Tyler Foltz/Farrar, Straus and Groux
Poet Diana Goetsch says she had been cross-dressing on the weekends for years when she had a flash of clarity on a solo retreat in 2014: She was a trans woman and she needed to live her life accordingly.
“People call you ‘brave’… but, for me, it… got to be that to continue life as a man was even scarier than to transition,” she remembers.
Goetsch, who was 50 at the time, also decided that she’d strive to live to be 100.
“I felt that the universe owed me 50 years as a female living this way,” she explains. “That’s crazy, but it’s this sense that I wanted more life.”
Goetsch went on to chronicle her transition in a blog for the American Scholar. Now, in her new memory of her, This Body I Wore, she writes about coming of age and into adulthood in an earlier era, when she didn’t have the language or knowledge to understand what it meant to be trans.
“There was a whole menu of terms that we used and none of them felt accurate,” she says. “We could only see so much or express so much depending on what pocket of trans culture we were in. Even the word ‘trans culture,’ that would have been ridiculous to even say that. Even ‘community’ sounded ridiculous.”
Although trans representation is greater today than when she was younger, Goetsch says the community is threatened by recent anti-trans legislation in states like Texas and Idaho.
“I, frankly, view it as genocide. I view it as the erasure of a people, which is what it is,” she says. “Not only are they criminalizing parents of trans kids, they’re turning teachers and the friends of trans kids into government informants. Doctors are being threatened …. They’re criminalizing anyone aiding and abetting someone being trans.”
On the trans community in 1980s New York City
You just sort of found some speakeasy, some corner of a bar that was used one night a week… and you’d get there and… you’d be relieved just to arrive and be relatively safe. And most of these people identified as straight men who didn’t understand why they needed to do this.
But there were other pockets of what we would now call “trans culture” that had a very different experience. These were people who had already transitioned. People who were more woven into gay culture, so-called street queens, other people who are early transitioners who were kind of out. And they had a kind of family that you would see in ballroom culture and things like that, alternative family, and they were forming communities. ….
I wasn’t a part of that, because I wasn’t ready to see myself as transgender, which is another word we didn’t have. … People who were on my side of the line, cross-dressers, we sometimes envied the transsexual girls for their beauty or the fact that they got to be full time and didn’t have to keep two wardrobes. We would just say, “If only that were me.” But it wasn’t. Or at least we didn’t think so.
On finding role models as she transitioned
There were two role models in particular that I just admired, and they were both artists. And it wasn’t so much their style or how they were other than how free they were. They were full-throated people who just seemed thoughtful and free in their lives. One was Laura Jane Grace, who fronts the band Against Me!, a punk singer who transitioned just a couple of years before me. And another one was Justin Vivian Bond, the great lounge singer, cabaret singer in San Francisco and New York. And both were just out and so free and I just admired them.
On how her relationship to women’s clothes changed over time
Clothes, for me, even growing up as a child, were like the only gateway in my childhood mythology of what would get me to who I wanted to be, even though I didn’t even use that language. I just saw female clothes as these talismans, these devices that made girls female. And I needed a mythology of what would make a person female, because deep down I needed something to make me female. And so the clothes, before I transitioned, had this power and then that power transformed when I came out and when I transitioned… I didn’t need to worry as much about feminizing. …
When you go out cross-dressed in the ’80s and ’90s in New York City, those clothes… and how well you did your makeup were a kind of protection. The better you did it, the more you might pass. So it also had that kind of effect. And then just living as a woman and all the other changes that come with it, I’m less dependent on presenting and performing. I don’t remember the first time I wore jeans when I was out, but it took a while, because I needed that skirt, that icon for people to look at me and then look away and go about their day.
On thinking of her transition as a “death gift”
One of these Tibetan gurus had said, you don’t really find out about yourself until you’re cornered. But even more apropos, there was a trans man I heard speaking… and he said that his transition from him was a “death gift to himself.” … Even just to go out cross-dressed for the first time, there’s just so much fear and resistance. And again, unlike today, back then, your life was going to end pretty soon. “Transsexual” people — which was the language used then — did not tend to live very long and did not tend to participate in the things that normally give life meaning when you think of community or family or career. None of those things were open at that time to transsexual people. So it was like looking at the end of life.
On why she did voice training and what she learned
If you line up a hundred trans women, let’s just say, many more will pass visually than will pass vocally. And by passing, I’m just thinking of safety, that you can walk through Grand Central Station and no one’s going to out you or what you have. But vocally, it’s a whole different story. And I wanted to have at least some amount of training, some amount of modification to be consistent for someone to listen to me and feel like, OK, this goes with what I’m seeing. At NYU, they were training graduate students to be vocal clinicians. … There are certain vocal characteristics that they look at. Most people only think about pitch: Are you talking high or are you talking low? It can get a lot of trans women into falsetto, which actually doesn’t work so well. …
But there’s pitch and then there’s something they call prosody, which is the music. They would say what would typically be more feminine is more variation in pitch—high and low and that kind of thing. And then in resonance, where does the voice resonate? In the chest, in the head and the nose, in the forehead, in the mouth, the lips or down deeper in the throat? … I quickly saw that the very instrument with which a woman produces sound … it’s a completely different instrument. … And then every syllable, the way the tongue is in the mouth, on every single syllable I found to be different as well. … Sometimes they had us choose a vocal model, and I looked for some high out there —Hannah Storm, who’s the sportscaster for ESPN, and had a wonderful voice, I thought, to model.
On feeling more “right” in who she is since living as a woman — but also feeling uneasy about the future
Just living life in your name, in your gender, in your appearance… you just feel right in who you are. But I didn’t want to fall into that cliché that a lot of trans memoirs fall into, because I don’t believe them. The first thing they say is, “We’re really OK.” We’re not OK. There’s a lot of trouble. I feel it, too. There’s a lot of work to do and a long way to go. And the other thing they say is, “We’re people. We’re human.” And if you have to make a case for that, you’ve already lost it. I didn’t know how the last page was going to work out. How am I going to end this thing when I still feel a lot of trouble and chaos and a lot of the people I know do? And yet, we’re doing what we have to do.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.