When Chelsea Manning announced last week that she wanted to live as a woman, it quickly became clear that much of the media wasn’t prepared to discuss transgender issues. Fox News played Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” when reporting the news, and the New York Times had to update its style book. The Times public editor Margaret Sullivan called the entire circumstance unprecedented, given Manning’s prominence in the news.
Film critic Molly Haskell has seen this kind of confusion up close: In the new memoir My Brother My Sister (out next week), Haskell writes of her younger brother Chevey’s decision, at age 59, to become a woman, and her own struggle to understand and accept her. Her account is startlingly honest. And while she sympathizes with the media’s stumbles, she hopes things will improve for transgender people like Manning as they increase in visibility.
Haskell spoke with the Cut about her sister and changing representations of transgender lives.
Your book is very candid about how challenging you found it to accept your brother’s coming out as a transsexual. Were you surprised by how difficult it was?
I was a little bit, because I think of myself as liberal and open and all those progressive things. Somehow when it happens in your own family — he was my brother for 59 years — it’s so embedded in your memory, your imagery, everything. I was anxious on his behalf, about how it would unfold and whether he would be in danger. I was also completely baffled by the mystery of it, wondering what he had felt all those years. And how do you tell people? You think about how she is going to look, because that’s a hugely critical factor for her. Is she going to be convincing as a woman or is she going to look like somebody in comic drag?
As a film critic, you’ve written a lot about gender.
That’s the great irony of it. I’ve always been for more fluid definitions of gender, and gender nonconformism, as they call it: Girls can play with trucks and boys can play with dolls. I’ve always been opposed to the rigidity of the gender binaries in Western culture, and here I am presented with something that really flies in the face of it and I’m having a hard time accepting it.
In the book you discuss your brother’s decision in terms typically associated with grief or bereavement. Is that how you felt?
I’m in such a different place now. If I was stuck with those feelings, I wouldn’t have emphasized them. I wanted to show how far you can come in something like this. But at the time, I felt I was losing my brother. It wasn’t a death, but it was almost like that. It felt like a huge loss without knowing what was going to come out of it, for him and for me.
In the beginning, Chevey assures you that she’ll still be the same person, but you note that for most transsexuals, the psychological changes that result from taking hormones are greater than the physical changes. How has your sister changed psychologically?
Well, she says she cries a lot. She cries at the drop of a hat. A lot of it is really sadness about what she did to her second wife — she can barely talk about it because the pain is still so much there for both of them. But also, she’ll watch something on television and she’ll cry. I think her emotions are closer to the surface and she’s much more open now. I don’t know if that’s because she’s just happier to be what she always felt she should have been, that she’s not hiding anything anymore, or whether it’s the hormones, but she’s very open in a way that she never was before.
At first your sister was very resistant to the idea of you writing a book about this, right?
That was the first thing she said after telling me about her decision: Don’t write about this. She’s a very private person. Well, less so now. That’s the interesting thing: He was an extremely private person. When he became she, he saw how much difficulty other transsexuals were having. He was meeting them and he was trying to help, and he felt that their families just didn’t understand — and that’s when he decided that he wanted me to write it.
Are there myths or stereotypes of transgender experiences that you want to shed light on through the book?
I felt one reason this made a unique story — unique as far as being written about — is how relatively conservative my brother was. I don’t mean politically, but just that he’s not on the fringe, there’s nothing edgy or flamboyant or anything. I think a lot of people tend to conflate transsexuals with drag. There’s a lot of prejudice and condescension, and it can be humiliating: They can look ridiculous, with big hands and big bones and big shoulders and be wearing women’s clothes or wigs that aren’t very good. There’s a whole lot of potential for the grotesque.
With my brother, his first year presenting as a woman was just terrifying. It took her forever to go to a public place at all — to a restroom, even. She would go to the grocery store and go through the automated checkout rather than have to speak. Hormones don’t affect the voice and there’s no good voice surgery, so the voice can be a real problem, as it has been with my sister. But it’s just a very different thing from all the sort of flamboyant and artistic images we have of drag. Transsexuals are just trying to figure out what to wear to go outdoors.
People think it’s selfish and you’re putting your own happiness above all these other people. But it’s not about happiness in that sense, or even courage, because they can’t do otherwise. My brother tried for years to keep it under wraps, to suppress it, and he finally just couldn’t. You just want people to understand how irresistible this urge is.
Have you been following the coverage of Chelsea Manning?
Of course. It’s a subject people have snickered at, I think because it’s very threatening. The basic way we see ourselves is male and female, and we think that’s unchanging, and to be told that it’s not is staggering. I can understand the flips and the insensitivity. But it’s like any sort of image that we think of as freakish: The more we see it, the more it becomes less freakish and more acceptable. It is going to come up more often, and people are going to have to get used to it. And I think for Manning that the liberation of finally being able to call herself a woman is going to be enormous.
There’s been a lot of attention to news sources that refused or neglected to refer to Manning with a feminine pronoun following her announcement. Did you struggle with that switch with your brother?
Oh, yes. And I still make mistakes. Sometimes I really do mean “he,” because I’m talking historically. I call him my brother/sister when I’m talking to friends, and in the book I go back between “he” and “she” all the time. I struggled with when to use one and when to use the other. There’s almost no way not to stumble on it.
The book chronicles your gradual acceptance and increasing ease around your sister. What is your relationship like now?
At first I thought, I just can’t call her “sister,” because a sister is somebody who has been your sister since day one. But now I do feel like that. We can talk about aging lady problems. In a way, I think I have the best of both worlds.