We’re at a “historical moment in the media” for trans people, says Susan Stryker, historian, author, filmmaker, activist and director of the Institute for LGBT Studies at the University of Arizona.
Stryker delivered the annual Margaret Morrison Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University on Monday. Part of CMU’s celebration of Women’s History Month, the lecture is named for Andrew Carnegie’s mother, who also lent her name to the university’s former college for women.
Stryker is raising money for TSQ, the first academic journal focused exclusively on transgender issues. The first issue is scheduled for publication in May.
Although transgender issues are currently in a media spotlight in a big way, being trans isn’t new, says Stryker, who is developing a multimedia presentation about the most famous transsexual woman of the 20th century—Christine Jorgensen.
Jorgensen became a media sensation after her 1952 sexual reassignment surgery was splashed in the New York Daily News under the headline, “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.” She later toured nightclubs, wrote an autobiography, and became a sought-after guest on talk shows in the 1960s.
Stryker showed some clips from her new project, called “Christine in the Cutting Room,” which incorporates video, still images, archival film footage and recreations of scenes from Jorgensen’s life. Stryker’s title references Jorgensen’s pre-celebrity career as a photographer and film editor for a newsreel company.
Although non-fiction, the project is presented in the first person—it’s as if Jorgensen is telling her own story, posthumously, from a film editing suite in the afterlife.
Trans issues are being represented “as something recent,” Stryker says, “but it’s not new, they have a history. So I think we have to ask, why are these issues being presented as something new?”
With more and more Americans welcoming and accepting gays and lesbians in every part of society, Stryker thinks the media is simply trying to find a new frontier: “After you could get gay married, there was almost a discovery of ‘OK, what’s next? Oh, it’s trans!'”
Increased visibility has its downside for trans people, Stryker says, because it also provides a new battleground for conservative culture warriors.
“A lot of the religious right, I think, figures they’ve lost the gay marriage debate, so the next fight to preserve ‘life as we know it’ is the public bathroom fight,” she says.
Stryker’s new project on Jorgensen’s life will be more than a multimedia presentation—it’s also multi-platform. In addition to watching the film, audiences will be able to experience it in a gallery setting, as an installation. She has also invited VJs to mix and re-mix the clips live, in clubs.
George Jorgensen Jr. was born in 1926 in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised male. In 1945, Jorgensen was drafted into the U.S. Army during the final days of World War II.
“The initial coverage of Jorgensen sensationalized the fact that she was an ex-G.I.,” Stryker says, “but she was hardly some gung-ho Rambo type.”
In fact, Jorgensen was slight of build and very introverted—a secret cross-dresser who had always felt very effeminate.
When she learned of experimental hormone therapies and sexual reassignment surgeries in Europe, Jorgensen, who was studying photography, began studying to become a medical technician instead, so that she could learn more about the process.
During a trip to Denmark to visit relatives, Jorgensen met a Danish endocrinologist who agreed to begin her hormone replacement therapy.
But she wasn’t the first, Stryker says, and other transsexuals had been profiled in the media. So why did Jorgensen become so famous?
She argues that Jorgensen’s transition provided a public focal point for Cold War masculine anxieties about science, sex and traditional gender roles.
Wartime scientific research had caused unprecedented progress in medicine and technology. Some developments, such as antibiotics and organ transplants, were positive, but others, such as atomic energy and factory automation, were causing anxiety.
If a man could become a woman, Stryker says, and cross the supposedly rigid gender binary, what else could be transgressed? She calls Jorgensen “an avatar of the atomic age.”
Then, too, Jorgensen’s story made headlines just as American society was trying to re-establish rigid sex and gender roles, she says. During World War II, women entered American workplaces in large numbers, and once they gained freedom and independence, they liked it. Many were choosing to have careers outside the home, to the chagrin of conservative men.
Homosexuality also was being discussed in public for the first time, and also thanks to World War II, Stryker says. During the war, the U.S. military had made an organized attempt to keep gay men out of the Army, Navy and Marines by asking them questions about their sexual preferences.
Before being asked those questions, Stryker suspects, some gay men probably didn’t realize that other men shared their same sex attraction. The military “inadvertently provided a vocabulary for men who may not have known” how to express their feelings, Stryker says.
Jorgensen’s story was appealing to American and European media because she was white, middle-class and conventionally pretty, and her appearance and behavior conformed to traditional Western gender roles, Stryker says. This gave Jorgensen access to a media platform that might not have been available if she’d been a person of color, or if she hadn’t appeared feminine enough.
Trans people in today’s media spotlight are increasingly non-white—think actress Laverne Cox and writer Janet Mock—and are much more willing to speak frankly than Jorgensen could in the 1950s and ’60s.
“Jorgensen came of age in a particular place and time,” Stryker says. If she seemed to have an attachment to the trappings of stereotypically feminine fashion or behavior, “I don’t think she was atypical in that regard” among women.
And although transwomen in particular are finally getting positive media attention after years of being represented by “Norman Bates in his fright wig,” Stryker says, “for every Laverne Cox, there’s a horrible, demeaning portrayal” of a transwoman.
But the wider acceptance of transgender people also has suddenly become almost a symbol for progressives of “what’s so good about the West,” she says. “It’s a very interesting moment that trans is in.”