* * *
The voice. That’s it. When you meet Buck Angel, the one thing that even comes close to betraying that he was born a woman is the slight, feminine lilt in his voice. Still, it sounds more like the stereotypical “gay man” voice than one belonging to a biological female, except that isn’t quite right, either: the pitch is close, but the timbre is far from flamboyant. Even when discussing his role in a graphic sex show with a male accomplice at London’s Torture Garden — “I mostly slap him around and make him get on his hands and knees, maybe flog him a little and drip candlewax, and maybe I’ll fist him; I do some fisting stuff up there” — he keeps a modest tone, never lapsing into caricature. But the voice … that’s really the one clue, the closest thing to a giveaway that there’s something different about Buck. Well, that and the vagina.
FEBRUARY 8, 2006
The voice fools Howard Stern. When Buck shows up at Stern’s Sirius Radio studio to take part in a self-explanatory game called What’s My Secret, the crew sees a man, five-foot-eight, muscle-bound and covered in tattoos, sporting a clean-shaven skull and a thick Fu Manchu that, says Stern,“is a better mustache than I could ever grow.” For the purposes of the game, that little vocal flourish is a red flag.
“You’re gay,” Stern guesses incorrectly, and the air goes out of the room. If not gay, then what? What else could there be about a biker-looking workout junkie with a deceptively faggy voice? The crew is stumped and silent until Stern’s longtime sidekick, Robin Quivers, has an epiphany.
“You have not always been a man,” she announces, triumphant and grinning. Buck’s eyes close to slits as he turns to face her, grimacing and nodding his head. Bang on. “This is a man who went through a sex change.”
“You are very good,” he says, thinking, Quivers is a total dyke — of course she knows who he is. “That is awesome!”
Stern looks legitimately dumbfounded, saying he never would have guessed Buck’s secret … except that’s not the extent of the story. “You really have to guess what’s going on in Buck’s pants,” says Stern’s producer, Gary Dell’Abate. Stern looks like he’s catching on and asks Buck if he’s had “the surgery,” but Buck shakes his head.
“No, I’ve still got a pussy. That’s the whole thing: I’m Buck Angel, the man with a pussy.”
Like manna from heaven. All tension dissipates, and the Stern crew starts the inevitable pile-on. “So you’re not really a man.” “You have sex with women? So you are gay.” “You’re just fooling the authorities. If you’re legally a dude, then I’m legally a black man,” Stern says. Ad nauseam.
Yet Buck is all smiles, happily whipping out his wallet and passing around his driver’s license to prove that, legally, he is indeed a man. “My vagina does not make me a woman,” he insists, a statement that lands so far beyond the crew’s breadth of understanding that he may as well have delivered it in Martian. As Stern repeatedly tells him he’s “a chick, no offense,” Buck lets it roll off; he understands they’ve never seen anyone like him before, and he realizes that they’re not going to “get it” right away. Then it’s revealed that, as a woman, Buck was a female model, and Stern is even further flummoxed: Photos show Buck in a former life, a tight wet T-shirt over perky breasts and a slim frame, frosted blonde hair and strong, sharp features.
“You were a hot chick,” Stern says, less disrespectful than disbelieving. “What a waste. I would’ve done you.” That’s funny, Buck thinks, because God knows he would never have done Stern.
Ostensible mutual disgust aside, it’s still the Howard Stern show, and Buck ends up being asked to take off his pants. He obliges, but first asks, in complete earnest, if everyone’s ready for what they’re going to see — “a big man vagina,” that is, with a clitoris enlarged by nearly two decades of testosterone therapy. He drops his trousers and groans rise immediately from the room; writer Artie Lange barely peeks through fingers laced over his eyes, Quivers cackles, but Stern lets loose with a guttural laugh that belies the horror he’s tried to put on and instead indicates some sort of tangible fascination with what he’s seeing.
“I had a really weird thought,” Stern says to Buck at one point. “Do you want to get on the Sybian?”
The Sybian is a sex toy that looks like a saddle with a rod in the center, onto which different “heads” can be attached and then vibrate, weave and rotate. Porn stars are frequent Stern guests, and they’re often asked to ride the device. Buck, although he’s the world’s most successful female-to-male transsexual porn star, bristles internally at first, thinking there’s no fucking way he’s getting on that thing, but that’s quickly quashed by the showman inside that tells him to just do it. So he hops on and proceeds to purposefully make everybody as uncomfortable as possible.
He stands up a few minutes later after having taken enough, the room full of staffers on the brink of convulsions, and decides to bring down the house. “Oh God,” he says, pawing at his tenderized crotch and looking down at the machine, “I squirted!”
* * *
“I was fucking with them so hard,” Buck tells me two years later from his home in Mérida, Yucatán, where he lives with his wife, body piercer Elayne Angel. He’ll never go back on the Stern show, he says, not because he was hurt by what Stern and the others said to him, but because he thinks it would detract from the dominant performance he gave the first time around. “I know how to play that game,” he says. “I can make fun of myself too. I’m a porn star! Give me a break.” And though the experience was degrading to an extent, Buck knew exactly what he was getting himself into — it was the Howard Stern show, after all.
Watching the video of his appearance though, I tell Buck I got the impression that for all the fronting Stern did, it seemed like he really, truly wanted to be OK with Buck and what he was seeing, but that it was so different from the world with which he was familiar, he came off as incredulous and more than a little phobic.
“Exactly!” Buck says, downplaying the severity of Stern’s barbs. “I think Howard likes me a lot, and I think Howard respects me a lot. The stuff he said to me was very minimal.” That is to say, Stern was just confused; there are plenty of others who make concerted efforts to actually attack him — often, the community of transgender men.
According to Buck, this is because he doesn’t identify as a trans-man — he considers himself a man, plain and simple. “They’re the ones who are more political,” he says of trans-men. “I think they get sort of upset about me calling myself ‘the man with a pussy.’”
Buck has also butted heads with the trans-man community over what Buck claims is the increasingly frequent practice of fundraising parties thrown by pre-op men to finance their sexual reassignment operations; he was even quoted by the Village Voice for an article on the subject. “Boy, did I get myself into a big problem with that,” he says, but claims he received a decent amount of supportive feedback, too, from others who feel that if one wants to be a man, then, well, “be a man, dude.
“Too many of these fuckin’ people are in this situation where they’re begging,” he says, which he understands to a point, “but how come you can’t get a job?” Buck worked two jobs to pay for his surgery, and the sense of pride that comes along with that achievement itself nicely complements the satisfaction of finally feeling comfortable in one’s own skin. “But a boob-cutting-off party?” he asks. “What the fuck is that?”
It could be, of course, that these men feel they’re entitled to reach their transformative goal any way they see fit. They were slighted to begin with by being born with the wrong body, and that the destination, in this case, is far more important than the journey.
“It just seems so female,” Buck says of the trend, though. “I don’t know any transsexual women that throw cock-cutting-off parties! They just don’t go there.” He concedes, however, that there aren’t any guidelines on how to be a man, and that, his objections notwithstanding, he’s not suggesting that all men should feel they need to emulate him. “I’m just an old-school kind of guy,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine anyone paying for my surgery.”
Sexual reassignment surgery is expensive, though the prices vary. For a transgender man, breast removal can run from $3,000 to $15,000, a range Buck likens to the difference between buying a Volkswagen or a Cadillac. Some people can wait a few years and have a higher-end procedure, but for some, the urgency takes precedence. “And believe me,” he says, “it is an urgency for most of us. You can’t deal with having boobs. It’s horrific. To me, and a lot of guys, I think, it’s worse than not having a cock.”
Buck opted for a $7,000 operation, which, he says, would likely run closer to $10,000 nowadays — not cheap, but, he admits, it was a necessity for a person who’s more than a little vain. The first nine doctors he visited told him any chest surgery would result in nasty scars, which he found unacceptable; he wanted to be able to take off his shirt and not have anyone know he used to be a woman. His tenth consultation was with a surgeon from UCLA who specialized in operating on biological men with gynecomastia, a glandular issue that results in overdeveloped breasts, and who was confident he could perform surgery that would leave minimal scarring. Buck was lucky: He had small breasts to begin with, and the doctor’s prediction was correct.
This was 15 years ago. The surgery, combined with testosterone therapy, had Buck well upon his way towards a sense of ease he’d never really experienced. And a good thing, too, because he probably would have killed himself otherwise.
* * *
Buck was born the daughter of parents he (lovingly, sarcastically) calls “old school, Republican, scary white people,” and was equal parts loner and tomboy. He was raised playing football, wearing boys’ clothes and playing almost solely with guys — hell, he was even called “Buck” as a young woman. The second of three girls, he always felt that he was raised more like a boy than either of his sisters, though he rejects the idea his crisis of gender was caused by his upbringing; rather, he thinks his parents knew that there was something inside him that required a different approach than those tried with his sisters.
He eventually came out as a lesbian to his parents, but with what, at the time, seemed an unthinkable qualifier: “‘It’s not that I feel like a gay woman,’ I told them, ‘I feel like a man.’” Buck’s dad, who he describes as “super macho,” began to weep and blamed himself; he had wanted a boy, and must have thought he had somehow left his middle daughter fundamentally confused and irreparably damaged. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Buck started doing a whole bunch of drugs. Coke, crack and massive amounts of booze did their thing — he admits there are significant parts of his life of which he has little to no memory — and before long, his family disowned him completely. He doesn’t blame them, and, without a hint of self-pity, cops to being, by all accounts, a miserable scumbag. By his mid-twenties, he was suicidal, having been tossed off by most people in his life, and was living on the streets as a thieving, drug-addled prostitute. He hit bottom about as hard a person can, but he somehow conjured up the presence of mind to start attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which he says undeniably saved his life.
He started having what he calls “awakenings,” and tried to isolate what made him start doing drugs in the first place. Three years into his sobriety, with the help of a therapist, he felt like he could comfortably trace the roots of his drug abuse to his incredible gender confusion; at the time, he didn’t even know transsexuals existed. But one shot of testosterone, he says, was all it took, “and all of my problems were lifted from me.”
Then he lost everyone all over again.
“When I first decided I was really a man and not a woman,” he says, “because I was a dyke, my circle of friends all pretty much dropped me. They couldn’t even comprehend.” Buck says the stereotypes are true, and that, about militant lesbians, “they are male-haters; they are not positive about men, and they have a lot of issues about men. I don’t know if it’s penis envy or what, but most of them were like, ‘Dude, you’re out of here.’”
A handful of friends stuck with him, but having worked so hard to build back up a strong network of people after being alone for so long, only to see it disappear again, was devastating. Fuck communities then, Buck thought, if all they do is uphold the tenets of a rigid, unchanging identity, and then spit you out when you deviate. The dykes won’t stick with a trans-man, and the trans-men get offended by a guy who has the balls to trumpet the virtues of his vagina. Why go through the effort of establishing nomenclature for every variation of queer identity if they’re going to be used as tools of division? If only your average straight-laced queer-baiter knew how closed-minded some sects of these hated deviants can be.
A funny thing happened, though. Over the past few years, a number of these women who once told him to go screw? They’ve come to him for advice on how to have a sex change. And at first, empathy was far from the order of the day. “I’m not one who likes to hold on to animosity,” Buck says, “but my first impulse was to say, ‘fuck you, you guys totally dogged me when I was hurting and feeling so confused.’
“But then I thought, OK, you know what? I’m a pioneer. It’s sort of my duty to say, ‘yes, I can help you.’”
* * *
JANUARY 13, 2007
The Adult Video News Awards, which are essentially the Oscars of pornography, were once described in a David Foster Wallace essay as an “irony-free zone.” The porn industry is, if nothing else, helplessly earnest. Buck knows this, and can see the humor in his surroundings, but the fact that, on this night, he’s nominated for Best Transsexual Performer of the Year is an honor nonetheless, especially considering it’s the first time a female-to-male performer has ever been nominated. Though he only started doing porn in 2003, it’s taken some serious chutzpah to get here.
“In the beginning, they would not even look at me,” he says of others in the porn world. “They were mortified, and I was shocked because I thought they were going to love it. They have everything! Fifty-million-man gang-bangs, balloon fetishes, clown fetishes, horse fetishes, whatever the hell they do.
“But,” he says, “they thought I was the sickest thing ever.”
Though he initially signed on with the production company Robert Hill Releasing, he ended up branching out on his own, and now produces, directs and stars in his films himself, after he realized that, otherwise, he was just going to be mocked. (Also, he was being screwed out of money.) Once he left Robert Hill, the company hired another trans-man to star in their films and called him “The Man With a Pussy,” a title Buck now has trademarked. (Seriously.) This performer, however, had had no surgery, and once his clothes came off, he looked like a woman. “They used him to make freak-fest movies,” Buck says, “and they bombed.” Working within such a small niche market, a producer needs to have the utmost respect for the material — the people who are going to be turned on by it comprise such a small market share, you can’t afford to make them feel like they’re freaks.
The industry must have recognized his dedication, because when it comes time to announce the winner of the 2007 Transsexual Performer of the Year, Buck hears his name called, sees his face on the screen, but is told not to go up to the stage to receive his award; his category is the very last one of the night to be announced, and people are already filing out of the auditorium.
“It’s totally rude and disrespectful,” he says. “We’re behind the ‘best anal gang-bang,’ we’re behind the ‘best cumshot up your hole,’ we’re behind every single other genre. They look at us like we’re freaks.”
(Dykes? Check. Trans-men? Check. The vultures of the adult entertainment industry? Check.)
“Of course, I was still super happy to win the award,” he says. “It was super huge and historical.”
He even called his dad after the show.
“He loved it,” Buck says. “He said, ‘That’s so cool! I have a son who’s a porn star!’” Once Buck started his sex change, he rehabilitated his relationship with his family, with whom he says he now has as healthy a connection as he could ask for. His parents call him their son, his sisters call him their brother, they come to Mexico to visit and love Elayne. “I truly believe,” Buck says, “that all your family ever really wants is for you to be happy and successful and not fucked up on drugs.”
* * *
Many people’s lives may be easier if Buck didn’t exist. Not if he were dead, mind you, but if he had just been born in a man’s body. Or, barring that, if he had just shelled out the $70,000 for a limp piece of meat to hang between his legs, risked the 50-percent chance of never having another orgasm, and lived his life as a sexually unsatisfied man who at least fit in neatly somewhere. Ours is a society built on binaries, after all: Man and woman, good and bad, husband and wife, hero and villain. They allow for order, or at least the illusion of such. A person is one thing, or they’re another thing, and that’s it. Without a Buck Angel around, one need not address the idea that sexuality is perhaps more fluid than originally thought.
It makes sense in a masochistic sort of way. You feel certain impulses, desires, and rather than addressing them and finding a way to incorporate them into a healthy life, you don’t just suppress them — you adopt a world view that makes such urges impossible to even consider. The idea is to simplify your life, to reduce everything to a pair of choices, but the grand irony is that it’s this attempt at simplification that ends up destroying a person. Which is not to say that embracing these multiform routes through life is simple by any means, but the potential payoff is far greater. Under the current system, who is supposed to be turned on by Buck, anyway? The vagina is a deal-breaker for gay men and straight women, and the fact that he’s a man probably wouldn’t sit well with straight guys and lesbians. And yet, he’s got his fans, his following.
That said, he’s not a hero. He’s not saving the world by getting fucked in his big man vagina. To an extent, though, he is indeed the face and the voice of a new way of thinking, one long denied its existence and its relevance, and of that, he is living proof.
Let’s just not give it a name.
Visit Buck online at BuckAngel.com.
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