On January 17 of this year, Dr. Stanley Biber died at the age of 82. Biber had the distinction of having performed more sex-change surgeries than anyone in history, effectively turning the small mining town of Trinidad, Colorado, where he practiced, into the sex-change capital of the world. The length of one's New York Times obituary is usually a good indication of the their importance in the United States; Biber's ran over 1100 words.
It was an odd coincidence that the next day Transamerica, the best and most subversive movie about transexuality ever made, opened in wide release across the United States. Only four days earlier, its star, Felicity Huffman, won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her role in the film. Huffman's sympathetic portrayal of her character is the most acclaimed representation of a transsexual in film history and Biber's obituaries were roundly positive and appeared in newspapers all over the world-we are perhaps witnessing the biggest and most positive transsexual moment since George Jorgenson returned from Denmark as Christine in 1952.
You may wonder, "What about the early nineties, when RuPaul was huge and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was all the rage?" RuPaul is a drag queen-a flamboyant gay transvestite-which means he dresses in women's clothes and does it only for dramatic effect. Similarly, Priscilla was the story of two drag queens-one gay, one straight-and a transsexual who worked as a drag queen. (A transsexual is a person who thinks his or her body as not being of the same sex as his or her mind-thus the "I am a man trapped in the body of a woman" thing). While many transsexuals have sex-reassignment surgery, most others cannot afford it or can only afford minor operations like breast implants or reductions; or hormonal treatments that change their voices, body hair growth and so on. Very few transvestites are transsexuals and very few are gay. None of them like to be confused with each other (although they don't usually balk at the all-inclusive term "transgender").
I was pretty confused about all of this until I was assigned to report on the transgender movement for Newsweek in 1997. That spring, I spent nearly a week at a transgender convention held-I'm not kidding-on the Queen Mary which by then had become a hotel and a convention centre (of sorts) and was permanently anchored in Long Beach. That same week the Queen Mary hosted the conventions for the International Foundation for Gender Education and the Titanic Historical Society, as well as a local high school prom-in fact, all three had their dances at the same time. At one point I shared an elevator with two pimply couples in rented evening wear, two extravagantly dressed and made-up transgendered ladies, and the oldest living survivor of the Titanic (who, though in a wheelchair, was wearing a sequined gown not unlike that of one of my subjects). The Titanic survivor did not seem to be aware of the wonderful postmodern moment we were all experiencing.
I interviewed a number of people that week. The transsexuals I had seen in the movies didn't remotely resemble any of those I interviewed: John Lithgow had been too blasé and masculine in The World According to Garp, Terence Stamp came off too bitter and snide in Pricilla, and Ted Levine was just too insane, too hideous, in The Silence of the Lambs (I met one or two odd ladies, but no one asked me to put the lotion in their baskets). What struck me about the women I spoke to was not their appearance but their vulnerability. Many of the women were strong and confident-you'd have to be in order to live as the opposite sex and talk about it with a Newsweek reporter-but at the same time, fear and sorrow were lurking beneath the makeup of even the most politically active and proud. There are few walks of life more difficult than being a transsexual. Homophobia is not fear of gay people-rather it is fear of abnormal gender expression, and the transgendered are the ones who bear the brunt of violence and rejection.
Felicity Huffman's "Bree" could have been one of the women I met on the Queen Mary. Her body language has a studied, unnatural femininity; an exaggerated daintiness. Her speech has traces of sublimated masculine tones and her clothing and make-up are overdone in pink, as if part of a daily costume. The character had not been living as a woman all that long and it did not come second-nature to her yet. As an imitation of a transsexual, Huffman was subtle and brilliant-like Jamie Foxx in Ray, Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, or Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously-but Huffman goes beyond strict imitation. She emotes, turning Bree into something more than the subject of a malady-of-the-month movie. Bree is an anti-heroine-proud, angry, funny and dishonest. She is deeply flawed and secretly fragile, moving in the film from forgiving to sorrowful. Few actresses can be all of that at the same time and seemingly without effort, but Bree has Huffman behind her and inside of her. Huffman's naturalism in Desperate Housewives has been rightly rewarded, even if it contrasts a little too much with the rest of the cast's camp exaggeration. It was on Sports Night, Aaron Sorkin's first (and best) TV show that Huffman was able to use all of her skills most effectively-that is, until TransAmerica.
Without Huffman's performance, Transamericawould just be a pretty good road movie. Bree is a week away from her sex-reassignment surgery when she gets a call from a kid in jail in New York who claims to be her son. Unaware that she even had a son-she hadn't considered the sex act that produced him because "it seemed so lesbianish"-she becomes disconcerted, which leads her psychologist to refuse Bree her surgery until she is "whole." So Bree flies from LA to New York, picks up her son, tells him she's a church-worker and drives him across the country. Her son Toby (Kevin Zegers) is screwed up-a hustler, a thief and a drug-user-and Bree does her best to help him fly straight, often ineffectively (to say the least). Eventually, Toby discovers that Bree is both a transsexual and his father, but not before Bree is forced to deal with her own dysfunctional parents (an insane Fionnula Flanagan and an endearing Burt Young). Bree and Toby achieve their goals, but what they want is not what society wants of them-rather, it is what will lead them to be happy (if only for a while). Bree's parents never fully accept her and Toby doesn't quit the life he had led before meeting Bree. But they find each other and that solidarity is the film's happy ending.
The fact that Huffman-a star in one of the most popular shows on TV-is in Transamerica will undoubtedly bring it a larger audience than it would have if it had starred, say, Tilda Swinton (of the gender-bending Orlando). Yes, it may lead more people to sympathize and accept transsexuals, but it may also lead more people to question the expression of gender and sexuality, what is right and wrong, and whether sex is any more biologically hard-wired than love.
Ted Gideonse lives in San Diego and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Read more columns by Ted Gideonse.