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7 min

An exclusive interview with Patrick Califia

Queer icon tackles FTM sexuality, disability and vampires

CLASSIC OEUVRE. "I'm living as Patrick now, so it's a little strange to go back and reconcile my lesbian history with the life that I have now," says Patrick Califia.

Patrick Califia has been pushing the boundaries of queer culture for a couple decades now. Committed to opening up new choices, he advocates for change and expands awareness of lives lived on the margins of queerdom.

Califia works as a sex educator, writer, activist and therapist in private practice in the Bay Area, where he lives with his partner Jakob. In early November, he presented a couple of workshops in Ottawa, and he’s now in Montreal for a series of workshops and lectures, as part of Queer McGill’s sex “(re)education” week (see the full schedule at patrick-califia.com and queermcgill.ca).

We caught up with him by phone at his home in San Francisco last month to talk about his new projects and recent happenings.

Capital Xtra: First off, I was really excited to hear about the 20th anniversary re-release of Macho Sluts as part of the Little Sister’s Classics series. What was it like to put that book back out into the world again after all these years?

Patrick Califia: [laugh] So many things have changed since then. When I wrote that book, I was in my late twenties, and I’m 55 now. And, you know, I knew at the time that it was published that it would be controversial, but I didn’t anticipate the vehement to nasty scope of the feminist sex wars. I think another difference is, at the time that book was published, there wasn’t much of a lesbian S/M community — it was just getting started — and now we’ve got such a huge and diverse BDSM community. It’s kind of nice to see that some of the things I wanted to have happen as a result of writing the book have really happened.

At the same time, I’ve done a gender transition, and I’m living as Patrick now. So it’s a little strange to go back and reconcile my lesbian history with the life that I have now. I really did wonder whether people would think that the book had become irrelevant because of the personal changes I had gone through.

CX: Have you gotten that feedback from anyone?

PC: Well…not yet!

CX: [laugh]

PC: I did feel like it was really necessary for me to write an introduction and talk about some of these issues and hopefully just give people my perspective on that.

CX: Macho Sluts is all about where pain and pleasure meet in S/M.

PC: Yes.

CX: But when you come to Ottawa this time around, you’ll be taking another approach to sexual pain and pleasure in your workshop, “Getting Hot When You Hurt.” Can you tell me what inspired you to create that workshop?

PC: Well, I have been living with Fibromyalgia for, gosh, about twenty years now. When I first wrote Sapphistry: The Book of Lesbian Sexuality, it was very important for me to include a section on sex and disability. I guess I really hoped that, after that book was published, it would be one of a whole plethora of books about sexuality and disability and body image.

Sadly, that just hasn’t materialized. And yet, the fact is, at almost every point in almost every person’s life, we’re going to go through some kind of period of illness or disability. So it seems like important information for all of us to have. This idea that you can divide the world into able-bodied and disabled people, into two discrete and separate populations is just wishful thinking.


CX: Yeah, it’s pretty ridiculous.

PC: Yeah. It’s a defence against the fact that our bodies are frail and mortal.


CX: And vulnerable.

PC: Yes, and very vulnerable! [laugh] Wouldn’t we all like to pretend that we’re immortal and impervious to illness or danger or any kind of damage? I think most people live as if they’re immortal and they’re not very heedful about the body’s limitations. They’re not very attentive to the self-care that our bodies could really benefit from.

And I think that, in the industrialized west, we still have this split between the spirit and the body, and the spirit is supposed to be much more important than the body. The spirit goes on to an eternal reward while the body is vulnerable to all the temptations of sin and evil. We still haven’t really healed that dichotomy, and, in capitalism, you have the further complication that only youth and beauty and strength are valued.

So people who are not able-bodied are really not valued — they’re pushed to the side. I think people are afraid to think about it too much. It’s a little painful to be made aware of how many privileges you can suddenly lose by having your body be limited.


CX: Do you see this workshop more as passing along information to the general public or reaching out to people who struggle with pain and bodily limitations in their sex lives?

PC: I’m framing it more for disabled people than their caretakers or allies, but I think it’ll be relevant for anyone who cares about the issue. There’s a lot of writing about disabled people that’s rather objectifying and condescending, so it’s really important for us to talk about our own experiences. And disability encompasses so many different experiences.

I’m really hoping there will be people there in several different situations so that maybe we can have a dialogue about how that affects the whole topic of how to feel attractive, how to be in touch with eroticism, how to express it, how to find partners — all of that.


CX: You’ve been living with chronic pain for quite a long time.  Has BDSM informed your ability to be with your pain in terms of sexuality?

PC: It’s funny. That’s a question I get asked a lot. And I have to say, no, it really hasn’t. There’s such a difference between wanted and unwanted pain. In S/M, it’s something that you’ve anticipated and planned for and worked really hard to make happen and you’re really excited about it and happy. You may be nervous, but it’s kind of nervous, joyous anticipation.

The way that people feel about chronic pain is just totally different. It’s more like, how do you deal with this unwanted guest without coming to have a really hostile relationship with your own body or an attitude of self-blame.


CX: I want to switch gears here for a minute. It seems you’re always working on one exciting project or another…

PC: [laugh] Yeah.


CX: …but I heard through the grapevine that you’re working on a book on FTM sexuality. Can you speak to that?

PC: Slowly, yes. Very slowly I’m working on that. I’m kind of assuming it’ll have to be self-published. I haven’t been able to find a publisher who’s interested in it — again, because it’s thought to be a topic that is only of interest to very few people, so it’s not seen as having commercial potential.

Right now, the whole field of publishing is in so much financial difficulty, I think publishers are really hedging their bets and trying to go with the projects that seem like they have the most widespread appeal. So queer books and feminist books are really getting the shaft. It’s getting harder to be a writer now than it was when I started doing this.

But anyway, the project is complicated for a bunch of different reasons. One is that there are many different kinds of FTM bodies; there are many paths to transition and not everybody chooses to do so medically. There’s also a lot of different sexual orientations —  asexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, homosexuality. And so, I’m trying to address a lot of different needs all in one book. I feel comfortable with that, but I do have concerns that there are splits between FTM communities sometimes — for instance, between gay and straight transgendered men. There are straight trans men who can be pretty homophobic.

I’m just hoping that the book won’t get the same hostile reaction that Sapphistry got, but I have a feeling it will probably kick up every bit as much consternation and anger and controversy. It’s really hard to talk about sexuality and offer information without people greeting it as if you were advocating for every single controversial variation.


CX: Totally. But, in the meantime, before this book finds its way out into the world, you’ve been doing workshops on this topic for transmen and their partners and allies. Since you’ll be putting on that workshop during your visit to Ottawa, I’m wondering if you can tell people what they might expect if they attend?

PC: We cover some of the same material that I’d want to cover in the book. I want to acknowledge the range of FTM bodies and identities and talk about the differences between sexual orientation and gender, and I would like to be able to talk about how our sense of ourselves as men or men of transgendered experience can affect our ability to accept or give sexual pleasure. I will probably be talking some about specific sexual techniques, but I think I will probably be talking more about the emotional and psychological side of things.

Sometimes the hardest thing about sex for trans men is just believing that we are attractive, that other people validate our identities and that it is okay for us to be physical actors in the sexual realm — that we don’t have to hold back in order to preserve an illusion of maleness.

Transmen are trying to do something very difficult. We’re trying to be male in the erotic realm, and yet, we’re doing so with bodies that are not conventionally male. The whole project is creating a new kind of maleness, a new kind of masculinity.


CX: Can you say more about that?

PC: Yes — in the workshop! [laugh]

CX: Fair enough! We just get a little taste. So what else are you working on these days?

PC: Well, I’m working on a paper for the American Academy of Religion that I’ll probably give before I go to Ottawa. It’s about the gay marriage debate and about the way that arguments about monogamy and S/M have been used by the new right to try to control this whole discussion — and also the divisions within the gay community about that. What else am I working on? Oh my god, too many things!

I have another vampire book I’m working on. It’s sort of a prequel to Immortal Companion. It takes place before that book happens with a whole different set of characters. And a new collection of essays will probably come out at some point.

CX: Great. Essays on what?

PC: I don’t know if you saw the book Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism? What I’ve wanted to do for a long time is a very similar book but about BDSM, talking about how BDSM wound up being pathologized, do some deconstruction of that and a summation of the political issues that the modern S/M community faces and talk about some strategy.

CX: Strategy for dialogue?

PC: For dialogue and education but also for activism, for social change.

CX: That sounds exciting.

PC: Yeah, it’s also just really long!