Lessons From Jeffrey Tambor’s ‘Transparent’ Transsexual

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Jeffrey Tambor won a Golden Globe for his transsexual TV role Sunday, and activist Jennifer Finney Boylan schools us on today's transgender world.
Jeffrey Tambor won a Golden Globe for his transsexual TV role Sunday, and activist Jennifer Finney Boylan schools us on today’s transgender world. (Amazon Studios photo)

Sunday night at the 2015 Golden Globes, Jeffrey Tambor became the first actor to ever win an award for playing a transgender role on television. He won Best Actor in a TV Series, Comedy or Musical and his show, “Transparent,” also won for Best TV Series, Comedy or Musical.

Both Tambor and the show’s creator Jill Soloway thanked the transgender community. “They make this possible,” she said. “This award is dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn, and too many trans people who die too young.”

“This is so big. This is much bigger than me,” Tambor said, thanking Soloway “for the responsibility of [playing] Maura Pfefferman of Pacific Palisades,” a late transitioning transgender woman. Tambor also thanked three transgender people for helping him create the character. One of them was Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor, civil rights activist and the author of 13 books, including “She’s Not There” and “Stuck in the Middle With You.” Boylan also writes an op-ed column for The New York Times and on Jan. 6, she wrote about Leelah Alcorn’s suicide.

I reached out to Boylan, and she graciously agreed to an interview for TheBlot Magazine.

Dorri Olds: It seems like a good sign that people are becoming more accepting of different lifestyles and that they’re talking about it. Aside from the “Transparent” Golden Globe wins, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have been publicly supportive of their 8-year-old child, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, who has considered herself a boy and preferred being called John since she was 3. In the transgender community, is there an average age when people begin to question their gender?

Jennifer Finney Boylan: The complicated thing is that there are a lot of different experiences and a lot of ways of being trans. The way journalists frequently find themselves getting in trouble is by not understanding that transgender is an umbrella term that refers to lots of different kinds of people, all of whom might be described as gender-diverse.

It sounds like I’m asking the wrong question. The trans community is as diverse as any community, so it’s almost like asking, “What are Jewish people like?” They are all different.

Exactly, and it’s even worse than that. In 90 seconds, here’s a crash course in the umbrella term “transgender.” It refers to people who are along the spectrum of gender difference. Some transgendered people are transsexual men, or women like me. These are the people you would most commonly associate with that old cliché “a woman trapped in a man’s body” or “a man trapped in a woman’s body.” Many trans people chafe at that description because it is such a cliché.

Transsexual men and women are the ones we most commonly associate with a desire to experience a change of sex through a medical intervention of some kind, whether it’s hormones or surgery. You know, the whole shebang — someone like me who goes from one place to another. Another kind of transgender person is a drag queen. A drag queen is not a transsexual. It’s often a gay man who has the ability to appear amazingly beautiful. Drag is about performance and humor and making us think about gender roles, but at the end of the day, that wig comes off, and there is a gay man with a penis who doesn’t want to be a woman.

Read more: An Open Letter to Leelah Alcorn’s Parents — and Every Parent

I always thought that people in drag are referred to as transvestites, no?

No, darlin’, that is a word we never use. Transvestite is like the N-word. Drag has most to do with performance. If you’re RuPaul, you are not a gay man who wants to be a woman, you are a gay man who has this character that’s a lot of fun.

People we now refer to as “crossdressers” are included in the umbrella term of transgender. A crossdresser is usually a straight man who is dressing or presenting as female for a variety of reasons. In part because it’s fun, part fantasy, in part because there’s a sexual component to it. So, a crossdresser is someone who might fit into some of these descriptions, but a straight man with an interest in clothing is not necessarily someone who wants to be a woman and not someone that necessarily wants to be gay.

One more kind of transgender person is “genderqueer.” Genderqueer people are at least partially interested in being free from gender or what you might call “genderfluid” or “gender-diverse.” These are people who want to exist anywhere along the spectrum and where they reside on that spectrum might change from day to day depending on how they’re feeling. Often it’s a political identity to some degree. If you hear someone use the phrase, “Reject the gender binary,” you’re probably in the presence of a genderqueer person.

So there are four different ways of being transgender. If you run into someone who you have reason to believe was or is male bodied but is presenting as female, they could be a gay man doing drag or someone like me who is 100 percent female — legally and medically. Or they could be someone engaged in some kind of political experience, or it could be someone who is just having fun with chiffon.

This is why it’s so complicated and so very hard to do good reporting on transgender stuff. The bottom line is: If you’ve met one transgender person, you’ve met one transgender person.

Things are very liberal here in New York City, but people around the country might have no idea how to behave if their child said, “I want to be a boy” or “I want to be a girl.” What do you think is the most supportive way to respond?

I think we have to give children and families the time to figure out what the child needs. The hardest thing for parents is to let go of their idea of who their child is going to be. Maybe people think it’s traumatic to have wanted a son and to have gotten a son and then to realize your son is really your daughter.

It seems to me that to be a good parent, you welcome the child you have, rather than try to shoehorn them into a child that you wish you had instead. And that’s true for all parents — or it should be.

Dorri Olds is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine

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