Revisiting The Year Of The Transsexual


December 8, 2010: The New York Times “Fashion & Style” page presents William Van Meter’s “Bold Crossings of the Gender Line” as part of a feature seeking to answer the question: Is 2010 the Year of the Transsexual? The article brings to light several examples of gender-bending people who have made it big in pop culture—more specifically in fashion and showbiz—with the end to make a case for a “new enlightenment” taking over the public perception of gender norms. Ady Ben-Israel, program coordinator at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan, suggests that this “enlightenment” results from “sustained media attention,” an attention which illuminates the multiplicity of gender-nonconforming identities and extracts them from the shadows cast by “gender norms.”

“Bold Crossings of the Gender Line” tries to fit into its own mold of so-called “sustained media attention” by projecting what Meter evidently believes is a series of flawless examples of the “fluidity of gender,” a series that, in highlighting the supposed multiplicity of human identities, may help further cast “the heightened visibility of transsexuals as the precursor of a new enlightenment.” All this cliché-flinging arrives under the branding of “evidence that 2010 will be remembered as the year of the transsexual.” The article follows Derridean jargons of redoubling and rupture (i.e., infinite supplementarity between the gender signifier and the gender signified—between what’s, say, between the legs and what’s, say, between the ears) in order to push a ‘better set of values’ in which journalistic discourse presents notions of gender sign multiplicity, as well as the spectrum of identities afforded by it, with the end of undermining normative social views. “Bold Crossings” could live up to its name by serving as a transing influence between the social boundaries of gender lines.

Could live up. Meter’s examples of the “real strides” in crossing the gender line, which, as he notes, “in 2010 were made by actual transsexuals [Actual transsexuals?] and those who define themselves on a spectrum of gender rather than simply male or female,” are tools by which the concept of gender and sexual subjectivity may be addressed in a successful claim for public trans recognition.

The apparent optimism in “Bold Crossings” presents a reality far from rosy. Meter’s argument is problematic from the outset. Consider its definition of what it means to be trans. There is no definition. Meter deploys weighted terms suggesting multiplicity—transsexual, transgender, transvestite, and ultimately the laughable catchall of “transversal”—with a near complete disregard for their inherently different denotations. James Franco’s appearance on the cover of Candy magazine vamped “in trowel-applied makeup, heavy jewelry and a woman’s dominatrix-style power suit” is lauded as—all together now—“one of the more visible bits of evidence that 2010 will be remembered as the year of the transsexual.” Immediately following this claim, however, is Meter’s own recognition that “Mr. Franco is just dressing up and doesn’t feel he was born the wrong sex.” Well, okay.

But further on, in a continued discussion of what seems like a wonderfully progressive 2010, Meter states: “For the utopian Technicolor version of the trans lifestyle, there is now Candy.” Sweet. One can only wonder what the “trans lifestyle” really consists of—Men like Franco who simply “dress up,” thus producing a “utopian” image of what it means to be a gender-bender? Or would it be more along the lines of an overall “crossing” of the gender binary, enacted by anyone falling under the category of, wait for it, “transversal”? Or, more critically, someone with half a brain may ask, How in hell is it a lifestyle?

Meter may very well find sadistic comfort in calling it a fashionable lifestyle. Most of his examples depict personalities in the editorialized fashion or showbiz industries: Franco on the cover of Candy, a magazine “like Vogue” according to Luis Venegas, its founder; Brazilian trans model Lea Tisci, who notes that her participation in Givenchy’s Fall/Winter 2010 campaign “would be a nice message for another tranny: ‘Look, we can be the same as other girls and boys’”; Candy Darling, who went “from rejection to stardom” under the guidance of Andy Warhol. Quoting transsexual ex-model Connie Fleming, Meter (unknowingly) reveals how his own conception of ‘trans-ness’ remains inherently pessimistic: “It’s always come in and out. It’s like a flavor of the month, and let’s get into it, and then there’s always a backlash.”

Oh, and a backlash, too, presented by Ms. T: “When you are a transsexual, you look for your future, and you can’t see it.”

Now a reminder from Anna Wintour’s book of repeatable aphorisms: Fashion’s not about looking back; it’s always about looking forward. Despite the fact that “Bold Crossings” fails to be quite so bold, sacrificing the argument for gender fluidity by enforcing a deeply normative idea of ‘trans-ness’ as a collection of categorical lifestyles, despite Meter’s failure at catalyzing a revolution or enlightenment in which the borders of gender and sexuality remain open and welcoming of each other’s ‘values’, and despite the fact that the article may in fact cast a shadow over “the brilliance of difference in the world” (a phrase used by queer theorist Stephen Whittle) rather than illuminate the rupture of the gender dichotomy and the redoubling of subjective identities, a valid critical point precipitates from the analogy between what it means to be trans and what it means to be fashionable, what it means to disregard the past and what it means to always look forward.

The essential problem engendered by Meter’s reduction of the trans community into one of capitalistic obsession with the future may lie in the fact that, in being trans, one is inevitably prevented from constructing a past by telling a retrospective narrative. After all, a trans-person’s past may be plagued by memories of incongruous and uncomfortable identity discontinuities, bodies that seemed wrong or undesirable acting as confinement for something clawing to break through. To look back could be, in a sense, impossibly painful.

Hence trans agonistes: trans the struggler, trans as the identity whose history is inaccessible, whose very presence in the subjective spectrum of the gender sign can neither be pinned down nor categorized. When Meter talks of “gender liberation,” perhaps it is right, then, to “worry that it is just a passing fancy,” a lifestyle. But the unwavering pessimism and worry can at least be tempered by the promise of knowing, perhaps, that the problem of a trans identity is in fact not a trans problem, but a general identity problem, for, after all, it becomes fruitless to seek an etiological reasoning for the structuring of both gender and sexuality—femininity, masculinity, what it means to be male or female—when the game is constantly in play, changing. 2010 may not have been, then, the almost theologically promised year of the transsexual, but it sure presented a framework and discussion through which a whole era of identity fluidity may be crafted. What we need is a means to design it.

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image – Christina Rutz