If You Can Pass For A Girl
Words Paul Monroe
Greer Lankton, a genderqueer artist and East Village visionary lived a truly radical life. Remembered for her fascinating work that captured an era through alluring dolls made from fabric and wire, a craft she had been perfecting since she was a ten year old boy from the American Midwes. At the age of 21, Greer endured a difficult gender transition, a surgery that was incredibly risky and experimental at the time. Greer’s hand-sewn dolls, illustrations and photographs beautifully mirrored her lifelong exploration and relationship with the Body and gender identity. Together Greer’s stories, energy and eerie dolls explored both glamour and gender and enchanted some of the defining talents of 1980’s downtown Manhattan – including Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar and David Armstrong. Since her death, husband Paul Monroe has been building the Greer Lankton Archives Museum (GLAM) and keeping the stories of Greer’s life very much alive. Here, Paul looks back to 1986 when the two of them visited the Church camp that Lankton’s parents ran in Midwest, USA.
From the age of seven to seventeen, Greer would spend summers and many weekends at the church camp that her father ran in Saugatuck. It was on Lake Michigan and, as Greer would tell me, built on the site of Singapore, Michigan: a legendary small town that was engulfed by sand dunes in the late 1800s. Greer had a way of beguiling you with her stories. Sometimes they were a bit hard to believe. The funny thing was as tall as her tales were, they were all indeed fact. The other thing Greer loved to point out about Saugatuck was that it was a gay resort mecca to the point of bearing the nickname ‘Provincetown of the Midwest’, and that the church camp shared a beach popular with the gay visitors.
Greer spotted many a sexy, young man making love in the surrounding wooden areas, she would gleefully tell her parents who never believed her.
It was on this beach she found her first issue of After Dark magazine, which some beach-goer had left behind. It was a pivotal moment for a teenager who was acknowledging their own homosexual identity, a reassurance that young Greer was not alone. After Dark was a staple of any chic urban homosexual at that time. It was a soft-core gay porn magazine disguised as a theatre and art monthly. The features focused on nearly naked hot guys with their dicks exposed, all in a pseudo reference to art. It was in After Dark that Greer and I both discovered Candy Darling at around the age of ten. Candy was the trigger who introduced Greer to the world of drag along with the high jinks taking place at Andy Warhol’s Factory.
The camp was started in 1899 by a Methodist minister, the Reverend George Grey. Its focus was providing solace and sanctuary for inner-city mothers and children to escape the urban heat and regroup in nature. In the early 1900s, the Methodists sold the camp to the Presbyterians. In 1966, Greer’s father, a Presbyterian Minister, was asked to come on as director. Situated on a beautiful piece of property nestled in a wooded wonderland, with its pristine shoreline hugging the mostly undeveloped dunes of Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, for some it would be nirvana. For Greer, it was a land full of distasteful memories and night terrors.
In 1986, Greer and I drove from her childhood home in Park Forest, Illinois to Saugatuck, Michigan. I think it took around two and half hours. It was early fall and for the most part a stunning drive, until we got to Gary, Indiana, which smelled like hell. The stench the steel mills and factories emitted provided a deep heavy odour that made your eyes burn even with the windows up and the air on high. it felt like a prelude to what was to come. After we passed through, holding our breath and counting the minutes, we got off the main highway. Now in the forests of Michigan, among the skyscraper-high pine trees, the air balanced out. Greer was driving, knowing the route like the back of her hand from taking this trip at least a thousand times before.
She hadn’t been back to the camp since her recovery from a sex change operation in 1979. It was at this spot that her transformation fully manifested. She may have had the surgery in Ohio years earlier, but the real pain of the physical transformation from Greg to Greer took place here at the Presbyterian church camp. As we drove, she told me about the physical pain of recovery, which had been intense; she explained how every fibre of her being was on high alert. There was no position to be comfortable in. No one really warned her of this. Her doctor only dwelled on how she would look, not feel. When your body endures this type of trauma, it can take years for the pain to diminish – a fact left out. Her mother was her only caretaker and decided not to administer any of the pain pills the surgeon had prescribed for Greer. Instead she would enforce a new torture, only allowing three aspirin per day while her body withered with pain. On this trip, Greer relived the story in great detail, more detail then she had exposed before.
She told me how she’d awake in a pool of her own blood, and how this bleeding lasted for days. Her mother would have to unpack the blood-soaked cotton balls and then repack Greer’s new vagina on the hour. As the blood subsided, her mother then had the task of dilating Greer. Starting with a small flesh-coloured dildo the size of your pinkie finger and ending four weeks later with a black dildo the size of your wrist. The skin needed to be moulded into shape. A deep pocket must be created to fabricate a vagina. So this daily routine occurred six to seven times per day for as long as Greer could tolerate the pain. Greer explained how it was so intimate and invasive, and most of all embarrassing. She explained how she had the perception she and her mother were engaged in a psychotic game of punishing each other: Greer being persecuted for her effeminate traits and her mother for not accepting them. She cringed as she told me her mother had to perform the task of dilating her and while doing so would never look Greer in the eyes. As she pushed the dildo in, Greer’s mother would unconsciously moan, which repulsed Greer and left her feeling disgusted. Greer pointed out her only retreat from what was happening was when she would ask her mother uncomfortable questions about her own vagina to have some control of her own in the room. Her mother made rude remarks too about how it didn’t look like a ‘real’ vagina, and how she was lucky because they are ‘so ugly’.
Greer’s vagina was absolutely beautiful. Her surgeon was also an artist, a sculptor who worked in marble, and was gifted with a skilled hand. He created a masterly vagina that Venus would envy. The surgery had come a long way from what they were doing for seventy years prior. Greer was fortunate in this respect that her doctor took great care in making certain she would have pleasure from her new sex organ, and admittedly she did. Her surgeon took the nerves from the head of the penis where it’s most sensitive and fashioned a ridge in place of the clitoris. It was to the left side of the opening and brought her great relief and sexual satisfaction. The other pertinent fact the doctor omitted to tell her was that the vagina will only be as deep as the penis is long when fully erect. Greer was not exactly hung as a boy, and therefore her new pussy was shallow. The male body is somewhat empty in the groin region internally, so when they constructed a vagina they would take the penis and insert it inward. Then, using the remaining skin, forge ‘lips’. This practice started in the early 1970s. Before that, they really didn’t concern themselves with if the man-made vagina would function sexually and could deliver pleasure. They were only concerned with the fact that the patient could still urinate from it. So prior to Greer’s surgery, most transgenders had to endure an unusable ‘hole’, leaving them to feel incomplete as humans and truly not either sex.
My head spun from all the information and the visuals that lodged in my mind were overwhelming. We were about twenty minutes from the camp, so we pulled over, parked in a little rest area and smoked weed like champions to face what was coming next. Greer reapplied her face and dusted me with her Shiseido powder. She took note of my camp arrival outfit and said, ‘I can’t wait for the campers to see you!’
Yes, Greer loved that I wore my freak flag proud. I was decked out in a basic ‘in the woods’ look: a worn, stretched-out vintage 60s mohair sweater in green, high-cuffed 501s and platform leopard sneakers. A fair number of jewels decorated my arms and my prized Schiaparelli iron-worked cross hung around my neck, since it was a ‘religious’ environment and everything. I had a light coat of base on and black eyeliner; my hair was ‘pillowcase blonde’ to my shoulders and a bit out of control. Greer wore red and white polka-dot tights and a long red sweater that was box shaped and hit the knee. She had on red leather kitten heels and carried a leopard fur handbag. Her hair was loose and blonde as champagne. That perfect face was enhanced with a strong dose of paint, more than she’d usually don.
Appropriately sedated, we headed to camp. As we approached, I was relieved to see beauty and not the gruesome picture my mind had imagined. There was a historical grandeur to the classic lake-front architecture with its weathered wood siding and high pitch roofs. There were three sections to the camp: Camp Grey bordering Oval Beach, Westminster Woods in the centre section and Camp Kema bordering Shorewood. We were staying in the main building at Camp Grey, where Greer had grown up and also recovered.
As we grabbed our bags from the car, we were greeted by a small group of women who were staying at the camp seeking refuge from their daily battle with cancer. They said hello and continued their walk through the spirit-lifting habitat. We headed into the mess hall en route to find Greer’s mother in the kitchen, where she spent most of her time. Greer’s mother was dressed in her classic unadorned costume of a navy-blue skirt to the ankle, white button-up blouse and flat orthopaedic-looking shoes. There were no hugs or warmness just nervous banter about us locking up the house when we left Park Forest and our drive up to camp. She didn’t yet know how to respond to her son, who was now her daughter, and her daughter’s boyfriend who resembled her son, the one she was ashamed of.
Greer grabbed my arm and pulled me up the stairs. I was unaffected by her mother at this point, having spent three days with her and Greer’s father the previous week. The two days of being away from Greer’s mother, who had left early to prepare the camp for the guests coming that weekend, wasn’t long enough for me to change my opinion and feel anything other than contempt for the woman and her actions. Five minutes with this woman was proof of how oppressors arrive in many semblances. We went up the stairs to the room Greer and I were to stay in. It had the largest bed and, coincidentally, was the same room Greer recovered from her sex change in. As we walked in, I expected to feel something, but the room felt barren of all emotions, stripped and scrubbed like a crime scene: no evidence of her mother dilating her or holding back meds. I had imagined blood-stained handprints on the wall and a box of rotting dildos along with rusty medical instruments. But it was just a simple room, lacking in any clear personality. A lovely white cotton blanket to sedate the memory covered the bed. White curtains billowed from the lake breeze. I might have not been picking up any prominent vibrations from the room, but my love was.
Greer had an odd look on her face, drained of all her usual healthy colour. There was a blankness, and it was clear she was having a hard time breathing. In years of knowing her, I had never seen her like this. Greer looked me straight in the eye, and said ‘I’m not prepared for this right now. Get me out of here before I go down to the kitchen and stab that monster with the dullest knife I can find.’
I took her hand and we ran out to the car. She turned it around as dust filled the air, and we headed out to the main road, disrupting a flock of ducks who took off in front of us in formation. They lead the way back to the main road, which we followed into the ‘half-horse town’. When we were about a mile down the road, Greer let out a deep sigh and said, ‘Fuck!!! Being back there wipes me the fuck out!’ I assured her we could leave at any time, but she wanted to spend time with her six-year-old niece, Chloe, who was arriving the next day. We pulled into the little town and smoked a joint before heading to a liquor store to buy a couple of bottles of vodka. I never drank too much, and once Greer and I were together neither did she, but she needed something to get her through this weekend, and weed was not enough.
As we drove back towards the camp, she said she wanted to take me to one of her favourite spots – a place she would hide out as a kid. It was near the camp but didn’t hold any memories of her family. Greer’s stories were always so full there was usually no need for questions, but one did occur to me then. ‘What were your brother and sister doing during all this? Did either of them ever defend you or question your mother’s actions?’ Greer’s older brother, Mark, who also lived at the camp full time and served as the groundskeeper, seemed pretty cool to me. I only met him once, but I appreciated his quiet demeanour. He was also a wood worker like Greer’s dad, and created beautiful pieces from the wood on the campgrounds. Mark was four years older than Greer and didn’t really comprehend all that she was going through. He moved out of the house when Greer was just thirteen and entering this new arena of coming to terms with her sexuality. Mark had known that their mother was overly concerned with Greer being gay, but he didn’t give it much thought.
Greer answered: ‘Mark was a hippy and not into judging others, and he was thinking more about his own survival than concentrating on my battle with being a fag.’ Mark and Greer had a casual relationship – the most time they ever spent together was when Mark realised they shared an interest in weed, and they would occasionally get high around the side of the house or up on the roof. But Mark never made a statement about Greer’s journey. He seemed to sidestep it and not concentrate on it at all. He was almost oblivious to what was going on in the main house as his mother dilated his younger brother into a girl. Her sister, Cathy, on the other hand, was very involved in Greer’s quest at first. She was always judging Greer on whether she would be able to fool people into thinking she was a girl. When their mother announced Greer would be taking hormones to become female, Cath said, ‘You will never look like a girl!’ And Greer responded, ‘If you can pass for a girl, anyone can.’
Greer told me that while she was going though recovery and even pre-surgery, during the period when the state law required that you had to dress and live as a girl for three years prior to receiving approval for the surgery, Cath lost interest and started dating the guy who became her husband. She was trying to find herself and paid minimal attention to Greer. ‘Neither of them stuck up for me when my mother instigated this crusade to cure me from being gay,’ said Greer as we drove. ‘They were too afraid of her turning her judgement on them, so they were both mute. Cath was only involved in the beginning because she was excited to point out I was more flawed than she was, but once this became my mother’s full-time obsession, she lost interest.’
We arrived at the secret place. Greer and I ran through the woods like fawns on the first warm day. Our hands never parted even as we leaped over fallen limbs. The woods surrounding the camp were impeccable – I’d never experienced that type of seclusion. It felt as if we were miles from anyone; we were the only creatures in this mysterious, untouched land. We found the little cove with its still water pond hidden by the base of the cliffs. A wall of rock separated us from the rest of the world. We laid out and as I rolled up some weed, Greer cracked open the vodka. She took a large swig from the bottle and pulled off her sweater. She loved to be naked, and this was the first time we would be naked outside together. Taking her cue, I stripped too, and we placed our clothes on the ground piecing together a colourful blanket. Laying naked in the warm autumn air was invigorating to the bone. We talked about staying at the camp, and I again reassured her I would leave anytime, right now or at 3 a.m. if she wanted to. She said knowing that made it easier to stay. We planned to stay out until a little after 7 p.m., that way we could sneak back in and hide out in our room. Greer was depending on Chloe to be the buffer and make it tolerable to be near her mother and back at the camp.
As the bottle emptied, we decided to jump in the pond. Daring Greer jumped off a rock into a deep spot, mermaiding about in the most glamorous way. I waded in and swam to her. We water danced to stay warm and fucked against the centuries-old rocks in the glorious Maxfield Parrish light, surrounded by dark green ferns, with new growths in neon green that rose towards the sun like curled flames of fire. Dreamlike birds and insects entertained us as we laid there at peace in the comfort and luxury of nature. Greer’s eyes were soft and her relaxed body was lit with the softest of light. I remember the sensation of lightly tracing the outline of her lithe body with my index finger as we rested in the heavenly dappled light. Her hand clutched mine as I traced a heart over hers. The words, ‘This is all I ever wanted,’ floated from her pink lips. I held her closer than I thought possible, and we stayed there till fireflies lit up the night.