Recently I have been reading Julia Serano's excellent book "Whipping Girl, A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity." In the book she referenced Gore Vidal's famous character Myra Breckinridge from the book of the same name. Her (all too mild) criticism that the character perpetuates a stereotype struck me because I have long lionized Gore Vidal -- not for his literary career so much as the fact that he was the man who reduced the great wordsmith and conservative icon William F Buckley, Jr to hurling a personal insult at him and threatening violence. William F Buckley was, in actual fact, a boor who held a high stature built on a faulty (general) public perception that he was a brillliant intellectual; which perception was generated by his capacity for assuming a smug, superior attitude and peppering his speech with grandiose language which dazzled the hoi polloi. He seldom (if ever) lost his composure or dropped his smug attitude but Gore Vidal once, at least, elucidated the man behind the mask and exposed Buckley as the common thug he really was. I was too young to take any interest in politics when that encounter occurred but by the time I was a teenager Buckley's stature was at its peak. He appeared regularly on PBS with his own show "Firing Line." I detested him; the smugness and his assumed superiority infuriated my newly minted liberality. He never did put-it-over on me with his overly dramatic, dripping bombast. I saw through the (obnoxious) frilly language and understood that he was only your run of the mill authoritarian creep and capital worshipping stooge the same way Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and all the rest of the "commie-pinko" exploiting opportunists of the day were. So later, after I became aware of the exchange between Vidal and Buckley at the 1968 Democratic Convention during which Buckley so lost his composure that he broke character and exclaimed "Now listen you little queer -- stop calling me a crypto-nazi or I'll sock you in the goddamned face and you'll stay plastered," I developed a, now long held, affinity for Vidal.
Though I had never read Myra Breckinridge nor seen the movie starring Raquel Welch and Farrah Fawcett still I was aware that it was a risque (read sexually variant) farce. Knowing that, and being aware that Gore Vidal was famously homosexual, I simply assumed that it cast the LGB and T community positively as a gender-bending novel and screenplay. Then I came upon Julia Serano's criticism. That criticism, mild as it was, made me curious about the development of the transsexual character Myra Breckinridge and so I read the book over this past weekend. While I found the style brilliant and compelling the story is contrived and unquestionably scarring to and exploitative of the transsexual community and the ending left me cold and let down. I finished it disappointed in one of my heros.
As a gay man it's possible that I may actually have insights into Myra Breckinridge that Ms Serano will have overlooked (or not). Clearly Vidal employed the transsexual character Myra Breckinridge as a vehicle to put his own lurid fantasies and sexually variant sensibilities to paper. Descriptions of the sexual desire Myra has for the lead male character -- young, handsome and virile Rusty -- are clearly homosexual in nature and very vivid while, on the other hand, descriptions of Myra's sexual desire for her female foil Mary-Ann are exceptionally shallow and barely explored. Vidal's imagination regarding sex with females appears to have beeen lacking. The story climaxes with Myra coercing heterosexual character Rusty into a situation in which she is able to strap him to a doctor's exam table and rape him by penetrating his virgin anus with a strap-on dildo. This violation has the ultimate effect of destroying the love affair between Rusty and Mary-Ann, which destruction Myra immediately exploits to begin seducing Mary-Ann into her bed. Myra is a brilliant but conniving, manipulative and damaged person with psychotic ambitions that include destroying all masculinity and saving the World from overpopulation by changing the nature of human sexuality forever.
My theory is that Vidal made the title character a transsexual woman because, while quite a provocative offering, he judged that by making a character who has lurid and emotionally disturbed sexual fantasies and who stalks a young straight male (and even another woman) a transsexual woman it might be acceptable in the public sphere as avant garde literature. A depiction of the same lurid and disturbing descriptions of sexual desire from a homosexual man for another man, on the other hand, would almost surely have been dismissed as pure, unmitigated smut. I won't even comment on the double standard with regards to the acceptability of lesbian sexual narratives in literature versus male on male sexual narratives.
While there perhaps may have been some slight positive aspect to appropriating transsexuality for the story in that it at least brought the subject of transsexuality into the public sphere the exploitation was nonetheless injurious on any number of levels. First and foremost it perpetuated the stereotype of the transsexual woman as a trickster and a fake preying on unsuspecting men by making them believe she is a "real" woman in order to have homosexual sex with them. But the depiction also reinforced the notion that the desire to change one's sex results from psychological damage and that it does not, in the long run, fulfill any real need that couldn't otherwise be fulfilled. The character Myra also employs the ultimate derogatory stereotype that supposes that turning to transsexualism is a choice motivated by one's perverse sexual desires that include a desire to subsume womanhood for the sheer eroticism of experiencing sex as the opposite sex after having already experienced it as one's own sex. As well, this ugly stereotype includes the notion that transsexuals make their body into the female form in order to arouse their male labido.
At the story's end Myra is run over by a hit and run driver and the accident results in both having her silicone breasts removed and her being taken off of her hormone therapy so that she converts back to Myron, the man she was before her sex change operation. Because Mary-Ann is emotionally able to physically give herself to Myron, whereas she could not bring herself to have a physical relationship with Myra, Myron is happy to leave Myra in his past and, what's even more obnoxious about the finale, the psychotic nature of Myra resolves itself once she reverts back to Myron Breckinridge.
As I said, I have long lionized Gore Vidal, not only for the way he unhinged William F Buckley but also for being unapologetic about his sexual nature in a time when it was both physically and professionally dangerous to even acknowledge having a variant sexual nature. But after reading Myra Breckinridge I felt like I wanted to throttle him. As a member of a persecuted minority it should have occurred to him that perpetuating stereotypes about a far smaller and even more persecuted minority was an evil and selfish thing to do. I believe though that his error can be explained by the fact that then, and even now, the gay and lesbian community is nearly as ignorant about transsexuality as the heterosexual community is. In the same way that sometimes poor and/or ignorant caucasians are racist just in order to have some community of people still to look down on I think that there may have been (and still often is) a tendency by those in the gay and lesbian community to simply accept the stereotypes surrounding transsexuals and transsexualism and be glad that they are not, at least, transsexuals or transgendered.
This tendency to superiority, so long inflicted upon homosexuals, is still being meted out on the transsexual community by every other sexually oriented group -- including by the gay and lesbian community. This reality is exemplified by the "womyn born womyn" exclusionary policy still practiced by some lesbian feminists and, as I have just discussed, can as easily be perpetuated by the gay male community. This kind of paradigm, a minority population having to start from absolute scratch in convincing others that they too deserve to have their civil rights respected, has a long tradition that most recently has been experienced by homosexuals. Gay rights activists had to first just convince others that homosexuals deserved to be accepted as legitimately existing long before they could even begin advocating for equality under the law. Sound familiar? When the gay rights movement began they did not enter into the social and political conversation by trying to convince conservatives to accept their legitimacy but set out having to convince (at least) the radical left that it was safe and right to champion their cause. At the outset liberals resisted even considering addressing gay rights because they were convinced it would delegitimize liberalism and that attitude persists still among many who otherwise consider themselves liberals and progressives. Homosexuality was nearly universally considered an unnatural perversion and an "abomination" including even by those farthest to the left; a general perception that was driven by stereotypes that existed and still persist. Steroetypes for instance that gay men are all pedophiles who intentionally recruit young men into a homosexual lifestyle or that lesbians just haven't been with "the right man." That one gay partner is always the dominant one and the other the feminine one or that women might become lesbians after they are moslested as girls and developed a deep distrust of men or even just that homosexuality is not a naturally occurring sexual identity but a mental disorder.
Now we see that homosexuals can be as guilty as anyone of saddling the transsexual and transgender community with similarly unwarranted stereotypes like, for instance, that they are a bunch of crazy bitches like Myra Breckinridge. Shame on us.