Dear QRL Readers,
The beginning of this post bears a superficial resemblance to the previous post, but fear not. This is a much-expanded version that delivers sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, trans history, romance, surgery, Donna Koonce, go-go girls and havin babies. Thanks to everyone who wrote asking for more! xoxox
As a chronicler of queer family life, there are two topics I have studiously avoided: breastfeeding and my wife’s chest surgery.
It has not escaped my notice that both of these topics have to do with boobs.
All my life, breasts have been vexed. As a fourth grader under the influence of Judy Bloom, I waited vigilantly for signs of “development.” In the absence of any mammarian swellings, I was too embarrassed to ask my mother for a bra. I was afraid she’d ask the obvious question: “what for?” My best friend, the frighteningly precocious Susie Patterson, smuggled 29AA hand-me-downs to school. She delivered the goods under the watchful eyes of the cafeteria ladies, and I hastily shoved the mass of straps and padding into my Muppet Movie lunchbox…and proceeded to forget about them, until later that night, when I heard my mother shrieking with laughter as she unpacked my lunch.
By the time I reached high school, I was furtively searching my health textbook for information about the outlying age range for breast development. Was it possible that I was just a late bloomer? Are you there God? It’s me, Paige. I’m not asking for a miracle. I’m just asking for a B cup.
Eventually I realized that a late-adolescent growth spurt was not going to materialize. I purchased a Maidenform padded push-up bra. In Speech class, I memorized a section from Nora Ephron’s classic essay, “A Few Words About Breasts.” I played my flat chest for laughs, but the words resonated more than I wanted to admit. Like Ephron’s narrator, I believed that breasts were the magical badge of femininity. My A-cup assets made me slightly uneasy – not just about my attractiveness – but about my identity.
My wife’s experience was quite entirely different. By age thirteen, it was clear that Katy had inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy sported Jayne Mansfield-style bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.
It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch. In the context of Katy’s broad shoulders and chiseled jawline, the bullet bras made femininity seem like awkward and unfortunate drag.
Throughout her teen years, Katy’s parents enjoined her to “Lose some weight.” Have a stomach ache? “If you lose some weight, it would feel better.” Sprained your ankle? “You need to lose some weight.” A hangnail? “Lose some weight.” Looking back at old pictures, it’s clear that Katy didn’t really need to lose weight. She was a natural athlete who played multiple sports. “Lose some weight” was her family’s way of expressing discomfort with physical difference. They couldn’t very well tell her to stop moving and looking like a linebacker with boobs – they had no language for gender nonconformity. They might have known words like “butch” or “dyke,” but their implications would have been unspeakable. Weight became the focal point for the desire to fix a body that refused to be fully feminine.
Her parents, especially her mother, would live to regret it. When Katy was nineteen, she moved to Hollywood. She stopped wearing bullet bras and began wearing tight long-sleeved leotards under her clothes. At first she favored the leotards because they flattened her chest. Later she needed the leotards to cover her track marks.
When Katy came home to Texas for a visit, her parents were ecstatic. “Finally,” Donna wrote in the family photo album, “a size 6!!!” It’s easy to understand how she was beguiled. In photographs from that era, Katy looks skinny, even a bit gaunt. But she also looks comfortable in her body, more congruent, confident, and even sexy. Katy told her parents that she had discovered a remarkable new diet medicine. In fact, she had discovered a powerful means to androgynize her body: crystal meth.
The tale of Katy’s addiction is a long story in itself – one that I will delve into elsewhere. When she was homeless, hungry, living in her car and cheap motels, her mother came to fetch her from Hollywood. Even then, Katy wasn’t ready to give up on speed and the relief it afforded from dysphoria. She clung to it until she realized that the drugs had changed more than her body – she had become a person whom she did not like or respect – and then she quit.
By that time, Katy’s parents had changed too. Katy had come out as a lesbian when she moved to Hollywood, and her family had accepted the news with love and grace. “You know,” her dad said one day, in his deadpan East Texas drawl, “that k.d. lang is a lezben.” They were less attached to having a particular kind of daughter and were simply glad that she had survived. Thus, when Katy gained back weight and boobs, she was able to convince her parents to pay for a partial breast reduction.
* * * *
Katy’s mother, Donna, was a lovable narcissist. It grieved her that Katy didn’t treasure their shared hereditary abundance. Still, to her credit, Donna did accompany Katy to nearby Galveston to meet the plastic surgeon, Dr. Ted Huang.
“She’d just like a nice B cup,” Donna informed the doctor, making a suggestive cupping gesture with her hand.
“Mom! I want to be flat,” Katy corrected. “I want people to look at me and say ‘that girl is so flat!'”
Katy had no idea that Dr. Huang was affiliated with the Rosenberg Clinic, one of the oldest gender clinics in the South. She’d never heard of genderqueers or transmen or transgender community; she had no idea that there were other people who felt the way she did.
Apparently, Dr. Huang did not feel compelled to enlighten her on these points. But he did remove eight pounds of breast tissue from Katy’s chest. The breast reduction didn’t leave her totally flat, and it didn’t resolve her feelings of gender dysphoria, but it did make living in her body a lot more bearable.
* * * *
The first time I saw Katy, she was wearing a prosthetic plastic man-chest with perfectly molded pecs and sculpted abs. It was 1999, and Katy was performing with Raunchy Reckless and the Amazons, a Xena tribute band/queer performance troupe whose motto, “keep the dream alive,” was literalized in outrageous mythological costumes that transformed private fantasies into fabulous public realities. Katy’s character was called “Koonce the Vulgar Viking,” and she sang a catchy song about her masculine physique:
All the girls love it,
While the scrawny boys want it.
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Don’t you wanna touch it?
Despite its chirpy surf-rock style, “Manchest” never seemed like kitsch to me, and Katy’s costume never exactly read as drag. In contrast to the bullet bras of Katy’s youth, the man-chest looked comfortable, and it seemed clear that she would have worn it all the time if she could have gotten away with it.
We didn’t meet that night. I didn’t even know Koonce the Vulgar Viking’s real name. I was standing in the back of the darkened room, feebly trying to sell t-shirts to support the grassroots youth organization that I had created with my sister and a bunch of other riot grrl-inspired feminists. I hadn’t come out yet, and the crowded club – packed with sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers – filled me with longing and despair. I had no idea how to make this thing inside of me, my queerness, visible.
* * * *
A year later, I was on stage before a live audience of sweaty, dancing, libidinous queers. In my continuing quest to shed my straight-girl image, I had volunteered to go-go dance at a Valentine’s Day dance party at Gaby and Mo’s, a ramshackle coffeehouse with a tiny stage that served as Austin’s main lesbian art space.
With my silver hair and black tights, I was dressed like my small-breasted fashion idol, Edie Sedgwick. I felt that I didn’t have a good enough go-go dancer body, and, as I ascended the homemade plywood go-go box, I began to feel painfully self-conscious. I had thought that I wanted queer visibility, but now I wished I could just fade into the woodwork. The room became a blur of bright lights and loud bass beats.
Suddenly, someone was saying my name.
“Paige, do you want me to fix that spotlight? It’s shining right in your eyes.”
S/he wasn’t wearing a full beard or a plastic man-chest, but I knew immediately that it was the Viking from Raunchy Reckless. I also knew that this person, with his or her butch chivalry, was the sexiest thing I had ever seen. And s/he knew my name! I had a crush so brutal and instantaneous that my face blushed and I could barely speak.
“No,” I mumbled, turning my face away from the spotlight and the directness of Katy’s gaze. “It’s okay.”
Katy shrugged and walked back to her friends. My heart skipped a beat. I had blown my chance! And now I had to dance all night with that stupid light shining in my eyes.
* * * *
Later that week, on February 18, 2000, The Austin Chronicle ran one of its first major stories about trans issues. The previous year, on January 8, 1999, a young transwoman named Lauryn Paige Fuller had been brutally murdered. As the murderer’s trial approached, it was a watershed moment, a time when terrible violence forced the city to take a closer look at itself. The story quoted a local therapist named Katy Koonce, who spoke about the dire lack of services for transgender youth.
I felt a particular connection with Lauryn Paige because we shared a name. I scoured the news for details of her life. When I read The Chronicle story, I made a mental note to contact this Katy Koonce to see how my grassroots feminist organization might be able to connect with young transwomen.
What happened next strains the limits of plausibility. And yet, it’s true.
A few days after I danced at the Valentine’s party, I was due to begin group therapy. It was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and I’d met several times with the therapists who led the group, to make sure that the group was right for me and that I was right for the group.
When it was time for my first group session, I arrived early. Outside on the street, I smoked a cigarette and gave myself a pep talk. Being part of a group would be good. It would help me learn to deal more directly with my emotions. I would gain self knowledge. Hoo-fucking-ray.
I stubbed out my cigarette and gathered enough courage to go up the stairs and into the therapy office. The door was open. Some people were already sitting in couches and on chairs. I took a seat close to the door and glanced nervously around. No one spoke. In the unforgiving light of self-consciousness, my prospective peers looked like they’d been photographed by Diane Arbus. I began to have doubts. What was I doing with all these crazy people?
Suddenly, a majestic figure came barreling down the hall and through the office door. Head tilted, long hair falling forward like a shield – it was the Viking person. And s/he pointed straight at me.
“I know you,” Katy said, plopping into the chair next to mine.
* * * *
Group therapy is an odd place to meet your future partner. Long before we ever went on a date, Katy knew that I was a depression-prone approval-seeker with an addiction to vintage clothes. She knew that I was divorced, that I was ambivalent about my academic career, and that I tended to smile and joke when I was hurt or angry.
I knew that Katy was a former drug addict with hepatitis C. I knew that her anger could command a room, but her vulnerability could take my breath away.
We bonded over body issues. I had grown up in a family of unrelenting dieters. Katy’s mom had warned her never to wear white shirts or horizontal stripes. In response, Katy wore oversize men’s shirts with outlandish patterns. They were calculated to distract the eye and disguise her body. I longed to run my hands down her back, to explore whether she was wearing a binder or an undershirt or nothing at all, but group rules forbade physical contact.
In one of my earliest group sessions, Katy was agonizing because she had been misquoted in the Austin Chronicle story on Lauryn Paige. Suddenly, it dawned on me: Katy from group = Koonce the Vulgar Viking = that smart Dr. Koonce (that was how I thought of her) from the newspaper. But Katy was mortified, because the story had bungled the distinction between sex and gender and sexuality.
To be fair, it was an era with a pretty steep learning curve. New language and new identities were proliferating. Although she used a feminine name and feminine pronouns, Katy also ran a support group for transmen. I guessed that she was moving toward transition, but that her own identity hadn’t quite caught up to the available options.
We saw each other once a week for an hour and a half, in a room full of other people. At the end of six months, I took a teaching job in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that I was moving across the country, despite the fact that we had never been alone together, never kissed, had never even hugged, I felt strangely confident that we would end up together.
I was almost equally sure that Katy would eventually transition. At the time, I didn’t realize that Katy’s baby clock was ticking faster than her gender clock.