|A Review by Rebecca James|
"In my opinion, learning to mince through a mall didn't make him female, rouge didn't make him female, a barrette in his hair didn't make him female...when I realized what Dana was going to do, I saw at best a parody of femininity. I saw the sort of man who could set the women's movement back decades. Look at me, the transsexual screams, I'm a girl! I'm wearing a dress!" Will Banks
The day Dana Stevens meets Alison Banks begins a year-long string of events that profoundly affect the lives of the Banks family, most people in their small town, and a good number of public radio listeners across the country. Will Banks, president of Vermont Public Radio, and Alison Banks, an elementary school teacher, have been divorced for over a decade. The two have remained friends, though, and together they raised their daughter, Carly, now 18. The summer before Carly leaves for college, Alison begins dating a professor at the local university. Dana Stevens is a slim, intelligent man about seven years her junior. In the calm of a teachers' summer, their fling quickly develops into an intense and passionate love. Realizing this, Dana knows he can go no further without warning Alison that major changes are about to occur in their relationship. In December, Dana will be traveling to Colorado for a few weeks. When he returns in the new year, Dana will be a woman.
"Just what the world needs: another lesbian in a man's body...In my late twenties, I had a therapist who was always trying to convince me that my interest in women was a sign that I shouldn't consider surgery. But whenever I fell in love, it just reinforced in my mind how much I was missing, and I would fall into a funk as deep as the moat that surrounded my adolescence."Dana Stevens
With Trans-sister Radio, Chris Bohjalian addresses an issue that most people, gay or straight, would rather not think about. Transsexual is a loaded word. It makes people uncomfortable. It asks us to rethink how we define gender, even as science makes it possible to conform to our restrictions. When I lived in Minneapolis, the local gay papers would advertise social and self-help meetings. Many of the lesbian feminist groups in which I was interested, as well as other meetings, were listed as "WBW only". What the hell did that mean, I thought. It was only when I read an article about the Michigan Womyn's Festival that I understood. The annual week long feminist event had attracted a new set of protesters: women living in men's bodies. These pre- and post-op transsexuals set up their own festival next door since they weren't allowed on the "Women Born as Women only" festival grounds. I started thinking. How does being excluded make the transgender people feel? How would I feel, running around nude at the largely lesbian event with a pre-op (or even post-op) transsexual? At first, I sided with the festival organizers. The grounds are supposedly a woman's haven from male society. Just because post-op male-to-females have no penis doesn't make them sympathetic to the bonding rituals of menstruation, pregnancy and menopause. They weren't raised with the expectations we had placed on us. All the constraints we fought so hard as women to overcome, they were choosing. That choice made them different. Right? Maybe, but then if an operation didn't change gender, only genitalia, then I would be okay with a post-op female-to-male transsexual at the festival, right? Of course not. They were traitors. The lines grew gray, the distinctions blurred. Frustrated, I resolved that as long as the transsexuals weren't obvious (i.e., no penis), they should be allowed in the festival. What a laugh! I had just repeated the very mantra many straight people (and indeed, some gay) used against gays and lesbiansdon't flaunt it, dear. In essence, I'd rather not have to think about it.
"After his surgery, [Dana] would still have the same brain, the same soul, the same sense of right and wrong. The same sense of humor. The same understanding of exactly how much fresh mint should go into a summer pea salad...The last thing I remember before nodding off is the feeling I'd had the night Dana and I met, when he gently touched my lips with the edge of a paper cocktail napkin [to remove a stray crumb]. I had felt, I decided, cared for and happy and warm. If he made my mother feel that way, it probably didn't matter whether or not he had a penis."Carly Banks
Most of us would like to think that we are as open minded as this young character. "Tolerant," we would say, nodding seriously. Who do we think we are, to "tolerate" any person different from ourselves? Shouldn't the word be "value"? That's my standard response when this word is used in conjunction with "gay" or "lesbian." Can we reach inside ourselves to apply it to the transgender movement as well? The gay community adopted the term GLBT (Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender) a while back, under the guise of inclusiveness. Were they simply trying to be politically correct? Many transsexual advocates think so. Drag queens we appear to adore, glamour has that attraction, but everyday folks convinced they have the wrong body, not just the wrong clothes, now that's a different story. The Advocate, a national GLBT magazine, ran a story last year on transgendered people. They covered a lot of these same issues but accompanied the text with a few sensational photographs. The response from most people I encountered? "That's a man? No way!" The before and after pictures, the descriptions of the trauma these people went through to become who they feel they were meant to be, drew shivers and the gesticulating equivalent of "Eewwwhow weird!" The people interviewed for the article told their story with hopes of understanding but I suspect that many readers behaved, either out loud or in their heads, like the audience on a bad daytime television talk show. Give us the dirt, Jerry. And how about the spectators at the Millenium March in Washington? A spattering of half-hearted claps, necks craned to see the next group in line. I'd rather not have to think about it.
Why then should you read a novel about such an uncomfortable topic? So you have to think about it. From a purely literary standpoint, it's a tremendous story. Bohjalian is the author of several other novels, including Midwives, another fantastic read. I finished Trans-sister Radio in less than twenty-four hours, not because it was that simple, but because I could not put it down. The format is creative, the topic is unusual, and the multiple perspectives represented create a very convincing and well-rounded plot. I'll let you in on a little secret: there's a surprise twist at the end. The biggest surprise for me, though, was the way such an entertaining book made me really think about my own values and judgment. Obviously, I would never sign a petition to run Alison Banks out of town for sleeping with the local transsexual, but would I be able to defend her right to love? There is a part of me that would probably wish she would be more discreet, that she would hide her dirty laundry. After reading this novel, though, I wonder if I would be able to stick my head in the sand while the two lovers were persecuted. I don't think so anymore. The ability to question everything, including my own comfort zone and levels of understanding, makes me just a little proud. I would rather think about it, thank you, and I'd like to get to the bottom of this.
Rebecca James lives in Rehoboth Beach. She recently began practicing massage after completing certification at the Baltimore School of Massage. For rates, availability and appointments please call 302-226-9685.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 10, No. 5, May 19, 2000.