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The Girl With No Name (1992)

The Girl With No Name (1992)

©1992, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (1992). The girl-with-no-name. Empathy: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Persons Working to End Oppression on the Basis of Sexual Identities, 3(2), 20-22. It also appeared in The News (Atlanta, GA), 8(6), Cover, 8-9, 18-20, with the title So You Think Being Gay was Difficult? Growing Up Transgendered in the South and in 1994 in LadyLike No. 20, pp. 18-20, 33-34.

This is one of a half-dozen or so articles I wrote to educate Atlanta’s gay and lesbian community about transgender issues.


Empathy Pages (PDF)

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The Girl-With-No-Name

By Dallas Denny


Despite its prejudices, the Old South always had a toleration for, or even love of the unusual. Until the 1960’s, when the proliferation of strip malls, supermarkets, limited access highways, and other triflings of postmodern Amerikan corporate culture replaced Mom-and-Pop groceries with supermarkets and killed downtowns as viable areas for shopping, most Southern towns had one or more “quare” characters—men and women out of touch with the rest of the society—male and female Delta Dawns who would wander around, doing whatever it was they did so well. But they, wearing their faded roses of days gone by, were only the outermost stratum of the onion. Peel back a layer, and you would find “queers” of another sort. Labeled and stigmatized as they might be, they were part and parcel of the social fabric—women who lived together in something that was not quite sisterhood, men who could always be visited at midnight by a carload of teenage boys with hard-ons and too much Carling Black Label in their bellies, women who dressed like men and didn’t give a damn, and, most curiously of all, men who would dress up as women.

By the time of the British Invasion in 1963, such people were already receding into legend, at least in my part of the South. I remember hearing about someone called Martin Smith, who would (horrors!) pass himself off as a woman. The story, oft-repeated and never verified, was a sergeant from the nearby air base had been very much in love with him and married him, only to have a rude awakening on their wedding night. I never got to meet Martin, more’s the pity. He was before my time, and the educational system was allowing no more like him. The high schools of the period, which were usually principled by ineffectual bald-headed fat white men, invariably had coaches with yellow flat-tops who doubled as assistant principles, enforcing their McCarthyist ideas with a surfeit of physical discipline and Cold War scare tactics. Gender variation was not only not allowed—it was unthinkable. Girls all wore skirts, and boys were sent home for not wearing socks or for wearing (the big thing in my senior year) madras pants. As the Fab Four, with their scandalously long hair, yeah-yeah-yeahed on television for Ed “Really Big Shew” Sullivan, the boys of the South watched on black-and-white sets, their hair cut burr-short at the back and sides.

And there was I, in the midst of all this Southern culture-in-flux, an iron filing in the electromagnetic field of life, with a very strong magnet only yards away, in my mother’s room. When she was away, I would go through her lingerie drawer, silently memorizing the position of each guiltily borrowed garment so I could fit it back in place like a piece from a nylon jigsaw puzzle. I had no idea why I, a boy of the highest ideals and purest character, a boy who had always been strong of heart and unlined of brow, suddenly found myself drawn so powerfully to women’s apparel, but I did know I was possessed of something far stronger than I. A sleeping demon had somehow wakened in me, and it would have its way; to resist was madness. I briefly considered briefly trying to fight it, but I knew in my heart it would destroy me if I didn’t give in, and so I did. I must have struggled with myself all of fifteen minutes before making this life-course-altering decision. I knew when I was licked.

I would slip on panties, tug into a girdle that was already too small, pull on nylons, fastening them, in those pre-pantyhose days, to the girdle’s dangling rubber thongs, struggle to snap a bra (the mechanics of which I did not quite understand), cover it all with a slip. And then madness—I slipped on a dress, and pulled on a kerchief, and all was lost.

You see, unlike crossdressers, who are fetishistically attracted by the apparel itself, I quickly discovered women’s clothing was but a means to an end: it was necessary in order to build the disguise of myself-as-woman. I remember well the day the gas gauge of my gender identity leapt for the first time out of the “M” zone and strayed defiantly into the “F.” I was perhaps fifteen. The rest of the family had gone on a ride, and I had begged off; the excuse is long forgotten. I was sitting on the floor of the living room, wearing a purple dress (I had my own by that time), experimenting with my face. And for the first time, I got it right. Looking in the mirror, with my mandatory burr-short-on-the-sides haircut, I would ordinarily see a boy, and only a boy. In that dress, with Cover Girl skin and Maybelline eyes, my hair blended into a fall, I saw a pretty, an almost beautiful girl. I didn’t—and this is important—see a boy dressed as a girl. I saw a girl. I remember thinking, “This is who I want to be. This is who I probably should have been.” But I also remember thinking it couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. I was looking at a fiction, a fabrication, a creature created out of cosmetics and cloth. The girl in the mirror was a fantasy, and I could see no way to make her a reality. She had no name. In the end, she wound up in a paper sack which I hid under a loose board in the summer-hot attic.

There are few secrets in a small house with six people living in it, and the girl-with-no-name was soon discovered. In no uncertain terms, I was let to know how scandalous, how perverse, how ugly she was. Despite my decision to give in to my urges, I had been having real problems dealing with what I considered to be an unnatural need of an All-American boy, and the revulsion of my mother, who caught me flat-footed (but not flat-chested), did not help—nor did my father’s disgust, when he was told. This was the man who had once jumped on me with both feet (figuratively) for talking like the cartoon character Snaglepuss the lion. Heavens to Murgatroyd! I didn’t understand what the problem was until later, when I realized he thought it sounded effeminate. Now, his son revealed as a boy who dressed up like a girl, he threatened to make me walk the long five miles into town in women’s clothing, as he followed in the car.

Would that he had, for I would have been out like

Martin Smith, and might have even found an airman of my own. Instead, the clothes were disposed of (not my choice; I never voluntarily purged), and the girl-with-no-name was dismembered as effectively as if we had cut her up and thrown her chunk by bleeding chunk from a speeding car on a moonless summer night.

My parents took me to a psychiatrist at the same air base that had harbored Martin Smith’s sergeant. In my shame and denial, I led him (the psychiatrist, not Martin’s sergeant) to think the crossdressing wasn’t important, had just been an experiment. And he went for it, telling my parents I was just going through a phase. It’s a phase that’s still going on, now, at age 42.

I hadn’t been successful in my quest for information about gender dysphoria—it wasn’t, after all, something I felt comfortable approaching authority figures about, and the few books on the subject in the public library were often checked out or stolen by people much like me—but I had found out Johns Hopkins University had a gender clinic which evaluated two people a month for sex reassignment. Two people a month in a country with a population of hundreds of millions!  What chance would a girl-with-no-name have? She was, after all, a lie, a wraith, a sometimes creature. Surely Hopkins would take those boys who were lucky enough to naturally look like girls without having to work at it, those with ambiguous genitalia, those whose parents had more money than mine. And how would my parents take it, my father who thought Snaglepuss was a faggot, and my mother who thought Miss Jane on The Beverly Hillbillies was played by Christine Jorgensen? “I just thought I would try it,” I told the shrink.” “It’s not that important.” Lie, lie, lie.

It was three or four years later. The girl-with-no-name was back, spending most of her time hanging in a wardrobe in the Ross Fireproof Hotel in downtown Nashville. I had graduated from high school and been summarily ejected from my parents’ house due to a combination of bad attitude and parental defiance—all appropriately masculine. I had found a 60-hour-a-week job as a busboy at Shoney’s restaurant (#2, the second Shoney’s ever to be built), and I would ride the bus to work and back. In the evenings and on my day off, the girl-with-no-name would come out of the closet and wander around downtown, shopping at Belk’s and Cain-Sloan and Harvey’s, the big three department stores, going to the movies, visiting the library, eating in restaurants, hoping desperately to spot someone like herself so she could at long last share her feelings with someone, but never managing to do so. Men in cars would whistle and slow down and try to convince me to get in beside them, and I would ignore them, always. But then one day something happened. I—or rather, the girl-with-no-name, found herself in a lip-lock with a cab driver. I had never been kissed before, had never even touched my privates except to wash them, and here I was in an embrace growing more passionate by the moment. I was struggling to keep his hands out from under my skirt (a mini—it was the ’60s, after all), struggling with my self-identity—here I was being kissed by a man, and I damn well knew that underneath the clothing I was a boy, after all, and I knew I couldn’t be gay, for I had no interest in men as a man. Here I was with a gender identity which had suddenly slammed itself firmly against the “F” peg and would never again wander into the “M” zone. Here I was with an awakening awareness of my genitals—genitals I was wholeheartedly wishing were innies instead of outies so I could go to bed with this man like any other woman. Here I was, wondering if I would be killed and decapitated if this heterosexual man were to discover his date was really a boy.

I managed to call a halt to proceedings just shy of blastoff, and a little short of discovery. The man pleaded with me to be his girlfriend, and asked me to go with him to meet his friends—but I, no Martin Smith, refused him, and did not see him again.

During those days at the Ross Fireproof Hotel, the girl-with-no-name would plot and scheme, trying to figure out how to find a job (short of prostitution) which would allow her to stay out of the closet forever. But she was fighting Mother Nature, and she knew it. She, who had years earlier found a single hair on her face and shuddered, knowing it was the first sign of an adolescence she neither valued nor wanted, had been only too correct. Every day, there was more hair on her face and less on her head. She could feel a masculine essence in her body, and she hated it and the gonads which produced it—but she, who had never thought about hormones, could think of nothing to do about it, short of self-castration, of which she was not capable.

I did consider becoming involved with the gay community, where I thought there might be a place for me, but I could never quite bring myself to do it. Nashville had a gay bar of legendary fame, Juanita’s, but in my mind’s eye it was a seedy little place where men cruised each other; when, years later, I finally got around to visiting Juanita’s, I discovered it was indeed such a place. I didn’t go, and there was nowhere else to go. And then an opportunity arose. A new bar opened. It was called the Watch-Your-Hat-and-Coat Saloon, and it had a drag show. I went once, in drab, where I saw for the first time men dancing together, men holding hands. It assuaged my homophobia a bit; it wasn’t so awful. It was also the first time I had seen anyone in frag. The female impersonators were stunning, full, I now know, of silicones and hormones.

I almost went back to the Hat-and-Coat as the girl-with-no-name, but the bar’s policy was no drag, and although I was quite convincing, I had no documentation to make my girlhood official, and so never went, for the same reason I could never bring myself to go to the psychedelic night club which was fifty yards from my room at the Ross. And then the Hat-and-Coat burned, and some people died, jumping from upper stories to avoid the flames. It hasn’t occurred to me until then, but perhaps it was providence which kept me out of the Hat-and-Coat. Still, I’ve always wondered how my life would have turned out if I had sought shelter within the gay community, as many transgendered people do.

And so the testosterone marched on and I entered adulthood as a man instead of as a woman and the straight world instead of the gay. Married a woman, grew a beard, went to college. Got weak in the knees every time I saw a pretty girl, I wanted to be her so badly. Got divorced (of unrelated causes).

It was 1978. S again, I had moved back to Nashville after completing my master’s program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. A beard of seven years was gone, and the girl-with-no-name was back, even if she wasn’t passing so well because of testosterone poisoning. I was going to the gay bars, making out with clueless men in parking lots, facing a lifetime of looking increasingly more bizarre in a dress, becoming increasingly dysphoric about my body. I was finding it more and more difficult to think of myself as the girl-with-no-name, for I was starting to see in the mirror not the girl, and not the woman she should have become, but a man-in-a-dress. I decided it was time to come to terms with myself, to stop hiding the girl-with-no-name in the closet, to integrate her into my life.

I started by acknowledging that I was at the very least a crossdresser. I quit worrying my pumps or wig would be seen, or that I would be spotted wearing them. One by one, I told my friends and acquaintances. Step one.

Those were the days of Jan Morris and Ren ée Richards; gender reassignment, while still scandalous, was at least thinkable. Step two was to ask myself whether I wanted to be a woman. I already knew the answer to that one.

Step three was to take an honest look at myself, to determine if it would be possible, via surgery, electrolysis, and better living through chemistry, to ever pass convincingly as a woman. I refused to be a man-in-a-dress. I took careful stock of my body. I didn’t at all like what I saw. My body had moved in undesirable directions since the day I’d found a single hair growing on my face. I was too hairy. Too big. Too this, not enough that. I made a list, and then scratched off things that could be changed via hard work, hormones, electrolysis, surgery. I looked at what was left and thought “Just maybe…”

And so I took myself to the gender clinic at Vanderbilt University, where I gave them some money and told them about the girl-with-no-name. After a time they got back to me, saying they had made a decision about my gender. They had made the decision! And no, it wasn’t the one I wanted. They would offer me counseling to help me in my life as a man. Thank you very much. Fuck you. I didn’t go back.

The story of my change from a man to a woman is lengthy, and full of pain and expense and loss and joy and strength and self-awareness, a story for another article, as this one has already grown quite lengthy. Suffice it to say I did an end-around the clinic and found some hormones (it was the clinic which made me realize I should be taking them when they told me that they wouldn’t give them to me!). I started electrolysis, and eventually—very eventually—it took me ten more years—began successfully living as a woman.

It wasn’t until 1989, when I was finally ready to make that big leap across genders, that I first got the chance to talk to a transsexual person—not that I was transsexual. Oh, no. I was just a man who had always wanted to be a woman, yup, yup, no t-words apply to me, thank you veddy much. It was wonderful to actually meet someone else with the same condition (curse? blessing?). I had realized early-on that I was not the only one in the world (there were books in the libraries, after all, even if they were always checked out, so there had to be more who were like me). But where they were—that was the mystery. I supposed many, like me, must be completely alone with feelings which have to be some of mankind’s most difficult to cope with—but I also knew there had to be a paraculture, a community, gatherings of people like me who would get together and talk trans, provide support, swap stories of girls within and marriages to airmen and trysts with cab drivers. I had just never been able to find that community. The libraries certainly hadn’t pointed me in the right direction. Adult bookstores were no better. I would buy shrink-wrapped magazines with disgusting names, hoping to find some useful information inside. Inside, there would be chicks with dicks instead of magic keys to the gender community. Circulation time for a magazine, purchase to garbage can—five minutes. Did you hear that, Guinness Book of Records?

I finally found the community by joining a crossdressing club; it was the only thing I knew to do. I was a crossdresser who passed, a crossdresser who had had electrolysis, a crossdresser with size C breasts, a crossdresser who people were calling ma’am even when I was at my masculine best with my girlfriend. I was no crossdresser at all. I phased through the club like a knife through butter, and emerged on the other side, in Wonderland. There were transsexual people everywhere. For the first time, I wasn’t alone.

The girl-with-no-name now has a name. It is, in fact, the name she had all along, her birth name, which is one of those names which turns out to work perfectly well as a woman’s name, thank you. She is finally a creature of flesh-and-blood rather than a fantasy. She is not a notion of a woman, not an imitation of a woman, not a man’s idea of what a woman should be, but a woman, with all the virtues and warts, the rights and priviliges pertaining thereto—a woman who can be raped, who can be strong, who can bake a cake and change the spark plugs of her car. It is she who I see in the mirror every morning instead of the burr-headed boy I once was. Finally, at long last, thank God, it’s over.