Public perceptions changing slowly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am

'There's a tranny in the house', sings Hong Kong drag artist La Chiquitta in a fun house song that has become a hit on YouTube as well as at gay club Volume where it was created. La Chiquitta is a Filipino dancer called Rye Bautista, who is not a transsexual, but the song's message is, he says, to create an air of normality around the whole transgender issue. The YouTube footage can be seen at:

La Chiquitta is seen transforming into Wonderwoman and laying into a would-be bag snatcher in a hilarious, low-budget, production. As a non-transsexual, Bautista was concerned about what kind of reaction he would get from the transgender community. He needn't have worried. The feedback from the trans community in Hong Kong was appreciative.

Popular culture is key to changing society's perceptions, says Justus Eisfeld, the New York-based co-director of Gate - the Global Action for Trans Equality. While previously transgender characters in movies would often die tragically before the end of the film, Eisfeld says there's been a sea change in how they are portrayed.

'There's been quite a shift in the past 10 to 15 years. Before, transgender people didn't live to the end of the movie. They were sad, tragic, suicidal figures. Or they were made fun of,' he says. 'Now there is more variety. We're not always the dramatic figures we used to be. There's more of a realistic portrayal. There are starting to be trans people who are not the centre of the movie, they are the non-important storylines, the minor characters. This is a good thing. We're starting to be seen as regular people.'

As well as popular culture, there's nothing better than a celebrity coming out to reinforce the message of how trans people are viewed in society, says Eisfeld. 'I think the influence of popular culture cannot be overstated. If one celebrity comes out as being trans, it makes people talk to their family and friends.'

An example of this is Chaz Bono, who completed a sex change operation in May. Born as the daughter of singers Sonny Bono and Cher, Chaz Bono has been an outspoken rights activist for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

'Bono has been somewhat of a poster boy. He's been public about who he is. A lot of people were really greatly helped by that,' says Eisfeld.

In Thailand and South Korea, says Eisfeld, there are a number of trans actors. And in England there's the long-running soap opera Coronation Street, which in 1998 introduced the first transsexual person in British soap history. The portrayal of character Hayley Patterson was praised by transgender groups, although the actress who played her was not transsexual.

But in real life, even famous and successful transsexuals still have experienced prejudice and discrimination. Nepal's first transgender politician is Bhumika Shrestha, 23, who was sworn into the Nepali Congress in May. Yet at 20, she was held by police for two weeks under obscenity laws, simply for being transgender.

And finally to a transsexual singer in Turkey who is super-famous in her home country and fondly called 'older sister' by her fans. Bulent Ersoy was a male singer, before having sex change surgery in 1982. Now she is more famous as a woman. She sings traditional Ottoman songs but was classed with other transgender people as a social deviant, leading initially to a suicide attempt and then to years of exile in Germany. Turkey revised its Civil Code in 1988 supplying ID cards to transgender people to reflect their sex change. Interestingly, Ersoy courted controversy when she married her male companion - not because she is transsexual, but because he was 20 years her junior.