Connect the Dots: Transgender Narratives in Pop Culture

What queen in America, or the world for that matter, myself included, doesn’t live for the Academy Awards? Especially this past year, when our new Liza/Judy/Barbra brand of old school queer-friendly gamine/diva/idol Anne Hathaway co-hosted with queer-friendly, sexy actor James Franco? First you might reasonably ask yourself: why couldn’t Anne just do the whole show by herself? She sings, she dances, she’s funny, beautiful and smart enough to fulfill the job’s major tenets, right? But the discussion of the position of “Oscar Host” as being a boys club is best saved for another day.

Perhaps the puppy-gentle, yet very manly (and ostensibly very smart) James, who plays both gays and stoners with equal aplomb, could infuse the Bruce Vilanch-penned affair with that little something extra, a commercial masculinity that could be fetching for both the young straight dude faction (you know, the men 18-36 who are allegedly the only group that actually goes out and pays to see movies) as well as for the queens and queers who obsess over the show? Perhaps Hathaway promised to balance his studly yang with her feminine yin. To my expert (queer) eye, this year’s Oscar ceremony, I had hoped, was specifically designed for the queens of the world.

Franco, who was nominated that very evening for his first Best Actor Oscar for 127 Hours (playing a character who finds the will to survive an accident after having a vision of his future life of pristine heteronormativity), recently appeared in Milk, queer auteur Gus Van Sant’s winning biography film about slain San Francisco queer rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, in addition to taking a graduate seminar in queer film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Perhaps it was because of these credentials that cisgendered Franco felt that it would be perfectly okay to appear on the Oscar stage, before more than one billion global viewers, hubristically dressed in full, garish female drag as a stubbly, beefy, oddly-macho Marilyn Monroe clone. (Note: cisgendered means the opposite of transgendered, someone who is cisgendered has a gender identity that agrees with their societally recognized sex. — Urban

Intended to be a joke – perhaps a dim-witted nod to Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot or to his own recent donning of drag for the cover of the trans fashion magazine Candy — Franco’s caricature of a drag queen instead provoked a rupture of accusations of bad taste and transphobia. Folks wondered if the straight, white, privileged Franco was being offensive rather being funny. Matt Zoller Seitz of Salon cannily observed that “the problem was making a joke of the very idea of drag by just standing there next to his co-host, and the crowd got that, but didn’t think it was funny.” (“James Franco’s Oscars of apathy“, 28 February 2011)

While Hathaway’s simultaneous cheesecake suave appearance in a slinky tuxedo was meant to emblemize the gender-tweaking soft butch sexiness of Marlene Dietrich’s Josef von Sternberg days, Franco’s grotesque drag appearance was widely (I think, rightly) viewed as an embarrassment. Here was yet another Hollywood straight guy appropriating transgender culture for the express purpose of making it the object of ridicule, the big joke to be laughed at. Perhaps, as a sight gag, this act might have been culturally acceptable 20 years ago (probably even ten), so the swift, condemning response to the actor’s schtick was pleasantly surprising. People widely called the telecast the worst Oscars in years, Franco’s limp, desperate misappropriation of trans culture one of many sore spots.

So, alas, the Oscars, it turned out, were actually not for the queens this year. Not any of us. Or, let’s just face the facts: not anyone, period. But this brand of gendered push/pull got me thinking about how gender variety was largely absent from popular American entertainment, and about Michel Foucault’s essential question “Do we truly need a true sex?” You can be a man, you can be a woman, sometimes you can be “other”, but very rarely is anyone or anything else in between those rigid categories allowed to slip through the cracks unscathed. What’s so funny about a straight man in a dress in an era when transphobia can still be a deadly reality for people who choose to not live on the polar opposite ends of the gender binary? To answer this question, I’ve found it helpful, necessary even, to inspect the history of transgender representation in American film, television, literature, and pop culture.

There has been an emergence of a serious transgender discourse in Hollywood in the past 30 or so years, with trans issues and themes seen as being alternately chic or in vogue in various forms of popular entertainment. It should first be pointed out that, despite whatever sensitivity there may or may not be surrounding trans representation in pop culture right now, transgender appearance has been made the butt of jokes in countless movies for over 100 years, and is a particularly nasty Hollywood tradition that has carried on from some of the first untitled Edwin S. Porter shorts (1903) up to the abominable Juwanna Mann (Vaughan, 2002) and beyond.

Before hosting the Oscars, Franco’s appearance on the cover of Candy’s Fall/Winter 2010 cover in heavy, exagerratedly female make-up, acting the stylized camp vamp, caused writer William Van Meter of the New York Times to rather glibly deem 2009 “The Year of the Transsexual”. Van Meter annointed the actor’s photo spread to be “a grand gesture of solidarity with gender nonconformists” for what might better been seen as a hostile takeover of US trans culture’s traditions. Van Meter also proclaimed that “transsexuals were edging into the mainstream”, which rings like yet another slightly alarmist inference: watch out folks, because those sneaky transsexuals are coming to take over your pop culture!

Rachel K dismissed Van Meter’s flighty proclamation with a stark dose of reality in the form of sobering statistics that point out that transphobia is still rampant and is no laughing matter. “[In 2009] there were reported 93 murders of trans people, and that’s only a fraction of how many probably really took place, ” writes Rachel. “Feels like [The New York Times has] willfully misunderstood the climate. 30% of trans teens will attempt suicide, and 55% will be physically assaulted; 90% report feeling physically unsafe because of their gender expression”. (“Being Trans Is So Hot Right Now, At Least For Celebrities And Models, Kinda”, Autostraddle, 13 December 2010)

As though being a “woman” is the worst thing a “man” can do, the man who appears in female drag, or has any feminine characteristics, remains a particularly salient cultural joke (whether you are transgender, gender variant, or not). This is but one of an array of poisonous, erroneous assumptions about transsexuality that has endured and been strongly supported by negative constructions of trans characters in a variety of film, television, literature, and other pop culture forms. “Make us a joke and there’s no risk of our anger, no fear we’ll raise our voice in protest”, writes gender theorist Kate Bornstein. “Dominant cultures tend to colonize and control minorities through stereotyping – it’s no different with the transgender minority”.

The typical transgender narrative revolves around the trans subject leading an “impossible life” in which they are not employable, cannot sustain their own lives, and in which these rigid, unkind gendered circumstances almost always lead to violence, depression and suicide. Most of the time, these stories can feel more like a narrative means that seems to insure, or at the very least imply that trans people will very likely die or kill themselves because of the hardships they will inevitably face, as though there are no other alternatives.

Other examples of trans stereotyping include transgender people as rapists (Janice Raymond’s horrifying transphobic diatribes in the 1979 cultural artifact The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male), as child molesters or sexual deviants (The Damned), as drug addicts (Last Exit to Brooklyn), as murderers ( Psycho, Dressed to Kill, Silence of the Lambs) as prostitutes (Life is Hot in Cracktown), or sometimes as an unsavory combinations of many of these divergent elements. You get the picture.

Film theorists Robert Stam and Louise Spence, writing about”filmic colonialism”, argue that “insistence on ‘positive images’ obscures the fact that ‘nice’ images may at times be as pernicious as overtly degrading ones, providing a bourgeois facade for paternalism,” suggesting that a range of diverse representations—not just ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ones—are required to decolonize minority cinematic represenations. They continue: “the emphasis on realism often betrayed an exaggerated faith in the possibilities of verisimilitude in art in general and the cinema in particular, avoiding the fact that films are inevitably constructs, fabrications, representations”. (“Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction”, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009: p. 751 – 766)

By and large, most depictions of trans people were, as normative cinematic fiction dictates, not entirely real and, to some degree, representative of the old two-steps-forward-and-two-steps-back short circuit. Does a thorny, problematic characterization always have to be a bad thing? Is any visibility good visibility? Bornstein cuts to the heart of the political ramifications of transgender representation in a recent film review: “Look, not all trans people want to be considered respectable citizens of a culture that would rather see us as dead”. (“When Bad Movies Happen to Good People”, Out, 21 April 2010)

For a business that is built around the idea of transformation (acting) and the literal transformation of bodies (the rampant cosmetic surgery practiced by popular personalities), there should, in theory, by now anyway, be a more dynamic scope of body types represented for the screen and more transgender representation in film and pop culture that undoes the typically tragic trans narrative. Still, those depictions have often lacked naunce or grace, despite repeated tries to get it right. Maverick Robert Altman was one of very few directors to depict a multidimensional transgender character, played by female actor Karen Black, in the little-seen Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982, and currently unavailable on DVD), but there are still woefully few heroic, or hell, even interesting transgender protagonists populating the cinematic landscape.

The recent Transamerica (Tucker, 2005), Normal (Anderson, 2003), and Solider’s Girl (Pierson, 2003) films, which put trans characters and trans rights in middle of the dramatic action, are slowly reversing that trend, while the Oscar-winning success of Boys Don’t Cry (Pierce, 1999) was probably the fiction film that most firmly planted the issue of transgender rights into the minds of movie-goers and Oscar voters. Though he was snubbed by the Oscars, performer/writer/director John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Mitchell, 2003) is probably the most witty, heartful fiction film about the transgender experience to be filmed. More accurately, of the white transgender experience.

Intersecting Lines on a Crash Course

One of the most high profile depictions of black gender outlaws and Harlem’s drag ball culture, Jenny Livingston’s documentary Paris is Burning (1991), received high marks from (mainly white) film critics, but was eventually mired in contraversy when several of the film’s featured performers successfully sued the production, claiming the (white) director took advantage of their economic status and then proceeded to get rich and famous by appropriating their (black, queer) culture and gentrifying their points of view for (white) audiences. Though African American trans performer The Lady Chablis, playing herself, was the most lively element in the otherwise turgid Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Eastwood, 1997), and the aforementioned Life is Hot in Cracktown featured a bold, compelling turn from cast member Kerry Washington as a drug addicted trans prostitute, there are still far too few high profile roles of and for transgender people of color on the big or small screens.

On television, the hugely successful gender-bending (or “gender-blending” as Bornstein terms it) on the series RuPaul’s Drag Race, has given space for three consecutive seasons to a performance competition for “America’s Next Drag Superstar” (which brilliantly tells “America” that it needs “Drag Superstar” to begin with), in which a joyously diverse group of girly boys compete, and so far every winner has been from a non-white background.

The eight episode mini-series TransGeneration, which follows the lives of four trans college students, has received high marks from critics. Though both of these programs show the stuggle and rewards that come when someone expresses a non-binary gender and how the act of resisting gender norms can be depicted in a witty, heartful way; the majority of plotlines on television that involve trans characters often show them as murder victims, villains, pitiable, or the butt of the joke.

In other arenas of pop culture gender combat, gender variance can be found in literature, perhaps most notably in the trials and transformations of an intersexed person from suburban Detroit. “Cal” is shown having multiple, complex identities throughout Jeffrey Eugenides’ rousingly successful novel Middlesex which, incidentally, was inspired by the strange lack of representation of transgender anatomy in Michel Foucault’s edition of Herculine Barbin. Eugenides’ book won the Pulitzer Prize, and was being planned as an HBO mini series, yet is now inexplicably stuck in development limbo.

The mainsteam love for and popular interest in this text is yet another display of attraction to the broader topic of sex/gender variation, at least amongst well-educated and well-read consumers. If Eugenides’ dramatic, beautiful novel, where the joys and pains of intersex and transgender passing are so elegantly-rendered, functions as a modern-day version of Nella Larsen’s seminal narrative of racial subversion Passing, then perhaps the lingering pre-existing narratives of transgender people as murderers, rapists and general ne’er do wells leading impossible lives, tertiary colors in a primarly boring male/female, black/white color wheel, will soon go out of vogue just as the racial passing narrative – black and white color lines blurred by what film historian Donald Bogle called the “Tragic Mulatto” archetype – did in the ‘passing’ submode of cinema.

Herculine Barbin, a self-described “outlaw”, is the perfect gendered counterpoint to the racial passing narrative, not only because Herculine’s fluid gender identity is considered a form of passing, but also because the protagonists of both the gender and race passing narratives meet with abundant tragedies in their lives, as well as with untimely deaths. Concerned with readers believing that a life of passing was “incredible nonsense”, Barbin believes that the story of gender that she tells “goes beyond the limits of what is possible”, much like the paranoid preoccupation with the concept of an African American person, no matter how light-skinned, passing for white in the body of racial passing literature.

What Herculine Barbin’s passing as first a woman and then later a man has in common with racial passing is the idea of narratives as being completely fixed and pre-determined due to circumstances beyond one’s control. Gender theorist Judith Butler succinctly captures the zeitgiest of the passing phenomenon by posing a heady, fundamental question: “What happens when I begin to become that for which there is no place in the given regime of truth?” (“Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 7.4, 2001: p. 621 – 636)

One answer to Butler’s inquiry comes from theorist Kimberle Crenshaw, who writes that when a person cannot neatly fit into one specific narrative – using the example of Anita Hill, who has either been discussed as “black” or a “woman”, but rarely as a “black woman” – they are villified for not having an identity that is easily categorized or that has no pre-existing category in the first place. (“Whose Story Is It, Anyway? Feminist and Antiracist Appropriations of Anita Hill”, Race-ing Justice, En-Gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992: p. 402 – 436)

This is startlingly similar to the transgender documentary narratives discussed here, in terms of the outright rejection of trans people when they refuse to adhere to a specific gender binary of “man” or “woman”. Just as “the central disadvantage that Hill faced was the lack of available and widely comprehended narratives to communicate the reality of her experience to the world,” the same can be said of Barbin, who like Hill, “was appropriated to tell everybody’s story but her own” despite telling her own stories via an autobiography.

Supreme Court Justice appointee Clarence Thomas was “able to invoke narratives that linked his situation the sexual oppression of black men and thus have his story understood,” writes Creshaw, noting that Hill had no such luxury. Crenshaw’s work is a useful lens to look at the idea of inflexible narratives and how one can change and/or challenge them, but also at what the consequences are for transgressing traditional storylines, be they about gender, sexuality, race or any other binary, dichotomy or microcosm where passing can occur out of necessity in order to achieve more social acceptance.

The “passing” tale hit it’s collective cultural peak once the object of fetish – the African American passing for white – became less and less of a salacious proposition with integration and Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia which ensured that the previously iron-clad, arcane rules regarding segregation and miscegenation would be demolished to allow for interracial marriage and future generations of racially-diverse American communities. Similarly, according to trans historian Susan Stryker, racist laws that prevented cross-dressing on the West Coast during the Gold Rush were put into practice because the migration of trans-Pacific Asian immigrants who upset European-American assumptions about gender binaries. (Transgender History. Berkeley, CA.: Seal Press, 2008)

“What, after all, are the differences between demanding racial purity, ethnic purity, ideological, moral or religious purity, and in the case of gender, gender purity?” asks Bornstein. The proliferation of trans representation perhaps signals a turning point where binary gender will no longer be the focus of all entertainment, and the diversity of genders, or even more radically, what theorist Shannon Bell terms “the sameness of the male and female bodies”, will even be celebrated.

Through the Lens of the Documentary Mode, Truth Resists Binaries and Challenges Categories

Looking at the titles Almost Myself (Tom Murray, 2006), Cruel & Unusual (Janet Baus, Dan Hunt, Reid Williams, 2006), Gendernauts (Monika Treut, 1999), Middle Sexes (Antony Thomas, 2005), Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed, 2008), Red Without Blue (Brooke Siebold, Benita Sills, Todd Sills, 2007), Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (Victor Silverman, Susan Stryker, 2005), and Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2001), we can all better understand trans history and the transgender experience, as these films highlight a range of bodies, ages, classes, sexualities, and first-hand narratives that provide truth – and new narratives — for any spectator who is interested in a better-informed understanding of the subject. Absorbing all of these materials, my focus shifted to trying to understand what the traditional transgender narratives in American film and television were and tohow transgender representation in documentary film attacked those narratives.

As we have learned from the story of Herculine Barbin, the emphasis on self-reporting gender is essential in dismantling gender binaries. The films I have chosen to look at showcase a brilliantly diverse spectrum of trans experiences, in many cases handing the directorial duties to trans filmmakers like Reed and Stryker. These films and their participants help articulate something much more daring than simply changing from one binary gender to another. “Gender”, these narratives show the spectator, has as many variations as flowers, elements, colors, or anything else found in nature.

Gender variety is typically discussed in the popular lexicon under the much broader umbrella of “transgender” and can be seen in American pop culture most truthfully in documentary film, with its proliferation of diverse representations of transgender people. It’s in these revolutionary, yet modestly-budgeted documentary portraits that we find some of the only thoughtful (and daring) examinations of what it means to be truly gender variant, where not adhering to the traditional male/female bipolar norm is considered a success and achievement rather than a failure, syndrome or disease that needs a remedy.

While images of the African American Civil Rights Movement were readily broadcast on television or depicted in cinema for the world to see, to see the images of transgender civil rights one must do a bit of digging, as many of these essential films are out of print, hard to find, and generally a lot more expensive than a typical DVD (the overall lack of availability of these films is curious and somewhat discouraging). Detailing “the first collective act of militant resistance by queer people in the United States, three years before the famous gay riot at New York’s Stonewall Inn”, Susan Styker’s Screaming Queens: A Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005) was, shockingly, the first I watched that was made by a trans director and that featured archival images of early transgender rights activism, as well as first-hand narratives to tell the story of a community of transgender people – though that term was not in vogue in the mid-’60s – from many diverse backgrounds. In the wake of this essential, yet shamefully invisible period of activism, San Francisco would become a haven for trans people of all variations, with some of the first medical facilities in the United States that specifically provided care for the needs of the transgendered.

Still, while there does seem to be an increasingly interesting spectrum of gender and transgender representation cropping up in American feature film, television, and pop culture (often dramatizing the real lives of key transgender figures such as Gwen Araujo, Calpernia Addams, and Brandon Teena), the history of trans representation in feature length American documentary film did all of the heavy lifting by giving space to first-hand transgender narratives that turn conventional notions of gender squarely and rightly on their ear.

These films are rarely, if ever, given the kind of critical hosannas their fiction film counterparts are awarded. None were nominated at the Oscars, but the transgender narrative documentary submode deserves to be given credit for introducing the ideas of gender variance and gender diversity into mainstream pop culture by actually undoing some of this damage by presenting viewers with full, interesting portraits of transgender history and life in contemporary American culture. It’s the true stories of activists, scholars, artists, and other courageous gender warriors, who participate in the fight simply by expressing their chosen gender and talking about their experiences, that shows that there’s a slow trend of transgender acceptance finding its way into mainstream. While not quite “The Year of the Transsexual”, this signals a start of a larger-scale, more open-minded discussion of not just transgender issues, but gender as an issue in general.

Somewhere in the Spectrum of a Non-Binary Continuum

While many transgender people portrayed in the selected films do choose to express one gender binary (whether through genital reassignment surgery, gender presentation, or other performance), or choose to live their everyday lives passing as either “male” or female” (and their decision to do so should be entirely respected), it’s essential to point out here that for many transgender people, gender expression and variance is not about being one or the other, but more about falling somewhere on a broad continuum that challenges the binary. The narratives featured in Almost Myself firmly asserts that “trans” as a category, is in itself, often preoccupied with exclusivity and can frequently be adherent to its own particular binaries (i.e., just because you have a vagina, doesn’t make you a woman, and many trans people, like Holly in the film, identify as women, yet have have opted to not use surgery or hormones to transform. Because of this, they are often shunned in certain trans circles that prefer binary gender presentation).

Though the language of “transgender” is hotly contested, I don’t personally subscribe to the school of thinking that dictates all trans folks be called by gender-neutral pronouns (such as “zie”, “sie” or “hir”) as they are completely inappropriate to someone who lives decidedly as “male” or “female”. The way I see it, those who choose to express a binary gender not assigned to them at birth have fought hard to transform into their chosen gender and should afforded the basic courtesy of being called by their chosen pronouns, not the ones that have been created by genderqueers that seem to cause major political correctness issues amongst those concerned with such matters. To call a transman or transwoman by a gender-neutral pronoun, for me, would be like calling bell hooks something other than a black feminist woman.

Even as the very term “transgender” is, as a term, often misused, and be can a highly politicized site of contestation for gender theorists, feminists, and transgender activists alike, simply defining someone who was born categorized into one biological gender who through some means switched to the other, this still does not take into account the experiences of cross-dressers, the intersexed, those with an atypical or fluid gender identities, or those transsexual people who, following surgery, now simply might identify as “transsexual”,”male”, or “female”. Suzanne J. Kessler and Wendy McKenna write that “knowing someone’s gender assignment, identity, or role, or knowing that they belong in one of the gender-based categories, or even knowing all of this will give a great deal of information about a person but will never be sufficient information for a definite gender attribution to be made”. (“Introduction: The Primacy of Gender Attribution”, Gender: an

Ethnomethodological Approach. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998: p. 1 – 20) For my purposes, the umbrella term of “transgender” will define all of those individuals who do not fit neatly into the traditional heteronormative, binary safe spaces of “biological man” or “biological woman”, or of the “masculine/feminine”dichotomy, those who proudly fall on both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere else in between.

Just as the medical establishment did not know what to make of the tragic gender ambiguities of Herculine Barbin in the Victorian era or of female-to-male transsexual Robert Eades of Southern Comfort (who died of complications after more than two dozen doctors refused to treat his ovarian cancer), contemporary, unfair medical treatment of transgender people can still be widely seen across popular culture. “The point is to try to imagine a world in which individuals with mixed or indeterminate genital attributes might be accepted and loved without having to undergo [surgical, medical] transformation into a more socially coherent or normative version of gender,” writes Judith Butler on the subject of medicine and science’s intervention into gender. (“Doing Justice to Someone: Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality”, ibid)

In his epic New Yorker essay on athlete Caster Semenya, who has been at the center of an ongoing debate surrounding her “true” gender and the subject of relentless medical testing, writer Ariel Levy notes that “Semenya is breathtakingly butch. Her torso is like the chest plate on a suit of armor. She has a strong jawline, and a build that slides straight from her ribs to her hips.” “Sports, Sex, and the Runner Caster Semenya”, The New Yorker. 30 November 2009) Her appearance, because it does not adhere to typical binary male/female standards, has caused a furor in the international athletic community.

In the face of rampant rumors, and popular protests (by the public, the government, Semenya’s own family, and sports officials), sprinter Semenya was forced, like Herculine Barbin and Sarah Baartman aka “The Hottentot Venus” before her, to “undergo gender-verification” and multiple public humilliations and inquiries if she wanted to continue her acclaimed career. Doctors findings have been all over the map when it comes to Semenya, with various theories and divergent conclusions as to her gender. This has forced the sprinter’s hand in every way, and she opted to retire from sports to live quitely, rather than be forced to constantly explain her gender to strangers. Levy notes that the very idea of “classification and reclassification” in South Africa – whether gendered, racial or otherwise — in a country where this particular kind of “haunted history” has been beyond harmful, people are “appalled by the idea of a person who thinks she is one thing suddenly being told that she is something else.”

While a film such as Almost Myself looks primarlily at white, comfortable, middle class women, with a variety of experiences, that isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing because it destroys the popular myth that trans people are unemployable, or social misfits in the same way Herculine Barbin’s was designated an “impossible life”. The film features many unique professional experiences: Marci is a trans doctor (a noted OBGYN who does gender reassignment surgery and who also happened to have studied with the famous GRS pioneer Stanley Biber in Trinidad, Colorado, the gender reassignment mecca of the early days of the movement), Holly and Elane are business owners, Rosalyne is an author. Kate Bornstein, quoted above, is interviewed as well, and possesses professional, artistic and scholarly accomplishments that most people only dream of.

In terms of ekeing out a degree of privilege, these white transwomen all seem to have had success in their professional lives, unlike the impoverished transwomen of various non-white backgrounds whose narratives in Cruel and Unusual tell a more desperate story of what it’s like for a trans person to be incarcerated in the wrong prison (placement is determined on what genitals are present) because of socioeconomic factors that often necessitate their segue into lives outside the law, where prostitution and theft can sometimes be the only means to a livable life. According to the film, it’s estimated that 30 percent of American transgender people have been incarcerated – more than three times the national average This is a much more bleak look at how gender is institutionally misunderstood and how the transgender body is often trapped and abused when laws that apply to only cisgender bodies are applied to bodies that don’t comply with the male/female binaries.

The sentences imposed on trans offenders are often the maximum legal limits, and often purposefully harsh. The film thoughfully examines the abuse and rape encountered by the male to female trans body when forced into an all-male prison by archaic, uncaring laws and transphobic judges who think that anyone with a penis belongs in a men’s prison, terrible things happen and the transwoman’s body often becomes not her own.

The imprisoned Yolanda submits to being her cellmate’s “jail wife” because she is afraid of what will happen if she doesn’t. Anna, just released after serving four years for a trumped-up robbery charge, comments on how the legal system takes transwomen who have lived in their chosen, expressed gender on the outside, and strip them of their identity inside the prison system, forcing them into a living situation with men who are lonely, abusive and dangerous sexual predators. The alternative transwomen face in prison is segregation – or solitary confinement aka “protective custody”.

Anna, when first incarcerated, was taken off hormones “cold turkey” with no medical care or psychiatric care and thrown into solitary. This act is comparable to giving a woman a hysterectomy and then not treating her afterwards. The abrupt discontinuation of Anna’s treatments caused her to attempt suicide while incarcerated. “We do not recognize transsexualism as a medical condition, and if I have anything to say about it, we won’t,” claimed one prison administrator in a legal transcript read by lawyers, who noted this was not a medical professional making the statement.

The trans body is humilliated and violated repeatedly in the pentitentiary system – from forced checking of genitals to denial of hormones and medical care, and the trans body is at the center of this documentary. More than one story emerges of people wanting to have sex reassignment but not being able to afford the procedure, wanting to just do it themselves. Linda actually did castrate herself while incarcerated – first slicing off her testicles in protest, during a seven year stretch, for not being treated for Gender Identity Disorder (GID). Then, following hospitalization that cost the state of Idaho $60,000, Linda, while being mocked by the warden and police, forced to expose her genitals, and repeatedly denied treatment, cut her penis off with a razor and flushed it down a toilet. This is the only film in the set that I chose to look at in which the spectator is confronted with images of what the genitals of a self-made transwoman look like.

Linda filed a lawsuit on her own and won, received therapy and moved to a medical facility. She also won a specific policy for transsexuals in Idaho that was published and is on the record that allows for treatment. But now, out of prison, Linda is unemployable, homeless, jobless, and turning back to crime, working as a sex worker but was deemed too masculine, and considered too feminine to work in oil fields. So then, Linda took to stealing copper wire and landed back in prison, a men’s prison, again, despite the absence of male genitalia.

Scholar Suzanne J. Kessler would like to see “genitals be taken less seriously because it’s in that position that relief from gender might be found,” which is a nice idea in theory, from a standpoint of eliminating binaries, but for transwomen like Linda who are living on the fringes, living truly impossible lives, taking away the importance of genitals, the physical expression of which are often central to the transgender body and trans discourse, that theory now seems dated, almost rendering an impossible life even more impossible. (“Introduction: The Primacy of Gender Attribution”, Gender: an Ethnomethodological Approach. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998: p. 1 – 20)

The Representative Body as Plastic, Malleable and Fluid

To pay for her genital reassingment surgery, Ophelia robbed a bank in Virginia, and she was given a 67 year sentence. While incarcerated, Ophelia became a cutter, disfiguring and self-mutilating her own body repeatedly while in solitary confinment, in protest for being punished by being locked in solitary for not doing anything wrong. With no legal assistance, Ophelia brought suit against state of Virginia for failure to recognize that she was being treated prior to incarceration and her case was thrown out of court. Despite repeated attempts at trying to castrate herself to stop the testosterone production in her body, opposing counsel painted Ophelia as mentally ill, as having multiple personality problems that they claimed had nothing to do with being transgender, and went so far as to call her behavior “manipulative”, inferring that she did not deserve any “special privileges”, which judges, courts, prison administrators and the state agreed with. “If I can’t be who I am I’d rather be dead if I have to be in prison, in a body that’s not mine,” said Ophelia.

The way the state of Virginia saw Ophelia’s body, the way Ophelia saw her own body, and the reality of what her body was has much in common with the way scholar and theorist Samuel R. Delany interprets the anatomical drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci, particularly those of the womb, which appear in some cases in the shape of apples, other times in the shape of pears. (“The Rhetoric of Sex, The Discourse

of Desire”, Heterotopia: Postmodern Utopia and the Body Politic. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994: p. 229 – 232) People have divergent ideas of what the trans body actually is, and since interpretation always precedes perception, the trans body on film can be seen as a site of contestation and even confusion.

In Almost Myself, Josef starts out as male-to-female transwoman Judy, a consevative, religious, homophobe who thinks that her gender reassignment surgery was a mistake. Reversing the sex change, and undoing the zealous religious indoctrination, Judy becomes Josef, and begins to live, after more than 25 years as a homophobic woman, as a gay man, and this particular narrative further blurs the lines between male and female, yet also shows just how close in proximity we all are to performing the perceived “opposite sex”. The unique story of Josef/Judy proves that anyone can cross the gender border fluidly, and their own perceptions of their bodies can change and be changed just like the variations of Da Vinci’s drawings.

In the same film Holly, who identifies as a “non-operative trans person”, meaning she has not had genital reassignment surgery, says that self-image that is paramount. “Can [people] transcend the form of you? To the extent that people are fixated on your form and so many people are nowadays – theres so much emphasis on your outer trappings – then its very difficult. The form is cut loose and fully redefined. Thats up for grabs, its plastic, its malleable. If youre fixated on form, youre going to stumble.”

An Explosion of Transgender Representation in Modern Fiction Film Mirrors Documentary Interests yet Distorts Reality (as Cinema Often Does); Causing a Genital Panic

The trans “form”, when explored for the screen in popular filmmaking sparks interesting, usually explosive discussions amongst cineastes and the movie-going public. What kinds of trans bodies can you think of that have been nakedly displayed prominently in the pop culture landscape? The act of showing a transgender body, unfettered and real, still feels dangerous. There was trans serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) performing the gender he sees in the mirror to the mirror of the camera (paging Dr. Lacan), but instead of being seen as a moment of intimacy, the infamous scene where he tucks his penis has been treated as yet another transgender expression that is widely mocked and laughed at.

Shown on cable, Solider’s Girl featured some genuinely erotic, naked, frank sex scenes, the only ones of this kind that I observed in a dramatic feature. In these scenes, the biologically male lover of a pre-op male to female transwoman might explore his new partner’s anatomy, but the idea of a transgender love story or romance still feels far off in the distance, just in terms of what mainstream audiences are capable of watching without cruelly laughing at bodies that aren’t the standard or exactly like their own. When men “perform” female gender in film, the only culturally acceptable models still seem to revolve around extremes – these transwomen can be funny or can be the joke; or they can be murdered or psychotics whose jealousy of “real” women makes them want to craft clothing out of the literal skins of murdered women.

Then there’s perhaps the most talked about instance of gender blending in all of cinema history: Dil (played by the Oscar-nominated Jaye Davidson) disrobing for his heterosexual male lover in The Crying Game (Jordan, 1992) to reveal that this gorgeous gal actually has a penis and is not exactly who (or what) we all thought she was. This moment fueled a cultural phenomenon and popular interest (granted, perhaps a rather ghoulish, sensational interest) in the movie. The big spoiler was the reveal of trans genitals and people wanted to see that for whatever reason, and to me, that started a bigger dialog on gender variance and sexuality in film on a grand scale that needs to be recognized, even though in the process there was a lot of transphobic discourse surrounding the film, and also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of homophobia, too.

The intertwinement of transphobia and homophobia is yet another pervasive theme that could be seen as a teased-out after-effect of The Crying Game’s rapacious lampooning of conventional thinking about gender, sex, and sexuality that asked some quite necessarily confrontational questions like what would you do if you were a straight guy and you found out your girlfriend had a penis? Would you fuck her or hit her? What does that make you? Where do you fall on the binary spectrum now? In other words, The Crying Game’s revelatory moment in many ways attacks the very categories that are there to enforce gender boundaries, and heteronormative sexuality, which freaked people out in the worst, most comical and satisfying ways, but it still was looking at the whole issue from a decidely heterosexist point of view. No questions were being asked on behalf of the lady in the relationship, they were all about how the experience affected the man, who was the central character, while Dil was a supporting character despite arguably being the film’s major draw.

The transgender documentaries I chose to look at were more careful to view sexuality as something that is not completely homo or hetero, just as gender itself was neither male nor female, but a vast continuum that was inclusive and not judgemental of body types. Sexuality was as important to those interviewed as it is, I imagine, to all humans.

In Red Without Blue, a coming of age documentary about twins, one a gay male, one a transwoman, sexuality was a prominent theme, or more so the acceptance of one’s own chosen sexuality and sexual acceptance by a loving partner. In these narratives the familial challenges that transgendered people frequently experience, often center (unsurprisingly since I’m looking at only American work for this study) around sex and sexual identity and the general inability of the majority of people to comprehend choices that are non-traditional. Many of the trans interviewees preferred trans partners. Some transmen preferred sex with gay men. Many transwomen are attracted to other women, others like men, some like both.

The biologically-female Annie Sprinkle of Gendernauts has sex with everyone and videotapes it. Now what does that say about the homo/hetero divide that we hear so much about? That it’s trumped up beyond belief, I’d say, and that the divide is connected by the intersecting “dots” of multiple genders and sexualities that are not attracted to the magnetic polar opposite axioms of “male” and “female”. It also indicates that people enjoy sex. How shocking!

One prevailing atitude I encountered in my research was that many Americans still believe that trans people traffic in extremes, performing exagerratedly macho or womanly behaviors, which is totally laughable because if anything, the complete opposite in almost every realm of transgender life, but especially when it came to binary sexualities. There were no rules, as evidenced in Gendernauts.

Set in San Francisco, the film tends to skew more towards the female to male trans experience (though local authority Susan Stryker is interviewed on camera by director Monika Truet), providing a nice varietal counterpoint to the more common, popular male to female narrative. Gendernauts looks at the idea of “shifting identities”, and one interviewee, Texas Tomboy, flatly refuses to be defined in terms of gender. “Genders take every possible form,” says trans pioneer Sandy Stone on camera. “We think of them as only two: masculine and feminine because we’ve learned to make the others invisible. First of all, before we can truly talk about what the other genders are, we have to learn to see them. We have to rediscover vision, we have to re-learn how to see.” In other words, it’s in celebrating the diversity of all of the possible genders in these films, and by deconstructing what gender actually is, that we will begin to move past binary ways of thinking and see gender as fluid, as something that doesn’t need to be focused on.

The physicality that most of the filmmakers choose to show in the documentary selections isn’t as sensational as the big reveal in The Crying Game, but the range of representation of “maleness” and “femaleness”, both in sex organs and mode of presentation, in every sense, attacks and destroys conventional notions of binary male/female gender, rather than simply agitating the public-at-large’s ire with a clever marketing strategy designed to drive up the ticket sales. I don’t wish to ascribe more significant meaning to The Crying Game‘s politics, in terms of the gender discourse, for the gender and transgender theory it purports – and by focusing solely on how “transgender” complicated the life of the straight male lead — can be seen as problematic or as aftethoughts of a sensational public relations campaign. There wasn’t a strong argument in there for non-binary gender or sexuality, that much is certain, and the denouement can still be read as tragic, as playing into the stereotype of the “tragic transsexual”.

With Just a Little imagination and a Lot of Deconstruction…

Still, if there was no gender, or more genders, where would that leave the whole Dil in The Crying Game phenomenon? More importantly, what would happen to the movies? Would the industry collapse if it was not able to churn out inspid rom-com after insipid rom-com that pitted some form of “girl” versus some form of “boy”? Would members of that target 18 – 36 straight male ticket-buying audience that everyone seems to bend over backwards to cater to eventually throw their exasperated little hands up in the air, or would they violently resist the idea that the cinema that used to cater to their needs now had an infinte combination of new masters and mistresses? “Doing away with gender is key to doing away with the patriarchy, as well as the many injustices perpetrated in the name of gender inequity,” writes Kate Bornstein. “Gender inequities include sexism, homophobia and misogyny”. (“Gender inequities include sexism, homophobia and misogyny”. Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. NYC: Vintage Books, 1994: p. 135) This means filmmakers would simply need to create new narratives and find new, daring ways to execute them.

Will the Trans Narrative Thrive or Wither as the Racial Passing Narrative Did?

Considering the future of trans representation, one need look no further than to the common theme that ties all of the documentaries together, that is the basis for almost all truly great dramatic and comedic texts: family and love. Red Without Blue, Middle Sexes, and Prodigal Sons all thoughtfully explore the literal family ties of their transgender protagonists as well as their love lives; while Cruel & Unusual, Gendernauts, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, and Southern Comfort more closely depict chosen families and romantic partnerships. Interestingly, Almost Myself alternates between the two.

As Middle Sexes shows us with the touching narrative of an eight-year-old transgirl named Noah and her kind, middle America, middle-class Christian family, trans people are articulating their true genders at earlier and earlier ages, so the need for more fictional transgender narratives that include elements of love and family, to show a sense of belonging, seems even more pressing when a sweet kid like Noah, whose parents’ only concern is for their child’s happiness and safety, only have access to grim statistics and hopeless narratives that fill them with worry and despair that their child will die much too early from either suicide or murder. While there’s little in the way of hopeful or happy trans narrative in dramatic works of fiction, the documentaries, the real stories, pick up the slack and are resources that must be made more available.

There’s a dire need for more truthful, interesting, and substantial transgender narratives of all types in popular fiction, like the documentaries I have chosen, but also for more that singularly focus on the healing powers of love, family, community, and most importantly — activism. These need be repeated on screen and in other works of popular fiction. As I watched Stryker’s Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, I imagined the story as an epic, cinematic period piece that could provide actors of all genders with plum roles that have never been seen dramatized for film.

Southern Comfort dramatized with a mixed gender cast would be amazing, and once upon a time it was actually going to be made, scheduled to star Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek as Robert Eades. Sadly, that project has now totally disappeared, despite being completely relevant in both today’s dialog transgender issues and the discourse of the crisis in the health care system for both the trans- and cisgendered communities. Eades’ is a universal story, tragic, to be sure, but so many lessons could be learned by sensitively dramatizing it for a larger audience. I’ve always thought any of the three daughters in playwright Tracy Letts’ August Osage County could easily be rewritten and cast as trans characters and would still make perfect sense in the gonzo Southern Gothic landscape. I’m eagerly awaiting to see how the central character of Cal is presented in HBO’s Middlesex, if indeed the production ever gets off the ground.

After starring in a trans-romantic storyline on Showtime’s cable series The L-Word, iconic actress Pam Grier, who knows a thing or two about cinematic representation after starring in key films that redfined the black female filmic experience such as Coffy (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974), told me in an interview that she knew exactly what the future should be for trans representation and what potential risky represntations had to change the way people view gender.” (“Body and Soul: Pam Grier Will Still Kick Your Ass ‘Graciously'”, PopMatters, 10 August 2010.)

“On several occasions, people would come up to me—and these are varied genders, male and female, white and black—and would say to me that because of me, they watched the show and realized that they had tossed away, thrown away like a discarded soul, someone who was born into their family, who was gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender,” Grier said, “They threw away people. The greatest act of service was to show these wonderful stories about these ‘scary’ people, humanizing them in story and having it matter.”

The potential combinations of genders and roles, and who plays them, are infinite. As a cinephile, I find that proposition overwhelmingly attractive, and as a writer, I find it full of creative possibilities that could go against the grain and make significant changes to the cinematic discourses on what gender actually means.

The most interesting thing about the deconstruction of gender in film is that when you begin to destroy those heteronormative “male” and “female” binaries, the other multiple, intersecting vectors of patriarchal oppression soon come prominently into view. Race, sexuality, age, nationality, and especially class all get called into question when gender is absent, leading to a more nuanced understanding of why variant gender is problematic: because it interferes with the smooth flow of capitalism and money, especially in the film industry.

“I am permanently troubled by identity categories”, writes Judith Butler, who would say that attacking the very categories would necessarily disturb the power heterosexual men have to oppress everyone, and this is truly a dangerous and exciting concept, to dismantle the very systems of hierarchical oppression that hold the power by attacking the stability of the categories that separate everyone in order to dominate and conquer them. (“To Theorize as a Lesbian?”, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. NYC: Routledge, 1993: p. 308) “The continued oppression of woman proves only that in any binary there’s going to be one up and one down,” writes Kate Bornstein. “The struggle for equal rights must include the struggle to dismantle the binary”. (Gender Outlaw, ibid)

Whether this attack comes from the variety of gender shown in American documentary films about the transgender experience, literature, a television sitcom, or an Oscar-nominated dramatic fiction film is besides the point, as long as these categories are being challenged and scrutinized, rather than essentialized. In a 2010 interview, Academy Award-nominated actress Miranda Richardson, who once played Virginia Woolf’s time- and gender- bandit Orlando on stage, provocatively exclaimed that she feels “neither male nor female in [my] profession, I’m just an actor. I kind of like it that way.” (“Politicking with Made in Dagenham‘s Miranda Richardson”, PopMatters, 19 November 2010.)

Perhaps we could follow Richardson’s welcome gender-neutral lead and instead of having “Best Actor” or “Best Actress” at awards ceremonies, we could have simply, “Best Acting”.

Going another step further, how about instead of subjecting a billion international viewers to James Franco and Anne Hathaway blundering about in drag, perhaps we could have genuine outlaws like Bornstein and Butler actually tackling the hosting duties? All it would take is a little imagination and a lot of deconstruction. Think about it and imagine for one second, if you could, that in Hollywood age doesn’t matter. I know, that is the most impossible thing I’ve asked in this entire essay, but at least we know that Bornstein and Butler would be smart and funny while using the concept of non-binary gender in a more important way than a movie star who is simply lost in the nebula of their own ego.

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See PopMatters 20 Questions with Kate Bornstein, here.