25 February 2006
Taking a break from editing an essay (OK, perhaps a prelude to doing said edits on said piece).
On his recent tour through Cold City, Mr. Gordo and I went to see, one brisk night, Transamerica, a film currently making the rounds on the art house circuit, an impressive turning point in the representation of transgendered people. Firstly, I guess, this turning point is predicated on the fact of visibility, period. In the ever-changing acronymic lexicon of LGBTQAI and XYZ that characterizes our self-identified shorthand, the T, which has been in place for some time, in many ways is transitive and vague. What is this T? Most gay men I know probably think most immediately of the transvestite, the glorious drag queens that are the avatars of our revolution. But in reality, the T has little to do with clothes (the “vestite” in transvestite, no doubt for the cute little bolero vests they tend to wear). Transgender in this LGBTQ universe refers to transgender people, those who have decided for complex reasons to transition to another gender identity, through self-presentation and/or sexual reassignment surgery. One of the most famous was Christine Jorgensen, pictured above in all her fabulous glamour, who transitioned in the 1950s, and was recently the subject of an intriguing New York stage play.
La Question Trans has been a complicated one for the Ls and Gs in the LGBT universe, as I discovered in conversations following my hosting of a National Coming Out Day event last fall. In the audience were many trans people, including many transmen. After the event, one of these transmen came up to me and started making conversation, flirting actually, with me. I had noticed him before the event, and since I have a sharp eye (see Passing, below, and cruising generally, natch) and am familiar with trans culture from so many years in the Bay Area, where there is a large trans community, I remember thinking at the time it was hard to tell whether he was a “real” man or not (Hips and hands are usually some initial clues, but not always). Of course he let me know he was a transman, and as our conversation proceeded, I remember thinking, “Wow, this is interesting.” He was an attractive man, with a beard that was, quite frankly, nicer than mine, an intelligent post-doc, who was making eye contact, smiling, and touching my arm casually but explicitly. I was bemused (after all, I am a married lady), but also pleased. What girl doesn’t like a little attention, especially from a handsome, intelligent man? At some point, another transman friend of his came up and they started discussing the new politics of the penis in transmen culture, and how they didn’t want or necessarily need a dick to be a man, but rather that they were men who wanted to maintain (i.e. keep) their vaginas. Here is where the Burt Bacharach soundtrack playing in my mind abruptly scratched off the surface of the record. This was certainly, um, new.
The next day, during a trip with my doublegood girlfriend Prancilla and his boyfriend C-Zilla to the distant outlet malls on the edge of Cold City, we were consumed in a conversation regarding this penis question, transgenderism, and the new politics of (gay) male identity that transmen presented to us. As we moved in and out of the stores, three gay “biological” men, we talked and argued and debated what this new identity formation meant for sexuality, for sexualized political identities (like, for instance, LGBTQ), and our personal opinions on whether or not a dick was important for our sexual identity (Can you guess our answer?).
Prancilla insisted on some level that transgenderisms of a non-surgical nature were, in his opinion, trendy. A perhaps apocryphal story I had heard a couple of years ago from my lesbian henchwomon and colleague Skanque Huore about half the undergrads at Smith College being on hormones seemed to back this observation up. A piece a couple of years ago on gender identity in the Chron (I later discovered from a contact that most likely the school in question was Oberlin), which I found frankly to be reactionary, was also anecdotal evidence of a new consciousness about gender and gender identities circulating among undergraduates at least at progressive private schools. All of this seemed to auger a very different world from where we came from in the land of the eighties, when including Bisexuals in GLAD week lit up the lesbian hieresses and bohemian fags of the Lesbian and Gay Co-Op at Presigious Eastern U. with controversy and rancour, that included lesbians and gays ripping the "B" off the rechristened BGLAD week posters, and the equally ridiculous response which was for organizers to go around stapling the letter "B" over the tears. Weren't the eighties GREAT!?!
Zilla and I attempted to negotiate around Prancilla’s critical position, recognizing indeed that non-surgical transitions would remain physically indeterminate (the “Crying Game” effect), even as the public expression of gender identity was recognizable (i.e. male or female), and the possible radical implications of this indeterminacy. However, we were also trying to think through what gender meant, to more traditional sexual outlaws like ourselves, and then again how important gender was to gay men in general. Indeed, here is where the dick question reared its ugly head again (pardon the pun). If gay men were distinguished by their attraction to penises, in some form or another, and not just masculinity per se, then what kind of gay man (or man in general) could one be without a penis; moreover, without a penis but with a vagina?
This is also arguably connected intimately to gay male culture’s sometimes thrilling and sometimes problematic fetishization of masculinity and traditional (patriarchal) expressions of masculinity. Back in my singleton days, if I had to read another online personal or chat profile asking for “str8 acting, masculine” guys from nelly queens who thought that they too were just regular dudes, I thought I would hurl! Fantasy is hot, fantasy is good, but when we start to push the boundaries of fantasy to incorporate a series of troublesome associations (pornography, heteronormativity, socially reactionary views on gender non-normative behaviours, also just plain fooling ourselves) and place them onto real men (gay or str8), this is where we lose the thread of what it means to be gay, rather than just MSM (“Men who have Sex with Men,” the public health acronym for what we used to call closet queens).
Something that for me informed these questions was the frisson of being cruised by a transman, I had been attracted to this transman at the lecture, and afterwards was a little freaked out, not necessarily in a bad way, but rather a thinking way. Kissing is fun, petting nice, but when it came down to it, what did it mean to be with a man without a penis? Penises are part of the whole man, and as anyone can tell you, you don’t (if you’re nominally healthy) fall in love with a penis, but with the man attached to the penis (an interesting ordering). But a penis seems, for gay men, as the prelude to a kiss, so to speak. The penis is but one aspect of the masculine infrastructure (body type, voice, facial and body hair, sartorial and manneristic presentation) that we sexualize as well as socialize. In the end, there was no resolution to the conversation that Prancilla, Zilla, and I had, except regardless of what we thought about it, the phenomenon of the gender indeterminacy for those trans folks who choose a non-surgical route was one that challenged us in ways that could be construed as productive, at the very least insofar as they lead us to examine our own lives and desire more closely.
Which leads me back, somewhat waywardly, to Transamerica, a film that has triggered both good and bad reviews. What struck both Mr. Gordo and myself about this film was the non-exploitative nature of the narrative. Transgenderism and the approach to surgical reassignment of the central character, a pre-operative MTF played brilliantly by Felicity Huffman, a “real” (i.e. biological) female actor, is taken seriously after the first scene, which although does not present visually as a joke, is almost taken as such because of the campy association all audiences, str8 and LGBT, give to trannies, vested or gendered. The storyline, about one transgendered person’s pursuit of both the surgery that will make her a woman and the need to tie up the loose ends of her life as a man (an unknown son makes his appearance at the commencement of the film) has a lot in common with classic American road movies, as Huffman’s character Bree and her son Toby (unbeknownst to him for most of the film), played by Kevin Zegers, travel cross-country to reach LA in time for Bree’s reassignment surgery and her psychologist’s permission, dependent on Bree’s open acknowledgement of her fathering of Toby.
What is remarkable is the normality with which this adventure is portrayed. Or rather, the fact of Bree’s transgenderism is secondary to the drama of the familial: how do we make family? What is family? What are the rights and responsibilities of family? And alternatively, how can we survive our families to become ourselves (a classic American story)? The most fraught moment in the film, powerfully portrayed by Huffman and Zegers, is where Bree must tell Toby the truth as Toby makes a sexual move on Bree. Oops! In response, Toby lashes out violently and then disappears. Bree continues with her surgery, now devoid of the previous joy she associated with the event, in an evocative and coldly filmed montage that ends with Bree comforted by her psychologist (played by the fabulous Elizabeth Peña of Lone Star), claiming through visceral tears (snot included!) that “it hurts!”
Change hurts, transformations hurt, shedding one’s skin for another hurts. But also, making and having emotional connections hurts, deeply. But the principles of both change and the need for connections are necessary facts of the connected life, which is Bree’s journey through the film. But also, arguably, our own journeys as well: discovering that being alive means feeling, which means pain as well as joy. I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s admonition to “Only Connect!” This past summer, Mr. Gordo and I, faced by our impending separation and mildly depressed, spent several lovely summer afternoons and evenings with our close friends L and D re-reading out loud and together Howard's End. It was both acutely poignant yet hopeful, as L was expecting her first child, and I think we all relished the opportunity to spend time with one another before we would all be apart and our lives would change forever, meditating on the complicated and brilliant diagnosis of Edwardian society presented by Forster's text. In Transamerica, Bree’s crime is not transgenderism, but rather her failure to fully connect. The film’s message to its viewers as well as to the LGBT community is similar. To live the life we want, the life we seek, we must connect.