The Transsexual Sweatshirt

An excerpt from Deborah H. Feinbloom's Transvestites and Transsexuals

Edited by Anne A. Lawrence, M.D., Ph.D.

The "professional" transsexual is of interest to those who are actively trying to renegotiate their identity and pass in the "normal" society. One such person who is quietly living as a woman sent me the following letter which I would like to quote extensively. She had been fascinated with Eric Berne's concept of the "transsexual sweatshirt" (i.e., "come-on") having two sides. The front, very flamboyantly states, "I'M SO FASCINATING," the back says, "ISN'T THAT ENOUGH?" She writes as follows:

Anyone who knows the transsexual scene, from inside or outside, cannot write off Berne as a sexual bigot. Both pre-operative and post-operative transsexuals (especially male-to-female) engage in behavior which would be frankly labelled as "exhibitionistic" or "hysterical." In some cases, the behavior is more like that of a drag queen than like that of the most "unliberated" woman.... At other times, the person is outgoing to a nonsensical extent....

Without denying that such people might be much less comfortable without surgery, or that their "hysterical" conduct is quite harmless compared with the "normal" business of war and economic inequality in our society, we may still see Berne's point. These transsexuals find themselves in a world of relationships with little deep contact -- the sweatshirt seems to absorb skin, flesh, and blood into one consuming message.

Further, the problem of the sweatshirt affects not only the noisy transsexual. The male[-to-female] transsexual who structures her whole life quietly around "femininity," without any flamboyance whatsoever, is still restricting her humanness in a sweatshirt, however soft, soothing, and pastel its colors may be. Of course, her "natural born" female sister may easily be wearing almost the same sweatshirt. Both people are thus limited.

If we look a little more generally, we find that the transsexual is not so unique. A transsexual may be like any other person who has one major and obvious difference from the vast majority of other people. You can be 7' 3" tall, or have 7 fingers, or speak 25 languages, or do 20-figure addition in 40 seconds. Or you can be a genitally cross-gender person....

In each case of obvious "abnormality," the person affected is two things: (1) a human being with a special set of feelings; (2) regardless, a human being before anything else. To be richly fulfilled and human, as an unusual person, one must avoid both the Scylla of denying one's specialness, and the Charybdis of objectifying oneself in this genuine specialness so one loses the primary feeling of humanness.

Almost everything possible is done to insure that the cross-gender person will not find an equilibrium between genderness and humanness. This does not mean that the transsexual is forced to be a wearer of Berne's sweatshirt - - but she/he is encouraged very much.

First, we may note that like other "strange" people, the transsexual... is often very isolated. Also, inner conflict leaves little energy for interaction with others. With these limitations, it is easier to get some attention and satisfaction as a flamboyant and fascinating freak than to try and relate to other people as a full human person, with interests and needs not totally unlike those of other human beings.

Just as important, the "normal" person seems unable to feel that she/he has needs not totally unlike those of the transsexual.... The usual "normal" person rather has a reaction to the cross-gender person which oscillates between fascination and repulsion, like the attitude of white about black, or male about female. This ambivalence is by no means new in Western cultures, unlike other cultures where the cross-gender person may be given a respected role in the community and even venerated for possessing unique spiritual insight.

So our "normal" person is usually incapable of accepting a transsexual... as fully human, in the sense of a vulnerable and also sensitive being worth relating to as a person. On the other hand, our "normal" person, by favoring curiosity over repulsion, can easily accept our "abnormal" human being -- as a freak. It is a miniature social contract, a mutual parasitism, a conspiracy, a parade permit, or whatever you like. The "negotiating positions" go like this:

"NORMAL": Since you are outside my universe of human communication, I cannot help you to personhood. But since you are fun to observe as a joke (and since you also vicariously let me experience forbidden thrills, while reassuring me that, by being different from you, I am in fact normal), I will accept you as a fascinating freak. I hope that's enough, for I cannot and will not relate with you on another basis.

"ABNORMAL": Since you will not accept me as a person, I can either not be accepted at all, or be accepted in the sweatshirt you desire. Also, I feel that for myself it is easier to be a freak than to become a full person; if I tried to share myself with others on a deeper level, I would be too tired and also too lonely. So I agree that it is best for both of us if I wear the sweatshirt "I'M SO FASCINATING -- ISN'T THAT ENOUGH?"

Of course, it is a vicious cycle, not dissimilar to that faced by a basketball giant, a movie celebrity, a woman labeled "beautiful," or a member of a publicized set of quintuplets. The sweatshirt is not the motive or cause of the "unusualness"; neither is it a unique creation of the wearer nor a straitjacket literally forced upon the victim by brute coercion alone. Rather it is woven of a fabric of interacting meanings, a social fabric rent in all directions yet securely enveloping....

If we speak to one another, we well may find that we are all wearing sweatshirts of gender come-ons. "I'M FASCINATING -- ISN'T THAT ENOUGH" can fit a "super-masculine" football star as well as an exhibitionistic transsexual. "I'M GAY -- BUT STILL MASCULINE" is a very common gender sweatshirt in certain classified ad columns. "I'M INTELLECTUAL -- BUT STILL FEMININE" is standard uniform for campus wear by freshwomen and by professors....

As a transsexually oriented person, I find myself very much within the world of gender as constructed by U.S. society, even if at a less common point. It would be a myth to regard the transsexual person as liberated from our cultural limits, just as much as to regard such a person as necessarily less free than anyone else. A female[-to-male] transsexual can be a male chauvinist, a male[-to- female] transsexual can be a public or private prostitute -- but they can also be human beings who accept but do not rigidly outline their genderness. We are all finally in the same boat.

Transsexual or otherwise, we can seek equal relationships, we can seek to avoid imposed roles, we can empathize and find new possibilities from each other. We can try to unite physical and emotional sensitivity in sexuality. But we remain ourselves, in our times. In a sense we always conform to our society, even by dialectical antithesis.

In the meantime we remain in our sweatshirts, which are masks and also protective calluses which have grown over real wounds. Without denying our individual gender identities, we may yet be able to find a common solution in this design: "I AM A FEELING HUMAN BEING -- THAT IS FASCINATING ENOUGH."

From: Feinbloom, D. H. (1976). Transvestites & Transsexuals, pp. 178-182. New York: Delta.