TV & Radio
Photo Credit: Greg Kadel/harper Perennial Photo
Cross-Dressing for Beginners
A pair of books in which the authors try on another gender for size.
Reviewed by Lily Burana
Sunday, February 5, 2006; BW09 - Washington Post
I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS
By Josh Kilmer-Purcell
HarperPerennial. 308 pp. Paperback, $13.95
One Woman's Journey into Manhood -- and Back Again
By Norah Vincent
Viking. 290 pp. $24.95
It's the truth in drag. So states the disclaimer at the start of Josh Kilmer- Purcell's I Am Not Myself These Days. In the so, so serious realm of gender identity and politics, more than a dash of humor is necessary. Necessary, too, are originality and the ability to wrangle the beast of experience into a story that is both intimate and universal. It's no easy feat, as shown in Kilmer-Purcell's memoir and in Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man , two books that aim to illustrate the pleasures and perils of wandering beyond the gender lines.
I Am Not Myself These Days chronicles the now clean-living ad exec's life in New York's mid-1990s after-hours underworld. By day, Kilmer-Purcell worked as an advertising art director, but come midnight he styled himself as a statuesque drag queen named Aqua (trademarks: 22" corset, sky-high heels and clear lucite ersatz breasts with goldfish swimming inside). Kilmer-Purcell used his party-dame persona to Kevlar-coat his sense of self. "When I finally came out, the first thing I wanted to get rid of was fear," he writes. "You got a problem with queers? Tough, get a load of me in this dress. You think sex is bad? Watch me tackle four guys at once. "
But the foundation of his glam fortress gets rocked when he meets Jack, a beautiful young hustler with whom he falls in love. Jack invites Josh/Aqua to move into his all-white penthouse apartment, but their romantic idyll immediately begins to unravel. Once Jack fires up the crack pipe, the story becomes repetitive -- multiple drag shows, multiple vodkas, multiple nights where Jack is called out for yet another job, his pager interrupting their domestic tranquility like the ping of an egg timer: Duty calls. Jack's drug habit escalates, and he frequently disappears for days at a time, leaving Josh/Aqua bereft and isolated. "The truth is," he writes, "there's no movie of the week about a drunk drag queen and a crackhead hooker in love. . . . It's not the kind of thing people would care about. . . . Who's the good guy? Who's the bad guy? Aren't they both bad? If they didn't get what they deserved by the first commercial, it'd be on to the breast cancer movie." It's an oddly self-pitying, self-centered statement -- one of many peppering the book. Whoever said that being acceptable for prime time dulled the pain of heartbreak? Even Miss Americas get dumped, and God knows we've seen enough glittering mainstream superstars get swept into the arms of addiction.
While I Am Not Myself These Days doesn't plumb the great queer-love depths or broaden to any kind of universal scope, it features plenty of dishy anecdotes and moments of tragi-camp delight. A favorite: "I don't care what Butterball.com says, the hardest part about cooking the perfect Thanksgiving dinner is avoiding the splinters of broken crack pipes that collect in the crevices of the kitchen floor." Not quite enough to bust the Me-bubble, but it keeps the pages turning.
Rather than pursue drag as an after-hours pastime, Norah Vincent made it a grand experiment in how the other half lives. In Self-Made Man , the former L.A. Times columnist chronicles her 18 months spent as "Ned," her male persona. Armed with painstakingly constructed fake facial hair, situationally appropriate man-drag, prosthetic genitalia and her own strong facial features, Vincent visits five different states, each time setting out to experience a different facet of la vie d'homme . She joins a bowling league, works as a door-to-door salesman, enters both a monastery and an Iron John spirituality group, dives into the dating pool and even subjects herself to the chthonic hoopla of strip clubs.
Vincent tries gamely to pass as an "everyman," but it's not just her true gender that trips her up. At times, she doesn't have enough physical toughness to blend into the "real guy" milieu; at other times, her class prejudice rears its over-educated head. One priceless example, when intending to compliment the wit of one of her bowling buddies: "This was the kind of thing that came out of his mouth out of nowhere and it used to make me wonder what he might have done with himself if he'd gone to college instead of joining the army at seventeen." Do dunce caps come only in camouflage, and have no idiots ever bounced forth from the hallowed halls of academe? To Vincent's credit, she's man -- er, woman -- enough to cop to her elitism throughout the book.
Vincent is most provocative and original when limning the ugliness of the gender divide. Her observations on her experiences in the dating trenches are eye-opening, to say the least. On the frustration of being at the mercy of the caprices of straight women, she writes, "Dating women as a man was a lesson in female power, and it made me, of all things, into a momentary misogynist. . . . I saw my own sex from the other side, and I disliked women, irrationally for a while because of it ."
While the side effects of Vincent's experiment are fascinating (including what happens when she reveals herself to be female and the negative impact on her psyche), it is her field reporting from Planet Guy that holds the most novelty. Self-Made Man will make many women think twice about coveting male "privilege" and make any man feel grateful that his gender burden is better understood. But not every nugget Vincent mines is gold. At book's end, she observes that as a man, "somebody is always evaluating your manhood. . . . You're not allowed to be a complete human being. Instead you get to be a coached jumble of stoic poses. You get to be what's expected of you." That is an insight on par with "sky: blue" or "oxygen: necessary to sustain human life." At times, this book is a bracing slap in the face of every simpleton who thinks that being a white male guarantees a life of ease and comfort; at others, it's an exercise in uncovering the obvious.
Transforming yourself through gender manipulation, whether done as occasional escapism or full-time immersion, remains a radical act. Typically, we define who we are from the inside out. But people who tinker with gender -- the clothes, the postures, the roles -- reinvent themselves from the outside in. Reading about these experiences can be enlivening, titillating and, at times, educational. But sometimes, when the writing gets too self-referential and the observations too pat, these tales of gender-bending can be -- dare I say it? -- a drag. ·
Lily Burana is the author of "Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America." Her first novel, "Try," will be published later this year.