When people ask this question about me or my business, it generally makes me mad, because the term “cashing in” directly implies a cold, mercenary grab for money at the expense of higher values. It’s never used in a nice or appreciative sense outside of discussing literal bank transactions. But I suppose it’s good to respond if people are really asking this question out of legitimate curiosity. Here’s my general response to people who might feel like I am personally cashing in on being trans, cashing in on the community, or cashing in on being a trans activist.
Let’s use a popular celebrity to illustrate the first point. I “make a career out being trans” the same way that Eva Longoria makes a career out of being a woman… It’s something that’s part of her identity, and certainly helps her appeal, but ultimately the important thing is what she does as a woman, not the fact that she is a woman. Would I have the appeal that I have now if I hadn’t needed to transition? The question is as relevant as “Would Eva Longoria have the appeal she has now if she hadn’t been born female.” In both cases, the answer requires such a radical, impossible re-imagining of history that it’s silly to bother with.
I am where I am because of the way I’ve conducted myself in my own extraordinary circumstances, just as she is. If just being trans, or just being a woman, alone was grounds for success, then there would be a lot more successful people out there.
And there is very little “cash” involved in being out as trans. If anything, I feel that I’ve succeeded in making a (modest) living in spite of being open about my transition, rather than my success being enhanced by being out. I taste the bitter fruits of being out with disheartening regularity each time I lose another job or boyfriend. I’ve worked hard under unsympathetic circumstances, I’m proud of the work I’ve done, and I think it stands up admirably next to most anything anyone I know has ever done.
About three people have written to us over the years saying that we should give our DVDs out for free. Aside from the fact that the sales of our DVDs make our websites and other work possible, it must be considered that they did not fall out of our butts fully formed and ready to go. Each one was made after days of writing based on years of accumulated knowledge, shot on expensive cameras and videotape, edited over many painstaking days using ridiculously expensive programs on terribly expensive computers. You can hear my voice faltering in exhaustion in some parts of “Becoming You” if you know what to listen for. When we first started selling them, we had to duplicate each and every DVD and VHS by hand on our computers and VCR, then package and mail it by hand at the post office. Designing and maintaining the individual store pages (they are not simple code, trust me) is a full time job. Hammering out distribution deals, answering daily customer emails, bookkeeping… hours and hours of work every day. It is a real, full time job making and selling our DVDs (on top of maintaining the free websites and our activist and filmmaking work). To do all of that hard work, and then encounter someone who angrily demands that we give it away for nothing, is… difficult to respond to. We do it all because we really feel like it is helping people, it supports our lives and we enjoy doing it.
There’s nothing greedy about good, hard work.
If I did ever want to really “cash in” on the trans community, here is what I would do:
- Make PORN! Tons of people are desperate to pay money for images of transsexual women having sex. I myself am not bad looking, I have an artistic eye, and I own all the video and editing equipment one would need to create and produce pornographic images of myself and other transsexual women who I could easily manipulate into performing for me. I have met a few pornographers here in California (the world’s porn capital is 20 minutes away in the Valley) and they are making tens of thousands of dollars monthly creating and selling pornography online. But I don’t.
- Cater to crossdressers: True transsexuals are a tiny group, but there is a vast outlying group of men who are erotically fixated on us and female gender in general. As someone who is nice looking, pleasant and sensitive I am certain that I could draw these men in and create a very successful website designed for crossdressers. There are way more of them than there are of you all, so it would be a simple numbers game. I could rake it in by charging “Sissy Sally” $24.99 a month to post his photos of the most recent petticoat punishment administered by Mistress Cruella. But I don’t.
- Accept erotic advertising: Check out other “ts” and “tg” community sites on the web, and you’ll find loads of banner and sidebar ads for “tg videos”, “tg escorts”, the aforementioned sexy stockings and sexy heels, “corsets for men”, and a slew of other eroticized advertisements that pay top dollar to be shown on a site like this. I could afford to have Ousterhout graft two beautiful faces onto my head instead of just buying one! In the current situation, Andrea and I monitor the Google AdSense ads that come up here and add offensive ads to a block list (via a tedious manual process). We also worked with an experimental Google program to put together a more complex automated filter system in place to remove even more offensive ads. All that money we could be “cashing in” on! Blocked! But I don’t.
- FEES! We could make lots more money by charging a membership fee to the forum here, and adding paid-membership-only access to the thousands of pages of information at tsroadmap.com, hairfacts.com, hairtell.com and our other sites. As it stands, we’ve written those thousands of pages for nothing! When’s the last time you wrote even a full page essay? It’s BORING! OMG, the monthly hosting fees for 5000+ pages and 4 million annual visitors… The software… the weekly hours of programming, updating, problemsolving… And everyone’s looking at all that work for free! What a waste! Arrgh, I could be making money off of that… But I don’t.
- SELLING OUT: Here’s one of several missed opportunities. I recently got called in for an audition that would have been a small role in a nationally top grossing major motion picture. The role required me to speak in a “comically” deep voice and flash male genitalia at a urnial. The payment for those few moments would have been about $6000, and I would have then received modest bi-annual royalty checks in perpetuity whenever the film showed on cable or sold a DVD. Instead of all that, I told the casting agents that this was not a good role for me and I left. STUPID! I could be sitting on $6000 and a place in the national spotlight if I’d worked that audition! But I don’t.
To the detriment of my pocketbook, I’ve chosen to do none of those things. Sometimes, when I think of the money I could have made… But I don’t. I’m trying to do something, here.
Trans activism is also not a lucrative “business”. Trans women at the level of Kate Bornstein may get large speakers’ fees, but my own experience with speaking at colleges usually involves a darling wide-eyed student arriving late to pick me up from the airport in a typical college-student car. We swing through McDonald’s for my “meal” on the way to a modest motel room. I give a talk at the school and return home. Around three months later, after an extended battle with the college, I receive a small check in the mail as my “honorarium”. Obviously, I’m not in the college speaking circuit for the money, I do it because it feels nice to offer some hope and energy to up-and-comers.
I do sigh in despair when I see a certain kind of activist arriving on their local political scene “dressed” in miniskirts, seamed stockings and patent leather high heels, looking like the sexxxed up version of their mothers that they fixated on those 50 or 60 long years ago. I’m an unabashed assmiliationist, so my personal philosophy veers away from “shock and awe” and more toward collaboration and bridge-building.
At the same time, I have no patience or sympathy for trans women who hide comfortably in stealth, never raising their voices, only to cluck over what a bad example the aforementioned types are. The people who raise their hands and take risks are going to be seen and heard. The people who hide aren’t, and so they don’t get a say in things.
So, again, in my opinion the term “cashing in” describes exactly what I haven’t done. It annoys me when people suggest otherwise, but all I can do is say what I’ve said, I suppose. People will ultimately only get as far with certain pieces of information and logic as their minds are capable of carrying them.
Along these lines, a few people occasionally accuse me personally of “cashing in” on my boyfriend’s murder. I don’t know what they base this on… perhaps some idea that I collect a fee every time “Soldier’s Girl” is viewed, or a check from every interview I ever did about the murder. As I always respond, I waited a year after his death to share the story with artists and filmmakers I trusted. I offered to work for free, and ended up accepting a small payment for my consultation which covered my expenses for about two months. I receive no royalties, payments or other monies for anything connected with Barry or his murder. I am never paid for interviews, and in recent years I specifically ask that it not be a topic of discussion.
Isn’t your book, Mark 947, “cashing in”?
Only the last few chapters of my book talk about Barry. It’s a book about growing up in a Southern fundamentalist Christian cult, serving as a medic in the first Gulf War and becoming a successful showgirl. The name of my book, “Mark 947”, is a reference to a Bible verse, and my struggle with feelings about God is really the major theme. I did not, and am not interested in, writing a book about Barry’s murder.
Why did you try to get famous from the murder? Was it to launch your media career?
Notoriety, not “fame”, was thrust upon me via the national and international media coverage of Barry’s murder. I was required to be interviewed by military police after the murder and I attended the trial (which was covered by local and national visual and print media) out of love for Barry and a desire to look at the killers face to face. By the time the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story (which would have been written with or without my participation) and the Rolling Stone full feature article on the case were published, I was recognized on the street by complete strangers at home in Nashville, and even in New York city and Chicago. Vanity Fair and countless other articles followed. I suppose I could have refused all interviews, but I was already being photographed and written about, and the AP and other outlets were initially reporting that it was a “gay hate crime” and that I was Barry’s “male boyfriend”. I spoke to reporters to correct these and many other errors, to protect Barry’s good name and my own, which was already permanently etched into the infosphere at that point.
I think that suggesting that my “outness” was the result of a choice shows a lack of comprehension of the scope of what happened after Barry’s murder. Until you’ve been in the national spotlight (much less used as a football for GLBT politics), you can never understand the choices I had to make.
Suggesting that I made the decision to “launch a career in media” is equally ignorant and insulting. The implication that I could be considering my career in the wake of one of the most wrenching experiences in my life is incredibly hurtful. I am learning that people outside the entertainment business think that appearing on television for anything is the gateway to becoming the next Jennifer Garner. But actually, being on television, print and portrayed in a movie as the subject of a real-life brutal, disturbing murder story is a terrible way to “launch a career”. Seriously, think about it.
I already had an entertainment career before Barry’s murder. I was already a “celebrity” in Nashville for seven years, based on my talent as an entertainer. I’ve been on stage since I was a child, as a stack of old VHS tapes would show if I wanted to embarass myself by showing them. I am particularly proud of a comedy show I made with my brother when we were children and a serious sequence I shot at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany when I was 17. While that was certainly a small, underground type of fame, nonetheless I knew what it was like to go to the front of most any line at events, get drinks and dinners comped by fans at nice restaurants and approached by gushing fans on the street. I was satisfied with that, and had no aspirations to national fame.
After the media blitz, all that changed. People would shout “I’m sorry your boyfriend got killed!” at me in the middle of an upbeat comedy routine while tipping me on stage. Strangers would approach and ask if I was “that guy on the news”, and then say “Oh that’s so sad, they shouldn’ta killed your boyfriend, don’t you think?” Instead of a local celebrity beloved for my funny, sexy stage act I was a grief magnet to be clocked and pitied by anyone and everyone.
In Hollywood, I know I’ve been passed over for comedy roles, hosting jobs and other things not only because I’m trans, but because I’m “that one whose boyfriend got killed.”
To say that I decided to launch my media career by participating in coverage of Barry’s death is just plain wrong, and nowadays I only assume that when someone makes these implications that they are specifically trying to be hurtful to me. Heaven only knows why.