a transwoman was my first point of real connection to transition. She provided an example, and a shoulder to cry on. Unfortunately, there was some drama involved, but I wonâ€™t spoil the book for any potential readers, letâ€™s just say it got complicated in ways I didnâ€™t expect.
That said, I have had many amazing transwomen friends, some are in the acknowledgements! They have helped to inform my trans-politics enormously, and for whatever reason I particularly have found transwomen in Canada to be inspiring. I mean, transauthor Viviane Namaste and community organizer, film-maker, and performer, Mirha-Soleil Ross. Also, Anne Ogborn who was a firebrand in the nineties, and really lit the way for me in terms of seeing transpeople as empowered and â€œrealâ€. Also, the gadfly and working class intellectual Margaret Oâ€™Hartigan, her writings about transsexual politics have been so astute and uncompromising. Many of these transwomen say unpopular things in the transworld, and maybe because they are not FTMs, they are able to articulate certain ideas and concerns with greater clarity. I mean, some are heterosexual, some are bisexual, but since they are not so beholden to that dyke feminism that so many FTMs are born from now, possibly, they are more bold and uncompromising.
Of course, the late Gianna Israel, who recently passed away, was a wonderful friend and inspiration as well. She did so much for so many of us, not in theory, but in actual practice, in her practice as a community and peer counselor and writer on health and transition issues. She also was enormously warm, and just an imp and so much fun to hang out with. I am supposed to finish up an anthology she left behind, and I am honored to do so.
Sometimes, transwomen are a relief, since their concerns are so similar to my own as a transman, yet they are different enough to be refreshing. There is less claustrophobia in relating to them.
3) I found it interesting that you had a hard time with “normal” since so many trans people desperately want normal – so much so that people often assume that’s why trans people transition – to avoid being genderqueer or androgynous or in the middle. You also note that a lot of your friends hoped you’d come out of transition gay-identified. How is life as a straight guy treating you? Is being visibly queer something you miss ever? How do you deal with that?
Yea, I really did NOT want to be seen as â€œnormalâ€. This may surprise some people. I enjoyed stirring shit up and upsetting people everywhere I went with my appearance alone, which was very punked out, and very androgynous, at least from my mid-twenties on. I identified with anarchy, rebellion, non-conformity. I still do, even if I have tempered these beliefs with age, and time spent living my life in the real world as a heterosexual man who looks, well, normal. I am still anti-authoritarian, and at heart, something of an anarchist who has become a civil libertarian. I would never have wanted a separate genderqueer bathroom, I really relished the squeals and anguish I could cause to people I viewed as ordinary and idiotic. If I was not causing a stir, something was wrong.
So, it was a sacrifice to become â€œnormalâ€ and blend in, since I now pass as a completely genetic and role-congruent man. However, the results of this have also been interesting, in unexpected ways.
Certainly, in the beginning, I missed being identifiably queer, although I also hung out a lot at first with gay men, and often, people mistook me for gay. It was a long process of adjustment though, to accept being seen as just another straight guy. Although, I think I still give off something of the bohemian and the punk, it never really goes away. And, in the transworld, my views are often iconoclastic and quite contrary to the accepted â€œlineâ€.
What is interesting is that being seen as a â€œhet or non-queerâ€ man, I have come to see how judgmental and narrow I was before, and how I judged people often unfairly.
I also have had the opportunity to experience the prejudices and judgments of people who are more queer than I look now, and have found them often, to be just as harsh as those of plain old heterosexual genetic people. I had to open myself up to a wider range of humanity, since I no longer believe I am better than anyone else, or that I have all the answers. Transition really did make me a better person in stripping some of my queer persona away.
Of course, I am always a â€œfreakâ€; I am a transsexual in any case. My gender freakiness is now more stealth, and as such, I think it actually has even more power to upset people and open them to new possibilities. When people find out I am a transman, they find it to be extremely shocking and yes, it ruptures their view of the strict binary. In some ways, being just an ordinary appearing man is even more disruptive of their perspective. They expect me to look androgynous and since I do not, their minds are completely blown. So, there is provocative power in my seeming â€œnormalcyâ€. Believe me, I love that! I still do love being provocative.
4) You make the point that for you, transition was about changing sex, not gender, yet you also talk about learning rules of masculinity – like being “fight ready” – which to me shows a change of gender, too. Can a person really be transsexual without being transgender as well?
Well, I guess we are getting into semantics now. When I say that transition was about changing sex not changing gender, I mean my internal and deepest sense of gender, my gender identity. Certainly, I have been getting re-socialized into my new sex role, (now, not so new) and I have a new legal gender, and social gender. These things go along with the sex change, the profound alteration of biological sex that I have undergone. But, â€˜transgenderâ€ as it is used increasingly, means crossing gender expression or boundaries. In an umbrella sense, all transsexuals are transgendered, we are part of the family of people who change or define outside the rules or restrictions of their given sex/gender. However, since the word has come to mean anyone who crosses a gender boundary, it is too broad to be useful. Consequently, transsexuals are rendered invisible. That is why I insist on transsexual, it is more particular and accurate to my situation.
5) You seem very convinced that some of the changes you experienced after you started T were a direct result of the T, but I’m wary. Can you really eliminate the possibility that some of those changes – like being quicker to anger, or less verbal – weren’t caused instead by the stress of transition or other less chemical factors?
I observed these changes with the most minute and careful attention, and had long talks into the night with transmen and transwomen, trying to understand. This aspect of transition fascinated me, and I found it challenging and revolutionizing to my perspective on life.
I came into transition feeling very strongly that I was not going to â€œbuyâ€ into what I thought were â€œmasculineâ€ or male behaviors, many of which I found repugnant . I had that feminist background you know! I also just thought that so many of these feelings or behaviors were caused only by socialization. The revelation of the testosterone for me, was that the truth was so much more complex. Ultimately, this gradual change in perception was very humbling. I had to find that I was wrong, and that many of these feelings are fed by testosterone and not simply by socialization as I had thought.
Now, it is complex, and it is so easy to misunderstand. So many FTMs also experience the feeling of wanting to cry, but being unable to. So, many of us experience the verbal changes, and other emotional changes. I am actually calmer on testosterone, and luckily, everyone who knew me from before thinks I am a nicer person now. I donâ€™t think I am, but I am not an aggressive or mean person. I am just as nice as I ever was, but there has been a shift. Although I am a very easy-going guy, I also have a different experience of frustration or anger. The feelings are somehow, wired in my body differently.
There are actually some scientific studies on sex hormones and the changes they can cause in mood, sex drive, and even visual perception. These are tentative now, but I think they do indicate that hormones affect all these areas, and are very powerful substances. I am a very observant person, and I do believe I was able to tell the difference between social anxieties and chemical changes. The changes were too powerful to ignore or explain away. When you drink coffee, how do you know it makes you feel wired, well, you do. When you drink alcohol, how do you know for sure it is affecting your mood or perceptions, well â€“ you just do. Of course, there will always be people who drink beer after beer, and claim it does not affect them. Often, the people who observe them, would beg to differ. Some people are not observant of their emotions, and others, are very invested in appearing a certain way.
Now, what one does with these testosterone driven changes is what is crucial. And, here, we separate the men from the boys, and the maladjusted men from the men who have matured. Certainly, our culture, and other cultures have often encouraged misogyny and sexism, and this is wrong. This can and should be changed. In that sense, I am still a feminist, and support the ideals of feminism.
Because testosterone drives masculinity, in a sense, does not excuse sexism. There is never an excuse for bad behavior. Certainly, I came to empathize with menâ€™s experiences, and understand more where they were coming from, however, bad behavior is not excused. People misunderstand this I think, and are afraid that if men are primed biologically in a different way from women, that bad male behavior is excusable. Bad male behavior, like any bad behavior, is never excusable.