Chaz Bono and transgenderism's rich history

A culture’s latest milestone.

The transgender experience is one of the few human conditions almost completely without cultural, literary or artistic landmarks ... Transgenderism remains so foreign a concept to those who have not experienced it that its explanation falls totally to those who have.

These are two of the more eye-catching statements in Mary McNamara's LA Times review of American TV documentary Becoming Chaz, on Chaz Bono's transition from female to male. The assertions may sound accurate, but they belie a more complex reality than some cisgender (crudely, non-transgender) critics realise.

McNamara suggests that "the idea that a person could be born into a body at odds with his or her sense of gender has only recently entered the public conversation" via films such as Boys Don't Cry (starring Hilary Swank as murdered trans man Brandon Teena) and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Historically, trans individuals have been denied control of their stories within the mainstream, having them framed by cisgender journalists, film-makers and editors in ways that are frequently sensationalist or deliberately transphobic, or that cast people as passive victims. From both necessity and choice, trans people's creative reflections have often been produced out of the spotlight, and their relationship with the media has been fractious -- hence the casual observer's perception that we have scant heritage.

For those willing to look, there exists a century of cultural landmarks, often intertwined with, and sometimes overshadowed by gay and lesbian history. This begins with the gay German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Aware that what later became understood as transgender behaviour had existed across a variety of cultures for centuries, he published the first specific investigation into the subject in 1910 -- The Transvestites: the Erotic Drive to Cross-Dress. Hirschfeld coined the first trans-related term, "transvestite". It held a broader meaning than today, as other words have since evolved to represent differing positions on the gender-variant spectrum.

Hirschfeld also devised the term "transsexualismus" (but did not popularise "transsexual") before overseeing the first sex reassignment surgery in 1930, on the Danish painter Lili Elbe. Elbe died a year later, but her collated memoirs were published as Man Into Woman in 1933. This was the first transsexual autobiographical text, initiating what became the dominant means for people to explain their transitions.

Hirschfeld and Elbe attracted little attention beyond Germany. Roberta Cowell and Michael Dillon, the UK's first male-to-female (MtF) and female-to-male (FtM) transsexual people hit the British headlines. But the first internationally famous transsexual woman was Christine Jorgensen, who appeared on the New York Times' front page in December 1952. Like Cowell, Jorgensen wrote an autobiography, and a biopic was later produced. Subsequently, transsexual issues found their main expression in queer American counter-culture -- particularly underground film.

During the Sixties, avant-garde US directors including Jack Smith and Ron Rice cast drag queens and trans women in provocative movies such as Flaming Creatures, which presented a loose set of highly sensual scenes in which participants did not need to define their gender. Works produced around Warhol's Factory, particularly Women in Revolt, created trans icons in Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis. Darling and Curtis later became documentary subjects, as did the trans women who fought police oppression at Compton's in San Francisco in 1966, three years before Sylvia Rivera and others struggled alongside gay and lesbian people at New York's Stonewall Inn.

By the mid-Seventies, there existed a trend for Hollywood films to show trans people as psychotic, seen in in Psycho, Dog Day Afternoon, Dressed to Kill and others. Cultural portrayals focused almost exclusively on male-to-female identities. So too did the "radical" lesbian feminist Janice Raymond's assault, The Transsexual Empire (1979), which accused Gender Identity Clinics and their patients of propagating misogynistic models of femininity.

Raymond's tract galvanised transsexual women and men into reasserting and reassessing their personal histories and cultural traditions. Sandy Stone's response, The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto, questioned the portrayal of the effects of gender reassignment in several autographies. She suggested that people go beyond "passing" in their acquired genders to form a strong, specifically transsexual identity that could withstand transphobic stereotyping.

Stone inspired a generation of writers who thought past traditional gender conventions, trying to unify disparate people under the transgender banner to fight shared oppression. The trans man Leslie Feinberg argued for "transgender liberation" and collected a history of gender variance "from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman". Kate Bornstein and Riki Ann Wilchins, meanwhile, pushed for greater recognition of the grey areas within the recognised binary.

In Britain, Press For Change, founded in 1992, strove for legal reforms for trans people, their greatest triumph being the Gender Recognition Act (2004) which won official acknowledgement for transsexual people. Throughout the 1990s, screen portrayals of trans people increased, for example in the European arthouse films of Pedro Almodóvar and Rosa von Praunheim. In more mainstream productions, trans actors rarely played trans parts, but docu-soap and reality TV formats allowed certain trans individuals greater self-expression -- and showed producers that the public was prepared to listen.

Building on the sense of identity formulated by activists and academics, and aware that the mass media is becoming more ready to let them represent themselves, trans people -- and particularly trans men -- are finally being allowed to document their own experiences in more visible contexts, in greater depth and with less editorial intervention. With heightened consciousness of the effects of negative print and screen portrayals, a plurality of voices that express the diversity of transgenderism is slowly emerging from the margins. It could not have happened without this rich cultural history; one from which transgender people of all shades continue to draw confidence.


Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.