Normal: transsexual CEOs, cross-dressing cops, and hermaphrodites with attitude by Amy Bloom

Gender-bending, the normal all-American way
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The Independent Culture

Amy Bloom's book on gender-bending in contemporary America begins with a series of bald statements about her initial prejudices. Surely, this is just a writer's trick: exaggerating her ignorance about the lives of transsexuals, cross-dressers and hermaphrodites so that her change of values is that much sharper.

Bloom is writing for an American readership which has yet to consider these issues, and her statements seem designed to keep pace with its prejudices. That anxiety may be unwarranted. After all, among the cross-dressing men she meetsat the Fantasia Fair in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and on a cruise ship in California are Baptist preachers, cops, corporate heads and staunch Republicans.

She also meets Mel Rudd and his wife, Peggy, the author of My Husband Wears My Clothes, whose hallway is lined with photos of Reagan and George Bush. They're Christians who believe a wife's role is to support her husband and keep the family together even if he has an eccentric habit. The wives are, indeed, intriguing. Bloom is an emphatic and perceptive observer of them. She quotes Ray Blanchard, a Canadian psychologist, who describes the contradictory emotions these men have: "They emulate the women they want to be - some kind of confusion between attraction to a sexual object and being the object." Which isn't much fun for the wives. A wife sums up her feelings when opting out of an annual transvestite get-together: "If he could learn to do his own make-up properly and fasten his own bra, I'd rather stay home."

Although all the groups Bloom spoke to challenge contemporary ideas about gender, and argue for definitions and sexual identities that lie along a spectrum, the female-to-male transsexuals seem most wedded to notions of biology as destiny. Which rather undermines Bloom's central premise that nature loves variety, and that we excise and suppress these anomalies at our peril.

The reviewer is author of 'Amazons and Military Maids' (Rivers Oram/Pandora)