It will be interesting to learn what the impact of this continuing flurry of drag performances and awards will be. This week Neil Patrick Harris won the Tony award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his portrayal of Hedwig in the theatrical production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Beloved for his emceeing of the event the past three years, NPH took the award for his portrayal of a character routinely classified as "an East German transsexual." His award was introduced by no other than gay drag queen (out of uniform) RuPaul, who mischaracterized Hedwig as "transgendered" and used the phrase "sex change operation." Hollywood Life wrote, "Fittingly, RuPaul introduced the Hedwig performance of "Sugar Daddy," for which Neil wore a long blonde wig and even bigger gold platform gold boots! Neil was totally unrecognizable, and totally incredible as he danced around the stage in a denim mini dress, black tights, and makeup that would put Mimi Bobeck from The Drew Carey Show to shame."
Hedwig is a gay German "girlyboy" who undergoes genital reconstruction to escape from East Germany as a married woman. The surgery is botched, but that's not the point. Here you have a man willing to undergo genital reconstruction to escape a dictatorial state. Rational? Maybe, but extremely unlikely. Back in the '70s in which the play is set the surgery was called "sex reassignment surgery," yet Hedwig never really identifies as a woman, and did not undergo reassignment for the purposes of aligning her body to her gender identity. To the contrary, Hedwig remains a man with a damaged pelvic region who lives as a woman, making the most of his situation after moving to the United States.
The completely unique, exceptional nature of this gender change would be even more evident with the use of today's language, with the surgery now called "gender affirming" or gender confirming" surgery. For Hedwig the surgery is neither gender affirming nor confirming; it is only a painful passport out of totalitarian hell for a gay man with tendencies to live more like a woman. Not everyone who has genital reconstruction is transgender, though the vast majority is. Efforts are made to ensure that non-trans persons are not subjected to surgery, and Hedwig falls into that class of "non-traditional" reasons for gender transition.
So we have one more example of gay men performing drag for major audiences and misconstruing for the masses what it means to be transgender. NPH was caught using the slur, tranny, three years ago, an act for which he apologized. Recently he commented, when asked about a gay man portraying a trans woman, "Thankfully, there's lots of drag examples right now -- with RuPaul's drag show, Jared [Leto] in Dallas Buyers Club. I'm able to see a lot of interesting examples of guys donning a femininity." Aside from missing the point that Hedwig is not a trans woman, he consciously places himself in a growing line of offensive portrayals of trans women by straight and gay cisgender men.
Now, I have a tendency to cut NPH a lot of slack. He's a great comic actor, and a fabulous entertainer. I wish him well -- I just wish he took a little time to understand the consequences of his actions. We are living through an explosion of "prime time" drag -- The Dallas Buyer's Club, RuPaul's Drag Race, Alaska Thunderfuck, Hedwig, Conchita Wurst, Kinky Boots, Casa Valentina, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert -- that rushes like a tidal wave over the sensibilities of trans women trying to live their lives without being viewed fetishistically.
One can certainly view Hedwig as a work of art, or decadent punk rock glam, in the mode of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. One can even dig out an old dog-eared copy of Plato's Symposium for a philosophical discourse about Eros and Hedwig. But one can do that for The Silence of the Lambs (starring a gay woman) as well. The one thing all of the above have in common is the extremity of the life in question, being seen from outside the space of normal human endeavor. For folks outside the queer continuum the artistic voyeurism may very well be an education which will help develop tolerance and ultimately acceptance. Having been at Stonewall and lived to see so many remarkable changes, I tend towards optimism. But I also see tragedy on a regular basis, the most recent being the murder this past week of Kandy Hall, a trans woman in Baltimore. And with economic inequality worsening, the lives of actual trans women are not being improved by the public's exposure to cisgender gay men playing glam women.
This is not about slurs or insults, which I've written about before. It's about the misperceptions people will draw when they see a slew of performances by gay and straight men who all are, in one form or another, just putting on a dress and performing as women. For trans women, the dress is just another day's outfit, and the gender performance, if any, is the same as any cisgender woman. The core of our lives is simply being ourselves, not challenging gender normativity or the patriarchy. We may choose to do that as well, but that is a cultural choice that transcends our essence, which is, simply, that we are female. All we ask is that others respect that, and when men perform as women they understand the difference, and make it very clear to their audiences that they are not playing trans women.