On Trans Celebrities
“Cloud Atlas” will be winding its way to movie theaters shortly, being billed as an exploration of “how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another throughout the past, the present and the future. Action, mystery and romance weave dramatically through the story as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero and a single act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution in the distant future.” Neat, huh? Except that the movie is in danger of ending up buried under an avalanche of press distracted by the fact that a promo video is Matrix trilogy co-filmmaker Lana Wachowski’s first public appearance since transitioning in 2006.
Times have changed a little, at least. Since she made her decision, Chaz Bono grabbed headlines for his transition to male. In the music world, Mina Caputo of Life of Agony and Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! rocked the metal and punk worlds with their announcements. In the modeling and acting realms, Alexandra Billings, Isis King, Alexis Arquette and Candis Cayne emerged — most having transitioned prior to achieving celebrity, but still grabbing headlines. And Jenna Talackova sent waves around the world after fighting for (and winning) the right to compete in the Miss Universe pageant. In a few short years, we discovered celebrities in our midst… and they were no longer automatically met with the same sensationalistic, lurid, invalidating and vicious derision that had been previously the norm — or when they were, they were also widely supported and found allies.
That’s probably not a whole lot of comfort for Wachowski, who’s still being met with some abhorrent commentaries. Wachowski’s transition had originally been the subject of a ghastly exposé — a sensationalistic, lurid, misrepresentative sideshow-style piece that probably drove her further into reclusive seclusion than she needed to be.
But something does speak volumes from the video: she’s happy. And full of creative energy. And in the end, that will speak louder than the bat$#!t.
Between the Distance From Me To You
When Mina Caputo announced her decision to transition and the media called her the first recording artist to do so in the spotlight (in actuality, Jayne County was probably the first, in 1979, but that makes Caputo’s coming-out no less groundbreaking in 2012), the first thing the public did was look back and see where she had let the clues slip. Her chosen band name –“Life of Agony” — was probably the first clue, but then there were lyrics like this:
you put yourself away
you’re locked up in a cage
people think I’m crazy…
That kind of “post-mortem” is probably inevitable right now, and not unlike our own lives and transitions where our parents, loved ones and acquaintances try to look back and see what indicators we let slip in our years prior. It’s an inevitably human (even if sometimes dreadfully wearisome) response, even if we can almost never see those same kinds of indicators before the fact, or be certain of them.
But that’s where our culture is now.
Where is it going? Well, hopefully, it’s going in a direction in which we become not so much a novelty as yet one more characteristic group that is accepted as a “person in the neighbourhood” — where people like Lucas Silveira can be first considered a talented musician and songwriter and secondly a trans man, rather than the other way around. But we (as a movement, community, or whatever informal grouping you feel appropriately describes those of us bound together by the single need to transition between sexes) have seen a clear shift in that direction.
When people can relatively succeed like this (even if not overwhelmingly) in the world of paparazzi and “entertainment news,” this is an exceptionally good sign. In our society, when someone excels at something, tall poppy syndrome tends to kick in. It becomes sport to try to knock someone off their pedestal, as though to prove one’s own merits at the expense of someone famous, despite the critic’s absence of accomplishments. Rather than challenging someone because of their talents (which can be difficult to dispute at times), it can be easier to seize upon characteristic differences (like being trans) as a point of criticism, backhanded humour or venom. In an age where trans status is still used as a tactic of ridicule or insult, this is a sign that trans-as-comedy is coming to an end — that even if comedians and shock journalists aren’t getting it yet, the public is well on its way to doing so. And if the media, comedians and entertainment wonks don’t try to catch up, they’re just going to look silly.
Celebrity also brings up the “role model” question, though, and as much as we want to celebrate people and thrust them out there as heroes and idealized icons, we need to be cautious about doing so.
It’s inevitable that we want icons. In a characteristic group so starved of people who are looked upon with respect, all our idols were either given to us 40 years ago by Andy Warhol, or else completely fictional — and sometimes misrepresentative and rightfully not eagerly embraced by us even at the time they appeared (i.e. the transphobic-ending Hedwig, or the narrative from Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like A Lady”). Celebrities tend to represent qualities that people admire, and provide a source of inspiration and self-respect for those who see themselves in their idols (this kind of projection is actually not a good thing to do, but it also seems an inevitable quality of being human). But the pressures of role model expectations can have a tragic cost.
We were reminded of this when LA Weekly published a long, thorough and heartbreaking look at the story of Christine Daniels / Mike Penner, the sportswriter who transitioned, was pushed into the public eye, and then detransitioned, ultimately committing suicide after being torn apart between who he was, who she needed to be, and a love who was desperately wanted as a part of that life. Although what ultimately happened wasn’t a direct result of the pressures activists and trans people as a whole had placed upon Penner / Daniels, that pressure appears to have contributed:
In the end, we wanted Christine to be happy and to be herself. I don’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think it’s presumptuous to say that. But a mistake was made in thinking that what we… needed was always exactly what she needed too, and that she had to be a champion of that. In the end, we sometimes push people into a spotlight they’re not prepared for, we’re not always kind to or appreciate the people who do willingly take up our cause and speak, we ignore their personal needs, objectives and limits, and then we forget them.
… as much as we may be desperate for our Chaz Bonos and Stephen Ira Beattys, we have to recognize that it is patently unfair to push a person to take a representative role and then decry them for it…. [We] have to leave the need for representation and validation out of it and let people become who they will inevitably need to be, in their own time, and with whatever journey they need to undertake to arrive there.
As a movement that has just recently touched the public consciousness, we have to remember not to push, but to respect the risks taken by the people who will be new pioneers, and the needs that they still have as individuals. In the world of celebrity, it’s too easy to go from the suffocation of the closet to the suffocation of fans’ expectations — and too easy to fail those expectations, given that heroes — being human — tend to develop clay feet.
More than that, though, we need to look toward a world not where trans people are able to achieve extraordinary things, but one in which it’s no longer notable that extraordinary things have been accomplished by people who are trans… where it has become commonplace and unremarkable. And that will happen by not simply inspiring a characteristic group, but by reaching people at large on a universal level.
Probably the best way to see this is anecdotally.
Choking on the Ashes of Her Enemy
“I knew I was different. I thought that I might be gay or something because I couldn’t identify with any of the guys at all. None of them liked art or music, they just wanted to fight and get laid. It was many years ago but it gave me this real hatred for the average American macho male.” — Kurt Cobain in Melody Maker.
After he was found dead in his home on April 5, 1994, L.A. Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote that “In a pop world filled with pretenders and opportunists, [Kurt] Cobain was the real thing–a unique and invaluable voice. Other reminiscences were similar. Rolling Stone contributing Editor David Wild described Cobain as “arguably the last truly great rock star — or maybe the first great rock star who truly didn’t want to be one.” Bob Guccione Jr. (then editor of Spin magazine) wrote:
He was the poet of this generation. It will be easy in the coming months, especially for older people, to downplay Kurt’s significance and contribution, but that would be wrong. Like Rimbaud, he died too young, lived too unflatteringly and left too little compared with what we hoped for, but it was enough for him to be one of the pillars in the artistic pantheon.
But would Kurt Cobain have still been hailed by Rolling Stone as “the spokesman of a generation” or by MSNBC’s Eric Olson as “a messiah and martyr whose every utterance has been plundered and parsed” if he had become “Kara Cobain, the transgender grunge singer?” Would “Come As You Are” have reached a generation of fans on a universal level if it had become a singularly trans-specific anthem? Would Kurt the Legend, about whom swirls a mystique of conspiracy theories and overwhelmingly awestruck remembrances, still have attained a level of rock star myth when he died at the (apparently magically martyr-prone and dangerously tragic) age of 27?
It’s not unthinkable. Over the years, Cobain has been rumoured to have been trans and even now, it’s not unusual to have the suggestion resurface in blogs and social media. My first encounter with this was a late ’90s Geocities website containing someone’s thesis paper, collecting circumstantial occurrences to support the idea — from minor things like featuring a crossdressing nanny on the In Utero CD label to a story of when Axl Rose apparently sent bodyguards to rough him up, resulting in an attempt to topple his trailer; from comments made at an LGBT ordinance benefit concert to his sometimes wearing a plain grey skirt onstage (rather than the “safer” kilt which had become de rigeur at the time for male performers wanting to beat the heat onstage). And speculation surfaces around songs like “Been A Son,” which could as easily be about Courtney Love (as the lyrics are purported to be) as about someone feeling like they couldn’t live up to that role. Overall, a picture emerges of someone who was not afraid to be out as gay-friendly or even gay, but was still fighting some unknown struggle that seemed even bigger. One of the most compelling moments parsed was an interview he gave to The Advocate (archived here) where Cobain admitted to being bisexual:
Yeah, absolutely. See I’ve always wanted male friends that I could be real intimate with and talk about important things with and be as affectionate with that person as I would be with a girl. Throughout my life, I’ve always been really close with girls and made friends with girls. And I’ve always been a really sickly, feminine person anyhow, so I thought I was gay for a while because I didn’t find any of the girls in my high school attractive at all. They had really awful haircuts and fucked-up attitudes. So I thought I would try to be gay for a while, but I’m just more sexually attracted to women. But I’m really glad that I found a few gay friends, because it totally saved me from becoming a monk or something.
Biographers, friends and family have since said that Kurt — a showman — had played things up for The Advocate, and this may be true. The “evidence” is speculative and sometimes harder to believe than the other explanations that have been given… yet cumulatively, it’s curious. And adherents have sometimes piled onto the speculation with the trite “at least he’d still be alive…” but in reality, even that’s still hopeless conjecture, and really doesn’t take into account the full context of Cobain’s life experiences — or the obvious truth that nobody could ever have possibly wanted things to end as they did. But if true, we’ll never know… although we’ve at least reached a moment in time where his legacy likely wouldn’t be destroyed by such a revelation.
In the context of 1994, coming out as trans (true or not) would have been unthinkable. Even today, it’s seen as risky. Courtney Love recently cautioned Lady Gaga that queer flamboyance is something you can only do for awhile and then one needs to move on, lest one turns “into a lonely drag queen. Straight guys just aren’t in to that kind of thing.” But there has, at least, been clear indicators of change.
If I Could Make the World as Pure and Strange as What I See, /
I’d Put You in the Mirror I Put in Front of Me.
We need to remember the principle of visual iconicity and identity, and how it relates to celebrity culture. It’s a principle best seen in comic books: Green Lantern John Stewart was one of the first iconic superhero characters designed for African-American readers to relate to… but the iconic “happy face” is a character in which people of all races, genders, ages and walks of life can usually see themselves. The simpler and less detailed an image and its characteristic associations are, the more universal it can become (which is perhaps why anime became a phenomenon, but that’s besides the point). Recognition of self happens most frequently in undetailed faces, in visual culture.
The thing that draws us as trans people toward Bono and Caputo, Talackova and Grace, Cayne and Wachowski is that their revelation of being trans or of trans history gives us a point of verbal and visual representation, where we can recognize ourselves in them, and find empathy in what they create. Yet that is the same thing that they have potentially lost with the cissexual / cisgender public. I say potentially, because it can still be overcome, but this happens by repeatedly showing that regardless of (or sometimes because of?) individual characteristics, a songwriter / actor / public speaker / director / performer is still able to reach universal truths that transcend those characteristics… that despite their uniqueness, our visionary Cobains can still touch on truths that make them voices of a generation. But it becomes a greater challenge for trans people than it is for marketably heteronormative white “pretty people.”
Of course, the people I’ve named (or missed) didn’t come out as trans for our benefit, but for theirs — but even so, they’ve made this sacrifice in their lives, and we’ve already benefitted from it. So it does call for some respect, right there.
But there is also a point where being universally accessible means playing into heteronormative expectations, and out trans celebrities would probably never be able to completely do that, even if they wanted to. Nor, probably, should they. There is a point where we have to be ourselves, as characteristically unique and distinctive as we are. The purpose of transition is not to erase our individuality but to accept it. There will be a balance that each and every out trans public figure will have to discover for themselves — and probably, where they find that balance will not be exactly where each of us would like that balance to be. So we will have to grant the space, the respect and the levity for them to achieve what they need to — balancing their unique identity and their career ambitions — without creating yet another directional pull.
And sometimes, we’ll be pleasantly surprised with what people do with their newly awakened social consciousness.
Sometimes the Party Takes You Places That You Didn’t Really Plan on Going
I have to admit, when Jenna Talackova’s story first emerged, I didn’t really think that a beauty pageant was a high priority in the long list of trans issues, nor that playing into gender-specific lookism and the beauty myth was something that I was all too eager to support. She did, however, impress me with her sense of conscience — persisting until the rules were changed, rather than simply accepting having an exception made for her — and her willingness to be associated with all trans people, rather than to play an “I’m not like them” card, which she could have easily done. There has been some misunderstanding about what the Miss Universe rule change has been, but the media event that surrounded her teaches us a lot about benchmark issues (which I will write about soon), and she has gone on to continue to impress me with a desire — in her own way — to use her newfound fame in a socially-conscious way:
Her decision to enter the pageant was “out of pure vanity,” but she says she won’t let her newfound role go to waste.
“I got thrown this opportunity to be a role model and I now have a reality TV show coming out that’s just going to broaden more the society’s eyes to transpeople and see that we’re just as normal as everybody else,” she said.
“I believe I got this role and I’m going to do my best with it, reaching out to young kids because it’s my obligation and I see that now.”
Talackova is also planning to take on more animal and environmental activism….
While we can’t expect it, we can and should applaud when it happens. And also take solace in this:
We’ve finally reached a point in time where those who’ve traveled the most difficult road are those who have suffered in silence… even if we haven’t yet reached the time in which being trans has become unsensational.
Until that time comes, go see something brilliant.
(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)