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Audrey Kupferberg: Transgender In The Arts

Seeing Caitlyn Jenner’s fabulous form and face on the cover of Vanity Fair this month, one almost disregards the pain and suffering of transgendered people who journey from one identity to another to find solace in their lives. Not everyone knows a transgender person, so many look toward film and theater to gain an understanding of what that journey consists of, and how difficult it can be for some people in our society to attain their rightful identities.

For most of the 20th century, mainstream film and theater avoided the subject.  People avoided the subject!  When in 1951, an American male who would become known as Christine Jorgensen traveled to Copenhagen for a series of sex reassignment surgeries, heavy publicity accompanied the events, and the topic of transgender became popular.

As for movies, there were very few.  In 1970, a fictionalized film bio called THE CHRISTINE JORGENSEN STORY was released.  Offering more camp than insight, this film fell into a series of legal hassles and did not make much of a dent into explaining the serious side of transgender. 

The 1953 Ed Wood exploitation feature, GLEN OR GLENDA, is about a heterosexual crossdresser, but it’s advertising campaign mirrors the Christine Jorgensen story.  The poster declares “I changed my sex.”  “What am I – male or female?”  Among younger audiences in my film classes, the reaction to GLEN OR GLENDA for years was one of comical delight.  But in the last five years or so, younger people have taken the subject matter of GLEN OR GLENDA more seriously.  They recognize that people with gender identity problems—whether in crossdressing or in sex reassignment—are hurting and need understanding.

TRANSAMERICA, which was released in 2005 and was screened on June 10 at the Palace Theater in Albany, is a serious tale of a man, waiting for sex reassignment surgery to womanhood, who learns he has a son.  Felicity Huffman plays the lead, and the film is a milestone in that the subject of transgender is shown with candor and sensitivity.

This month, I saw an outstanding work of theater called TUESDAYS AT TESCO’S at an off-Broadway venue in Manhattan.  The great British actor Simon Callow starred in what is virtually a one-man-show, speaking about the inner pain of being a transgender soul who is not accepted by his father and is stared at like a freak by some of society.  This play is a step forward in the earnest attempts to communicate the complexities of transgender lifestyle.  Simon Callow’s character of Pauline (NOT Paul) repeats a significant refrain about becoming “me” and becoming “myself.” TUESDAYS AT TESCO’S should be filmed and widely distributed as an educational tool – a means of utilizing the theater to help to explain a part of our world that has been misinterpreted.

As transgender becomes more and more topical, the theater and film arts will do their share to interpret the course of lives which have been wrongly viewed by many for a long time.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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