That was no lady, that's ... Gender benders: People who dress like the opposite sex may be funny in films, but they are rejected by all sexes in the real world -- and they're growing more militant.

October 29, 1995|By Leroy Aarons

MY LOCAL THEATER was full the other night when I went to see "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar," the new drag-queen film making the rounds.

The crowd of mostly white, apparently heterosexual guys and gals seemed to be having a whale of a time watching three brawny straight actors pretending to be men pretending to be women.

It isn't a bad film -- one of the hundreds turned out by Hollywood each year designed to allow people to escape for 90 or so unthreatening minutes without having their brains too rigorously taxed.

"Wong Foo" is essentially a fantasy movie with a tried-and-true formula, the one about wacky but lovable characters who transform a bunch of curmudgeons into believers.

The difference here, of course, is that the characters are men who feel, dress, look and register their sexuality as women.

In real life, transgendered people tend to be relegated to society's fringe. They suffer some of the most vicious rejection of any subculture.

Credit films such as "Wong Foo" and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (1994) to have arrived at the same time as drag liberation. Transgendered folks are getting organized and becoming vocal.

In a reversal of "The Wizard of Oz," the three "Wong Foo" hunks -- Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo and Wesley Snipes -- play New York Dorothys who get stranded in what looks like Kansas.

They portray in-your-face, no-apology queens who communicate a measure of dignity and self-worth while solving everybody's problems in three days.

Drag queens who've seen "Priscilla" and "Wong Foo" generally liked the films' sympathetic portrayals, in contrast to what they consider to be horrific depictions in "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective" (1994) and "The Crying Game" (1992).

Still, I can't help feeling that the version portrayed in these movies is trivialized and sentimentalized, never revealing the complex human persona that lies behind the campy glitz.

Aren't we sensitive

The filmmakers congratulate themselves for sensitivity. (In "Wong Foo," they touch every politically correct base, including race, women's liberation, battered wives and physical disability.)

Audiences leave with a feel-good glow, at a safe distance from a world they would assuredly recoil from if it ever crossed their paths in real life.

Interestingly, drag chic seems to have arrived at the same time as drag liberation. Transgendered folks are getting organized and becoming vocal.

Earlier this month, 100 transgendered people descended on Washington for a series of "Gender Lobby Days," making stops in all congressional offices and being interviewed by CNN and ABC's "20/20."

Their agenda called for accurate reporting of hate crimes against transgendered people; inclusion in job-discrimination, health-care and insurance laws; and response to mistreatment of transgenders in the military and in prisons.

One irony is that the transgendered are estranged from large swaths of the gay and lesbian community. They often are seen as impediments to acceptance of gays by the heterosexual world.

Some gays feel as uncomfortable being around transgendered people as straights do, and therefore some gays don't want to be categorized with them.

Male-to-female transsexuals have been banned from lesbian-organized women's music festivals.

The religious right exploits the split by concentrating on drag queens in its anti-gay propaganda videos.

All this is complicated by the reality that in the transgender world, gender identity does not always conform to sexual orientation.

As a result, transgenders have been left out of the political process, exemplified by the refusal of gay leaders to include them in legislation before Congress that would protect against job discrimination.

That situation was partly remedied earlier this month in an extraordinary meeting of transgendered leaders with board members of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (the country's largest gay lobby) in New Orleans.

In a significant concession, HRCF agreed to assist the TG group in efforts to amend the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to incorporate them and to work with TGs to include them in federal hate-crime legislation.

Politically, transgenders are where gender-specific gays and lesbians were 15 years ago, stepping gingerly through closet doors and demanding to be acknowledged as a discriminated-against subgroup.

Gradually, gay groups are adding the term transgender to their names and events.

But large numbers of gays and lesbians take the ironic position toward TGs that straights take to gays: We aren't biased, but why do they have to flaunt it so?

The answer to that came recently in a communication on America Online's transgender message board from Diana, a member of a group called the Pittsburgh Transsexual Menace:

"Well we're not quiet

We're not well behaved

* And we're not going away."

Leroy Aarons, president of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, is the author of a new book, "Prayers for Bobby," which was published by HarperSanFrancisco. It is the true story of a family coping with the suicide of a gay son.

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