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British Association for American Studies


Issue 10, Spring 2007: Article 1


Issue 10, Spring 2007: Article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 10, Spring 2007

Reading Gender in Amy Bloom

Alison Kelly
© Alison Kelly. All Rights Reserved

A scene in Duncan Tucker’s 2005 film Transamerica shows the panicked reaction of pre-operative male-to-female transsexual Bree Osbourne when a child in a diner asks whether she is a boy or a girl. Despite cultivating stereotypically feminine mannerisms and being meticulously dressed, coiffed, made up and manicured, Bree has not put on a fully convincing performance as a woman; some aspect of her appearance or behaviour is ambiguous. In a distraught phone call to her psychiatrist, Bree reports that the child has ‘read’ her, and the emphasis placed on this term suggests acute prior consciousness on both their parts of her susceptibility to such expository reading.

This article discusses the importance of legibility to representations of transsexualism in the fiction and nonfiction of American psychotherapist and author Amy Bloom. It examines the accounts of gender reassignment in Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude and the short story ‘A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You’ in light of competing cultural and biological theories of sex and gender identity.[1] Engaging with a discourse elaborated by, among others, Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Anne Fausto-Sterling and Holly Devor, it argues that Bloom represents sex change as a primarily social rather than medical procedure, entailing a difficult repositioning of the self within the culture’s structures of expression and interpretation. Tropes of vision and perception in the fiction reinforce this view of gender reassignment as largely a matter of the projection and reception of image.

Judith Butler’s well-known theory of identity as mutable and performative opens fruitful avenues into Bloom’s fictional and nonfictional writing on transsexualism. In Gender Trouble Butler argues that gender, like other aspects of identity such as sexuality, is produced through culturally intelligible acts and processes of signification.[2] Equally opposing biological determinism, foundationalism and passive models of identity-construction founded on inscription by cultural forces, Butler proposes an active understanding based on repetitive practices and enactments; gender, she says, is an ‘effect‘ of articulate processes. Physical actions, embodiment, language and dress are among the numerous discourses that individuals deploy for the expression of gender. The conventions on which such self-representation relies are normative, ‘determining what qualifies as intelligible sex’ (p. 189), which is why certain performances of masculinity or (as in Bree’s case) femininity are deemed not to ‘pass’. Butler urges subversion of these norms – in particular, the dismantling of what she regards as an unnatural gender binary – and ‘the assertion of alternative domains of cultural intelligibility, i.e., new possibilities for gender that contest the rigid codes’ of male and female (p. 185). This radical agenda is shared by theorists such as Kate Bornstein, discussed below; and some of Bloom’s interviewees in Normal express frustration with restrictive and regulatory gender categories. What is most relevant to my reading of Bloom, however, is Butler’s underlying proposition that ‘gender is a kind of persistent impersonation’ exploiting a repertoire of culturally intelligible ‘signifying gestures’ (p. xxviii).

The protagonist of Transamerica is a male-to-female transsexual (MTF), but Bloom’s texts focus on female-to-male gender converts, or FTMs. Bloom foregrounds vision and perception in all her work, repeatedly employing the eye as a metaphor for the ‘I’, [3] and Normal establishes the importance of visual presentation and interpretation from the outset. In the preface, Bloom uses language that articulates a link between understanding and sight. Incomprehension of transsexualism is one of ‘our culture’s blind spots’ (p. xiv), and her purpose in writing the book was to tell the personal stories of transsexuals in such a way as to ‘offer readers a chance to see what I saw, perhaps to see further and better, and to see into these particular worlds and back out to the larger one we all share’ (p. xv). This emphasis on intelligent perception is twinned with a heightened image-consciousness in the objects of vision. Among the FTMs Bloom interviewed in the course of her research, body-tattooed Loren Cameron is conscious of making ‘“a striking-looking couple”’ with his fitness-fanatic girlfriend (p. 13), while bisexual Luis believes that his new male body is an appropriate outward expression of his identity: ‘“What I perceive and what my partner perceives now match up. Inside and outside, I’m a man”’ (p. 13).

It is worth noting in connection with image-awareness that for many FTMs, one of the early signs of gender dysphoria is discomfort with or resistance to traditional female clothing. One of Bloom’s interviewees, whom she calls Michael, tried as a child to ‘“get used to”’ being a girl, which among other female gender-role behaviours involved going around in ‘“what felt like drag”’ (p. 44). By his own account he did it ‘“pretty well”’ (p. 44) – that is, presented convincingly and attractively as a girl and was perceived as such by family, friends and the wider society. But the disjunction between this female gender role and attribution, and his inward self-identification as a male, grew wider as he matured sexually and socially. In the case of Lyle, who started transition at the age of 14, symptoms of juvenile gender dysphoria were more pronounced, especially with regard to visible inscriptions of femininity: his name, which he hated, and ‘party dresses, Mary Janes, and even girl-styled polo shirts’, over which he fought fierce battles with his mother and wept ‘astonished, frightened tears’ (p. 9).

Bloom was assisted in her research for Normal by eminent plastic surgeon Don Laub, who dubs his work in this field ‘“the ultimate body-image surgery”’ (p. 10). But this is not to belittle it: he regards the transformations he works as going to the heart of his patients’ sense of identity. As one FTM put it, complaining of the insurance companies’ unwillingness to fund the surgery, ‘“Like I wanted a nose job. […] Well, it was only my life”’ (p. 10). Bloom defines transsexuals as people who go to any lengths to ‘bring their bodies into accord with the gender to which they have known themselves, since toddlerhood, to belong’ (pp. 3–4). This definition, with its essentialist assumptions about ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ gender, might be contested by a theorist such as Butler, who argues that gender identity as ‘inner substance’ is always an ‘illusion’.[4] The empirical evidence, however, is that significant numbers of people are so unhappy with the gender to which they are assigned at birth on the basis of their physical sex characteristics that they take drastic measures to change their sexed embodiment.

The medical procedures involved in rebuilding the ‘physical package’ [5] for FTMs are painful and expensive: courses of hormone treatments; mastectomy; then genital reconstruction, with options ranging from metoidioplasty (enlargement of the clitoris) to basic or deluxe phalloplasty. The literature on gender is replete with critiques of a phallocentric model of gendered embodiment traceable back to Freud and the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis. Holly Devor argues that ‘males are defined by what they are, […] females […] by what they lack’ – what they lack being a penis, which she identifies as ‘the insignia of sex’.[6] Kate Bornstein, an MTF who, like Butler, regards herself as living on the ‘frontier’ of a binary gender system that has no place for her, states in her book Gender Outlaw that ‘Gender assignment happens when the culture says, “This is what you are”’, and that this is determined by whether you have or don’t have a penis.[7]

In Normal, Don Laub appears to subscribe to a phallocentric view of male corporeal identity – ‘“if money’s no object [… m]en want penises”'(29) – but he is not unequivocally supported by the interview testimony. Financial considerations did influence some of the men’s decisions to settle for metoidioplasty, but in making this choice at least one of the interviewees willingly sacrificed penetrative function for the sake of full feeling. His partner endorsed his decision, saying that her sexual satisfaction was not diminished by his not having ‘“a regular penis. It wasn’t a loss to me. We have a lot more variety. We make love to each other, after all, not to organs”’ (p. 42). Another man stated that he would opt for phalloplasty if it could give him a ‘“fully functioning”’ penis, but he wasn’t ‘“prepared to go through more surgery […] to wind up with a pair of testicles and not much more”’ (p. 32). Significantly, his lack of a traditional totem of masculine sexuality notwithstanding, he ended his statement with a confident affirmation of identity: ‘“I know who I am”’ (p. 32).

The limits to medical technology mean that transsexuals’ reconstructed genitals always require explanation to their sexual partners. As Holly Devor points out in FTM, many still have vaginas and all ‘carry their pasts with them in their most intimate of places’.[8] This has implications for their success in passing as members of their chosen sex, especially with regard to activities that involve exposing ‘critical areas’, including participating in sports and using public toilets or changing rooms.[9] The importance of credibility in social contexts is discussed repeatedly in Devor’s work, often couched in terms of the body as text. With respect to hormone treatments she says, ‘The changes wrought in the bodies of participants by testosterone added more indelible and more legible layers of legitimization to participants’ manliness’.[10] FTMs’ chances of being read as men are increased with the acquisition of secondary sex characteristics such as beards and deep voices, but while they still have breasts they remain in danger of exposure (just as Bree, in Transamerica, is exposed as genetically male when Toby sees her penis); only with breast reduction and removal do the physical markers of femaleness, at least for everyday social contexts, disappear.

If passing is difficult, so is accurate reading. In Normal Bloom records how, at Don Laub’s clinic in Palo Alto, she became preoccupied with studying men and women for clues as to whether they were genetically male or female. In women who were too femininely dressed and made up or had big hands she detected the possibility of transsexualism, as she did in ‘short, wide-hipped men with scraggly facial hair’ (p. 21). The unreliability of such scrutiny is comically illustrated in Transamerica, when a thickset genetic woman is misread as a poorly realised MTF, and in Normal Bloom attests to the pitfalls of examining people for ‘traces of the other gender’ (p. 22), since there are few examples of perfect masculinity or femininity, or what Butler calls ‘ideal morphologies of sex’.[11] Photographs taken before, during and after hormone treatments brought home to Bloom just how susceptible the human body is to transformation: ‘what we take as the immutable biological fact of our existence is […] largely hormonal and unnervingly fluid’ (p. 22).

The difficulty of visual interpretation does not, however, deter Bloom from attempting it. In her extratextual capacity as interviewer of FTMs and her intratextual role as narrator of Normal, Bloom assumes the prerogative of judging performed masculinity. Her definition of the male is a broad one, as the typology of gender converts in ‘The Body Lies’ (p. 16) illustrates, but it is a definition none the less. Unlike more radical theorists such as Butler and Bornstein, Bloom adheres to gender categories while arguing for their expansion. Her reiterated verdict on her research subjects is ‘I met men’ (p. 16), demonstrating her ongoing enterprise of observing, evaluating and, where they are successful in her eyes, validating their performances.

In Normal and related literature, then, gender reassignment is represented as necessitating an intensified attentiveness to the presentation, passing, perception and reading that are involved in all gendered identity-construction. In the second part of this article I consider how this understanding of transsexual experience is reflected in the form of Bloom’s short story on the subject, as well as in the tropes and terms that pervade it. This analytical framework suggests answers to the questions why a story about FTM gender conversion is called ‘A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You’, and why the centre of consciousness is the mother, Jane Spencer, rather than the teenager, Jessie/Jess Spencer, who is partway through the transition from young woman to young man.[12]

‘Blind Man’ opens with a visual scenario: a private view of the ‘pictures of slim young men’ (p. 1) that Jane Spencer keeps in the bottom drawer of her desk. At first glance a stash of sexy pinups, on closer inspection these photographs look more like a picture documentary of issues close to Jane’s heart. Ambiguous gender, questionable sexuality and growth to adulthood are all reflected in this portfolio, which includes homoerotic icons James Dean and Robert Mapplethorpe; Rudolph Valentino; Jeremy Irons; Kevin Bacon; B. D. Wong. These matters are relevant to Jane because she is a ‘transsexual mom’, in California to support her teenage child through the surgical procedures that will complete his transition to a man. The description of this child’s gender dysphoria (when much younger and living as a girl) is typical of the story’s representational strategies, presenting sight as both a perceptive and an expressive faculty. Confronted with an item of girl’s clothing to wear to a wedding, Jessie ‘stared’ at it ‘as if her mother had gone mad’ (p. 3) – her eyes here a double-edged tool allowing her to apprehend the depth of Jane’s delusion about her as symbolised in the garment and to express her utter refusal to accept the ‘girl’ label that wearing it would apply.

Up to this point Jane has wilfully ‘managed not to see’ the truth about Jessie, but now the evidence is too plain to ignore, and the ‘rose petals falling from [Jessie’s] blazer pocket’ (p. 4) while she sleeps on the way home from the wedding are poignant symbols of the femininity the child has cast out. Just because Jessie ‘looks like a girl’ it doesn’t mean she is one: her misleading appearance is a ‘joke’ played by God, allowing Jane to think of ‘the love of her life’ as female flesh created of her own female flesh, but then saying ‘Oops. […] Sorry’ and advising her to adjust ‘accordingly’ (p. 4). The adjustment in question is twofold: of Jane’s vision, so that she sees her daughter afresh as her son, and of Jessie’s body, which involves saving fifty thousand dollars for hormone treatments and reconstructive surgery.

Jessie’s first phalloplasty is in fact a homespun one motivated by the wish to urinate like a boy; she makes ‘a funnel with both hands and a baggie’ so that she can ‘pee […] on the far side of the rhododendron’ with her school friends (p. 3).When, in first grade, however, the boys notice the oddness of her organ and start ‘thinking something of it’, Jessie’s cover is blown, and the teacher – that traditional custodian of society’s morals and norms, and the one empowered to administer lessons – ‘push[es] Jessie firmly into the girls’ bathroom’ (p. 3), literally and metaphorically locating her on the wrong side of the gender divide. Later in life the transitioning Jess attaches great importance to a ‘realistic penis’, at the same time accepting that his most desired body-image, seen in his dreams and glimpsed in the mirror ‘with a few beers and a sock in his shorts’ (p. 14), isn’t what his bottom surgery is going to get him.

While Jess is preoccupied with the kind of penis to choose (p. 14), Jane is pondering the ‘small things’ (such as smoking an occasional cigar (p. 13)) that might help him to pass as a male after transition. Like Bloom as narrator in Normal, Jane as centre of consciousness in ‘Blind Man’ measures the success of transsexual presentation, identifying herself as ‘practically a professional observer of gender’, sensitive to the ‘markers’ that make a passable or convincing man or woman. She judges that, having had top surgery but not bottom surgery, Jess is an embodiment of mixed gender, a ‘handsome boy-girl’ with validating male characteristics such as hairy arms and ‘neat round biceps’ (p. 15), while the telltale scars where his breasts used to be have almost disappeared thanks to her nagging him to massage them with vitamin E oil (p. 16).

An interior designer and a smart dresser, Jane is herself a dedicated and accomplished image-artist on the personal and professional levels, and she has a tendency to judge others by the same visual standards. In her eyes, an unconcern for personal appearance is expressive of weak character. At the parents’ support group attached to Dr Laurence’s gender conversion clinic, she rebuffs the friendly overtures of one of the ‘sad and scruffy’ (p. 8) other mothers, Sheila, and notes with disapproval that Sheila’s daughter-cum-son Jo(e) is overweight, wears thick glasses, and has ‘short, frizzy brown hair’ and acne: ‘Your Jo, waddling through life, will never be an attractive anything’ (p. 9).

This tendency to place high value on attractiveness is something Jane recognises in herself, but she does not believe it is peculiar to her. Society in general is highly susceptible to a pretty face: ‘in this world […] good-looking itself smooths over the more awkward parts of your presentation’ (p. 10). During a contact-group session involving parents and transitioning youngsters she is unfavourably impressed by the testimony of an MTF who has morphed into a Malibu Barbie look-alike, but her contempt ‘dissolves’ into compassion when she inspects Barbie’s makeup, finds it ‘a good job’, and ‘thinks of this boy teaching himself the stupid, necessary girl tricks’ (p. 10) that a presentation-conscious culture requires.

To a greater or lesser degree, Jane argues, most of us are engaged in the same enterprise – of enhancing our appearance to reflect an improved and augmented image of masculinity or femininity. Men have ‘calf implants’, women go in for ‘tattooed eyeliner and colored contacts and ass lifts’, and although these forms of makeover are less radical than ‘a complete reversal of gender’ they enable the individuals concerned to conceal what they perceive as their faults and make desirable alterations: ‘Who does not change and hide?’ (p. 10). Having modelled her physical and fashion images on Western consumer culture’s most iconic plastic sex-symbol, Malibu Barbie regards herself as a complete embodiment of her chosen gender – every bit ‘“as much a woman”’ as the genetic women in the group – prompting Jane to consider the question of what exactly it is that constitutes femaleness (p. 11).

In a period when Jane and Jessie both thought (wrongly) that Jessie’s apparent gender dysphoria might be a case of suppressed lesbianism, Jane took Jessie to Northampton, Massachusetts, ‘the Lesbian Paradise’ (p. 17) , where Jessie initially experienced a sense of joyful belonging and for once ‘did not feel like a complete impostor’ (p. 17). The ‘parade of everyday lesbian life’ was an ‘unexpected, extravagant gift’ that Jessie felt she must possess with her eyes, not daring to take them off it for fear that it would disappear. We are not explicitly told when or why Jessie became dissatisfied with a lesbian identity, but for Jane the aversion seems to have been experienced largely in terms of aesthetics. Although some of the lesbians in Northampton were strikingly fit and one was ‘beautiful as Apollo is beautiful’, too many of them for Jane’s liking were overweight women swaggering along in overalls and ugly mullet haircuts. Not here but in the glamorous, stylish figures of Nathalie Barney, Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo were to be found models of lesbianism on which Jane (a compulsive designer of images for other people) would have liked Jessie to fashion herself. Only these beautiful film stars were ‘lesbians of the kind Jane would be happy for Jessie to be’ (p. 17).

The roll call of famous names mentioned in ‘Blind Man’ is a striking feature of the text. On top of the six ‘slim young men’ in the opening paragraph and the three photogenic lesbians just discussed, Jane’s mind turns to some fourteen celebrities, living or dead, in the course of the story. Among these are Leonardo DiCaprio and Jamie Lee Curtis – Hollywood idols whose authenticity as, respectively, a genetic man and a genetic woman Jane finds herself questioning in light of what she knows about transsexualism. Isn’t there ‘something about’ Leo DiCaprio? And doesn’t Jamie Lee Curtis have telltale masculine legs? Spending time at Dr Laurence’s clinic shakes Jane’s confidence in her own perceptions: ‘Once you know there are transsexuals, you see them everywhere’ (p. 6) – people who may not be what they seem to be, whose body shapes are conventionally associated with the opposite sex.

The absence of any immutable ‘physical underpinnings’ for gender, contends feminist scientist and social activist Anne Fausto-Sterling, is the reason why ‘labeling someone a man or a woman is a social decision’. In support of this position she cites the case of a Spanish athlete who was barred at the last minute from the 1988 Olympics because sex testing carried out by the International Olympic Committee uncovered a Y chromosome in her cells. Further examinations revealed that the athlete had testes within her labia and no uterus or ovaries: to all outward appearances she was a woman, but her reproductive organs were essentially those of a man. Owing to a condition named androgen insensitivity (in which her testes made testosterone but her body couldn’t detect it) she had developed a female form. So what was she ‘really’? In her own unwavering view, which Fausto-Sterling supports, she was a woman – but this was a social determination, not a scientific one. According to Fausto-Sterling, no scientific sex testing (whether based on chromosomes, DNA, or inspection of breasts and genitals) is infallible: ‘A body’s sex is simply too complex. There is no either/or’.[13]

Kate Bornstein would agree. After subverting five conventional identifiers of gender she states that she has found no ‘rock-bottom definition of woman’, ‘no unquestionable sense of what is a man’.[14]Signing up for one of ‘the only two sanctioned gender clubs’ (p. 24) is an individual decision within a social context, partly to do with being whoever and whatever you think you are and partly about belonging where you feel comfortable. In many cases, she argues, the choice is a false one, a matter of ‘non-consensual gender’ imposed by an artificial, normative, bi-polar gender system insufficiently flexible to accommodate the multiplicity of gendered and transgendered identities. Although (like Butler’s) her manifesto for the deconstruction of the gender polarity and the creation of a ‘third sex’ or a ‘third space’ (p. 101) for ‘anyone who falls through the cracks of the cultural floorboards’ (p. 164) takes her into more radical territory than Bloom ventures into, the metaphors of fluidity employed by both Bornstein and Bloom, and their critical engagement with the myth of normality, mark out their common ground. ‘Is there such a thing as a normal man or woman?’ Bornstein asks (p. 65).

I have this idea that there are only people who are fluidly-gendered […] To attempt to divide us into rigid categories is like trying to apply the laws of solids to the state of fluids. (pp. 65, 69)

This goes further towards subverting gender classification than ‘Blind Man’, but there too Jane’s preconceptions about gendered embodiment, and her confidence in her ability to read gender, are so shaken by her contact with transsexuals that eventually she even sees herself doubtfully, as ‘odd […] funny’, with male markers such as wide shoulders and a possibly receding hairline. Her own gender identity seems unstable to her, as capable of alteration as Jess’s: ‘Maybe she’s morphing’; ‘Maybe she’ll cross over before Jess does’ (p. 7).

It is against this background of disturbed vision and unreliable judgement that Bloom sets the second storyline of ‘Blind Man’, Jane’s encounter and developing relationship with Cole Ramsay. When she meets him in a branch of Rite Aid, she experiences the symptoms of powerful attraction and grows flustered. Her confusion is increased by the mixture of conflicting indicators in his physical appearance. Cole’s cheekbones suggest ‘Cherokee’, while his haircut evokes another race and an anachronistic time-period – ‘a high-style black man from the forties’ (p. 19). Even so, when that night Jane ‘falls on her bed’ (p. 20) (a prefiguring of sexual yielding?), she ‘exhales happily’ at the thought of Cole, exuding contentment that the text represents as arising specifically from the attentive interest of a ‘charming’ man who is ‘a pleasure to look at’ (p. 21).

Only one fact, mentioned almost in passing, disturbs an otherwise straightforward picture of romantic love in the making: the fact that Jane believes Cole is gay. Why? Because he is ‘“so decorous”’ (p. 20)? Because his jokes are ‘self-deprecating’ and his voice is ‘soft’ and ‘light’ (p. 21)? Features of Cole’s appearance and aspects of his behaviour might be interpreted as physical, behavioural, mythic and power-dynamic cues for homosexuality,[15] but they are more amenable to a reading that identifies him as a gallant and sensitive heterosexual, and his advances to Jane invite a construction of him as straight rather than gay. Jane’s misreading of Cole is plausible only in the context of her generally confused relation to visual evidence. The next time she sees him, he is exchanging shows of friendly affection with a ‘fat blond nurse’ whose ‘wide body’, when she hugs him, obscures him from Jane’s view (p. 21). Too eagerly associating Cole with her late gay friend Anthony, with whom, to his gratification, women often fell in love (p. 22), Jane jumps to the conclusion that this nurse must be in love with Cole. In the disorientating setting of an ‘unexpectedly tropical city park’ (p. 21), Jane has a conversation with Cole in which she makes another wrong connection between him and a homosexual man, this time the actor Cary Grant. Dismissing Cole’s modest protest that no one falls in love with him now that he is over fifty, she refers him to the film star for visual evidence of older men’s sex appeal (‘“look at Cary Grant, he looked fabulous until he died”’ (p. 22)), in the process overlooking a gesture that might give her a clue about the state of Cole’s feelings: after claiming that no one falls in love with him any more, Cole ‘pulls gently on Jane’s hand’ (p. 22), appealing to her, perhaps, to prove him wrong.

When Cole says reluctantly that he has to ‘“run”’ (p. 23), Jane correctly reads this as meaning that someone is waiting for him at home, but wrongly assumes that that person is a gay partner and the home is a happy one. Having misconstrued him as part of a ‘gay couple’, she proceeds to fit herself into the picture she has painted, planning how she will invite her new gay friends over ‘for dinner, for pizza’. Even when Cole explains that he is in ‘“mid-divorce”’ and refers to his ‘“soon-to-be-ex-wife”’ (p. 23), she subjects these terms to complicated deconstruction, ‘trying to figure out whether he means “wife” in the sense of “woman I am married to,” or “wife” in the sense of [“]man in my life who played a kind of wifely role”’ (p. 23). It takes two uses of the feminine pronoun and explicit references to ‘“twelve years of unhappy marriage”’ and to his wife having met ‘“the kind of man she should have married in the first place”’ for Jane to perceive that Cole is ‘[s]traight’ (p. 23) – and even then she appends a question mark.

When Cole comes to Jane’s apartment that night, Jane admits that she thought he was gay, attributing her mistake to his good manners and the disruptive effect of associating with transsexuals on her perceptions of identity: ‘“Spending all my time at Dr. Laurence’s clinic, I could have been wondering if you were, you know, genetically male”’ (p. 25).[16] Cole’s reaction to being misconstrued as gay is equable, but by making direct eye contact (‘He looks right at Jane’ (p. 25)) he conveys unequivocally that his desires are heterosexual and she is the object of them.

Attacked by readers of my acquaintance as contrived and implausible, the love story in ‘Blind Man’ has also been criticised for promoting a conservative heterosexual agenda: plot conflict revolves around Cole’s apparent homosexuality; plot resolution is accomplished through his realignment with the heterosexual majority.[17] In my reading, however, Cole’s sexuality is never in question, except to Jane, and any tension in the plot arises only from her misunderstanding. The love story turns on a correction, but it is a correction of Jane’s reading, rather than of Cole’s sexual orientation, which I see as neutrally, not normatively, represented as heterosexual. If the love story contains a weakness, it is perhaps that it is too clearly a foil to the main narrative in its exploration of the same issues of projection, perception and interpretation. Just as Jane is called on to assimilate an apparent change in Cole’s identity (from gay to straight) which isn’t really a change at all, except in the way she sees and interacts with him, so her adjustment to Jess’s gender conversion involves a refocusing of vision. In FTM, Holly Devor underscores the need for family and friends to see transsexuals as members of their chosen, not their assigned, gender groups. She describes this adjustment as a matter of assimilating a ‘new perspective’ at the transsexuals’ request and trying to ‘see the coherence of it’. This meant they had to ‘look back and piece together participants’ histories in such ways as to make their futures as men appear consistent with their pasts as women and girls’. Researching and discussing transsexualism helped them build ‘bridges between their older understandings and their newer perceptions’. Ultimately, acceptance was a matter of ‘learning to see participants as men’.[18]

This understanding of transsexualism explains Bloom’s choice of the title ‘A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You’.[19] Although the subject matter of ‘Blind Man’ is gender conversion, it is not primarily a medical story about hormone treatment and phalloplasty; nor is it even thematically a story about gender, sexuality or sex. The significant terms in the title are ‘Blind’ and ‘See’, because this is a story about the way we see people – about impairments in and adjustments of our vision. This in turn explains Bloom’s use of Jane as centre of consciousness throughout most of the story. Adopting Jane’s perspective underlines the role of the other as reader of identity as text, supporting Devor’s proposition that ‘Gender is as much in the reading as in the telling’ and Bornstein’s formulation of a similar insight: ‘The concept of passing invites and even demands the concept of reading […] and being read’.[20] Gender conversion presents a challenge to narrow gender categories and unalterable biological assignations of sex, but it does not exempt transsexuals from social processes of inspection and interpretation. The persistence of these cultural mechanisms is represented in ‘Blind Man’ by Jane’s acts of reading, while their fallibility is underlined by the errors she makes.

The approach employed by Bloom in Normal and the mode of narration in ‘Blind Man’ tend to position the individual predominantly as object within the set of social relations by means of which gender-identity is constructed. Devor’s reference to ‘telling’ acknowledges the obverse aspect, however: the subject’s active role of signification – of writing the text that others read. The individual subject, including the transsexual subject, also plays an agentive role in looking at and reading others as texts; what Anne Fausto-Sterling terms identity as ‘social expression’ is a reciprocal process.[21] Thus, in ‘Blind Man’, three short but significant passages from Jess’s point of view represent him as subject rather than object, offering insights into his clear and close understanding of his mother (pp. 5–6, 13), the unbearable loneliness he suffered as a cross-dresser at the University of Michigan (p. 6), and his anxieties and dreams concerning virile masculine embodiment (p. 14). Together these passages show Jess looking out, mainly at his mother, and inwards, to his most private subjective feelings. They portray him as a perceptive individual whose sensitivity in reading others has been enhanced by the difficult process of redefining himself in the eyes of the world. In this they accord with an observation made by Jamison Green, a female-to-male transsexual and president of FTM International, concerning the alteration transsexuals experience as subjects as well as objects of vision: ‘[Transsexuals] perceive the world through transfigured eyes’.[22]

Transamerica, incidentally, attaches plot resolution and character development to this aspect of the subjective experience of gender reassignment. If Bree’s road trip from the East to the West coast is a metaphor for gender conversion as journey (and it is an apt one – much used, for instance, by Devor[23]), it is also a metaphor for the progress she makes in understanding her rebellious and damaged son Toby. As they travel together across America, each of them both sees the other and is seen by the other more clearly – and eventually more compassionately.

University of Reading


A short version of this article was presented as ‘Morphing: Transsexuals in Amy Bloom’ at the ‘Mutation and Mutability’ conference, Institute for English Studies, University College London, 4 March 2004.

[1] Amy Bloom, Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Crossdressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (New York: Random House, 2002); ‘A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You’, in A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You: Stories (London: Picador, 2000), pp. 1–29.

[2] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity ([1990] London: Routledge, 1999).

[3] See David Brauner, ‘Fifty Ways to See your Lover: Vision and Revision in the Fiction of Amy Bloom’, in Anglophone Jewish Literature, ed. by Axel Stähler (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2007); I am grateful to Dr Brauner for allowing me to read this work in typescript. I discuss Bloom’s visual constructions of subjectivity in ‘Visual and Verbal: Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us and Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?‘ in chapter 1 of my PhD thesis, ‘“The Value, Beauty, and Malarkey of Words”: Constructions of the Subject in Lorrie Moore’ (University of Reading, submitted August 2006).

[4] Butler, p. 187.

[5] Bloom, Normal, p. xv.

[6] Holly Devor, Gender Blending: Confronting the Limits of Duality (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. vii; Holly Devor, FTM: Female to Male Transsexuals in Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 35.

[7] Kate Bornstein, Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 22.

[8] Devor, FTM, p. 420.

[9] Devor, FTM, p. 418.

[10] Devor, FTM, p. 418.

[11] Butler, p. xx.

[12] I follow Bloom’s practice in using feminine pronouns to refer to Jessie when she is living as a girl and masculine pronouns to refer to Jess once he has started living as a man.

[13] Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 3–4.

[14] The five are: presence or absence of a penis or vagina; chromosome profile (she lists five common combinations other than XX and XY); levels of testosterone and oestrogen (if hormones determined gender, ‘you could buy your gender over the counter’); reproductive ability; the sex stated on your birth certificate. Bornstein, Gender Outlaw, pp. 56–7.

[15] For discussion of this typology, see Bornstein, Gender Outlaw, pp. 27–32.

[16] The implied conflation of sexuality and gender here is an error on Jane’s part. As Bloom states in Normal, ‘Male is not gay or straight; it’s male’ (p. 18).

[17] My thanks to the anonymous reader of this paper for drawing my attention to this perspective.

[18] Devor, FTM, pp. 445–6.

[19] The title is adapted from dialogue in Bloom’s novel Love Invents Us (New York: Random House, 1997), p. 157.

[20] Devor, Gender Blending, p. 153; Kate Bornstein, available at URL [Accessed 03 March 2007]

[21] Fausto-Sterling, p. 3.

[22] Available at URL [Accessed 03 March 2007]

[23] Devor, FTM, pp. 511, 582.