The Formation of Gay and Trans Identities
The Formation of Gay and Trans Identities
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter describes how compañeros came to call themselves gay or transgender. As with the Latino label, not all the activists refer to themselves as gay or transgender. Some call themselves queer, while others refer to themselves as either drag queens, women, or simply use female pronouns when talking about themselves. The life histories of these activists show that the adoption and construction of a gay and transgender identity is largely a sociocultural process in which peers, community organizations, and other socializing venues, such as bars and neighborhoods, play a central function. These activists adopt identities as gay or bisexual men and transgender as they meet compañeros: peers who share their experiences, mentor them, and support them to overcome the internalized stigma.
To become a gay or a transgender person is, still, an act of rebellion. The rebellion is against the power that asks us to follow the predefined gender roles of a man or a woman. The force that compels us to think, act, and desire as a man (in the case of those biologically defined as males) or a woman (in the case of those biologically defined as females). That force comes through family, school, religion, media, law, and state policies.
The act of rebellion, however, does not lead to freedom, or the newly found freedom is not boundless. As one rejects the assigned gender role, or the expectations of parents and religious doctrines, and takes on the identity of “gay man” or “transgender,” one is agreeing, to a degree, to another set of expectations and norms. One is complying with a set of rules about how and what to think, act, and desire (Foucault 1976/1990; Scott 1986; Sawicki 1991; de Lauretis 1987; Ewick and Selby 1995).
In this chapter I describe how compañeros came to call themselves gay or transgender (from male to female). As with the Latino label, not all the activists refer to themselves as gay or transgender. Some call themselves queer, while others refer to themselves as either drag queens, women, or simply use female pronouns when talking about themselves, especially in Spanish. Moreover, these categories deployed to define the self are socially constructed. Actually, to name same-sex desire between men “gay” is a relatively new phenomenon (Chauncey 1994). This identity, which stands as a third identity next to woman and man, is the product of social and political forces in the early and mid-twentieth century in Western Europe and United States. The gay man identity, thus, emerged as the primary way to name same-sex desire and as a way of living for a group of white males in affluent societies. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the gay identity (p.82) became widely spread in countries like Mexico and Brazil (Carrillo 2002; Parker 1991).
The life histories of these activists show that the adoption and construction of a gay and transgender identity is largely a sociocultural process in which peers, community organizations, and other socializing venues, such as bars and neighborhoods, play a central function. These activists adopt identities as gay or bisexual men and transgender as they meet compañeros: peers who share their experiences, mentor them, and support them to over-come the internalized stigma. In the words of Pierre, a Cuban immigrant living in Chicago, compañeros help see one self “inside out” and “knock down the wall” of repression.
Becoming a Gay Man
“I Was Born Gay”
When asked about how they became gay or when they first thought of themselves as gay, these Latino men say that they were born gay. They, of course, did not mean that they have always called themselves gay or that they always knew they were gay. What they do mean is that since an early age they felt different from others. They saw themselves as different from other boys, and they knew they related differently to other males from how they saw other boys relating to males. Also, they saw that their parents and schoolteachers treated them differently from other male siblings or friends. As Victor, the twenty-three-year-old activist from Chicago, explains, “I’ve always known it. When I was a kid, it was like I was ridiculed, so I’d push it away.” Some of these men articulate this feeling of being different as not fitting traditional gender roles, such as not liking to play soccer and wanting to play with dolls. Others, however, did not express the sense of being different in those terms. They simply intuited that something about them was distinctive.
Fabian “came out of the closet” (“salir del closet,” he says) at the age of thirty when he decided to divorce his wife. He has always felt different, however:
I always was very different. … I think it was that I’ve always been gay. Although back then I didn’t know what gay meant, I knew I liked men, since I was little. I believe I was five or six years old. Of course, I didn’t know how to verbalize it. But I knew it wasn’t correct that I was attracted to a man; I felt guilt.
At the age they start feeling different from other boys, these men cannot name or articulate their emotions. But they can learn moral values. They (p.83) begin to distinguish good from bad. Hence, as they begin to experience distinctive emotions from those expected by their assigned gender, they start attaching negative meanings to those feelings. They learn to hide such emotions to avoid negative reactions from others, as we have seen in the stigmatization of gender nonconformity.
The expression “I was born gay,” used by many compañeros, is also a response to the discourse that defines same-sex desire as pathological. Medicine and psychiatry (despite having removed the label of disease from homosexuality in the United States and the Americas), in particular, have helped popularize the idea that there is something inherently wrong with homosexual or transgender persons. Accordingly, they suggest that somewhere along the way in a gay person’s development, something went wrong, be it an unresolved Oedipus complex or sexual abuse that “caused” same-sex desire. This is the discourse that prompts the “why” question: Why are you homosexual?:
I knew [I was gay] since I began walking. Many people think that I learned it or that I was raped. But it is something I cannot change. It cannot be changed. I cannot be someone I’m not.
Jimmy felt “different” since he was a little boy in Mexico. “Different in the sense of being gay,” he clarifies. As he tells the story of how he came to see himself as a gay man, he seems to address the larger society and medicine and psychiatry’s discourse. Jimmy emphatically notes that he was not socialized into homosexuality or sexually abused. Those are not the causes of his homosexuality. In fact, implicitly he says that there are no causes.
In the stories of becoming gay, “being born gay” marks the beginning of a journey in search of the self. Being born gay does not mean one knows who one is, wants, and desires since childhood. It means that one feels different from other boys. That difference, however, cannot always be defined or named. This difference sometimes takes the form of crossing gender boundaries in games, toys, clothing, and behaviors, or attraction or fondness toward other males. In such cases, the difference is further demarcated by stigmatization, when others prohibit or discipline those behaviors or desires. The stigmatization, in turn, leads to repressing that sense of being different.
Later in life, sexual encounters and “messing around” with other men bring about contradictory feelings. On the one hand, they produce excitement and satisfaction. On the other hand, they increase confusion, create remorse, and are concealed in secrecy. Alberto, for example, says that his first sexual encounter with a man left him “scared” and thinking he was doing something wrong. At the age of sixteen, Alberto met at a city park a (p.84) man a couple of years older than he was. They went to the man’s apartment, where they had sex. “Of course, I was very nervous. But I was very excited about it too. The thought of doing it excited me.” Alberto had been “playing around” with other males of his same age since he was eight years old. But this was his first sexual intercourse. After sex, the man asked Alberto to meet again. Initially, Alberto was enthusiastic about the idea of having sex again, but later the guilt he felt made him change his mind. “I left thinking, ‘Oh God, what am I doing? I can’t do that, it’s wrong.’”
Yet the guilt and remorse escalate as the frequency and intensity of sexual encounters with other men increase and as these men move from adolescence to adulthood. “I felt inferior,” Marc recounts his feelings about having sex with a man. “I felt dirty and low. I felt like everybody was looking at me, as if they knew what I had done. In my mind, I was being chased.” The guilt and the attraction to members of the same sex give rise to crisis and to a subsequent struggle.
An intense struggle created by the conflict between the outside world and the self ensues. These men understood (and many still do), rightfully, that the outside world stigmatizes same-sex desires. Many of them had internalized such stigma. That is, while a part of them wanted to enjoy their same-sex desire, another part condemned such desire. During this struggle, they endure deep emotional feelings, such as depression, loneliness, and suicidal behavior. The outcome of this struggle, in most instances, is the realization and self-acceptance of their homosexuality. This outcome, however, is not immediate.
Entering Gay Life
The struggle between the self and the outside world does not completely end when these men accept their homosexuality, call themselves gay, or tell others that they are gay. It does not have a clear end point, and for some the struggle continues throughout their lives. But as these men begin to find ways to confront the conflict, the process of self-acceptance begins. This process of self-acceptance, in most cases, refers to the adoption of an identity as a gay man. The turning point is the change in the attribution of stigma from inside to the outside world. The negative perception begins to be shifted from the self to the prejudice of the other—family, church, and the larger society. Two connected elements activate this process: self-reflection and contact with gay culture through peers, organizations, and bars. Other gay men, LGBT organizations, and bars provide the social support and framework for compañeros to begin to see the gay-man identity in positive terms.
(p.85) Like many teenagers, when Marc was about twelve years old, he was spending more time with his friends and at school than with his family. When he turned sixteen, however, Marc began to feel rejected by his friends because he did not act as most young males do in Peru, his homeland. That rejection led him to seek out other friends:
As I grew up, my friends started suspecting about me. They started having girlfriends and I didn’t having any. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” I began to separate from them because I felt pressured by them.
It became clear I was homosexual and some of them distanced themselves. So I did the same, drifted apart, because I said, “What do I do if they only want to talk about girlfriends, talk to them about guys?” So I went out to bars and other places, outside the barrio, to find guys from the ambiente, gay guys.
In meeting other gay men in the bars and parks of Lima, Marc realized he was not alone: “I’m not the only one—there are others like me.” The exposure to other gay men provided the social support for Marc to feel comfortable with his homosexuality and, as he explains, “not to get lost”:
I felt comfortable knowing I was not the only one. Then I began to accept myself a little more. The beauty of that moment is that everything becomes open, all is revealed, you can do things with other men like you want.
I met gay people, del ambiente, I knew where to find them. I’d have gotten lost without them. So knowing other people helped me understand who I am, know myself, and accept myself little by little.
Among the new friendships that Marc created was with an older man, a college professor, who guided Marc through the process of accepting himself as a gay man and overcoming the shame and guilt Marc felt every time he had sex:
I’d feel like it was the worst thing I had done. [After sex] I never felt happy. This friend, who was a bit older than me, told me that it was normal, that I shouldn’t feel guilty for doing what I like to do, that I had to accept myself.
I began to accept that I’m gay and that I like men. … I knew who I was and I knew I had to work on accepting myself and fighting my religious values. I had to accept myself, the way I was, as a human being, as I was born. So I tried to meet gay friends and see that I wasn’t the only one.
The vast majority of the activists living in San Francisco were born and raised elsewhere. Some of them came to the city in search of themselves. Others, somewhat unintentionally, found their gay identity in the city after witnessing the normalcy and richness of the gay communities. Seeing other gay men going about their everyday lives helped some of these activists realize (p.86) that, in the words of Hugo, “there is nothing wrong.” Hugo is thirty-two years old and the son of a Native American woman:
I’ve been in San Francisco since 1985. I was a teenager when I came here with my family. I’ve been here ever since. It was a big difference from where we came from, Arizona. When I came here, I came out as a gay male. I saw gay people living normal lives and I came to terms with my sexuality. I saw that there was nothing wrong with being gay.
Before coming here I had sex with a couple of people. I was about thirteen. It made me unsure of myself because I figured morally that it was wrong. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I still knew deep inside that I was gay, but I just didn’t come to terms with it until I came here and I saw the gay community.
Many of the compañeros who immigrated later in their lives to San Francisco came to avoid the stigmatization that their families, and society in general, attached to homosexuality in their homeland. They did not see a viable future for themselves in their home country as gay men. Employment, for instance, could become tenuous if they shared their identity publicly as they grew older. Cohabitating with another man could likewise lead to further stigmatization.
Other compañeros came to accept themselves as gay thanks to gay peers they met in their workplaces. Ismael and Alberto tell stories of finding gay men with whom they felt comfortable enough to express their homosexuality and subsequently enter into the gay culture. For Ismael, acceptance of his homosexuality and introduction into gay social circles also coincided with his first sexual experience. Ismael was born and raised in Mexico but migrated to Chicago in his early teenage years. He was nineteen years old when he met Steve, who was twenty-six:
Steve and I started hanging out a lot at work. Then he took me to a friend’s party. It was a gay party. I had never been late at home, so that night I told my mom I was going to be a bit late. I got to the party and felt very comfortable, like never before. I was able to be like I wanted to be.
That was the first night that Ismael did not sleep at his parents’ home. Because he was drunk, Steve took him to his place. The next morning, Ismael called his mother to apologize and explain to her that he got drunk the night before and stayed at a friend’s home.
Alberto, a forty-seven-year-old activist from California, was just out of high school and working at a fast-food restaurant when he met Dwayne. This, Alberto says, was “the turning point. I came out of my closet, and this guy brought me out.” Dwayne and Alberto were working together and felt a mutual attraction. They began dating, but what was most significant (p.87) for Alberto is that Dwayne took him to a gay bar for the first time. Alberto was eighteen years old:
We dated just very briefly, but he is the one that pretty much brought me out, took me to my first gay bar. I had never really known any other gay person. So when I walked in this place and I see all these other guys like me, just kind of average, and they weren’t queens. My impression of gays at that time was always that they were all queens and drag queens.
This is during the early ’70s, when the gay life was still pretty underground. I walked in and saw all these guys. It was like, “Wow, this is great!”
Like Alberto, many of these activists talk about not wanting to look like “queens.” They want to relate to men who look “masculine,” which for many is the “normal male.” As shown in Alberto’s story, this is particularly relevant in youth, when these men are in the process of constructing their sexual identity. The stigmatizing image that they have internalized tells them that being effeminate is erroneous. Part of the struggle for acceptance comes from the stigma society attaches to a man who looks like a woman. Thus, when they see gay men who do not act feminine, they think of them as acceptable and as models for their own homosexuality. This look is less likely to create negative reactions from others than the feminine; hence, they tend to adapt such a look for themselves. They want to be “normal,” and to do that they have to reject the image of a man dressed in woman’s clothes. They distance themselves from the “queens” and transgenders.
Orlando, a Chicago native living with HIV, met other gay men in college when he was thirty years old. He had been in psychotherapy a few times, but meeting peers made “a world of difference” for him:
I met other people who felt good about being gay. I think it makes a world of a difference when you run across people that went through very similar things; like, OK, it’s normal. It’s fine [to be gay] and maybe that’s the way I’m supposed to be.
I remember this group of guys up at the university I hung out with. Their mission was to turn me out. They took me to a gay bar. I had a blast! I remember, “Oh, this can’t be bad. I’m not hurting anyone.” I think a lot of it was just important social support among new friends from school.
As for Fabian and Mario, who married women, their entrance into the gay culture, and, hence, their adoption of a gay identity, was not very different from that of the men who remained single. There are only two differences. First, they came to terms with their homosexuality later in their lives than most men. Second, as a consequence, their struggle was extended for several years and it implicated other people, including their wives and children, in (p.88) addition to their parents and siblings. The experience that they share with others is that what triggered their adoption of a gay identity was their contact with gay culture and LGBT organizations.
Fabian was still living in Mexico when he got married. After years in therapy, he dated his wife-to-be for six years. The first couple of years, they had sex “every once in a while.” Although Fabian enjoyed it, the frequency declined as years passed. During those six years, Fabian had a few sexual encounters with men he found cruising. “I didn’t want to accept that I was gay,” Fabian says of the reason he got married. He did not want to lose his girlfriend and thought his attraction for men was temporary. They got married and moved to the United States. The marriage lasted two years. It prolonged Fabian’s struggle and brought unhappiness to both Fabian and his wife. The marriage was plagued with difficulties due to Fabian’s repressed homosexuality and the stress of their migration to the United States:
Our marriage wasn’t good at all. We weren’t happy. We rarely had sex. I began to realize that I really liked men, so I felt bitter, depressed. I didn’t know how to find a way out of it because I loved her and I didn’t want to hurt her. I didn’t want to hurt my family.
It took Fabian three months to find a job in Chicago, while his wife did clerical work there. They had little money and their new apartment was bare, except for the bedroom. One weekend, as they were exploring the city, Fabian found the mostly gay neighborhood:
We were walking through the city, a Saturday afternoon, and we noticed that there were a lot of men in that area. Obviously they looked gay. We saw the bars too. So I knew where the gay area was, and I started going there and meeting men.
It is still painful for Fabian to recall this period of his life. He feels responsible for the failure of his marriage and guilty for the lies and his wife’s pain. While his wife was at work, Fabian frequented the gay neighborhood and eventually became involved in a sexual relationship with another man. Fabian says they only met a half-dozen times for sex, but meeting this person made Fabian see gay life as a possibility:
It helped me to meet this guy, because I met someone who was living openly as a gay man. I started to realize that it wasn’t wrong to be gay, that there are many gay people doing OK with their lives. That this doesn’t mean to live alone, it doesn’t mean people would hate you. All the prejudice began to go down little by little.
Fabian was altering the stigma that he had internalized. The reality that he witnessed in Chicago did not match the negative stereotypes associated with (p.89) being gay. This set off the process that would cause Fabian to divorce his wife and take on an identity as a gay man. After the affair, Fabian found a job and there he met another gay man. This time, Fabian fell in love. The relationship grew stronger for several months, until Fabian’s coworker ended it because he did not want to continue hiding the relationship. Determined to change his life, Fabian contacted Horizons, the largest LGBT organization in Chicago (now named Center on Halsted). He attended several therapy sessions and then talked to his wife about his homosexuality. Fabian divorced his wife. Five years later, they remain close friends.
For his part, Mario was married for eighteen years. During the course of the marriage, he had two children and moved with his family to the United States. Mario’s main reason for getting married to a woman was his family’s deep involvement in a Protestant church. He wanted to follow “las buenas costumbres”—an allusion to Carlos Fuentes’s now-classic novel Las buenas conciencias (The Good Consciences). He left the marriage when he found out that his wife was having an affair and was in love with his close friend. He arrived in San Francisco, where he contacted Aguilas (eagles), a Latino gay group:
I have gone through a lot of stuff, but I can’t live hating myself. I lived looking for a key. A key to find out what it was that I was feeling and wanting. “How come I can’t get an erection with a woman?”
I found it through this group. It’s because of the six years in this group that I can now speak of myself as I do.
Mario discovered his identity as a gay man in Aguilas. He learned the language to accept his homosexuality through the group, which also enabled him to make sense of his life. Now fifty, Mario lives in San Francisco and sees his teenage children frequently.
Entering gay life for almost all of these men is marked by relief and joy. When they meet empathetic friends, are able to express their inner feelings and desire for other men, and begin to find a place for themselves, they feel supported and free.
Coming Out to Family
After entering gay life and meeting peers, adopting a gay identity in the midst of family, especially parents, is the most difficult process for compañeros. Many of these activists, indeed, have opted not to take on a gay identity with their families of origin. Coming out is part of the process of creating an identity. As gay men explain to others their sexuality, they create a language to make sense of the self. This language for explanation is also acquired through peers or organizations.
(p.90) Telling parents about one’s homosexuality frequently occurs only after one has told friends. It is more difficult to tell parents than friends, because the consequences are potentially more severe with the former. These can include rejection and cutting off all ties with the family. That is part of the reason many of these activists have not talked directly about their homosexuality with their families. Among those who had, the circumstances of their coming-out vary and the reactions from family members also vary.
Julian’s conversation with his family happened impromptu. He was born and raised in Mexico. In his youth, he emigrated to San Francisco after moving to Chicago from Mexico with his parents. Living so far from his parents, it was easier for Julian to live openly as a gay man. He and his partner lived together for a few years without his parents’ knowledge. When they visited Julian’s parents, he was caught in the middle: his boyfriend did not know Julian’s parents did not know about him, and Julian’s parents, of course, were not aware of their son’s life in San Francisco.
My dad was very serious. “Who is he?” “This is Jim, the guy I live with in San Francisco.” Still my father was checking him out all the time. And we stayed with them. Night came and my father goes, “This is the room for you and that is the room for you.” Jim then said, “We can sleep together, not a big deal, we do it all the time.” My dad got serious but only said, “Whatever you want to do.”
I was hoping Jim would go to the other room, but he stayed with me.
The next morning, Julian’s mother asked why they sleep together in San Francisco. Julian told her that the apartment was very small, and they could not fit two beds. Then, Julian told his parents, “I want to talk to you guys.” He sent Jim to take a walk while they talked:
I told them I wanted to be sincere, but that I needed their understanding. My mom asked, “What’s going on?” I said, “I have lived a gay life since I was sixteen. In Mexico I was more reserved, but here in the United States I felt more freedom.”
My dad said to my mom, “I told you I didn’t want him to come here [the United States] because it’d be a mess.”
Julian’s father did not take the news well and did not talk to Julian for a year. His mother, on the contrary, did not mind, and expressed her support to him. “I love you as you are and nothing will change that. Take care of yourself. I’m always with you.”
Like Julian, many compañeros lived dual lives for many years, and some still do. They keep their lives as gay men separate or a secret from their families of origin, especially if they live in different cities or countries, mainly because of the stigma toward homosexuality. One of the reasons they disclose their homosexuality to their families is to bring together their divergent (p.91) lives. They get tired of making up stories and hiding. They also want to be able to share their lives with their families. Some accomplish it, others only partially, while still others fail in their attempts to unite their gay identity and their roles as sons and brothers.
Unlike Julian, Ignacio, who is only nineteen years old, was angrily confronted and slapped by his mother:
They were in their bedroom, watching TV. “Mom, Pa, I’m gay.” They’re like, “What?” So then the TV goes off and the lights go [on]. My dad is very passive. My mom is mad, “Qué estás diciendo?” [What are you saying?] I said, “Yes.”
I never cried about being gay until that moment. My mom was the one who said, “We didn’t raise you like that.” She says, “Quieres que te meta un palo para que te haga gay?” [Do you want me to shove a stick in you to make you gay?].
“How could you do this to the family?” She told me I needed to see a psychologist or a counselor. Then I got pissed off. “You know what? I am fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. If there’s something wrong it is with you. You’re very ignorant about homosexuality.” She goes, “Yeah, you’re going to die of AIDS.”
Two years later, Ignacio’s parents participate in Ignacio’s life and accept his homosexuality. This is largely due to Ignacio’s efforts to involve them and inform them about gay events and activities. Ignacio talks to them about his friends, his activism, and other gay events, like the Pride Parade. His mother even attended a ceremony in which Ignacio was awarded a fellowship for his activism with Latino gay men. “We got dressed up and stuff and I took her. She was happy and she laughed.”
Creating a gay identity within the family may also involve an educational process. The education is aimed at developing a positive image, for both the son and the family. As many families do stigmatize nonconforming gender behaviors, including their sons’, some of these men take the initiative of changing their families’ stereotypes. Eric, a forty-six-year-old Puerto Rican activist living in Chicago, explains:
We are twelve in the family; everybody’s different; I have to use different approach methods. Some of them accepted it, others cried and wanted me to see a psychiatrist. I explained to them that being gay wasn’t bad. I let them know about my success in life and all my achievements.
I educated them about gay issues, about what being gay is and that not everybody is bad or going to bed with everyone.
The educational work these men engage in is aimed at achieving acceptance within the family, at being seen and treated as any other member of the family. The stereotypes are replaced by the image of a son, who is brought into the (p.92) family rather than thought of as a distant other (e.g., the homosexual). Many of these men who have revealed their sexual orientation have succeeded not only in being accepted by their families but also in changing their families’ negative attitudes toward gay men. Fabian’s story illustrates this point:
I sat them down in the living room and told them that I was gay. I told them I had separated from my wife. It was hard for my parents, more for my dad than for my mom. He was depressed for several days.
But I [had] thought about it, [and] I had planned to stay the whole week with them, so I could talk to them, educate them, and help them. They are very liberal and opened-minded, but the culture in Mexico is so homophobic that you soak it up.
Fabian later got them some books on gay issues that he ordered from Spain. They were the only books he could find in Spanish. Over time, both of Fabian’s parents changed, and two years later, Fabian visited his parents and brought his partner. The most visible change, however, was in his father:
My dad told me: “I never thought that this late in my life an event would transform me so much, that it’d make me grow so much.” He says he has grown and has realized that he has discriminated against others.
According to men whose families are aware of their gay identities, involvement in gay communities and access to gay-related resources helps them face their families. After being estranged from his family for a year, Eduardo, an activist living in San Francisco, “came out” with his family a few years ago. At thirty-four years of age, Eduardo was active in gay organizations in San Francisco. But his family, living elsewhere in California, did not know about his life in San Francisco. He explains that the separation eventually began to hurt him, so he decided to talk to his family:
I thought, “All this pain that I’m in is coming from my not being out to my family.” Here I was living in San Francisco and going to gay bars, having gay sex, volunteering in gay organizations, working in a gay office—my mom had no idea about any of that aspect of my life.
I thought that all the problems I was having were stemming from me not being out. I wanted to see if coming out to the family would change things.
Eduardo felt motivated to break the silence with his family because he was missing their support and was feeling incomplete. He then consulted a therapist and several books, including Rafael Díaz’s book on Latinos and HIV (1998). These resources helped him approach his family:
I went to see a therapist and I told her about my family, that I wanted to come out to them. I bought a book on coming out, which didn’t really help much. (p.93) Then I read the book by Rafael Díaz. It was really helpful. I just really identified with a lot of what he was saying.
In a similar predicament with his family, Isidro found the courage to talk to his mother from ACT UP and the Coming-Out Day celebration. He had moved out of his mother’s house in the Bay Area in his late teens, after his mother questioned him about his sexual orientation. At that time, Isidro told her it was “just a phase.” That was his way of dealing with his mother’s question and his new life living with a male friend. Isidro developed gay friends in the Bay Area and got involved with ACT UP. A year later, he called his mother on Coming-Out Day to tell her he was gay:
“You know, I am gay, blah, blah, blah.” And she said, “OK, well, I feel better knowing that my kids can come to me with anything and not have to worry about anything, but don’t tell your dad.”
Despite these stories, we must not conclude that a person has to construct an identity as a “gay man” in public and in the family to develop as an individual and function in society. In the same way we do not equate same-sex desire with a gay identity, we should not assume that a gay identity has to be laid over all spheres of an individual’s life, or that sharing such identity with the family always has a positive result. We live in a time and place (the United States in particular) in which sex and sexual behavior are thought of as the source of one’s identity, and in which individuals are encouraged to “confess” or make public their identities. Hence, the popularity of the “coming-out” ritual or disclosure of one’s sexual orientation among lay, professional, and academic communities. The ritual has become so ingrained in the gay culture that it has reached the level of a moral issue so that those who are not “out” and are “in the closet” are criticized and thought of as dishonest. This is evident in the way in which some of these activists speak about sharing their sexual identity with their families. Vladimir, for example, speaks of “confessing” to his Mexican siblings and parents that he is homosexual and of “being sincere” and “not deceiving” them about his life.
The stories of becoming a gay man represent a search for the self. They trace how these men have been searching for an identity that can provide the channel to express themselves. Collectively, these stories tell us that the pursuit begins early in life, with an unnamed self. As children, these men felt different from their peers and unable to fit the assigned gender roles. Their thoughts and actions crossed gender boundaries, but they did not think of themselves as belonging to the opposite gender. They thought of themselves as within their assigned biological sex and gender role. Their social milieu did not provide models for them to identify. They were given (p.94) only the traditional gender models of man and woman, with their associated expectations. It was not until their youth and early adulthood, when they met peers and groups, that they found the language to make sense of their difference and tell their own stories.
In their stories, most men adopt the contemporary identity of gay man. With rare exceptions, some identify themselves as homosexuals, bisexuals, or queers. Although some men criticize the gay culture as being “white,” that is, not representing the experiences of ethnic minority groups, most men do feel comfortable calling themselves gay. This reflects at least two social processes. One is the dominance of the gay identity, not only in the United States, but in many Latin American countries. As Hector Carrillo (2002) notes, the gay identity as created in the United States and Western Europe has expanded to communities in Mexico and coexists with other, and perhaps older, identities and labels, such as those based on the gender system. None of these men speak of themselves in terms of “man,” “woman,” “feminine,” “passive,” or “active,” which reflect a gender-based system to label the self. Homosexual men, thus, are defining themselves more on the basis of their sexual attraction than in terms of the traditional gender roles.
The second process is the part these men play in LGBT and AIDS activism. To a large extent, their identities as gay men reflect the membership and agenda of those organizations, as it will be seen in chapters 6 and 7. The stories about becoming gay are the product of their own reflections and the stories they have encountered among their compañeros.
“The Woman That I Am”
To become a woman when one was given a male identity and socialized as a man is an act of defiance. It entails breaking the cultural law that states that genitalia equal gender. Transgenders (and transsexuals as well) show us that our gender roles are not defined by sex. They illustrate that gender is not defined by an immutable essence (Mason-Shrock 1996). Their presence suggests that we might just be able to be whomever we want to become. I say “might” because, paradoxically, the transformation from male to female is not made in a free-will space and, hence, must be accompanied by a cautionary note. Transgender persons frequently rely on taken-for-granted ideas about gender (e.g., what is to be a woman and a man) to construct their stories and to create their newfound selves as women.
While different from accounts of becoming a gay man, transgenders’ narratives of transformation share some features with the former. Transgenders, (p.95) like gay men, speak about feeling different from early childhood and being stigmatized for not conforming to their assigned gender. They also speak about sexual games with other boys and sexual experiences in their teenage years. What is different from the gay experience is the cross-dressing in childhood, the intensified stigmatization, the absence of the coming-out ritual, and the emphasis on the process of transforming the self from male to female. And, of course, the outcome of the transformation, an identity as transgender, is different from that found among gay men.
Cross-dressing and Sexual Games
Contrary to the stereotype, not all transgenders in my study tell stories of cross-dressing early in their lives. Almost all of them note, like gay men do, that they felt different than other males from the time they were little boys. But only about half of the transgenders cross-dressed when they were boys. Angelica, whom we met in chapter 1, is one of them. Angelica recounts that she “was always very feminine.” As a child, she would try on her sisters’ clothes. “I’ve always liked wearing girls’ clothes. When I was little, I used to try on my sisters’ clothes all the time.” For Angelica, cross-dressing then was a game. She did not do it again until she was in high school. Then, she realized she wanted to live as a woman full-time.
Blanca grew up in California in the 1940s, a couple of generations before Angelica. When she was a child, she would try on women’s clothes with the help of an aunt. “The kids made fun of me and called me joto, but I still wore the dress.” She would also put on lipstick and makeup. Blanca would pretend she was performing in a theater, singing and dancing conga, like Tongolele, a famed Mexican female dancer; María Victoria, a famous Mexican singer and actor; and, of course, Lola Beltrán. Blanca would eventually become well-known in the Bay Area for her performances as a female ranchero singer. As a little boy, she notes, “I was already a screaming faggot. ‘I want to come out, the woman that I am!’”
Sex, in the form of games or actual intercourse, is another recurring element in the transgenders’ childhood accounts. Thalia’s first sexual experience, at the age of ten, is not rare. Many compañeras had sex for the first time sometime between the ages of five and twelve:
It was with a muchachito del barrio [neighborhood boy]. We went out, supposedly to play soccer in the park. And that’s where everything happened. He was thirteen and I was ten. We had sex. I liked it; he knew I was gay. He had more experience, so he told me, “Come this way.”
I went and there he told me, “Let’s fuck.” “But how?” I asked. “You’ll see; I’ll show you how.” That was the first time I had a relación [sexual intercourse].
The teenage years of this group of compañeras are marked by an awareness of their sexual and romantic attraction toward other men and the beginning of their male-to-female transformation. Sex is no longer a game or something that just happens to them. Sex is desire, romance, and, sometimes, dishonor:
As I grew up, I realized I was gay. I had no one to tell I was in love with this or that guy. I always liked them older and with a big moustache. I dreamed they were making love to me. With time, I knew I was homosexual and that people didn’t take that well; that being gay was horrible.
I felt in love two or three times. This particular guy was handsome, simpático [pleasant], and nice. I felt taken care of. He introduced me to his family. But that was platonic love; I never had sex with him. Because in my youth and adolescence, I was conscious that I was gay, so I was embarrassed to tell him anything, like, “I like you.” I thought they’d go away or tell others in school, “He’s gay, un puñal [faggot].”
The stories of the teenage years also hint at the adoption of gender role as women. We find traces of the prevailing social meanings of woman, such as playing the receptive role, rather than insertive, in sexual intercourse and being emotive (e.g., falling in love). These features are not as predominant among gay men and provide continuity to the creation of a role as a woman, which for some transgenders began with cross-dressing in childhood.
These activists actually use the term transformation to describe the process leading to living full-time as a woman. In a manner similar to that of gay men entering the gay life, peers and role models trigger this transformation process.
Carmen began her transformation when she found a “teacher” in Mexico City. “The transformation was very difficult,” she notes. She grew up in a small town and in her teens she moved to Mexico City. There, she visited a bar in La Alameda park. It was a bar “de ambiente,” frequented by homosexual men. “I was in my 20s, and I started hanging out with them. Some of them really wiggled their hips, and I was embarrassed—‘how dare you do that!’” Later, Carmen shared her apartment with a friend she made at that bar. Carmen began to emulate her friend. “She’d pluck an eyebrow, I’d do too; she’d wear a shirt with a flower, I’d have one with five flowers. That’s how it went, until I decided to dress up as a woman.” Carmen felt comfortable dressing as a woman, but she was harassed by the police: “they see you; they catch you and send you to jail.”
(p.97) Carmen also met a “maestra” (teacher), a male-to-female transsexual who taught her how to dance and do female impersonations. “She showed me how to dance rock and roll and cumbia.” Carmen enjoyed performing, “singing like Lola Beltrán,” either for free at friends’ homes or for pay in bars. Then she let her hair grow long, depilated her body, and slowly changed her work clothes from blazer and tie to blouse and high heels.
Carmen’s transformation story is similar to the stories of gay men, in that the construction of a new identity emerges from the interaction with others who either already have created an identity (e.g., woman, transvestite, transsexual) or are in the process of creating such an identity. Through her peers and teacher, Carmen learned how to dress, act, and perform as a woman. Through them, she also developed the confidence to change her outlook in public and defy stigmatization. Carmen is now fifty-one years old and lives in San Francisco. She is not taking hormones and has not had any surgical procedures to change her gender identity.
The basic elements of the transformation process were the same for Angelica, who at twenty-five is half Carmen’s age:
It was my junior year, I went to school in drag for Halloween, but it wasn’t like totally femmed out. And then I didn’t dress up for about a year. Then I started meeting more queens and just getting more into the scene. I started going out dressed up. And I liked that.
For a while I struggled with my daytime, ’cause it’s very important to me to work. I had started taking hormones and stuff. But I was still living as a female only at night. Then, during the day people would start calling me Miss. I was like, “Wow, OK, these meds are working.” ’Cause I wouldn’t wear heavy foundation. I just wear powder in the daytime. I’ve been very androgynous. So, I was like, “I need to start working as a female.”
I decided this past year, actually, on International Women’s Day [annually on 8 March], was the first day that I went to work. I’ll put on some makeup and do it. I wanted to do it for like six months to a year before I started taking hormone therapy. So right now I’m not on hormones. I just dress. For me it’s also like resocialization. It’s psychological and emotional too.
When Angelica began dressing as a woman during the day, she was living in San Francisco. She explains that she had taken some hormones a few years ago but stopped taking them to undergo a medically supervised hormone therapy. A unique aspect in Angelica’s life is the acceptance and support she has received from her family. Her family knows about her transformation and has witnessed it for the most part. Her siblings, but not her parents, call her by her female name.
Thalia also lives in San Francisco. Two years ago, she started her hormone (p.98) therapy under the supervision of a psychologist and a physician. Her transformation, however, had a troubled beginning. After leaving her home and family in Mexico City, she worked in the sex industry in the United States–Mexico border on her way to San Francisco. At the border, she found work in a cantina. There, the other transgenders (more precisely, transvestites) working there and the woman supervising them dressed her and put on her makeup. She liked the way she looked. When Thalia moved to San Francisco as a teen, she contacted her high school counselor to talk about her desire to dress as a woman:
I felt supported in the school. The counselor told me that I wasn’t the only one or the first one in the school or the city. He told me this is a gay city and that the law protected me. So I started little by little, putting on a little bit of makeup, letting my hair grow long, then more makeup, until I dressed as a woman.
Some male students would make fun of Thalia at school. But then she found a small group of gay, queer, and transgender students, who were brought together by a teacher. “We made everybody in the school respect us. Nowadays nobody says anything, whether you go as a woman, male, or gay.” Thalia’s body and voice are changing now. “My voice is higher now and my face is finer.” Her goal is “to become a complete woman,” and she plans to continue hormone therapy and undergo surgery.
Among this group of transgenders, the significant generation gap makes their stories a little different. Carmen and Blanca grew up in the 1940s and 1950s, while Thalia and Angelica grew up in the early 1980s. Carmen and Blanca speak about “performing” as a woman, female impersonation shows of famous Latin American singers, and police harassment. They refer to their peers in female terms but don’t label them as transgender or transsexual. They speak little of hormone therapy, psychological support, or surgery. In contrast, Thalia and Angelica talk about hormone therapy, psychological counseling, and transgender peers. Although the essence of the transformation is the same across all their stories, those subtle differences reflect important historical changes in the construction of identities. The identities presented in the stories of Blanca and Carmen are of males performing as females, or men playing the women’s roles. That is, their identities are not transgender, in the strict sense of the term. In contrast, the stories of Thalia and Angelica present an identity of a woman, not of a male performing as a female.
Compañeros and compañeras are a fundamental element in the stories about becoming a gay man and a transgender person. They come in the form of (p.99) friendships, role models, or boyfriends. They are found in a public park, a café, a gay bar, a community organization, or at school and they trigger the formation of identities. Compañeros provide company, a common history, and a shared oppression. They supply a language to name the previously unnamed desire and sense of difference.
The identity, thus, is created in the company of others. Here is where identity intersects with volunteerism and activism, particularly in HIV/AIDS and LGBT organizations. We can not establish a causal order between joining and creating an identity. We can not say what came first, joining a community organization, or calling oneself gay or transgender. A few of these men and transgender persons joined an organization as volunteers or activists. In doing so, they constructed their identities as gay men or transgender. That is, they joined and then found themselves, in large part due to the peers and resources in the organization. Several others became activists or volunteers only after they defined themselves as gay men or transgender. Yet many of them joined organizations and groups to find peers who could support a sense of self, provide a community, and fight together against oppression. Chapters 6 and 7 explain the process of joining in detail.