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.