(with apologies to Mr. Rabelais and Mrs. Parker)
by Poppy Z. Brite

Snapshot, one hour old: Barely out of the womb, I am flatfaced and red, seven pounds six ounces, topped with a great shock of jet-black hair. I am brought in with great fanfare.

My mother says, "Is she OK?"

My father says, "You got your girl."

Snapshot, 3 years old: I'm sitting at the kitchen table eating vanilla ice cream. Today or very recently, in some academic fashion, I have learned about the rudimentary design and function of the human penis. I can't stop pondering the image I have of it, pink and round like some strange cheese, leaking big fantasy tadpoles. It attracts me and disturbs me. My ice cream is melting in the heat of a New Orleans summer afternoon. I imagine sperm swimming in it and push the bowl away half- finished. But after a few minutes, I cautiously start eating again.

For several years of my life, I wanted people to believe I was something that I was obviously, to all appearances, not: a big, butch gay man. People would hear that and expect me to show up looking like a leather dyke, but that wasn't how it worked. I didn't even try to look male. Since I am barely five feet tall in socks, with a baby-soft complexion and a big wide ass, there never seemed to be much point. I felt male enough that I didn't have to look it.

In 1993 I moved into the heart of the French Quarter, one of the most physically judgmental gay communities on earth, and grew depressed because I couldn't go out at night and fuck greased boy-ass in some back room. I mourned the fact that when I walked down Bourbon Street, no one saw the swaggering leather daddy inside me.

My sexual dysphoria caused me to take stupid risks with my own health -- physical and emotional -- and that of my lifetime companion, C. The urge to be placed in context nearly killed me. The herd instinct, deeply buried but still present in my rebel heart, caused me to expose and embarrass myself in hopes of finding a peer group that didn't exist. And all for what? To arrive at the "conclusion" (this is a relative term) that I don't know what the hell I am -- gender-wise, preference-wise, any-kind-of-label-wise.

Funny thing is, I've calmed down a lot since I came to that conclusion.

Snapshot, 5 years old: We live in a duplex in New Orleans East, a neighborhood that will later become a burned-out shooting gallery, but in 1972 is a prefab-gentrified oil-boom suburb. The family on the other side has a little boy just my age named David. The first time I saw him, he was peeing in the driveway and my grandmother yelled at him, but now we play together almost every day. David's father is a big pumped-up guy (I picture him as looking like Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, though this is probably inaccurate) who often whips his son's bare ass with a leather belt. One day David is about to get a whipping and I follow them to the bedroom and no one stops me.

The yelling, the crying, the snap of leather on skin that must have ensued -- all these are hazy. What is crystal clear is the hard little knot of David's cock and balls, hairlessly exposed as he squirmed beneath the cracking leather, and the shock of recognition that ran through me at the sight.

(Recognition? How do you mean, recognition?)

I mean, I want that.

(You wanted dick at age five?)

I didn't want it in me, I wanted it on me.

(On you???)

Attached to me. You know at the end of that Bongwater song, "Nick Cave Dolls," where Ann Magnusson whines, "I waa - aaa -- aant one"? No? Well, anyway, that's just how I felt.

The most cringe-inducing artifacts of my dysphoria are the interviews I gave on my first trip to London. My British publisher had flown me over to promote a novel, so in addition to being dazzled and distracted, I had a very swollen head.

The journalists, for their part, all wanted to talk about sex. Why had I, a young female of dubious morality but favorable aspect, written a raunchy book full of gay male characters?

"Biologically I am a woman writer," I blathered happily to the Independent, "but it's never the way I've thought of myself. Ever since I was old enough to know what gay men were, I've considered myself a gay man that happens to have been born in a female body, and that's the perspective I'm coming from." Not content to leave it there, I twittered on, "I have no off-limits subjects. You can print anything I say ... I live with two boyfriends. They are both bisexual and we have a three-way relationship."

(This was a particularly short-lived and ill-advised phase. One of these "bisexuals" was my long-suffering companion, C, with whom I am now monogamous. The other was a beautiful, essentially gay Canadian slaveboy whose IQ may have been greater than his penis size, but not by much. My IQ wasn't much higher, at least when Slaveboy and his penis were around: at one point I actually married him so that I would be able to import him more easily.)

I was only too happy to explain it all in London. Over and over. And over. The satirical magazine Private Eye later awarded me a spot in "Pseuds' Corner" for my "5,233,677th assertion that [I was] a gay man in a female body," or something to that effect.

And the thing is, it was all true, or so I genuinely believed. I was a fag inside. That fag is still inside me. What's embarrassing is the naivete with which I believed readers would take my explanations at face value. "Oh, she's really a gay man! That explains everything!"

I acted out my fantasies by having unsafe sex with an array of beautiful bisexual boys, all much younger than me, lean and pierced and cheerfully voracious. The last person I'd had an affair with was a short, bald, old writer, and everybody knew about that one, so I was thrilled to advertise the fact that I was now snagging these sweet young things and tossing them away like Kleenex. I thought I was such a fucking stud.

C stood patiently by, the least self-conscious person in the world, not giving a damn that everyone thought he was a pussy- whipped patsy, just waiting for me to grow up. I'd been drinking three-dollar-a-bottle wine and smashing windows with my shoes when he met me, so he knew I still had a ways to go.

Why did I insist upon being a man? Why not identify myself as a strong, gay-friendly woman and leave it at that?

My only explanation, inadequate as usual, was that I'd just never felt like a woman.

Well, what is "a woman" supposed to feel like? Didn't this imply that I was stereotyping women, lumping them into an inferior porridge from which I stood apart?

All I could say was that some people appear to identify strongly with their born gender, and I wasn't one of them. I didn't "enjoy being a girl." Nor was I a tomboy; I was the kid forging notes to excuse myself from gym class, reading my library book on the sidelines while the other little savages fought over some ridiculous ball. And the first two albums I ever fell in love with -- at age three -- were the soundtracks from two Broadway shows, "Camelot" and "Man of La Mancha." Looking back, it seemed obvious that I'd been a little queen right from the start.

My earliest awareness of homosexuality was a TV farce called Three's Company. The male character pretended to be gay so he could shack up with two female roommates, and of course this involved much pursing of lips, flapping of wrists, and mincing around in the girls' lingerie -- preferably in front of the landlord, whose face would crumple into an expression of disgust so visceral that it needed no explaining. The message was clear: this was something you didn't want to be.

So why did I watch the show each week, my eyes fixed on John Ritter's parody of camp? My ten-year-old heart was simultaneously stabbed by the show's offhand cruelty and buoyed by the affirmation that an option other than boy-girl did exist. But why did I live ten years without knowing that, and why did it take a piece of trash like Three's Company to show me? My parents were not homophobic and never prevented me from reading anything I wanted to, but evidence of homosexuality was absent from my world and I suppose they never thought to mention it -- just as they never thought to question whether I was anything other than the girlbaby they'd wanted.

This is not a criticism. Why should they have questioned such an obvious fact?

Snapshot, age 13: Caught by other kids reading a book about gay and lesbian history on the schoolbus. They already know I'm a geek. Now I get to be a gay one. A living, mouth-breathing teenage Hell ensues for the next four years. Saying "I don't consider that an insult" does no good at all; explaining "I'm not a lesbian, I'm a fag" does even less. It will culminate in my senior year with me cutting my arm and shedding my (presumably AIDS-infected) blood to dissuade a football player from attacking me.

Sixteen years later, I read a critique of my latest novel in which the androgynously named Kim Newman declares my fiction and my sexuality invalid because I didn't suffer while growing up like real gay people did. Fuck you, Kim; I stood up and asked for my abuse.

I was completely unprepared for the people who thought my sexuality was some kind of promotional gimmick, but I kidded myself that I was prepared for the ones who, like Ms./Mr. Newman, simply found it annoying, offensive, or incomprehensible. I thought I was ready to be called a "fag hag" with "penis envy," but I wasn't.

I had no defense against these terms. I could go on all I liked about how I thought of "fag hags" as women who sought to sleep with and "convert" gay men and I never did that; I could more accurately call my penile longings anything from "worship" to "God-given right" than "envy." But nobody much understood the difference, and the more I tried to explain it, the less sure I was that I understood it either.

All I'd really wanted was for my readers, particularly my gay readers, to have a better shot at understanding why I wrote the things I did. With a few exceptions, though, the gay press ignored me. After all, I was a "horror writer," not a "gay writer." Those labels again.

Snapshot, 27 years old: Slaveboy is always begging me to tie his hands and feet, drip hot candle wax on him, stick things up his butt, beat him. Our relationship has deteriorated, and the more he wants this kind of treatment, the more boring it is to give it to him.

One night, though, he's pissing me off about some trivial thing, and instead of running him through the verbal shredder like I usually would, I sling him across the bed, grab a heavy cardboard mailing tube, and give him a good, long, thorough whacking. We fuck and he leaves.

I don't hear from him for days. Finally a mutual friend informs me that Slaveboy is mad because I hit him. Last week he was mad because I didn't hit him. I realize that this confused creature is the only person who has ever really believed I am a man.

In 1996, I was asked to write for an anthology called Dick For A Day. The premise: what various woman writers, artists, and media mavens would do if they had a ... well, read the title. My little piece is reprinted here in its entirety. I still think this is the least pretentious and most honest explanation I ever managed of a fundamentally inexplicable matter.

"In my dreams, I have a dick. Not in all of them, only in the good ones. Not just for a day, but for always.

"The first time I dreamed of having a dick, I was seven. I was standing in the bathroom wearing a pair of big white boxer shorts, and attached to my body was a new organ filled with wonderful sensation. The sensuality of the dream was marred only slightly by the fact that I was Tom Bosley of Happy Days.

"I've always known I was queer, but saying 'I'm not a lesbian, I'm a gay man in a female body' doesn't help matters a great deal in high school, so I stayed home nights dreaming, and eventually writing, about the torrid sex lives of gay boys. In 1995, Kate Bornstein's book Gender Outlaw finally clued me in to the liberating term 'non-operative transsexual.'

"A dick for a day? I would spend the day worshiping it, as dick possessors tend to do, and letting it do the thinking, as dicks will. I would give it over to the mouths and hands and assholes of as many tantalizing men as I could get my hands on. I would be the worst nelly slut you ever saw. And, for once in my life, I would mourn the coming of night."

Yes, knowing I was a "non-operative transsexual" was liberating -- for about a month. This happy complacency was shattered by a decidedly operative transsexual who hadn't had her surgery yet but was still as much woman as anyone I'd ever met, a big sleek predator, bloody of tooth and claw. She was the kind of person who, given the technology to work with, wouldn't just become a girl; she'd become a lioness.

Symmetrically enough, we became intimate after I'd rescued her from the clutches of my short, bald, old ex-lover, who wanted her to breathe life into his flagging career with a collaboration. She was a predator, yes, but only if you were stupid enough to leave her no alternative. He hadn't gotten that stupid yet, though he was working on it.

Warning her away from such potentially painful sleaze made me feel protective. She let me be her champion, even started calling me "sir." For the first time in my life, I thought I might get to say "Leave my girlfriend alone or I'll kick your ass." But Mr. Ex never bothered her again. And she was so smart and beautiful and exotic ...

Around this time, strangely enough, my sexual self- perception just sort of imploded. I'd finally figured out what I was, a male, a fag. I was a man on the inside, and I liked men who were men on the outside. I'd gone public with it out of naivete and a desire to illuminate my work for those who cared. I'd weathered the scorn. I'd jettisoned Slaveboy. Everybody who knew me at all knew I was a slightly misogynistic queen.

Now I had a girlfriend with a dick, and though I loved her dearly, it was all too much. Lesser men, I say in my own defense, might have crumbled long before.

I apologized to my lioness, who handled my confusion with a grace born of long experience. I stopped sleeping with everyone but C., and I renounced all labels.

Of course, the previously uninterested gay press discovered me at once. I'd just managed to have a novel rejected by both my American and English publishers on the grounds of its being "too extreme, a bloodbath without justification." (For the record: Most of the characters in this novel were HIV-positive, and when I started writing it, I'd never had an AIDS test. I felt utterly incapable of having one until I finished two years later. I was certain that my test would be positive. It wasn't.) When the book was picked up by new publishers, I entered one of my cycles of notoriety.

"You've said you're a gay man trapped in a woman's body," these new interviewers would begin.

"Not trapped," I'd say, "I never used the word trapped, it was put in my mouth mistakenly." And maybe this was true, I think it was true; I'd felt trapped, sometimes, but I'd never wanted the readers to know how uncomfortable I could be in my own body.

"This whole thing has been so widely misinterpreted," I'd say.

"I like the word 'queer' because it fits those of us who don't fit so easily into the other categories," I'd say.

"I've decided the Z isn't a middle initial, it's a chromosome," I'd say.

"I don't know what the hell I am anymore," I'd say, over and over, until finally there was nothing else left to say.

Roll of snapshots, one month shy of 30: One day recently, just because I wanted to, I cut my hair to about a quarter-inch long. It's grown out some now, but it's still shorter than I've ever had it before. I bought myself a pair of diamond stud earrings the last time I was in Amsterdam, just because I wanted them, and I don't wear much other jewelry any more. Now that I've stopped insisting on being a boy, I probably look more like one than I used to.

C and I take a visiting friend to see one of New Orleans' famous cemeteries. As we cut through the projects, a young man on a streetcorner spies my shorn head and hollers, "Hey, white boy!" I grin, pure joy, but I no longer kid myself that it could happen in the French Quarter.

Because I want to, and because it's been a lean year, I do photo shoots for two porn magazines. Rage, a Larry Flynt venture, has me fingering my pussy in the graveyard. Blue Blood, a Gothic sex rag, has me wearing a big black strap-on dildo. In several shots, I am threatening my manhood with one of C's butcher knives.

You can probably guess which of these shoots I prefer.

The phone rings. It's my best girlfriend, the lioness. In the course of our conversation, she asks whether I enjoy the work of another writer. "He doesn't really yank my crank," I hear myself saying.

I think it'll always be there, that phantom crank I allude to without thinking twice. I wouldn't wish otherwise. But I don't have to haul it out nearly as much as I used to.

First published in Crossing the Border: Tales of Erotic Ambiguity, edited by Lisa Tuttle, Indigo Books, 1998. Copyright 1998 by Poppy Z. Brite.