When VHS cassettes first came out, I thought they were just about the most futuristic invention in the world, and that technology could advance no further than movies in your television (well, that and one-way beepers). When I was coming up, my household owned just two videos, which I watched in perpetual rotation: the musical The Wiz, and Eddie Murphy’s 1983 stand-up act Delirious.
The Wiz made such an indelible impression on me that when I finally saw the original Wizard of Oz, I was incensed on behalf of the actors and filmmakers of the former—this new startup had basically stolen their idea, only made it worse and with white people! But I’d have to say that the cassette that influenced me most profoundly was Delirious. In grade school, I used to recite lines from Murphy’s act to perplexed classmates. In a helium-pitched Michael Jackson timbre: “Tito, give me some tissue.” Or a sing-songy kid-voice: “I got an ice cream, and you didn’t get one, ’cause you’re on welfare!”
Murphy’s flagrant homophobia throughout the show was, in retrospect, horrific. But boy, did it imprint on this writer-to-be. I suppose I was a pretty different kind of kid all around; though I didn’t discern precisely how different until years later (more on this in a moment), I must’ve known that whatever I turned out to be, it was vaguely related to Murphy’s callous AIDS jokes and over-the-top display of masculinity. It was, however, the opening of Murphy’s show that landed the hardest, the part where he paces back and forth in his tight red leather pants with matching jacket split to his navel (this get-up somehow a paradigm of hetero-masculinity), explaining to the audience that the only reason he was moving so fast is so homosexuals (well, he used a different word) couldn’t ogle his genitals.
Okay, that’s what I always remembered Murphy saying. But I just re-watched Delirious for the first time in thirty years, and I realized I have been recalling one tiny detail incorrectly. Murphy wasn’t concerned gay men were watching his genitals on stage; he was actually afraid they would watch his buttocks if he didn’t keep moving. My bad.
I myself recently completed a cross-country tour for my last book (my fifth, though the first autobiographical nonfiction one), and like Murphy, I found myself on stage in front of (albeit much smaller) audiences with my own posterior on display. At some point during these couple dozen events, I grew likewise paranoid that people in the audience were actually staring at my crotch, and a flicker of “Oh, I have to keep moving like Eddie” would dance across my consciousness.
A visual aid: if I were standing before you right now–in the flesh, not just in words–you would see a short, dark-haired man with brown eyes and a beard. You might venture that I’m part-middle eastern, or that Spanish is my native tongue. If you had more exposure—say you lived on my block and saw me on a daily basis—your view might expand to allow that I am a husband (to a quite pretty, notably taller strawberry-blonde wife) and father (to two equally lovely, tween- and teenaged girls). You would also likely note that I’m a dog owner (of two well-trained and affable pit bulls) and, depending on the weather, that I have tattooed arms.
Here are some things that you wouldn’t ascertain unless I told you: my first car was a black, ’79 four-speed Volvo coupe, M*A*S*H is my all-time favorite TV show, and my friend accidentally fired a .22 pistol at me when we were nine, the bullet just grazing my thigh and leaving spark burns before lodging in the rust-colored shag carpet beneath us.
Here’s something else you’d never know: I was born female, and only became the man I am today over the last fifteen or so years. A subject which my aforementioned book (Real Man Adventures) takes up. But also a subject that doesn’t arise in my life on a daily basis—not at the grocery check-out counter, not when I drop off my kids at a sleepover, not when I sit in a meeting, board a plane, or wave at the neighbor replacing rotted siding on his house. I honestly still don’t know whether my good friend Gabe even knew that I was transgender until he read my book. Because we never talked about it. Which is my preferred way of moving through the world where this topic is concerned—and yet I went and wrote a whole book about the very thing I’ve spent a life trying to achieve the luxury of not talking about.
You see how it might get confusing sometimes.
As one of my heroes Joan Didion has said (and I have studiously abided, although I’m pretty sure she wasn’t talking about being a transsexual when she wrote it), “You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.”
So now I have potentially made the whole world one of those places, opened myself up to the queasy sensation I’m getting right now as I type this, the same one I always feel in the moments shortly after I reveal this fact about my past, for fear that folks will start scrutinizing me more closely for “signs,” will suddenly see me differently. Which happens more than I’d like nowadays.
At a literary festival in Miami, one of my fellow panelists suddenly, mysteriously, started calling me “she” after I introduced my book to the audience, even though when we initially met beforehand she just seemed to take me for some random dude with whom she was stuck on a panel. After another reading in Los Angeles, a woman self-described as a “celebrity chef” approached my wife and asked, “Did you know you were a lesbian before you fell in love with her?” after I’d just spent a good half-hour sharing our decidedly unique but also completely universal story of a (straight) girl who fell in love with a (lucky) guy.
Maybe it points to some moral failing, and with another decade on me I’ll laugh off being mistakenly referred to as female, but to date, moments like these make me feel really, really bad. Every time, without exception, no other way to put it. I have only myself to blame. This is probably why all of my tour dates featured “guest stars” reading passages with me, plus a musical component, artists playing songs inspired by various chapters and themes in the book (which I like to think of as a literary scrapbook comprised of essays, interviews, artwork, conversations, lists, diagrams, poetry, and more on the subject of masculinity, but which most people seem to want to call a “memoir”). Anything to take some of the focus off of me.
At a university gig not too long ago, after the live accordion-music portion of the show wrapped up, a good-natured student referred to my reflexive, conspicuous discomfort with the subject of my former assigned gender by asking, “So why did you write this book again?” To him I could only offer another Didion gem: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”
But that doesn’t mean I want to contemplate it 24/7.
Today it is possible to have three decades of Eddie Murphy’s comedic oeuvre zapped through the air into a device we can hold in a palm and watch on the subway. The attendant modern expectation being that each and every one of us is on-blast, all of the time, constantly uploading everything from the mundane (first cars, favorite TV shows, which haircut should I get!), to the most intimate (losing a parent, almost getting shot, what your genitals may or may not look like). My deep, ever-welling ambivalence and suspicion about this information-industrial-complex finds me attempting the impossible, the cleaving of myself into two distinct versions: the regular-looking guy you may catch walking down the street and never give a second thought to, and the one revealed in the book, who happens not to have been born male, and thus has a little more at play than that average man on the street.
But if publishing this book has taught me anything during the year since its publication, it’s that no matter how much frantic pacing and zigzagging I may do down this lifelong path to becoming a man, I am never not going to be both these men in one. The trick now is figuring out how not to feel like less of one every time I slow down long enough for someone to take a good look.