in Interviews | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

Man Made

Max Wolf

in Interviews | 05 SEP 93

Ostracised by a politically correct feminism and marginalised by much of gay liberation politics, the 'transgender 'community is the latest outsider to jostle for space in the queer family. Many of the pivotal gen-der debates, pioneered by feminists,are twisted by transgender politics into new and often treacherous contortions. Current arguments suggest that we all participate to ,some degree in defining our own genders and dispute the common assumption that gender is both binary and natural.

Although at least half of all sex changes are females to males, male transsexuals are still less frequently represented or acknowledged. Nan Goldin’s The Other Side, for example, documents only male-to-female transsexuals.

A recent exception is Monika Treut's film, Female Misbehaviour (1992), which profiles Max Wolf (formerly Anita Valerie). This frank account not only distinguishes genitalplasty from phalloplasty, but grapples with the contradictions of an ex-radical feminist lesbian living as a heterosexual man. It's now tour years since Max first had 'rock'n'roll' injected into his body and two months since the film opened in his local cinema. We spoke near his home in San Franciso about his unyielding conviction that he was always more of a man than a woman.

'Perhaps there had been a mistake. l decided it would be better to be a boy and stayed awake at night pray-ing to turn into one. If I was a boy it would be easier to be a super hero and to be president "

Cherry Smyth: I've heard that it's difficult for adventurous sex-subversives to be prescribed hormones. Did you have to convince them that all you ever wanted was to be a nice married man?

Max Wolf: A lot of times you are forced to conform in order to get your hormones. I did have an experience where the doctor was semi-hostile and said, `why can't you just keep living as a lesbian?' I've heard horror stories about male doctors only giving male-to-females hor-mones if they think the patient would become an attractive woman they would considering sleep-ing with.

You obviously enjoyed being the subject of a film. How has it affected your life?

I love having my picture taken. Actually it's been really positive. At the time of the movie I'd been living as a guy for two and a half years.

Still a toddler.

Yeah. I'm starting to grow a little now. You have to go through your adolescence again and see things from a different point of view, which is really intense. I'd been living with people and I didn't tell them. I moved in as a normal, all- straight guy. I was very afraid when the movie came out - I didn't know how I was going to deal with it.

One of the reasons I enjoyed people not knowing, was because, well, you get tired of teaching people. You want to learn. There's all these things about being male that I don't know. I wanted to see how I'd be treated. I didn't want any kind of interference or filter with them thinking, `this man might really be a woman.'

How did people react to your disclosure?

One woman was totally astonished. 'I'll always think of you as a guy,' she said. 'But you know, I always did think you sorta had a unique perspec-tive on women's issues.' We'd been talking about getting sexually harassed on the street and I had to think back to before I was a butch dyke with spiky black hair to when I had long brown hair at 20 years old and how horrible it was with guys going `baby, baby' all the time. I was completely sympathetic.

Has testosterone altered your personality?

People say I'm calmer and seem slot happier. I think I've become more aggressive and get angry faster. That took me totally by surprise.

Is that because as a man you now have permis-sion to express it?

No. Having been a lesbian feminist and having fought against those gender-based ideas my whole life, I didn't want to fall into those traps. It feels more primal. One day I was waiting in line in the subway and I was late for a job interview. I got so frustrated and felt this heat coming up in my body. I thought, oh my god, what is that? Not that I was meek and mild before, but it is differ-ent. You learn to watch it. I would talk to men about it and they said you just have to control it. I understand now why guys get into more fights.

I can't cry as much. I used to have a crying jag about once a month. Now, I feel the pain but can only squeeze out a few tears two or three times a year.

I was surprised to see that a women's sex party here only allows 'biological' women in. Is there still an idea that men might become transsexual to infiltrate the women's movement?

Yeah. It's a little farfetched. 'Real' men will not part with their dicks for anything.

Are male-to-female transsexuals more visible because as men they had the right to be assertive?

That's part of it. But it's much easier for FTMs to accomplish this transition. It's easier to be a small man than a tall woman. Often FTMs pass, assimilate and disappear. This year I marched in the Gay Parade with Transgender Nation because it was important for a transsexual man to be represented. One of the reasons that it took me so long to change sex was that I had no idea it would work so well because I had never met a female-to-male.

If every FTM disappears, isn't that colluding with gender oppression in some way?

I tend to agree, but not everybody is up to that. One of the reasons why it's hard for people to come out, especially when you're passing, is that you're afraid you're going to have to give it all up and people will start seeing you as a woman. But transsexuals aren't living for the revolution - we're doing this to make ourselves happier and fulfilled, not to be transgressive. I want to explore this complex resistance to transsexuality. Everyone, including lesbians, is invested in the bi-gendered system. There is a huge taboo around manipulation of the body, which I understand, but it shows how deep this identity issue is if we go through all that. l mean, you're cutting off parts of your body and rearranging this and that, which just proves how alienated people feel in their original form - it doesn't really feel like it's yours. But we just get used to these things. After a while it's like 'ho hum, yeah we're cutting this up. How does yours look? That doctor does it that way.' You have to weigh up the health risks. I'm now more subject to male diseases like heart disease - and men don't live as long.

I've been reading some cyberpunk and I've come to believe that all these things people are afraid of are going to come to pass. We're going to see genetic manipulation which will make this look tame. You'll be able to genetically recreate yourself into a male. We're going to have body parts made of machinery.

How have your parents reacted?

My mother was not too happy. She said, 'Why couldn't you just stay a lesbian? Why? Why?' I never thought I'd hear my mom say that. But they came up to visit me this year and that really helped. They said I looked good. I didn't look like what they were imagining - Mona Lisa with a moustache.

Have you had surgery yet?

I'm still saving up for the removal of the breasts which is the most important surgery because binding is such a drag. If you think wearing a bra is a drag, let me tell you I live in this thing. Breasts never really felt right on me, but now they really don't.

Do you keep the binder on when you have sex?

Sometimes. I usually don't want to take off my shirt. Actually I'm with someone now. She's totally heterosexual and has never been with women.

Do you use dildos?

Sometimes, and other times I use my hand.

Have you been able to cruise like a man?

I don't feel real confident to pursue anything. These relationships have come to me because of the movie. I'm finding that I don't have to have had surgery to have partners. I met a girlfriend at work and I told her, 'I've got something to tell you. We have to be alone.' I told her and she said, 'Oh, I'm so relieved. I thought you were going to tell me that you were a mass murderer.' Oh no -nothing that exciting, dear. It doesn't seem to stop them. In fact, she was intrigued. One woman said, 'I feel like I'm in the twilight zone.'

I thought it was going to be difficult to date heterosexual women without a penis, but it's mostly men who are concerned with penises. They react in shock to my girlfriend: 'He ...he... but he doesn't have a penis! What can he do?' There are, of course, genetic men who have a physical disability or erection problems, who buy vibrators. The message I can give to heterosexual males is, 'Guess what? You can have a great time. You don't need an actual dick.' I have one in my head.

Will you have the phalloplasty if you can afford it?

I don't think so. There's a lot of scarring. Half the men who get phalloplasties are genetic men who've lost their penises in an accident. Now I've got a clit that has become like a small penis and gets erect and moves, and once I get the genitalplasty, where they put implants in the labia, it'll move more.

How do you decide how big to pad your jeans?

I always go for big. If you have to fake it, you may as well put a big one in there.

Do you miss the lesbian and gay community or is it a relief to be out of it?

Both. This is where I want to be, but it's not as though you don't pay a price. If I go to a lesbian gathering, I'm invisible. And these straight women have never heard of the Michigan Women's Music Festival! I'm this heterosexual man from this lesbian culture. I'm like nothing they've ever met before. I'm coming from another country, this strange 'Amazon' country. Women in general don't trust me as much. But I'm not like other heterosexual men. l got a lot of male conditioning second hand, like many hutch dykes, but I'm more like a genetic man than a genetic woman or I wouldn't have done this.

Do you still have 'wimmins' books on your shelves?

I still have some. Some of it will always be important because that was how I was brought up, even if I've rebelled against mom.

Do you always challenge sexism in a male-only group?

I've found men not to be as bad as I thought. At one point I was around all these men and I realised that if I closed my eyes I could just as easily have been around a group of dykes. It occurred to me, 'Wow! Men really are people.' I was about a year into it. There are plenty who are jerks, but the average guy is trying his best. I don't know if anyone's going to believe me but they're sorta trying. They're not always doing the right thing, they don't necessarily know what the right thing is. I've had to re-examine all the man- hating that accrued to lesbian feminism and shed some of it. I'm dealing with this now: how to be sensitive and not wimpy. I also have to be careful. When you're a dyke you can say 'oh she's really hot', but it sounds different from a man. The hormones make you hornier so those feelings are more present. Sometimes I find myself ogling without meaning to. I try not to. Most guys do.

1. Anita Valerio, This Bridge Called My Back (1981)
Max Wolf is a poet, actor, musician. As Anita Valerio, he published an essay in This Bridge Called My Back, a feminist bible of the 80s and a volume of poems, Animal Magnetism (EG Press). Max is currently working on a new book of poetry called The Criminal (soon to be published by Vortex)