When I was in fifth grade, back in 1966, John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore began performing sex change operations, as the surgeries were then called. The New York Times ran a story about Hopkins’ gender reassignment surgeries in November of that year and a spate of similar stories followed elsewhere.
Having read several of them — my parents never censored what we kids could read — I passed along news of this fascinating medical breakthrough to a small group of fellow classmates in art class one day. I told them that yes, it was possible for a man to become a woman and, in fact, someone named Christine Jorgensen had famously done exactly that back in the 1950s.
A teacher, having overheard my mention of Jorgensen (the pioneering transgender poster girl was an American WWII-era Army private who underwent gender reassignment surgery in Denmark in 1952), grabbed my upper arm and sternly told me, “You just shut up about that.”
I remember being puzzled and surprised. Why couldn’t we talk about it? It was in the newspapers. Sex changes were happening and were real.
Transgender figures continued to pop up in public life and popular culture in the years that followed, though they were few and far between. There was Myra Breckinridge, the eponymous heroine of Gore Vidal’s 1968 satirical novel; in the 1975 movie, “Dog Day Afternoon,” based on a real life story, Al Pacino’s character robbed a bank to pay for a sex change operation for his partner; and Renée Richards, an ophthalmologist who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1975, made headlines when she tried to play women’s tennis professionally. In subsequent years, transgender characters turned up memorably in “The World According to Garp,” “The Crying Game,” “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and “Transamerica,” with each appearance accompanied by a brief brouhaha of attention and controversy.
We seem now, however, to have reached a tipping point in terms of visibility and even acceptance. Transgender persons, whether in real life or in cultural works, are everywhere. We’ve even watched some, like Chaz (née Chastity) Bono, very publicly grow up, struggle with their identity and then decide to make the change.
Now it’s Wheaties box cover guy Bruce Jenner who may be transitioning. In the past couple weeks, you can’t walk past a newsstand or click on a gossip website without seeing a picture of the one-time Olympic decathalon gold medal winner. The accompanying stories speculate that the reality show star is on his way to becoming a woman, the evidence being that he has been sporting a poofier, longer hair style and he's consulted a plastic surgeon about having his Adam’s apple reduced.
Jenner has yet publicly to address the issue but, if he is considering switching sexes, his circumstances eerily mirror those portrayed in “Transparent,” a terrific new pilot for a possible comedy series. It debuted on Amazon’s streaming service earlier this month. The show, created by Jill Soloway (“Six Feet Under” and “The United States of Tara”), is about a sixtyish, divorced father (played by Jeffrey Tambor) in Los Angeles. He’s trying to work up the courage to tell his three adult children, none of whom are particularly happy with their own lives, that he’s taking the first steps toward becoming a woman.
The point of the show is that everyone on it has issues and self-doubts. “In the old days, trans people were always villains, and the new guard usually shows trans people as victims,” Soloway said a recent on-line interview with the Wall Street Journal. “I like the idea that the trans person is one of five characters in a story, all of whom have trouble understanding boundaries and intimacy.”
Tambor’s character in “Transparent” is just one of several transgender characters making a splash in popular culture at the moment. Actor Jared Leto is the favorite to win an Oscar for a Best Supporting Actor on March 2 for his poignant performance as Rayon, a troubled man doing his best to pass as a woman in “Dallas Buyer’s Club.”
While his character falls into the victim category, no one would dare call Sophia Burset a victim. Burset is the lively hairdresser on the hit Netflix series, “Orange Is the New Black.” A transgender inmate at a women’s prison, she’s played by Laverne Cox, herself a transgender actress. (In an episode that told the character’s backstory, Cox’s real-life twin brother, musician M. Lamar, played Sophia pre-surgery, when she was a fire fighter.) Time magazine proclaimed Sophia the “most dynamic transgender character in TV history,” naming her as one of the 11 most influential characters of the year for 2013. She will be back when the second season of “Orange” starts on June 6.
So what does all this tell us? That we’ve come a long way toward societal understanding and acceptance that not everything, or make that everyone, stays the same. If someone is convinced that changing their sex will change their life for the better, it’s their call and there’ll be no catcalling from the rest of us.
We’d do best to remember and follow the example related by Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor at Colby College and the author of a memoir about her own gender change, in a recent opinion piece she published the New York Times. When she was first trying to pass as a woman, she was out shopping one day. As she walked by, a little boy, puzzled, asked his mother, “Who was that?”
“That,” his mother replied, “was a human being.”