As I noted in the recent blog here, I learned to appreciate the art of impersonating femininity at a very young age.
My theatre company, Gilda Shedstecker Presents! is getting ready to launch a new production of a parody of The Golden Girls, and as a matter of course for us, the leads of the show – Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia – will be cast as men in drag. We do drag. Not always, but enough that it’s part of our comedy repertoire. And while working on the prep for the show, researching, several thoughts have occurred to me to share.
First of all, to quote the fabulous To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, a few definitions: “When a straight man puts on a dress and gets his sexual kicks, he is a transvestite. When a man is a woman trapped in a man’s body and has a little operation he is Transsexual [or Transgender]. When a gay man has way too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen.”
In addition, for the sake of our topic, “a male performer who dresses as and impersonates women is a female impersonator.” There are some performers who exclusively portray females; there are some actors who include female impersonation amongst their skills.
I was a professional stylist and makeup artist for plenty of years, I used those abilities on countless actresses and a number of actors as well. And yes, I can transform myself into a fairly attractive female. And although I’ve never been a sports enthusiast, I have been athletic enough to dance and move through intricate choreography, and can claim running in heels among my skills, too. It’s all in fun, the illusion of creating a character and portraying her on stage or at a party.
Personally, I’m not inclined to live in drag, and I definitely don’t get any thrill from it. I don’t function off stage as a meticulously crafted female persona. There are men who do. I like jeans and flannel shirts, I like getting dirty, I like using a chainsaw. But one thing I have in common with these men, these drag queens and transvestites: I don’t want to BE a woman.
Which brings me to this point: Transgender women are. They don’t want to BE women, they ARE women. Because for trans individuals it’s not a case of gradually deciding that yeah, it would be way better to be a member of the opposite sex. They feel that difference, that wrongness between their physicality and their identity from the time they’re old enough to realize there is a difference between boys and girls. For me and most people who are cisgender (cis- indicating that the sex of the body is congruent with their gender identity), it’s easier to imagine my psyche thrust into the body of a cat: walking on all fours and no opposable thumbs seems awkward, and I can’t connect with the functions of my whiskers and tail. How much more difficult for those who have a life-long conflict between their sex and gender to live in a world that demands one or the other, and the command center better match the plumbing!
Now for those screaming, “God doesn’t make mistakes!” here’s a news flash. Babies are sadly born with defects all the time. Studies show chemicals (chemicals? there are chemicals in the environment?) can cause endocrine disruption in the fetus which can produce numerous developmental anomalies, including varying degrees of gender dysphoria. Such chemicals can be found everywhere from DDT and PVCs to soy products and pet food. There are documented cases of girl rats that act like boy rats, boy salmon that act like girl salmon, none of which God may have intended but happened due to the miracles of modern chemistry. God made the baby, Dow, Dupont and Monsanto added the secret ingredients. There is evidence to support that gender dysphoria, whatever its cause, which becomes apparent when a child first realizes gender at 2 or 3, is a birth defect, not a mental illness.
So Caitlyn didn’t just spend all that time with the Kardashians and decide,”Woo hoo! Makeup is glam and those clothes are fun! I’m gonna be a girl!” If that was the case she would have stayed Bruce and become a drag queen because drag queens and transvestites, like this occasional female impersonator, really like having their own penis. But Caitlyn made the decision because no matter how she exhibited maleness, even as an Olympic athlete, that maleness felt wrong, uncomfortable, alien to her throughout her entire life. Caitlyn isn’t trying to emulate a woman and pretend to have gained everything she’s missed for sixty years. She has realigned her body so that it finally feels like home and is dressing it appropriately – expressing a lifetime of suppressed femininity. She has been a woman all along.
Caitlyn is part of the entertainment industry, how should she look besides glamorous? But there are transwomen who are earthy, who are plain, who come in as many varieties as cisgendered women. Likewise, transmen don’t all strive to be Vin Diesel. They didn’t transition in order to look like a stereotype or an icon, they did it to become whole, to medically correct a dissonance. Which is way different than dressing a certain way because the clothes are appealing to you, or putting on a frock for the footlights. One is about style and projecting an image, the other is about living an honest life. As the bard said, “This above all, to thine own self be true…”
I really didn’t want to jump on the Jenner bandwagon, but last night I was helping backstage with a divine drag show benefit, and like I said, we are gearing up for our Golden Girls. A few comments I’ve heard over the past weeks have gestated and here’s the spawn. Thanks for reading.
~ Many thanks to Paula Sofia Schonauer and Nick Heap for their expert editorial recommendations.