I Love ‘Tranny’… Or So Says RudePaul

“It’s not the word itself, but the intention behind the word.”

— RuPaul —

Before I start, here’s the deal: I’m going to flip the coin a few times on this argument, in an attempt to cover the many angles of skinning this puss n’boots.

Earlier this year, on 17 March, the hugely successful and popular reality television show, RuPaul’s Drag Race, featured a mini-challenge called “Female or Shemale”. The challenge pitted the contestants against each other in a quest to determine whether they were being shown a picture of — as RuPaul phrased it — “a biological woman or a psychological woman.

Great stuff! I can see the entertainment value in that… When I was little, my brother and I waited outside Auntie Maud and Uncle Marvie’s bedroom every morning to see if we could guess who came out first. Maud or Marvie? They looked exactly alike before they’ve had a shower and shave (both of them shaved… ‘nough said).

Any who, after the “Female or Shemale” episode a Twitter furore erupted with many of the show’s followers calling the segment transphobic.

But what caused the offense?

RuPaul on Logo TV

RuPaul on Logo TV

It started with how the name of the game was announced. “Female” was said in a higher-pitched tone, while “Shemale” was said in a low, gruff, masculine-sounding tone. Obviously, there was a play on words happening (albeit a bit obvious and slapstick), after all the drag scene is known for its turn of phrases and somewhat trashy tone… Nonetheless, feathers were ruffled!

RuPaul’s Drag Race has a long history of using the term “shemale” in various nuances. However, “Shemale” is a word that historically refers to transgender women, most prominent in pornography. The word originated with transgender porn and doesn’t have roots in “drag culture,” as some have argued the case is with the word “tranny.”

Here’s where things start to look like a jelly-and-berrie trifle at a garden party in the middle of a thunderstorm: Halfway down the first page and already the trannies, drag queens and porn are all laid out on the table…

This was never going to be an easy conversation.

The US LGBT media watchdog, GLAAD’s transgender media reference guide denotes two levels of terms to avoid: problematic and defamatory. “Shemale” falls under the defamatory heading, with GLAAD officials writing that the word — along with words like “tranny,” “shim,” and “gender-bender” — “only serves to dehumanize transgender people and should not be used.

Again, even I am walking on eggs here, because I love using the term ‘gender-bender’, especially when it is exactly what I am observing in the drag community… Cue Conchita Wurst with her beautiful bearded faces, fabulous frocks and luscious lashes. However, in my own defence, I can also say that I never use the term in a transgender context… because it would be insensitive, defamatory and frankly also problematic.

Nearly two weeks after the “Female or Shemale” episode first aired, the show’s producers, including RuPaul Charles, LogoTV, and GLAAD released statements about the incident.

The statement from RuPaul’s Drag Race producers read: “We delight in celebrating every colour in the LGBT rainbow. When it comes to the movement of our trans sisters and trans brothers, we are newly sensitized and more committed than ever to help spread love, acceptance and understanding.

Logo’s response followed similar lines, saying, “We have heard the concerns around the segment. We are committed to sharing a diverse range of trans stories across all of our screens and look forward to featuring positive and ground-breaking stories of trans people in the future.

Notably absent from both statements was any indication of remorse, or even the words “sorry” or “apology.” Some critics claimed the term “newly sensitized” seemed to be more of an abstract idea than a course of action.

No She Did’ant!!! Sashay Away Guuuuuurllll!!!!

The truth is, over the past few years RuPaul’s ‘tranny trashing’ has happened a lot and it’s starting to look like a cheap way to hog the limelight… Soz Ru, but seriously, much as I love you bitch, you’ve been messing with this now for a while… Let’s shake this cat out your Gucci  handbag once and for all:

Carmen Carrera after transitioning

Carmen Carrera after transitioning

In 2012, when the ABC sitcom, Work It, was criticized by gay and transgender activists for mocking transgender women, RuPaul bitch-slapped (that’s a word right?) the LGBT activists: “Don’t take life so seriously… We live in a culture where everyone is offended by everything.

Later, when the actor and entertainer, Lance Bass, apologised for using the word “tranny” in an interview, RuPaul said: “It’s ridiculous! It’s ridiculous!… I love the word “tranny”… And I hate the fact that he’s apologized. I wish he would have said, ‘F-you, you tranny jerk!‘”

RuPaul stoked even more ire from the transgender community when he famously defended his use of the word “tranny” in his music, by saying that the only difference between a transgender woman and a drag queen was “$25,000 and a good surgeon.

Thing is, Mizzz Ru-P, you fierce, sickening hussy, dragging and wigging it up is nothing more than an art form and for some even a lucrative career (when you do it well), but being transgender is not something you take a holiday from. It’s who you are. BIG DIFFERENCE.

Carmen Carrera, who has transitioned since her appearance in RuPaul’s Drag Race season 3, said: “For me ‘Female or She-male’ just wasn’t cool. RuPaul’s Drag Race should know better. They have educated so many people on drag. Drag is so huge now because of RuPaul’s Drag Race… The main purpose of the show is to show that drag queens have emotion, and that drag queens are artists; they are people that you should love and admire… The word ‘tranny’ is just like saying ‘faggot,’ ‘spic,’ or the N word. It’s words you don’t speak.

Yesterday, RuPaul Charles finally broke the silence after this year’s ‘Tranny Gate’. In a Podcast on WTF With Marc Maron, he said: “If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say or what they do, you are in for a f*cking hard-ass road.”

He added: “My 32-year career speaks for itself. I dance to the beat of a different drummer. I believe everybody — you  can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain’t stopping you. But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or what I can’t say or do. It’s just words…”

Lately, RuPaul has turned a bit Oprah Winfrey with his ‘dancing to a different drummer‘ and ‘you can be whatever you wanna be‘ spiel… However (and maybe it’s just me), if you are a role model like RuPaul (or Oprah for that matter), you have to own some social responsibility for when you open your cherrie-glossed cake hole.

As the world’s most famous drag queen, I honestly thought RuPaul had some insight into the sensitivities and challenges of the LGBT community… especially the transgender members of our community. I agree, a joke is sometimes just a joke and drag queens should never be taken too serious because most of the time they are high on their heels and hairspray… and well, ego.

However, when a group of people stands up and tells you how much your words are hurting them (especially when it is a minority within a minority), then you rewrite those lines.

There’s a thin line between being the court jester and the playground bully. The court jester makes everyone in the audience laugh with earnest wit and intelligence. The bully singles out one person or group and picks on them by finding their week spot and ‘joking’ about it in front of others.

Just sayin’ guuuurllll.

Otherwise RuPaul, we are all luuuuurving your work.

(P.S. From one woman to another, go easy on the auto tune… No Shade, bitch. No Shade.)

RuPaul @ at NASDAQ MarketSite

RuPaul @ at NASDAQ MarketSite

Images: Open Source Editorial
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes


The Conchita Effect…


The only thing that probably rubbed off on me properly, since I moved to Britain ten years ago, is that I now also love the underdog. So when Austria’s gender-bending bearded drag artist, Conchita Wurst (aka Thomas Neuwirth) won the Eurovision Song Contest on 12 May, I was more than pleased. It’s always great when someone from our side wins.

Even more so after the uproar and division her entry to the semi-finals caused between Europe’s progressive liberal side and the traditional values and nationalist rhetoric of countries on the ‘other side of the fence’: Russia (who introduced a law last year prohibiting so-called gay propaganda), Armenia and Belarus blasted Conchita Wurst as an example of the West’s ‘decadence’ and branded the Eurovision contest as a ‘hotbed of sodomy’.

Some bigoted Armenian protestors launched a Facebook petition demanding Conchita’s removal from the contest. Activists in Belarus had even urged the country’s state television network to bypass the live broadcasting rules by editing Conchita’s performance out of its Eurovision transmission.

Conchita won nonetheless with her song Rise Like A Phoenix, which include the lyrics: Waking in the rubble, Walking over glass, Neighbours say we’re trouble, Well that time has passed… You were warned, Once I’m transformed, Once I’m reborn, I rise up to the sky, You threw me down but I’m gonna fly. Not the most poetic song (or singing voice… let’s be honest). Still, it sent a strong and clear message of hope to LGBT people and our supporters throughout Europe.

Later, when I asked a friend what he thought about her victory, he said: “Well, it’s okay. But I’m not interested in all the glitter and the ‘show’. What I want to know is: Will this start a conversation? Will her being on the stage and winning begin a conversation between a gay child and his or her parents?”

There was a smidgen of cynicism in what my friend said, but he had a point because Conchita Wurst represents social change. But how effective will she be? To answer my friend’s question, I reflect on my own coming out:

I grew up in South Africa during the stifling conservative and racist Apartheid era, in the 1980s. During this time, a phenomenal drag artist emerged, called Pieter Dirk Uys. He began his career as a serious playwright but switched to one-man cabaret-style shows at the height of the Apartheid era.

Pieter Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhoud

Pieter Dirk Uys as Evita Bezuidenhoud

Pieter Dirk Uys’ alter ego, Evita Bezuidenhout (also known as Tannie Evita) — a white Afrikaner socialite and self-proclaimed political activist — was highly controversial, to say the least. Not only because Uys was a man who dressed up as a woman (a no-go for the white, righteous-religious Afrikaners), but also because he used Evita Bezuidenhout to criticise and expose the absurdity of the South African government’s racial policies. With her satirical comedy and uncanny humour, Evita Bezuidenhout lampooned the South African regime and its leaders, as well as the sometimes hypocritical attitudes of white liberals.

She got people thinking. She got me thinking.

When Evita Bezuidenhout came on the scene, I was 11 years old. Already questioning my sexuality, Evita was a spark of hope at a time when I thought there was nobody else on this earth that was like me.

It was a very lonely place to be.

When I found a black and white caricature drawing of her in a Sunday newspaper, I stuck it on my bedroom wall, right next to my pillow where I could look at it every night before I went to sleep.

My aunt and uncle (who were my guardians) noticed the picture on my wall, but said nothing at first. However, when I started to mimic Evita Bezuidenhout, making no secret of my adoration for this flamboyant character, my uncle came to my room one evening and sat on the side of my bed…

Tell me about this picture,” he said.

It’s Evita Bezuidenhoud,” I answered, excited that he showed an interest in something I liked.

What do you like about her?

She’s funny…” I also wanted to tell him how outrageous I thought she was and that I admired Pieter Dirk Uys for being so brave, but my uncle interrupted me.

You know it’s not really a woman? It’s a man dressed up as a woman.

I know.

Don’t you think there is something wrong with that?

No. That’s part of what I like about it.

But you realise it’s not right. It’s not the type of thing men do.

I don’t see anything wrong it.

Well, be that as it may, your aunt and I would like you to take the picture down.

There was no way I was going to hide the picture of my heroine. In fact, I blatantly refused his request. As a result, my bedroom door got shut whenever we had guests at home, because “what will the people say?

Evita and the late president Nelson Mandela

Evita and the late president Nelson Mandela

Evita Bezuidenhout will always be a significant figure in my life. She played a big part in me coming out to myself. In a way she was the fairy godmother who prompted me to begin a conversation in my head with myself, which enabled me to acknowledge, for the first time, that ‘thing’ inside me that was yearning to come out — the ‘secret’ aching to be told.

Since Evita, it has taken me years to finally admit to the world that I am gay — 14 years to be precise (I came out when I was 25 years old). It was a painful and prolonged process, which started with a picture of a drag artist on my wall and that awkward conversation with my uncle.

I’m almost 40 years old, and that conversation is still ongoing… mostly in silence. But enough has been said (and kept quiet) for me to know that there is no acceptance to be found with him and my aunt… In their house my bedroom door will always be closed to stop the the world from seeing who I am… but that is their closet, not mine and I don’t have to live in it. I have also learned that in any conversation it’s best not to be fixed to an outcome, but instead to stand firm in the  truth of your own story.

Since her victory, the ‘Conchita Effect’ (as I like to call it) has been remarkable. She has not only raised the profile of LGBT people, but also lifted the lid on how archaic mainstream society’s perception of gender is. The day after she won, I remember seeing a few mainstream newspapers referring to her as transgender, when in fact “She” is actually a 25 year old boy, called Thomas Neuwirth. So the first lesson from Mizz Wurst was: as a drag artist, as soon as those luscious lashes are stuck on, we use female pronouns. But when they come off, we’re back to male pronouns…

Gender fluidity! Who had ever thought?

Truth be told, radical feminists claim that they’ve been trying to dismantle gender for the past 40-or-so years, but I’m yet to see evidence of their success… the gender box is still on almost every application or online registration form. Conchita knows no such box — and she won’t let radicals, Russians or right-wingers tell her who she is supposed to be… a bearded Beyoncé perhaps? Who cares.

Worrying whether she is ‘one of us’ will be a waste of time because, if anything, she is an ambassador for diversity. She is also a beacon of light, especially for LGBT people in countries where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are disowned by their families, often to be beaten, humiliated, persecuted and locked away by society.

Conchita’s victory is far from novelty nonsense. In fact, I suspect since she’s graced our television screens quite a number of young teenagers have started a conversation in their own heads about how they identify with themselves… and that’s really all that counts, because the journey towards acceptance has to start somewhere.

Conchita Wurst as Tom Neuwirth

Conchita Wurst as Tom Neuwirth

It’s A Wonderful Life: Magnus Hirschfeld — Pioneer Gay Activist

“Courage and grace are a formidable mixture. The only place to see it is in the bullring.”

— Marlene Dietrich —

After the First World War, Berlin was the hotpot for free-thinkers, intellectuals, philosophers, poets and artists, in Europe. The city played host to a provocative cabaret scene and decadent smoky salons, Bauhaus design and architecture established itself as a global movement and the gender-bending actress and cabaret artist, Marlene Dietrich, was steadily rising to international fame. It is in this Berlin where the Jewish gay activist, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, devoted most of his life trying to prove the biological basis for homosexuality.

In 1897, Dr. Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee — a group of researchers who campaigned (on conservative and rational grounds) for Gay Rights and the repeal of Paragraph 175 — the section of the German penal code that had criminalized homosexuality since 1871.

Marlene  Dietrich in Seven Sinners

Marlene Dietrich in Seven Sinners

The Scientific Humanitarian Committee argued that Paragraph 175 encouraged blackmail and that it kept homosexuals on the fringes of society. They collected over 5,000 signatures, including Albert Einstein’s, with which they petitioned the German government in 1898 to abolish Paragraph 175. The petition was unsuccessful, however it continued to come before the Reichstag — German parliament — and eventually started to make progress in the 1920s, until the Nazi Party obliterated any hope for reform.

In 1919, Hirschfeld co-wrote and performed in the film Anders als die Andern (Different From the Others). The film had a specific Gay Rights law reform agenda. It also boasted one of the first gay characters ever written for cinema, played by actor Conrad Veidt. Veidt’s character is blackmailed by a lover. This eventually forces him to come out rather than to continue making the blackmail payments, but his career is destroyed and he is driven to suicide.

As a practicing physician, Hirschfeld believed that a better scientific understanding of homosexuality — that it occurs in nature, and is not a choice — would eliminate hostility toward homosexuals. As a researcher, Hirschfeld collected questionnaires from tens of thousands of people, which he published in the book Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes (The Homosexuality of Man and Woman), in 1914. He also built a unique library on same-sex love and eroticism.

Focussing his attentions on the gay, bisexual and transsexual community Hirschfeld opened the doors of his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute for Sexual Research or the Institute of Sexology) 6 July 1919, where the six beds on the top floor of the villa served as a safe haven for homosexuals. His clinic provided educational services and medical consultations with clinical staff that included one dermatologist, one gynaecologist, one endocrinologist and two psychiatrists.

The Institute, not far from the Reichstag building in Berlin, housed Dr. Hirschfeld’s immense archive and library on sexuality as well as the Museum of Sex — an educational resource for the public. As a result of his work at the Institute of Sexology he was both quoted and caricatured in the press as an enthusiastic expert on sexuality.

Berlin’s Lesbishe Frauen (1928), a Lesbian city guide to Berlin, by Ruth Margarete Roellig with a foreword by Dr. Hirschfeld.

Despite his prominence as a Gay Rights campaigner, Hirschfeld was above all a researcher who investigated and catalogued the many facets of human sexuality. He developed a system that categorised 64 possible types of sexual and social predispositions (known today as the “spectrum” theory of human sexuality), ranging from masculine heterosexual male to feminine homosexual male. He also coined the word ‘Transvestit’ (transvestite), which included people who today would be described as transgender or transsexual.

In fact, doctors at the Institute of Sexology performed the first sex-change operations in the world. They also exempted men from military service due to their sexual “predisposition,” officially changed the genders of “pseudo-hermaphrodites,” and consulted the court in cases of a wide range of “offences”, including those accused of having illegal gay sex.

Hirschfeld used the word “cure” in relation to homosexuality. However, the context in which he applied it was not to propagate reparative therapy for gay people, but rather to put patients in contact with “like-minded people of high standards.” In other words, homosexuals would be cured from their melancholies if they found themselves in an environment with supportive people who were not bigoted. He unashamedly believed that homosexuals weren’t “sick”, but that society was.

Initially, the gay community was sceptical of Dr. Hirschfeld’s “gay science.” Some thought that emphasizing their difference from straight people would cause the public to see gays as mentally disabled. Despite their initial resistance, it is believed that thousands of people visited the Institute before it was looted and destroyed by Nazi Brown Shirts, in 1933.

Today, 81 years ago, on 6 May 1933 — only three months after Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany — the Institute of Sexology was broken into, occupied and ransacked by Nazi Brown Shirts. Several days later, on 10 May, all the content from Hirschfeld’s archive and library was removed and taken to Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square. That night, along with 20,000 other books across Germany, they were publicly burned in a symbolic attack by Nazi officials on those who opposed their ideology… Amongst the texts thrown onto the fire was Heinrich Heine’s Almansor, in which he noted “where they burn books, in the end they will burn humans too.”


10 May 1933, Berlin's Bebelplatz Square

10 May 1933, Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square

At the time of the seizure of the Institute of Sexology and the book burning, Hirschfeld had already left Germany on a speaking tour that took him around the world. In San Francisco, he was hailed as “The Einstein of Sex” and in New York thousands attended his lectures. He learned about the destruction of his archive and library in news reports that were shown at cinemas.

In 1935, Hirschfield died in exile in Paris. Weeks after his death, the Nazis redrafted Paragraph 175 to prohibit all forms of male homosexual contact. Using these draconian laws, the Nazis continued their persecution of gay men during WWII. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested because they were suspected of being homosexual, of whom some 50,000 were officially sentenced.

Most of these men served time in regular prisons, and an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps, where they were forced to wear a Pink Triangle. It is unclear how many gay men perished in the camps, but leading scholar Rüdiger Lautmann believes that the death rate of homosexuals in concentration camps may have been as high as 60 per cent, because they were treated in an unusually cruel and brutal manner by their captors.

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, 14 May 1868 – 14 May 1935

Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, 14 May 1868 – 14 May 1935

After the end of the war, Paragraph 175 was not repealed and many gay men remained in prison for years to come. Others enjoyed brief liberation, but were re-arrested and imprisoned based on evidence found of their homosexuality during the Nazi years.

The treatment of homosexuals in concentration camps went unrecognised by most countries. It was not until the 1980s that governments began to acknowledge these atrocities. In 1994, Paragraph 175 was eventually revoked in its entirety and it was not until 2002 that the German government apologized to the gay community for this dark period in its history. In 2005, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Holocaust which included the persecution of homosexuals.

The scholar and researcher Ralf Dose founded the Magnus Hirschfeld Society in 1982, in an effort to secure the legacy of Hirschfeld’s work. Whilst most of Hirschfeld’s archive and library were lost on 10 May 1933, Dose have managed to uncover some of his personal and professional belongings.

His work changed the conversation about homosexuality and helped pave the way for today’s transgender movement. Dr. Hirschfeld fought fiercely for equality and Gay Civil Rights decades before the Kingsley Report, Stonewall and Harvey Milk. His Scientific Humanitarian Committee was the world’ s first activist Gay Rights organization. Though he was often up against hostile social, political and cultural forces, he remained committed to the idea that all of humanity has a stake in sexual freedom — a message we’re still fighting for today.

Images: No Copyright Owned – All from different online media sources
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters

“My closest supporters are my grandparents, married for sixty-three years, who have encouraged me in everything I’ve done. They love me so much. I don’t mind that they still call me their granddaughter Nina — they can’t get my name Ryley straight, but it doesn’t matter. They accept me as a mix of both genders.”

– Ryley Pogensky (Transgender Man) –

Take notice: Trans is hot and happening.

Those were my thoughts when I first saw the Spring 2014 campaign of the luxury specialty retailer, Barneys New York. The campaign is called Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters — a high-gloss, limited edition portfolio of individual prints and short films, featuring 17 transgender individuals and their personal stories.

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters was shot by iconic photographer and filmmaker Bruce Weber, who said of the campaign: “I hope that my photographs and films of these 17 new friends, who are transgender men and women, convey the respect I have for them and how I stand in awe of their courage to face the world.”

Weber photographed all 17 transgender models in New York, in settings where they are surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones. By depicting these human connections, Weber was able to represent both the struggles and triumphs a transgender person may face in relation to their gender identity.

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters, by Bruce Weber

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters, by Bruce Weber

From the first transgender student to graduate from her Oklahoma high school in 2012 to the aspiring fashion journalist who at the age of eight became the subject of a nine-year documentary chronicling her gender identity journey, these students, musicians, designers and professionals include: Arin Andrews, Edie Charles, Valentijn de Hingh, Ashley de la Cruz, Sawyer Devuyst, Peche Di, Dezjorn Gauthier, Trevon Haynes, Katie Hill, Eve Lindley, Niki M’nray, Ryley Pogensky, Ines Rau, Sebastian Simon, Ahya Taylor, Maxie Neu, and Gisele Xtravaganza.

Also featured in the portfolio is Jack Doroshow, the inexorable artist and activist who was arrested 77 times fighting for Trans and Gay Rights throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Dennis Freedman, Creative Director of Barneys New York, said: “This campaign is all about telling the remarkable stories of these 17 transgender men and women. Our goal was to convey the strength, beauty and courage of these extraordinary individuals through the iconic photographs and films of Bruce Weber, as well as the insightful writing of Patricia Bosworth.”

Patricia Bosworth, a long-time contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of acclaimed biographies on Diane Arbus, Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, interviewed each model to uncover a small part of their unique and personal life story. The first-person interviews address a range of issues from bullying, discrimination and abandonment to empowerment, self-confidence and unconditional love.

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters

Mark Lee, CEO of Barneys New York, said: “Supporting individual rights is deeply important to Barneys, and we have the utmost appreciation, respect and admiration for the participants — all of whom have been so generous in sharing their time, talent and personal narratives for this unique campaign.”

Barneys New York partnered with two leading voices in the US Trans community, the National Centre for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the LGBT Community Centre (The Centre) on the campaign. Barneys New York hopes that by bringing the personal stories of these 17 individuals to a national stage, it will help break stereotypes and build social acceptance of transgender people — long-standing goals of both NCTE and The Centre.

To help further support NCTE and The Centre, Barneys New York has donated 10 per cent of all sales on February 11th, from its 11 flagship stores nationwide and Barneys.com, to be split between the two organizations. Commenting on this ground breaking collaboration, CEO Mark Lee said: “Barneys New York is proud that these beautifully captured images and stories will raise awareness and funds for the Trans community.”

Barneys New York will also implement, with the help of NCTE and The Centre, an educational programme for its employees to help to ensure the issues facing the transgender community are understood and integrated into the company’s existing zero tolerance discrimination policy.

Way to go Barneys! (Hint: Big brands and global retailers, follow suit…)

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters, by Bruce Weber

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters, by Bruce Weber

I look back to 2005, when I fell in love with the film Transamerica — the Oscar-nominated comedy-drama starring Felicity Huffman, who plays Bree, a transgender woman. For me, this film was the moment Trans Awareness stepped into the global spotlight. Since then, we’ve seen television and film productions like Glee, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Nip/Tuk, NCIS, Orange Is The New Black, The World’s Fastest Indian, En Soap, The Skin I Live In and The Danish Girl explore the beautiful and complex lives of transgender people.

Great progress has been made in regards to the lesbian, gay and bisexual community, but unfortunately, as we all know, the struggle for transgender equality continues. There’s always been a strong connection between the fashion industry and the LGBT community. Weber’s poignant and breath taking photography not only reinforces this connection, but it will allow (and prompt) a broader audience to better understand the struggles and strengths of the Trans community.

Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters shows the wholeness and inherent beauty of transgender people to the world. It makes transgender lives real and gives transgender people a voice. Above all, it reminds me of a personal mantra that I hold dear: Where there is hope, there will always be progress.

To follow this campaign and to view Bruce Weber’s photographs and short films as well as read the personal stories of the models featured in Brothers, Sisters, Sons & Daughters, follow this link:

Images: Copyright Bruce Weber
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes

I Am A Woman Now


I was a problem child. Apart from the bed-wetting, I was born with a severe calcium deficiency.

– April Ashley, taken from her official website –

I was 19 when I met a trans woman (male-to-female transgender) for the first time. Her name was Roxy and I think she must’ve been in her mid-thirties. The only thing that gave her away was the size of her beautifully manicured hands and if someone hadn’t pointed them out to me, I probably wouldn’t have been any the wiser.

Confused about my own sexuality at the time — not fully understanding its complexities and nuances — Roxy became an obvious friend and sympathetic confidant for a short while.

I now know that Roxy was ‘living a silent’ life, meaning she was discreet about appearing in public. By no means was she demure. In fact, her smoky, husky voice easily filled a room with the drone of a distant thunder… but only in the privacy of her small condo in Sunnyside, Pretoria — an area which, at the time, was known for its free-spirited bohemian community.

In hindsight, Roxy’s silence and discretion made perfect sense because in the early 90s South Africa wasn’t a very accepting place for people who were not cut and paste from the blue print of prudish religious conservatism — especially in a city like Pretoria. Very few gay men were out and proud, and the only gay bar, Exquisite, was in the backstreets on the outskirts of the wrong side of the city. So, one can barely begin to imagine the social barriers and phobia transgender people experienced. Silence was better and safer… for all of us.

A young Marie-Pier Ysser - leprogres.fr

A young Marie-Pier Ysser – leprogres.fr

In any event, Roxy didn’t go to ‘those’ place. She was a lady and like she put it to me “This, what I am becoming, is because of how I identify with my body. I know I have the heart, soul, mind and emotions of a woman… when I look in the mirror I want to see who I am. I don’t go to gay bars, because that’s not where I belong. You on the other hand, I can see you like your boy bits. So, you need to figure out if you like dick or fanny. Now, I can tell you where I think your decision lies, but that’s not going to help you one single inch.”

In the last few months of our friendship, Roxy had increasing problems with the hormones she took. A sympathetic doctor in the area who prescribed them cheaply for her lost his practice, leaving her in the midst of her transition and in gender identity limbo.

It was heart-breaking to witness how her body messed with her mind and her emotional state deteriorated rapidly. There was no support, let alone compassion, in the community for someone like her. The fact that she had no financial resources to save her from her hell, made the burden worse. She was trapped between being half of what she knew she was and half of what she hated.

The last day I saw her, she sat in front of her mirror slathering on foundation. “Look at me. It’s a mess. No amount of make-up will fix this. I need help. I need my operation. I need my hormones.”

Jump to November 2013. I’ve been invited to a screening of Dutch director Michiel van Erp’s film ‘I Am A Women Now’, at the Birbeck University of London. The film introduces five trans women, who transitioned in the late 50s — a time when the world transsexual was not mentioned in polite company and admitting to suffering with gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder, would more than like have landed you in a mental institution.

April Ashley, Prof. Marie-Pier Ysser (Bambi), Colette Berends, Jean Lessenich and Corinne van Tongerloo, were among the first men in the world to receive gender reassignment procedures. They all were operated on by the ground-breaking Dr. Georges Burou, the innovator and pioneer of modern male-to-female sex reassignment surgery.

Dr. Burou developed his technique in 1956, and continued to refine and improve it at his “Clinique du Parc”, located at 13 Rue La Pebie in Casablanca, Morocco. It is believed that Dr. Burou performed more than 8000 male-to-female sex reassignment surgeries, until his death in 1987.

Even though the film doesn’t explain how it was possible for a surgeon to perform these controversial operations in a Muslim country, in the 1950s, the stories told by these women are nonetheless richly embroidered with determination, risk and a hopeful pilgrimage that not only reshaped their bodies, but also changed their lives forever.

April Ashley’s last memory before losing her consciousness was of Dr. Burou leaning over her bed and saying, “Au revoir monsieur.” When she woke up after the 9 hour operation, Dr. Burou greeted her again, this time saying: “Bonjour mademoiselle.” She says that those were the most lovely words she’d ever heard.

George Jamieson, originally from Liverpool, effectively died on the operating table that day, and was reborn as April Ashley. April’s story in particular is very touching. She recalls how, as a boy, “my mother used to hang me upside-down and bang my head on the floor.”

La Carrousel Programme – JD Doyle Collection

Throughout his childhood George, grew used to being referred to as “it”. “People would look at me and say, ‘What is it?’” At 11, he was raped by a family friend. At 14, he ran away from home and joined the Merchant Navy. “I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and I became a deck-hand to try to prove my masculinity.

As a young man, April had a number of failed suicide attempts that eventually led to his incarceration at a mental hospital where his legs and one arm were tied to his bed, while being pumped full of male hormones or given regular sessions of electric-shock treatment.

Eventually in Paris, at the drag club La Carrousel where he worked, rumours went around about a doctor in Casablanca who performed ‘sex change’ operations. But it wasn’t until a friend at the bar passed George a slip of paper with the surgeon’s telephone number on it that he decided to have the operation.

The day after he arrived in Casablanca he was operated on. By this point Dr. Borou had only done eight sex changes. “Basically, I was a guinea pig, but I knew I couldn’t have gone on living like that. Anything was preferable, really. And, as soon as I woke up, I had the most extraordinary feeling. Even though I’d lost a lot of blood and all my hair had fallen out, it was as though my brain was in tune with the rest of my body for the first time in my life.”

Shortly after her rebirth, April’s modelling career kicked off and for a brief time she was Vogue’s most popular underwear model. Her good fortune didn’t last long though and she became the subject of an exposé in the Sunday People revealing that she had once been a man — a friend sold her story to the newspaper for £5. This marked the beginning of many heartaches for April in which she was betrayed by lovers, a husband and friends.

She became a heavy drinker and scavenged for work where ever she went, being a waitress, a hostess, she even sold art for a while… But whenever people learned about her she had to pack up and go somewhere else.

April remains poised throughout the film, except for the final scene in which she speaks about her father and reuniting with him shortly before his death. Her theatricality falls away and her direct stare becomes glassy and unfocused. She breaks down…

One is left with the knowing that underneath the veneer of her powdered face and ox blood lips, the sipping of champagne and speaking in a voice that stretches each vowel, lies the haunting reality of the pain of isolation.

This is where “I Am A Women Now” hit me right in the gut. All the women depicted in the film have equally poignant and bittersweet tales to tell. They all carry a sense of triumph and relief because of their transition into womanhood (apart from Jean Lessenich, who remains conflicted about the choices she made). And yet, below the surface there is an ever-present underlying sadness and loneliness — especially when they speak about their challenges of building lasting, intimate and trusting relationships in a world where they are almost always aware of the fact that they are standing on a knife’s edge of betrayal or embrace.

The film is thought-provoking and a shining example of the power of storytelling. I left the screening with a earning to want to know more about the challenges transgender people are facing. However, with personalities like April Ashley and Prof. Marie-Pier Ysser, ‘I Am A Women Now’ gives a slightly glamorized impression of trans women and some may feel unrepresented when they watch the film. This certainly came out in the discussion held after the screening, which was led by Professor Alex Sharpe whose research interest lies in Gender, Sexuality and the Law.

In fact, statistics show that in total, some 1,374 trans people have been murdered in 60 countries since January 2008. And that’s just those that have been reported. In the last 12 months alone, there have been 238 reported cases of murders of trans people, mainly in Brazil, Mexico and the USA — the majority of them being trans women. This is the harsh reality for thousands of transgender people — a far cry from the beautifully delicate rose tinted picture painted in ‘I Am A Woman Now.’

April Flower – From April Ashley’s official website

Even though it’s important and empowering to tell survivors’ tales, the lives that have been lost as a result of suicide, violence, hate crime and prejudice should not be forgotten. A film about them — how and why their lives ended — will bring munch needed insight to a topic that certainly deserves far more attention. It will also shine the spotlight on an area in which all of us, the cisgender (people who have always experienced their mental and physical sexes as being aligned at birth), still need a lot of education.

I cannot help but to think of Roxy, who I never saw again after her cry for help that day in front of her mirror. Or maybe I did, when an androgynous-looking figure walked past me a few years later in a mall — gaze fixed to the floor, face covered with what looked like a cheap wig, carrying with him or her a sense of urgency, concern and melancholy. I can’t say for certain, but I did notice the beautifully groomed hands and nails… holding onto a spark of hope. What happened there? How many more are there who have become a mere shadow in their dream of wanting to simply be who they are?

I’m not trying to be a voice for the transgender community and neither do I want to speak on their behalf. They have their own voices; they need a safe platform from where they can be heard. Most importantly, they need an audience that will listen.

On my own journey towards self-acceptance, I have learned that sympathy does not equate understanding. In fact, sympathy can be ones worst enemy. Empathy, on the other hand — really understanding another human being’s situation by taking a walk in their shoes and gaining insights that surpass all differences — will dispel judgement and prejudice, which in turn cultivates acceptance, ultimately leading to social equality.

Because of all these things, ‘I Am A Women Now’ is a must-see documentary… if only to plant the seed of enquiry and to inspire more filmmakers to step up to the challenge.

The Museum of Liverpool is to host a new major exhibition this September looking at the history of transgender people in Britain over the past 70 years, focusing on the experiences of one exceptional individual, April Ashley.

Opening 27 September 2013 – 21 September 2014, April Ashley: Portrait of a lady will – for the first time – explore the story of April Ashley MBE, one of the first people in the world to undergo pioneering gender reassignment surgery.

Image: April Ashley, Sally Payne /CreativeCommons/Flickr- Rights not owned
Image: Marie-Pier Ysser – Rights not owned
Image: La Carrousel Programme – JD Doyle Collection
Image: April Flower, taken from April Ashley’s official website – Rights not owned
Video: Trailer – I Am A Woman Now – Vimeo
Text: Francois Lubbe