Tears, Tiaras and Transsexuals

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With its focus on the first transsexual beauty contest in Las Vegas, the documentary Tears, Tiaras and Transsexuals aired on Channel 4 last week (17th June) and it weighed in somewhere between a serious exploration of gender realignment and car crash docu-soap television. Though the musical soundtrack was nothing particularly special, I’m doing a post for it here because it had a lot to say about what Judith Butler might have termed the performativity of gender. It also made an interesting comparison to a documentary that the famous Turner prize-winning artist Grayson Perry (pictured below) made on transvestitism.

In Perry’s documentary, a focus group of British transvestites sat round explaining how they felt so straight-jacketed by masculinity that they could only express their feminine side by dressing like women. Surprizingly, this positioned the British transvestites as hyper-masculine men short-changed by the limitations that came with the traditional polarity of their gender. They were, ironically, more manly than most.

In contrast, the documentary on the unconventional beauty queens made clear that some transsexuals, at least, are actually effeminate gay men (and post-ops). One of the touching aspects of the documentary was seeing their early family photos as boys and more hearing commentaries from their more conventional – and wonderfully understanding – relatives about their transformations. There was an interesting kind of ambiguity around the nature or nurture issue and whether their identities emerged on the genetic middle ground between genders, or was a kind of learned behavior.

While the transsexual contestants’ biographies and family backgrounds were examined in some detail, relatively little was said about their relationships, boyfriends or working lives. What clearly came across, however, were the dimensions of class and sexual orientation. Although one contestant worked at a make-up counter, it seemed that most were from working class backgrounds. Since there are transvestites and transsexuals from all classes, I wondered whether the Las Vegas show – with the lure of its prize money, career potential, and the particular way in which it bolstered their self-esteem – only selected working class contestants.

It was also clear that the contestants were part of a supportive homosexual culture. Not only was the glitzy Las Vegas competition organized and run by gay men, but the documentary showed that the contestants had grown up and met their partners in gay communities. This is significant, because the divas had adopted gender ideals that marked out them out in very narrow terms. Their idea of feminity wasn’t about, say, having period pains or becoming mothers, but was instead structured entirely upon looking glamorous and voluntarily objectifying themselves. One was then left wondering which male gaze they were so enthusiastically courting. There were times when they created a riot of gender confusion, freaking out macho homeboys down on the Las Vegas strip. Yet when the various divas did their thing for the camera, they had a tendency to to throw voguing poses that caricatured femininity in a very stylized sense. The poses performatively marked the contestants out as part of gay culture. A final point here was that the contestants sometimes referred to their female names as created identities, saying things like, “When I created Dana, she was a wild and adventurous person.”

I was left considering how this set of transsexuals, at least, were fundamentally gay men who wanted to participate in a masquerade of feminity in order – ironically – to find their place in the gay community. Their backgrounds showed that many had tough times growing up: stealing their sister’s clothes or mother’s make-up, hiding their emerging identities, being taunted when they came out. Their acceptance in the gay community propelled them on their journeys to emulate and perform womanhood of a sort – a sort that was really a kind of gay perspective on the place of womanhood in the (dominant) world of heterosexual desire.