CW: Pornographic imagery and quotes.
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Peter Milligan’s “Shade the Changing Woman” arc coincided with the rise of online transgender culture on Usenet, particularly the creation of the group alt.transgendered, which was intended as a place for resource sharing within the trans community.
“The first time was when you were eleven and you put on your sister’s tights, wasn’t it Barry? No one would understand if you told them, would they? You wanted to order those court shoes and that black dress from the catalogue but you lost your nerve.” -Grant Morrison, The Invisibles
This high-minded purpose for the group was, unsurprisingly, not entirely realized, and a number of posts strayed in more lurid directions. One early one, for instance, was posted under the header “Troubled” and consisted of an obvious fantasy presented as a true story. “I am really troubled by a tough decision to make. To stay as I am now or to undergo another corrective surgery,” it began. “All this happened 2 months ago when a series of coincidences and mistakes lead to my present problem.” The post then explains how they were in the hospital for a minor urological procedure only to have a mixup in name tags that resulted in them getting a surprise vaginoplasty. This is described with a familiar sense of fascinated horror as their initial outrage fades to a sort of puzzled consideration of accepting the hand fate has supposedly dealt them. “The surgeon told me about several options – another surgery to reconstruct the penis and testis but it would not be the same and I would be infertile, remain as such, or take estrogen and get a breast implant. He also added that it would be easier to lead a more normal female life (sexually) than a reconstruction to lead a life as a male. Now I am really confused as I didn’t really mind being a male and never thought of becoming a female until now. A stent is placed in my artificial vagina to keep it patent and I was told that I won’t need it if I chose to become a male. I am not taking any estrogen, but still my voice is changing slightly and I noticed loss in facial hair.” In a followup a couple weeks later they come to terms with it, deciding that “I feel the same after this tragic event. So why bother to go thru another surgery” before closing their message with the warning, “Masturbation is not like it use to be even though the surgeons have left a small piece of erectile tissue as the clitoris.”
This post was certainly an outlier for the group, and most of the replies noted its obviously fictitious nature, but posts in the same vein were common. Another early post talks about how the poster was forced to cross-dress by their parents who “thought it would be cute to see their son in their daughter’s dress” but who now has an uncontrollable desire to crossdress and pass, despite their almost Rorschach-like insistance that they “go to the gun range shooting once in awhile. Big gun, good shot. Ready to protect my wife and my home. I drive a sports car well. Fast on the open road, responsible in traffic. Not one of the wacko lane changers. Always use a signal.” And as time passed, especially following the “Eternal September” of 1993 when America Online began providing Usenet access providing a constant flood of new users of the sort previously only seen in September when a new freshman class got access via their universities, leading to people posting multiple chapter stories detailing the experience of a man waking up baffledly to discover that he had lactating breasts. (“He reached up and found the corner of what he thought was a pillow under the blanket before him. There was a wetness. Untangling the blanket brought him fully awake. He was frightened. His chest had breasts. They seemed incredibly large.”)
1992 also marked the year that the Nifty Erotic Stories Archive opened, at first as an FTP site run out of Carnegie Mellon University, upgrading to an HTML-based site in the mid-90s. The Nifty Archive was devoted to queer erotic content, which quickly came to include transgender content. The first such story came in May of 1993, entitled “Surprisingly in Love,” and was not a story of transition but rather one written from the perspective of a man who was what would eventually become called a chaser. Its objectification is clear even from the header, which described sex between “a man and a transsexual,” the latter treated as a gender unto itself, and admitting that “I’d love to meet and talk to one someday…. 😉 .” The story lives up to this intro, with lavish attention paid to the narrator’s shock and confusion. “I’m not… WHAT you think I am…” the woman cries, to which the narrator asks, “What are you then, some alien from another planet?” And so she explains, “‘I understand your confusion but it’s true… I do not have a vagina! I do have a cock just like you!” she turn and said straight to my face, tears tumbling down her face to be caught by her ivory breasts.” Nevertheless the man remains interested, eventually thrilled to discover that “there WAS something else down there! It WAS her! And it felt enormous! It was bigger and fatter than mine for sure! I just couldn’t believe it but I was getting even hotter and started to squeeze her ass cheeks as we ground pole against rigid pole!”
The bulk of early trans stories on the Nifty Archive, however, were transition narratives. More specifically, they were almost universally forced transition narratives; dozens of stories along those lines were posted in the 1993-94 range. These had an aggressive interchangeability to them, right down to the near universal frequency with which it’s a woman supervising the forced transition. Central to all of them is, again, that moment of horrified discovery followed by confused acceptance. “When I finished, Diana did a strange thing. She grabbed a couple sheets of toilet paper and wiped my crotch area. I nearly died as I felt the paper go inside my body. Diana giggled as it dawned on me I had a cunt down there instead of a dick. I turned crimson, and tears rolled down my face,” one describes. “He absentmindedly glanced down at his body when the pajama tops were removed. Breasts…he had breasts!! They weren’t large, but they were there and the nipples were large. As in a trance, he reached up and felt one. They were real!” goes another. “In awe, I took in the petite curvy form that I now called my own. My hands settled on two impossibly perfect breasts now seated prominently on my formerly hairy chest. Open mouthed, I squeezed them gently sending shivers of electricity through my womanly body,” offers a third. All of this is clearly cringeworthy, but it is worth stressing; nothing remotely like the Nifty Archive had ever existed before, and for all its flaws it was an absolutely vital resource for a generation of queers.
The particular formula of forced transition erotica may be a mid-90s phenomenon, but the underlying phenomenon of breathlessly lurid descriptions of transition is far older. In her 1987 essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto” the trans scholar Sandy Stone offers an overview of mid 20th century transition narratives beginning with Niels Hoyer’s 1933 account of Lili Elbe’s transition and continuing through autobiographical accounts like Jo Star’s I Changed My Sex! and Jan Morris’s Conundrum. Stone finds a familiar formula to the accounts—not the moment of stunned horror-pleasure per se, but a similar sense of the transfeminine body as something that is constructed for an external and lascivious gaze. “I feel small, and neat. I am not small in fact, and not terribly neat either, but femininity conspires to make me feel so. My blouse and skirt are light, bright, crisp. My shoes make my feet look more delicate than they are, besides giving me…a suggestion of vulnerability that I rather like. My red and white bangles give me a racy feel, my bag matches my shoes and makes me feel well organized…When I walk out into the street I feel consciously ready for the world’s appraisal, in a way that I never felt as a man,” she quotes Morris saying. “I wanted the sensual feel of lingerie against my skin, I wanted to brighten my face with cosmetics. I wanted a strong man to protect me,” writes Star, whose account even preserves the moment of ecstatic discovery of a new body: “In the instant that I awoke from the anaesthetic, I realized that I had finally become a woman,”
Clearly, then, this type of story is not something exclusively written by and for cis people. It’s impossible to know how much of what was posted to alt.transgender and the Nifty Archive was by people who went through with transitions, but the old adage that cis people do not spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to transition means that many, if not all of them are legitimately trans narratives as well, albeit presumably from a pre-transition perspective.
There are many potential explanations for this. One explanation, offered by writers like Janice Raymond (whose transphobic epic The Transsexual Empire provides Stone’s piece with its title and which Stone has impishly implied was inspired by Stone either stealing Raymond’s girlfriend or dumping Raymond herself) is that transfeminine identities are inherently suspect, amounting to little more than male attempts to appropriate and objectify femininity. Stone, however, offers an altogether more plausible one, noting the process by which trans identities were medicalized and the way in which this required the creation of quasi-objective diagnostic criteria. She traces the history of the Stanford gender clinic, where “final decisions of eligibility for gender reassignment were made by the staff on the basis of an individual sense of the ‘appropriateness of the individual to their gender of choice’. The clinic took on the additional role of ‘grooming clinic’ or ‘charm school’ because, according to the judgment of the staff, the men who presented as wanting to be women didn’t always ‘behave like’ women.” Similarly she notes the way in which physician Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon—the first major study of trans people, which laid out clear criteria for what would constitute a “convincing” woman versus an unconvincing one (who was thus unsuitable for treatment). Stone wryly notes that “When the first clinics were constituted, Benjamin’s book was the researchers’ standard reference. And when the first transsexuals were evaluated for their suitability for surgery, their behavior matched up gratifyingly with Benjamin’s criteria. The researchers produced papers which reported on this, and which were used as bases for funding. It took a surprisingly long time—several years—for the researchers to realize that the reason the candidates’ behavioral profiles matched Benjamin’s so well was that the candidates, too, had read Benjamin’s book, which was passed from hand to hand within the transsexual community, and they were only too happy to provide the behavior that led to acceptance for surgery.” In other words, trans identities shaped themselves according to the demands of the people gatekeeping their medical care—people who were, in practice, overwhelmingly heterosexual men whose criteria were closely related to their own sexual preferences.
This never entirely faded from trans medical care; Ray Blanchard’s typology of trans women, for instance, has been widely accused of being a thinly veiled typology of trans women he does and doesn’t want to fuck, and vaginoplasty eligibility criteria continue to include a medically questionable BMI limit the practical effect of which is to limit surgery to women who fit conventional models of attractiveness. The sheer prevalence of this renders discussion of the subsequent way in which trans identities shape themselves to these demands complex. It is insufficient to declare them to simply be performative affectations for cis audiences, even as Stone notes the trans community’s own private discourse such as the pre-surgery tradition of “wringing the turkey’s neck” which was held as “the most secret of secret traditions. To acknowledge so natural a desire would be to risk ‘crash landing’; that is, ‘role inappropriateness’ leading to disqualification.” After all, much of a trans woman’s life must be lived out under the cis gaze, and basic magical principles mean that there is only so much that one can perform a role such as that before the performance gains a measure of authenticity. In a very real sense, chasers defined what being trams meant.
This logic extends not merely to the self-descriptions of women who have transitioned, but also to the pre-transition fantasies found on alt.transgender and the Nifty archive. If the public construction of trans identities is rooted in the male gaze then some college kid writing trans erotica and lobbing it onto Usenet or the Nifty Archive’s FTP server will imagine trans identities in line with the male gaze. And as the prevalence of the Internet expanded over the 1990s and a generation of self-closeted trans people got online and began exploring trans identities, these stories were in turn what they found and what shaped their identities, so that the conceptions of trans identities prescribed for the trans women of the 1960s sustained themselves decades later. Trans theorist Andrea Long Chu, for instance, quotes in her paper “Did Sissy Porn Make Me Trans?” a Reddit post that describes how “About 3 years ago, I discovered sissy hypno videos [that’s “hypno” like short for “hypnotism”], which in a nutshell are flashing subjective images telling you to wear panties, be girly, suck cock, and even take hormones. I became completely obsessed with these videos. Nothing got me off like these. It got to the point where I started wearing panties and imagining myself as a girl when I would masturbate,” and finally to where the poster decided they were trans. Trans identities are manifestly untidy things, all of which begin in a fundamentally inadequate performance of gender. This messiness does not intrinsically distinguish them from cis identities, of course, but it has its effects. No trans woman has ever sat up in bed stunned by the sudden arrival of her perfect DD breasts, but that does not make the first time one whacks one’s chest on something and realizes that one’s growing breasts are sore any less of a moment of triumphantly horrified delight. [continued]