The men on these pages are actually women, and were photographed by Del LaGrace Volcano, formerly Della Grace. Natasha Walter talked to `him' about the lure of gender terrorism
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IF YOU KNEW nothing about his story, you'd say that the person facing me in this Islington cafe was certainly a man. His voice is deep and his arms are burly and hairy, and, above all, he has a beard - not a very luxuriant one, but a definite beard, neatly trimmed. Then at one point during our conversation this man shows me a picture of himself at the age of 21. It's a shot of a pretty woman with long blonde hair. "I call myself a gender terrorist," he says proudly.

This is Del LaGrace Volcano, a photographer who is well-known in certain circles - which are sometimes called the queer avant-garde - for his public shifting of gender. Only a few years ago, he was Della Grace, and very definitely a woman. Then, she ran a lesbian sex club called Chain Reaction, and apparently could be seen around town in big red wigs and crinolines and roller skates. Then he began to grow that beard. "I grew a beard before I took hormones," he insists. "I just stopped plucking. I had very high testosterone levels anyway. There's always been something not quite right about me physiologically. I always felt an impostor as a girl. For instance, I only grew one breast. When I was developing, I thought that meant I was a freak. I thought maybe it was God's punishment for my early sexual escapades - why did I have one breast that's AA, and one that's DD cup?"

Sitting in a cafe with someone I've just met for the first time, I wouldn't normally have got to the size of their breasts and hormone levels within 10 minutes. But Del LaGrace is eager to talk, and his deep voice with its soft Californian accent goes on and on as he spills the beans. He has always felt the need to live in public what most of us would see as one's private life. He started taking photographs of himself and his lovers having sex 18 years ago. At the time he was a she, a butch lesbian living in San Francisco: "I had a motorcycle, I was wearing leathers, I came on really butch."

For all Del's swaggering sexuality, there is an odd element of gentle vulnerability about him. And the funny thing is, the longer we speak to one another the harder it is for me to see Del as a man. I feel that there is a womanliness about Del that will never go away, despite the deep voice and the beard. Del accepts that he is not quite a he, and although he is taking testosterone he is not planning a full sex-change. "I don't identify as a man or a woman," he says. "But I don't want to be called `it'."

Del LaGrace confronts this in-between status in his latest work, The Drag King Book, a collection of photographs, showing women in exaggeratedly masculine get-ups in London, New York and San Francisco. In all three cities there are drag king subcultures with drag king clubs and bars and contests, and Del wanders through them, having fun himself along the way. Some of the drag kings in the book dress as feminine women when they aren't doing their act, but for others, like Del LaGrace, the act is the life, and they are always somewhere in-between.

Del has clearly been through quite a lot in his passage from feminine woman to butch woman to feminine man. Now that he takes testosterone, he looks sufficiently like a man to raise no eyebrows on first meeting. But for a year he had a beard without having any other other male characteristics. "I had things thrown at me, I was nearly beaten up. I abandoned that fight. Butch women have much more hassle than I do. I can pass successfully as a man now." He got some public hostility for the beard. The journalist Deborah Orr wrote an article about him three years ago, when the beard first appeared, in which she noted "how scary the beard was, how much it disturbed us". "I lost friends," Del admits. "It was weird. Yes, I've been accused of being an attention-seeker. But that's not something you ever see men being accused of. It suggests that you don't deserve attention."

But Del remarks that in everyday life he now generally feels accepted. "My real friends accept me. And if you want to go down the Holloway Road and meet my barber, my travel agent, my pharmacist, they don't have a problem with me, they like me. And say in airports - I put male on my ticket, but my passport says Deborah - I rarely even get questioned. Sometimes they just say - Deborah? And I say, yes."

But despite all this self-confident talk Del still seems uncomfortable in his skin. He will suddenly say something that makes you think how uneasy it must be to live in this gap between male and female - even if you've chosen to live there. "I'm between ponds," he says at one point, on the subject of going swimming on Hampstead Heath. "I can't go to the men's pond, I can't go to the women's pond." So what do you do? "I don't go swimming. And I love swimming." Or there's the lavatory question. "I use the men's rooms, even though they stink. I'd cause too much distress to women, going to the women's room. But if there's a chance, I'll use the handicapped loo."

A few of the photographs in Drag Kings seem to show their subjects as they might be seen in everyday life. "That's Jackie," Del says of one picture, and she points to one butch woman standing by another in a relatively unposed situation. "She's a London firefighter. She is what I call a transnatural. She has to fight every day of her life to be seen as a woman, although she is one. You know, every time she gives in her card at Sainsbury's they say, where did you get this card, sir?"

But what hits you about most of the photographs is their theatricality. They tend to rely on an artificial performance of masculinity: badly painted moustaches, ill-fitting suits, puny biceps flaunted in body-builder poses, pudgy faces pursed into exaggerated sneers, dyed hair whipped into quiffs, and even large plastic dildos. This all adds up to a look that could best be described as amateur theatrical meets peep show. Why is it that women dressed in drag are so unconvincing? And so unattractive, most of us would probably add. There is often real aesthetic pleasure to be found in the best drag-queen acts: seeing tall, muscled bodies transforming themselves into swans and butterflies. But drag kings don't even seem to aspire to the glamour of masculinity; they seem keener on its failings, its beefy sprawling bulldog ugliness.

Perhaps it's because so many women nowadays use an understated form of cross-dressing as a matter of course that the drag kings go so far into theatricality. The drag king look doesn't mobilise the essential quality of modern masculinity - its understatement, its underplayed sexuality. Instead, it uses a camp, souped-up version. So the most successful impersonations in this book of photographs are not of straight masculinity, but of gay masculinity - women dressed as gay bikers in leathers and big moustaches, cruising for trade, or women as glam-rock stars, or even women dressed as men pretending to bugger each other with dildos.

It seems odd to me that a lesbian would want to parody gay masculinity so closely, and I tell Del it looks pretty alienating. "It looks like penis envy." But for Del, that is part of the point. "I think penis envy exists - I know it exists," he says. "One picture I took, that isn't in this book, is so beautiful, of a woman wearing a dildo, holding herself. It speaks to a real longing - a longing to be able to be physically inside your lover. I don't use a dildo myself all that much, but I remember the first time I used it, how it struck me - to be able to step outside your own body, to make that fantasy real." Del is clearly on a mission to make all his fantasies real. I want to admire the courage of his work, but part of me stands aside. With his obsession with sex as performance and his deliberate destruction of his own privacy, his work seems to me to express some of the most problematic aspects of contemporary sexual culture.

`The Drag King Book' will be published by Serpent's Tail on 1 July (price pounds 15). A `Drag King' season is at the Lux Cinema, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1 (0171 684 0201) from 18-20 June, and an exhibition of Volcano's pictures at the Standpoint Gallery, Coronet Street, London N1 (0171 739 4921)