This morning there was an interesting op-ed by David Ignatius in The Washington Post on the cultural context surrounding the Republican primary campaign for president. He discussed the evolution of the American cultural zeitgeist from irony to awkwardness.
I have sensed that awkwardness in the response of the LGB community to its trans siblings, and the straight community to its gay neighbors, for many years now. Once you get beyond bigotry, prejudice and religious hostility, you're left mired in ignorance. And ignorance, at best, leads to at least a period of awkwardness before there can be understanding, and then acceptance.
In the growing cultural recognition of the gay community, straight people needed to get beyond the unthinking rejection based on religious condemnation rooted in the Biblical theme of "abomination." Once that was done the gay community needed to fill that vacuum with their reality, of gay persons being just like straight ones except for the gender of their object of affection. Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet portrayed the culture in which most Americans wallowed, until that culture changed with Will and Grace, Ellen, Brokeback Mountain and the growing efforts of everyday persons for freedom and equality in the legislatures and courts of the nation.
The same holds regarding the place of trans society in the greater whole. The American trans cultural zeitgeist was set by the first openly trans American, Christine Jorgensen, in 1952. The response was generally positive, and Ms. Jorgensen had a successful career post-transition. By the time 1960 came around, however, the forces of darkness appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's, Psycho, which set the theme for cis people's relationship to trans people, particularly women, even to today. The theme of trans women as nothing more than male predators was manifest last night on an episode of the groundbreaking ABC drama, How to Get Away with Murder (HTGAWM).
This Shonda Rhimes drama is cutting-edge in tackling critical current issues in minority communities, be it racism, homophobia or transphobia. Women are treated as full human beings, and various human sexual relationships are normalized. Just as importantly, the challenges faced by these characters in 2015 America are not minimized, which is as it should be, because challenges do remain.
This episode, "Two Birds, One Millstone," had a subplot involving a trans woman professor at the program's college. One the plus side:
• The trans professor was played by a trans woman, Alexandra Billings. It's great progress when trans actors get quality work; it will be even better when they are allowed to play cis persons.
• Annalise Keating is shown to have a long-standing relationship with the trans woman, which is viewed as unremarkable. It is that relationship which allows the professor to skate free.
• "Transphobia" is rationally discussed. Intimate questions are asked, and after some defensiveness on the part of the professor, are answered. There is an allusion to the "third date rule" for coming out. CeCe McDonald is explicitly mentioned in highlighting the difficulties trans women have in engaging with the law without being presumed guilty (though that is a far greater problem for women of color, which this professor is not). The professor is a married woman in an academic community, and is suffering from domestic abuse, no different than many other women.
• The transphobia of the detective is called out, and the DA plays it cool.
• The thread is wrapped up by the professor realizing that there isn't just one man who could validate and love her (though given the sexual insecurities of straight men and older lesbians there may in actuality be very few).
• And, fundamentally, a trans plot is worthy of consideration for a major primetime drama.
On the other side, however, is the refusal to die of that oldest trans theme, the one first projected by Hitchcock in 1960:
• The trans woman is a killer. Initially thought to be acting in self-defense, but turning out to have acted in a premeditated manner.
• She is shown in full rage and threatening another man, clearly capable of committing horrific acts of violence.
• She is shown under duress playing the victim, even though she acted with intent to kill.
• As in the title of the program, she literally gets away with murder. At least it's not the murder of a cis woman, but of a man.
This is progress, but the progress is awkward. We haven't seen a trans person play a normal character on a recurring basis since Helen Shaver played Erica Bettis on The Education of Max Bickford in 2001. Shonda Rhimes painted an honorific picture of a transition on Grey's Anatomy last year, which was far more true to life than this episode, if only because there was no violence involved. As long as trans persons are cast in roles that portray them either as perpetrators of violence or its victims, we will be stuck with the old zeitgeist and end up with campaigns such as the one nearing its end in Houston, where the civil rights ordinance is being challenged solely on the theme of trans women as male sexual predators. It's not enough for Norma Rae to support equality; we need a village and maybe even a city of allies to shift the discourse.
Ignorance and awkwardness are fertile ground for bathroom panics, which are most evident in school battles when elementary school age trans girls are viewed as sexual threats. You can't get much more absurd than that, and the much larger cisgender community needs to speak out. It can do it, if we begin, once again, to explain that the needs of trans kids are no different from everyone's needs. Children and adolescents need privacy, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. What they don't need is privacy from one small class of kids who are not nor have they ever been a threat to any other person. And the best way to get people to understand that is to portray trans persons, and women in particular, as just like everyone else.
That's why I fear that the planned remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, forty years after the original, is such a potential threat to our ability to change the zeitgeist. What was avant-garde and edgy forty years ago, and an oasis in the desert for trans women who had no major media representations for guidance save an occasional lyric of recognition from Lou Reed or the Beatles, would be a throwback to a more dangerous world if it is true to its forbear. The film itself won't help matters, and casting Laverne Cox as the protagonist, the "sweet transvestite from Transexual [sic], Transylvania," compounds the projection. I'm not suggesting Ms. Cox should be denied a job, but she must be aware that she is playing a character in this film that is the antithesis of the person she has been expressing to the world. She is not Dr. Frank N. Furter, and neither am I or the hundreds of thousands of other trans women. This is more a role for RuPaul, though even that is not a truly appropriate casting, but for Laverne this role may not only undermine her image but that of the rest of us.
Lou Adler, the 1975 producer of Rocky Horror, said: "I don't want to do it if it's not going to live up to the way people embraced the movie over the past 40 years." Sir, the world has changed greatly in the past 40 years, and the trans women who embraced this film have grown up and moved on. The rest of the world needs to see us as regular women, and not as "sweet transvestites," thank you very much.