Do you go to the movies or watch television? If so, you may have noticed that there is a plethora of stories about transgendered people. The movie, TransAmerica, earned an Oscar nomination (and Golden Globe award as Best Actress) for Felicity Huffman as an MTF (Male to Female) transsexual. Among many others, All My Children, all three CSIs, Dirty Sexy Money, Nip/Tuck, Ugly Betty, Cold Case, and, this past week, House, have featured transgendered characters.
Why do I notice this? Well, partly because I’m incredibly open-minded and progressive, and picking up on trends is my business. However, the more likely reason is that one of my best friends is transgendered. Pennie (whom long-time readers will recognize from the Comments section) was someone I dated briefly in college, then obsessed about for the next decade. When we got back in touch in the mid-1990s, we quickly became friends again, and, to my mind at least, flirtatious correspondents.
Then she came out to me. And then she had the surgery that made her body match up to her mental, emotional and spiritual self-image.
I thought it might be interesting if we discussed Pop Culture Transformers.
MT: First of all, I have to ask. Did you go through with this surgery because I was so terrible in bed that you wanted to eliminate even the slightest chance that we would ever have sex again?
P: LOL…not in the least. You, my dear were awesomely amazing. And for this horny lesbian, that’s something! But your question brings up a reality for transitioning trans people: we find that many close family and friends personalize the transitioning party’s experience. Assign the “change” to their own actions or lack of when in fact, for most trans people, a lifetime of experience has propelled them to their coming out. For others the news might appear shocking or harsh. For many of us, the act itself only comes after years of silent despair and self-doubt that crystallizes in a cocoon to butterfly burst and flight into day as Bruce writes and sings so well in “The Price You Pay.”
In my case, the surgery merely relocated some valuable real estate correcting a fault line that developed in utero. Think it’s easy having a pussy AND penis? Those people who told me to go fuck myself had noooo idea…}’;>)
MT: I know that when I would watch mass media portrayals of aspects of my life that were “fashionable,” I would cringe. Hippies and peace freaks and feminists – oh my! If you watched television, you’d think we were all brain-controlled cultists. Do you feel the same disconnect when you see “yourself?”
P: Yeah, especially when “yourself,” like Walt Whitman, encompasses universes. Those people were all me as well—but with an added bonus round: intersexual androgyny. Prior to the late 1990’s, popular media portrayed trans people as criminals, perverts, and other forms of despicable low life. If a rare sympathetic trans character materialized, it was as a tragically doomed figure. Who would readily accept those bottom-feeders as role models?
Disconnect? It was present–along with revulsion and frequent identity crises. Who out there represents me? Few choices. In a 1950s-era attempt to fit in Christine Jorgensen intentionally sanitized her image so she wouldn’t offend. The media hounded her about her pussy. She compensated by being ladylike and demure. As wholesome as Mother Teresa. Little Richard was sooooo coooool but he screwed it up by relenting then disavowing his wiggle and lust. Dr. Renee Richards and Jan Morris didn’t rock my world—too aloof; too intellectual. Much better was coy Mick Jagger, then glam Lou Reed and David Bowie along with Warhol’s people and some of NYC’s punks—people you hung with at CBGBs in the 1970s, but most weren’t trans but celebrities, a bit unreal and not all that much like me–still that passionate hippie chick, avowed peace freak and flexible feminist.
Ultimately, I realized that there was no one person I could claim as a role model. Like Frankenstein’s monster, I had to create myself, melding Amazons, Lenny, Mae, Anais, Georgia, Janis, pagan matriarchal societies, Dr. King, Billie, Greek mythologies, and so much more…I devoured comics identifying with those displaced outsiders but back in the day there were few women—and none with overt kinks.
It wasn’t until recently that some forms of media got us right. Movies and books much more so than TV. Books like 2002’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Films like the aforementioned Transamerica (2005) and XXY (2008, about an Intersexed teen) are far more humane, humorous and realistic works that have as much to do with perversion and criminal behavior as jambalaya. These are characters I can not only easily abide and identify with but feel good about. TV still has a long way to go; after all we are not all glamorous rich white blondes (go figure…). The most recent House episode to which you referred earlier is a perfect illustration of this problem.
MT: There were a couple things I thought were interesting about that episode. For one thing, I identified with the parents like mad. Because they loved their child, they followed the best advice available to them at the time, from their doctor, to select a gender for their intersexed baby. It was the wrong decision, but for the right reasons. Also, at the end of the episode, we still don’t know if the child identifies as male or female. What did you think?
P: Intersexuality has always been a natural part of the human race. Been around since people. Scientific estimates place the occurrence at 1 in 2000 births in a wide variety of forms. Back in the day, medical “experts” treated these cases by recommending immediate surgery to force the newborn infant into either a male or female anatomical configuration. They steered shocked parents using visual genitalia present (mostly size) as sole criteria. Very small penis=female/very large clitoris=male. Current medical technology—CAT, MRI, etc.–wasn’t available. With a 50% chance to get it right, it is amazing how many victims encountered ensuing psychological/emotional/sexual nightmares later in life.
While I understand your natural sympathetic reaction toward the parents, this show took place in a more benevolent modern medical environment and COULD have illustrated how far we have come. In contrast to the past, medical treatment now involves more restraint. Doctors utilize available tools to determine genetic make-up, internal anatomy. Adopting a wait-and-see stance, they often don’t perform immediate genital- mutilation-cum-surgery but wait to see how the infant develops. Often, there is an honest dialogue that includes the child rather than excludes.
Clearly, due to dishonesty, (the child was never told about the genetic mosaic condition as well as advised the weekly testosterone shots were “vitamins”), the child WAS confused. This entire show was one large missed opportunity to educate the public. That characters dropped pejoratives (“she-male/ “he-she” and “freak of nature”), akin to the the “N-word” without any censure had me screaming at the TV.
MT: You’re working on a book about your experiences, and it’s really interesting. Here you are, happily married to the love of your life, someone who fell in love with you when you presented as male and stayed with you through your transition. You’ve survived. It’s a triumph. When can we expect to read it?
P: Funny you mention the book. I started it when I came out seven years ago. It began as a daily e-mail dialogue with you—my “oldest” friend. The book entitled, Just Like a Woman, is unique in that it has developed into far more than another coming out/transition story. There are already many of those. Instead, JLaW incorporates the best of our correspondence with a detailed history of trans people, from ancient times to the present; legal modifications and decisions; scientific discoveries; a history of medical treatments; a chronicle of cinematic, literary and TV appearances; the stories of some trans people who changed the world; political developments and so much more… along with my own saga —a child of the 60’s who was on her own in Las Vegas, Mexico, New York, San Francisco, and other far-flung locales from her teen years on, living life large. The details of the corrective surgery; my death and return. The book is a 360-degree examination of trans life in America, past and present, a personal and a valuable reference.
The ultimate hero of the book: my wife Maureen who has somehow stuck with me for the last 25 years or so, giving me the ultimate human gift: unconditional love. This is just so rare. She’s amazing. The story is a triumph of love on so many levels, with our four-decade friendship right up there. You stayed with me as well when so many others fled.
The book is in final edit and any smart agent looking for a unique and timely/timeless literary creation would do well to contact me via this website. After all, who would want to pass on a bestseller?
Martha Thomases, Media Goddess, wonders if her time with Pennie makes her bisexual and therefore more interesting. Alas, her husband says, “no.” (Pennie says, “YES!)