I began my journey of coming out as a gay man at 25 after a five-year marriage. This was long enough ago and in backward enough location, Augusta, that it was a riskier process than it is today. The main enemy was the law. The police sometimes parked outside the town's one gay bar to record license plate numbers.
The bar, the Peacock Lounge, was off-limits to military people, although it attracted a lot of men and women stationed at Fort Gordon. The music was provided by a jukebox. The owner was a ranting alcoholic who used to interrupt the music intermittently to publicly attack or praise a customer.
What I most remember about the Peacock are those marvelous individuals who are now clustered under the description of "transgendered." These were mainly drag queens -- like Gary, a white boy who seemed convinced he was Gladys Knight, and Trixie, a very young bearded guy who became a close friend, but whom I only actually saw in drag two or three times. One of my life's strangest evenings was spent with Gary, Trixie and a few others when we cruised North Augusta in a van, stealing porch furniture to furnish Gary's apartment. Trixie used to boast that he acquired his wardrobe by making raids on a Greene Street Laundromat.
There were also a good many female-to-male types, which are sometimes now called "drag kings." Most of them were in the military and they were about 10,000 times tougher than the men at the Peacock. I remember a particularly drunken evening when I was playing pinball with two of them. I was beating them and at one point, I made the indelicate remark that the only way they were going to win was if I let them add their weight to their score. I came to a few minutes later on the floor, soaked in beer.
Because I came out amid men and women in drag and later, in trips to San Francisco, became friends with several brilliant men in the process of gender reassignment, I have always regarded the transgendered as both my personal coming-out mentors and heroes of the larger gay pride movement. Gay Pride, which is celebrated at the end of this month, commemorates the so-called Stonewall Rebellion of June 28, 1969. On that day, police in New York raided the Stonewall Inn, and for the first time ever, the clientele, led by drag queens, fought back. It turned into a three-day protest and riot and ended the long history of gay people's silence in the face of oppression.
Considering the role of the transgendered at Stonewall, it is surprising how many gay men and women continue to dispute the inclusion of them in gay Pride celebrations. (Atlanta PRIDE specifically includes the bisexuals and the transgendered in its official name.) Whereas the original Stonewall Rebellion was a radical protest, gay Pride celebrations commemorating the event are often now seen as public relations events to promote the most mainstream image of homosexuality.
Indeed, this notion became institutionalized in 1989 with the publication of the dreadful After the Ball, which tried to represent its pathologizing of less normative members of the gay community while promoting those more appealing to the mainstream as "pragmatic." Thus the whiners in the community were given new ammo in their perpetual complaint that media only photographs drag queens during Pride parades (a fiction). For a while, it became fashionable for squads of gay businessmen to march in suits with briefcases. This was an eerie throwback to the days when the original American gay-lib organization, the Mattachine Society, prescribed the wearing of suits after it evicted its more radical members. A lot of good it did. As if a suit can alter the fantasies of those who abhor the thought of same-sex sodomy.
Although the disputation of the transgendered's participation in Pride celebrations has seemed to diminish in recent years and despite the popularity of performers like Ru Paul and plays and films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, they still suffer enormous prejudice inside the gay community and in the medical establishment, which still tends to psychologically pathologize them.
The reason, I submit, is that by openly defying mainstream definitions of gender, they remind gay people of the source of their own oppression -- and straight people of the fragility of their own roles. Gay men have been long feminized by the dominant culture on the basis of their sexual orientation. The appearance of the transgendered at Pride seems, in their paranoid view, to reinforce this prejudice. For some straight people, the dissolution of firm gender boundaries disrupts the patriarchal foundation of culture itself. For them, it is feminism carried to an intolerable conclusion: If a man acts like a woman and a woman acts like a man, how can a man maintain his power?
Gay men and women defy the normative rules of gender through their sexual behavior -- whether they like to think so or not -- and present exactly the same challenge as the transgendered do in their more conspicuous way. The gift of the transgendered, therefore, is and always has been that they show us the way instead of obscuring it.
See the Actor's Express production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about a transgendered rocker, through July 26. Call 404-607-7469.