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Transgender Artists, Works Gaining Acceptance

February 28, 2001|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Though depicting a relatively tiny segment of the population, transgender-themed works of art and entertainment have been racking up quite a few awards for quite a few people. Last spring, Hilary Swank won the Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of female-to-male Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry." A few months later, transgender comedian Eddie Izzard won two Emmys for his one-man show "Dress to Kill." And this year, two of the top prizes at Sundance went to "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," about a transgender rock singer, and "Southern Comfort," a documentary about a female-to-male dying of ovarian cancer.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of these works, particularly "Boys Don't Cry," among the transgender community. Brandon Teena did not fit the social stereotype of a transsexual. He had taken no hormones nor had any sexual reassignment surgery, although some friends and relatives say he hoped to someday. After his murder in Nebraska, his mother and other members of the family refused to refer to him by his chosen name or pronoun, and early media reports, including a seminal piece in the Village Voice, referred to him as her.

For many, the subsequent protests, controversy and final decision by the media to refer to Teena as him, were liberating. It brought to the mainstream a whole new definition of transsexual, or transgender. For female-to-males, especially, it provided an image they could point to when explaining their past, or their chosen future, to friends and family.

It also marked a shift in the role transgender characters play in movies and television. Where once they were comedic oddities, or serial killers, recent portrayals have been more sympathetic, often because actual transgender people are behind them. Izzard's award-winning show, the title of which plays off the transsexual serial killer in Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill," is by no means a diatribe on the transgender life. Very little of the stand-up performance deals directly with the fact that the British comedian identifies as much as a woman as he does a man. The history of imperialism, the building of Stonehenge, the secret longings of squirrels--all get more air time than Izzard's makeup and high heels and feminine garb. But that's the whole point.

"Basically, I think everyone has got to come out," he says. "And I've engineered my career to be out. But if you go on and on about it, people turn off. If you just talk crap, which I do, people think, 'Oh, he's all right.' And I do have a life; I'm not just sitting around thinking about my sexuality."

His sexuality has, however, been the subject of endless speculation since his career took off in the mid-'90s. Profiles invariably had him "insisting" he was straight, which, he says, got a bit tiresome. "I remember I was on some show and I said I was straight, and this drag queen [who was also a guest] screamed, 'Liar!' I was prepared for all sorts of reactions, but not for a drag queen to call me a liar."

Now Izzard identifies as "a male lesbian," and that seems to have quieted everyone down a bit. He says he has considered having sexual reassignment surgery for years. "But I realized that given my face and figure, I'd only look like a bloke in a dress. And if that's the case, I might as well just live as a bloke in a dress."

Transgender, he says, is probably the best word we've got. "Although it does sound a bit like a railway system."

There is something inherently dramatic in a transgender character--the challenge to society's construct of sexuality, the tension of revelation, the test of tolerance and imagination. Theater and film have a rich history of transgender characters--from Shakespeare through Benny Hill, cross-dressing has been a keystone of British comedy. America had Uncle Miltie, and who can forget Joe E. Brown's nonchalant reaction at the end of "Some Like It Hot," when his girlfriend, played by Jack Lemmon, reveals he is really a man? Or Dustin Hoffman's plea to Jessica Lange in "Tootsie": "I was a better man with you as a woman. . . . I just have to learn to do it without the dress."

More recently, films from all over have dealt with various aspects of the transgender experience--"The Crying Game" came out of Ireland, "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" from Australia, "Just Like a Woman" from England and "Ma Vie en Rose," Belgium.

On American television, transgender characters tend to appear on those "very special episodes" that run during sweeps week, often as sex workers, crime victims or potential suicides. Last November, however, transgender women were portrayed with varying degrees of sympathy on three mainstream shows--"Just Shoot Me," "Gideon's Crossing" and "Ally McBeal."

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