I first met Jamie Clayton when a friend of mine, who I had previously known to be something of a connoisseur of beautiful women of the traditional variety, announced he was dating a “super-cool,” “totally fucking hot” transsexual. The fiery-haired, freckled Ms. Clayton came out in this space on August 28, 2008, after we met at a trendy Union Square diner. On a recent Thursday afternoon, we met there again for lunch.
“Oh my God, everything changed after the article,” she said, between bites of an egg-white omelet with a side of fruit. The story spread across the blogosphere, recalled Ms. Clayton, now 32, beginning with a post on Gawker and proceeding into more esoteric Internet cul-de-sacs. All of the sudden, a transgender community she didn’t know existed was embracing her as a role model.
Outside a coffee shop in the East Village, a bunch of gay boys began chanting, ‘Work it bitch! Work it bitch! You’re beautiful, bitch!’
“I was getting emails from all over the world,” she said. Australia, London, Asia especially. Transgender ladies wrote to express gratitude for her courage. Men communicated their desire for a piece of her. She was invited to go on The Tyra Banks Show. CBS News’ Logo Channel did a segment on her.
Ms. Clayton got new head shots. The photographer was also an acting coach. After two months of classes, and after running into Laverne Cox, a transsexual gal who had produced a reality show with P. Diddy and seen Ms. Clayton on Tyra, she was cast on a reality-show pilot for VH1 called TRANSform Me, a makeover show featuring three transsexual fashion professionals coming to the aid of XX women. “I thought that you were stealth,” Ms. Cox had said. Meaning undercover. Not anymore!
VH1 ORDERED EIGHT episodes of TRANSform Me, which debuted in February. The network told her it was the best-reviewed reality show the network had put out. “The show is breaking new ground by presenting transgendered women as fierce and fabulous-if a little superficial,” Village Voice columnist Michael Musto told ABCNews.com.
The transgender community largely agreed. The most exhaustive analyses came from the disciples of the ever-evolving New Feminist movement. “The three leads give cis women makeovers while relating these women’s experiences to their transition,” began the critique on Feministing.com. (“Cis,” from the Latin prefix meaning “to be on the same side,” is a term in women’s studies departments across academia to describe women who were born with a vagina.) The author, Jos, opined that TRANSform Me was nevertheless a net-positive, commendable for its overriding message that “a physical makeover is really just one part of changing how someone sees themselves.”
In the comments section, there ensued a theoretical catfight of sorts: The transgender’s rightful place in the pantheon of female oppression? Discuss!
“Being cis and female can mean being born just to be killed … being raped for the rest of your life … being sold into marriage with some old misogynistic dude who’s itching to get your [sic] pregnant at the first sign of menstruation,” noted one commenter on March 19, 2010.
“I would eat shit every day for 10 years to have your cisgender body,” responded another.
It was gibberish to Ms. Clayton, who had never before heard the term “cis,” though she’d gotten a taste of p.c. when VH1 subjected the trio to a GLAAD media training session in which they were informed that the word “tranny” is not kosher.
Jamie thinks it’s fine if used in a positive way, as in “that tranny is fierce.”
“It’s getting better but people are still uncomfortable,” she said. “You say the word ‘transgender’ or ‘transsexual’ and people sort of go, ‘Oh, don’t talk about that.’”
And yet! In January, President Obama tapped Amanda Simpson as senior technical adviser in the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, making her the first openly transgender cabinet appointee. In April, The New York Times‘ City Room blog introduced Answers About Transgender Issues, a three-part series in which one Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth hoped to create a “resource guide for transgender and other gender-variant people.”
Ms. Clayton was hounded by fans while on line for a latte at the local Starbucks while visiting her mother in Seattle. Outside a coffee shoe in the East Village, a bunch of gay boys ID’d Her Fierceness and began chanting, “Work it bitch! Work it bitch! You’re beautiful, bitch.”
Ms. Clayton’s surgery (six hours, $16,000) took place at her family vacation place outside Tucson, fortuitously home to Dr. Toby Meltzer’s world-renowned clinic. “She’s become a spokesperson for so many other girls like her,” her sister Toni said proudly.
She does have some concern her sister will end up in a dumpster, or like the trans-woman she recently read about who was found dismembered in a park in Queens. According to one academic study, 48 percent of transgender folks are victims of assault, including rape. “We’re like the last group of people that sort of really need to be accepted,” Ms. Clayton said.
SEVERAL CASTING DIRECTORS, however, have told her she’s not transsexual enough. In June, Ms. Clayton was a guest on Qtalk. A man in the audience asked if she dated gay men. “I think that transgender people are constantly sort of sexualized because what we’re doing has to do with our genitals and so people sexualize that,” she said, “but it really has nothing to do with sex.”
I asked her if she had had many orgasms lately. “Yes, I have,” she said, with a blush and a hearty laugh. “A lot of women, whether they’re transgender or not, go through a period of learning how their body works and let’s just say that I know how mine works and that it does. Thank you, Dr. Meltzer. I’ll leave it at that.”
O.K., then! But what of romantic love? “I’m newly single,” Ms. Clayton said. Her most recent relationship, with an actor named Joey Almanza, began in May of last year and ended in February. “He was great. He was amazing. I mean, we were totally in love with each other.”
Mr. Almanza, 27, an actor, first laid eyes on Ms. Clayton at a dinner party at Lucky Cheng’s in the East Village. At the time, he was DJing at Mavra, which shares a hallway with the drag club. “They’re not supposed to come over to the other side, but Jamie and this other girl sort of got a pass because they were pretty, the other ones were freak shows,” Mr. Almanza said over the phone. “So we would meet up in the hallway and do shots and kiss.”
“In the bathroom with your feet in the drawers,” Ms. Clayton gushed. “It’s just that sort of chemical physical attraction that you have,”
Mr. Almanza said that while they were dating, some friends, girls especially, were curious about Jamie’s “mechanics.” A girl he used to hook up with texted “Post or Pre?” after seeing him with his new squeeze at a party. I asked him if he was surprised at his attraction to a transsexual woman.
“It didn’t feel like she was one,” Mr. Almanza said. “Maybe a little smaller,” he allowed. A friend had asked him how he dealt with “the equipment.” “The equipment wasn’t there. She was just a normal girl. As far as alarms that go off as a guy, they don’t go off.”
He speculated that Ms. Clayton was unique in this way. “I’ve never been attracted to any others; I don’t think there are any others like her.”
But shortly after TRANSform Me aired, Ms. Clayton realized Joey wasn’t the “end-all, be-all.”
Her friend Michelle has assumed the role of de facto assistant, screening her emails and updating her Web site, jamieclayton.net. Rae emailed in March on behalf of the Translating Identity Conference (TIC) at the University of Vermont. Ms. Clayton is slated to be the keynote speaker this fall.
My friend Ryan, whose nine-month-long relationship with Jamie was her first after going under the knife, says he thinks Ms. Clayton has “helped us make baby steps, culturally, and has definitely made the world safer for transgender women.”
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