Since 1998, Nov. 20 has been set aside as the Transgender Day of Remembrance. It's primary purpose is to remember and honor the many transgender people who died as a result of anti-trans violence. Although Nov. 20 is the official date, transgender people and their allies have events scheduled throughout the month.
For decades, trans people largely invisible in popular culture. As with gay men before them, on the rare occasions when they were seen, it was usually in a negative light. Though transgender characters are slowly moving into the light, it's still an uphill battle.
This column will examine three examples of trans people on the big screen. All three films are available on DVD.
When Dolly Parton received an Oscar nomination for writing Travellin' Thru, Transamerica's theme song, she appeared on CNN's Larry King Live. It was revealed during the interview that she lent her name to the low budget, independent film in order to help get it made and released.
"You seem to have an affinity with the gay community," observed King.
Replied Parton, "Why Larry, I don't have an affinity for anyone in particular. I just believe in the Lord and love everyone. And I particularly love people with the courage to be who they really are."
Parton's off-the-cuff reply is the overlying theme of Tucker's film. About to have her gender-reassignment surgery, Bree (Desperate Housewives' Felicity Huffman) finds out that she has a son, the product of a long forgotten brief fling. Young Toby (Kevin Zegers) is a hustler with dreams of becoming a gay porn star. A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, he's in desperate need of guidance. Bree's therapist (Elizabeth Pena) tells Bree that her surgery will be approved after she meets and deals with her son. It's important, Bree is told, that she finalize her transition with all loose ends from her previous life tied up.
Bree travels to New York City to bail Toby out of jail. The two then embark on a road trip back to Los Angeles. At first Toby has no idea who Bree isshe pretends to be a missionary from a church. The film follows their journey as they bond, and as Toby gradually discovers Bree's true identity. In the film's most moving segment, they stop over in Phoenix and spend the night in Bree's childhood home.
Bree's parents are transphobic, yet they still love her dearly. Bree and Toby are robbed on the road. Bree needs to get back to Los Angeles in time for her surgery. Her parents buy her a plane ticket.
Shot on a shoestring, Transamerica is an unlikely love story between a woman who finds her true self and a lonely, unhappy young man who finds the parental love he yearns for. Through Bree's dialogue, viewers hear the simple message of the Transgender movement: that transitioning isn't a choice.
"I miss my son," says Mom.
"You never had a son," replies Bree.
It's an unforgettable journey that will do doubt open the eyes and hearts of many.
Boys Don't Cry (1999)
For her bold, brave performance as real life female-to-male individual Brandon Teena, Hilary Swank won the coveted Best Actress Oscar. Co-star Chloe Sevigny was nominated in the supporting character for her equally frank portrayal of Teena's girlfriend, Lana Tisdale. Released shortly after the murder of Matthew Shepard, the film helped fuel the discussion regarding the need for hate crime legislation in the USA.
Teena was no saint. The product of a broken, lower-middle-class home in Lincoln, Neb., Teena Renae Brandon (his birth name) was molested by his uncle. As a teen he began to identify as male, which was not accepted by his mom. Brandon fell in with a rough crowd, and got into trouble often. When his friends found out that he was biologically female, they killed him. Teena's violent end, so close to Shepard's death, shook many people. These two youngsters, both barely in their twenties, unknowingly but literally sacrificed their lives so that hate-crimes legislation could be passed. Amazingly, it wasn't until President Barack Obama signed on the dotted line Oct. 28, 2009, that this happened.
Swank offers a jaw-dropping performance. As Teena, she doesn't look female, yet viewers remain acutely aware throughout the film that they're watching a woman play a man. A scene in which Brandon and Lana make outcomplete with what can politely be referred to as "tongue action," startled many. Both women, Swank and Sevigny, were unafraid to dive wholeheartedly into these controversial roles. Reportedly the real life Tisdale sued the film's producers, taking issue with the portrayal of herself as "white trash."
Boys Don't Cry is a dark, intense and relentless grim film. It's a sad look back upon the wasted life of a young man who's only right choice was to embrace his male identity. Were it not for the hate of others, he might be with us still.
Myra Breckenridge (1970)
Based on openly gay author Gore Vidal's best-selling gender-bending novel from 1968, Myra Breckenridge is one of Hollywood's most notorious bombs. Vidal reportedly wept when he saw the finished film, which was filled with a raunchy salaciousness that his satirical novel reportedly never intended to be part of the story. Many viewers were confounded by the clips from 1930s Hollywood films that were randomly inserted into various scenes of Myra Breckenridge, often seemingly for no reason.
In retrospect, Myra Breckenridge is much betterand funnierthan it's reputation would suggest. It has, in fact, developed quite a cult following. Stunning beauty Raquel Welch, then 28, was desperate to break out of her bikini clad sex symbol persona and be taken seriously as an actress. She saw the "transsexual" (the word used at that time) Myra as her ticket to critical acclaim. This was a very courageous thing to do in 1970, and Welch attacks the role with gusto. She's hilariously spot-on as Myra, the recently transitioned bombshell who comes to Hollywood in order to seek "revenge" on the male species.
The then-X-rated film (it's since been reclassified with an R) no doubt shocked many. Myra sets her sights on a young couple she meets at the Hollywood acting academy where she teaches "elocution," and seduces them both. In the one scene that remains shocking today, Myra straps on a dildo and rapes the young man, who thanks him.
Iconic sex symbol West, then 77, came out of retirement to play Hollywood superagent Leticia Van Allen. But West isn't playing Van Allen; she's playing, well, Mae West!
"How tall are you?" she asks a young acting hopeful.
"Why, ma'am, I'm six foot, seven inches," replies a very young Tom Selleck.
"Never mind the six feet. Let's talk about the seven inches." You have to hand it to a 77-year-old who's unafraid to flaunt her sexuality.
Four decades after the film nearly sent 20th Century Fox spiraling into bankruptcy, Myra Breckenridge can be looked back upon as an ahead of it's time film that dared to questionand poke fun ofsociety's rigid rules for gender roles. Alas, Welch didn't get the acclaim she yearned for and deserved for playing a character that every other name actress in Hollywood feared. But Welch had her happy ending in the 1980s, when she finally won a grudging respect from critics for roles she played on television.