"Wish You Were Here: Transgender Road Narratives and The Place for Identity"
When Christine Jorgensen stepped off a plane in New York City from Denmark in 1952, she became one of the first instances of transgender celebrity, and her intensely popular story was adapted from an article to a memoir and then to a film. From this point on, her story became the foundation for how to tell transgender narratives, be they in print or on the screen or inside medical documents. Though not the first transgender case study or gender memoir ever written, Jorgenson's narrative set a standard archetypal pattern of confusion, discovery, and homecoming which often evokes literal or metaphorical travel. In 2019, transgender stories still repeat this standardized self-realization narrative, either in stories trans people tell about themselves or those which are told about them in print, film, and other media. Not only are these narratives steeped in a neoliberal idea of progress and productivity where only some genders and bodies count, but by evoking travel in these stories, especially travel to other countries, these narratives often suggest imperialism and colonization rather than romantic self-discovery.
In my dissertation, I use film adaptation theory and transgender history to examine how the medical documents of the early 1900s influenced the memoirs told both pre- and post-Jorgensen, and how these memoirs and other life writing then became the source material for films involving transgender people in the follow decades. Even without the tagline of 'based on a true story,' I argue that films which are made about transgender people are still influenced by real life medical case studies and memoirs which replicate a teleological gender discovery narrative predicated on progress. These narratives often exploit the transgender body, deprive these characters of interiority, and silence the history of the community which it attempts to represent. By presenting singular narratives of transgender success--or alternatively by punishing gender deviations--these films reinforce the hegemonic idea of neoliberal identity, along with cissexist, racist, and classist ways of reading gender itself. The road film, like the persistent transgender travel narrative in memoirs, emerges as a way to depict the feelings of dysphoria and gender transition while simultaneously suggesting the problematic and harmful ideologies which hold back the trans community in their everyday lives. Be it The Christine Jorgensen Story or The Danish Girl or Boys Don't Cry, the transgender travel narrative is still dictated by the surgeon's strict gender binaries or the therapist's perception of 'true' feelings, which in turn means that transgender representation has not changed very much since Jorgensen's 1952 flight.