Men in Gowns

Two recent viewings are sticking in the old noodle: TransAmerica, where Felicity Huffman plays a transsexual not long before her final operation, and the third season of Prime Suspect, in which drag queens figure heavily. I also have the Charles Busch movie, Die, Mommy, Die!, which looks to be a kitschfest and good fun; I’ll probably watch it with Eldest this weekend.

The good fun will be welcome, as both of the first two movies made me sad. The ridiculing and undisguised contempt that transsexuals and drag queens have to deal with, in which their entire lives are treated as jokes at best but more often as perversions, upsets me. Huffman’s portrayal is dignified and subtle, and the rejection by her family is hard to watch, although softened by the caricatured portrayal of the mother in particular. Fionnula Flanagan doesn’t deliver a cartoon performance (I don’t think she could, she’s a great actress), but her role, as the heavily made-up, overbleached, over permed, completely appearance-oriented mother, will always get laughs from this movie’s limited audience.  Anyone who’s ever failed to conform has at some point run into Mr. And Mrs. Middle America, and Huffman’s character is so sympathetic and beautifully played that we naturally sympathize and shake our heads at the classic red-state antics of her histrionic mother.

More heartbreaking is Brit actor Peter Capaldi’s turn as Vera, a drag queen who dreams of having a sex change operation, in Prime Suspect. In one particularly gut-wrenching scene, he whispers about his year in prison when he was raped every night. When an officer brutally refers to him as Vernon rather than his stage name of Vera, he dissolves into hysterical tears.

This world can be so horrible to the sensitive. It’s easier if you’re a girl, or if you’re hetero. To be a young, highly sensitive man who’s the least bit effeminate or different must take incredible courage. And to have to face that constant sneering, let alone the truly ugly abuse of every kind that gets unleashed against males who don’t toe the hetero line – I can’t imagine what that must do to your soul.

I remember years ago mentioning to a friend how much I enjoyed the work of Jan Morris, formerly James, and probably the greatest travel writer of the 20th century. The friend – I haven’t spoken to him in years, partly because of this – said something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah, I saw her – him – it once. Who knows what that is? Why would you read anything by it?”

Well, because it’s no it. Jan Morris is a human who made what must have been an incredibly difficult choice. Why would anyone put themselves through the required and excruciatingly painful process for that particular change if one hadn’t done about a million hours of soul-searching? Whose to say my choices haven’t been viewed as being just as bizarre as hers? But I’m a straight white woman. That makes things so much easier. (Straight white men have it so easy I don’t even want to get started.)

And that leads me to another conversation I remember from a long time ago. An older woman who worked for a gay man said to me, “I’ve never met one who’s happy.” Until you meet every gay man on the planet, that’s one hell of a generalization. But I think what bugs me most of all is this smugness that so many people have, as if heteros somehow made the winning choice when we didn’t choose anything at all, and, even worse, that we get to judge who’s “happy” and even what happiness is. I wish I’d thought to ask, have you ever met a straight man who was happy? Maybe for a few minutes, but anyone who’s happy all the time has had a lobotomy. This world ain’t a happy place, though we are at least blessed with glimpses of it, some of us more than others.

If nothing else, both programs made me realize once again how important it is to be kind to people, to accept them with no strings attached. Now for me, identifying as I do with the outcasts and the weirdos, the ones I have a hard time being kind to are the conformists. But kindness is never wasted. And cruelty is in way too much supply.

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