I’m a Trans Man, but My Alter Ego is Courtney Love
When I was a clueless adolescent baby butch in the early 80s, there was almost zero queer representation in popular media, especially for us wee tough girls. I secretly and repeatedly rented Hotel New Hampshire on VHS just so I could watch one shadowy, fleeting kiss between Jodie Foster and Nastassja Kinski frame-by-frame, on a loop, desperately willing just one more fraction of a second with better lighting.
Summer Lovers, which no one seems to remember but me, boldly introduced a bisexual throuple to my young mind, but more importantly hinted at Daryl Hannah’s genuine, independent affection for a hot French female archeologist when she wasn’t tripping over Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows. Then I saw Joan Jett on MTV. She wasn’t even out, but I knew she was snarling just for me. After picking up the pieces of my little mind scattered over our rust velour sectional, I dared a hope for the first time I might have a chance.
I had multiple versions of myself developing and tussling with each other just then. There was the butch me, for which I did not yet have a name. Kids at school never treated me like a girl. I was too big, too strong, and kind of scary. I was better at being a boy than the boys, but everybody was almost certain I wasn’t actually a boy. I had very few friends, but I was also smart and pretty funny. I was that enigmatic outsider kid occasionally called upon to defend a smaller misfit from normative harassment at recess. I was also always first chosen for PE teams.
These little sweet spots occasionally gave my nascent, underappreciated masculinity a precious, ephemeral nugget of validation.
My public girl performance was compulsory because I was a girl. My femininity was a production of serialized coercion, humiliation, and malfunction. My mother was very attractive and understood her power in the world through that fact. She never required frills or demure giggles from me, but she wished I didn’t scare old ladies in public restrooms. My feminine presentation in mundane, daily circumstances was disappointing and largely uncomfortable for all present.
Within the homogenous, white, suburban culture I was forged, I was a failure at all sanctioned gender models, masculine and feminine. This led to deep confusion and sadness and a lot of fantasizing about being a secret superhero. Thank goodness for seedy underbellies. With no mentors to guide me, I began my relationship with dark corners when I was still young enough to find them intriguing.
I’d endured puberty at ten. I looked much older than I was with adult curves and girth. I encountered many older straight men who were disturbingly accurate at pinpointing destructively low self-esteem in young women. Girls were still raised to hostess objectification like a debutante back then. Children internalize gender norms regardless of how badly they bungle them. A pre-teen drag queen quietly rose inside of me to handle the inevitable circumstances. She’s the one who had a number of lewd and possibly felonious early sexual encounters with older predators. She went on to be that weird, pudgy girl in junior high the boys groped around with but didn’t tell any of their buddies about. In high school, she had a bit of a reputation, at the nearby air force base.
This should be where I unpack my trauma and become relatable, or at least sympathetic. Queer discourse is historically patient with young suffering. That is a different essay. I would like to attempt a higher degree of queer difficulty and talk about the bright side of these experiences even though I’m a little worried about sticking my landing.
A large part of my vulnerability as a young queer was the lack of cultural representation. Without a clear possibility for my future gender, I experienced my identity as a succession of malfunctions in legibility at being either male or female, which were definitely the only options at that time. My masculinity was tied to my general competence and would only occasionally receive tangential affirmation. The only arena in which my femininity achieved even debased verification was as a sexual object. That was the body I had though, and within it, I discovered a reservoir of power.
I cannot deny the uncomfortable implications of reclaiming power from otherwise damaging early sexual encounters. I would not recommend it as a therapeutic path. Youthful coping mechanisms often cause problems down the road. Relationships in my adult life have repeatedly suffered from my foundational lack of familiarity with intimacy and self-respect. But I will claim I derived a certain confidence, even a kind of swagger, from uncovering my ability to manipulate men.
That top-secret Lolita I kept hidden inside was a badass and repeatedly saved nerdy boy me from catastrophic disappointment.
It is easy, in retrospect, to dissect the different aspects of my character into separate identities. I remember feeling incomplete and inauthentic most of the time. My public persona was awkward and tried to minimize risk by keeping people at a distance, either by wearing an oversized army fatigue jacket or talking about math. My little butch would get fanatical crushes on pretty straight girls and get his heart squished at least annually, causing me to perpetually vow never to try to be anything more than a loser again. Then my inner domme would have stealthy, dangerous, unpredictable adventures. They never made me feel great about myself because of the gutting shame that was often a byproduct, but she did give the rest of the package an alluring edge that projected authority or worldliness, though I possessed neither at the time.
The ensemble was a dysfunctional mess. The drag queen and the butch dyke, my top-secret identities, used to fight all the time. Their arguments reveal how deeply American misogyny imbeds itself into young consciousnesses. The fact that my academic and athletic capabilities were demerits to my social standing perpetually thrashed my confidence in them. My masculine self demeaned my feminine side for being a slut. The drag queen would chastise the butch for being a chump and a sissy. I mocked all aspects of myself using the language of dominant expectations and gender norms. Every negative I attributed to myself came from a common cultural hatred of women. It couldn’t be thought of as internalized homophobia yet since I didn’t yet know what that meant. I thought of myself as weak and contaminated because of my own female body. It was double auto-misogyny because I couldn’t even get objectified right.
By the time I got to my twenties, the 90s, and arrived in San Francisco, I was a manic collage of rage, grief, and shame. I was not alone. I found communal worlds of sharp edges and holy wrath. Queer Nation and Act Up were channeling a decade of uninterrupted loss from AIDS into radical activism and shimmering defiance. Sexy dykes made zines and porn and formed rock bands. I finally got to lead with the butch me and girls thought I was cute. I shaved my head and bought a motorcycle. I smoked and did drugs and bought my first dick. I was introduced to sex-positivity and fat pride. I didn’t understand how intensely I wanted to tell mainstream America to go fuck themselves until I was initiated into a congregation of fury and debauchery.
I remember angry and defiant women as a theme for the 90s. Somehow, we were all pissed off. It is difficult to recall the intensity of the backlash created by Thelma and Louise in 1991. It was denounced as reckless man-bashing and an unbecoming glorification of violence. Though not ostensibly queer, we claimed it anyway. It really was one of the first movies to punish the male arrogance and brutality we’d all experienced. Fried Green Tomatoes was the first successful mainstream lesbian love story, even though many straight people claimed they didn’t know Idgie and Ruth were a couple. We got Queen Latifah as one of the hottest butches of all time in Set it Off in 1996. Also that year was Bound. Not only was it a solid gangster flick, but it had an actual lesbian sex scene not made exclusively for men and the dykes get away with the heist in the end. I still have a crush on Jennifer Tilly.
Rock music really came through for pissed off women in the 90s. I was introduced to PJ Harvey first. The purity and range of her talent was like a thermal exhaust valve for centuries of denied entitlement. L7 was like a bar fight we all got to win. The Lunachicks managed to deliver sophisticated cultural satire while also being punk as fuck.
Then a friend gave me my first Hole CD, Live Through This. People ridiculed Courtney Love even then, for being a drug addict and a narcissist, even before Kurt died. But my little drag queen, who’d been dormant for a few years during my butch awakening, was immediately drawn to Courtney. Nobody did what she did. People hated her for the same reasons I’d hated myself and she showed me just how to handle that. “I’ve seen your repulsion and it looks real good on you.” (Teenage Whore — Pretty on the Inside, 1991)
She was called out for being a slut, a junkie, and a bad mother - three counts of irredeemable disqualifiers for any woman of any time. Courtney somehow managed to wear all the things misogynists and uptight feminists criticized her for like a funhouse mirror around her neck, twisting their perceptions and reflecting their own moral hypocrisy back onto them. No one could put condescension into a scream like Courtney. She howled uncomfortable tales of rape to men who raped and shamed self-proclaimed riot grrrls for being inauthentic and elitist. She invented kinderwhore as a fashion, not for the male gaze, but as a critique to the male gaze. Courtney Love made me feel like my shitty self-image maybe wasn’t entirely my fault and I was likely stronger than most people who judged me.
Anger and resistance themselves were Queer in the 90s. Queers were dangerous. We augmented our deviant identities with menacing fashion, music, and art. There was no going back to tired Queer tropes of shame and self-hatred after that decade. But pop culture started moving away from pure antagonism at the end of the century. I feel like starting in the early aughts, mainstream American media wanted to bargain with queer anger. Maybe they thought if they gave us a little more popular representation with a dash of normative entitlement, we’d settle down. We got Ellen, the L Word, and gay marriage.
Twenty years later, I am completely incapable of keeping up with queer representation in popular media. Even though I feel like I watched all the TV in 2020, it’s only through year-end entertainment roundups in various LGBTQ publications, I realized how much queer I missed. That’s okay though. I don’t think I’m the target demographic. I’ve also begun to become suspicious of what this current panoply of queer Americana is reaffirming for our youth.
I started my year with the refreshing experience of watching a middle-aged dyke be funny and uncomfortable in Work in Progress. I ended my year rolling my eyes through Happiest Season (largely because of Harper’s bangs) and crying through the end of Prom (because of moms who change their minds about their queer spawn.) I can’t remember much in between because it’s so ordinary now. It’s become so ubiquitous, I no longer feel obliged to watch bad or boring queer narratives out of a sense of solidarity.
I feel guilty. I would have given anything for my nonnormative desires and insecurities to be portrayed so casually and positively when I was young. That is why representation matters. So much suffering can be avoided. Also, hating the first mainstream homo holiday romcom is like kicking a golden retriever puppy simply because he’s an overly inbred trope of a dog. Still, I can’t help but feel there is something sinister behind so many wholesome and supportive portrayals of queer life.
I am aware my Gen X cynicism is showing. It is not uncommon for capitalism to capture organic compounds of cultural zeitgeist, distill away volatile elements, then rebrand and repackage the phenomena for mass consumption. Arguably, this process can contribute to incremental expansion of paradigmatic legitimacy for previously marginalized identities. But in exchange for this nominal progress, commercialism strictly polices the borders against illegitimate incursion and reinforces standards of propriety and palatability for a normative gaze. Basically, queers have gotten to the compulsory inclusion stage of cultural consumer media products. We can have representation as long as it doesn’t compromise the overall formulaic and profit-centric industry.
My favorite example of a badass queer character who would’ve felt right at home in the 90s, but was polished up for Netflix bingeability, was Beth Harmon in Queen’s Gambit. It is significant the show’s opening scene is Beth waking late, fully clothed in her bathtub, desperately trying to extract her signature composure and competence from the anarchy of female depravity (alcohol, drugs, illicit hook-up with a female temptress, shoes in different areas of the room.) It didn’t work. After her stylish jog of shame, complete with child judgement, she loses her big match and endorsement deals. The rest of the series tells the story of what lead to this pivotal low point, then how she redeems her character with sobriety and celibacy.
You know what would have been more fun? She could’ve kept them waiting, had a quickie with the hot French woman, then gone out and kicked the Russian’s ass like any number of Johnny Depp characters. We could’ve done without the tough love training montage with that pasty nerd with the movie theater manager moustache and the duster. Her final reward didn’t have to be the promise of heterosexual intimacy with that guy no one remembered by the last episode. And instead of pulling a tired Magical Morgan Freeman trope, Beth and Jolene could’ve gone on a global, long-con, buddy film extravaganza, embarrassing rich people and authorities for another nine seasons.
Now is a good time to push boundaries. In the two decades since the nineties, corporate America has seized an unprecedented share of wealth and power. Don’t let them tell us what queer looks like. Queer is often still messy and uncomfortable. Queer can still be a threat. I can be grateful that baby Queers have more access to resources and representation while still wishing the Queers were more challenging to regulatory norms. I’m not advocating heavy drug use as a path to cultural transformation, I just want to be cautious when sobriety is used to frame acceptability. Healthy, thoughtful sexual decisions are affirming and should be represented. But let’s make sure messy, slutty decisions aren’t portrayed as exclusions to success. Messy sluts often have the courage to change the world. Queer history is full of them. Queer creatives have a responsibility to Queer art. Capitalism depends on misogyny, racism, classism and heterosexual monogamy as the model for social and economic stability. Much of contemporary Queer representation seems to maintain aspects of that foundation without disrupting the infrastructure.
We know better. I never personally related to anyone on the L Word. I weighed more than Shane in second grade. Queer lives are often complex and traumatic. We find resilience and power in dark, uncommon places. I know Courtney Love isn’t queer. I know she’s probably annoying. On her Wikipedia page, her lists of accomplishments in music, acting, and fashion are only slightly longer than her arrest record for assault. My lists of accomplishments and arrests aren’t nearly as impressive, but I can definitely identify more with that brilliant, flawed fuck you of a human. Not all of us are a beloved, non-threatening lesbian icon like Ellen or a petite, conventionally attractive trans person like Elliot Page. I’m a middle aged and balding transman with a paunch and hairy boobs. I transitioned so I would stop scaring old ladies in public restrooms because that’s exhausting.
My strength as a Queer comes from terrible decisions, fist fights, and perseverance. Is it too late to be a drag queen?