My brothers used to make me watch Creature Feature every Saturday. Dr. Paul Bearer (Dick Bennick, Sr.) would introduce each week’s “horrible old movie” with bad puns, awful jokes, and terrible props. He was the old-school monster movie host–dressed in an undertaker’s black suit and speaking in a gravelly voice from his chair in the crypt set. One of the thrills of my young life was meeting Dr. Paul Bearer at our local library. Yay, library! Yay, culture! Yay, monsters!
The films that rolled across the screen were the usual 1950s B-movie schlock. My brothers watched them for the bad special effects and occasional actual scary moment. I watched them because I could relate.
As a child, I probably couldn’t have put my feelings into intellectual thought, but I knew I was different from the start. And I knew I was so different that it had to be monstrous. I had to keep my true self and feelings hidden. This is why I loved werewolves and vampires from an early age. Both appear human, but have a secret that no one else can understand. Both are cursed. Neither must show their true nature or they will be killed.
All of that sounds dramatic, I know, but keep in mind I was growing up in the Deep South in the 70s. The days of the KKK burning crosses on people’s lawns weren’t such distant memory during my childhood, and the Bible Belt morality reigned supreme. When the first black kid was enrolled in my school, white kids whispered not to touch him or let him touch us because “it might rub off” — “it” being the boy’s skin color as a contagion. If people were that afraid and ignorant of difference on the racial level, one can only imagine how they would react to something like a person being transgender, something that seems invisible and therefore was maybe even more dangerous and most certainly work of the devil.
Monsters as a metaphor for one’s “otherness” isn’t a thought that’s unique to me. Some Queer Theory scholars look at the spike in vampire literature, specifically the Anne Rice novels, during the 80s as a reaction to the AIDS crisis. In these novels there was the exchange of blood and death wrapped in sensuality that mirrored to some degree the way AIDS was spreading. Dr. Sam George of the University of Hertfordshire has written about the transformation of the vampire in modern pop culture and notes that the vampires of the 1980s were used to address disease and corruption … “it was a way to talk about AIDS. Vampires are used to bring up things we don’t want to talk about.” **
In most versions of Dracula, he comes back across the centuries in search of his love. For me, vampires represent unrequited love and the inability to have a relationship due to my body not being what I or a potential partner want. Yes, yes, girls find the vampire figure romantic, but that’s not what they want in reality. I also know transpeople do find lovers and mates who accept them for who they are, but it is very hard to shake the socialization that took place three and four decades ago, and that socialization put everything into a straight male/female binary. Damn you, Disney, for all your “happily ever after” endings!
Even more than vampires, I related to the werewolf. I had a feeling of being cursed by being transgender, of looking “normal” to others, but having a secret side that always threatened to escape my efforts to keep it under control. While I was growing up and far into adulthood, there was a side to me that I felt was so shameful I kept it buried as deeply as I could, but it still managed to surface all the time in my inability to conform to expected gender norms.
Besides the surface things like walking like a boy and having the same hobbies as the boys in my class, I also couldn’t relate to other girls and their experiences and expectations of life.*** Boys, on the other hand, well, I fit right in with them mentally and emotionally. Only my body kept me from being fully accepted as one of the guys. Once puberty hit, I didn’t fit anywhere and I was like Quasimodo up in his bell tower looking down on the square and watching life from afar.
The monster has been transformed in contemporary pop culture. Things like the Twilight series have changed the monster from a source of fear to a source of forbidden love. Ultimately, they occupy a place of pity in the reader/viewer’s imagination, which is not something I identify with. Shows like the BBC version of Being Human hold more appeal for me because I can relate to the characters’ search for friendship, love, and understanding in an increasingly alienating world where their “difference” puts them at risk for rejection, isolation, and destruction.
Being trans is not a choice. While I’m no longer ashamed of it, I would still choose to be born with brain and body in alignment. I’ve somewhat come to grips with the fact that I’m trans and that it isn’t my fault that I was born this way, but it’s still hard to shake that feeling that once the villagers know the truth they will chase me down with their pitchforks and torches.
And now because I don’t want to leave you totally depressed, please enjoy these tunes:
*** Two pieces that explain this a little: http://theadventuresoftransman.com/2012/03/01/im-sorry-but-this-is-a-curse-not-a-blessing/