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Changing Times: Members of transgender community tell their history in media and pop culture

Before Jenna Talackova, there was Chaz Bono; before him, Brandon Teena; and, back in the 1950s, Christine Jorgensen. Transgender people have had a long, loud struggle in the media, from Jerry Springer’s earliest ratings-bait drama productions to Donald Trump deciding recently to ban a transgender pageant hopeful — only to have the organization overturn the ban and institute a policy of acceptance.\n

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

20th April 2012 02:57

Alessia Valenza

Last month, the American medical journal Pediatrics released a study stating that enrollment in one of the nation’s first gender identity clinics at Children’s Hospital Boston has quadrupled, from about four patients a year in the late 1990s to about 19 patients a year today.

And there’s Jazz, 11 years old and remarkably eloquent for a pre-teen. She has become a spokesperson for her community. “I am Jazz,” an OWN documentary, follows Jazz and her family as they explore hormone therapy options.

People like Jenna, Jazz and Chaz have brought familiar faces to the fight of a community that, until recent years, has been widely portrayed as freakish.

The Daily conducted a series of interviews with several transgender people of various ages about their experience and portrayal over the years. Here is what they told us.

1952: Christine Jorgensen becomes a national media sensation when a newspaper headline blares “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty.”

KYLAR BROADUS (48, attorney): The only thing that I had seen before I transitioned was about Christine Jorgensen. That was it. I thought there weren’t people like me. I always felt in the wrong body and was freaked out when I started going through female puberty. When I read her story it was like, “Wow, this does exist.”            

DEE DEE CHAMBLEE (51, director of LaGender Inc. in Atlanta): Most of us dropped out of school when we were 14 or 15 years old because that’s when the bullying really starts. Me and my friends, we all loved school, we just didn’t like the fighting and the bullying and the taunting. The most honest information we got was from the drag shows and pageants. We were still calling ourselves drag queens, but we knew it was something deeper than just being a drag queen.

1966: Johns Hopkins University announces a program to perform experimental gender reassignment surgeries in America.

BAMBY SALCEDO (42, project coordinator at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles): It was 19 years that I lived as a boy. It’s not easy. Do you have the right clothes or the right hair or the right makeup? It’s about representing how you feel inside. I’m going to just be blunt: A vagina does not make me a woman, so I don’t need to have a vagina to be who I am.

1989: Upon his death, it is discovered that famous jazz musician Billy Tipton, who had a wife and three adopted sons, was born a female.

BROADUS: I ran into an article, and I’m appalled to admit this, but it was in the National Enquirer, on Billy Tipton. I hid the page in my parents’ house and came home from school and read it not every day but most days.

1991: “The Jerry Springer Show” premieres, garnering high ratings from dramatic personal stories and exposés.

CHRIS MOSIER (31, athlete): I think my experience was that there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there, which I think delayed my process in choosing to transition. The few pieces I did see in the media, the representation was mostly a joke.

JEFFREY JAY (25, comedian): Everyone my age’s first experience [with transgender people] was Jerry Springer.

CHAMBLEE: It was crude! It was rude! Most transgender people just want to be in a monogamous relationship like everybody else. I’ve been married to my husband for 21 years.

LAVERNE COX (actress): Some people I knew were approached to be on [Jerry Springer] and were asked to make up stories. I wanted to completely distance myself from anything that was like what was going on on that show. I remember thinking, “This is not me.” It’s horrifying to see. Like, “Is this what my life is going to be like?”

1992: LaGender Inc. (the name spins “Los Angeles”) launches in response to the growing transgender community in Southern California.

CHAMBLEE: Most people, before I teach my [diversity] class, have only seen transgender people on Jerry Springer. When LaGender started, we were trying to create a new image. We started by doing a lot of community service work. People saw us feeding the hungry, doing outreach work at night, going to the churches to speak.

1999: Hilary Swank stars in (and later wins a Best Actress Oscar for) “Boys Don’t Cry,” about the real life of Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was raped and murdered in 1993.

COX: When I saw “Boys Don’t Cry,” I was trying to decide if I wanted to transition or not. I remember seeing Brandon Teena killed and I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to die.”

BROADUS: I see “Boys Don’t Cry” as a positive [portrayal] in some respects. There has to be education because we are dying.

2000: While a handful of cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, had passed anti-discrimination laws regarding gender identity, the new century saw a marked increase in statewide legislation.

CHAMBLEE: The atmosphere was still real cold for a transgender person. I had to go to a lot of meetings where I was the only one there who looked like me. You were sitting there dressed, looking like Beyoncé, and they want to say, “Sir, may I help you?” Where did you see a sir? So I started doing diversity training.

COX: With “Boys Don’t Cry” or “Soldier’s Girl” [2003] or “Transamerica” [2005], they’d have an actress who was not transgender playing a transgender character. A lot of casting directors would say the talent was not there. That’s what I was hearing. Then [transgender actors] started getting hired for reality television in very human ways. It changed a lot.

2002: Tyler Perry premieres the first of his “Madea” movies, which revolve around a cross-dressing Perry as Mabel Simmons.

CHAMBLEE: “Holiday Heart” was about a drag queen who did missionary work and did her drag shows at night. People respected her because she was in the community doing good. That’s what “Madea” became for us; the community loves her and so she’s accepted.

BROADUS: I know a lot of trans women “Madea” bothers. To me it doesn’t because I do think it’s more a stereotype of the “big mama” in the black family, so it’s really not poking fun at trans women.

JAZZ (11, student): When I was younger, my mom showed me “Ma Vie en Rose” [1997]. I was in awe to know that I wasn’t the only person like me in the world.

MOSIER: I started using YouTube a lot. There’s a huge transgender community on YouTube of people sharing their transition stories and providing weekly or monthly updates of challenges they’re having. I didn’t have any trans friends and those were real people and it wasn’t a representation on TV that could be skewed.

2010: The word “tranny,” which many say was coined by Christine Jorgensen herself in 1960, becomes a hotbed of debate in the community.

JA’BRIEL WALTHOUR (35, advocate and writer): To me, “tranny” is kinda derogatory. I was watching VH1 recently and one of the stories used the word “tranny.” I took offense, but I feel that if I wasn’t part of the community, it would still be offensive that someone else was referred to that way.

SALCEDO: You know when someone uses the n-word and black folks obviously aren’t OK with it, but when they call each other the n-word, it’s OK? It’s kind of like the same thing. I guess the community is trying to overturn that word now and use it to empower ourselves. I personally don’t find it offensive. I think it’s funny and cute.

September 2011: Chaz Bono, a transgender man, competes on “Dancing with the Stars.”

COX: Seeing some transgender people who are really beautiful and their lives are relatively normal and they’re really cool people helps. You don’t have to be a prostitute or some circus freak or whatever if you transition.

CHAMBLEE: In the last few years, I never would’ve thought we’d be where we are. We started the first transgender ministry at a Baptist church this year in Atlanta. Who would’ve ever thought that would happen?we’d be where we are. We started the first transgender ministry at a Baptist church this year in Atlanta. Who would’ve ever thought that would happen?

December 2011: The repeal of the armed services’ “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is a major victory for equality in America, though transgender people still cannot legally enlist.

WALTHOUR: I can remember from the age of 17 wanting to join the U.S. Air Force or Army Reserve and I knew at that time [in 1995] that I couldn’t join. When they got rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I was 34 years old and I’m still young enough to join, but transgender people were left off. I felt like in the larger scheme of things, we get left off a lot of the time.

JAZZ: I definitely prefer being out in the public. Kids that don’t have as much support need someone to educate them on being trans. I felt alone when I was younger and I don’t want any transgender kids to feel that way. I don’t get picked on much anymore because my friends understand.