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Stonewall 1979: The Politics of Drag

Most people feel awkward around drags — uneasy, even frightened. So many of our social responses are dictated by our recognition of someone’s gender, which we generally assume coincides with his or her sex. Confronting a man dressed as a woman jams our social signals and frustrates our habitual social responses. If we can be temporarily alarmed by a foreigner who swoops down to kiss our hand or who ceremoniously makes a rude noise to indicate his appreciation of dinner, then small wonder we are even more dismayed by someone whom we don’t know whether to call “he” or “she.”

But mere social discomfort is the least of our problems. Far more significant is the threat posed by the drag queen to our sense of identity. It has become fashionable to say that a man secure in his masculinity will not object to transvestism, but even that hypothetical creature may find drag queens unnerving. The sources of this queasiness, I’d submit, are historical and cognitive. Historically, gay men have been branded as effeminate. Since 1969 and the birth of gay liberation, however, homosexual men have rigorously rejected the effeminate label — and, if seen in the correct light, this redefinition can only be commended. Social labels have a nasty way of defining behavior, and homosexuals, like other minority groups that have had a taste of freedom and self-respect, have rejected the demeaning stereotypes imposed on them. Gay men today are assuming the most blatant badges of manliness, which in America is always associated with the working class.

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The drag queen appears all the more isolated and fragile among so many burly men. I am not referring to heterosexual transvestites, since their fear of being unmasked usually makes them inconspicuous, even invisible. I am speaking of gays, whether they be show drags (those who dress up only to perform in clubs or at contests) or street drags (those who live their whole lives in women’s clothes). The gay drag is also more despised than ever because she reminds the new macho gays of what they once were, or might have been. At the very time when many homosexual men are learning that they can be both gay and butch, along comes this bizarre specter, teetering on spike heels under pounds of lacquered hair, her face painted and powdered above her prominent Adam’s apple, her clothes a fantasy of outdated frills and finery.

Historically, then, the drag queen stands as a unpleasant reminder of discarded effeminacy. But I have also said that she makes us uneasy on a cognitive level. Cognitive psychologists would say that, despite surface variations, there appear to be abiding categories of thought wired into our brains. For instance, there seems to be a basic human urge to analyze experience through pairs of opposites. The exact contents of the categories may differ, but the drive to make such distinctions prevails. Some that spring to mind are pure and defiled, ours and theirs, taboo and permitted. Surely one of the most universal of these dichotomies is male and female — or rather, since we are speaking of gender rather than sex, masculine and feminine. In almost every group of people, a great deal of effort is expended to make these distinctions as sharp as possible — differences in dress, vocabulary, manners, attitudes. Since gender differences are also reinforced by economics — the sexual division of labor — they are all the more difficult to eradicate.

Even when gender is systematically de-emphasized, the separation between masculine and feminine continues: for example, a group of feminist teachers worked with kindergartners in an environment where boys and girls were encouraged to dress, speak, and play alike and where all gender differences were discouraged. Despite such efforts, the children remained acutely aware of gender distinctions and could be overheard saying, “Boys don’t to that,” or “That’s only for girls,” and so on. These mental habits persisted even when the gender-identified behavior was precisely the opposite of what society at large regards as proper masculine and feminine behavior. Thus a boy might be heard saying to a girl, “Don’t touch my doll. Dolls are for boys, not girls.” These ideas are discussed more fully in Psychology of Sex Differences by Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin.

In studying other cultures, anthropologists have found that people tend to be suspicious of anything that falls between two categories. The Hebrew taboo against eating lobsters, for instance, may arise from the fact that they are interstitial animals. Sea-dwelling animals, fish, have flippers and swim; land-dwelling animals have legs and walk. The lobster, however, inhabits the sea but has legs. It falls between two categories and is therefore taboo.

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Not surprisingly, the drag queen, occupying the interstice between masculine and feminine, is troublesome. Interstitial entities are usually handled in one of two ways — they are either despised or revered. Interestingly, there are many cases, especially among black Americans, of drags being revered. When I was in my teens the Prophet Jones in Detroit was the leader of a popular religious cult; he wore make-up, articles of feminine attire and a full ermine coat, presented to him by his devotees. Little Richard, with his lipstick, high heels, satins, and bouffant hairdo was another such shaman. But if a misfit is not revered he is despised, and this is the position of the drag queen in both homosexual and heterosexual white society in America.

In recent years the drag queen has been attacked by another group — lesbian feminists. Some Lesbians perceive drags as mocking women, all the more so because the drags so often get themselves up in the very guises that liberated women have been at such pains to discard — show girls, sex kittens, fashion models. As far as I can make out, lesbian feminists think that drags (1) mock women by imitating them and (2) doubly insult them by imitating unliberated women.

Not all feminists have subscribed to this view. As long ago as 1970, Kate Millett in Sexual Politics saw the drag as a useful subversion: “…as she minces along a street in the Village, the storm of outrage an insouciant queen drag may call down is due to the fact that she is both masculine and feminine at once — or male, but feminine. She has made gender identity more than frighteningly easy to lose; she has questioned its reality at a time when it has attained the status of a moral absolute and a social imperative. She has defied it and actually suggested its negation. She has dared obloquy, and in doing so has challenged more than the taboo on homosexuality, she has uncovered what the source of this contempt implies — the fact that sex role is sex rank.”

I think the feminists’ discussion of drag has been muddied by a failure to distinguish between the intentions of the queen and the effects of her behavior on others. Many of the drags I have interviewed across the country seem to have rather modest ambitions — to be “glamorous,” to be “stars,” to amuse audiences and to convince unsuspecting straights that they are “real women.” They generally look confused and bewildered when they are accused of mocking women; quite the contrary, many of them wish to be women. The effect of their behavior can be diverse — lesbian feminists consider it offensive; straight audiences at a nightclub find it entertaining; many gay men find it threatening.

Disdain for drag is, I would contend, often concealed snobbism. Most gay transvestites especially street drags, are from the working class and many drags are either black or Puerto Rican. Discrimination against them may be both elitist and racist. The greatest irony, of course, is that the Stonewall Resistance itself and many of the other early gay street actions were led by transvestites.

As for why drag queens have singled out prostitutes and show girls to imitate, the explanation may be at least partially historical. Certainly gay men have seldom impersonated middle-class housewives or aristocratic hostesses. The gay hissing and bitch sessions, the vulgar put-downs and the half-funny, half-serious rivalries parallel the catty remarks of whores and chorus-line gypsies. In Jonathan Katz’s Gay American History one discovers several clues. A cited article published in 1896 about the “faeries” of New York states: “They are fond of the actor’s life, and particularly that of the comedian requiring the dressing in female attire, and singing in imitation of a female voice, in which they often excel.” Testimony given to the New York police in 1899 has this to say of male prostitutes: “These men that conduct themselves there — well, they act effeminately; most of them are painted and powdered; they are called Princess this and Lady So and So and the Duchess of Marlboro, and get up and sing as women, and dance; ape the female character; call each other sisters and take people out for immoral purposes.” In 1893 a medical journal published a note about a black drag ball in Washington, D.C.: “In this sable performance of sexual perversion all of these men are lasciviously dressed in womanly attire, short sleeves, low-necked dresses and the usual ballroom decorations and ornaments of women, feathered and ribboned head-dresses, garters, frills, flowers, ruffles, etc., and deport themselves as women.”

Obviously, then, many of the early drag queens actually were prostitutes. Others, such as the black queens in Washington, may have found that the worlds of the theatre and prostitution were the only ones where overt homosexuals were welcome. Most likely is the hypothesis that homosexuality in all its forms was so forbidden that only in the permissive world of prostitution could it be mentioned at all. Closeted homosexuals were speechless; only those who had entered a milieu of prostitution and show biz could discuss their sexuality. As a result, even today a small but essential gay male vocabulary can be traced back to whores’ slang, including trick, box, trade, number, hustle, score, and so on. Modern homosexuality arises with the growth of industry and big cities; once men could become self-sufficient (if alienated) laborers, they could reject family life and live as bachelors. But even so, only the most oppressed outcasts of gay life — the drag queens — dared to speak openly of their sexuality. Contemporary drag is a reminder of our beginnings.

I have tried to touch upon the most confusing and complex issues that swirl around the question of drag. But I would be evading my responsibilities if I did not state that I believe transvestites have been treated very unfairly by lesbians and gay men and that they must be fully accepted into our ranks (scattered and in disarray as those ranks may be). Recently, some gay strategists have taken a stand against all forms of eccentricity in gays, and especially against transvestitism, on the grounds that unusual dress and behavior can only hurt the cause of homosexuals in general. As long as drags, leather men, radicals and “media freaks” are un­muzzled and conspicuous, or so the theory goes, then straight society will continue to frown on all gays and deny us our rights.

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Interestingly, the National Organization of Women was faced with an analogous problem a few years ago — whether to accept or reject its lesbian contingent. Those feminists who opposed the lesbians did so because they feared that if NOW were linked to lesbianism in the public mind, then the entire organization would be branded and dismissed as suspect by non-lesbian women. Those who endorsed the lesbians argued that if lesbians have traditionally been singled out as scapegoats, then they can just as easily serve as leaders and symbols of feminist solidarity. The decision to stand behind lesbians won out.

I think that lesbians and gays should take a similar stand on drags. To accept transvestites is not only humane but also tactically wise. All of the objections that straights and gays might have to drags are merely condensed and heightened objec­tions to male homosexuality. A survey of straights published in the Journal of Homosexuality revealed that most straight people do not object to sex be­tween two adult men. What they dislike is self-definition as homosexual. Coming out of the closet is what riles straight people; you will recall that even Anita Bryant does not object to teachers being gay, she simply does not want them to announce they are gay. Once someone comes out of the closet, once a gay man defines himself socially as gay, then he becomes disturbing. Avowedly gay men, as the survey revealed, are perceived by straight society as women. The anger against gay men (and it is much stronger than that against gay women) arises from the fact that gay men are seen as de­liberately and perversely renouncing their prerogatives as men and accepting the lower status of women. Because gay men are perceived as choosing to be women — that is, inferior — they arouse scorn, fear, and confusion.

These are the same feelings that drags awaken in everyone, of course. Drags have become the new “queers” of gay life. For that reason, our reactions to them are a sure index of our own homophobia. By embracing drags, lesbians, and especially gay men will take a step towards self-­acceptance. By placing drags in a re­spected position within the movement, gays will have elevated and defended what straight society most despises in all homosexuals. ■

Edmund White’s next book will be States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. He has written two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturne for the King of Naples. He authored The Joy of Gay Sex with Charles Silverstein.

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How I Broke, and Botched, the Brandon Teena Story

On December 31, 1993, a 21-year-old trans man named Brandon Teena was shot and stabbed to death near Falls City, Nebraska, by two other young men because he was trans. A week earlier, they had raped and brutally battered him.

I wrote about it at the time in a long, reported feature for the Voice that introduced Brandon Teena’s story to a broad audience, and helped to galvanize the cultural conversation about trans people. After moving to Falls City from his hometown of Lincoln, Brandon met a 19-year-old woman named Lana Tisdel and swept her off her feet. But a week after he was arrested on a check-forging charge, local police revealed his birth gender in the newspaper. A few days later, Tisdel’s friends John Lotter (Tisdel’s ex-boyfriend) and Tom Nissen forcibly stripped Brandon and forced Tisdel to look at his genitals; then they kidnapped, raped, and beat him, and subsequently killed him.

Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce told me in a recent interview that my article had been the major inspiration for her film about Brandon’s life and murder: “Your article was on fire. I read it and I fell in love with Brandon. It made me love his vulnerability, his daring, his innocence, the way that he gave pleasure sexually. I was in love with this person who had shaped himself.”

It also proved to be the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written.

For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing. Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated “her” body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. (One of Brandon’s acquaintances had told me he’d said he was “disgusted by lesbians,” and several friends said Brandon had said, “I can’t be with a woman as a woman. That’s gross.”) I saw this youngster’s decision to lead a life as a straight man as incredibly bold — but also assumed it was a choice made in fear, motivated by internalized homophobia.

At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead “easier,” more conventional heterosexual lives.

Even in New York City, someone like me, a journalist who considered myself very involved in queer radical politics, could be massively ignorant about what it meant to be transgender. In particular, I conjectured that Brandon’s long-term sexual abuse by an uncle and a rape in high school had led him to abjure his “female” genitals and breasts. It’s the aspect of my article that makes me cringe the most today.

Twenty-five years later, we are in a time of enormous cruelty in the body politic, a time when rebuilding solidarity is the most precious task we have. I hope this article can be my way of making amends by revisiting Brandon’s life and murder — along with those of his companions Lisa Lambert and Phillip DeVine, who were slain in the same moments by Nissen and Lotter. Their deaths became a touchstone for the then-nascent trans movement, and, perhaps more than any other single event, have shaped how Americans view transgender people.

***

Brandon Teena was born into a conservative, patriarchal, poor white family that lived in a trailer park in Lincoln, Nebraska. Irish American, he’d gone to Catholic school and been supported by a single mother who’d had him as a teenager and worked in retail. His father had died at age 19 in an alcohol-related car accident when Brandon’s mother was still pregnant with him.

There was almost no awareness about trans or any kind of gender-variant people in his Nebraska city at the time Brandon was alive (1972–1993), especially in Brandon’s family and friendship networks. A bare whisper of a word, transsexual existed in a cyclone of psychological, medical, moral, and even legal judgment — when Brandon was raped, Falls City sheriff Charles Laux refused to arrest the men who had committed the crime on the grounds that, as Laux told me at the time, “What kind of a person was she? The first few times we arrested her she was putting herself off as a guy.” In the wrongful death suit Brandon’s mother later filed against the sheriff, the Nebraska Supreme Court found that Laux’s refusal to arrest Lotter and Nissen was what left them free to murder Brandon.

This is how I first found out about this beautiful, funny, ill-fated, imperfect young man: One morning in January 1994 I read, amazed, an AP wire story in the New York Times that began: “A woman who had posed as a man and dated women was found shot to death on Friday, two weeks after residents of this rural area learned her true identity, the authorities said today.”

An article in the Chicago Tribune made the slain youngster sound particularly compelling: “Brandon was like a breath of fresh air, to hear the girls of Falls City tell it…blue-eyed, clean-cut and handsome-cute. ‘He was the talk of the town,’ said Michelle Travis.… ‘He was one of the nicest boys I ever met,’ said Lana, 19, who recalls Brandon as ‘a good kisser.’ ” Apparently, the young women of several municipalities in the heartland had seen him as far more appealing than the other available male talent.

I was electrified by the story — which, as I say, I assumed was about a lesbian. Lesbians had been talking for years about playing with gender, taking on different gender identities, and using and even eroticizing male signifiers and roles to take back power from a world that continually disparaged us as barely worthy of notice and boringly powerless. The conversation about genderplay among lesbians had started in the Eighties, when many of us had begun speaking once again about sexual role-playing, dildos, and other ways of freeing our sexualities from the vanilla, non-phallic, and non-penetrative limits the leaders of 1970s feminism had unwittingly placed on it.

But it wasn’t just a matter of taking on male signifiers in the bedroom. The rich, creative conversation going on in the early Nineties in the lesbian community was also about feeling free to “be” male, to some extent, in the psychic fantasy arenas of our own minds, and out in the world. As in: the boy in all fantasy stories, the one who can make his way through adventures, and, at the end of the story, grow into the kingship. I and a number of other lesbians saw ourselves in Brandon Teena, someone born with the same chromosomes as us who had determined to live as a boy, to woo women with a vengeance, to (as we saw it) walk in freedom upon the world.

Also, lesbians and straight men had been in a kind of cultural competition for decades over who truly made the better lovers for women. I believe this is one reason for the fury some straight men have been directing at me since I began cutting my hair butch and short at 18. The screams of “fuckin’ dyke” with which large, hulking men have frightened me for years stemmed from their fear that I could take something away from them. Therefore, the idea that we — any and all lesbians, or any and all women, really — might be able to go out into the world and “become” men galvanized many of the lesbians who first heard about the Brandon Teena story in early 1994.

My gay male editor at the Voice, Richard Goldstein, was excited by the story, too, and sent me out to cover the murder in March of that year.

***

Because I don’t drive — surely an irony for someone who wants to be the king in her own story — I went to Nebraska with another young lesbian, a filmmaker named Susan Muska who at the time was filing freelance reports for Dyke TV. The Voice agreed to pay for most of Muska’s travel, and in return she drove me and amassed research for a project that would eventually become The Brandon Teena Story, the extraordinary documentary she put out in 1998 with her partner in love and art, Greta Olafsdottir. (Full disclosure: Muska and Olafsdottir are friends of mine.)

Being with Susan doubled my reporting prowess; it was like having not just another set of eyes and ears, but a second brain to assess all the information and a second mouth with which to persuade sources. Susan was more dogged a reporter than me, and perhaps a more diplomatic one. Together, we first interviewed JoAnn Brandon, Brandon’s sad, pissed-off, asthmatic, conservative mom, still shell-shocked after his death.

It’s amazing looking over my reporting notes from 1994, seeing what I chose to emphasize, what I left out and forgot, what never registered. At the time, as a callow 28-year-old myself, I principally saw JoAnn as a homophobic parent, because she told us, “I don’t feel you walk up to someone and tell them what your sexual preference is.” She also said that when girls would call asking for Brandon by the male name he initially adopted, Billy, she would tell them, “We don’t have a Billy.” As JoAnn explained to Susan and me, “That’s when [Brandon] moved [out], because she knew I wouldn’t play the game. I wouldn’t refer to her as something she wasn’t.”

Seeing JoAnn’s conservatism, I somehow failed to see that she was grieving when she railed against Lana, who she thought had betrayed Brandon to his death by telling the killers where he was hiding out. (I have seen no evidence that she did so.) As I failed to hear her grief when she griped, “I still don’t know how I’m going to pay for the funeral.” I missed the note of sadness and horror in her voice when she said, “For my daughter to be that scared…,” referring to Brandon’s frightened phone call to her the night after he was raped. I missed the devastation in her voice when she said: “When I touched her head” — Brandon’s head, at his funeral — “I couldn’t touch her head anywhere there wasn’t a bump on it.”

Hearing a mother’s discomfort with the precepts of gay pride, and her refusal to facilitate Brandon’s male identity, I somehow declined to hear these things she also said: “I think [the police] are bigots. They were referring to her as ‘thing’ in jail. [Nissen and Lotter] should have been arrested the first time she reported [the rape].” And: “I just told her I wanted her to be happy. Whether she was or wasn’t [LGBT], she was still my daughter. She was the most lovable person.”

I also never registered JoAnn telling me that Brandon had wanted to be a commercial artist, or that he was “really outspoken” in high school. (“If the priest at Pius X would say one thing, she’d be sure to say the opposite.”) For decades, I have regretted that I couldn’t learn much about what Brandon had been like as a person, but I ignored the one time anyone ever told me what he might have liked to have done when he grew up.

***

An even more surprising thing in my notes was an interview I had done before my trip to Nebraska with Leslie Feinberg, the late brilliant writer and activist who called herself both FTM “transsexual” and stone butch lesbian and who had painted an incendiary portrait of the crossover FTM/stone experience in her novel Stone Butch Blues.

For decades, I have remembered vividly how Feinberg screamed at me without respite in the Voice editorial offices when trans activists protested after my article came out. But I never remembered having interviewed her about Brandon for the piece. We’d been friendly years before when we’d often attended protests against anti-queer police brutality together. But at one of them, which Feinberg had organized with the Workers World Party, I had felt terrified and betrayed by her and the other leaders when they’d encouraged us to run into the street on the West Side Highway without attempting to block the traffic from hitting us. No car struck me, but a cop did hit me on the forearm with his nightstick.

So, beyond my defensiveness about my article — which was powerful — I’m sure I brought some baggage to both our phone interview and our encounter at the Voice that may have made it hard for me to listen to what she was actually saying.

What was she saying?

“It’s not so much how I see Brandon Teena, as how Brandon Teena saw himself. I use the pronoun ‘he’ because a), it’s the pronoun Brandon Teena chose, but b), it’s ultimately what he died for.”

She was right. I was apoplectic with Feinberg for decades because she’d publicly called my article “sleazy, salacious psychosexual babble,” and falsely claimed the “article [let] the cops off the hook for their culpability in instigating the violence against Teena in the first place.” But in many of her criticisms, Feinberg was correct. I shouldn’t ever have suggested that Brandon wanted to be a man because he was sexually abused, and I should have listened to his own wishes as reflected in the memories of his survivors, and called him trans.

***

The second most surprising thing I found in my notes was the first draft of my article, where I openly acknowledged that lesbians and trans activists were even at that moment sparring over who got to claim Brandon:

Ironically, though, the murder has sparked the greatest controversy among people who agree it was a hate crime.… Transsexual activists [what trans folks called themselves at the time] claim Brandon as a preoperative, female-to-male transsexual, a straight man who had unremarkable, hetero urges for girls but the misfortune of being born in the “wrong” body. Lesbians, on the other hand, celebrate Brandon as a dyke who usurped male prerogatives and very nearly got away with it.… Brandon, who splashed on Preferred Stock aftershave every morning…told many different stories about her own physical sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

That much is true, although I would have used a different pronoun today. Scholar Susan Stryker, who might be called the dean of trans studies, recently told me by email, “One of the things that made the murder so tragic is that Brandon was so young, still figuring himself out, and we will never know what path his future would have taken. The violence, in many ways, was against Brandon as the bearer of a youthful fluidity of gender possibilities being brutally foreclosed.”

Brandon did, years before he came to Falls City, variously tell several family members, friends, and apparently, psychological counselors that he thought he might be “gay” — i.e., a gay woman. To various girlfriends, he said at various times, “I was born with both parts, but I’m nothing but a man now. I had the operation done in eighth grade”; “Some part of the operation…remains to be done”; “I’m a hermaphrodite”; “[My breasts] are a deformation from birth”; “I was born a girl, I am a girl, but I have all the feelings and intentions of a man.”

Both Brandon’s focus in his self-descriptions on whether he had had “the operation” — of course, that term has always phallocentrically stood for more than one potential operation — and my own focus on the matter reflect a belief of the early Nineties: that trans meant (solely) “surgically altering your body to align with your gender identity.” Both society at large and many leading trans activists of the time saw trans as a matter of being transsexual, i.e. surgically transitioning to “the” other gender, not today’s activists’ wider definition that seeks to embrace all who experience misalignment between their gendered bodies and their felt gender identities.

Of course, a gorgeous plethora of felt gender identities have emerged in the years since — genderqueer, nonbinary, gender-nonconforming, bigender, agender — that were unavailable to Brandon. Where I went wrong was to deny transness as a real possibility for who Brandon would have become — and, in fact, the possibility he mentioned most often in the later years of his life, and the way in which he most consistently told his intimates he wanted to be seen.

***

One aspect of my piece that greatly angered both trans men and stone butches was my claim that Brandon experienced enormous sexual “frustration,” or a terrible diminishment of pleasure, because, as reported by his lovers, he chose never to be touched on his vagina or his breasts.

Why did I assume this, besides transphobic ignorance? In brief, I was projecting. Reader, I was sexually abused as a child, and I at certain points in my life have identified with stone butches because the intensity of genital sensations was too painfully overwhelming for me to want or be able to continue to experience genital touching. For a chunk of my life, I was greatly frustrated, I was resentful about what I experienced as diminished pleasure, and I projected this frustration and resentment onto Brandon.

Obviously, I also projected my own experience of sexual abuse onto his, and used it to concoct my own biased theory of trans origins.

(In fairness, Brandon did “give without getting” in myriad ways, insisting on doing every single bit of housework for his girlfriends and showering them and his friends and family with extravagant and expensive gifts he could not actually afford. There does seem to have been some resentment — or at least ambivalence — operating in the fact that he often paid for these presents by fraudulently charging them to the recipients’ own credit cards, or by forging their checks. Brandon, who had charmed Lana by giving her a stuffed black bear, once asked that she hand over her family’s rent money to pay bail for him. But I did not have any grounds in my reporting to apply this to his sexual practice and experience, nor is there any evidence that trans men as a group feel resentful about the kinds of sex they have.)

Where this matter comes most importantly into play is in the piece’s ending. How it originally ended was bad enough:

Brandon had to go to Humboldt because everyone who loved her in Lincoln was finally too infuriated with her, whether she’d stolen their love or taken the money that they needed to live. The frustration she had felt for so long had finally frustrated others, and the fury she could not express was ultimately expressed on her.

Enter a man (a cis one). My editor, Richard, had encouraged the development of my “frustration theory” by suggesting (according to my notes from an editing session) that what I should emphasize in the story was that “everything she did to protect herself put her in more danger.” I came to agree — though I now think that that theory was bogus as well. The terribly mistaken idea operating here was that living as a man was something that Brandon did to protect himself from the “danger” of living as a lesbian — not something he did because he was a man.

But now Richard wanted me to add two final words to the piece: “By men.” That is, the piece would now end on the declaration that the fury “she” could not express was ultimately expressed on “her” by men. By implication, by real men.

I didn’t like adding “By men,” and I opposed the victim-bashing addition as long as I could, but Richard insisted. I have to take responsibility for the words because I did in the end allow them to appear under my own name, but they are what I hate most in the piece, even today.

Asked to comment, Richard said he did not remember the article, or working on it with me. He did say: “Whatever suggestions I may or may not have made, the final decisions about wording rested with the author, and the piece would have appeared even if the writer rejected my ideas.”

In fairness, from my memories of working with Richard for six years, I think he identified with Brandon as much as I did, and that’s why he wanted to put the “By men” in there. I don’t think he wanted to gratuitously hurt him with a verbal dollop of “real” men’s violence at the end, but to bear notice to himself that as a gay man he, like Brandon, was always going to be in social danger from the world of those more powerful. 

***

All stories are about more than one thing, and Brandon’s was also the story of a young white woman and young disabled black man who was gunned down by Lotter and Nissen along with Brandon in the early hours of December 31, 1993.

As far as I can tell, none of the journalistic reports for the first few months after the murder mentioned that Philip Devine was a black man visiting an all-white town. Mine mentioned that, as well as the fact that Phillip had come to Falls City to romance a white woman, Lana’s sister, Leslie, and that there was considerable public racism in the town, including the bald denial of service to African Americans at the town’s fast-food restaurant. But neither my article nor any of the other major media representations of this case has seriously examined the possibility that race may have played a role in his death.

In the mid Aughts, trans scholars began to argue that we need to do just that. Several, like the Africana and gender studies specialist C. Riley Snorton, have recently begun to suggest that the de-emphasis of DeVine’s story, from accounts of the Brandon case like mine, Boys Don’t Cry, and others, contributes to the systematic, omnipresent devaluation of black lives.

I have begun to agree.

While so far, the record seems to buttress that Nissen and Lotter went to that Humboldt farmhouse explicitly to silence Brandon — his mother says, “Teena said [after the rape] that these guys told her to keep her mouth shut or they’d permanently shut it for her” — the record is also clear that Nissen, at least, is or at least was an open, virulent racist. (Writing from jail to the late New Yorker writer John Gregory Dunne, Nissen referred to O.J. Simpson after his acquittal as “one lucky rich nig,” and he apparently once belonged to a white supremacist organization called the White American Group for White America.) Susan Muska says that according to her research, Falls City had previously been a “sundown town” where African Americans who stayed past twilight were at risk of being killed.

Of course, Nissen and Lotter had previously hung out with DeVine socially at the Tisdel’s house, where the family was raising Leslie’s biracial child — and Brandon was the only one who was stabbed as well as shot. It’s hard to know without further research whether they killed DeVine primarily as a witness to the attack on Brandon, or out of anti-black animus — but not hard to guess that his race made him easier for Nissen to kill. And Lisa Lambert, too, may have been murdered not just because she was a witness, but because she, like their friend Lana, was a woman who had dared to have sex with the hated trans man.

As poet and activist Carolyn Forché has written, “Go after that which is lost/and all the mass graves of the century’s dead/will open into your early waking hours.” All stories are partial, but the deaths go on in their fullness.

Donna Minkowitz is author of “Love Hurts,” which ran in the April 19, 1994, issue of the Village Voice, and which is reproduced below.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Four Movies at the Tribeca Film Festival That Don’t Pretend

A film-within-a-film is a well-worn narrative conceit, but one that seems more complicated in the context of a documentary. Madeleine Sackler’s extraordinary It’s a Hard Truth Ain’t It was shot entirely at the Pendleton Correctional Facility, a maximum-security state prison near Indianapolis. (The occasional animated interludes were done by Yoni Goodman, of Waltz With Bashir.) The incarcerated men there are both subjects and filmmakers in Sackler’s construction, talking about their lives in front of the camera while learning film lingo and devices from the classroom environment Sackler creates.

We sit in on the filmmaking lectures Sackler delivers to the inmates. (At the same time this was going on, she shot a separate feature at the prison: the narrative piece O.G., starring Jeffrey Wright and also showing at Tribeca.) During the sessions, the men interview each other about their experiences and discuss what they want to add to the final cut of the movie. We witness the canny results first-hand, as when the men decide to finally share — midway through, after we’ve gotten to know them — their sentences and crimes in the form of onscreen text just below their faces. Poverty, abuse, addiction, and racism all play familiar roles in these stories. But the haunting exchange that best illustrates the divide between the men and the director (who hails from a wealthy Connecticut family), along with most of us who see the film, comes when one of the inmates expresses incredulity at the fact that none of Sackler’s former high-school classmates have either been murdered or killed someone.

He asks, “No one?”

She replies, with certainty and sadness, “No one.”

The sharp cast of “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” helps to cohere its verbose source material.

Writer-director Desiree Akhavan, whose 2014 film Appropriate Behavior (in which she starred) was a loose, autobiographical jaunt through queer women’s experiences in New York City, could not have picked a more different approach for her second feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post (winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance). An adaptation (Akhavan wrote it with Cecilia Frugiuele) of Emily M. Danforth’s popular YA novel, the film takes place in Nineties Montana, mostly in an isolated teen residential program that implements Evangelical Christian, anti-queer “reparative” therapy. The script omits the verbose source material’s many tangents and spins its lively, last third into a more cohesive whole.

I had been worried in the lead-up that Chloë Grace Moretz would be too femme to play Cameron, who is a butch athlete in the book. But Moretz’s appalled face in reaction to the program’s dogma, along with her other responses to life in the facility, won me over. A poker-faced “good” is how Cameron invariably replies to staff questions about how she’s progressing. After Erin, a fellow “disciple” (as the teens in the program are called), catches her shoplifting, Moretz’s Cameron quickly adds a disingenuous, “I feel so ashamed,” to keep Erin from telling staff. Sasha Lane, whom writer-director Andrea Arnold famously plucked from the mass of college students during spring break to star in American Honey, proves a delightful comic presence in Miseducation as Jane, another resistant teen at the facility. Her skeptical, liquid stares say as much as her expertly delivered punchlines.

The repressive setting would be, in a less nuanced film, a site of unadulterated horror. But Cameron, Jane, and Adam (Forrest Goodluck), like queer people through the ages, find ways to bond, joke, and help each other through the circumstances. When something terrible does happen (eliciting gasps in the audience, as it does for readers of the book), the experience cements the three together with newfound determination.

The killing of a trans woman in the Philippines galvanizes outrage in “Call Her Ganda.”

Call Her Ganda, a documentary from Filipinx American PJ Raval (Trinidad), covers the trial of an American Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberton, for the killing of Jennifer Laude, a trans woman in Olongapo City, Philippines. The 2014 incident occurred in a motel across the street from the disco where the two had met earlier one evening. The case, and the dismissive reaction to it, prompts outrage from Jennifer’s devoted sister, mother, and fiancé, as well as a spirited legal battle from the family’s pro bono lawyer, Virgie Suarez. As the murder of Rita Hester did in the U.S. two decades ago, Laude’s death galvanizes the trans community to take to the streets in protest. Owing to colonialist influence, any crime American service members committed in the Philippines had never previously been brought to court. Pemberton’s lawyers attempt to justify his actions as “trans panic,” an enraging defense that’s been used in the U.S. in murder cases with trans women victims.

The doc also follows trans Filipina investigative journalist Meredith Talusan, who has lived in the United States since she was a child, as she returns to her birthplace to extensively report on the case for VICE, the Guardian, and Buzzfeed. Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, known globally for the mass killing of his own citizenry, even plays a peripheral role, manipulating anti-colonial sentiment around the case (and others like it) to win votes. In the end, the verdict appeases neither side, but it has had lasting effects on the trans community and has set a long-overdue precedent for holding individuals in the American military responsible for heinous crimes.

Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, 79, is the focus of the moving doc “Every Act of Life.”

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional release of Every Act of Life (written and directed by Jeff Kaufman), a wonderful documentary on the prolific playwright Terrence McNally. McNally’s life has the sweep of an epic novel, except that the novel’s inevitable movie version could never have as much star power as his life did. Edward Albee was his first boyfriend. Nathan Lane and Audra McDonald both affirm they wouldn’t have their careers without him. Angela Lansbury was the one who told him to get sober. He even had a brief, secret relationship with the acclaimed playwright Wendy Wasserstein. (His brother reports that seeing the two of them in a romantic kiss made him think, “He has a girlfriend?!”) He also was one of the first playwrights to put queer life and characters front-and-center in his work. Even though, as his husband, Thomas Kirdahy asserts, cancer surgery has left McNally with a total of less than one functioning lung, he’s still energetic and writing new pieces — and having them produced.

The film conveys a refreshing lack of pretense about the work of being a refined artist. Over two decades into McNally’s stellar career, when the script for Lips Together, Teeth Apart — a highly anticipated play for “his favorite actors” — was handed to the ensemble, only one member, Christine Baranski, summoned up the courage to tell him it sucked. McNally took it home, rewrote it, and it ran for over a year Off-Broadway. Four years later, he wrote Master Class, which went on to win Tonys for its stars (Zoe Caldwell and Audra McDonald) and for McNally himself — another inspiring chapter in a life full of them.

Categories
NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

New York City Jails Still Can’t Keep Trans Prisoners Safe

Last November, the New York City Department of Correction announced it would be shuttering its Transgender Housing Unit (THU), which offers transgender women the option of being housed separately from the male jail population. Local LGBT advocacy groups reacted with dismay, saying that the move would eliminate an important, if imperfect, housing option for trans women and put them at increased risk of sexual assault and harassment.

One year later, though the THU is still in operation, advocates remain concerned about what they see as the department’s continuing failure to keep transgender prisoners safe. They say that some trans women have been denied entry into the THU without explanation, while others have been transferred into male facilities after their external genitalia were observed in medical exams — in violation of national prison anti-rape standards.

“Trans and GNC [gender nonconforming] people are being harassed, denied gender-affirming clothing and products, placed in de facto isolation and in situations where we are knowingly at risk of sexual violence,” said Mik Kinkead, director of the Prisoner Justice Project at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York City–based organization that provides support to low-income people and people of color who are trans or gender nonconforming, in a text message to the Voice. “This is all steeped in genuinely not seeing trans and GNC people as full people.”

The Department of Correction denies that the agency was putting trans women in harm’s way. “DOC is committed to preventing sexual abuse anywhere in the jails,” wrote Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Peter Thorne in an email to the Voice. “We will continue to make every effort to ensure that all individuals in our custody are protected from sexual abuse and harassment, and that includes having housing areas that appropriately meet the needs of transgender and other vulnerable populations.”

Trans women being housed in men’s facilities are still at constant risk of sexual and physical violence, say advocates, who stress that the proposed alternatives to the THU will also fail to keep trans women safe. They add that New York City’s jails have failed to adhere to federal anti-rape regulations, which mandate screenings for populations vulnerable to sexual violence and the opportunity for trans people to be housed in accordance with their gender identity — leading the independent oversight board that regulates the Department of Correction to intervene, though so far without a satisfactory resolution.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 34 percent of transgender people held in prisons and jails report experiencing at least one incident of sexual violence while behind bars. That’s the highest reported incidence of sexual violence of any demographic group studied, more than eight times the rate for prisoners overall.

“I was harassed daily by officers/inmates due to being trans,” Merci Chrisette, a trans woman who was housed in general population with men on Rikers Island in late 2015 and early 2016, told the Voice via text. “The treatment of trans women on Rikers Island, from what I have seen and experienced, is very disheartening and sometimes even cruel.”

The THU was opened in 2014 in response to advocate complaints of high rates of sexual violence against trans women, as well as mistreatment at the hands of guards. At first located on Rikers Island, the THU was moved to the Manhattan Detention Complex in 2015, after the Rikers location was closed for renovations. The Department of Correction had previously opened a unit for gay and trans prisoners in the 1970s, but shuttered it in 2a005 after it became plagued with violence. Housing trans women separately from men, but not in isolation, is considered by advocates to be a crucial solution for keeping trans women safe while incarcerated.

Carey Smith spent time in the THU when she was first locked up in 2016, but was later transferred to a male protective custody unit after what she described as an interpersonal conflict on the THU. She said that due to inmate tensions, she didn’t always feel safe on the THU, but was undoubtedly safer there than she would have been in the male general population. At the THU, at least most of the guards respected her pronouns, and she wasn’t in constant fear of what danger the male prisoner population might pose. “Even though it’s hard to stay on, I don’t think they should shut [the THU] down,” said Smith.

The THU’s problems began in November 2016, when the Board of Correction, an independent oversight agency that regulates, monitors, and inspects New York City’s correctional facilities, voted to bring the unit in line with national standards set by the Department of Justice in 2012 under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). (States that violate PREA rules can lose some federal funding.) One of the justice department’s requirements at the time was that LGBT-specific units, even voluntary ones, would have to be shuttered unless they had been opened as a result of a consent decree or legal settlement, a provision meant to prevent discriminatory segregation of LGBT prisoners.

Last spring, the Department of Correction announced plans instead to open several special units that would house transgender women alongside male populations known to be vulnerable to prison sexual violence, including short men, non-English speakers, and those with disabilities. Though this had been one option suggested by the Department of Justice, LGBT experts worried that placing trans women on the same unit as male prisoners, however vulnerable, would do little to keep trans women safe.

Both advocates and the Board of Correction have pressed the Department of Correction to bring its other facilities into compliance with PREA standards before closing the THU, such as by establishing rules on how pat-down or cavity searches are conducted and how correctional facilities should go about hiring employees. The PREA standards also require facilities to create and follow protocols for investigation into allegations of sexual assault and abuse, including offering rape kits to all victims and ensuring all allegations are investigated through either criminal or administrative avenues.

Advocates have also complained that the board has not established clear and specific criteria for who can stay on the THU. “People are frequently denied admission without any reasons given, and while we have no way of knowing the grounds for DOC decisions, they often appear arbitrary and baseless,” wrote Legal Aid Society supervising attorney Dori Lewis in an August letter to the board. Lewis argued that the Department of Correction was failing to follow its own directive for trans housing, which requires the department to maintain written documentation for the basis of its decisions, as well as records of who has applied.

In a September letter to the board, Lewis recalled the case of one Legal Aid client, a nearly sixty-year-old transgender woman, small in stature and traditionally feminine, who has been living as a woman for about forty years. According to Legal Aid, she was not screened for vulnerability to sexual assault, and although she was initially designated for housing at a women’s facility, after she was examined by medical staff, she was sent to a male facility instead.

Determining housing solely on the basis of external genital anatomy is a violation of the PREA standards. “She thought she just had to deal with the fear, the harassment, and the risk of abuse” of being in a male facility, Lewis told the Voice about this client, who was eventually transferred to the THU after her attorney intervened. “It was only because she mentioned her situation to her Legal Aid Society criminal defense lawyer, [who] was stunned that she was housed in such an obviously threatening environment, that we were able to intercede.”

In an October 2017 letter to the board, Mik Kinkead mentioned the case of another trans woman, placed in the Rikers women’s facility, who never identified herself as trans to any Department of Correction officers, civilians, or even her legal team. “She spent her entire time without accessing her medically necessary hormones for fear that she would be moved to a men’s facility,” Kinkead wrote.

PREA standards also mandate that trans and intersex prisoners be evaluated for housing on a case-by-case basis, and that placements take into consideration the prisoner’s own sense of where he or she would be safest. Policies that house trans or intersex people solely on the basis of their external genital anatomy are strictly prohibited, yet advocates said they are aware of no instance in which the DOC knowingly housed a transgender woman in accordance with her gender identity.

Not all jurisdictions have struggled to properly house transgender people. In Washington County, Oregon, just west of Portland, jail staff say they have made great strides in implementing the PREA standards, improvements that have been applauded by LGBT prisoner advocates across the country.

“We have had a couple trans males that simply did not feel safe being housed with other males, but were also not comfortable being housed with females as their appearance was male,” explained Deputy Jeff Talbot, Washington County Sheriff’s Office public information officer, in an email. “In this case, their preference was to stay in the medical unit for the duration of their time in our facility.”

Asked how she felt about trans women being housed with women, Smith told the Voice, “That would be much safer, better.”

According to recent data, about half of transgender persons admitted to Department of Correction custody end up in the THU. The board, which provided Department of Correction data to the Voice, said that between October 15 and November 18 of this year, eight transgender or intersex people entered custody. Of those, four individuals were placed in the transgender housing unit, three were placed in protective custody, and one was released from DOC custody prior to placement.

In October, the board passed a resolution to press for compliance with PREA standards, including submitting a detailed plan about how it intends to comply with the screening requirement, and notifying the board about the placement of each transgender or intersex person, along with all information considered in making such a determination. “To date, DOC has largely complied with the resolution,” the board wrote in an email to the Voice.

Asked whether he thought conditions for trans people in jails might improve if the city complied with the board, Kinkead expressed ambivalence. “I am happy to see the BOC make full use of the power the people give to it to enforce the law,” he said. “But I don’t think there is any way the jails actually become better. They can just be slightly less harmful.”

Categories
Equality NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

New Yorkers Will Gather At Stonewall Tonight To Protest Trump’s Attack On Trans Americans

A coalition of civil rights activists — led by transgender speakers — will gather at the historic Stonewall National Monument tonight to protest the Trump administration’s rollback of a federal guideline that allowed transgender students in public schools to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity.

The guideline, passed under the Obama administration, invoked Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination. The reversal, enacted by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, was justified in the way many other civil rights advancements have been targeted: by invoking states’ rights.

Sessions, who has a long history of opposing any expansion of civil rights protections, said in a statement that the previous directive “did not contain sufficient legal analysis or explain how the interpretation was consistent with the language of Title IX.”

As such, the order was considered  to have been written “without due regard for the primary role of the states and local school districts in establishing educational policy,” according to a joint memo issued by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education.

DeVos reportedly opposed the reversal, but when pressed by both Sessions and Trump, relented. The previous order was stayed by a federal judge last August; after it was issued, Texas and several other states (including North Carolina, which passed a notorious “bathroom bill” that was met with economic boycotts) immediately challenged it. The Trump administration withdrew a motion originally filed by the Obama administration challenging the injunction last week.

The rally begins at 5:30p.m. at West 4th Street and Christopher Street.