Gender-Bending Books

"The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment, for all that do so are an abomination unto the Lord thy God." --Deuteronomy 22:5 "Well, nobody's perfect." -Joe E. Brown to Jack Lemmon, at the end of Some Like It Hot, after discovering he's not a she. One midnight nine years ago, I was on Bourbon Street watching a huge drunk Texan stumbling out of the club called Boys Will Be Girls. He was in a major state of homosexual panic: "They oughtta to be shot! They oughtta be shot!" he was murmuring to no one in particular. I try to remember that Texan every time I start to smirk about how commonplace drag has become. Last year, the public sluiced Mrs. Doubtfire down its collective throat without protest; this year, there was Wigstock, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and now former professional ass-kickers Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze appear as drag artistes in the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. It's safe to claim that at no point since the French Revolution has gender blur been so widespread. And, as some new books prove, it's all happened relatively quickly. Observe the difference between the lives of Glen, tormented transvestite hitman in the newly reprinted 1965 novel Killer in Drag, and of RuPaul, as seen on MTV and in his very mass-market 1995 autobiography, Lettin It All Hang Out. "Drag reached its pop zenith with RuPaul," the late Roger Baker writes in the last chapter of Drag, his attempt to catalogue the transvestite's history in showbiz. Gary Kates's account of the remarkable story of the Chevalier d'Eon, the celebrated French military officer, spy and transvestite, provides a great moment in the history of cross-dressing; and, looking towards the future, local actor and playwright Kate Bornstein, like the 18th century Chevalier proposes an alternative to the immutability of being either man or woman, thus taking the symbolic act-as well as the physicality-of drag to its ultimate extreme. It's worth considering where we were only thirty years ago. Killer in Drag, published in 1965, is by the notorious Edward Glen Wood, Jr., director of the folk art film classic Plan 9 From Outer Space; Wood was also the subject of last year's Tim Burton film, as well as the documentary Look Back in Angora. Indeed, the angora-porn sequences in Killer in Drag will be familiar to fans of Wood; like Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Wood lived for the touch of rabbit's fur: "'Angora,' she said aloud, 'What a magnificent feeling'... Yes, those fuzzy angora sweaters she continually wore gave her the mist-like quality of a real dream." The main character is named Glen, or Glenda (just like Wood's weird semiautobiographical 1952 film opus); under either name, he's a cross-dressing hit man framed for murder, who lams it for a sordid little town. There, he takes up with the prostitute "Red" Graves, who is sympathetic to Glen's need to wear women's apparel. Those who are pleased by unusual literary structure will be dazzled by the utter disappearance of the main character, as well as by the non sequitur ending. As John Shade said in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, I prefer to roll in the prose like a terrier in a patch of grass fouled by a Great Dane. One sample is Glen's hard-boiled threat: "Keep your nose out of other people's business, and it keeps its shape longer -- The nose I mean." Wood's typically strange lyricism-and stranger syntax-is also haunting. "She could, and many times did, walk for miles just listening to her spike heels as they clicked along rhythmically." Throughout, Wood underscores the real dangers of transvestite life, from Glen's terror at being blackmailed, to the story of Shirlee, the carnival's half-man/half-woman, whose trailer smells of "stale whiskey-filled air in the house of a very lonely person." Lastly, there is the plaintive defiance of the author's message: "We are dressed as we feel best for our own comfort." Though Hollywood's first great uncloseted transvestite director, Wood is one of the characters missing from Roger Baker's book Drag. Baker begins with a ringing declaration: "She emerges from the mists of time and threads her way through the histories of all cultures and all nations." And indeed the transvestite is a symbol of mystery and fertility in the world's art, but the author's real forte is pursuing the history of drag artists through English theater. The customary ban against women onstage goes back to the early English miracle plays of the 1300s; Noah's wife, in some of these biblical pageants, was written as a shrew, and would have thus been a forerunner to the drag washbags of recent time. Baker is at his best when he discusses the question of how an all-male cast was able to portray Shakespeare's women. How could some adolescent kid play Cleopatra? (The Queen of the Nile even frets in Antony and Cleopatra that "some squeaking Cleopatra boy" will assay her on the Roman stage.) The answer, Baker says, was that old ally of the stage, suspension of disbelief: "The sound emerging from what appears to be a woman will be interpreted as a woman's voice." Also, he suggests that experience helped. Despite the common notion that only unbearded youths played Shakespeare's women, some members of theatrical companies continued to play women's roles well into their late twenties. Baker names several Shakespearians who continued to perform as women even long after the custom of male-only acting ended. These actors not only did comic turns but glamour roles. Pepys noted in his diary that an actor named Edward Kynaston had "the loveliest legs I ever saw in my life." In England, the glamorous drag performer went dormant during the Victorian era, though the stage groaned under the number of "Slavey" parts, wisecracking old dowagers whose purpose was less often farcical than sentimental. Then the 1920s thawed the Victorian freeze. The post-WWII history of professional drag practically needs a second volume: it's harder to find a male performer who hasn't worn a dress than one who has. In our own time, even the Royal family is reportedly fans of the chat-show hostess Dame Edna Everage (Barry Humphries). Nor, being British, could they have escaped the music of Boy George (the squeaking Boy says, disingenuously, "I'm not a transvestite. To be a transvestite you must wear women's undergarments -- I don't."). Baker's book crashes to an unfortunate stop, though. The author died of emphysema before completing his tome, and the last chapters are a tangle of dropped names, a laundry list of London's gay cabaret scene. Consequently, Drag is by no means the last word on the subject, but Baker's research on Elizabethan and Restoration performers should provide ample source material for the next big book of drag. Along the way, Baker mentions the Chevalier d'Eon (1749-1810) who was, in a way, in showbiz, since the nobleman gave fencing exhibitions in women's clothes. The chevalier is relegated to only a few pages, next to such other drag noblemen as Phillipe d'Orleans, brother of Louis XIV, who used to cavort at Versailles in female finery, singing "Suis-je une fille? Suis-je un garcon?" The elder Orleans inspired the Abbe Choisy, who attended the Pope's coronation ball in a dress; Choisy slept, Baker assures us, with his arms trussed up in a sling to make sure that his hands were pretty. But it was d'Eon, as Baker writes, who was "the most high-profiled of all transvestites," the man who gave psychologist Havelock Ellis a term, "Eonism," to describe the impulse to change genders. Gary Kates's Monsieur d'Eon Is a Woman is an outstanding piece of detective work; d'Eon lived in the milieu immortalized by Laclos's Dangerous Liasons, among some of the most gifted and cynical obfuscators Europe has ever known. The chevalier was a military hero and an envoy to the courts at Moscow and London; soon after he turned forty, persistent rumors of his actually being a woman ended his career. Indeed, in his memoirs, D'eon spread the falsehood that he was a girl raised as a boy. But after his death in exile, he was found to be quite male, which raised the question: why did the chevalier assume the identity of the other sex? Even Voltaire was perplexed, and mused, "This will make a grand problem for history." He was right. The answer, of course, is complex. It lies first in the elasticity of sexual roles, then as now, more common among the privileged (one reason why the financially strapped Ed Wood had more trouble making do as a transvestite than J. Edgar Hoover did). As a great bibliophile, d'Eon was witness to, and probably influenced by, the philosophical debate concerning the role of women that courses through 18th century literature, which suggested that women were not the weaker but the purer sex. Lastly, the impetus to change genders has been suggested by Kates to lie at least in part in the chevalier's political career, which was a jungle of intrigues. Deeply involved in Louis XV's secret government, d'Eon was in a position to blackmail the French crown. Kates suggest that d'Eon's remarkable solution was to spread rumors of his being a woman, rumors that swelled, were bet upon, and ultimately led to a royal order from the King of France for d'Eon to dress as a woman. "The bad boy must become a good girl," as a courtier advised him. This, for a time at least, made d'Eon a national hero, like France's transvestite saint, Joan of Arc. In d'Eon's declining years, he became a devout Christian. "As a man, I marched in fear of God," d'Eon wrote. "At present, as I wear my dress, I march in love of our Lord, and so have nothing more to fear." In this ultimately voluntary change, d'Eon has proved to be as much of a pioneer of the abolition of gender roles as his contemporary, the Marquis de Sade, was a pioneer of sexual freedom. D'Eon often studied St. Paul's comment in Galatians that the soul is neither female nor male, the same conclusion drawn by Bay Area playwright and actor Kate Bornstein. Her Gender Outlaw is a slight but pleasant memoir of her life lived somewhere out on the edge of one of life's major dualities. Bornstein is a post-operative transsexual who is merry about it. "Yeah, the plumbing works, and so does the electricity" she told a chat-show audience, in response to the obligatory first question about sex change. As for, "Did it hurt?", her answer is yes, but not as much as not having the operation. Gender Outlaw is something of a scrapbook, a collection of old photos, mottos, and newspaper clippings, in addition to her play, Hidden: A Gender. Thus, Gender Outlaw is both the thoughts of a brave and sojourning person, and something of a nonbook -- although not as much of a nonbook as RuPaul's memoirs. An early manifestation of RuPaul's destiny was Diana Ross worship and an Afro of legendary size: "big hair, big heart," he writes. RuPaul conveys the sense that you too could have been the celeb in question, a notion that elevates the reader while bringing the celebrity down to earth. He displays the star's fetching modesty on how what he does is really just an ordinary way to make a buck ("It's no different than being a businessman putting on a three-piece suit"), but he also lets slip the casual detail of what he endures. Here's a tip for the aspiring model: drink a cup of vinegar before a shoot, because it cinches up your stomach. And, of course, there's gossip that makes you feel like a confidant: the agony of drag queen Milton Berle allegedly trying to pork the author; the ecstasy of RuPaul upon meeting at last the great Diana in the heavens, on board a Concorde. Diana Ross, for all the scariness of her glamour, was (as RuPaul says, quoting Oprah Winfrey), the first colored girl on television, which must have been, for her, truly scary. The uncomfortably sincere moments of revelation in Bornstein's play Hidden: A Gender, and in RuPaul's book reflect lives that could still turn scary on a moment's notice not an hour's drive from Bourbon Street. RuPaul says that he's been successful because the Reagan era has ended and the conservative pendulum has swung back, but he seems curiously oblivious to the Gingrich revolution. Still, RuPaul does represent a tradition reborn in part because it never really went away, preserved on stages and behind the walls of palaces. And RuPaul has changed popular drag's intention. Once, drag was, as George Orwell wrote (describing the gag postcards of his time), "a sort of sub-world of smacked bottoms and scrawny mothers-in-law which is a part of Western European consciousness" -- the kind of theater epitomized by Uncle Milty in his housecoat. The sexually challenging RuPaul, lounging on the Concorde, rubbing shoulders with Diana Ross, is a long way from Glen/Glenda shivering in urban New Jersey. Ed, you should have lived to see this day. Tex, even away from Bourbon Street, you ain't never going to be able to afford enough bullets.

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