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what do you mean they weren’t drag queens?

September 7, 2006

Whoa, wasn’t there a NYTimes article about transpeople like last week or something? I wonder what’s happening here. Maybe the fundamentalists are on to something…the queers seem to be taking over the world.

Today’s article, entitled “A Safe House for the Girl Within,” is about a 1950’s retreat center in the Catskills for transwomen and cross-dressing men (and the like?). The article, which is accompanied by some fantastic photos, wavers between earnestly trying to understand its subject and simultaneously emphasizing the freak factor. The article describes a guy who found a box of photos at a flea market in Manhattan from “Casa Susanna,” as the house was called:

…here was a group of men dressed as women, beautiful and homely, posing with gravity, happiness and in some cases outright joy. They were playing cards, eating dinner, having a laugh. They didn’t look campy, like drag queens vamping it up as Diana Ross or Cher; they looked like small-town parishioners, like the lady next door, or your aunt in Connecticut.

If we can put aside the author’s use of the word homely to describe the women, something interesting is happening here. It seems that the assumption of transwomen, or cross-dressing men, or whatever they are (they’re all lumped in the same category right? Right?), is that they are basically all drag queens: over-the-top makeup, ridiculous heels, huge wigs. A caricature of femininity, in a sense. Which drag queens are, and they’re fabulous for it. But the author seems to be conflating drag queens with transwomen and is so confused as to why the women in these photos don’t seem to be performing at all. Why is it so perplexing to see transwomen acting and dressing like regular women? Continuing the shock:

What still moves Murray Moss, the impresario behind Moss the store, about the images in the book is their ordinariness. “You think of man dressed as woman and you think extremes: it’s kabuki, Elizabethan theater, Lady Macbeth,” he said. “It’s also sexual. But these aren’t sexual photos. The idea that they formed a secret society just to be … ordinary. It’s like a mirror held up to convention. It’s not what you would expect. It’s also not pathetic. Everybody looks so happy.”

A few things to unpack: automatically sexualizing men who dress like women is interesting in the sense that women, any women, can’t walk three feet in public without being sexualized. Women’s bodies are sexualized all over the place. What isn’t acknowledged here, at least in this space, is that the reason that these women and women had to escape to a retreat house to be so very normal was because they lived in a culture where their own sense of normal didn’t really jive with everyone else’s. It wasn’t because they were flamboyant drag queens, who, of course, are justifiably shunned by our culture. (hope you’re picking up on my sarcasm here).

Everyone thinks of these people as these really tragic figures, especially in the 1950’s. It’s amazing that these photos were found, if only to shatter the myth that not only are transpeople (especially transpeople during a particularly transphobic age) not tragic figures, they found strength in forming their own communities instead of living life in isolation.

Also unclear is how many of the visitors to Casa Susanna identified/identify as transwomen and how many as heterosexual cross-dressing men or anything else, but I think I have to settle with the notion that we can’t necessarily fit 1950’s people into categories of 2006. They were clearly very complicated identities (and continue to be):

[Virginia] Prince became known as the founder of the transgender movement, and wrote copiously on the subject for science and sex research journals and conferences, irritating more than a few Casa Susanna graduates, who weren’t comfortable with the politicizing of their issues, or the strict categories she created. Born male (and still biologically male), she has been living as a woman for the past 40 years. At 94, she’s no longer allowed to drive, but she leads the Lollies (“little old ladies like me,” she said the other day) at her California retirement home in a study group (they’re covering astronomy this month) and drives a red scooter.

“I invented gender,” she said proudly. “Though if the ladies here find out I’m a biological man I’m a dead duck.”

Let’s make sure that all the good NYTimes readers know that Ms. Prince is still biologically male! Obsession with people’s genitals never ceases to amaze me. Anyway, the author is so preoccupied with the fact that these women are normal! She’s an old lady who drives a scooter! Amazing! Just the same point over and over.

Mediocre article full of stereotypes and misconceptions about a really interesting subject, both in terms of who made up this community and also what role photographs can play in telling a story of people who existed on the margins.

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