Thursday, September 29 2011 12:30

Of Dudes, Dancers, and Deadlocks

By  Gwendolyn Ann Smith

At MTVs video music awards, Lady Gaga took to the stage as her more masculine alter-ago, Jo Calderone.

Calderone started the show with a performance of Gaga’s “You And I,” but only after a mock-tirade about his relationship with Gaga. The act itself was bold and showy and quite good overall. Gaga remained Calderone for the whole show, accepting a moonman as well as presenting one to Britney Spears completely in character.

I do have to confess, I’ve never been a big Lady Gaga fan. I must admit, though, after seeing the VMA performance, Gaga can really put on a show. Unlike previous incarnations, Calderone is not in a meat dress or plastic bubbles. He sports a white t-shirt with rolled up sleeves, jeans, and slicked-back hair: one might expect Calderon to start performing tunes from Grease rather than Gaga’s tunes. He struts around the stage, taking drags from a cigarette or swigs from a beer bottle. If you’ve ever seen a good drag king show, well, you’ll recognize the moves―and they’re done well.

There’s a much bigger story here, though. When one watched the performance, cutaways to the star-studded crowed showed many politely shocked faces, and even a few frowns of disapproval for Calderone. Justin Beiber, for one, appeared to want to be anywhere but there. Later, when Calderone was presenting the Video Vanguard Award to Spears, he leaned in for a kiss―and Spears turned away.

Many more in the media went on the attack, calling Calderone “disgusting” and “bizarre,” or even a “bizarro, gender-bending alter  he-go” by Tirdad Derakhshani of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Some stories wanted to focus on whether or not Calderon wore a faux phallus, and worried over what restroom Calderone used that day.

In short, the same stuff most other transgender people have to wade through.

In the same week, reality show “Dancing With The Stars” announced that Chaz Bono would be on the show this season. As expected, Bono’s casting has stirred up controversy, so much so that Chaz’s mom hopped onto her Twitter account to defend her  son from hateful, transphobic comments.

So in the course of one week we’ve seen two huge stories about two big celebrities. It’s big, big stuff, and even the obvious, queer-and-transphobic reactions only speak to the enormity of the story.

But one more thing happened, and it won’t be found in Us or People.

In a courtroom in Los Angeles the same city in which both the VMAs and DWTS are held a mistrial was declared in the shooting death of 15-year-old Larry King. It’s unclear if King was gay or transgender, but we do know that he was known to wear high heels, makeup, and other traditionally feminine attire, and to chat with males.

One of these males, Brandon McInereney, had told at least six people he was going to kill King in the days before the murder. McInereney took a .22 caliber handgun to E.O. Green Junior High School and shot King twice in the back of the head in front of other classmates. It was cold and calculated.

McInereney’s defense attorneys claimed that he felt threatened by a comment that King made in the hall―a simple “What’s up, baby?” ―and that McInereney could not control himself. Yes, transgender panic rears its head again―and again, it works.

So I applaud the Gagas and Bonos out there for building awareness on the television screens of America. Maybe what they’re doing now will help lead us to a better future. Yet don’t believe for a minute that because Jo Calderone can swagger across a stage, or that Bono can cut a reality show’s rug that we’ve reached acceptance. For some, expressing one’s gender remains a death sentence.

Gwen Smith is no monster. You can find her at

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