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.
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.