Transgendered/Transsexuals: An Exploration of Gender Bending
A Peer Day Evaluation by John Perkins

1998 John Perkins

Location: Seattle's Gay District evening of 10/1 and morning of 10/2, 1994.
Convener: Paula Wolfe
In Paula's rationale, she noted that a "recent survey showed that 20% of all men and 17% of all women admitted to homosexual feelings, almost 10 percentiles higher than previous estimates. Along with the burgeoning homosexual population, there has also bee an increasing number of people who identify themselves as transgendered or transsexual...Their very presence creates not only controversy, but provide an opportunity to examine cultural 'norms,' biases and behaviors."

Paula had arranged this peer day as an substitute for the canceled peer day on the Internet. Though she stresses that each participant should read any text on participant observer research methods, in actuality with just an evening and morning for this peer day we would be more observers than anything else.

After viewing the Australian movie "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" we discussed its themes and implications over dinner at a gay-friendly restaurant on Broadway in Seattle. In Seattle, Broadway is the center of the social scene for sexual minorities. Indeed, as we discussed this theme four male cross-dressers joined a small group of their fiends eating at a table near us.

This movies features three performing drag queens on a road tour through the outback. Two characters are transvestites, or enjoy dressing in women's clothes, and one is transsexual, someone who has had her gender surgically altered. What does it mean to be transsexual? Kim Elizabeth Stuart provides this definition:

Transsexuals have gender conditions quite different from sexual conditions, or sexual preferences. Transsexuals may, in addition to being transsexuals, have sexual conditions and sexual preferences considered abnormal by society as a whole. But that has nothing to do with their conditions of transsexualism. Unlike men and women who only have sexual conditions, or sexual preferences, transsexuals usually need help, because they are very unhappy about the roles the have been forced to play in society due to their sexual characteristics.1

Stuart defines a transvestite as someone who "enjoys or becomes sexually aroused by wearing clothing of the opposite gender." Though the vast majority of transvestites are heterosexual, Stuart notes that its the homosexual transvestites who attract the most public notice.

They usually cross-dress to attract homosexual males who prefer effeminate males, and it is often their style of dress based on personal preferences. I use the word effeminate with deliberation, because most of these transvestites represent caricatures of women rather than trying to emulate women. They are frequently called drag queens, and some are professional female impersonators.2
The three men in the movie had many encounters on their trip, and the film successfully showed the range of responses people have to "deviant outsiders." We posed many questions for ourselves, questions we each grappled with personally given the various ways we feel "different" or "deviant" and how others respond to that.

Helen Livingston pointed out that in Portland a group of women felt that gay cross-dressers disrespected women by caricaturing how women dress and act. Helen asked me directly, as an African American, if could I see any parallels between women's issues about transvestites and white actors performing in black face as minstrels? This opened a whole conversation of deep concern to me.

As I understand the history of minstrels, Negro (the term used then) performers "created the role" which white actors imitated in black face. Ironically, after the white imitators, Negro minstrels had to use black face to perform as minstrels.

As a black person, a Negro, an African American, I may not like how anyone portrays black people. I feel uncomfortable as a member of a group being made fun of. I can ask that the person stop, I can picket and boycott performances, write letters to editors and inform my friends. But, someone asked, should we try to get a law passed to stop it. I said, "No."

I view dress as an extension of our human and First Amendment rights to freedom of expression. Tom Broxtermann noted that in California a man in drag could be arrested on prostitution charges. And others cited similar laws from other states (including Washington and Oregon) making it illegal for men to wear women's clothes, but not for women to wear men's clothes.

The issue for me comes down to: who decides? As a member of a sometimes despised and abused ethnic minority, as someone who believes in a lot of unpopular causes, as a citizen alert to injustices and incompetence, I want political and legal protection for my rights to speak and act. When we accept that any group can set limits on the dress or speech of another we have accepted that others can set limits on us. Higgins and Butler in a sociology textbook concluded that "those who are hostile and intolerant toward deviants also tend to be hostile and intolerant toward racial and ethnic minorities and toward the disabled."3 I feel I must be vigilant not to accept a precedent which might be used against myself.

What if the behavior in question helps the person achieve self-definition? This struggle to discover a path to an acceptable subjective self-identity comes at great risks: police raids, un-investigated assaults, even death. Venus Xtravaganza, featured in the documentary movie about transsexuals in New York, "Paris is Burning," was murdered before the film was finished.4

Sadly, as some in society hope to shove sexual minorities back into the closet the social relevance of this topic will increase. Because of this peer day I have gained more insight and compassion for a group which may again soon need my voice and vote. I am grateful to Paula for organizing it.


1 The Uninvited Dilemma: A Question of Gender (Portland, OR: Metamorphous Press, 1983), p. 16.
2 Ibid., p. 12.
3 Paul C. Higgins and Richard R. Butler, Understanding Deviance (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982). p. 81.
4 Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose time has Come (New York: World View Forum, 1992), p. 22.