Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover has brought transgender issues into the public forum in an unprecedented way. The conversation has been filled with what you’d expect: hatred, compassion, understanding, confusion, and the usual cacophony that our interconnected media lifestyle has set as the standard when it comes to having a conversation. In an effort to be a minuscule part of this important and historical conversation, I thought I’d share my feelings about the subject by referencing the only medium that helps me understand things I’m ignorant about: movies.
I remember being around nine or ten years old and first seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show on VH1 at midnight. At the beginning, I was drawn in by the songs and deceptive horror movie setup, only to find myself embroiled in a madcap menagerie of sexual awakenings and bizarre feelings I didn’t know how to process. As aware of my sexual preference as a prepubescent boy is capable of being, I found a base pleasure in ogling Susan Sarandon and Little Nell during the climactic floor show, but there was a definite oddness I felt at seeing Barry Bostwick and Peter Hinwood dressed in the same manner. It wasn’t that it seemed wrong, but I just couldn’t understand it.
Then, Tim Curry appeared as Dr. Frank N. Furter and sang about his admiration of King Kong actress Fay Wray and how “he wanted to be dressed just the same,” and suddenly things started to click into place for me. The point was driven home by the repetitious lyric, “Don’t dream it, be it.” While there were other sexual ideas at play in the film and songs (as well as a goofy horror/sci-fi plot), this simplistic idea of being who you wanted to be regardless of what others thought of you made absolute sense to me. Even though I didn’t completely understand the concept of sexual identity, I understood what it meant to feel comfortable with yourself.
As my life progressed, I found myself enrolled in the theatre program at my arts-centric high school. If you ever want to have your sexual boundaries broken, submerge yourself into the theatre world. It was my first real exposure to homosexual and transgender people outside of fiction. It wasn’t some kind of culture shock I experienced, but it was still enlightening to see how different and yet similar such a diverse group of human beings could be. It was also an environment where Rocky Horror‘s celebration of weirdness was allowed to flourish.
All of this is to establish the thinnest of foundations for what I’m about to say next, which might at first seem callous but I assure you comes from the best possible place.
I will never fully understand what someone like Caitlyn Jenner has experienced or felt.
And I wish the people who are angry, upset, confused, or anything other than compassionate about transgender individuals could admit the same. So much negativity over the course of history stems from human beings’ incapability to empathize or sympathize with other people whose beliefs or ways of life they can’t comprehend.
That’s one of the toughest things for people to do: admit that they are ignorant. I had to do just that when I was deep into a conversation with a co-worker about sexual identity terminology. I found myself overwhelmed by how many labels you can apply to yourself, and I had to declare my inexperience with such a world.
But all through my life, I’ve been able to comprehend the philosophy behind Rocky Horror‘s “Don’t dream it, be it” thesis statement (the film doesn’t hold up as a narrative for me, but that has no bearing on its message) because it boiled things down to a simplicity that even a dullard like nine-or-ten year old me could understand. Maybe that’s what people need to have happen: these issues dealing with sexuality that are inaccessible to some need to be presented with concepts that are universal. I’ll admit that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not the most approachable piece of media (though its cultural impact and staying power has made it more accepted than ever), but thankfully shows like Amazon’s Transparent are helping with that, and hopefully we will be seeing more stories and characters that portray transgender people as exactly that: people.
Because that’s how an ignorant fool like me learns to understand and empathize with things that aren’t directly a part of his life. While I’ve never been in a war, Apocalypse Now makes me feel the insanity of war and the toll it takes on the human mind. While I’ve never sat in judgment of another person’s life, 12 Angry Men makes me feel the weight and importance of such a decision. And though I’ll never know what it means to live as someone who feels like their body and gender doesn’t match who they are on the inside, The Rocky Horror Picture Show made me understand that you should never restrain how you feel about yourself.
I’m glad Caitlyn Jenner stopped dreaming it and decided to be it.