I don’t get the gay, gay gay Logo channel, but thanks to the power of the Internet, I was able to purchase and download their latest entry into the reality-dating show category: Transamerican Love Story, starring a trans woman and eight bachelors who vie for her heart. Before you slap your forehead, know that the setup is nothing like There’s Something About Miriam, a similar show where the entire “haw haw” gag was that the bachelors didn’t know the star was trans. The entire cast knows that Calpernia Addams is a transsexual, and they’re all up-front in the first episode about their own dating histories too. Interestingly, the cast is quite a mixed bag of sexual preferences and identities and experiences (or lack thereof) with trans women. Less interestingly, the guys are mostly a bunch of boring schlubs… but that sort of fits with the “frog prince meets princess” theme they keep subtly inserting.
(Some light spoilers coming up.) The most interesting thing about Transamerican Love Story is exactly how ordinary they’ve managed to succeed in making it. There are definitely more queers & trans people around than usual, and host Alec Mapa alone seems to be deliberately raising the gayness quotient of every episode by 300% percent. But as Addams said in an interview with ABC News, “When they actually see the show, they’re going to be surprised. They’re going to see a girl next door from the south living in L.A. and trying to date.” And that’s pretty much what the show is, more or less the same as “the Bachelorette,” but with a little bit of dealing with trans issues here and there–always getting an important mention, but never allowed to interfere too much. Heck, they threw the creepy “I only date pre-ops” car salesman, who used to have his own (failed) trans-porn site, off the show in the first episode. (And just when I was looking forward to being appalled by his fetishizing “best of both worlds” statements in a future episode…)
The “ordinary straight girl next door” at the center of all this is Calpernia Addams — who, it must be said, is far from your average “plucked off the casting couch” reality-show star. Although she’s certainly not a household name, she’s probably one of the most famous trans people in this country — first entering the spotlight in a brutally real tragedy, as the girlfriend of Private First Class Barry Winchell. Winchell was murdered by a fellow soldier in a fight originally sparked by the fact that he was dating Addams — a story later used for the film Soldier’s Girl. But wait, there’s more! Addams also wrote a book about her experiences, helped organize and performed in the landmark trans-inclusive Vagina Monologues in Los Angeles a few years back, and does activism and consulting related to media portrayals of trans people. And now she’s starring in a reality dating show.
I probably sound a little like a gushing fan. But what really won me over to liking Calpernia Addams was not her creative work or media activism. It wasn’t even the fact that she apparently named herself after Wednesday Addams’ great aunt, who was sentenced to dance naked in public for witchcraft–although that’s kind of awesome in its own right. No, it’s actually the fact that she cracks my shit up with stuff like this:
(hat-tip to Transadvocate)
Part of her strength as a comic performer is that when she’s relaxed and natural, she pours out this easy, dry wit with a sly dash of parody for the role she’s playing. Unfortunately, only comes across occasionally in the dating show, where too often she’s stuck reciting stilted dating challenges or making awkward, edited small talk with her TV-dates.
Now, if you just watched that clip with a “I’m reading serious subjects on a feminist blog” lens, you might be thinking, “geez, did she really have to be so insulting to people who don’t know the right etiquette about trans issues?” Actually, that’s part of the point here. A lot of the points she makes would simply be common sense… IF it wasn’t acceptable to treat trans people like bizarre objects of public curiosity and lurid objectification. If that’s not clear, you’re probably just not thinking about the fact that trans people deserve the same privacy and respect as anyone else. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to get these kinds of questions repeatedly, from strangers. I think I would just stare at them with bewildered, blank-faced horror, as if someone had just asked me if I wanted a bite of their dog poop sandwich. “What!?”
Thankfully I don’t think I’ve ever been put on the spot with any of those gems. Unlike Calpernia, I am not an outspoken performer and minor celebrity who’s becoming recognizable enough in some circles to have annoying strangers pestering her on a regular basis. But I have enough experience with various awkward situations that I’ll gladly add a couple more that aren’t questions:
“Wow… I never would have guessed! You look just like a… a woman!”
That’s right… you’ve lost at this round of “spot the tranny,” so you’ll just have to come back and play next week! It looks like your deductive powers were stumped by the elaborate game that all trans people supposedly play: “try to look exactly like a non-trans person!” (Also note: the word the speaker chokes back at the ellipsis is almost always “real.” I’ve asked.) Now, I understand that people are often surprised when they find out or are told that someone’s trans. And maybe it’s natural to express that surprise. But sometimes they also think that this is an acceptable compliment: “you don’t look like what I think trans people look like! You look like… one of us! Good job, good job!” Generally speaking, this isn’t even telling a trans person something they don’t already know. How do trans people know when we’re blending in mostly unnoticed? Well, a noticeable lack of stares, harassment, and rude questions tends to be a good indicator.
“I just wanted to say… you are so beautiful.”
Now, this just sounds like a compliment, right? And it is, on the surface. But it can also be a deeply weird compliment, especially when it has the overtones of the previous comment… or is quickly followed by it. Sure, there are some situations where it’s unremarkable to tell someone how beautiful they are: they’ve just come of the dressing room wearing their bridal gown, they’re fresh from a brilliant stage performance, they’re walking on the beach with you under the starlight and you gaze deeply into their eyes, etc etc. But most people don’t just pop this kind of compliment out when first meeting someone who’s not dressed up and who you’re not hitting on. Maybe if someone really is stunningly beautiful–but trust me, I’ve gotten this one a number of times, and I know I’m not all that.
In context, this is a specific variety of appearance-based compliment that gets said to trans people — a second cousin, perhaps, to skinny-biased statements like “wow, you’ve lost so much weight, you look great!” For trans people, what people often really mean is “wow, you are not as disturbing looking / hideous / stereotypical as I expected! In fact, you are kind of normal looking!” (I’ve even had confirmation of this after the fact on one occasion.) Again, people assume this is a compliment that trans people are very eager to hear, because they’re assuming, consciously or not, that trans people tend to be desperate for compliments about our appearance and gender-normativity. Which, as Calpernia points out, can often be true… but even then, wouldn’t a genuine compliment be better? Also, I never know what to say to this. I mean, to some extent this is a sincere compliment. So I usually just say, “awww, thanks! You’re very beautiful too.” Some of them look non-plussed after that, maybe because OMG I just compared them to me.
So, to wrap up… if you have any actual questions about trans issues that you realize you really want answered, but you’re genuinely afraid that you’ll be mocked or scorned, you can always visit our own Trans 101 thread, where all questions are OK… even the dumb ones.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to the rest of Transamerican Love Story. Like I mentioned before, they eliminated the only guy who exclusively dates trans women; as soon as he told Calpernia’s friend Andrea James that he used to run a porn site, I didn’t need to see the aghast look on her face to know that they would send him packing. But there’s still a lot of potential for drama left. One of the contestants (I won’t mention who, but you find out in the first episode) is a trans guy, and it’s not clear how Addams is going to deal with that — he’s still on the show, but she was pretty open about the fact that she’s not sure she could handle dating him. The typecast “reality TV bad boy troublemaker” still hasn’t gotten kicked off, of course. And a couple of the guys have never dated a trans woman — including the two youngest guys. One of them mostly dates men and was shot down when he proposed to his last boyfriend; the producers described the other one as “100% straight” and “a practicing Christian with solid morals; he doesn’t drink, smoke, or curse.”
Guess who I think is more likely to stay on the show longer? It might surprise you, but for this show my money is definitely on the Christian kid. The whole point of Transamerican Love Story is that Calpernia is just another beautiful straight girl in Los Angeles, looking for a decent guy with whom to hook up and settle down… and as for so many women, her search is inevitably strewn with assorted losers — especially because she’s trans. I’m curious to see if the Christian guy’s religion comes up, or the other young guy’s sexuality, and can only hope that the quest to portray trans people’s dating lives as “mostly ordinary” doesn’t get in the way of showing the audience some horrific reality-TV trainwrecks. I mean, isn’t that why most people tune in — or download the show from iTunes, as the case may be?
And, because I can’t resist…
Ultra exclusive Feministe-exclusive celebrity gossip
(now that’s a line we probably won’t be repeating very much)
One of the suitors’ bios starts off like this: “Jim, who hails from Ohio, has never dated a transgender woman, but is open to a relationship with one.” I have it on very good authority that part of this sentence is not quite true!! Enough said. ;)
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