King for a Night (part 1)

I'm trying to figure out when, exactly, I became Phil McCracken. I dressed like him, walked like him, talked like him but the metamorphosis wasn't complete until...when? Was it when the last flecks of beard were glued to my face? Was it when I bound my breasts with an Ace bandage, or when I made it out of the house, and, flanked by strong friends, muscled through the crowds at New Haven's newest adult club, Temptations? 

No: I think it was when, hours later, a dancer named Arielle, wrapped in a tiny black dress that fit her like a condom, clasped her legs around me on top of a pool table in a deserted back room of Club International and smiled right into my eyes. And my heart, which usually goes pitter-pat, went thump-thump-thump. 

I was a man for a night. More precisely, I was a King for a night. 

Kinging, though technically as old as history, is a phenomenon that's currently raging through gay and non-gay communities all over the country. In simple terms, Drag Kings are women who not only dress like men, but actively attempt to pass for men. For some women, it's a way to challenge our male-dominant society. Others feel it's a form of self-expression. For many gender-dysphoric women -- those who are unhappy with their given sexual or gender identity -- Kinging is a way of life. 

In the years before the 1969 Stonewall uprising that jump-started gay liberation, many lesbians were forced to King. Public displays of affection between same-sex couples were taboo. In order to be seen together without being humiliated -- or, worse, thrown in jail or beaten -- one partner in a lesbian couple would have to pass as a man. But there were systematic ways for the police to enforce gender norms. Throughout parts of the United States and Canada in the 1950s, laws dictated that females must wear at least three articles of women's clothing. Police raided bars they believed to be predominantly gay and often made lesbians, or those they suspected to be lesbian, strip naked to see if they disobeyed the "socially acceptable" dress code. 

Lesbians weren't the only ones who dressed and acted like males. Throughout history, females went male to gain entrance to universities and the military. In the 19th century, Dr. James Barry became chief medical officer of the British Army and, even though some people suspected, her gender wasn't known until her death. Decorated French war hero/spy/philosopher D'eon de Beaumont passed as a man in the 18th century until, halfway through his 80-year life, he announced he was a woman. The practice became known as "eonism." 

Drag kings and queens today are often referred to as transgendered -- a term put into general usage by Virginia Price, the co-founder of tri-ess, a heterosexual transvestite support group. Price was instrumental in getting cross-dressing decriminalized and also helped dispel the notion that transvestites, or TVs, are gay or bisexual. Though many people use the terms cross-dressing and transvestitism interchangeably, some psychologists distinguish between dressing for stress relief or social responses (cross-dressing) and dressing for sexual stimulation (transvestitism). Drag kings and queens come in all flavors. They can be flamboyant or low-key, and dress for purposes of stage performances, sexual stimuli or personal curiosity. A guy who puts on lipstick and heels and parades around his living room on a Saturday night is merely a cross-dresser, not a transvestite, and tends to be straight. The line gets a little fuzzy because women cross-dress all the time; borrowing your boyfriend's flannel shirt and boxer shorts can be considered cross-dressing, but these days, no one thinks twice about it. 

Photos by Jody Wheat

Boy Boot Camp 
Enter me: a straight gal whose gender identity is pretty much cemented in frilly pink frocks and a vanity table that rivals any drag queen's. I thought it would be fun to see if I, girlie girl, could pass as a guy. What fun it would be, instead of spending my usual Friday night propped up by six pillows, a face full of cold cream and surrounded by three cats, to simulate a 5 o'clock shadow and slouch all night. 

I heard about the resurging Kinging craze through a friend, whose sister is a women's studies professor at the University of Illinois. After some research, I discovered a Kinging workshop presented by Diane Torr, a New York-based artist/filmmaker whose latest performance, Drag Kings & Subjects (1995), combines choreography, scripts and instructional guidelines on masculinity. Club Casanova at Velvet in New York City also offers drag shows and workshops featuring Mo B. Dick and Buster Hymen. But after about 20 e-mails and 10 phone calls, none of the workshops fit my schedule. So I decided to become a boy on my own. 

I began by studying men's posture, movements, cadence. I've kept my hair short for years, but it's quite wispy and feminine even when I slick it back with gobs of gel. So I practiced styling it like a barber would -- parted on the side and held in place with pomade. I also began, scary as it was, making occasional appearances outside my home without wearing so much as a dab of make-up. For me, this was like going out nude. I met with comments like "You look tired," "Are you sick?" and my favorite: "Honey, you look awful. ... Did you get dumped?" 

I didn't tell anyone that, in fact, I was in training. Only my closest friends and co-workers knew. My male friends offered bits of advice, such as what to say should I land at a sports bar. "Always mention the name Johnson," said Gil. "'Cause on every team there's a no-neck guy named Johnson. It works for me every time." They also instructed me to take up as much space as humanly possible -- spread legs akimbo at all times and flop my arms to the sides. Walk with my head down, they told me, and rarely make eye contact, unless it's with a cute girl. And whatever you do, don't smile. 

Boston Boyz 
One of my many e-mail messages paid off. Instead of a Kinging workshop, I heard about "A Hero's Journey," a transgender female-to-male conference in Boston. It was there that I was introduced to genetically born women who not only dressed as men, but wanted to become men. The outdated term is transsexual. Most of the "men" who attended the two-day conference felt they were born in the wrong bodies. I heard tales of alienation, betrayal, gender-bending, rejection and scorn. 

Almost all of the men had already started, or were considering taking, hormones for the female-to-male transition. I went to a body image seminar and listened as they spoke about surgically altering their bodies -- having their vaginas sewn up, their breasts removed and penises implanted. As a woman who is comfortable with her gender, I felt disturbed at hearing of elective mastectomies and hysterectomies. I thought of the thousands of women each year who lost breasts to cancer and who had no choice. What some people want, others desperately want to get rid of. Their cut-and-paste talk made me think that Kinging wasn't for me. But I braved on. 

I mistakenly wound up in an art class. By the time I realized it was a full-blown express-yourself-through-crayon workshop, it was too late for me to escape. Our assignment was to create something that represented our gender. I drew a stick figure wearing a dress, big boobs (hey, a girl can dream) and a fetching hat. Two of my classmates drew figures with giant penises. I guess they had dreams of their own. 

My art instructor's name was Jeff. He saw my press pass and we struck up a conversation. It was hard for me to relate to him as a man because, well, he looked like Suzanne Pleshette. He had only recently started hormone treatment so he had little or no facial hair and didn't appear masculine, or rather, how I perceived masculine should be. He's an art therapist and lives in a town not far from where I grew up along the Hudson River. I wanted to talk to him more, so we went for Indian food. 

We discussed romance, jobs, travel, food and gender. He just split from a 10-year live-in relationship with a woman. He told me how he grew up feeling separated from his body. At age 3 he started calling himself Jeff and later legally changed his name. Even so, his feminine appearance threw me; at times, I felt more masculine. Until he belched and didn't say "excuse me." 

His parents naturally flipped out over why their little daughter rejected playing with dolls and refused to wear dresses. Meanwhile, his gay brother was routinely rooting through his mother's closet. Jeff was on the other side of the wardrobe experimenting with his father's ties. We chuckled at the image. 

I confessed to Jeff that elective mastectomies and hysterectomies disturbed me. He said that, just like cancer patients, FTMs (female-to-males) have no choice. Even though they were biologically born female, they are psychologically and emotionally male. I found it hard to detach myself from my uterus, but somehow I understood. 

I told him that I planned to King for a night. He loved the idea and gave me some tips on how to hide my girlish hips. I learned a lot that day about genderphobia, he/shes, butch/femmes and men's fashion over a plate of chicken tikka masala. 

Ray and I crossed paths soon after my luncheon with Jeff. We sat next to each other for a smoke on the steps outside. I told him he looked a lot like my brother. He cast a big grin and thanked me. He was very cute. Had I been a passerby on the street, I never would have guessed he was born female. In fact, I would have whistled quietly and dreamed of dating him. Ray works as a rehab counselor in Michigan. During his transition, he lost his job. Post-surgery, he vied for another position with a different company against a woman. He landed the job and later learned that his salary was $6,000 more than the pay offered his female competition. 

Although Ray had a mastectomy, his female plumbing is still intact. He said his uterus has atrophied because of the hormones, but he still has to go for regular Pap smears. Here was a male figure, this guy before me, telling me this. I couldn't help myself. I burst out laughing. He then cracked up and described the looks he gets from nurses at his gynecologist's office. 

We smoked three cigarettes together. He, too, heard of my Kinging plan and offered tips. "Don't forget to bind those breasts," he laughed. "And be sure to use the men's room." 

I got my period the next day. And I left Boston. Bound for New Haven and the birth of the King. 

Phil's M.O. 
Afraid of looking too campy in a suit, my alter ego needed to be more Joe Lunchpail. Plus, I do the Marlene Dietrich routine anyway. Over a pastrami nightmare at Dempsey's, my friends and I dreamt up Phil McCracken. 

He'd be in his early to mid-20s. He goes to college but prides himself on living off-campus. He listens to Pink Floyd and Leonard Cohen. He likes underground comics, gets a lot of parking tickets (which he never pays) and has bad handwriting. His girlfriend is a vegetarian and tries constantly to convert him. Somewhere in his family there's money. He drives a beat-up Datsun. He's attracted to Goth chicks and has a crush on Winona Ryder. 

It was a cinch concocting Phil's dreamgirl. I admit to having a very normal homoerotic subconscious experience. Two years ago, or maybe three, I, Colleen Van Tassell, admitted at a party, in front of my then-boyfriend, that I had a steamy dream about Winona Ryder. There. I said it. No letters, please. Back to Phil. 

Phil loves Burger King and drinks Schaefer. He reads William Blake and MAD magazine. He works at a used record store. Loves animals. He's never been to a strip club. He has bad posture and chews his nails. He likes his parents. He smokes pot. 

The King is bred.

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