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All That Glitters is ‘Kinky’: Changing the Digital Conversation about Transgender Lifestyle

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Thousands of American families were beyond flabbergasted as they gazed at the TV screen in between checking on the turkey roasting in the oven on November 28, 2013. They expected to see the classic Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, complete with the annual high-flying character balloons, Disney Channel stars lip-synching on colorful floats, and the latest, sunniest performances from the most popular shows playing on Broadway, just down the street from the parade route. Instead, loyal viewers received a culture shock when the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical took the stage on the gigantic Macy’s star.  Kinky Boots, the brainchild of Cindy Lauper, Harvey Fierstein, and Jerry Mitchell, featured a singing, dancing extravaganza that included the entire eccentric cast clad in red thigh-high heeled boots and many of the male cast members in full drag. Turkey-basting America could not believe its eyes as an LBGTIQ subculture of society burst onto the mainstream, glitter and all. Highly positive and negative comments flooded online forums and blogs, critiquing every aspect of the three minute performance, from the perceived sexual content and supposed political advocacy for gay rights, to the amount of skin shown and the heights of the heels. Regardless of the content, this upsurge of conversation surrounding the entire umbrella group of Transgender individuals, one that was once completely marginalized, digitally and otherwise, could not be possible without the connectivity of the online realm.  The world of digital media can only help the musical revolution of tolerance that Kinky Boots attempts to provoke with their powerful message.

The Twittersphere exploded on Thanksgiving morning with millions of Tweets bashing as well as praising the parade performance, so much so that Kinky Boots became a trending topic within minutes. Angry Tweeters fired back with insensitive messages such as “I guess the theme for #Macys day #parade is ‘be gay or die.’ Kinky Boots is art? I’ll take the I Love Lucy Marathon. #tolerance”, and “Watching the Kinky Boots number. On the sidewalk in front of Macy’s parents explaining trannies to their kids! #wellsonitsachickwitha…”.  Supporters of the musical celebrated the fact that it was trending on Twitter with a shout out such as those to “@RuPaul” and “@RuPaulsDragRace“, another piece of art supporting the Transgender community, Bravo’s reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. One user on TheAdvocate.com’s blog rebutted the offensive comments regarding the cast’s performance of  “Raise You Up” and “Just Be (Who You Want To Be)”, two uplifting songs of acceptance: “the bitter irony is that the message of the song is so incredibly powerful and uplifting; yet, those who disapproved missed the message altogether”. Many other commenters echoed his point, staking the claim that parents should be less concerned with the questions their children will ask them about the Transgender lifestyle and more concerned with raising their children in an environment in which they always feel accepted for who they are, whoever that may be.

The company of Kinky Boots performers, led by Tony-winning Best Actor Billy Porter, who plays the glamorous drag queen and Transwoman Lola, came back with a characteristically strong and sassy response to the offensive backlash toward their show, shopping at Macy’s Black Friday sale the following morning in full costume. Even those characters in the show who identify as male sported the bright red heeled “kinky boots”, a symbol of solidarity and tolerance toward the Transgender characters in the show. Scriptwriter of the show Harvey Fierstein made a statement thanking Macy’s for its continual support not only of the musical but of the entire Transgender community, and also acknowledging that ultimate acceptance is not something that will come easily in the world. He is appreciative of the deluge of social media conversation regarding a community that was once taboo to speak about, stating that “You have to start a dialogue…And you can’t have a dialogue unless someone says something first. It takes actual work to open up [people’s] minds.”

Michael Varrati, contributor to the Huffington Post Gay Voices blog, adds a strong persuasive argument toward the intolerant concern of parents who watched the parade in his article, “These Boots Were Made for Talking: Continuing the Macy’s Parade Kinky Boots Discussion”. He makes it known that this argument has nothing to do with the fact that he identifies as a gay male, but that it comes down to breaking down our society’s gender stereotypes. He points out that when figures of authority criticize males for dressing in women’s clothes or identifying as female in public, it is extremely damaging to the female identity.  When claiming that anything less than traditional “masculinity” is wrong, these critics are suggesting that femininity is somehow inferior. Varrati would like to continue this conversation, digitally and otherwise, by addressing the gender norms that oppress our society in so many ways.

The most recent conversation provoked by pieces of art such as Kinky Boots is not even necessarily about gay rights, which has made its way into American cultural mainstream, for the most part, especially with the assistance of digital media advocacy. An even more trivialized group of the LGBTIQ community is the “T” and “I” of the acronym, which stand for Transgender and Intersex. This does not just involve “cross dressing” or “drag queens” as a performance art, but people who are living a Trans lifestyle, either in the process of changing genders or simply dressing as the opposite gender. This terminology affects the digital world,  how people are writing about and speaking and responding to Transgender individuals. The world is evolving far enough to negotiate the various pronouns we use to describe this unique group. The pronouns can vary based on the person’s preferences, but it is most important that we are sensitive to use those titles to properly identify the gender with whom the person identifies with, to avoid “misgendering”, and to stand in solidarity, both on and offline, with Transgender individuals.

Stephanie Peirce, director of films such as Boys Don’t Cry, speaks on the treatment of Trans individuals in today’s society, which she refers to as “Trans visibility“. She writes that it is refreshing to see Transgender individuals represented in pop culture, especially with the aid of the Internet, giving an example of Chaz Bono completing on Dancing with the Stars. Academy-Award winner Peirce praises the emerging Trans visibility, specifically in a world where there are still only two dominant recognized genders. The Kinky Boots characters also play off this visibility, repeatedly addressing “ladies, gentlemen, and those who have yet to make up their mind”, in dialogue throughout the show, in an effort to suppress traditional gender standards and accept people for their outward and inward identities, the main message of the show.

To go along with Peirce’s positive claims about tolerance in the twenty-first century, there are more online resources and forums supporting the Transgender community than ever before. The members of this community now have the ability to find comfort in talking to others who may have shared similar experiences, which would have never been possible in the days before the World Wide Web.  Susan’s Place “Transgender Resources” message board professes to “stand at the crossroads of gender balanced on the sharp edge of a knife”. Another Transgender discussion board is “TG Forum“, a place where Trans individuals can cope with some of the struggles they have experienced and read articles about those who have survived some of these same struggles. Other support forums online for the Transgender lifestyle include Transpeoplespeak.org, the Empty Closets Forum, the National Center for Transgender Equality blog, and The Gender Society, empowering places of digital advocacy tailored to this unique community.

Although there will always be a divide between tolerance and intolerance, the digital world, where we can theoretically assume whatever identity we choose for ourselves, it is coming closer than ever before to a place where stereotypes of gender and sexuality do not have to be so prevalent. Kinky Boots as piece of art is definitely provoking conversation, even if some of that conversation is bigoted and prejudiced. The fact alone that a topic that even twenty years ago  was kept hidden from society can be featured on Broadway and the “All-American” Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade shows that our world is making strides, much of which can be attributed to digital media conversation. The digital world plays a major part in the progress of acceptance of all individuals as beautiful, regardless of gender and sexuality, as professed by one of the final lines of  Kinky Boots: “You can change the world when you change your mind”.

 

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