Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stephen Colbert Discovers Trans People

I'm a big fan of The Colbert Report. But for a long time it's made me sad that he never had any trans guests on his show, or acknowledged the existence of trans people as human beings. Every so often he'd make jokes about men in dresses, which doesn't count.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Some Notes on the Classic Trans Narrative

(I started writing this about six months ago and never got around to publishing it.)

I am not familiar with all of the "classic" trans narratives, and even less familiar with more recent memoirs. But even so I have noticed a change. For the purposes of this essay, I'll be using the autobiographies of Christine Jorgensen and Jan Morris as examples of the classic narrative. These stories feature:
  • A happy childhood. Everything was wonderful, except for the fact that they were trans.
  • No interference in this happy childhood. We know that many gender-nonconforming children were, and still are, subjected to teasing and punishment, even sometimes to aversion therapy, when they try to express their gender identity. But the classic narrative doesn't mention anything like this. I'm willing to bet that more recent memoirs do talk about it. (And in fact, it's a fairly standard motif in gay/lesbian/bisexual memoirs.)
  • No other trans people. Jorgensen's story especially is the tale of a woman and her doctors. Morris' story is a bit more wide-ranging, but neither of them ever acknowledge meeting any other trans people (although Morris does mention that there were other patients at the hospital where her surgery was performed.)
Things have changed. I don't believe it's a coincidence that, along with greater trans solidarity and trans visibility, we also have less reliance on the medical establishment. Many trans people now question the standards of care and the right of a doctor to decide whether or not someone is really trans. We have each other now, for validation, support, and advice. (I don't mean to dismiss the concerns of trans people who do feel that medical intervention made their lives bearable. It's just such a precarious existence, in my opinion, relying on a cis doctor's word. LGB people seem to rely on each other.)

I assume that these memoirs were written for a cis audience. Actually, Jorgensen does mention that she gets lots of letters from trans people, begging to know where they can get help. Her response is an odd mixture of sympathy and "bear in mind that you might not actually be trans." And of course, she has to distinguish between the transsexual and the homosexual.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Paul Henreid, or Everything was Better Back in the Day.

Recently I've developed more appreciation for Paul Henreid. You know him as the actor who played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. He preferred to be known for his role as Bette Davis' lover in Now, Voyager (which is a very weird movie and I should blog about it.) Anyway, after watching a few of his films I became interested enough to read his autobiography, Ladies Man.

In order to understand why I am so susceptible, you must know that my favorite historical era runs from approximately 1885-1935, in England and Europe. Henreid was born in 1908, which is almost exactly at the midpoint of this period, and brought up in Vienna. Vienna before the war - is there any more romantic city?

The fact is that Henreid doesn't say much about his early childhood; the book begins with an anecdote from 1921, when he was thirteen. As a young man, he received a thorough theatrical education:
Acting in Austria in those days was considered as much a profession as medicine or law. You had to attend school and study [for three years] and eventually take an examination to determine not only whether you could act, but also how much you knew about makeup and the theater, its lore and its history. You had to know the leading parts in eight plays by heart - four classical and four modern ones. Of the classics, two had to be in prose and two in verse. Of the modern plays, two must be comedies and two dramas.
In 1935, he had a successful stage career and was starting to break into films. When the famous German film studio, Ufa, asked him to sign a contract he was overjoyed. He went to Berlin, saw the studio . . . and when he sat down to sign the contract, discovered that he was required to become a member of the Nazi party. He refused, and went back to Vienna.

Soon he discovered that he had been blacklisted by the Nazis. (Ironically, just 12 years later he would be blacklisted again, by HUAC.) When the film he had just completed was shown in Germany, his name was removed from the credits. No one else in the German-speaking film industry would hire him. Remarking that unlike many people, he wasn't deeply attached to Vienna, he began to look farther afield.

He got a part in an English play (not allowing the fact that he knew no English to slow him down.) One role led to another, and when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Henreid and his wife were both in England.