Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Welcome to Weirdsville: Getting A Handle On Yourself

For some, the answer is immediate - just about as obvious as the nose on ... well, your face. Get naked, reach down, cup hands inwards and - carefully, for some of us - feel, and then fill in the gender blank. But for others it isn’t as easy as that. For various reasons, from nature to nurture, copping your own feel doesn’t bring about something so absolute. For these people, the Jewish proclamation could extend from “Today I am a Man --” to “-- but tomorrow I might be a --”

Some suggest that uncertainty in gender is more common than not, and point to those who are more prominent as being simply the tip of the iceberg. Viewpoints aside, the fact that many to this day are arbitrarily given one gender over the other shortly after birth - doctors instigating selective surgery often without consulting the parents, and certainly not the little maybe-boy, maybe-girl, is a given. Still others, the great Kate Borstein inclusive, suggest a third gender: that those who feel ... literally, that they are not on the outside what they are on the inside becoming a combination of the two.

But this column isn’t necessarily about the current state of gender issues - rather this is a little trip down history lane to visit two of my favorite people who took their issues around gender to glorious - and sometimes surreal - extremes. It’s easy to forget in these (sarcastic) accepting times, that gender wasn’t the movable feast it is today. Back only a few decades ago only women wore earrings, only men wore pants, only women had long hair, only men had short hair. Roles were carved in cultural stone and heaven help anyone who tried to chip their own niche.

But then we had the Chevalier d’Eon Beaumont. Born in Burgundy in 1728, the Chevalier started life out as a bouncing baby ... well, suffice to say that this unusual person bounced quite a bit, even starting out life as being baptized as both Charles as well as Genevieve. In a time when women were women and men were men (both wore wigs), the Chevalier was extraordinary from the get-go.

Even more so because the Chevalier was a spy. In 1755 this surreal agent of the French was sent to St. Petersberg where the Chevalier was thoroughly integrated into the court of the Empress of Russia - as a woman. Remaining there for many years while shuttling secrets to the French government, the Chevalier eventually traveled to England - as a woman, but this time without a choice in the matter as the French found it uncomfortable that their agent could switch back and forth between genders so easily.

While in England, the Chevalier made some great friends - many, in fact of the notorious Amorous Knights of Wycomb (sometimes erroneously called the Hellfile Club). There a wager was drawn up to decide - more for the Brothers of the club than the Chevalier - to decide once and for all: Charles or Genevieve? Examined by a gaggle of high-born ladies, the verdict took some time - way too long in fact (a time frame that begs for a wild, wild smut story) - but eventually these curious women came back with the finding of ... ‘doubtful.’

Not one to let sleeping genders lie, six years later a second examination was held - over a lawsuit of all things (a court case that must have been something else to witness) - and the verdict was female, and so ‘Genevieve’ had to remain in skirts and corsets.

You’d think that the law would have ultimate say in the case of the Chevalier - but it’s a delightful conclusion to this extremely flexible life, that after he’d passed away in 1810 he was buried in St. Pancras ... as a male. The doctor, in fact, who made the examination proclaiming: “ - without a doubt a male person.”

If these learned people couldn't make up their minds, how could the Chevalier be expected to?

My other favorite gender-player is one who while more certain (at least by those who examined him after his passing) in the area of genitalia still managed to affect a brilliant transformation. For most of those who knew the legendary jazz musician Billy Tipton the question of what was between his legs seemed never to be in question - but was nevertheless a complete surprise after he'd passed away at 74.

Cross-dressing is extraordinarily common, in a variety of degrees, and history is rife with those who have played one gender or another - sometimes towards criminal ends (like the 'woman' who defrauded a kind-hearted Mormon man into marrying him) but more often simply out of a deep-seated need to feel closer to their preferred gender. But makes Billy so unique though isn't just the fact that he had female anatomy, but that he'd managed to keep this a secret from so many friends - and wives.

Not even several of these wives (Billy had five) ever thought of him in any way except as a very masculine, adoring husband and even (through adoption) a father. In fact, his children, too, were similarly shocked to discover their father's unusual secret.

Much has been made of the fact that all five of his wives never suspected a thing: were they so accepting, so clueless, or did they know the secret as well and kept it for the sake of Billy's self-image? Yet the fact when the great jazz-man passed away he left not just a few stunned friends, wives, children and admirers - for Billy was born a woman.

What we know of Billy, in hindsight, definitely lends towards thinking "how could you NOT be suspect?" Billy carefully guarded his privacy, never bathed or disrobed (or so we are told) in front of anyone, and even in bed kept himself partially clothed - more than likely making his use of a penile prosthesis. In his very early years, Billy was more open about being a cross-dresser, but as time went on he developed more and more of his male persona - eventually submerging his female self so deep that only he knew about it.

In later years Billy in fact turned away from what could have been a very successful gig to become a lowly booking agent - a decision that many have pondered as being safer than being in the spotlight and being discovered. About this time, Billy's fears of discovery and his seeming need to model himself into what could be called an 'ideal' male image appear to have pushed him into a model of domesticity. His fifth wife and he lived a suburban dream life void of sex - and thus keeping Billy's secret just that. Adopting three boys, they tried to make this idyllic life work - but, alas, their marriage couldn't stand the strain and Billy and boys left to live in near-poverty conditions. Eventually the boys left as well, and Billy - in a sad end to what must have been a frustrating life - died rather than seeing a doctor who could have revealed his secret. It was only after he did pass away - at 74 - that the world, as well as Billy's friends, wives, and children learned of the secret that he'd kept for so many years.

If there's a point to these two extremes, it could be that if you have the ability to touch yourself and say, "I am a (fill in the blank)" then you might be able to call yourself fortunate - or, in the case of these two extraordinary individuals - you might call yourself limited ... 'just' what your holding in your hand, when you could also be something much, much more than that.

1 comment:

Meirav Rath said...

This is a lovely post, I enjoyed it very much. I'm surprised there were so little cases of these gender benders, though. If you find any more I'd be glad to hear about them ^_^