The first time I saw Ty he was standing in my small apartment kitchen surrounded by women. It was the mid-1980s, and while the men and some of the other female members of the book club mingled in my living room, Ty was participating in the informal Friday night end of the workweek whine-in that often preceded our literary discussion. He was gangly, six-foot three with long black hair and sensitive, aquamarine eyes. As he spoke, he moved his hands like a dancer and gracefully fluttered his fingers. His manicured fingertips glistened and his lashes appeared to bear a trace of mascara. In the pale light of my kitchen, he seemed a beautiful and rare creature.
I’d always been attracted to androgyny—or more precisely, to a flicker of femininity flashing across a man’s face, to men whose slender builds and physical grace reminded me of women’s. Perhaps my attractions had been shaped by the long-haired rock stars of my adolescence—the androgyny of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, Mick Jagger pouting and preening as he applied lipstick in Performance. Oh, for the contradictions: hard jaw and pastel-shadowed eye, soft full lips and throbbing crotch barely restrained by skintight jeans.
After the others left, Ty lingered on my couch, flirting. Our first kiss was tender, imploring. There was no struggle of wills, no awkward recalibrations. I could taste a slight residue of the unfiltered Marlboros he smoked. We moved into my bedroom. Before Ty took off his pants, he told me that he wore women’s underwear—“I like how soft they feel against my skin,” he said—and that he shaved his entire body.
I’d just broken up with a nice Jewish boy—college educated, from a “good” family, on paper the kind of man I was supposed to wed. But we couldn’t live on paper—in real life he was a dreamer, rejecting realistic career options as inadequate for the full expression of his artistic aspirations and spending the weekends in a haze of marijuana smoke. When I nudged him towards marriage and children, he said he thought babies should be kept in sandboxes until they were toilet trained. Given how I’d failed to turn either one of us into solid spousal material, I concluded that I must not be made for ordinary bourgeois life. And now here was Ty to provide my next sexual adventure.
Coarse stubble on his back defied his wish for smoothness. I moved my hand to his crotch.
“You need to know what you’re getting into,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
Today Ty would have the choice to transition and live as a woman, or reside somewhere in a depolarized zone in between genders; both and/or neither. Back in the 1980s, Ty felt pressured to keep most of his leanings towards the feminine secret. He was a heterosexual man who had grown up in a small town and worked in a conservative industry. He’d lost jobs just for refusing to cut his hair. Neither Ty nor I could even fathom contemporary notions of gender fluidity, of a spectrum of gender identifications and sexual orientations, of gender-neutral pronouns. Gender felt irrevocably tied to what was between your legs.
“I don’t love having a penis, ” he said.
“Would you want to have surgery if you could?” I asked.
For me, a man could have long hair, manicured nails, and wear make-up and women’s underwear, but the possession of a penis was where my desire drew the line.
“I’m not sure I’d really want to go through all that,” Ty said. “And I would never pass.” Ty had been harassed and threatened for cross-dressing in public, and his height, jawline, and pronounced forehead meant that he would always look to many others like a man masquerading as a woman.
He explained that he was strictly heterosexual and that some of the other women he’d been with had rejected him once they’d they’d learned was about his female side, so before we got too far into our relationship, he needed me to understand all of him.
As we sat next to each other on my bed, it seemed to me that if I just accepted Ty completely, his male and female identities could come together in some glorious merger. I also assumed that since Ty had faced discrimination himself, and since he identified with the feminine, he would —de facto —have to be a feminist like me. Since my own feminist awakening, I’d questioned all society’s dictates regarding appropriate female behavior, rebelled against all forms of oppression against women. A man out of sync with his male identity couldn’t possibly hold either of us to constricting gender stereotypes. I imagined our being playfully androgynous together; in my fantasies Ty would provide the maternal succor I’d longed for since childhood, and also fuck my brains out.
Ty took off his underwear, releasing a magnificent oversized creature, a symbol of the life force itself.
“Don’t worry, Ty,” I said. “I’ll love your penis enough for both of us.”
When we made love, Ty mirrored my every move, as if he could read the mind of my body. “I want to crawl up inside you and never come out,” he’d say. What a relief from my prior boyfriend who’d push me up against a wall and then knead my breasts with his eyes glazed over in an adolescent trance.
I soon learned that Ty possessed a woman’s wardrobe and a name for his female alter ego. When he talked about her, she sounded like a separate person. Or maybe she just represented the deepest, most vulnerable part of himself. He’d been buying her clothes from catalogs and her wardrobe seemed frumpy and stuck in the past, as if it had not changed much since he first began to secretly raid his mother’s closet.
We sneaked into a dressing room in the lingerie department of Macy’s and posed in front of the three-way mirror: Ty in a frilly, bow-bedecked light blue gown, me in something short and black and slinky. We went back to my apartment, put on our new lingerie and had what Ty called a “hen party,” sitting in my kitchen and eating bon bons and looking at Vogue magazine.
In his nightie, Ty’s whole physical demeanor altered.
“You seem so different,” I said. What he seemed to me was diminished. “Do you really think men and women are that different from one another?”
I wanted to believe that people could reside in some middle zone with the best traits of what society deemed masculine and feminine. Or stake out some new territory that was neither. I wanted to be able to wear that sexy lingerie and not have it define me as only soft and receptive; I wanted to wear that lingerie and not lose my power in the process.
“Men and women are different,” Ty said. “I’ve had to study it like an anthropologist. This is how women hold themselves . . .” He crossed his legs and pointed his toes. “And this is how they sit.” He moved forward on the chair, arched his back so that his chest was thrust forward, and then perched on the chair’s edge.
“And how do men sit?” I asked. His straightened his torso, spread his legs wide and pushed his knees up confidently.
Men sat as if the world belonged to them and women as if they were simply leasing a small plot of land as long as no man objected.
“Those are caricatures of gender,” I raved. “Women sit that way because of years of oppression, and men that way because they’ve always been on top. That isn’t the way I walk or sit or hold my head.” I was a feminist; I was enlightened; I was no caricature.
Then I looked down at my crossed legs, the top leg bobbing up and down nervously on its way to my pointed, hot pink painted toes. I had been indoctrinated to never sit with my legs apart even if wearing pants, as if what resided between them had to be protected from incursion, or hidden out of shame. I looked down at my bitten nails, and realized how often I followed any act of self-assertion by taking a symbolic bite out of myself.
In early fall, Ty started talking about Halloween. It was the one night of the year when he could cross-dress and get on a bus or go to a bar and not fear being hassled or worse. It was important to him that I participate in his transformation. In what Ty called his transvestite pornography, women in studded leather and stiletto heels forced men to don their clothing. The men cowered on all fours, aroused by their own humiliation. The pornography made me uncomfortable. If being a woman represented Ty’s deepest self, why did so many of his fantasies revolve around being forced to assume the feminine role? Was it because society regarded womanhood as an inherently degraded state, or because Ty had grown up being told that a man’s wanting to be a woman was degrading?
I tried to get Ty to analyze the underlying messages of the pornography as if that would free his sexuality from its grip, but he wasn’t having any of what he called my “overintellectualizing.”
“I guess I’m just a masochist,” Ty said. “Like all women.” He lit a cigarette and inhaled it deeply. The smoke filled the air around me and made me cough. Then he spread his legs wide, all male bluster.
I’ve thought about this conversation many times in the years since. When Fifty Shades of Grey, a book glorifying soft-core sadomasochism between a powerful man and a naïve young woman, became a mainstream bestseller. When my female students in their 30s tell me they feel helpless to change any of the rules of hook-up culture. When I see women in their 20s hobbling around in six-inch heels and skirts so short they spend half their time pulling them down to cover their genitals, torn between flaunting their flesh and being embarrassed at their own self-exposure. I look into their faces and try to read what’s going on; I wish I saw only pride in their seductive power, but I also see shame, as they willingly enact their own shaming. I’m never certain if they’re doing this to please themselves, to please men, or to align with some consumerist notions of femininity.
On Halloween night, I curled Ty’s hair so that it fell in soft waves around his face. I glued false eyelashes on his lids. After the glue dried, I applied deep turquoise shadow to his already startlingly blue eyes. As I watched, a hidden woman emerged. When I looked at Ty, it reminded me of that famous black and white optical illusion; when the foreground is prominent, you see a man in profile, blink and the background jumps forward and you see the silhouette of a naked woman. As Ty batted his eyelashes at me, a neon sign flashed male-female, female-male. The duality was intoxicating.
“This is making me hot,” I said. My arousal didn’t hinge, as Ty’s apparently did, on my forcing him to assume the form of a woman, but simply on the duality of his new nature. I leaned over and kissed Ty hard and long before anointing his mouth with bright pink lipstick.
“Am I pretty enough to pass?” he asked. The joy would come for Ty if he could walk down the street admired like any other woman. “Of course you are,” I said.
Over the evening as we partied with friends, it became clear to me that Ty didn’t want to be as pretty as other women, he strove to be the fairest one of all. He sashayed around the room, batting the long eyelashes I had helped him create, flirting outrageously with my female friends. Jealousy flared in me—he was getting to have it both ways—racking up lots of attention for being a pretty woman while he also got to put the moves on my friends. They seemed confused too —one minute they’d put a sisterly arm around his shoulder, and the next the affection would take on another cast and it was clear that they were responding to him as an attractive man. Either way his disguise seemed to give him the license to be seductive without consequence.
“What the hell were you doing tonight?” I confronted him later. I was ready to rip those false eyelashes right off his eyes.
“I only get to be a woman in public once a year,” he said. “I need to get all I can out of it.”
“You’re voracious,” I said. “You suck up all the air in every room. You should have dressed up like a vampire, not a princess.” Ty had started to seem voracious in other ways; he was always putting something into his oversized mouth, whether food, a cigarette, a giant bottle of Coke, or some part of my body. This wasn’t my notion of androgyny—his getting to have it all, that big penis, a source of power and privilege, not to mention my pleasure—and all the trappings of femininity besides.
And then, Ty began to ask if I could put my bra on him while we fucked. Once out of the closet, his sexual proclivities demanded more and more Lebensraum. Before I’d met Ty, I’d already gone from a woman who’d thrown away her bra during my 1970s feminist awakening to one who saved up to buy the most luxurious French entrapments, Not only had bras lost their political charge for me, the ones I favored served my breasts up on a wire-encased platter, adorned by fleurettes, as if they were delicate birds that might fly away if not so encumbered. And I resented sharing those pricey garments with Ty. I worried he might sweat in them, stretch them out in the back, and return them contaminated by his shame. Or was it my shame at being with a man who needed to wear my bra? Or was the shame I felt vested in the garment itself?
Seeing Ty in my fancy bra didn’t turn me on, the way seeing him in make-up had, and the minute Ty came, he’d cast the garment off with contempt, as if he resented this fetish object for holding so much power over him. Each time he threw it down, I’d feel as if he were throwing me down with it.
“Are you sure you like women?” I asked. “Are you sure you don’t really hate us?”
“Don’t take out your own conflicts about femininity on me,” Ty said.
The word fetish feels harsh, unfair somehow. Feminists today debate whether they should dismiss, even bar from events, those whom they regard as “just” sexual fetishists. They want to sort out the crossdressing men who get sexually excited from wearing women’s clothing from the true transgender women who fully embrace a female identity. I wonder if we’re holding transwomen to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Don’t we get turned on by wearing sexy clothes and admiring ourselves? No one would deprive me of my right to a female gender identity just because I’ve also fetishized and sexualized the markers of that identity. All sexual desire and expression seems made up of idiosyncratic combinations of fetishized objects and fetishized moments, smells, pressures, forms of touch, sounds, and sights, smells and movements. And if Ty had fetishized certain acts and garments, I had certainly fetishized the penis.
Despite my annoyance over Ty’s wearing my bra, being in bed with him grew ever more uncanny. He’d inch his way catlike towards me to close even the tiniest gap between our bodies. With his hand inside me, I’d lose the ability to distinguish my body from his.
And then, what had felt good started to feel claustrophobic, as if I were drowning in pleasure. With Ty inside me, moving in sync with my desire, panic would wash over me, as if I were in one of those dreams where you know you need to run away but your legs are paralyzed, the melding of our bodies so complete it felt like dying.
One afternoon, as Ty repeated the words that had become a sexual mantra for him—“I want to crawl up inside you and never come out”—I snapped.
“I’m already in here,” I said. “No room for another.”
And then there was the male side of Ty. It smoked incessantly and made ashtrays out of my cereal bowls; it hogged the remote and took up a lot of space in my apartment. It expressed extreme and unsubstantiated prejudices about many subjects about which no amount of reason could persuade him to change his mind. In many areas outside the realm of gender, Ty tended to see the world in polar opposites.
If the relationship was providing no soft merger of male and female traits for Ty, it wasn’t bringing out the best in me either. I felt myself growing smaller. Petty and critical. Spoiled. I whined and made unrealistic demands, expecting Ty to fix things about my life that were unfixable. I blamed him for not being able to provide that perfect maternal succor I longed for. We fought. My rage had incomprehensible depths. All I knew was that I felt as if he wanted to have it all and so I wanted him to have nothing. When Ty got mad back, he’d turn into my stereotypical image of Angry White Man. He’d guzzle beer, crush the cans in his hands to intimidate me, get sloppy drunk, shout, and throw around my furniture. Fine, I thought, now I’ve got a boyfriend who’s both a mincing passive-aggressive masochist and an overbearing macho bully. And I’ve turned into a shrill demanding princess.
One night, acting out a scene from Ty’s pornography, I climbed on top of him, and held him down.
“I belong to you completely,” he said. “You have all the power.”
“You belong to me completely,” I echoed. “I have all the power.”
I pulled his penis up between my legs and pretended it was mine, scared and thrilled by the illusion. I tied his hands together with one bra, put another on him, and held him down by the wrists.
“You just lie there,” I said.
I rode him hard, dizzy with my ascendency, feeling myself infused with male and female energy, penetrator and penetrated. I vowed to have it all too, and in that moment, recognized the degree of my own voraciousness, my own insatiability, the vampire in me that wanted to suck whoever I loved dry.
Beneath me, Ty’s eyes looked desperate, vulnerable. I rode him even harder. His expression grew abject. Helpless. He whimpered, much the same way as I whimpered all the time, and it made me hate him.
Was this what the men who had sex with me saw? Someone pathetic and subordinate? Was this why men treated women so badly; was this why the men I’d been with had treated me so badly? Had I disempowered myself even while I’d spouted a feminist line?
“You bitch,” I said. “You fucking, worthless, pathetic bitch.” I lost our hard-on and slid off Ty.
Given the power to be on top, I hadn’t treated Ty with empathy or respect or compassion, but only with contempt. After a while, Ty and I broke up. There were multiple reasons, and not all of them had to do with gender roles or sexual compatibility. Still I felt as if the lure of androgyny hadn’t panned out. At least for us, at that time, the binary still ruled. Rather than the Ziggy Stardust of gender fusion, Ty seemed to me like two polarized genders residing uneasily in one body, and when I found my inner man, he turned out to be a sadist.
In the end, I was still a bourgeois girl, not quite the sexual adventurer I’d thought myself to be. I couldn’t abide the sadomasochism side-by-side with love, and if there had to be some suffering in sex, I didn’t want it to be defined as inherently feminine.
I’m still attracted to the dream of androgyny. I want to believe that we are finally finding our way to it, to gender fluidity and identities freed from all the tyrannies of the body. But this is all I know for sure: gender identity and sexual desire—how we define ourselves, what we long to do, and with whom, and the stories we tell ourselves while we’re doing it—are shaped early in life, and are more complicated and intractable than we might like to admit. When my husband and I have sex now, I’ve assumed what might well be a coward’s détente: on our sides, face to face, no bottoms, no tops.