Brandie really deserves a whole book all to herself. She was the first (although not the last) person I met who had actually been martyred on the pyre of sexuality: as a teenager who got caught stealing women’s clothes, she was repeatedly institutionalized and subjected to multiple courses of electroshock therapy, which left her with a permanent traumatic brain injury.
Brandie was smart, verbal and – fortunately – had a sense of humor about herself. Why “fortunately”? Well, the TBI had left her with some permanent deficits in executive function, including some difficulties in personal hygiene – not to put too fine a point on it, she smelled bad. Moreover, even as a man she would have been startlingly homely, with her stringy hair and the kind of long hooked nose that is usually a prosthesis given to actors playing witches or offensively stereotyped Jews. As a woman, she turned heads, and not in the way most people would wish.
But all of us in the San Francisco scene back then cared about her deeply – she was a genuinely sweet person, an excellent bottom, and had built herself a life that wasn’t easy but was ethical and manageable. She got admitted free to play parties by acting as doorkeeper, and several of us played with her, not so much because we found her attractive, but because she deserved good things and a nice flogging or caning made her happy. She made what money she had beyond her disability checks from her friends hiring her for tasks like assembling mailings and babysitting: the few of us who were parents (not common in the scene back then) knew that she was great with kids. She was a daily caregiver for one woman’s son, and was happy to come hang out with Ben when Miles was somewhere else for the weekend and I had a party or other commitment: I’d get home and find the chessboard still set up in the living room after the two of them had played a couple of games.
Brandie was my, and my sons’, first exposure to someone whose gender was not fixed. I’m still not clear in my own mind about whether she was a better fit for the category of “crossdresser” or “trans woman” – she lived full-time as a woman, but it was also clear that being female was a turnon for her in the way it is for many submissive men. I think what she was, was Brandie, sui generis: a small but crucial part of the ecology of our household.
I refer to Miles and Ben collectively as Les Dudes – it’s an abstruse joke on an old unremembered Gene Kelly movie called Les Girls. I’m too old for “dude” to be a regular part of my vocabulary unless you’re Jeff Bridges, but they’re not, and I still remember how startled I was the first time one of them addressed me as “Dude!”
Gender in our family has, unsurprisingly, been an occasional point of ambiguity. When Miles was very small, he insisted he was a girl, which he said was because the hair on the back of his head was curly. For some reason that almost certainly had to do with my own unrecognized dysphoria, it infuriated me; Frank asked, “Why do you care?” and I couldn’t answer, but I did care, deeply. Fortunately, that phase lasted only a couple of weeks. Since then, Miles has shown no signs of being anything but a nurturing, artistic, unmistakably male human.
Ben’s sense of gender seemed less flexible. The first time he went to a barbershop, when he was around two, he announced, “Mom, tell the barber to make it very small” – and hence was born the Ben Taber Buzz, which he wore well into his teens. I’ve never known whether he loved it because it was butch or because it made strangers ask to rub his head, but it was part of his identity for more than a decade.
Both of the Dudes greeted my own experimentations with gender with blasé amusement; they were entirely accustomed to seeing me in short spiked hair, jeans, boots and a tank top. The only pushback I can remember was Ben, looking at me femmed up for an age-play party in a schoolgirl outfit and ringlets, snorting, “And what are you supposed to be?” (My age-play persona was the only unqualifiedly female part of my identity – the rest is, and probably will be, always up for grabs.)
I probably encouraged this comfort around gender stuff by filling the house with folks of all genders and gender expressions; Brandie was the first, but she wasn’t the only one by far.
A household friend named Jamie, mid-transition, offered to help us move. To avoid the kind of awkward observation of which every parent of young children lives in dread, I thought it wise to spend a few minutes ahead of time explaining that Jamie used to look like a boy, but was taking medicine and choosing clothes so that she could be a girl. As it happened, Jamie was a tech geek, Ben’s favorite kind of person, and they got on like old pals. Ben mused afterward, “I really like Jamie, but I have trouble remembering which she used to be and which she was turning into.”
I’ve lost track of Jamie, but if I were a gambler, I’d bet their identity these days is non-binary. Ben may have been more precognitive than I knew, back in those simpler days of only two genders.
I think that the effect such people created in our lives, though, went beyond gender, and I don’t know whether we learned it from them or whether they were drawn into our lives because we shared a similar drive toward self-definition.
All three of us, the Dudes and I, have a horror of being restricted in any way, in being forced to be only one person. We all have the same restlessly creative drive: all of us write and make art, Miles and Ben are musical (they owe that to Frank, not me), Miles performs as an actor and puppeteer, Ben designs video games. We’re all puzzle junkies, and each of us is attached to certain pieces of art that we have a better chance of explaining to each other than we do to anyone else. If someone calls us writers, we feel the need to point out that we’re also artists, or performers, or programmers, or cooks, or all the other things we need to do to fill up our souls: getting trapped in just one thing, even if it’s a thing we love, is anathema.
I remember a night that Les Dudes were helping me set up some warehouse shelves in my office space. We were all exhausted and in pain, but we simply couldn’t stop until the job was done, until the thing – however mundane and utilitarian – was created. I see the same thing in myself when I walk into my office to send an email and wind up sitting at my desk tinkering with an essay until I suddenly notice that everyone else has gone to bed, or in Ben when he shows up puffy-eyed and grouchy because he got into the groove with a piece of game programming and couldn’t stop for fear of losing direction, or in Miles when he works himself past exhaustion trying to perform in three different shows at once at the same time as he’s trying to maintain an income doing the various bits and pieces that constitute his actual living.
Ben has written, “This discomfort in time and place and vessel is one reason why I feel a great deal of empathy for trans folks. Though I certainly can’t claim to feel it with the same urgency they do, the dissatisfaction with having a body which doesn’t really feel like home is unnerving. For me, though, it’s not just my body: I want sometimes to change my mind in an unusually literal way, to take on a whole new mantle of personal history, to be someone completely.”
I can’t explain it any better than that.