Breaking boundaries

 

ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

The conversation would have made Calpernia Addams wince, if she hadn't already heard it a thousand times before. Walking down the street at Sundance Film Festival, the center of the hip filmmaking universe, the phrase floated out of the cloud of deal-cutting babble: . . . and then the transsexual prostitute. . .

"In Hollywood, it's like the two words go together, transsexual and prostitute, " says Addams, who owns a video production company - and is also transsexual. "They don't even question it. These guys were pitching some script, and it had a transsexual, so it was only natural that she be a prostitute."

Addams herself figures prominently in one of two new cable productions that will try to break television's seemingly iron link between transsexuals and sleazy criminality.

The first airs Sunday: HBO's Normal, the story of a fiftysomething factory worker who sets off Richter-scale shock waves in his little Illinois town with the news that he's going to undergo surgery to become a woman.

And later this spring Addams' story will appear on Showtime in Soldier's Girl, based on the all-too-true tale of how her GI boyfriend was beaten to death in 1999 by other soldiers who were enraged by their relationship.

It's a measure of just how brutally transsexuals have been treated by Hollywood that they're treating Sunday's debut of Normal - which HBO made available at a handful of preview screenings around the country - as something like the premiere of a new Steven Spielberg epic.

"I get so tired of seeing us as hookers all the time, " says Diane Arnold, a Broward County transsexual activist and Democratic Party executive. "Watching this was just a wonderful experience."

In an age where television celebrates new sexual frontiers with increasing abandon, transsexuals - individuals whose minds are trapped in the body of the opposite sex - are the forgotten pilgrims.

NEGATIVE IMAGES

Not that you don't see transsexuals (or, to use an increasingly popular term, the transgendered) on TV. It's just that they're usually wielding a switchblade or a dominatrix's whip. On FX's The Shield this week, a convulsive transsexual crackhead broke into an elderly woman's apartment, giving her a fatal heart attack. Last fall, Fox's John Doe featured twin brothers: a transsexual locked up in a mental hospital and his serial-killing brother.

CBS' Crime Scene Investigation earlier this season even managed to wrap just about every antisocial impulse known to mankind into a single transsexual character: a serial killer who climaxes his career by murdering his mother and then killing himself - "a serial-killing, matricidal, suicidal psychopath, " notes Nick Adams, who monitors Hollywood for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, dryly ticking off the disorders on his fingers.

"Hollywood has gotten the message using homosexuals exclusively as psychopaths and sociopaths is unacceptable, " says Adams. "But for transgendered people, it's somehow OK."

Movies, too, have more than their fair share of cross-dressing ax murderers. But film directors seem more willing to consider transsexuals as actual characters rather than exotic gimmicks, sometimes with spectacular results: John Lithgow got an Oscar nomination for his motherly former pro football player in The World According to Garp, and Hilary Swank won the award for her portrayal of a doomed barfly in Boys Don't Cry.

But although transsexual characters have appeared regularly on television since at least 1975 - when Archie Bunker unknowingly gave one mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the back of his cab in All in the Family - they're treated as curiosities at best. When Helen Shaver played a college professor for a few episodes of the 2001-2002 CBS series The Education of Max Bickford, she was the first - and apparently last - regular transsexual character in prime-time history.

"You can often find stock transsexual characters on television, usually during ratings sweeps, " says Adams. "The two most popular are the Freak of the Week - a killer, psychopath, murder victim, prostitute - psychopath, murder victim, sex worker, or the Tragic Tranny - suffering from some horrible disease caused by their sex-change operation."

The rare character who falls outside those boundaries will still be used mostly as a punch line or punching bags. On Fox's Ally McBeal, where gays and ethnic minorities were inevitably treated with politically correct kid gloves, the title-character lawyer squirmed and made faces when she had to share an elevator with a transsexual woman.

There's nothing cartoonish about Normal. It not only charts the volcanic emotional upheavals triggered by a revelation of transexuality, but documents some of the pragmatic difficulties when a grown man must learn to walk, talk and dress like a woman - a process painfully familiar to most transsexuals.

TOUGH TRANSITION

"I did feel like I went through puberty at age 24, " remembers Addams of her own transition. "Learning to wear a bra, makeup, date boys, all that - everything other girls learn at age 13. And we're alone. Most of the time society hates us - people think we're freaks or whatever - so you're doing all this alone. And it can be really hard."

But Normal is fundamentally a love story, not a documentary on transsexuality, and not everything in it gets high marks for accuracy. Doctors who treat transsexuals say it focuses too much on surgery and not enough on psychotherapy. (Transsexual patients must undergo a year of psychiatric treatment before they're eligible for surgery.) And some transsexuals say the movie's happy ending, in which a marriage survives the husband's transition to become a woman, is unlikely.

"It didn't really tell the real story of the heartache, anguish and pain of losing everybody in your life, " says Broward's 68-year-old Arnold, who hasn't seen her children or grandchildren since her own transition six years ago. "Nine times out of 10 you lose your family."

It's not just family bonds that are torn. A transsexual who elects to "go full time" - that is, begin living as a member of the opposite sex - also puts friendships and careers at risk. The notion that genitals don't always equal gender still makes many Americans uncomfortable, a full five decades after an ex-GI named George Jorgensen returned from a Copenhagen clinic as Christine and first brought transsexualism to public light.

"We threaten a lot of people, " says Andrea James, who operates a website (www.tsroadmap.com) offering help to transitioning transsexuals. "We stand outside the binary gender system, and for a lot of people, that complicates life too much. Even the gay community is uneasy with us."

Addams can certainly attest to that. When her boyfriend Barry Winchell was beaten to death by other soldiers at Fort Campbell, Ky., four years ago, gay activists often referred to her as a male drag queen rather than a transsexual woman. Because if Winchell was dating a woman, then how could his murder be called gay-bashing?

SILENCE

Addams, who was taking female hormones and living as a woman at the time but hadn't yet had surgery (she since has), didn't want her sexual identity to distract public attention from the murder. She kept quiet - a decision she regrets.

"If I could do it over again, I wouldn't let that happen, " she says. "I felt marginalized. And to just say Barry was gay and leave it at that was an oversimplification at best. Barry had only dated women before me. And he considered me and treated me as a woman when he dated me, which was certainly how I saw myself." When Soldier's Girl airs later this spring, her real story will be told. She's seen the movie and loves it.

"I think any change in societal perception of us is going to be glacial, " Addams muses. "But every little melting drop, every little movement we make in the right direction, is important.

"I'm really excited that millions of people are going to have the chance to see empathetic, sympathetic transgender characters. Maybe some of them will say, 'Wow, that's an interesting person. I wish I could know somebody like that.' Maybe it will open a door."

TRANSSEXUALS AT A GLANCE

Nobody is really certain how many people suffer from gender dysphoria, the clinical term for transsexualism. Studies in Scotland and the Netherlands showed about one in every 10,000 biological males had sought treatment for the condition, which experts here say is a good estimate for the United States as well.

No one really knows what causes it, though most researchers believe there's a biological root - perhaps mistimed hormonal releases during fetal development. Therapies range from counseling to hormonal treatment coupled with surgery to create new genitals.

About 1,000 surgeries are performed in the United States each year - mostly to refashion a male body into a female one. Surgery going the other direction is more complex ("it's easier to create a hole than a pole, " as the surgeons like to joke), more expensive (around $100,000 compared to as little as $5,000) and less effective.

Read more Glenn Garvin: On TV stories from the Miami Herald

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