In the mid-1990s renowned economic historian--and longtime REASON contributing editor--Donald N. McCloskey transformed himself into Deirdre N. McCloskey. In her new memoir about the experience, Crossing (University of Chicago Press), she recounts both her trials--in a bid to stop the process, McCloskey's sister, a psychologist, had her committed involuntarily to mental institutions and otherwise tried to stop the gender change--and her triumphs. "As Donald aged 13 or 14 waited for sleep in his bed," she writes, referring to her selves in the third person, "he would fantasize about two things.Please, God, please. ...Tomorrow when I wake up: I won't stutter....And I'll be a girl. A girl....Deirdre later used the memory to introduce talks, to put people at ease about both her stuttering and her crossing in one story. She would joke, `I f-f-f-finally got one of m-m-my two wishes!'"
As the following selections suggest, Crossing tells more than McCloskey's personal tale of her odyssey from Donald to "Dee" (a name she called herself midway through the process) to Deirdre. On the eve of the "Biological Century"--an era in which individuals will be increasingly free to choose how to live their lives and on what terms--McCloskey's experience speaks eloquently to the larger social, political, and moral implications raised by such possibilities.
I want to tell you the story of a crossing from 52-year-old man to 55-year-old woman, Donald to Deirdre.
"A strange story," you say.
Yes, it's strange statistically. All the instruments agree that what's usually called "transsexuality," crossing the gender boundary, is rare. (The Latin in "transsexuality" makes it sound sexual, which is mistaken; or medical, which is misleading; or scientific, which is silly. I'll use plain English--"crossing.") Only three in 10,000 want to cross the boundary of gender, a few of them in your own city neighborhood or small town. Gender crossing is no threat to male-female sex ratios or the role of women or the stability of the dollar. Most people are content with their birth gender.
But people do, after all, cross various boundaries. I've been a foreigner a little, in England and Holland, and on smaller visits elsewhere. If you've been a foreigner you can understand somewhat, because gender crossing is a good deal like foreign travel. Most people would like to go to Venice on vacation. The Venice visitors as a group can be thought of as all the "cross-gendered," from stone-butch dykes to postoperative male-to-female gender crossers, all the traversers, permanent or temporary, somber or ironic. A few people go to Venice regularly, and you can think of them as the cross-dressers among these, wearing the clothing of the opposite gender once in a while. But only a tiny fraction of the cross-gendered are permanent gender crossers, wanting to become Venetians. Most people are content to stay mainly at home. A tiny minority are not. They want to cross and stay.
On a trip to New York to see a friend after my own crossing I stood in the hall of photographs at Ellis Island and wept at the courage. Crossing cultures from male to female is big; it highlights some of the differences between men and women and some of the similarities too. That's interesting. My crossing was costly and opposed, which is too bad. But my crossing has been dull, easy, and comfortable compared with Suyuan's or Giuseppi's outer migrations.
It's strange to have been a man and now to be a woman. But it's no stranger perhaps than having been a West African and now being an American, or once a priest and now a businessman. Free people keep deciding to make strange crossings, from storekeeper to monk or from civilian to soldier or from man to woman. Crossing boundaries is a minority interest, but human.
Who I Was, Am, Will Be
My crossing--change, migration, growing up, self-discovery--took place from 1994 to 1997, beginning in my home in Iowa, then during a year in Holland, then back in Iowa, with travels in between. As Donald and then as Deirdre I was and am a professor of economics and of history at the University of Iowa. From age 11 I had been a secret cross-dresser, a few times a week. Otherwise I was normal, just a guy. My wife had known about the cross-dressing since the first year of our marriage, when we were 22. No big deal, we decided. Lots of men have this or that sexual peculiarity. Relax, we said. By 1994, age 52, I had been married three decades, had two grown children, and thought I might cross-dress a little more. Visit Venice more too.
I visited womanhood and stayed. It was not for the pleasures, though I discovered many I had not imagined, and many pains too. But calculating pleasures and pains was not the point. The point was who I am. Here the analogy with migration breaks down. One moves permanently from Sicily to New York because one imagines the streets of New York are paved with gold, or at least better paved than the streets at home, not mainly because back in Catania since age 11 one dreamed of being an American. Migration can be modeled as a matter of cost and benefit, and it has been by economic historians. But I did not change gender because I liked colorful clothing (Donald did not) or womanly grace (Donald viewed it as sentimentality). The "decision" was not utilitarian. In our culture the rhetoric of the very word decision entails cost and benefit. My gender crossing was motivated by identity, not by a balance sheet of utility.
Of course you can ask what psychological reasons explain my desire to cross, and reply with, say, a version of Freud. Some researchers think there is a biological explanation for gender crossing, because parts of the brains of formerly male gender crossers in postmortems are notably female. But a demand for an answer to why carries with it in our medicalized culture an agenda of treatment. If a gender crosser is "just" a guy who gets pleasure from it, that's one thing (laugh at him, jail him, murder him). If it's brain chemistry, that's another (commit him to a madhouse and try to "cure" him).
I say in response to your question of why?, "Can't I just be?" You, dear reader, are. No one gets indignant if you have no answer to why you are an optimist or why you like peach ice cream. These days most people will grant you an exemption from the why question if you are gay. In 1960 they would not and were therefore eager to do things to you, many of them nasty. I want the courtesy and the safety of a whyless treatment extended to gender crossers. I want the medical models of gender crossing (and of 20 other things) to fall. That's the politics.
And incidentally, why do you think you are the gender you were officially assigned to at birth? Prove it. How odd.
Ah. I think you need some treatment.