Pictured (from left): Chaz Bono, Janet Mock, Our Lady J, and Buck Angel
Announcing that you're a different gender than some people--and biology--thought you were takes a heaping spoonful of courage. To do so in the public arena of show business and media makes a bold statement, which says, "This is me, world. I've made whatever adjustments I felt comfortable with to correct my body to match my persona. If you all have to make adjustments to absorb it, so be it." Here are the 10 most fabulous people who've done just that.
Warren Beatty and Annette Bening haven't publicly commented on their 21-year-old transgender son, but Stephen Ira has been quite vocal on his own. He came out as trans when he was 14. In 2012, he appeared in a video, saying he's "a trans man, a faggy queen, a homosexual, a queer, a nerd fighter, a writer, an artist and a guy who needs a haircut." What's more, Stephen is articulately political, openly vulnerable, and has fought for trans medical rights.
If you don't count the time she won the Oscar, Cher had her first big shock in 1995 when her daughter Chastity came out as a lesbian, making waves around the globe. It seems like the one-named superstar had just recovered from that when she underwent yet another awakening thanks to Chastity's transition to Chaz starting in 2008, undergoing a much publicized female-to-male segue. And by now, as a result of all this, Cher is probably one of the most intimately aware icons out there. Chaz is no slouch either. In 2010, he legally changed his gender and name, and the next year, he was a groundbreaking celebrity contestant on Dancing with the Stars. Through it all, Chaz has been outspoken about his transition, paving the way for other stars to flee the trans-closet and join him in openness.
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The male porn star with a vagina has evolved into a first-rate educator full of passionate ideas. In 2013, Buck told me: "I love my vagina because it has changed my life. To actually feel connected to a part of your body you despised for so long is super empowering. I feel like it has some kind of magical powers." As for the world's evolving perception of trans people, Buck told me, "Now, more people understand that what's between your legs does not define you....Many young kids I've spoken to tell me how I have changed the way they view what it means to be a man. And that they see me totally as a man."
The most unique member of the Arquette clan--and that's saying a lot--Alexis is a cult film star and punk singer who was the subject of a 2007 documentary focusing on her transition. But Alexis doesn't like the "carnival freak" aspect of most sex change coverage. She also recently told me she feels that all trans people are different and shouldn't be linked to any one sexuality. As a result of all the sensationalism, Alexis distrusts those who ask about her privates. "Why would you treat someone differently?" she said in our interview. "You're gonna hold the door for me just because I have a vagina? It's nice to hold the door for everyone."
OUR LADY J
Singer/songwriter/pianist Our Lady J grew up in a Pentecostal family in a small Amish town, where she immersed herself in music as a cathartic form of expression. Years later, in New York, she taught for Rosie O'Donnell's musical theater school and started transitioning, living as a man by day and a woman by night, and telling her students that when she returned after the next vacation break, she'd be female. (They were already calling her "she" before that. "Kids know what they see," notes J.) The performer told me for a New York Times profile that she hasn't had complete reassignment surgery and feels comfortable being a bit of both sexes. (She legally is called an "F," but said she'd rather change that to an "X" or a question mark.) In her remarkable state, Our Lady is happy living in L.A. "I'm a 6' 1" blonde," she told me with a giggle, "and I like to dress like a prostitute, and in New York, they think I am a prostitute, but in L.A., everyone dresses like a prostitute, so I blend in here." But she's not a whore at all; she's getting paid for sticking to her groundbreaking guns. In fact, J is currently taking time off from music to focus on her staff writing gig for the award-winning Amazon show Transparent, about a transitioning dad.
Author, transgender rights activist, and online host, Mock had reassignment surgery in Thailand at age 18 and notes, "I was born in what doctors proclaim is a boy's body. My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl." And always quite brilliant too, apparently.
Gender warriors are getting younger and younger, it seems. Born in Namibia in 2006, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt has been a celebrity from day one due to the superstar parenting team of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. At two, Shiloh insisted on being called John, and it wasn't just a phase; last year, John, 8, showed up in a tuxedo for the Unbroken red carpet. The parents are fine with their child's wishes and it'll be fascinating to see how this story develops as they keep mentoring and supporting. Whatever happens, John is a Jolie-Pitt who is clearly worthy of their parents' iconoclasm.
The New York-based dancer/performer extraordinaire just explained her ethic to me thusly: "I, the love child of Michael Jackson and 'Yonce, believe in doing the WORK. We all possess some form of talent, but it takes time and focus to nurture it. I recognized my talents early in life and work diligently to master them. My goal is to blaze an unforgettable trail of fearlessness, passion and inspiration--to express my creative energy and emotion with the whole world as my stage." That's all! As for her transition? "The only transition I've experienced is learning to live for my well being and not someone else's. Transitions are plenteous amongst us all. No one is born their total selves. There's an amalgam of discovery in all of us every day. I'm just one of the lucky ones that didn't need someone else to tell me who I am. She knows exactly who she is. And that began at a young age doing the WORK."
Mila's friend, Alabama-born Laverne, was bullied as a kid for behaving differently than expected. She eventually transitioned and flourished, as the producer/cohost of VH1's TRANSform Me and now as imprisoned trans woman Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black, for which she received a landmark Emmy nomination. She's been a smoothly effective spokesperson for trans rights, while also exclaiming, "The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people." Laverne's playing a transsexual character in a CBS legal drama pilot, so her career looks brighter than ever.
JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND
In the 1990s, Justin rose to attention as half of the sardonic cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, who made it all the way to Broadway with their acid banter and titillating cover versions. Since then, Justin has gone solo and become a staple on the performance circuit with wit and warbling. And Justin was ahead of the curve in demanding to be called Mx. Justin Vivian Bond and wanting to be referred to as "v" rather than "she". V really Mx.es--and shakes--things up, so I wish v more and more power (and gigs).
HONORABLE MENTION:BRUCE JENNER
Way back in the 1980s, there were murmurs about the former Olympic star transitioning, with people insisting, "He ran out of money halfway through." Well, I'm glad the speculation and jokes have stopped and the truth is reportedly being told in a Diane Sawyer interview scheduled for May, corresponding with an E! series chronicling Bruce's change. Or should I say Bryce? In any case, it's too bad she's selling her journey as a "trans-parent" for ratings, but hey, it's better than keeping silent about it. Oh, and let me give a very honorable mention to writer/director Lana Wachowski, who came out as transgender in 2012. Just like Jupiter, she's been ascending.
FIFTY SHADES IS A SHADY MESS
For all the societal advances prompted by the above personalities, there are huge steps backward. In fact, as the sexual handcuffs epic Fifty Shades of Grey keeps growing at the box office like a mushroom-headed penis, let me reiterate that it's appallingly out of touch with the world of sexual desires. [SPOILER AHEAD] In the film--as in the best-selling book it's based on--rich magnate Christian Grey is obsessed with kinky boudoir action only because he's damaged goods. His mother was a crack-addicted prostitute, blah blah blah, and as a result, he's seemingly incapable of real love and intimacy. As if the only reason someone might enter into the world of BDSM is that they're "50 shades of fucked up," as Christian admits to being!
Along comes college student Anastasia Steele, who is intrigued yet ultimately repelled by Christian's behavior, especially since she can't seem to break through his wall and you know, cure him (though in the inevitable followup films, based on the other books in the trilogy, she'll no doubt go there). What torturous hogwash! The only twisted people in this whole scenario are the ones who conceived this terrible (and boring) movie. Yes, they made S&M boring! They should be flogged!
FAREWELL TO A LESBIAN POP DIVA
More torture: Lesley Gore has died. In a more innocent time, when teens' biggest problems seemed to be their best friend flirting with their boyfriend, Lesley was the voice of young America. A trained musician, she lent her talent to songs of heartbreak like "It's My Party" and "Judy's Turn To Cry," as well as boppy numbers like "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows," outdoing herself with the ahead-of-its-time feminist anthem "You Don't Own Me" ("Don't tell me what to do..."), which later became politicized as a screed against Mitt Romney's views on women's rights. Lesley also had songwriting chops, as proven by her Oscar-nominated heart wrencher "Out Here On My Own" from Fame, in which she again spoke to the frailties of American youth. And she was a sensational song stylist, able to croon a large variety of material with skillful elegance.
Lesley's longtime partner, jeweler Lois Sasson, approached me a few years ago and invited me to see Lesley perform at an upscale cabaret. Lesley was in a vulnerable state, having just been panned by a major critic, but I later got to assure her that she was sublime; I loved her singularly girlish yet slightly husky voice and what she did with it. After a bout with lung cancer, Lesley died last week, and now it's our turn to cry. But we'll always have the sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows that come with her eternal sound.
BUBBLY BROADWAY TIDBITS
We'll also be getting hummable stuff on Broadway, where David Hyde Pierce is directing It Shoulda Been You(with book and lyrics by his husband, Brian Hargrove). Adding to the cozily inside feeling of the piece, one of the stars is David Burtka (whose husband, Neil Patrick Harris, will surely attend). At a press event at a bridal gown boutique last week, the first David said, "This is a love story about how love can pop up in the most unexpected places--like weddings." Do I smell a gay twist?
A contemporary twist is given to the Shakespearean era in the bravely titled musical Something Rotten, which had its own preview event the same day, and which looks to be a giddy attempt to cross Spamalot hijinks with The Book of Mormon-style satire. Christian Borle--who looks all beefed up these days--plays the bard as a sort of preening rock star, while Brian d'Arcy James is a Shakespeare hater who's told, "Don't be a penis/ The man is a genius." Enter Brad Oscar as Nostradamus's nephew, Thomas Nostradamus, who croons about the glories of a stage musical, complete with gratuitous dance breaks. It will be interesting to see if this wacky fluff can give the earnest lesbian musical Fun Home a run for its Tony.
But I'll tell you who the biggest star of all is this season: Leslie Caron. The French legend will sit back as two of her film classics, An American in Paris and Gigi, are turned into Broadway musicals. I hope she survives!