Of dudes, dancers, and deadlocks

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday September 7, 2011
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

At MTV's video music awards â€" within the shadow of controversy over Tyler, the Creator's win for best new artist â€" Lady Gaga took to the stage as her more masculine alter-ego, Jo Calderone.

Calderone started the show with a performance of Gaga's "You And I," but not until after a several-minute mock tirade about his relationship with Gaga. The act itself was bold and showy and quite good overall.

Gaga remained in drag as Calderone for the whole show, accepting a Moonman statuette as well as presenting one to Britney Spears completely in character.

I do have to confess, I've never been a big Lady Gaga fan. What little I've heard hasn't exactly made it into my record collection. Fine enough music, sure, but nothing that's made me say, "This has staying power."

The glam outfits and the outrageous antics are classic rock and roll stuff dating back to Elvis Presley and Little Richard, and clearly inspired by Davie Bowie and all who came after him.

I must admit, though, after seeing the VMA performance, Gaga can really put on a show.

Unlike previous Gaga incarnations, Calderone is not in a meat dress or wearing plastic bubbles. He sports a white T-shirt with rolled up sleeves, jeans, and slicked-back hair: one might expect Calderon to start performing tunes from Grease rather than Gaga's songs. He struts around the stage, taking drags from a cigarette or swigs from a beer bottle.  If you've ever seen a good drag king show, well, you'll recognize the moves â€" and they were done well.

There's a much bigger story here, though. When one watched the performance, cutaways to the star-studded crowd showed many politely shocked faces, and even a few frowns of disapproval for Calderone. Justin Bieber, for one, appeared to want to be anywhere but there. Later, when Calderone was presenting the Video Vanguard Award to Spears, he leaned in for a kiss â€" and Spears turned away.

Many more in the media went on the attack, calling Calderone "disgusting" and "bizarre," or even a "bizarro, gender-bending alter he-go" by Tirdad Derakhshani of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Some stories wanted to focus on whether or not Calderon wore a faux phallus, and worried over what restroom Calderone used that day.

In short, the same stuff most other transgender people have to wade through.

In the same week as Calderone strutted across the VMA stage, the ABC reality program Dancing With the Stars announced that Chaz Bono would be on the show this season. The show previously garnered a whole lot of press by having Bristol Palin hoofing it on stage and producers clearly suspected the Bono announcement would be yet another headline grabber.

For those who have been living under a rock, Bono is the son of Sonny and Cher, and the subject of the documentary Becoming Chaz . His transition has been headlines on supermarket tabloids for months now.

As expected, Bono's casting has stirred up controversy, so much so that Chaz's mom hopped onto her Twitter account to defend her son from hateful, transphobic comments. It really let loose, however, when Fox News gave Dr. Keith Ablow space on its website. Ablow, who describes Bono as, "the 'transsexual' woman who underwent plastic surgery and takes male hormones in an effort to appear to be a man, and who asserts she is a man," warned parents to keep their children away from DWTS, for fear that they would "watch a captive crowd in a studio audience applaud on cue for someone whose search for an identity culminated with the removal of her breasts, the injection of steroids and, perhaps one day soon, the fashioning of a make-shift phallus to replace her vagina."

Here I thought they'd be applauding his dance steps. Silly me.

So in the course of one week we've seen two huge stories about two big celebrities; one who transitioned and is now going to be on one of the highest rated reality shows, and the other who opted to express a male gender on one of the bigger music award shows. It's big, big stuff, and even the obvious queer-and-transphobic reactions only speak to the enormity of the stories.

But one more thing happened, and it likely won't be found in Us or People .

In a courtroom in Los Angeles â€" the same city where the VMAs were held this year, and the same city where DWTS is filmed â€" a mistrial was declared in the shooting death of 15-year-old Larry King. It's unclear if King was gay or transgender, but we do know that he was known to wear high heels, makeup, and other traditionally feminine attire, and chat with males.

One of these young men, Brandon McInerney, had told at least six people he was going to kill King in the days before the murder. McInerney took a .22 caliber handgun to E.O. Green Junior High School in Oxnard in 2008 and shot King twice in the back of the head in front of other classmates. It was cold and calculated.

McInerney's defense attorneys claimed that he felt threatened by a comment that King made in the hall â€" a simple "What's up, baby?" â€" and that McInerney could not control himself. Yes, transgender panic rears its head again â€" and again, it works.

So I applaud the Gagas and Bonos out there for building awareness on the television screens of America. Maybe what they're doing now will help lead us to a better future.

Yet don't believe for a minute that because Calderone can swagger across a stage, or that Bono can cut a reality show's rug that we've reached acceptance. For some, expressing one's gender remains a death sentence.

Gwen Smith is no monster. You can find her online at http://www.gwensmith.com.