Sometimes I am reminded that I’m not a spring chicken. Indeed, I’ve been public as a trans woman for 22 years now, and that is still less than half my life.
I’ve got a bit more gray in my hair than I’m altogether comfortable with, and have added a growing crop of wrinkles to my skin.
Recently, another trans friend of mine — one who was yet to start pre-school when I was coming out to friends and family — was relating to me something she’d seen another older trans woman doing.
The argument stemmed from that underground classic of 1975 cinema, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” For the uninitiated, the film — and before that, a play — is a parody of schlocky sci-fi films, featuring a “mad scientist” character with a penchant for women’s lingerie.
The movie itself spawned a near-religious following of fans who would attend midnight showings for decades, pelting the screen with props, shouting “call-back lines” and generally behaving like freaks while surrounded by scores of others letting their freak flags fly. This was a youth culture growing out of the era of Ziggy Stardust, simultaneously moving forward from and disillusioned by the hippies. “Rocky Horror” was like the weekly church ritual for this subculture.
The film also gained a lot of trans devotees. Here was a movie with a main character hailing from “Transsexual Transylvania,” parading across the screen in bold makeup and a black-and-glitter body briefer. Costuming was welcomed, even expected, at showings, allowing folks to be accepted in public while donning their own cross-gender looks.
It was a big deal in the 1970s and ’80s, and that seemed to be the point this other older tans woman seemed to want to make to my younger friend. Unfortunately, that isn’t how it came out: Rather, she branded this younger trans woman and her friends as “dumb” for not enjoying “Rocky Horror.”
Sometime around 1982, I first saw a private showing of “Rocky Horror,” courtesy of a bad VHS copy of a showing of the movie. I was entranced by the movie, and amazed by the seemingly pervasive attitudes of both my friends who took me and the others present.
I would see the film again the next night, and many other times since. Eventually I scored my own scratchy VHS bootleg a few years before an official release became available. As a result, I cannot tell you how many times I have seen “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but I’m sure it’s scores upon scores of times.
As much as I can sing along with “Superheroes” or rattle off call-backs throughout the floor show, however, I also know that those young trans women are not dumb, and that they very much have a point.
The story is problematic if we look at it with modern eyes. The main character is a cross-dresser who is also a sex-obsessed sociopath who ends up — sorry for the spoiler — dead in the final reel. Frank N. Furter is just not going to make the realest of positive transgender role models, nor can the film be considered a positive one for transgender people on its own. This is knowing that the film was made while Richard O’Brien, its screenwriter, was dealing with his own gender identity.
While many who attended those showings were a sort of family, and usually very accepting, the crowds also included plenty of people there simply to “sneer at the queers.”
That was all we had. Perhaps it’s a bit like being on a desert island with only a coconut tree to sustain you; you’ll develop quite a taste for that particular fruit.
We live in very different times today, and transgender people are not strangers on far-flung isles. In the 40 years since the movie came out, we have developed true role models among ourselves. We have gained rights that we did not have in 1975, from local laws about wearing cross-gender clothing to Title VII protections. We have movies and television shows galore to choose from, identity and expression far beyond the few scraps we could dig up way back when. If those are not enough, too, we have the wealth of the World Wide Web to point us hither and yon, providing a panoply of possibilities.
So where does “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” belong today?
For those of us old enough to remember that first strange taste of a broader world, it will always have a fond spot in our hearts. This movie was one of those things that gave us hope, showed us possibility or otherwise kept us going from week to week. I’m reluctant to toss it in the dustbin of history, knowing that it was vital to so many back then. Without what it provided then — problematic or not — we would not be where we are now.
At the same time, this is not 1975, and we cannot look at “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as part of the world of today’s trans folks any more than we can expect to see polyester leisure suits on the runways.
I can remember the joy I had at midnight showings, and that isn’t going to go away. yet, I can also acknowledge that it is a part of my history, and not something I expect everyone today to live through. We don’t expect people to use a typewriter when a computer is available, nor should we expect every trans person to have our same experience.
I may be older now, but I hope to never be so set in my ways to not acknowledge change.
Gwen Smith never was in a shadow cast. You can find her ton Twitter at @gwenners.