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Femboy by Clifford Chase


heard giggling from the fort. Inside, Todd and Chris were sitting together on
one of the chicken-wire bunks, poring over a Playboy. They had been

doing this for months, but I had never been brave enough to tell them it
didn’t interest me. “You want to see?” Todd asked eagerly. I shook my head,
turning away with exaggerated boredom. I wanted us to work on the secret
compartment we had started making in one wall of the fort the other day. But
the two of them were consumed again as Chris carefully opened the
centerfold. Todd groaned.


I gathered my courage. That morning at summer school there was a strange
new boy in drama class who had actually made fun of Playboy. Using
a tone of voice I’d never heard before — lilting yet caustic, excitable yet forceful
— this boy left Garth Johansen, the class
golden boy, blushing and stammering with the magazine in his lap.


Now, in the cool dimness of Todd’s backyard fort, I prepared to repeat the
curious boy’s triumph. I put my hand on my hip, just as he had, and I rolled
my eyes. Then I said exactly what the supercilious boy had said to Garth
Johansen, in the exact same tone, as if nothing could be more ridiculous: “Are
you popping a boner?”


Chris looked up at me, handsome and wide-eyed. But unlike Garth Johansen,
he was not at all devastated. “This doesn’t turn you on?”
“Of course not,” I said, already realizing the grave error I had made. I was not
superior to boys like Chris and Todd after all. The two were staring at me in
utter astonishment — that suspended moment just before judgment. I looked
down at the splintery, makeshift floorboards.


“What does turn you on?”

Mom was out at orchestra practice, and Dad and I watched the Tarzan movie
ourselves. I pretended to agree that it was too bad nothing else was on. I was lying
on my belly on the bright throw rug staring at the former football star’s body.
At the beginning he was dressed and civilized in a tight blue shirt, but almost

immediately he returned to the jungle and his skimpy, asymetrical loincloth.
The smooth Tarzans I’d seen in the past had never interested me, but this
one’s full chest was hairy and the two nippled slabs bounced deliciously when
he ran through the shady forest. “Look at that muscle-bound jerk,” exclaimed
my father. I said nothing. Fighting some foe, human or animal, in an
indistinct arena of dust and grass, Tarzan lifted his weapon — a lasso or a whip
or a sling — above his dark-tousled head, lifting also his fabulous chest, liquid
ribs, swelling sides, and he twirled whatever it was above his head, his
abdomen heaving, slender loin-cloth hips swaying.


My father tapped me on the shoulder. I half turned, blushing hotly, averting
my excited eyes. Smiling, he handed me a pale green Tupperware of popcorn.

It was the summer after sixth grade, neither grade school nor junior high, and
even though I knew well what “fem” was — for that’s what I was — I didn’t
quite recognize that new boy from drama class as such. He seemed too
powerful. He was so sure of himself when he mocked Garth Johansen —
flamboyantly sarcastic, lisping triumphantly, throwing up his hands in
spiteful glee. For that brief moment, he seemed to offer a way to me:
aggressive yet femmy, a first lesson in drag-queen bravado. Not that I named
it such; I don’t think, at first, that anyone could quite put a name to it. We
were learning what he was, for the first time, and within just a few weeks the
stigma would be thoroughly understood. But until then he was beyond us, a
figure from Boys in the Band in a world of suburban twelve year olds,
a stranger in a strange context.


The bitchy queen: where could he have learned the role? Did those precise,
exaggerated mannerisms come naturally? Or did he concoct his persona from
brassy or sarcastic characters on TV — Paul Lynde on Bewitched, Flip
Wilson in drag, Mr. French on Family Affair. Did he have a real-life
model? An uncle in the theater, a neighbor, a family friend? In any case, the
femboy was hipper than the rest of us. He wore torn hippy jeans and limp
paisley shirts, and had shoulder-length hair before any of the other boys did.

He was the kind of kid you’d hear rumors about, that he’d been caught
smoking pot in grade school.


His various peculiarities vied in the public mind, seeking a verdict: different,
exceptional; or different, outcast? I don’t remember what tipped the balance.
At some point the drama teacher — suspect himself — might have mimicked
the boy’s nelly disdain as the class watched. Yes, and we all must have
laughed, standing nervously in a tight circle below the institutional
proscenium, while the girlish boy shifted there before us, slender and alone,
wavering like a fortune in the eight ball.

I knew what fem was, but I did not yet know the meaning of fag, only that it
was odious. For some reason final knowledge did not come until the
following spring, through my older brother. He was home from college for
the weekend. Though I didn’t know that he was gay, and neither did he,
perhaps some mutual intuition made it possible for him at one key moment
to associate the word homosexual directly with me, even if it was merely a
joke. I had been acting “femmy,” he and his girlfriend told me. Maybe I had
become temporarily “homosexual,” my brother said. I did not need to deny
his accusation made in jest, but it led me to spend the entire evening
researching the word in the encyclopedia.


I was caught between desire for knowledge and fear of that knowledge as I
turned the onion-skin pages. As I read and reread the tiny, black print over
the next several weeks, a plan for my sexual transformation began to take


I took the Playboy gingerly from the middle shelf of my brother’s
hutch. He had left it behind when he went away to college the previous fall,
but I had never wanted or dared to look at it before. I turned to “A Loving
Portrait of the Braless Look.”


The model’s brownish nipples floated behind translucent purple.


The Encyclopaedia Britannica had said that during periods of
prolonged isolation from the opposite sex — while in prison, for example, or at sea — normally
heterosexual individuals may turn to homosexuality. Surely then, I

reasoned, given the proper stimuli one could also turn oneself in the
opposite direction.


The photos in Playboy did not at first excite me. But I stared at them
every night before bed, working on my theory. I also prayed each night,
summoning within myself a particularly abject mood as I approached the


To my delight and surprise, my prayers were answered just a few weeks later,
though not while looking at Playboy. It was a woman on a TV program
called Love American Style who first stirred my heterosexual
longings. Perhaps her character was a lawyer, perhaps blond, perhaps tall. In
this segment there would have been the usual ogling, comic mishap,
misunderstanding and happy reunion that always marked American-style
love. Like the two young businessmen on the show, I became excited by this
professional woman’s brisk, corporate walk from the elevator in her short,
tight dress.


With a relieved joy I knelt in my suburban bedroom, eyes shut tight, to thank
the Lord for my hard-on. This new lust would grow stronger and stronger,
and gradually it would outshine the old one. Saturday morning at Todd’s, as
our electric HO racecars tailspinned off the curve, I couldn’t resist bragging
about the previous night. “Did you see Love American Style?” I asked
him. “There was this woman lawyer who was really a fox, and I was sitting
there in my room popping a boner.” Todd grunted, and I knew I’d gone too
far. My thirteen year old’s strategy lacked all subtlety, though perhaps it
allowed Todd, for a time at least, to pretend to believe me.

Before his downfall, the femboy had succeeded in his way, remaining a
paradox in the social order. For the rest of us, the slightest variations from
“boy” and “girl” had become absolutely forbidden, utterly charged with shame. Yet the
femboy seemed impervious. His blatant, fearless acts were unfathomable to
us. If shame was missing from the equation, nothing added up.


In the weeks following the Playboy incident, the femboy continued to mock
Garth Johansen. Was it Garth’s neat, blond body, his lack of humor or some
deeper ambiguity that made him the favorite target? Regardless,

one hot morning the nelly boy pushed Garth too far, inciting a dusty confrontation on the blacktop. “Oh, put up your dukes!” the femboy cried, dancing in hilarious parody of fisticuffs. But no one laughed. The nelly boy paused, audienceless. Garth pushed him down
and leapt on top. The nelly boy did fight back then, slapping and kicking “like
a girl.”


I wasn’t there. I imagine myself dawdling at that moment in the cool
auditorium, somewhere below the heavy raised red curtain, munching
potato chips distractedly, hiding away from the commotion I glimpsed in the
blazing courtyard. Perhaps this was the story of the nelly boy’s disappearance,
because I have no further recollection of him that summer, nor do I even
remember his name.

Drama class went on without him. Our final assignment was a sixty second
television commercial, and the product my new friend Wayne chose to
advertise was called “Gay Deceivers.” He had seen the ad in the back of a
movie magazine: they were falsies. Wayne and I and the fat kid, Bruce Horti,
all stuffed rolled-up socks in our shirts and spoke in high voices, hands on
our hips. The socks kept sliding down, and we’d push them up again. All the
kids laughed. Here my femininity was properly cordoned off by the wooden
edge of the stage, the time constraint, and the safety of a public joke. The
teacher stood laughing with his stopwatch. At the end, another boy — Garth
Johansen? — played the man on the street who turned to look, and whose eyes
bugged out with desire when he beheld our huge, deceiving breasts.

Clifford Chase
and Nerve.com