åDhillon Khosla ( left ) and Max Valerio.
By Jacob Anderson-Minshall
Dhillon Khosla wants to have things both ways. His personal publicist ( Levine Communications ) bills his new book, Both Sides Now, as 'a rare glimpse in to what it is like to live as both a woman and ( currently ) as a man—and offers extraordinary insight and perspective into the sexes.' Yet in the concluding chapters of the memoir he writes, 'If there ever was a time when I thought I had some special insight into the minds of women, that time was now past.'
Khosla declined to be interviewed for this article. In a recent appearance on The View—explaining his discomfort at the term transgender—Khosla says that after 15 surgeries, he feels 'to use any other label but man feels like a betrayal to those efforts.' Elsewhere, he's noted that he feels more accepted in blue-collar bars than the LGBT community. Neither sentiment however, precludes an interest in queer money, and Levine Communications is actively courting the LGBT press and marketing Both Sides Now directly to LGBT readers.
The East Indian-German first-generation American ( who recently left his post as a staff attorney to California and federal judges to join the lecture circuit ) insists that 'warmth and openness' is his natural state, but nearly every chapter in Both Sides Now references his 'murderous, overwhelming rage,' which he describes as 'simply a reaction to my circumstances.'
That fury is directed at doctors; his mother; fellow spiritual students ( one of whom says 'I hate the kind of masculinity you have come to embrace' ) ; people on the street who mistakenly call him ma'am in the early stages of his transition; and lesbians. Angry that a woman he's interested in won't date him because he's now a man, Khosla—who once identified as a lesbian—fumes in Both Sides Now: 'Fuck lesbians. Fuck all of you. When I was in a different body, you all wanted me—drooled over me. And now it's different? Well, you're all hypocrites because I'm the same person.'
Each chapter in Khosla's memoir opens with a dream sequence and then describes his transition from late 1997 to early 1999. Primarily focused on his push for hormone treatment and sex-reassignment surgery, Both Sides Now is like a mythic quest for the Holy Grail—which, in Khosla's case, is an attractive, fully functioning penis.
Without genital surgery, Khosla believes he will never be completely accepted as a man. Like protagonists in most mythic journeys, Kholsla faces numerous obstacles—surgical complications and the expense of nearly fifty thousand dollars. In the end, he successfully achieves the penis of his dreams.
Although written well enough, Both Sides Now fails to live up to its promise—particularly that of exposing essential differences between men and women. Fortunately the memoir of another former lesbian succeeds commendably in reaching that goal.
In this summer's The Testosterone Files ( Seal Press ) , Max Wolf Valerio describes how hormone treatment fundamentally altered both himself and the way he perceived men and women.
An American Indian-Latino Sephardic poet—whose pre-transition prose was included in the essential feminist of color tome This Bridge Called My Back—Valerio began hormone treatment nearly two decades ago. His story inspired Monika Treut's short film, Max and her feature Gendernauts ( recently released on DVD from First Run Pictures ) . Testosterone Files focuses on the first five years of that transition, providing engaging and vivid imagery of the punk lesbian-feminist who was Anita; and the chemically, physically and emotionally changed man he became on testosterone.
'The testimony of The Testosterone Files should be compelling,' Valerio argues, 'because I was a lesbian feminist and didn't believe that these changes could be due to hormones alone. I also believed that all differences between the sexes were mostly cultural or socially constructed. I found out that I was wrong.'
Risking the wrath of feminists everywhere, Valerio boldly asserts that there are fundamental differences between the sexes, and that those differences are rooted primarily in hormonal influences rather than socialization. Doing so, Valerio elicited some pointed criticism from feminist sources.
'I understand,' he claims. 'I would have had the same reaction before I began hormone treatment. However, I stand by my assertions that testosterone—and estrogen—have powerful effects on more than simply beard growth and muscle mass.'
Valerio's not put off by controversy. 'It's the job of the writer and artist to bring people into challenging experiences, to stretch their boundaries and disturb them,' he says.
Despite some negative reactions, others have lauded Testosterone Files, including feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling.
'There are obviously people who tend to lean toward a reading of sex roles, or even sexual differentiation, as being very socially constructed and who can read The Testosterone Files with some nuance and appreciation for its contribution,' Valerio says.
Valerio penned the majority of the manuscript in the mid-'90s. In subsequent years, he says he's also come to recognize that it's not just testosterone that plays a part in transitioning to male—socialization has its place too.
' [ Male socialization ] can help you to become a more mature man: more developed, more loving and kind. Socialization [ does ] affect us as transsexual men. But, not in so far as the changes I so dramatically describe in the memoir. What I do with these changes, which were so basic and raw, so quick to appear after I injected testosterone, is another matter. This is where culture and, therefore, socialization kick in.'
For example, under the influence of testosterone, Valerio says he found that 'Sexual desire and fantasy can often feel overpowering, and you need to keep your head on straight. What I've discovered with time is that one doesn't have to do anything at all about these feelings; if you do nothing, they pass, like all feelings do…I have grown into my new sexuality, and the heightened drive is just another part of who I am now.'
Valerio says that his frank discussions about sex and violence have been seen as the most controversial aspect of his book.
'I've heard of women actually crying after I read the chapter, 'Cock in my Pocket,' which is graphic about the heightened sex drive and takes on the issue of rape and violence against women. Because of the intensity of the writing and the fact that I don't pull my punches when describing intense feelings and impulses, people are often shaken.'
Arguing that violence seems 'a part of the male inheritance,' Valerio says he's gained a 'darker understanding' of how testosterone activates aggression.
To deal with that increased hostility, Valerio says he turned to biological males to learn ways to safely interact with other men.
'You just learn new ways to cope with certain feelings,' he said. 'I had a genetic guy tell me this, early into the testosterone: that one has to learn to control one's temper or irritability, that this is just part of growing up as a man.'
He says he's also had to learn new boundaries around women: 'I have more power, and some of that power is the power to frighten and intimidate, and that is not a welcome thing. It's like waking up and realizing that you are a hulking beast that terrifies people.'
Willing to address even the most controversial issues Valerio says, 'I known FTMs [ female-to-male transsexuals ] who tell me that their sex fantasies became more violent or aggressive.' He admits that his own sexual impulses have become 'colored by an intense and sometimes edgy desire, a sudden desire to take, or even overpower.'
But, he says, these are simply feelings or fantasies and he's learned how to express their energies in nonviolent and nonsexual ways. He cautions, 'You don't act out your stuff on other people, certainly not without their consent. That's just not ethical. It's part of maturing as male.'
In many ways, Testosterone Files is a celebration of masculinity. 'I didn't want to be an apologetic male,' Valerio says. 'So, I wanted my memoir to reflect this exuberance; there is a beauty to what I experience as male energy, it can be creative as well as destructive.'
As a trans person with Native American heritage, Valerio finds that others falsely presume his coming out was easy or that the tribe celebrated his transsexuality. Explaining this, he said, 'My mother is American Indian from a reserve in Canada. She is from the Blood [ Kainai ] band of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Although it is true that in the old days, people would live as the sex opposite their birth sex, it is also true that now, much of the memory of this alternative living has been lost. It's actually a silly and romantic idea about Indians that fuels this fantasy—and it is a fantasy—that we are all received as shamans or accepted as two spirits or what have you. The reality is often far less romantic. My mother never wanted me to set foot on her reserve again and…I haven't gone back yet. But, I will.'
Valerio argues that he's not a two-spirit, anyway. He's a transsexual man. He clarifies, 'Two-spirits aren't exactly the same as transsexuals of the 20th and 21st centuries, anyway. Most transsexuals don't want to be, or feel themselves to be, of two spirits.' Instead, he says, transsexuals feel strongly that they are of the sex opposite to their birth sex and they 'take medical means to alter ourselves to a proximity of that perception, that deeply held belief.'
He's also now come to anticipate that feminists will view him in that light—unless they've had the chance to know him personally—especially as The Testosterone Files' testimony about biological differences may at first appear as sexist conclusions.
Valerio says he's been taken to task because he's not actively trying to dismantle the binary gender system. He sees his very existence as a transsexual as rebuking a rigid binary. But argues, 'it's not our job to live out anyone's idea of a gender revolution.'
'I like being a man,' Valerio says. 'Male guilt does not empower women. You can be more far more helpful to women if you take on your manhood with dignity and responsibility, if you do not shirk the consequences of your choice to embody manhood.'
Being a heterosexual man who's largely gender role-congruent casts suspicion upon him, Valerio says, because some feminists believe all heterosexual men are inherently misogynist.
'I enjoy women who like being women in a traditionally feminine way. I'm attracted to…femmes. As a man, this makes me appear more traditionally heterosexual [ and ] many feminists seem to think that male heterosexuality is automatically anti-feminist. I believe otherwise.'
Furthermore, Valerio insists, 'I do not believe that having a virile heterosexual male sensibility and finding women desirable makes one a misogynist…lust is not hostility.'
Plus, he argues, being a transsexual man, 'makes me automatically some kind of queer. It's a paradox. I'm arriving at a normative place through radical means.'
Valerio says he's also been accused of being macho. He thinks that perception may be based on class difference, and says feminist author Viviane Namaste once told him, 'Max, they think you are macho—and therefore sexist—because you are not a white, middle-class, queer-identified academic.'
'I was brought up very working-class,' Valerio explains. ' [ I was ] around enlisted Army men; Indian and white cowboys; and men in working class trades, [ and ] I think that my masculinity is marked by this.'
Valerio says that although he still firmly believes in feminist tenets, his feminism is now mediated by his experience of manhood. 'I'm now more empathetic to men's lives and experiences. I see that guys have it rougher than I'd imagined before. Men are actually often kinder and nicer people than I would have thought before I became one. I think the average guy is trying to do the right thing.'
Valerio says, 'We must take responsibility for our gender.' Transmen, he argues, can't identify as male when it suits them, and then be 'special because we're socialized female,' when their maleness is inconvenient. 'Being an ally to women means taking responsibility for being a man now,' he says.
Unlike some men ( including Khosla ) who claim—after they come out as transsexual—that they were never truly female, Valerio says, 'I know that I was female at one time, even if that was hard to accept.'
During the period of his life detailed in The Testosterone Files, Valerio primarily dated heterosexual women and, in fact, he says, 'All of the women I've dated actually for over 20 years have been heterosexual.' Partly because of that, he hadn't been involved in the dyke community since the early days of his transition. That all changed three years ago when he met Amy—a femme dyke—at a trans-dyke event.
Dating a lesbian has been an interesting experience for both of them, Valerio says.
'She's had to deal with conflicts in her identity: negotiating her identity with friends and with herself. I've been escorted back into dyke spaces by her, and into spaces for transmen and dykes that are appearing more and more in San Francisco.'
Valerio sees his partnership with Amy as 'part of a new attempt by the dyke world to accommodate transmen and their dyke partners,' and says, 'It is really an experiment, and I am not sure where it will lead.'
As happy as he's been to find a place for himself in lesbian culture, Valerio says he wishes more efforts were being made to welcome transwomen into dyke spaces.
'Transwomen are, after all, the women in the equation and they should be the ones going in before we do,' he argues. 'I actually can't emphasize this enough. Transwomen should be allowed to be in women's spaces, not transmen!'
Valerio says that he and Amy have also found a place for themselves in the queerish straight community of San Francisco, which he calls 'pretty damn kinky and different.'
' [ Amy ] has many bisexual or queer identified girlfriends who date men, or have husbands and date women also. She still identifies as a femme, and as a lesbian-dyke and that's her business. We like to say that we're in a queer heterosexual relationship because it's certainly not a lesbian or dyke relationship—it is a relationship between a man and a woman—yet we're not the everyday het couple either.'
Valerio is currently at work on two projects: a nonfiction compilation that will include analysis of films and books, and essays addressing masculinity, transsexuality and sexual politics; and a book of short stories that may evolve into a novel. In the meantime, he continues his poetry, a medium he's excelled at for more than two decades and which he says is the work most exemplary of who he is. He sees his non-fiction work as bringing to light the real life experiences of transsexuals that have been ignored by academics and queer theory.
'We've been heard incompletely and through the lens of theories, which most of us don't care about or identify with,' he said. 'I think the majority of transsexuals do not identify with queer theory. They're not all that interested in transgressing gender; they are interested in having and living their lives as men and women.
Like Khosla, Valerio sees his journey as a transformative adventure, but unlike Khosla's hunt for a magic talisman, Valerio describes his quest as 'a search for my authentic self, as well as a very potent medicine—that I ingested without fully grasping just how much it would impact my life. It was world shattering in terms of my psyche, even as I grew into a place where I was ultimately more comfortable.'
The edgy and thought-provoking Testosterone Files introduces us to the first leg of Valerio's journey, one in which the traveler is influenced by sex, drugs and punk rock, and in which he explores the dark side of maleness, and returns a changed man—one who is so hopeful that we can't help but be buoyed by his enthusiasm. The only disappointment is that the story concludes nearly a decade in the past, before many of Valerio's greatest insights have had a chance to develop. Here's hoping he'll bring us up do date—and soon.
Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall writes the nationally syndicated column TransNation and is a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
© 2006 Jacob Anderson-Minshall