Thursday, May 27, 2010

PILE ON: Matt Lauer's big transsexual love scandal

Alexis and Matt: sooo many unsubstantiated rumors

There's no scandal like a 'straight, male celeb with a transsexual woman scandal.' There was Teddy Pendergrass getting in a car accident in 1982 (which left him paralyzed) with the passenger being a trans woman, Tenika Watson. Then there was Eddie Murphy in 1997 being stopped by police while Eddie had trans sexworker in his car. Going farther back, Grace Kelly's high society brother Kell (a four-time Olympian and budding politician) left his wife for trans woman Rachel Harlow (and star of the documentary "The Queen") back in the 1970s. And it's not just the US. In 1997, a high profile district attorney in Greece, George Sakelaropoulos left his wife for trans model and celeb Jenny Hiloudaki (supposedly while he was attempting to shut down her bordello). Most recently, one of the best known politicians in Italy, Piero Marrazzo, was involved in an affair with a Brazilian trans woman who was soon after found murdered and her corpse incinerated in an apartment fire.

And now, it seems as if NBC's Today Show host, Matt Lauer, is enmeshed in a possible scandal with a woman who may or may not be trans and may or may not be related to Whitney Houston. She was supposedly either formerly known as Wellington Houston, or Stuart Houston. Show biz media outlets are licking their chops. Whoopee, transsexual PILE ON!

'Unimpeachable' sources
The saga first broke on the New York Post's gossipy page 6. Lauer was alleged to have had an affair with a woman in 2007-9 and he frequently paid to have her flown to various cities where he was involved with producing Today Show pieces (his marriage subsequently broke up in 2010). Last Friday, the woman in question, held a press conference in New York (with superstar celeb attorney Gloria Allred by her side).

impeachable sources
Her name is Alexis Houston. According to CelebTV, she reportedly met Matt Lauer several years ago while she was backstage with Dionne Warwick (who is Whitney Houston's aunt) at one of Warwick's Today Show appearances. Ms. Warwick evidently had some kind of squabble with some of the show's producers, Ms. Houston smoothed it out, Matt Lauer was impressed and it went on from there. They had an ongoing affair which subsequently ended, but Lauer then got back together with her while he was working in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics. Several months later, Lauer's wife demanded Matt leave their home.

Houston, we have a problem
But now, in a further twist, Page Six reported today Ms. Houston is trans, was formerly named Wellington Houston and had SRS in 2007. The Post writes:
“Wellington resurfaced in 2001 with a demo CD titled “All’s Well.” The Daily Record in Glasgow, Scotland, gushed: 'Whitney Houston’s pop crown is under threat — from her own cousin. Wellington Houston, 23, is being hailed as the next big thing in the US. But although Whitney sings on his demo CD, Wellington doesn’t want to cash in on his famous family.”

A performance photo from her website

Ms. Houston, who is also a talented singer, released a CD in 2008, is variously known in media as either Whitney's half-sister, step-sister or cousin. She has also released recordings and performed at the 2010 winter olympics. According to her website, Ms. Houston has also recorded and written numerous commercial jingles and composed for theatre performances like the acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company. Page Six also claimed Whitney sued Wellington for using the supposed family connection to defraud a physician out of $100,000 with credit cards and forged checks. They then continue...
“According to one source who has known the singer for years, Wellington had sex-change surgery three years ago after a man fell in love with the cross-dressing singer and paid for the operation.”

Alexis from a few years ago

The meanest headline wins
Already, dozens of gossip sites have had a field day with the headlines:
"Matt Lauer's alleged lover a transgendered man‎";
"Former Man Gratuitously Denies Having Sex with Matt Lauer‎" (from Vanity;
"Matt Lauer Non-Mistress Also A Former Non-Lady‎";
"Matt Lauer's Non-Mistress, Was A Man Named Wellington"; (Huffington Post)
"Matt Lauer's Supposed Soulfood Side Piece Used To Be A Man ..."
"Matt Lauer might have effed a dude"

The 'ultimate insult'...
The story of the Lauer affair and Ms. Houston's connection to Whitney Houston (much less her possible trans history) is so jumbled it's hard to know what to think about it. There is remarkably little proof about her being trans other than information from "a close family friend." A rumored trans-history is often pasted onto female media personalities (like Lady Gaga—before she was 'accused' of being Intersex) to denigrate their womanhood, make them seem sleazy (because that's what trans women supposedly are), or to add an aura of mystery sexual-aggressiveness to them (because all trans women supposedly have male libidos). The curious aspect to all these stories is that, once they come out, any of the Associated Press guidelines for dealing with trans-related stories get thrown in the mud and the huge pile on begins. I note how not one site which has mentioned the trans story has yet to produce a photo of Wellington/Stuart Houston, which seems highly unlikely in this day and age, but we shall see.

Or the 'ultimate secret'
On the other hand, there have been very high-profile celebs who were 'accused' of being trans and, in fact, they were. Famous French/English disco singer (and longtime tv presenter) Amanda Lear dealt with and denied such rumors for decades even though they've been substantiated by some well-known trans women who worked with her at the famous Carrousel Club in Paris during the late 50s-early 60s. Lear, by the way was, at different times, involved with Rolling Stone Brian Jones, Bryan Ferry and an already married David Bowie.

As to how this sordid news thread will turn out is anyone's guess. The NY Post isn't the most accurate news source in the world of journalism (to which it's barely an honorary member). But it does open up issues of the media's fascination of outing trans people and it's love of throwing "man" around in the headlines of such stories. How the supposed shame of being trans is introduced as the ultimate degradation of someone's identity and that accusing a man of being involved with a trans woman is the nastiest way of ridiculing a man's straight sexual orientation. Whether Ms. Huston does or doesn't have a trans history in her past almost becomes irrelevant. Once the accusation comes out, with Internet linking and the stigma transphobia bestows, her public womanhood is damaged forever. And no matter how repeatedly we hear "lady was a dude," it's the story which always sells.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Central Casting for Shims:
The Foals' Miami Video

One of these is the Foals and one of these is a trans woman
getting pinned in their 'Miami' video.
Guess which is more entertaining?

No one would ever accuse rock music videos of making too much sense. They're an extended commercial of mostly unlinked images which communicate either: the musician/band is supposedly hot; the musician/band is funny; look at the sexy dancers and/or video gurl—don't you wanna have sex with them; or this is weird shit, you're weird, you should buy it. Foals are a 5-piece rock band from Oxford, England who've put out a couple of well-received but not overly successful cds. Their songs are vaguely catchy and consumable, but there's little to distinguish them from hundreds of other bands who appear on mainstream (with mild pretensions to alternative) radio. 5 pasty, white Brit guys who rather sound like The Cure from the early '90s with a new CD Total Life Forever. *Yawn* So how do you break out? In the Foals case, you hire Aussie/Brit music video wiz, Dave Ma, and have him come up with a little somethin'-somethin' which will make you stand out.

(note: if some of the video looks cropped on your browser you can see it uncropped here)

Miami Spice?
The song being sold is called "Miami" (due to be officially released on 7/4/10. What's it about... um, "Would you be there, be there, be there for me?" Maybe it was written in Miami, maybe not. It continues, "Would you betray me, save me, save me from you?" Got it. Milquetoast emo. Let's see, what would market this song? Dave Ma came up with an initial scene of a bunch of uber-tanned (fried really) and oiled body builders with bulging pecs working out in an otherwise empty alley. Most are guys, but 1 or 2 women as well, one being a very buff, older female body builder. Needless to say, none of them look like the Foals who, as Johnny Rotten once snarked of Sid Vicious, "couldn't punch his way out of a bag of crisps."

Shots from the 'Miami' video

Trans central casting
Intercut with scenes of the body-builders are quick shots of several women's legs in high heels and platforms walking... somewhere. Eventually you realize the women's legs are approaching the body builders. The 5 women are dressed like street walkers. There is a slow pan of the (hookers'?) faces lined up in a row. One of them is Calpernia addams sticking a big red candy apple (?) in her mouth like she's tea-bagging a dude. The women are pretty clearly trans-looking (or supposed to be trans-looking). And yes, that is a judgment about what trans women look like but I think it's safe to say that's what the director is going for. The women start to charge the body builders and one of the body builders, a big black guy, screams back at them.

A trans woman getting empowered

Faster Pussycat Kill Kill
The body builders and the trans-hookers are now in a rumble and fighting one another for their lives. Some of the images of the trans hookers getting choked and beaten are pretty graphic (especially in light of transphobic violence which, unless I'm mistaken, doesn't have an equivalent epidemic in the body building community). The trans hookers seem to be losing.

One of our community's leaders *gulp-gulp*

Bouncy, bouncy
Suddenly, a big, electric blue, circa 1960s Chevy Impala convertible pulls up with a carload of what is (supposed to represent) an LA-style street gang with wife-beater Ts, do-rags and caps. One is brandishing a baseball bat. The head gang-banger blows some kind of magic blue powder (fairy dust?) at the combatants and the front end of the Chevy starts to bounce up and down (the way low riders used their souped-up hydraulic suspensions to bounce the car when they see a hot mama). Suddenly, all the brawlers start jumping up and down with an ecstatic look on their face as though they've just had a vision of the blessed virgin (although Calpernia, while jumping, is deep throating her candy apple). The last shot is the car slowly driving off. Clearly, some of the trans women are either riding in the car or they've taken over the car and are slowly driving away (it's hard to tell). So, that's Miami. Tranny hookers, sunburned muscle-heads, violence, black people, gangs, classic cars. 5 guys from Oxfordshire and their Aussie director sure know the United States.

Some of the ladies driving off.
What happened to the rest?

What's the going rate for trans-hookers?
So what do trans women dressed like hookers have to do with the song or the nerdy band which performed it? Basically they're hired to supply the instant hip cred and transgressiveness. Like the muscleheads with their extreme body image and popping pecs, they're freaky. And, of course, they're a very sexualized, trashy kind of freaky. Out trans women in music videos go back to 1985, with supergroup Power Station's bit hit, "Some Like It Hot." In it, famous glamor model, Caroline Cossey (AKA Tula... who had already been 'outed' as trans 4 years before) was looking gorgeous in a skin tight bustier and micro mini. She's there as the typical hawt video babe with a few exceptions. At one point she's sitting back with shaving cream all over her face (as in, I still have a beard) and, yes, one realizes "Some Like It Hot" is a reference to the 1950s Billy Wilder film where the two main male characters dressed in drag. Sorry Tula—a trans beauty is exploited again.

Another of our community's representatives

The trans women in the Miami video include LA's own big-boobed Amanda Lepore wannabe, Glamourous Monique with her often advertised "38 FFFs." Monique has a video of her dancing to her own disco song where the chorus is "my titties" sung over and over again! Lepore herself has appeared in many high profile music videos, including those by Elton John and the Dandy Warhols.

Community empowerment and a jobs program
Yes, no doubt it will be pointed out there are lots of trans-women hookers who dress in tight, trashy outfits and enjoy tea bagging. Undoubtedly there will be people who watch the video and say (as they did with the film, Ticked Off Trannies With Knives) here's a positive sisterhood of trans women who are empowering themselves by fighting back (or, at least, attacking first), VIVA solidarity with sexworkers. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yadda, yadda, yadda. "And Calpernia is such a wonderful role model in the transgender community, surely she would never do a video which would exploit trans women or reduce them down to being portrayed as tramps obsessed with extreme plastic surgery and sex." Nope, couldn't happen, no how, no way. And this project IS providing valuable jobs for trans women because, basically, our community is a big casting agency for society's freaks. Want a man in a dress? We got it. Want a ho' with something mo' between her legs? We got it.

So fundamentally, the Foals put out this as their Miami video because they know their song is derivative, their own image isn't that interesting and they aren't exactly heart-throbs (well, maybe if you're into the emo-nerd aesthetic). In other words, trans women = rent-a-freak for the win. The New Music Express music paper called it, "The most bizarre & brilliant video we've seen in a while."

Woo-hoo, our band made a video and sold more units!
Thumbs up. We want to thank our director and all
the tranny-freaks™ who made our video worth watching.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Marriage in Malawi a Gay Issue?

Tiwonge (l) wears a traditional female skirt and top.

Dominating much of the world's human rights blogs in the past few days is the horrific story out of Malawi involving two [men], Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, who were engaged to be married but were summarily imprisoned and sentenced to 14-years hard labor. It's been repeatedly mentioned as the newest proof of a virulent wave of homophobia which is sweeping much of sub-Saharan Africa. Celebrities such as Madonna (who, in a much publicized story, adopted a child from that country) have weighed in on the case. She stated on her web site, "I am shocked and saddened by the decision made by the Malawian court, which sent two innocent men to prison." In sources from the New York Times to Ms. Magazine, this case has been presented as gay rights issue and how the rights of same-sex couples have been attacked.

The story which initially appeared in the
Blantyre newspaper, The Nation

What few of the articles have brought up (at least seriously) is that Tiwonge Chimbalanga (which is a female name) identifies and worked as a domestic, as a woman in the capital city of Blantyre. In the Times of London Ms. Chimbalanga is described as, "defiant, dressed in a blouse and describing himself as a woman." In the New York Times article, Ms. Chimbalanga's employer, Jean Kamphale, [Mr.] Chimbalanga’s boss at a Blantyre lodge, testified, "she accepted 'Auntie Tiwo' as a woman and assigned her cooking and cleaning chores. But after the article in The Nation (the top Malawian newspaper) appeared, she made her employee disrobe and refused to let him stop until he was naked from the waist down and 'that’s where the cat was let out of the bag.' " No mention is made in any of the news sources quoting Ms. Kamphale how demeaning such an examination would have been.

What's disturbing is how papers like the NY Times clearly identify Chimbalanga as female-identifying, as in, "Tiwonge Chimbalanga looked like a man but said he was a woman. [He] helped with the cooking and dressed in feminine wraparound skirts" but then continues to use male pronouns throughout the rest of the story. Not only does this degender Ms. Chimbalanga, but continues to throw a standard of degendering on all African women as looking somehow masculine.

The Times does note how she was humiliated in court because of her gender identity. After she contracted malaria while incarcerated, she appeared in court while extremely ill:
As [Mr.] Chimbalanga fell to the floor and began to vomit, spectators mocked [him.]“Auntie Tiwo is pregnant,” some called out.[ Mr.] Chimbalanga was led away, only to return with a mop and pail to clean up the mess.

The couple being taken to court. Ms. Chimbalanga
was not permitted to wear the traditional
female head scarf.

Human Rights doesn't equal accurate gendering
After they were arrested, Human Rights Watch reports that, "[Ms.] Chimbalanga was subjected to a medical examination, without consent, at Queen Elizabeth hospital on January 6, 2010, with the aim of establishing whether Chimbalanga had had sexual relations with males and to establish Chimbalanga's gender." They were ultimately charged under sections 153 ("unnatural offences") and 156 ("indecent practices between males"). Often expressed are concerns about how this conviction will drive men to have same-sex partners on the "down low" thereby encouraging the spread of AIDs in sub-Saharan Africa. Prof. Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund states, “The criminalization of individuals based on their sexual orientation is not just a human rights issue - it also undermines investment in HIV and AIDS as it drives sexual behavior underground and creates an environment where HIV can more easily spread.”

The H word not the T word
It is true a conviction like this will only oppress gay men even more to have sexual relations "on the down low" and that Malawi has one of the highest rates of seropositivity in Southern Africa (and therefore, the world). Yes, they were convicted under statutes which were meant to punish same-sex couples. But for mainstream publications (and many gay blogs) to ignore the gender identity of Ms. Chimbalanga is, in its own way, equally horrific. Nowhere is the term "transphobia" even mentioned. In this misgendering, it greatly resembles the story in the New York Times about the 1999 murder of soldier Barry Winchell, which completely ignored his girlfriend Calpernia Addams' gender identity and presentation as a woman, and characterized it as a case of homophobia because Winchell was in a "same sex relationship." Many high profile gay organization were only too happy to follow suit and identify Winchell and Addams as a gay couple to suit their organizing and fund-raising needs.

At a demonstration against the conviction in
Capetown, gay activists continued to refer
to the couple as 'two men' despite trans
groups' participation in the event.

Um... two 'individuals'
Some sources, like Amnesty International, have 'skirted' around the issue of Ms. Chimbalanga's gender identity by using the phrase "perceived same sex relationship," yet continue to use "men" when talking about the couple:
The couple were beaten while in police custody. Amnesty International considers both men prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for their perceived consensual same sex relationship, and has urged the Malawian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the couple.
This case deals with human rights issues, attacks on people who are perceived as men who have sex with other men and, especially, recognition of gender identity and expression. It's important to note how Ms. Chimbalanga is regularly taunted in the press and on the street in Malawi as "Auntie Tiwo," as though her identity is a joke.

That Ms. Chimbalanga doesn't look female enough for the NY Times' standard is irrelevant. Last time I looked Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, doesn't have health or transition services for trans people. What's happening to this couple is horrific enough without the repeated misgendering and mischaracterization of this case going on in the western media. If we're going to be rightly concerned about homophobia and attacks against same-sex couples in countries like Malawi and Uganda, then why isn't the media bothering to examine the lives of trans people in Africa which the sad story of the injustice against Ms. Chimbalanga and Mr. Monjeza actually concerns.

* This is a link to a video which shows some of the atmosphere around the courthouse and some interviews with Malawi and Brit human rights activists.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Trans Children in the Spotlight:
How Public is Too Public?

The Daily Mail's typical subtlety.

One of the most prominent developments in media portrayals of trans people in the last 5 years has been the increasing visibility of trans children. They have appeared on NPR's This American Life, on a groundbreaking 2004 Oprah Winfrey Show, an ABC 2007 episode of 20/20 with Barbara Walters called "My Secret Self," several episodes of The Tyra Show, a recent episode of The Dr. Oz Show and a number of high profile documentaries which have shown in England but were picked up by news media in the United States. All of these episodes are framed with words like "shocking," "an exclusive expose" and "adult in nature" clearly letting us know we're veering over into the world of 21st Century sideshow. Despite the cheeseball intros, there is little question this exposure has introduced the general public to the often complex issues these children and their families face. Perhaps most importantly, through these shows and stories, families with trans and gender variant kids can find out about invaluable possible resources like Trans Youth Family Allies, and break through some of the isolation and stigma faced by people in this situation.

Cry dammit cry!

Your Dog Died... now cry!
Children's face's sell. Whether it's Macaulay Culkin's once-cute puss or Ryan White's sad but hopeful eyes which had so much to do with publicizing AIDS during the 1980s to JonBenet Ramsey's made up and coiffed glamor shots endlessly on the cover of People Magazine—children and their plight bring a vulnerability and poignancy no adult can. Like clockwork, Jerry Lewis would parade young sufferers of Muscular Dystrophy on his telethons while adult patients with MD complained they weren't presentable or marketable enough for tv consumption.

The scariest moment of your life, kid!

In today's media-driven society, it's virtually impossible to change laws and influence social behaviors without high-visibility exposure and activism which is widely covered on broadcast outlets, in print and, especially, the Internet. Many LGBT organizations have encouraged their members to get vocal about their "community membership" and advocate for the goals of the LGBT coalition. National Coming Out Day (October 11) was created as a way of facilitating dialog around coming out, easing the process for many still "closeted," and increasing mainstream coverage for those who've already come out. Sounds like a win-win.

Yet there are complex ramifications for some people who are out and visible. On May 10, 2010, Bilerico featured a thoughtful and provocative piece by Cassandra Keenan called "The Catch-22 of Trans Activism." In it, she discusses the dilemma faced by trans job seekers or employees who are concerned how high-profile activism will impact their job status. She writes:
I'm guessing that there have been many transgender folks who have struggled with this dilemma at some point: they're mistreated because of who they are, they subsequently want to do something about it, but then they ultimately decide against it because the stakes are too high. …The same applies for trans people who are out of work. How many employers are interested in hiring or retaining an outspoken trans activist?
We have ways of finding out...

Google says you're unacceptable
This poses an important question trans people face in the real world. In a culture where one Google Search can turn up a dossier of personal information about you or your family, someone whose name has been all over trans-related activism is clearly sticking their neck out. The Bilerico thread brought up interesting observations about how many well-known trans activists are either: unemployed, on some form of government assistance/disability, retired or in extremely secure executive or professional job situations. Others may ask, "is it worth risking my employment (especially in a sluggish economy) for a chance to move society forward on issues which impact my life?" How do we, as adult trans people, walk a tightrope between being vocal about our lives and the challenges we face, yet maintaining the same privacy other people cherish both in our professional and private spheres?

I believe the Trans-children are our future
Now imagine how these questions impact the lives of trans youth, both children and teens. While many adult trans people fantasize about what it would have been like to transition when they were really young or perhaps, even experience the puberty they felt they should have had, most tend to have a highly incomplete picture of what living as a child who has started transition might actually be like. We get a partial glimpse of this on the Oprah, Tyra and Dr. Oz shows, or when Barbara Walters hugged a 10-year old trans girl who started crying on her documentary, but we're only seeing the past and the present, not the challenges of these children's futures.

Doctor, it hurts when I do that...

Remember when you were a boy back in 2001?
More than ever, because of Google and the Internet, news stories have become "sticky." It used to be a "human interest" story would appear on the nightly news or one day in the newspaper and largely forgotten the next week. No so with the Internet and Google. Stories from their original sources remain easily searchable and referenced and re-linked many times in blogs and news-linking sites. While only a percentage of stories from the early 90s are on the Internet, it's safe to say virtually all stories from the 2005-on are pretty much available in, at least, digested form. So while a story about a trans person in 1975 pretty much came and went (with a rare few tv shows captured on early videotape or stories on microfiche) a 2008 story about a trans child could be around for decades and is easily searched and obtainable on a computer with Internet access.

Paparazzi eat their young
Which brings us to the story of Josie Romero, a cute 9-year old trans girl who started transition several years ago. Her story first leaked out when her family lived on a military base in Japan, where her father worked as an engineer and where Josie spent most of her early life. After she started transitioning, the story leaked out when some other military families had issues about a child who is trans attending their children's school. In short order, paparazzi attempted to get pictures of the little girl. The family eventually moved back to the US to Vail, Arizona (near Tucson) to escape some of this media exposure and to, hopefully, find a more accepting environment. Shortly after they moved back to the US, limited news stories about Josie appeared in Arizona media. Eventually, they were picked up in the British paper, The Daily Mail, whose stories are typically disseminated worldwide.

Hot properties
From these articles, TV Channel 4 in England featured Josie in a film called "Body Shock: 8-year old wants a sex change." (a somewhat lurid mini-series about people differing from the norm bodies). Within a fairly short period of time, Josie appeared on a Tyra Show about trans children and a lauded Dr. Oz Show program on the same theme. No attempt was made to either conceal Josie's identity (as was done for the "This American Life" episode featuring two trans girls) or to use an assumed name. So Google Josie Romero and you get pages of hits about a transgender child.

While a 9-year old might be excited about being a "star" or having their name come up on the #1 search engine, child development experts tell us that children can react to such information in vastly different ways at different stages of their development. And the reality is, she has no choice about keeping her trans status to herself or being selectively stealth. Barring changing her name in future (Body Shock informs us her name has been legally changed on her ID, passport and birth certificate... which without SRS, would seem unlikely or even illegal) she is stuck with this legacy, like it or not. As long as the information is on the Internet, she is out.

Jerry Springer loves transkids too!
It may be the story was going to come out anyway and her parents are attempted to exert some control over the process rather than being passive subjects. If that is the case, then one wonders how much media exposure is required to calm down the howling wolves? Moreover, some appearances, like the Tyra Show, had some uncomfortably exploitive aspects to them (Tyra asking Josie and other trans kids about their genitals as well as a representative from NARTH in a "debate" with Marci Bowers and TYFA's Kim Pearson). As so often with media appearances, once one contracts to do them, there is no right of approval as to what the final content will be nor how the material will ultimately be presented. Again, this could expose children to more exploitive and sleezy presentations of their lives which will exist into their adulthoods on the Internet.

Trans kids are always trying to sneak
into the wrong bathroom.

Still looking for the rainbow
Now it seems as if Josie is continuing to have issues attending a local elementary school in Vail (she is currently being home-schooled by her mom) and a difference of opinion as to whether the principal of the school she was to attend is actually open to having Josie as a student. Josie's parents are concerned she would have to use a private bathroom and couldn't use the girls room and how the school district (or Arizona) has no actual written anti-discrimination policy based on gender identity and expression. Her parents want her trans status to be known by the other families and staff at the school while the principal prefers it be kept under wraps. At this point in Josie's exposure in media, it would seem literally impossible for her story to be kept on the down low and, now, with this pending controversy, it's likely she's to be in the press even more including a two-part feature about her on a local news station. Yes, the story might force the school district's hand during negotiations but might also impact Josie's school experience, her quality of life growing up in a small community and in future school districts.

5 seconds into the interview, Tyra
asks Josie about her "birth defect"

This is not intended as a criticism of Josie's parents who are, obviously, very loving and supportive of her and have bravely done much to inform the public about what it means to have a child who is trans. Josie was on depression meds before transition and seems happy now. There is an issue of whether a young child has enough perspective to know how making her story highly public might impact her future. This is not even the same as someone who's a child actor since it's not dealing with fictional characters, but a very real and vulnerable part of her life, one which could even impact her safety or employment in future.

Left: Adorable 10-year old Tim
Right: 17-year old gorgeous Kim selling cosmetic brushes

Zie ist Eine Zooper-shtar
Which is not to say it's the end of the world or a sign of future problems. Kim Petras, a 17-year old trans girl from Cologne, Germany who started her medical transition at 12 first came into the public spotlight on a high-profile episode of Stern TV when she was 11 years old (this would be the German magazine somewhat like Time—not Howard Stern!). News of Kim appeared internationally, often followed by long commentaries and discussions about either how caring or crazy her parents were. Kim was eventually allowed to have SRS at 16, is graduating soon from gymnasium (German high school), is pursuing a career as a pop singer and has made a large number of incredibly self-assured appearances on German, US, Spanish, Japanese and Australian television as well as large number of fan blogs on YouTube.

Left: The former Alex McLendon; Right: Rochelle Evans

They're not as cute when they're older
Alex McLendon, a trans student who in a highly publicized 1998 incident, was kicked out of her private high school in Georgia for cross-dressing has since transitioned, changed her name, attended college in Florida and seems to have put the controversy behind her. Another trans teen from Ft. Worth, Rochelle Evans, encountered a lot of publicity about her issues with transitioning in high school and has continued to have repercussions from the school issues and publicity surrounding the story.

Should these stories just not be reported? No, they need be told and they generate so much sympathy and social capital they're a key element in encouraging proper parental support, health care and transition regimens for the next generation of children and their parents who are dealing with these issues. I do wish some degree of anonymity would be encouraged, the same way it is for youth offenders, children with AIDs or crime victims (and I'm not equating being trans with any of those, just how they're treated with some degree of anonymity and acknowledged to contain some possible future stigma). These children, their identities and their futures are not public property and certainly not entertainment nor curiosity exhibits to be hauled out during ratings period. If we truly value their lives, let's honor their privacy with the delicacy and discretion they deserve and leave them their own choices for future disclosure of their histories.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Which one is it? (spot the trans model)

Tisci with his models. Lea is on the far left.

Last week Women's Wear Daily reported Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci was using his Brazilian trans woman assistant, Lea T., as a model in the advertising campaign for their fall/winter line. The campaign is photographed by the team of "Mert and Marcus" (Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott), two of the most famous fashion photographers in the world and features a number of high-profile models. This story was immediately picked up around the world on a wide number of fashion websites and blogs including mainstream news sources like The Huffington Post.

As Tisci explained his casting process for the campaign, "I selected people among my close, talented friends and family and asked to illustrate our friendship. I wanted people from all kind of worlds, photographers, artists, transsexuals." I'm not sure how being transsexual equates with artistic disciplines, but Lea has worked with Tisci for a number of years as an assistant and fit model (the models whose bodies are used to adjust final tailoring before the runway shows) but she has no intention of going into modeling as a profession and is interested in studying to become a veterinarian.

Step right up and win a prize... which is real and which is... ?

And the winner is...
Included with this original story were two advertising campaign photos of grouping of models. WWD, Givenchy or Tisci made no attempt to identify which of the models was Lea. As it's prone to do, this partial disclosure led to much speculation on many websites as to which one of the models she was. Of the several dozen sites I looked at, the main guesses were #3 (with the pink hair) and #4 (with the long hair, kissing the center man on the right image). Although many thought #3 looked male/"tranny", it was explained that is, in fact, famous Polish model Malgosia Bela. #4 was referred to by a number of people who said, "it's obvious, look at the adam's apple." Little issue was made of the fact this model (while highly androgynous) was, in fact, wearing male clothes while none of the other other women were. #4 is a male model, (probably with hair extensions). Lea is actually #5, wearing the feathered top and leaning her hand on the far right model's shoulder.

Lea is the second from the right wearing the feathered top.

A number of people commenting on the models wrote something like, "they all look like trannies" using a old saw that's long been used to disrespect cissexual women... ugliness equals looking like a man. There can be little doubt how Tisci is playing "spot the tranny" in putting the very femme looking male model and the trans woman in the same photo. The other male models might have classic model bone structure, but they aren't in the least female or even androgynous looking while #4 is pretty clearly both. The question is, "what does a trans woman look like and what does a trans woman model look like?" The emphasis of the adam's apple in model #4 suggests a female look with a lingering male aspect (and some people commenting mentioned this). To make it even more mysterious, all the "guys" in this photo have their hands in their pockets (as does Lea). The women in the left photo don't. Triiiicky.

Prior photos of Lea.

Trans = a glamorous it
Tisci has also explained Lea's inclusion in the campaign illustrates the "masculine-feminine dichotomy" he is now known for." Curiously, none of the comments on the photos mention model #5's androgyny until she was clearly identified as the trans model. But the "trans model as androgyne" line was often used about a famous trans woman model from the 1980's, Teri Toye. More than 25 years before this campaign, Toye was walking the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, Comme des Garçons, Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel and, especially, for iconic 1980s designer Stephen Sprouse, for whom Toye served as a muse. And this was all done as a out trans woman. Her look has been much copied, especially with the recent renewal of interest in 80s style.

Teri with slave from the 1980s.
Quirky and boho, yes, androgynous... not really

V Magazine, a publication much favored by fashionistas, featured an article about Toye which stated, "TERI TOYE'S ANDROGYNOUS BARBIE-DOLL LOOK CONTINUES TO INSPIRE." But, curiously, Teri Toye was no more androgynous than any other model from that era. Because she was trans, androgyny was projected onto her. She walked with famous models like Iman and was a stablemate of Elle MacPherson at 1980s New York's most famous agency, Click (along with famous male model, Attila, who was much copied by male models for the next 20 years). So well known, they were all featured in a story in People Magazine.

In the 1980s, Teri Toye modeled with Elle
MacPherson and it wasn't such a big deal.

A very sexy, ummm, person
A more bizarre attempt at projected androgyny in fashion (and trans exploitation) came from last year's Rio de Janerio fashion week, and the sportswear designer "Complexo B". At the end of the show 25-year old trans porn performer, Patricia Araujo was featured in a slinky outfit. Araujo, an extremely curvy woman (probably with silicone augmentation) isn't in the least androgynous looking and is rather a bombshell (and not really a fashion model), but was placed on the runway with the men, not with the women models (like supermodel Isabella Fontana). Araujo is a pretty well known media figure in Brazil, made a huge splash and garnered world-wide publicity for Compexo B. No explanation was made as to why she was walking the runway with men. 20 years earlier, trans actress and model Roberta Close walked in Rio fashion week with supermodels like Tatjana Patitz and it wasn't seen as a gimmick.

Yes, Patricia Araujo walked the runway with
"the boys"... isn't it obvious why?

Needless to say, there have been a number of trans women who've modeled at a high level (although to some extent, without revealing their trans background). April Ashley was in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in the early-mid 1960s and photographed by iconic photographers like David Bailey. Around the same time, Amanda Lear modeled for famous designers like Paco Rabanne, Yves St. Laurent, Mary Quant and Ossie Clark. Both were closeted trans women who had performed at the famed Parisian female impersonator club, Le Carrousel, in the late 50s-early 60s. Both had considerable rumors floating around about their histories when they were in the modeling business. During the 70s and 80s, besides Teri Toye, there were trans models like Lauren Foster, who modeled in various countries' versions of Vogue Magazine and doing runway shows for Yves St. Laurent.

Lauren Foster in Vogue before being "outted".

The truth will set you free... from work
Ballroom trans star, Tracy Norman (AKA Tracey Africa) was photographed by reknown photographer Irving Penn for Italian Vogue), did runway and showroom work in Europe as well as non-fashion commercial work. A more recent trans woman model is Senegalese Barbara Diop (now based in Cape Town), who's appeared in Italian Vogue and was the lead model for the televised ceremonies for the World Cricket Cup. All these women were "outed" at some point in their careers yet continued to work (in a reduced capacity) in different markets for runway or photo shoots. On the reality show America's Next Top Model (which has produced a smattering of successful models, but none really famous) one near finalist, Claudia Charriez, was booted from the competition for being trans while Isis King was basically hand picked for, among other reasons, being trans.

Tracy Norman - A "baby Beverly Johnson" —
before she was "outted."

So is Lea T. modeling for Givenchy a gimmick or a breakthrough? To break down walls, one has to do something which hasn't been done before or to do it in a way wholly unique from the way it's been previously done. I can't say Tisci's campaign does either. She clearly has many predecessors. There is little question the photos of Tisci's work, on some level, play with the idea of "spot the tranny" and androgyny vs. binary, which has some element of exploitation—but could also be thought of as exploration. A real breakthrough would be Tisci using Lea and not doing PR about employing a trans woman for a model. Perhaps, understandably, neither Tisci, Lea or Givenchy wanted any future "trans panic-style" unmasking and sleazy publicity should her past be revealed. I wish both her and the campaign well, but hope both society and the fashion industry can get past the need to view this as an experiment in gender, or a way to get publicity and more about getting the right person with the right look (another issue) for the clothes.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Adam's Pussy/Eve's Dick: The Art of Marc Quinn

Buck (vulva - l) and Alannah (penis - r)

British sculptor Marc Quinn
is one of the hot names on the world art scene. He's part of the YBA group (Young British Artists) which came up during the 1990s and most famously included superstar Damien Hirst (who is generally acknowledged to be the richest artist in the world!). Quinn specializes in figurative sculpture, albeit with some rather untraditional figures, including a stone bust of his own head tinted with 10 pints of his own blood (which if you didn't know, looks just like a red mold of someone's face).

Bloody good fun!

The smell of success
Quinn has had numerous one man shows in museums and major galleries in Europe and the U.S. including an unprecedented exhibit at the British museum which displayed his gold sculpture called "Siren" (an image of supermodel Kate Moss in an impossibly twisty yoga pose) juxtaposed in the same gallery as some of their most famous stolen ancient greek statuary. Quinn has also been widely known for his large scale sculpture called Alison Lepper Pregnant, which was prominently displayed in Trafalgar square for several years. The statue of Ms. Lepper's naked, yes, very pregnant body generated much discussion because she was born with no arms and very shortened legs. While she very much supported Quinn's statue (she is a well-known artist herself) there was some criticism of the statue from the art establishment and disability community as "distasteful" and "exploitive".

The full sized statue of Alison Lepper just opposite
Lord Nelson's gigantic phallic column

Bob, Carol, Ted, Alice and...
His current exhibit at the White Cube Hoxton Square in London (which is one of the world's premiere galleries for contemporary art) is called Allanah, Buck, Catman, Chelsea, Michael, Pamela and Thomas. It's described as "depicting people who have undergone extreme levels of plastic surgery and transformation including hormone therapy, tattoos, piercing, skin bleaching, hair dying as well as implants and transplants." (and curiously, they're all Americans!) It includes several busts of Michael Jackson (done around the time of his death) which display him pre and post plastic surgery, a statue of Dennis Abner (known as "The Catman" because he had his entire body tattooed and his teeth modified to resemble a hellish-looking cat), a "bust" of Chelsea Charms—stripper and adult Internet model with the world's largest breast implants and, more conservatively, Pamela Anderson. Three of the subjected depicted are bronze, life-size statues of trans porn stars Buck Angel, and Alannah Starr as well as a statue of the 'famed' FTM pregnant man Thomas Beatie.

I'm Van Gogh, I'm Da Vinci!!!
Quinn states, "They are ordinary people who have become extraordinary people. They have acted out what is on the inside on their outsides." He further considers them artists using their bodies as a medium. As he told the art critic from the Manchester Guardian newspaper, "just don't call it a freak show." It surprises me Quinn would be averse to that title—and what's wrong with a freak show?

The smell of success
As Quinn tells it, "He discovered (sic) Buck Angel on the Internet by typing into the search engine the words plastic surgery and transformation." After contacting Buck (who knew about Quinn and was excited about the prospect of being sculpted by him) the FTM porn performer recommended MTF porn performer Alannah Starr as a subject. She was someone with whom he'd done a genre-busting sex scene in a film called Allanah Starr's Big Boob Adventures. Both flew to London to have casts taken and to pose for Quinn.

Quinn has the two hyper-detailed figures holding hands like a modern day Adam and Eve— albeit an Adam with a pussy (as Buck likes to advertise his genitals) and a voluptuous "shemale" Eve with a demure penis. While Starr is well known for having had 60 cosmetic surgeries and nearly 300 procedures (although she is ironically a "pre-op"). Angel has only had FTM top surgery.

One of the smaller Buck pieces being
examined by an art connoisseur

One person's extreme is another's minimalism
As someone who's had a fair amount of transition-related facial & body modification myself (in some ways far LESS than Ms. Starr and, in other ways, um, MORE) and feels rather ordinary in most aspects, it's hard to connect with someone like Buck Angel being an extraordinary example of someone modified through plastic surgery. If the idea was really to show examples of incredible body modification, then surely a trans man who's had phalloplasty and all that entails would be a more extraordinary example. Does Buck's inclusion has more to do with being a "transsexual porn star" and having a pussy and rather less to do with body modification? (although I can well imagine the general public not as familiar with trans people might see him as being more extraordinary)

Buck's bronze figure more resembles the plastic-coated dead bodies of Gunther von Hagens than something out of classical sculpture—there is little life emanating from it. The featured man-pussy seems rather "anti-climatic" mostly a Las Vegas version Greek and Roman statues whose cock and ball were so frequently whacked off by the early Christians (yes, it was they who did it and not the Victorians, Vandals or Vikings). For what's perhaps intended to be a striking image, apart from the ID as trans porn star part, Buck looks quite mundane, like someone who'd have his car up on blocks in the front yard or fiddling with his Harley.

Untitled by Kiki Smith

Look, mommy's got a iddy-bitty wiener!
Alannah Starr comes off more like a naked soccer mom than a porn performer who's had 60 plastic surgeries. Her middle-aged spread and floppy right breast seem very homey and motherly instead of transgressive. Buck and Alannah resemble naked Americans at a swinger's nudist colony waiting to go in the hot tub. Her penis isn't terribly arresting to anyone who's seen trans trans porn actors. Compare this sculpture to artist Kiki Smith's more organic-looking rough hewn untitled sculpture from 1995. A clearly female figure is hanging against the wall falling forward from her waist with long, flowing hair, her hands, spread, seemingly nailed to the wall in a kind of crucifixion. What most viewers of this quite famous piece don't know (unless you look at it very close up) is the woman has a penis. It creates a kind of hidden mystery as opposed to the almost garish Quinn figures whose shine feels like one of those "golden" bling license plates you see on Escalades or Hummers.

Hint, this is NOT
Michelangelo's David

Sit-ups or knocked-ups?
The large sculpture of Thomas Beatie is a curious piece. Again, in representing transformation through plastic surgery as Quinn claims, it isn't really evident in this work. Yes, Beatie had top surgery and has slightly noticeable chest scars but unless you're aware of the back story, they wouldn't scream out at you. Even the pregnant belly is less than shocking—you see men with large pot bellies nearly as big (although, not on an otherwise slender body). While the rather static pose has Beatie cradling his very pregnant tummy with a bland peaceful expression of parental pride, he almost looks as if he could be good-naturedly taking out a Hefty™ bag of garbage. What I noticed most about the piece is his boxer shorts. The draping of these overly washed cotton shorts beautifully reminds me of some of the flowing fabric carved out of stone found on Bernini statuary or in greek statues and is, curiously, the most lovely rendering on any of the statues which are, for the most part, rather crass.

It's all for sale
Ultimately, looking at this art, it's hard to fathom Quinn's artistic intent. If it's for beauty, then it surely can must be a beauty of the common everyday details like the folds in Beatie's droopy drawers. One could say it's about making the supposedly transgressive mundane, but I imagine that, to the largely non-trans crowds which will view these works, they will seem as if they're pushing boundaries. So once again, trans people are displayed to a wider audience for shock value, to question the largely white, well-to-do viewers' assumptions about normality or, perhaps, to provide comfort in their sense of their own comparative normality. It's not terribly clear, as art usually isn't.

Jeff Koon's loving tribute to... money?

Julian Schnabel's got a Lamborghini!
In so many ways, they remind me of capitalist/shyster artist Jeff Koons and his most (in)famous work, Michael Jackson and His Chimp Bubbles. The large, kitschy ceramic sculpture is almost overwhelming in its vacuousness but ultimately makes some kind of statement about race... with a black man who's turned white next to a chimp portrayed as his little son. It's either a profound comment about our own bathed-in-racism perceptions, or glorifying the very racism it seems to be pushing in our face. Koons pretty much gives a shit. Although we, in our post-modernist world, like to believe art is from a more thoughtful, perhaps enlightened (if pretentious) viewpoint, the reality is artists like Koons (who is often mentioned as a prime influence on the YBA artists) are no less influenced by our frequently racist, sexist, homophobic and transphobic culture than anyone else. It is, after all, a luxury commodity and packaged hipness translates to dollars. Right next to your trophy wife's silkscreened Warhol portrait is your collection of "famous transgenders."

Trans-corporeal... as in, not covered by health insurance
The artist states, "The world is so weird that you don't have to make things up, you just find things." So, in other words, he does find these subjects "weird?" He also wrote, "The show is about a topsy-turvy world." Hmm, is that a good thing or problematic? The White Cube catalog which accompanies the exhibit muses the sculptures are, "'trans-corporeal' - throwing the very notion of identity into question, exposing it as a fragile, complex and multi-layered construction, interminably co-existent with their external physical selves." Can we shorten that to "tranny-corpy"? The catalog also states:
[The statues] open up a provocative new chapter in [Quinn's] exploration of the relationship between corporeality and spirituality - fundamentally addressing the notion of identity by asking: is one more or less one's self after cosmetic surgery?
But the reality is, if you weren't informed who these three subjects were, would you really come away from the exhibit with such assumptions? These thoughts are projected by a cissexual viewer onto Quinn's stated choice of models, and not necessarily inherent in the works. By contrast, Kiki Smith felt no need of bestowing a title or explaining her woman (who also incidentally has a penis). As so often happens with trans-related art made by non-trans people, they feel the need to explain and give context yet only end up creating art about their own voyeurism. I suspect, at its very heart, that's very much what Quinn's work is about. Personally, I think trans bodies deserve better.

Man-donna and child?

Marc Quinn's show is at the White Cube Hoxton Square gallery, 48 Hoxton Square, N1 6PB, London through June 26, 2010. Closest Tube Station: Old Street