What About The Symptom?
It’s the late 90’s and I’m working a fundraiser for the Santa Cruz LGBT newspaper, a late night screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We’re in Monterey, just south of my home town, which has a sizable military population. The lights go down and I slip into my theater seat, which Paul has saved for me. My beloved mentor Paul, once a Stonewall regular; he wore leather jackets and a wry smile.
The film rolls, the tiny cast begins. A woman bellows “Let There Be Lips” and Paul, who swore up and down his long-standing fandom, shouts back “Shut up! We’re trying to watch the film!” I elbow him and whisper, "Shhh, she’s supposed to be doing that." He shoots me a glance and I whisper louder, "Paul, this our fundraiser! Don't yell at patrons!" We settle in and listen to the audience partici...pation, commanding Rocky to eat like a Marine.
It was stroke of fate that my first exposure to The Rocky Horror Show was a midnight screening of the film at the Nuart in Los Angeles in 1987. I was still working my way out of a deep closet and I was terrified of what I’d discover. I’d heard they’d make Rocky virgins endure spanking machines and any number of other public humiliations. I felt every day living in the world as something I was not was humiliation enough. I decided to lie if anyone asked me, even though I knew I’d be found out immediately.
At the time, I was sort of out as trans to my girlfriend. She’d gotten me to admit my horrible secret and begun to assist me in finding resources and information. These were sparse commodities at the time, especially in HIV-hysterical America.
Since early high school, I’d been vaguely aware of the film’s reputation for some sort of sex change shenanigans. It was on my must-see list, of course, but I was terrified of what would happen if I were to walk in there and see myself represented. I was terrified of watching the film and not seeing myself. There was some comfort in the not-knowing.
Reader, I somehow got away with my ruse and passed as a non-virgin at my first screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and, of course, the spectacle was revolutionary. I was exhilarated and flabbergasted at what I had witnessed. It was fun, but I didn’t see myself anywhere in the film, because I couldn’t yet see my overwhelming Janetness.
Whatever Frank was, I wasn’t. He did me the favor of helping me understand a distinction. He sings it, even: he’s a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania. He may be the ultimate Dracula power bottom, but he’s still a man at core.
Or more to the point, he’s an alien, manifest as the Terrifying Feminized Other, equal parts evil, intriguing, repellent, and fun. I saw none of myself in Frank, and that turned out to be something of a relief.
Representation and misrepresentation have been tender spots for trans-identified people for a long while now. Film studios still regularly cast non-trans actors in trans roles. I’ve still never seen a film that depicts a trans character resembling me. This is why I have begun to make films.
It sometimes surprises people when I say that I disidentify with Rocky (as well as its daughter Hedwig & the Angry Inch). Yes, Rocky is great fun for unleashing your inner libertine, but it’s no more a narrative about the trans experience than the Sylvester Stallone Rocky movies are. Both Frank and Hedwig are pivotal characters inhabiting a particular femininity, but there is a qualitative difference between the way either character is trans and the way I am trans. Both dwell in the liminal spaces with fabulous rage, and girl howdy I can relate to that. But when it comes to sex and gender, Rocky had surprisingly little to say to me. Fortunately for me, the film begged me to find my voice and shout back at the screen.
Commissioned by Baltimore’s Haute Patooties Theater Company for the program notes of their 2018 production of The Rocky Horror Show.