An MTF (Male-to-Female) trans person singing disco songs in Hebrew. Now, there’s an act that will draw the crowds in—especially if the singer in question is Dana International, winner of 1998’s Eurovision contest. Born Yoran Cohen in Israel in 1972, International was a known artist in her home country when she was selected to represent Israel in the Eurovision competition. Consequently, her win helped launch her as an international pop star.
International knew she was meant to be a woman when she was a teen, but it wasn’t until she was in her early 20s that she was able to have sexual reassignment surgery. In the years since, she has established herself as a cultural icon in Israel and much of Europe; in fact, International ranked 47th in Ynet’s poll of “the man or woman who are for you the essence of everything good, beautiful, and worthy of Israel” (according to Window’s translator, since the original is in Hebrew). International’s ranking is noteworthy because it comes ahead of such internationally-known figures as political leaders Moshe Dayan (#73) and Golda Meir (75), conductor Zubin Mehta (117), and violinist Itzhak Perlman (135). International hasn’t rested on her Eurovision laurels, however; her 2009 collaboration with Israel hip-hop star and music producer Subliminal resulted in a one of that year’s hot dance tracks, “Alay”:
It’s not surprising that International rose to fame in Israel and has established a fan base in Europe, but has yet to make a splash in the United States. Only recently has the subject of celebrity trans persons come up here, most notably with the inclusion of Chaz Bono in the waltz to the tackiest trophy in show business on Dancing with the Stars.
Bono’s scheduled appearance set ABC’s message board for the show on fire, as posters debated the network’s ulterior motives. Countless posts announced the intention to quit watching the show, because “conservative families (not necessarily even Christian) do not want homosexuality shoved down their (throats)”, “we cannot allow our children to watch and think that what Chaz Bono has done is OK”, and “(I) do not want to be subjected to the homosexuality and trans gender influence”. (It should be noted that uber-gay Carson Kressley’s appearance the same season didn’t calm anyone’s fears of LGBT domination of the airwaves.)
One former fan predicted that ratings for the show would plummet, as disgruntled viewers turned the show off. That didn’t quit happen, as the season premiere had 19 million viewers, a formidable showing considering it went up against the premiere of Ashton Kutcher on Two and a Half Men. What those who did tune out failed to realize is that tv reflects the public at large, and LGBT persons are part of the landscape. We’re going to be on TV, even on shows that are “family-friendly”. Well, OK, maybe not onThe 700 Club, but then, I could make a pretty good argument that isn’t a family-friendly show.
Nonetheless, despite the increase of LGB persons on TV, mass media has yet to embrace trans persons, at least in the US. Bono is not the first trans celebrity, although none before has elicited so much dialogue. For the sake of this discussion, we are referring to “trans” as persons who have assumed the opposite gender than their birth gender as a full-time lifestyle and have altered their appearance accordingly, either surgically or medicinally. Well-known figures such as Renee Richards, tennis player, and Christine Jorgensen, erroneously credited as the first person to receive gender reassignment surgery, were famous because of their sexual reassignment, not because of their contributions to their respective professional fields, although Richards did get a couple of tennis trophies along the way.
Certainly, stars such as RuPaul have helped promote transsexualism, but RuPaul makes appearances as both his feminine and masculine personas, even on his reality competition, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Other transvestites have made livings as entertainers—many LGBT bars have drag queens or kings performing at least one night a week—but few beyond RuPaul have become nationally known.
Perhaps America’s best known transsexual before Chaz Bono was Alexis Arquette, sister to Roseanne, Patricia, and David Arquette. Although her biggest starring role was in the cult film Killer Drag Queens on Dope, Alexis has had minor or guest-starring roles in Pulp Fiction, Sometimes They Come Back…Again, The Wedding Singer, Bride of Chucky, and Lords of Dogtown, as well as the TV shows Alien Nation, Roseanne, Friends, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Californication. As a 12-year-old, young Robert (nee Alexis) appeared as the kid riding through the SM/Fetish carnival ride from Hell in The Tubes’ video for “She’s a Beauty”.
While Arquette has never become a “big star”, countless actors would love to have her resume. Other MTF stars, such as Calpernia Addams (whose story is told in Soldier’s Girl) and Candis Cayne (Dirty Sexy Money), have yet to break through to the cultural consciousness.