(with apologies to Mr. Rabelais and Mrs.
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
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,
Funny thing is, I've calmed down a lot since I came to that
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
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.
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
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
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
"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 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 don't know what the hell I am anymore," I'd say,
over and over, until finally there was nothing else left to
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.