It’s a long way from the summer of 1976 when a hunk named Bruce Jenner catapulted to fame at the summer Olympics personifying the red, white, and blue red-blooded male athlete.
That same year while Caitlyn Jenner, then known as Bruce, became the media darling celebrated as the very model of manhood, a revealing book of photographic portraits of transgender women in Australia was published causing barely a ripple in the mainstream media.
In 1976 while Gay liberation, Black liberation and Women’s Liberation were all making their voices heard, dispatches from the trans community was deafeningly silent.
Times have changed.
As a nation it seems as if we have become transfixed.
In a world where Caitlyn Jenner is starring in her own reality show, gushed over by fashionistas for rockin’ a pair of kitten heels, while winning awards for her courage, it’s easy to assume that the transgender community are finally getting the respect they deserve.
But such perceptions would be wrong.
While her reality show I Am Cait is groundbreaking, the reality is the trans community are still some of the most marginalized individuals in our society.
40 years ago it was even worse.
Bicentennial Summer of 1976
In 1976 while Bruce Jenner was basking in the glow of adulation, the T in LGBT was not even acknowledged.
That summer American’s were celebrating our big bicentennial, lauding our birthright that all men are created equal; each entitled to the pursuit of happiness.
Coined the Me Decade by Tom Wolf in N.Y. Magazine, the very definition of Me was coming under scrutiny.
Despite being “free to be you and me,” traditional ideas of gender identity were still firmly entrenched. That promise of happiness was often unattainable for many.
While Jenner won the decathlon at the summer Olympics propelling him to stardom, another star athlete Renee Richards was shunned.
Richards who had undergone sex reassignment the previous year, was denied entry into the 1976 U.S. Open by the U.S. Tennis Association citing an unprecedented woman-born woman policy.
Only 4 years earlier, Sweden had legalized gender reassignment, becoming the first European nation in the world to allow citizens to legally change their sex. America lagged far behind.
Transsexuals and transvestites were often misunderstood (the term transgender had not been coined yet) and dwelled on the fringes of society.
So it is fascinating to take a look at photographer Barry Kay’s revealing book capturing the transgendered women in 1976.
As a Woman is an extraordinary book showcasing un-extraordinary transgender folk.
The stark black and white portraits of members of Sydney Australia community of transvestites were photographed in their private spaces at home, with friends, and at work and about town.
Just as we should today, it is important to remember that most trans people don’t look like a ciswoman or a cisman. Nor that the vast majority of trans people are nowhere near as wealthy enough to afford the health care needed to ensure that they do.
Though published without much fanfare, the book was banned by leading bookshops in England, because of the book’s topic.
Australians like Americans have made a myth out of manhood.
Barry Kay writes in his intro:
The Australians profound need to prove himself…is a recurrent theme best illustrated in the unique importance that the country gives to competitive sport, where the champion is usually elevated to hero status. Australia’s myth of heroism through physical achievement cultivates a belief in male elitism, a notion inevitably undermined by the presence of a transsexual community.
Some of the reviews of the book are reflective of the misconceptions of the time, some sound as though written today.
“After the initial shock, one review stated, “when you grasp that the women portrayed in Barry Kay’s book really are men, the book begins to fall apart. What begins as an earnest picture record of Australia’s growing cult of transsexuals and transvestites slowly blurs into a series of sleazy peeks of sexual oddments.”
The women, one review explains, come in all shapes and sizes they are blonde bombshells comfortable suburban housewives and femmes fatale.
From a review in The Spectator November 1976 London by Gillian Freeman:
“If you think Australian men are nothing but a load of Bruce’s drinking Fosters waiting for their billies to boil take at look Barry Kay’s extraordinary book of photographic portraits of Australia transvestites.
Sidney was possibly the fastest growing transvestite community in the world. “one of the most surprising aspects is that less tan 10 years ago, an Australian transvestite was literally in the closet with his clothes. Now as Barry Kay’s photographs demonstrate hes visibly alive and well in the parks and on the streets and beaches .”
The introduction goes on to explain the advancements that have helped people transition.
“There has been indeed physical achievement quite astonishing at times. Hormones. electrolysis and much publicized and glamorized sex change operations have created a kind of femininity although the expected tranquility of mind does not always follow man created-woman.”
“Suicides have not deterred others from seeking sex change, but the solution is not so simple.
“Even the few who have actually acquired a deceptive appearance and look touchingly vulnerable; in moments of truth, life must seem lonely frenetic and a desperate sham.”
The use of the term “deceptive” in regards to appearances is instructive.
Today many marvel at how great Jenner looks, i.e. so “convincing,”one can’t help wondering if they would dismiss her if she looked like a guy in a dress.
Like today’s feminists who criticized Jenner’s appearance as too stereotypical, feminists in 1976 who were trying to break out of stereotypes sometimes took the trans community to task.
In a review from the Sydney Morning Herald 1976 by Jill Sykes:
“Looking through the photographs I was struck by the number of stereotypes femmes fatale that had taken over the male bodies. It’s a curious mirror of womanhood: a fantasy of femininity in many cases.”
There has been much criticism of Cait Jenners’s glamor shots and emphasis on surface beauty. Many feminists are put off by her conflation of womanhood with her seductive appearance long nails thick eyelashes, glossy tresses.
Her corset photo unleashed a debate as feminists and the media have had a field day dissecting Caits look on the Vanity Fair Cover.
The review continues: “Often the clothes that transvestites and transsexuals choose for themselves are in the style that their mothers would have worn. And their names have a ring of familiar exotica : Chase Manhattan, Crystal, Delilah, Monique, Simone, Tanya, Destiny, Kandy.”
“They are sometimes critical of women,” says Mr. Kay. “You often hear them talk of women’s grooming and how women take so little care of their appearances compared with them. But appearance is a very great part of their existence. Whereas you take it for granted, they are totally preoccupied in creating theirs.”
From a review in Campaign –issue 12/76:
It has been said by many critics of transvestites and transsexuals ( that is critics from within the gay movement) that, while women are attempting to escape from stereotyping and over femininity, transvestites and transsexuals tend always to be beautiful women. They’d never be seen dead wearing dirty jeans and a scruffy pullover and their hair in curlers even tho many women do dress that way.”
“Transvesites and transsexuals seem always to be making themselves into glamor girls rather than women generally, say the critics. That might be true. But Kay has caught many of his subjects in glamorous moods. As well some have attired themselves in anything but glamour gowns.
In the review from the Sydney Morning Herald 1976 by Jill Sykes:
The very normalization of the subjects has disturbed some people.
There is Rikki hanging out the clothes, pearl sitting on a swing in a playground, Judy chatting to the conductor of the 324 bus, carol cuddled up on a regency striped sofa with her little Yorkshire terrier, and Daniell with their plastic garden chairs, fluffy slippers and Pekingese.
“Mr. Kay has often been told by transsexuals that their real goal was to be suburban housewives.
“There is a great deal of confusion about transvestites and transsexuals,” says Mr Kay. “The only thing they have in common is that they dress as women.”
The book offers diverse representations of trans folks not merely cisnormative beauty standards, either by choice genetics or finances.
It’s a lesson worth remembering.
Caitlin and other trans folks value shouldn’t be valued solely based on how much they look “convincingly” cisgender.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2015.