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Thirty-nine years on earth as a biological woman--about half of those as a professional woman with an office of my own--and never, never have I thought to decorate my desk for Valentine's Day. Or St. Patrick's Day. Or Secretary's Day. (How on earth would you decorate your desk for Secretary's Day?) And yet that's what Deirdre--formerly Donald--McCloskey believes women do: "A woman's calendar is already full: the birthdays, the showers, the other occasions for gifts to friends and for decorations around one's desk, such as Valentine's Day . . ."
Passages like this one from McCloskey's book Crossing: A Memoir stir some of us to wonder if one really needs to go through the pain, the expense, the embarrassment, of physically changing from one gender to another. "Why on earth," we outsiders say, "can't you just lighten up your stereotypes about gender, or help the rest of the world learn to lighten up, so that you could be a man who decorates his desk for the holidays, if that's what you really want?" Why cut your penis off, mangle your vocal cords, lose your family, decimate your savings, just to experience your personal, and sometimes absurd, idea of what womanhood is all about?
And yet, if we would like to understand, if we're open-minded enough to try to get inside the feelings of someone who does feel compelled to make this unlikely, inconvenient transformation, then McCloskey is the one to help us. Crossing is personal, pathetic in the best sense, and detailed. Its author walks us through his early memories of a pretty traditionally masculine childhood, through his experiments with cross-dressing, to his eventual epiphany--at the age of 52--that he was not just a heterosexual with a cross-dressing hobby, but that he really wants to become a woman; even that, in some sense, he is a woman. He then narrates the process for us--the long and difficult transition that ultimately costs him at least $110,000 and includes hormone therapy, several botched operations on his voice, endless electrolysis, the removal of his male organs, and the building of a vagina that seems to come with all imaginable complications.
And finally, she describes, with delight, her experiences of becoming, being, learning to be, a woman. Whatever that means, it makes her very, very happy, and the reader is happy for her as well. For all the strangeness of the subject matter, Donald/Deirdre is a sympathetic character, and one roots for her to overcome the prejudices of colleagues, to gain the understanding of her wife and children, and to get the help she needs from doctors and others who can effect the physical changes.
A distinguished economist with degrees from Harvard and numerous publications, and a happily married man with two children, Donald McCloskey apparently has everything to lose when he embarks on the journey to cross genders. He is not a flake, a homosexual, or a publicity hound. Why, then, does he do it? Because of his identity, he tells us repeatedly and, yes, convincingly. At one point, he applies his economist's mind to the question, and does a cost-benefit analysis of what it would mean to change his body. The list does not come out in favor. But then, "Silly, he said to himself as he recalled the calculation. . . It's identity, stupid. Not cost and benefit. She merely was." And so he proceeds.
He recounts a conversation he has with himself, in the midst of the medical procedures: "I wonder why more people aren't doing this? . . .You don't get it, do you, Donald? Most people don't want to change gender. . . Oh, you don't say. That's funny." McCloskey's thoughtful descriptions of the changes she undergoes tease the question of what is biological and what is not. For example, she certainly believes she is more compassionate, more gentle, more caring and warm and better able to form friendships as Deirdre than she was as Donald. Do injections of female hormones really make a person nicer? Or was Donald behaving like a pushy macho dude because of the world's expectations of how a successful male economist would behave?
Some of the book's most interesting sections are those in which he describes the, mostly unhelpful, involvement of the psychiatric profession in his quest. "The big university hospitals at home, run by psychiatrists, try to cure gender crossing, and fail. The Free University Hospital [of Holland], run by an endocrinologist, tries to help, and succeeds. Though on the silly model of illness." He is outraged by the "Benjamin Standards of Care," a set of rules established in the 1960's which require that a gender-crosser spend two years living as the opposite sex in drag before being allowed to have the operation that makes it official. He is deeply resentful that the mental health profession has legal authority, in this country, over something most of them know nothing about. "Gender crossing is not a psychosis , and there is no medical evidence that it is associated with psychosis in any form. We might as well have psychiatrists check out people with brown hair or people with cheerful dispositions or people who like to visit Venice as often as they can. Just to make sure."
In order to get what she believes should be an inalienable right to purchase the services of surgeons, Deirdre must first endure long interviews with people ignorant of what she is going through. She learns the list of approved symptoms from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and begins telling the psychiatrists what they want to hear--noting, correctly, that such lying will ultimately stand in the way of honest progress in understanding this phenomenon.
She also rails against the unfairness: if gender crossing is an illness, then why doesn't health insurance pay for any of the costs of the various procedures? And if it's not an illness, then why does the state have any right to interfere? There's no two-year waiting period for a face lift or liposuction.
The book's main weakness lies in the final third, which is about Deirdre's life as a woman. The generalizations about women fly fast and loose: would that we were all as supportive, loving, and giving as she imagines. The anecdotes from this section are long and redundant: she goes shopping for shoes with this friend, she cooks with that one, gossips with another. No actual accounts of how she and her girlfriends go about decorating their desks . . . but a lot of other mundane activities are described in detail without much illumination. All of us, men and women alike, have lifetimes of small experiences that matter to us, but a good storyteller knows how to pick a few of them and use them to shed light on life as a whole. Deirdre is so absorbed in her own story that she doesn't realize when she's told us enough; when the novelty has worn off and it's time to stop writing and go back to living.
Which I hope she has done by now. She pleads for compassion and makes a good case for herself. Oh the whole, her very readable book is both hopeful and helpful. Heather Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.