monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #134

As Universal As It Gets

Security is mostly a superstition; it does not occur in nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. -- Helen Keller

Over five years ago, in November 1999, I wrote a Comes Naturally column noting that serious discussions of transgender issues had begun to appear regularly in mainstream media. "It seems that every time I turn around there's something new in the mainstream media about transsexuals," I said then. "I'm not talking about transsexual hookers showing up on TV talk shows. I'm talking about newspaper articles, TV news features, and films addressing the real issues raised by transgendered people in serious, respectful, even positive ways."

Since that time, awareness and discussion of issues related to gender mutability have become a common part of the American cultural landscape. Films like The Crying Game and Boys Don't Cry have enjoyed widespread distribution throughout the U.S. Hilary Swank received an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry. A TV series The Education of Max Bickford, included a central transgender character, while less pivotal transgender characters have made their appearance in such popular TV serials as Ally McBeal, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order. Gender issues have even penetrated the arcane world of reality TV. In A&E's recent Role Reversal, two men and two women, coached by a team of gender experts, were filmed living as the opposite sex for one month, both within the safe confines of their New York apartment and in the outside world. "The experience teaches our subjects about themselves and the world around them," A&E notes in its promotion of the two-hour show, "including the darker side of gender bias and social expectation."

But even as there has been increasing attention and genuine concern for people who find that their physical bodies don't conform with their core gender identities, little attention has been paid to the feelings and dilemmas of the people most closely connected to transgender men and women -- their spouses, lovers, children, parents, and extended families.

The issues faced by the families of people undergoing gender transition are almost archetypal in their depth. There are few aspects of how we see ourselves, how we see the people around us -- indeed, how we see the entire world -- that are as fundamental to our sense of basic order and stability as gender. Gender assumptions and expectations permeate every aspect of our daily existence so thoroughly that we don't even notice their presence until something comes along that throws those assumptions and expectations into question. In a world where so many traditions are in flux, the urge to hold onto gender as one last bastion of safety, one presumably unassailable edifice of fixed reality in a rapidly changing world, is in many ways more compelling than ever.

When something assaults that notion of gender predictability -- out there in the world or, infinitely more powerfully, within the sanctity of our homes and families -- we are thrown into a very primary form of upheaval -- the same sort of fundamental fear, confusion, and cognitive dissonance we all know so well from watching the World Trade Center towers crumble to the ground. "This cannot possibly be happening," we think, even as events force us to acknowledge that they are happening very much indeed. Reality has penetrated years, decades, generations, of denial. We are going to have to deal with issues we would do anything to sweep under the rug. In a real and powerful way, nothing will ever be the same again.

These are the issues at the heart of Normal, HBO's recent film for TV that premiered on March 16. Written and directed by Jane Anderson (an adaptation of her play, Looking for Normal), Normal features Tom Wilkinson as Roy Applewood, a very proper, church-going, midwestern factory worker and family man who decides to resolve his conflicted gender identity issues by transitioning into a woman. Jessica Lange costars as Roy's wife, Irma, who struggles to deal with this radical and totally unexpected change in the man who has been her beloved husband for 25 years. Hayden Panettiere as Roy and Irma's pubescent daughter, and Joseph Sikora as their rock roadie son, complete the family that is brought face-to-face with all its gender issues -- and, more fundamentally, with the question of what happens when life-as-we-know-it, life-as-we-always-thought-it-would-be, is radically and suddenly overthrown..

To its credit, Normal presents these issues as complex and deserving of respect, rather than trivializing them, or titillating us with the peculiar pleasure of watching people lost in dilemmas that (we imagine) will never be our own. Anderson pointedly refuses to reduce the conflicts of the Applewood family to moral issues of what's right and what's wrong (the pastor who addresses the transgender issue in that light is portrayed as a simpleton), or to emotional issues of who's right and who's wrong. We are not asked to choose between Roy's desire to have the woman's body and identity he has wanted for so long, and Irma's desire not to lose the man she has loved for so many years. We are not asked to side with one of them against the other. We are asked instead to care about both of them, equally -- to acknowledge that, when fundamental needs conflict within a family, great pain results, not because anyone is doing anything wrong, but simply because deep pain is a fundamental part of living life in a genuine way.

While the film's early scenes play almost as soap opera caricatures and the main characters outside the Applewood family (their clueless pastor and Roy's pathetic boss) are disappointingly two-dimensional, Normal develops admirable subtlety, complexity, and depth as we witness the upsets, confusions, and conflicts of the Applewood family in increasing detail. Irma, initially so horrified at what Roy is doing that she throws him out of the house, wrestles with her conflicts over time, eventually coming to understand, respect, and even appreciate Roy's changes, despite the fact that they remain intensely painful and disappointing for her. Her ability to do this is directly tied to Roy's ability and willingness to give Irma the understanding and respect that she initially cannot give to him, to appreciate how deeply Irma is traumatized by his profound life decision, and to be emotionally generous with her as she goes through her own profound gender-related transition.

Daughter Patty Ann, immediately and enthusiastically supportive of her dad ("I think it's cool," she responds after he belatedly tells her of his plans), becomes something of a role model of acceptance to her mother (a situation not uncommon in real families dealing with gender transition). Angry, arrogant, insolent son Wayne comes around to accept his "freak" of a dad and to open to a kinder, more human side of himself, though not before going through his own wrenching, violent struggle.

It's a story of the triumph of deep love over trauma, prejudice, and fear, but not in some simplified, happily-ever-after way. Irma comes to accept and appreciate Roy/Ruth, but not because her deep feelings of loss and pain disappear. They simply become emotions she is able to carry without crippling resentment because she accepts them as a part of real life, as necessary if she wants to keep the person she loves central to her life. When Wayne archly asks her what she gets for herself out of standing by Roy, she answers simply, "what I get is his love for me."

Normal pointedly contrasts the struggles, conflicts, and complex emotional interactions of the Applewoods with the rigid, superficial, happy-face veneer that the other members of their community enforce on each other with great vigor. The difficulties that Roy's gender shift has brought to his family have clearly raised them above empty gestures into a connection with each other far more meaningful and emotionally rewarding than what they had before. The message is not only that great pain can be endured with the help of great love and generosity, but also that fundamental life upheavals can transform us for the better by forcing us to become genuine -- genuine with ourselves, and genuine with the people who are closest to us.

As one woman (whose husband came out as a crossdresser at the age of 57) notes in Trans Forming Families, Mary Boenke's exceptional collection of stories about families dealing with transgender issues, "the experience of dealing with any special circumstance has the potential for difficulties, but also possibility for many positive results. The Chinese character for crisis also means opportunity."

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Normal is that it presents the issues of a family undergoing gender transition as being not so different from the issues that face the rest of us. The specific issue of dealing with gender shift in an intimate and radical way may be limited to a relatively small number of families, but the underlying questions of how to deal with deep personal conflict, cataclysmic change, respect for personal differences, disappointment, and loss -- how to balance being true to ourselves with not wanting to bring unnecessary pain to the people around us -- these are matters that confront all families, all people, at one time or another. And the issue of breaking through artificiality to become our most authentic selves and to build deep, meaningful connections with the people who matter most to us -- complete with hardship, conflict, confusion, and pain -- is about as universal as it gets.

Normal will be aired frequently on HBO. For more information, visit the HBO Normal web site.

This article first appeared in Spectator magazine. If you'd like to receive Comes Naturally and other writing by David Steinberg regularly via email (free and confidential), send your name and email address to David at Past columns are available at the Society for Human Sexuality's "David Steinberg Archives." Two books edited by David -- Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies, and The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self -- are available from him by mail order.