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literature

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Cross-Dressing  
 
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Charles Wright's The Messenger (1963) illustrates the "womanliness" of the drag queen through the character of Claudia, "the Grand Duchess [who] often, after getting dolled up in female attire . . . cruises the street, rides the subways and buses, getting picked up by straight men who, after the shock subsides, often accompany him home."

As in Last Exit To Brooklyn and City of Night, The Messenger shows that the drag queen is dedicated to passing as a woman in order to ensnare a "real" man. Yet the drag queen's life is riddled by the dilemma that causes her ubiquitous depression--she can never really be a woman. When The Messenger's narrator, Charles, first visits her, "Claudia threw back his head and displayed the evil giveaway, his prominent Adam's apple."

Sponsor Message.

Surgical Transsexualism as a "Cure"

The way to correct the reality of being male was already known by the time Wright's novel was published. The surgical treatment to "fix" those who "suffered from extreme transvestism," or people who felt they had been assigned the wrong gender at birth, even predated the medical term for the "condition," transsexualism, first used in a 1949 article by David O. Cauldwell.

The term, however, rapidly became known with the public "cases" of male-to-female transsexuals like Christine Jorgenson, Jan Morris, and Renee Richards in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s. Not only did Jorgenson, Morris, and Richards become spokespeople for the community, their lives and surgeries became a new medically updated representation of the gay male body.

No fictional character is more emblematic of the association of transsexualism with drag and homosexuality than Gore Vidal's Myra--originally Myron--Breckinridge. Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1968) explains that Myron had the surgery because his "masculinity was, at times, intense, but the feminine aspects of his nature were the controlling ones."

Although Myron's "death" and Myra's subsequent surgical "birth" are supposed to "cure" Myron of his effeminate homosexuality and make him into an "acceptably" effeminate heterosexual woman, the surgery has almost the opposite effect. Myra is aggressive, ambitious, abusive, and sadistic. She describes herself as "the new American woman who uses men the way they once used women." She even rapes a man with a strap-on dildo.

But even being a superhuman transsexual, Myra still acts like a drag queen. Like Selby and Rechy, Vidal also uses "queen speak" to demonstrate Myra's theatricality and queenliness: "Myra Breckinridge is a dish, and never forget it, you motherfuckers, as the children say nowadays."

Myra Breckinridge represents a popular (mis)understanding of drag queens: transsexual surgery is the "natural" progression from, and "cure" for, drag. In literature, the male-to-female transsexual character is neatly defined by her surgery; her life and identity are divided into pre- or post-operation.

Morris Meyer writes that central to the transsexual narrative is proof of, or the display of, her "newly-gendered," post-operation body. Such a display, or striptease, legitimates the surgery. It proves that the surgery can actually make a man into a woman.

Whether literal striptease as in Myra Breckinridge where Myra "stands up and hikes up her dress and pulls down her goddam panties and shows us this scar where cock and balls should be," or figurative striptease as in City of Night when Miss Destiny's lover's family disinherits him once they "found out," finding, or finding what happened to, the penis is the most important action involving the transgendered character.

Bruce Benderson recreates this transsexual narrative for comic ends in his 1990 short story "Pretending To Say No," which chronicles a surprise visit by someone claiming to be Nancy Reagan. She comes to Carlos's apartment asking for red thread to fix a loose hem, and convinces everyone she really is the president's wife--until she asks to use the rest room.

When she is in the rest room, everyone decides to spy on her: "what happened then was, instead of lifting the edge of her ass off the seat and wiping, the First Lady stood up. And when she did, it knocked us all on our ass, because the biggest cock you've ever seen flipped out the top of those panty hose."

While Benderson replicates most of the typical characteristics of the drag queen character in his short story, including rampant drug and alcohol use, the "found out" narrative is there only for comedy.

The person claiming to be Nancy Reagan is a drag queen named Brenda X. Her Nancy Reagan drag is just a joke, and, unlike with Miss Destiny, there are no severe consequences to be suffered by being "found out." In this way, Benderson subverts the narrative and image of the drag queen character even as he asserts it.

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