We live in a world in which mainstream ideas about sexual orientation and gender identity are swiftly changing. Caitlyn Jenner is dinnertime conversation in households across America. We are learning a brand-new language and set of guidelines, but some of us, who have built lives within the narrow confines of heterosexual existence, are going to need to study a different set of maps if we are to navigate this fantastic new landscape.
Jamie Brisick's "Becoming Westerly" is an excellent place to start.
The book opens on an airplane with the author seated next to the ultra feminine Ms. Westerly Windina, formerly known as Peter Drouyn, Australian surf star of the '60's and '70's. This very odd couple is bound for Thailand, where Westerly will undergo gender reassignment surgery, thus completing the final stage of her transition from male to female.
Brisick has been documenting her transformation for the last three years and the two have developed an exceptionally close friendship. As the flight prepares for takeoff, Westerly is nervous and in need of attention. She's concerned about looking beautiful and for the fifth time asks Brisick for reassurance, which he generously offers, though his patience is wearing thin. She drops her lipstick. He retrieves it then determinedly returns to his book. Westerly needs help with the headphones. Brisick plugs the cord in the hole and once again tries to read, but now Westerly is humming to the music and bumping him so that he can't possibly focus. Thus begins a complicated and sometimes confounding journey that will have a profound impact on both author and subject.
A former professional surfer, Brisick came of age before the gentrification and corporatization of the sport. He is an outstanding storyteller and uniquely qualified to chart the history of Peter Drouyn's life through the evolution of competitive surfing from the 1960s to the present day. Brisick offers nostalgic and often hilarious stories of a time when surfing was dominated by misfits and flamboyant eccentrics.
For many years, Drouyn was at the center of that world. An Australian national champion, world-ranked surfer and famous big-wave rider, he is credited with inventing the Man-on-Man format used in professional competition. Drouyn was one of those Neptune-like watermen who raised the bar of surfing and set new standards of excellence for generations to come. He was also a gorgeous hunk of man who talked extensively about his sexual conquests with the ladies, bragging about having one, two, even three women at a time.
Surf culture of the '60s and '70s was a notorious boys club (some would say it still is). It was a world where women and girls in tiny bikinis were expected to work on their tans while watching their boyfriends dominate the waves. The few of us women who did paddle out had to work twice as hard to earn our spot in the lineup and, no matter how well we performed, we were rarely taken seriously as equals.
All my life I've surfed with those guys who simply refused to see women as anything other than chicks, both in and out of the water — and so it was very hard for me to reconcile the public persona of Peter Drouyn with the woman presented here as Westerly Windina. How do you go from chauvinistic hyper-macho dude to a woman who models herself on Marilyn Monroe?
Peter was a restless, unhappy man with an insatiable need for attention and adulation. He brilliantly reinvented himself many times — pro surfer, actor, resort owner, surf ambassador to China, lawyer, entrepreneur — but never achieved the recognition he so desperately craved. With each failed venture he became increasingly bitter. It was not until he was in his 50s, when he sustained a broken eardrum and severe concussion during a bad wipeout, that his gender dysphoria became evident.
Westerly claims that before the accident Peter had no idea he was female; it was the traumatic head injury that killed off Peter Drouyn and allowed Westerly Windina to be born. She speaks of him in the past tense and has an interesting relationship with her former self: "Peter was always looking for a princess, he wanted to find his princess. Unfortunately, the princess was me."
Brisick walks us through the physical details of gender reassignment surgery, but defining Westerly Windina as she evolves post-surgery proves much more difficult. He struggles to understand her shape-shifting behavior, often pointing out contradictions within her personal narrative. At times he skeptically questions her motivation for becoming a woman. But ultimately he shows us that identity is fluid.
If we look to the natural world, we see that sexual changes in other species are not only common but pivotal to the evolutionary success for many creatures. We are, all of us, in a constant state of flux. "Becoming Westerly" encourages us to reexamine the role of gender identity in the shifting paradigm of the male-dominated surf culture and the world beyond.
Arnoldi is a longtime surfer and the author, most recently, of "Point Dume."
Surf Champion Peter Drouyn's Transformation Into Westerly Windina
Outpost 19: 280 pp., $16 paper