©Deirdre Nansen McCloskey | COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

"The Metamorphosis"
A review of McCloskey's Crossing, A Memoir

By Maxine Kumin
The New York Times, November 14, 1999
Filed under Gender Crossing

At 52, the economist and historian Donald McCloskey decided to become a woman.

When I received "Crossing", I wondered why the editors had not designated it for review by someone gay, or someone involved in the transgendered community. Reading it, I realized that I — a lifelong heterosexual woman — need this book. All of us need to consider the way our culture shapes gender expectations and makes unspoken but profoundly rigid gender assignments based on physical appearance, apparel, gait, gestures, voice and so on.

Early in the memoir, the former Donald McCloskey refers to being "read" by others: casual passers-by, shoppers in a department store, patrons in a bar, professional colleagues. Each of us is read daily, and we read others. When the author was still what he thought of as a male heterosexual cross-dresser lightheartedly exploring his hobby, the game was to cross-dress so successfully that he was read as female and thereby "passed." McCloskey concludes there are two patterns governing transsexuality: "Either you've always known you were of the wrong gender or you've constructed a psychological dam against the realization, which suddenly breaks, usually in mature adulthood." His dam burst in his sixth decade.

This is not a new story. When the British journalist and travel writer James Morris made his transition to Jan Morris in the 1970's, his account, "Conundrum," transformed gender crossing from a dubious enterprise to one of somewhat bizarre respectability. I was dimly aware that articles had appeared in Harper's Magazine, The Boston Globe, Worth magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education about the decision by the renowned economist and historian Donald McCloskey at the age of 52 to undergo all the requisite procedures to become Deirdre McCloskey.

But it had not occurred to me that there was a brisk trade in pornographic magazines targeted at cross-dressers. I did not know that conventions of them assembled regularly in reputable hotels around the country, that chat rooms for cross-dressers provided means for this group to mingle electronically, despite geographic distances, and often to arrange to meet offline.

I did not know how difficult and how expensive it is to change sex, or that more than 25,000 Americans have done so. Just for starters, the cost of getting rid of a male beard by electrolysis is a minimum of $10,000. Sessions under local anesthesia can run as long as seven or eight hours at a stretch. Since only about 40 percent of the hairs treated are killed at each attempt, retreatments — strippings" — are necessary. Only an "active" follicle can be destroyed; there is no way to tell in advance the stage of growth of a treated follicle. At the second treatment, the percentage of regrowth is reduced to 36; the third leaves 21.7, and so it proceeds. McCloskey was still going back for retreatment after two years of womanhood. But before making the commitment to extirpating the beard, McCloskey scheduled removals of hair on the backs of the hands, then arms, then back, legs and stomach. The dedication required for this monumental task is mind-boggling.

After hair removal came a tummy tuck and breast augmentation. Then facial reconstruction: reduction of the eyebrow ridge by grinding down the bones; cheek and jaw surgery, an operation to reduce the nose, move the hairline forward, point the jaw, lift the eyebrows. The first voice operation was not successful, nor were subsequent ones. Retraining the existing voice proved a better solution. "Get a tape recorder," Deirdre was advised. "Place your voice forward. Speak in your head instead of your chest. Articulate more clearly. No harsh onsets."

"Crossing" details the often excruciating physical procedures undergone in making the transition, but the book's major focus is on the gradual emotional evolution the writer experienced traversing from man to woman. McCloskey was married, the father of two grown children, when he made the leap.

Sadly, his son, daughter and former wife turned away from this new person. His sister and one of her academic colleagues played a sinister role in trying to thwart him. They conspired to have him committed as mentally incompetent — unfit to sign papers for optional surgical procedures. They devised a theory that he was manic and that his mania could be treated with psychopharmacology, much as in the 50's psychiatry thought that homosexuality could be overcome with electroshock. Twice during his determined journey into womanhood, they managed to have him incarcerated — handcuffed, locked away where he could not harm himself, at first in the University of Iowa Hospital's mental ward and later in the University of Chicago Hospital — to await evaluations by psychiatrists whose knowledge of his situation was less than rudimentary.

The shrinks he had the misfortune to encounter seemed still to be operating at a pre-60's level. At that time, the profession's "standards of care" required a two-year waiting period before a would-be transsexual could have surgery. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is what transsexuals fear. In 1997 the American Psychological Association declared that it "opposes all portrayals of lesbian, gay and bisexual people as mentally ill," and the psychiatric association adopted that code in 1998. Gender crossers are still waiting for the gender identity "disorder" to be removed from the list of mental illnesses.

The family rift has not shown signs of closing. But Deirdre McCloskey's mother and brother have been bulwarks of support, and her sister is moving toward reconciliation. She has finally stopped calling her "Donald."

I admire the unflinching direct narrative the author employs: no self-pity; no denying the years he spent cross-dressing before the "epiphany," the coming to terms with the ultimate goal; no verbal reprisal against the wife or the sister, only a little directed at the psychiatrists; much praise of and gratitude to the Dutch academic community in Rotterdam, which unquestioningly took McCloskey in as a visiting professor.

The final surgery to remove the male genitalia and replace them with a neovagina took place in Australia in 1996: "Being able to say you are finished, complete, really a woman by the no-penis criterion is the most powerful rhetoric for acceptance of behaviorů . In our medicalized culture the ceremony that seals the agreement is the operation." In McCloskey's case, the neovagina had to be fashioned from a portion of the small intestine and manually dilated every day, a chore that took about half an hour and was, at least initially, quite painful.

While McCloskey is silent on sexual gratification after the surgeries, she is refreshingly articulate on the female sex: "She had started to forget what it was like to be a man. ... She forgot what it felt like to not understand relationships because you find them boring. Or to feel that you are by rights the local hero. Or to feel that people should serve you. Or most superficially and most fundamentally to think of men as 'we' and women as 'they.'" Transgendering has made her a feminist.

Far more important to her than the possibility of sexual intimacy in the future is being accepted as a woman among women. Being elected president of the Economic History Association, she says, "was glorious, affirming." After the final surgeries, including a second face lift, she is "read" less and less. Her career survives, seemingly undamaged.

The total cost of her transformation to date comes to about $90,000, far higher than average because she had so much cosmetic surgery and voice surgery, together with surgeries to repair those surgeries. Travel between Iowa and Dallas (electrolysis), San Francisco (cheek and jaw surgery), Philadelphia (voice operation) and Australia (genital replacement) in search of the best procedures also has to be factored in. A variety of wigs while she experimented with how to wear her own hair, the acquisition of an extensive wardrobe, do not come cheaply. Then there were legal fees as she untangled the web woven by her sister, and fees to the mental hospitals where she was held against her will. Despite having to overcome so many roadblocks and despite the outright failure of some of the cosmetic surgeries, Deirdre McCloskey is not bitter. Even rejection by her children is met with sorrow, not anger. This is a woman worth knowing. She has given us a highly readable, dramatic account of her crossing.

Maxine Kumin's most recent book is "Selected Poems 1960-1990." Her memoir, "Inside the Halo and Beyond," will be published next spring.