Growing up in a small town or the suburbs can be a challenge for transgender persons, simply due to the small size of the community and the lack of transgender-friendly resources. Now imagine if you can that you are a young teenager, learning that you are transgender in a small town, but in the early 1980’s.
That was the life I lived.
Anyone born after 1995 takes it for granted that you can open up any computer or smartphone and get near-instant access to an incredible amount of human knowledge. What’s more, with e-mail, social media, online gaming and other communities, no transgender person need ever think that they are the only person in the world who has this “condition” of believing they are a different gender on the inside than on the outside.
Consider again that LGBT awareness, rights, and respect were virtually nonexistent prior to 1990. This was especially true for the case of transgender persons. Every year or so, one of the transgender pioneers would make the news – Renee Richards and Jan Morris in the 1970’s, for example. But even in the rare case where a transgender person was treated well by the media, their story was a flash in the pan. Typically, we appeared in news stories telling us about how we were “sexual freaks”, “kinky transvestites,” or just simply “mentally ill.”
To be a transgender person at age 14 in the suburbs of the early 1980’s was akin to being on a deserted island. I had learned early on from physical abuse from my father that one did not speak about being transgender. Actually, even the word “transgender” was unknown to the general public at that time, leaving one with no good definition for oneself. The only reference source available to a kid with a bicycle was the Olathe Public Library. I’ll never forget one blazing hot Kansas summer morning, when I rode my bike to the library and searched the card catalog in vain for any book or magazine which talked about people like me. Finally, braver than smart, I asked a grey-haired librarian “Where can I find books about boys who know they’re really a girl inside?”
Her smile vanished, she drew herself up to her full height, and she replied “Young man! We do not carry books on pornography! Give me your library card now!”
Of course I beat it out of there, terrified that somehow the librarian knew who I was and would be sending the police to come grab me at home. I spent a couple of worried days wondering what the fallout would be, and I didn’t visit the library for a year or more afterward. But returning to the narrative, the point was that a kid like me basically was left feeling completely alone.
And then, one day in 1982 while killing time in front of MTV (Yes, MTV did actually play music back then!), I saw a video which absolutely stunned me. It was “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” by an English New Wave band named Culture Club, and the video prominently featured lead singer Boy George. Dressed androgynously and singing in a gentle tenor which could have been male or female, I watched and thought “OK, it must be someone just playing around crossdressing for the video. But I wonder, if they are the same kinda whatever I am that I am?” Then came other videos from that album – “Time (Clock of the Heart)” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya,” and still there was the seriously gender-crossing clothing, singing, makeup, and manners. Shortly afterwards, the band was interviewed on television, and George kept to the image.
Mind you, Boy George certainly wasn’t the first musician to cross gender boundaries – David Bowie comes to mind as a ready example at the time. And androgyny was a prevalent feature of musical cultural movements like the New Romantics and New Wave. But Boy George kicked it up a notch.
I was now convinced – “This is someone just like me! And they’re out in public, and singing, and making money, and not only that people are listening to them!” Both “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” and “Time (Clock of the Heart)” made it to #2 on the US charts, and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” made it to a very respectable #9. Boy George proved to me right then and there that one could transcend gender, be in the public eye, and people could accept you! I felt as though I had found a distant cousin, rather than an idol. Not only that, but in the music video for “Time (Clock of the Heart),” we see other band members toying with gender expression – for example, bassist Mikey Craig is wearing a yellow dress.
My feelings were complicated by the fact that I really, really had a crush on Boy George. Androgyny attracted me very strongly back then (it still does, to a lesser extent nowadays), and I thought that George was beautiful – especially in the video for “Time (Clock of the Heart).”
I generally did a good job of hiding my transgender identity from my friends, peers, and family. But I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm for Boy George and Culture Club, for the aforementioned reasons, and I didn’t realize at the time how dangerous that could have been. Then one day, while over at a friend’s house with two other friends present, we were hanging out and watching MTV, and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” came on the screen. One friend changed the channel, and I switched it back and said I wanted to watch the video. I started to say how much I liked Boy George and Culture Club, when – to quote Wodehouse – suddenly the atmosphere turned black and scaly. I don’t have an eidetic memory, so the following is from my recollection of the exchange that took place.
Friend 1: “Do I really want to hurt you? Hell yeah, I do!”
Friend 2: “Look at that fucking fag. I hate him and his ugly fucking face. If I saw him out somewhere, I’d run over him.”
Friend 3: “I’d like to set him and his gay dreads on fire. I wish MTV wouldn’t play so many faggy videos.”
Friend 2: “No really, he gets off dressing like a girl. He’s a freak. My brother said if he ever saw that freak in public, he’d bash his face in.”
Friend 1: “I heard if you get buttslammed enough it breaks your balls and you become a girl. Wonder how much buttslamming he had?”
Friend 2: “I’d cut his balls off with a rusty chainsaw. You know he dresses like that to trick guys into fucking him.”
Friend 1: “Doesn’t fool me. Only fags would fuck something like that.”
Friend 3: “I’d rather burn him alive. All that makeup would flare up just like gasoline. Woooooooosh!”
And they carried on, moving into a general condemnation of “fags” and all things “faggoty” in the world. Did I stay silent? No. To my shame, I forced myself to laugh with their jokes, and got up and changed the channel. “Yeah, I thought it was a different video. I don’t want to watch this shit.” I was sick with fear. My friends had seen someone crossing gender boundaries on television, and these teenage boys in Olathe, Kansas, were so enraged by this that they boasted of wanting to burn him alive, vivisecting him, and outright cold-blooded murder.
I tell people when I lecture sometimes on anti-transgender violence that I’d rather be attacked by a pack of wild dogs than a pack of wild teenage boys. At least with the wild dogs, it’s not personal.
And I should have guessed the reactions in advance, really, as homophobia was rampant in that time and place. In 10th grade I witnessed a boy beaten bloody by about half the football team because he wore a pink button-down shirt to school. Was he gay? No – he wore it because Don Johnson wore them on “Miami Vice,” and he wanted to look like a macho character on television. The mistake he made was in thinking he could “get away with” wearing a pink shirt.
We had the “no blue jeans or you’re gay” day, leading to clueless me, who missed the memo, being punched, kicked, tripped, and verbally abused. I tried to grow my hair long, to at least have some trappings on the outside of the ghost of a girl inside me. Guess what? Long hair also meant you were a “fag.” Beatings ensued. After the HIV/AIDS drama “An Early Frost” was aired in 1985, anyone who had a cough was asked mockingly “Is it an ‘early frost?’ Got something you want to tell us? Fag?”
The junior high and high school cliques of the mean girls and the jocks decided ad hoc what did and didn’t make you a “fag,” and therefore a target. One girl was almost beaten up by her peers for wearing a Eurythmics concert shirt, because the group was fronted by Annie “Lezzy” Lennox.
I used to wear an amethyst ring I had bought at the Renaissance Festival, as a connection to my inner girl, until a school counselor acted on his own to call me into his office and order me to remove the ring, because wearing it “meant you were gay.” One day someone declared peanut butter and jelly to be gay, because – well, just because. This, from the “future leaders of America.”
I know a lot of these folks nowadays. Some of them I talk to from time to time, while others I see as Facebook friends. I wonder sometimes – “Did you teach your kids to do as you did – pick on the weak, the different, the misfits? Or, did you teach them that who someone loves or what they have in their jeans isn’t your doggone business? Did you do the right thing, the second time around?” In some cases I know the answer is yes; in many others, I’m uncertain.
The popularity wheel turned, as it shall for everyone except Madonna, and Culture Club moved off the scene. In later years, Boy George was known primarily for his drug use and misdemeanor escapades. Perhaps ten or more years ago, I came across a fan-run website all about Culture Club and Boy George, with several references from his autobiography.
I cried when I learned Boy George was cisgender. If you’ve read this far, you understand why.
I had some time to convalesce while recovering from pneumonia recently, and I spent some time re-watching old 1980’s music videos on YouTube just for the heck of it. I came upon the old Culture Club videos, and the memories came flooding back. I remember being the scared, hidden transgender teen, sitting in a suburban living room hearing epithets and threats thrown towards a young man who just wanted to sing and have a different gender expression. I remember the fear, and how I felt like even among my friends if I made one slip, let them get one glimpse through the door of the real me, that I could at best end up a pariah, and at worst end up in the hospital.
Transgender youth today unmistakably have that same fear. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey:
- Those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12 reported alarming rates of harassment (78%), physical assault (35%) and sexual violence (12%).
- The harassment was so severe that it led nearly one-sixth (15%) to leave school in grades K-12 or in higher education settings.
- Teachers and staff members, whose job in part includes ensuring student safety, were too often the perpetrators of harassment and violence in K-12. Thirty-one percent (31%) of the sample reported harassment by teachers or staff, 5% reported physical assault by teachers or staff and 3% reported sexual assault by teachers or staff.
- More than half (51%) of respondents who were harassed, physically or sexually assaulted, or expelled because of their gender identity/expression reported having attempted suicide. Of those who were physically assaulted by teachers/staff or students, 64% reported having attempted suicide. And three-quarters (76%) of those who were assaulted only by teachers or staff reported having attempted suicide.
- Respondents who identity as female-to-male transgender people today reported a higher rate of these abuses (65%) than male-to-female respondents (53%) and those who identify as gender non-conforming experienced abuse at a higher frequency (70%) than transgender-identified respondents (59%).
I never seek to minimize someone else’s oppression and suffering, and the National Transgender Discrimination Survey tells a dire tale. But aside from Boy George and that briefly-lit candle of hope, it’s stunning to me when I reflect that the situation for transgender teens in my youth was so very much worse.
Grant, Jaime M., et al. Injustice at every turn: A report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. National Center for Transgender Equality, 2011.