Identities—What Are They Good For?   /   Summer 2018   /    Identities—What Are They Good For?

Straight Man to Queer Woman

Untimely Meditations on Transitioning

Deirdre Nansen McCloskey

Blind Tiresias Confirms—Women Have More Fun by Hazel Lee Santino; courtesy of the artist.

Identity is not fungible with utility.

When the conversation turns, as it should more often, to the low percentage of women in economics, especially in academic life (in Sweden and the Netherlands, by the way, it’s worse), I’ll wait for a pause, and then drop in my usual joke: “Well, I’ve done my part.” It always gets a laugh, amused from the women and uncomfortable from the men. Ha, ha.

It didn’t seem so funny when in the fall of 1995 I started transitioning. Terror was more like it. The Des Moines Register put the news on the front page, repeatedly if not unsympathetically: “University of Iowa Economics and History Professor to Become a Woman.”

That, of course, is not possible. I’ll always have those pesky XY genes and can never have the life history of a girl and woman—never, for example, experience the hostility directed at an assertive female graduate student. At Harvard in the 1960s, Donald McCloskey was praised for such assertiveness. Ten years earlier, the economist Barbara Bergmann had, she told me, been thoroughly dispraised for it.

High school football player, tough-guy Chicago economist, I was married from 1965 to 1995, to the love of my life. When I was a guy I was a guy. I was straight. Well…since age eleven in strict privacy I had occasionally cross-dressed, but that little male peculiarity is pretty common, especially for some reason among engineers. Most of them are straight in affectional preferences, “heterosexual cross-dressers” being the term. And they don’t want to be women. For example, I didn’t, I thought. My wife caught on more quickly than I did in that turbulent year. When early in 1995 I discovered cross-dressing clubs, I was struck by the heavily male conversation at them; the engineers gathered in drag to talk in a meeting room at the local Holiday Inn about Iowa football. Regularly, the few GGs (genetic girls) at such gatherings, a handful of wives or hairdressers, would be serving the food and cleaning up afterward. Hmm, that’s odd, I would think. Don’t these guys realize we’re playing at being women? Then in August 1995 I twigged.

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