by Theresa M. Senft
A dog sits alone, staring at a computer terminal, while the New Yorker cartoon caption smirks: "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." Thus, the Net replaces yesterday's press darling, 12 step programs, as the grooviest place to live a double life. Log in, post out, and change your gender, race, sexuality, politics, and income level quicker than you can say "don't leave me." Skip the shower; you look just fine. It's not as if anyone can actually see you. "In cyberspace, you can be anyone!" gush folks who can't get enough of the idea that invisibility = anonymity.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets to be just anyone.
The sad truth is, there are plenty of places online where a dog has a better chance of gaining acceptance. My friend, a woman who calls herself "Embraceable Ewe" is no naive online genderfucker, looking for love in all the wrong places, and insisting that there is a "real me" on the other end of the terminal. She is a transgendered woman who sought entry to all-female spaces online.
I first met Embraceable on Echo, the New York City-based bulletin board system. I joined Echo about two years ago. I was lonely, I had been isolated, and I was recovering from a six-year relationship with a man I loved, and had to leave.
"He is queer," I thought to myself. "He is one of those small chic gay men who slink around college halls." He gave me his phone number. I did not call, but I thought of him often.
I spoke with his girlfriend Claire. Claire was a superior woman, but as I realized later, her earrings were always wrong for her outfit. "Of course," she explained, raising her eyebrows to match her voice, "You realize that he is not a biological female?"
"Of course," I replied, realizing I had failed to put on earrings myself. I had no idea what she was talking about..
Later, I realized that Claire wasn't being superior. She had meant to say that her boyfriend was not a biological male.
"Claire is patronizing. And I hate her earrings, always." I have gone to my friend Danny for advice.
"This is the deal. The boy you think is gay would be more flattered if you thought of him as the boy you think is straight. He doesn't like men. He likes women. Do you follow me? Okay. Now: the boy you think is a boy was once a girl, but that was a long time ago, I mean a really long time ago. What we are dealing with here is a female-to-male transsexual. The more polite way to say it is, 'transgendered man'. Now, let's go over this, from the beginning..."
"Wait! I have a question for you," I stopped Danny mid-quiz. "You say that he is straight, not queer. Okay, I get it. I think. Now, let me ask this: If I sleep with someone who identifies as a woman, I am queer. If I sleep with someone who identifies as male, I am straight. If I sleep with someone who is transgendered, what am I?"
Danny thought for a minute. "How should I know?"
I probably would have left Echo in the first month, had I not stumbled across the Lambda (Queer Issues) Conference and their discussion of the murder of Brandon Teena. Teena was a young transgendered man (or a dyke in transition, depending on which writer you read) who was murdered in Nebraska, by a bunch of men who were jealous of Brandon's active sex life with the majority of the women in the town. I had been following the story for weeks, and hadn't found anyone to talk to about itand yet here were a group of people arguing every point of view the story could hold.
In the middle of it all was Embraceable Ewe, holding court, fanning the flames, and asking the hard questions. She had begun the item on Teena, and was challenging all comers with statements like this: "Being queer, we all belong to a usually very inclusive bunch who are always more than happy to include those who defy the alleged norms of gender. As such, Brandon was one of us.... But that boy was no lesbian!"
It was clear to me early on that Embraceable was very out, and very proud. It was also clear that she caught a lot of shit for being, as she put it, "a strong woman." Whenever she showed up in a conversation, the question was raised: "What makes a man a man? What makes a woman a woman?" Once, responding to the jab, "Embraceable, you are like no woman I've ever seen" she replied:
"If I ain't like no woman you've ever seen ... I don't know what to say to that. I may not aspire to be like any woman you've ever seen. My role models include Kate Bornstein, Caroline Cossey, and a few other transsexual women--some of whom you may not know."
Embraceable was one of my closest friends on Echo. She explained where the good conversations were, she helped me feel okay about calling myself queer, and she showed me, by example, that being an outspoken woman online is a Good Thing.
He sat across from me, fidgeting, and I was confused. "You don't have to tell me what you think you have to tell me," I told him. "Claire let me know, and I think it's great."
Later, he told me that I had derailed his own seduction plans with my disclosure. We slept together that night. He wore flannel pajamas. I wore nothing. He had a beautiful face, curly black hair, a thick, strong, neck. The towels in his bathroom were white and soft and clean. What a nice place, I decided. What a nice guy. I was happy.
We moved in together, and then we moved to another city. I convinced him that perhaps he should say nothing about his transsexualism when we moved, because he complained that he was always being prejudged. We thought that maybe it would be better if people thought he was 'just a guy.' He never had a problem passing. Never.
We read the phone book, my lover and I, looking through the classified ads of the Village Voice. He needed a new doctor. He was nervous about having a gynecological exam. He doesn't like gynecological exams. He was told by this doctor that in New York he did not need to have a penis to be considered male, but that he must have his uterus removed. He was told that the cost for this procedure was approximately $7000, and that it was not covered under insurance, as Blue Cross would surely find it inconsistent that a male would need his uterus removed.
I have been meaning to get to the gynecologist myself.
Months later, I wound up as a Co-Host of the Lambda Conference. Deciding that I needed to get out of my queer space every once in a while, I joined one of the the private women's conferences on Echo, where I was told there were many alpha females. I liked the space, but I missed my friends. I sent Embraceable a yo (a real-time message) saying, "Hey! when are you gonna get into the Women's conference and liven it up?"
My response back from her said simply: "Denied Admission."
On what grounds, I wondered. I started reading back-conversations in the women's conferences like a detective. Here is what I came up with: because Embraceable (by her own admission) has not had full sex-reassignment surgery, and is thus not legally a woman in New York state, Stacy Horn, President of Echo, suggested to Embraceable that perhaps she could re-apply for admission, after her surgery was complete. I shook my head, remembering a post of Embraceable's about a year earlier:
"Relax! The PENIS MONSTER is not coming after women's safe spaces. Most women who've not yet had surgery are comfortable with not being invited to the Michigan Music Festival or other places where women like to be naked in public."
Then I realized: Embraceable was being assessed naked in cyberspace. A quick perusal of the comments showed me that by and large, the "alpha females" in the conference agreed that castration and one's status as a woman ought to be linked. Embraceable was waving the penis monster. There were some notable exceptions, but the fears of the group were more important than the protests. It pissed me off. It still does. My friend Morgan sums it up nicely in his email to me:
"It's like the members of Echo can't solve this problem, the Hosts of the Women's conference can't solve the problem, and they ask Stacy, as some sort of BBS stand-in for God, to cut the Gordian Penis."
Why see Embraceable as a problem to be solved, rather than a member of the community called Echo? Why is the definition of a woman circulating around a dick? And what the hell is medicine doing in digital communities? How can anyone have the nerve to use one technology (medicine) to draw the overly-cathected battle lines in another technology (the online world.)?
I have a great deal of affection for the women on Echo who welcomed me so quickly into their lives. Many of them have become my offline friends as well as online colleagues. I have become, for all intents and purposes, an alpha female on Echo. It doesn't suck. But I keep wondering: How is Embraceable's struggle to gain acceptance online any different from my struggle to find a community who could accept me offline? Had none of these women even read the discussions in Lambda? Were we that ghettoized in our opinions about gender, community and belonging? I bet at least half the population of Echo has genderfucked at least once in their life, online.
The truth is, transgendered folks and onliners share more in common than you might think: a fetishistic relationship to technology; the recurring frustration of being "misread" by other people; the thrill of "passing" into environments where our subjectivity is hardly stable, but is rather the sum of our flickering parts (or "posts"). But why, when there are so many similarities between the fragmented identities of onliners and transgendered people, is there such a problem accepting Embraceable, who refuses to define her subjectivity, online or anywhere else, by the addition or subtraction of a penis?
Then I realized: perhaps it is precisely because of the similarities between onliners and transgendered people that the Embraceable Ewe case caused so much anxiety. Embraceable, a living testimony to the very real fact that nobody knows "for sure" who they are, brings into sharp relief the strange mixture of technology and sexuality that coalesces to form the thing we call without thinking, "gender." And yet, onliners are also out of focus, once removed from the direct matrix of body-technology-desire that defines transgendered people. Perhaps onliners are more like the lovers of transgendered people, close enough to the confusion and the thrill, but always able to pull back at the last minute, claiming, "At least I know who I really am..."
I am going through my checklist now, trying to be sure to be truthful as I can about how things happened between us. It was a difficult relationship, and a bad breakup. He was going further in the closet, and I was coming out. But parts of it were perfect. I want to explain how he literally walked me into the front door of graduate school, that he found me a therapist, that he made me happy on my birthdays. Most times I want to say that losing him is the most unlikely and unlucky thing I will ever know. I have a fantasy about showing him the best parts of this piece, about sitting at brunch and watching him read line after line.... And watching him cry, as I beam beatifically, full of Pure Love.
Embraceable has left Echo, for a combination of personal and financial reasons. I miss her, but we talk on the phone sometimes, and exchange email. The Women's Conferences on Echo continue to discriminate against transgendered people. I still participate in them, unclear and unsure what it is I am hoping to find there.
THERESA SENFT is a doctoral candidate at NYU in the Department of Performance Studies.