[15 December 2011]
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.
Internationally, though, Dana International is not alone in being a star. April Ashley had performed as a drag queen in Paris’ famous Carousel Theater during the ‘50s. After completing her surgery in 1960, Ashley returned to her native Britain, where she established a successful career as a model. This lead to film work, including a minor part in 1962’s Road to Hong Kong with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (when producers learned Ashley was trans, they removed her name from the film credits). The years since have seen her write two books about her life, The First Lady (John Blake, 2006) and The Art of Promotion (Xulon, 2010). Although she does give some talks about her journey, she mostly lives a quiet life in England with her husband.
One of Ashley’s co-workers at the Carousel was Coccinelle, who became a media sensation in France upon returning there after her surgery in 1958. She made six films total, recorded two albums, and wrote two books. According to How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States by Joanne Meyerowitz (Harvard University Press, 2004), Coccinelle was revolutionary in the trans movement because she used her sexuality as a woman to full advantage, performing stripteases in her revues and posing for erotic pictures, adopting the “more explicitly sexual femininity of Marilyn Monroe and Bridgette Bardot” (Meyerowitz).
Following her entertainment career, Coccinelle established Devenir Femme, a resource center for trans persons, as well as helping to open the Center for Aid, Research, and Information for Transsexuality and Gender Identity in France.
Unlike Coccinelle, Canada’s Barbara Amesbury enjoyed her commercial success while she was still male. As Bill Amesbury, she recorded several hit songs in Canada in the ‘70s, among them “Virginia (Touch Me Like You Do)”, “Can You Feel It”, and “Nothing but a Fool”. His hit “A Thrill’s a Thrill” addresses gender identity and sexual orientation and has been recorded by Mitch Ryder and John Cougar. Prophetically, one line of the song announces “I know a boy who’s growing tits”. Amesbury had her surgery in the early ‘80s and retired from show business. Nonetheless, she became the subject of a hit song in the ‘90s, James Collins’ “Do You Mind If We Talk About Bill?”:
Korea produced a noteworthy act, Lady, within the past decade. What made this all girl group unique was that all its members were trans individuals. Although the group’s run was short, from 2005 to 2007, and they only had a couple of hits, they garnered considerable press. One report said over four hundred auditioned for the band. Their biggest hit, “Attention”, got considerable play throughout Asia:
The group made the news again this past year, as a video comparing Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” with Lady’s “Be Happy” made its way through the blogosphere. While the songs do have many similarities, the assertion that Gaga had ripped off Lady is a stretch.
The first noted gender reassignment surgery was in 1930, when Lili Elbe underwent five surgeries to transition from male to female. Although it has been noted that Elbe was originally intersexed, her procedure is noteworthy as the first time that surgeons had undertaken the task of determining a person’s gender. Unfortunately, Elbe died shortly after the last surgery. It’s been over 70 years since Elbe began her surgeries, so isn’t it time that so-called ‘advanced’ cultures began to recognize the presence of trans persons in their midst?
This may actually be happening, finally, in the United States. Shortly after Chaz Bono appeared on Dancing with the Stars, he made comments that elicited a response from Stephen Ira Beatty, son of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. Stephen was born Kathlyn Beatty, and he has a beef with Chaz’s description of his transformation process, arguing that Bono is not representative of the trans community and that Bono was a misogynist. The supposed ‘pissing contest’ between the two has generated considerable press. While it might be easy to dismiss such press as fodder for the feud-happy paparazzi, it’s important because it helps put the subject of trans lifestyles in the public consciousness, which is something that needs to happen, at least here in the United States. More importantly, Beatty is a rare example of a FTM trans to garner public attention.
For many straight people, the “trans” lifestyle consists solely of the drag queens that they see on their adventurous night into an LGBT club. However, trans persons are a part of every culture, even in those which are oppressive of trans choices. Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that trans individuals are starting to show up on the cultural horizon, even becoming a part of our media experience. What is surprising is that they have been hidden for so long.
Cheers, Queers to the Australian Labor Party, which formally came out in favor of gay marriage, thus putting the issue one step closer to becoming reality. Although the conservative and ironically-named Liberal Party still opposes same-sex marriage, the majority of Australians support it. The debate has also sparked one of the best pro-marriage spots ever, which has gone viral. In case you’ve missed it, grab a hanky and check it out:
Here’s Mud in Your Eye to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann, who bone-headedly argued that LGBT persons had the right to marry, as long as they married someone of the opposite sex. So, if I marry someone I don’t love of the opposite sex, with whom I have no plans to procreate and plan to cheat on regularly with my same-sex lover, I’m preserving the sanctity of marriage?