If you think that Australian men are nothing, but a load of Bruces drinking Fosters, waiting for their billies to boil, take a look at Barry Kay’s extraordinary book of photographic portraits of Australian transvestites. Folksong may have them camping by a billabong but this lot are camping it up in Sydney – it might well be renamed Sidonie – possibly the fastest growing transvestite community in the world. One of its most surprising aspects is that, less than ten years ago, an Australian transvestite was literally in the closet with his clothes. Now, as Barry Kay’s photographs demonstrate, he’s visibly alive and well in the parks and on the streets and beaches, making his Mecca, Kings Cross, surely the Babylon of Australasia.
Australians, like Americans, have always made a myth out of manhood, so that the gulf between the ideals of society and their emergent sub-culture is much wider than in those countries which have traditionally tolerated fetishism. In his short, but perceptive and pertinent introduction, Barry writes:
Australia’s myth of heroism through physical achievement cultivates the belief in male elitism, a notion inevitably undermined by the presence of a transsexual community which, paradoxically, not only finds social acceptance but also manages to fulfil a social need.
There has, indeed, been physical achievement – quite astonishing at times. Hormones, electrolysis and the much publicised and glamourised sex-change operations have created a kind of femininity, although the expected tranquillity of mind does not always follow man-created-woman. Suicides and attempted suicides have not deterred others from seeking sex-change, but the solution is not so simple. In spite of social acceptance and the freedom to be themselves, outsize Bubbles in his blonde wig, withered Alice in sagging bikini, Delilah hugging a toy panda and Diane posed beneath a picture of Bette Davis seem both bizarre and sad. Even the few who have actually acquired a deceptive appearance look touchingly vulnerable; in moments of truth life must seem lonely, frenetic and a desperate sham.
The Spectator – 20 November 1976
Barry Kay’s The Other Women
For several years now, Sydney has long been considered the transvestite capital of the world and this premise has now been proven with the publication of this book which is an extraordinary photographic record made in Australia of transvestism, female impersonation and the transsexual communities of Sydney and Melbourne. According to the report in The Guardian, Manchester, recently, the volume under review when published in England was “promptly banned by leading bookshops”. Obviously the ban would have to be because of the book’s topic (transvestism) rather than for the presentation of the subject. It’s anything but pornographic or even offensive.
As Barry Kay says in his lengthy preface: I have aimed to depict the widest cross section possible – to show those living within a self-styled community or those on the fringe of it and those choosing a more secluded existence. He indeed does. They’re all there. Iris, Bubbles, Kandy, Corinne, Simone… The Other Women come in all shapes and sizes. There are blonde bombshells, comfortable suburban housewives, dainty Gigi types, hefty tomboys, and macabre femmes fatales.
Barry Kay is himself an Australian and is well-known in England as a stage designer. Born in 1932, in Melbourne, he moved to London in 1956 and the photographs in the volume were taken in 1974 and 1975 while back here. He is in good position to judge the undermining effect that the thriving Sydney community of transvestites, female impersonators, and transsexuals has had on the male chauvinist image of the Australian toughie.
How did the book come into being? Barry Kay conceived it on a visit to Australia in 1972 when he returned to design Rudolf Nureyv’s production of Don Quixote. Working at the time in Kings Cross he was struck by the extent to which transvestism and transsexualism had openly emerged since previous visits. On further investigation he found that the phenomenon extended well beyond the Kings Cross area. Deciding to return so as to continue research, he undertook several trips here in 1974-75, producing the material which forms the basis of this book. An exhibition of the original prints opened for a month on November 24 [1976; ed] at the Australian Centre for Photography, 76a Paddington St., Paddington, Sydney.
It has been said by many critics of transvestites and transsexuals (that is, critics from within the gay movement) that, while women are attempting to escape from stereotyping and over-femininity, transvestites and transsexuals tend always to be beautiful women. They’d never be seen dead wearing dirty jeans and a scruffy pullover and their hair in curlers even though many women do dress that way. Transvestites and transsexuals seem always to be making themselves into glamour girls, rather than women generally, say the critics. That might be true. The criticism may be valid. But Kay has caught (and all the shots are posed, none are candid) many of his subjects in glamorous moods. As well, some of The Other Women attired themselves in anything but glamour gowns.
The subject of transvestism and transsexualism is increasingly becoming of interest to a great number of people not into that scene. They are appearing on radio and TV talk back shows, female impersonators and drag shows are now doing the club circuits in greater numbers, and magazines like Cleo and Pix-People are presenting articles – objective articles – on the subject. The book under review cannot fail to be a best seller. The market is there. The product is good.
Currency Press have in production Drag Show (due out next February) which will contain the text of two Australian plays – Peter Kenna’s Mates and Steve J Spears’ The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin – about transvestites as well as interviews with Holly Brown, a permanent drag-queen entertainer, and a spokesperson for the Seahorse Club, a club for heterosexual transvestites. While Currency’s book is different to Barry Kay’s (though basically on the same subject) it is going to be different for them to come up with photographic studies to match those in the book under review. But one thing is clear – with the publication of The Other Women and the projected publication of Drag Show – and that is, that there is an unprecedented and intense interest in the subject of transvestism and transvestites. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
Campaign – issue December 1976
Australian Transvestism: I am Woman
After the initial shock, when you grasp that the women portrayed in Barry Kay’s As a Woman really are men, the book begins to fall apart. What begins as an earnest picture record of Australia’s growing cult of transsexuals and transvestites slowly blurs into a series of sleazy peeks at sexual oddments. Kay photographs 63 men/women, in various stages of transmutation. Some have successfully crossed over with hormones, operations, and silicone and function as women. Others like to dress up, tempted, Kay writes, by the forbidden act. All seem furtive in front of the camera, squirming, looking off and out of range. Kay’s strength is the diligence with which he tracked down his subjects – especially the ones who pass successfully: the beauty shop operator, the secretary, the housewives – and persuaded them to expose their imposture. But Kay’s perceptions are small-scale, and the documentary effort falls apart.
In a weighty preface, Kay invokes Krafft-Ebbing [Krafft-Ebing; ed] and other famous studies, so we’re prepared to take him seriously at his word. Kay writes, During many return visits to Australia over the past 15 yeas I have seen the steady emergence of male transvestism in Sydney… My interest in the phenomenon has grown as each time I became more conscious of the wide disparity that lies between this subculture and the society from which it springs. In spite of whatever dim awareness we may have of Australia, it is still very foreign place. The comparison Kay alludes to between the mythic Ned-Kelly-Australian-he-man and these confused, often surprisingly hip men/women falls flat when he shows us only the latter – and edits Australia out of the book. These pictures could have been taken anywhere; Sydney looks like Los Angeles. Outside of what seems like a British thinness of lip these people have no national identity worth mentioning. So Kay sets himself up as a documentarian of a certain dichotomy, and then simply fails to deliver. Instead of information – about the people, the phenomenon, about anything – we get a kind of passionless, stagy look at some freaks.
Take Bubbles. Easily 250 pounds, he fills a double-page spread. It’s almost not enough. Bubbles is sitting on a daybed, bracketed with clusters of prim, ruffled pillows. There are some ornamental bottles on a shelf behind him, an empty Galliano bottle. Bubbles might be Steinbeck’s Lenny, his great stolid face put together in slabs, suppliance worked into the set of his jaw and his blank expression. Bubbles is plainly a working-class man. He might be a butcher. But Bubbles is wearing a housedress, short-sleeved with crazy flowers spiralling over it, and a wristwatch, blond bangs, lazy bouffant hairdo. Who is Bubbles? What is Kay saying with this portentous layout? It is too arbitrary to hit us with a picture so weighted with irony and leave it at that. There is no sense to Bubbles’ life. Hard as it is to imagine him now in a straight role, knowing this secret, it is still more ridiculous to conceive of him walking in the street in daylight, wearing – what – a pair of sensible pumps, a broad sunhat, those meaty, whitish arms carrying shopping bags and a purse.
Kay repeats his scam though the book. He’s no Arbus [Diane Arbus; ed], whose most freakish pictures refer only to themselves. It’s almost as if his curiosity was a low-grade fever that never burned very hot but wouldn’t go away. Kay’s vision of Australian transvestites and transsexuals is desultory when it should be ruthless. He insinuates himself into the lives of these men/women, some of whom carry off very successful deceits, function as women, then shows only intermittent glimpses of the life behind the slick image.
A biography establishes that Kay is stage designer of “international distinction”. Ordinarily the careers of stage designing and picture taking aren’t inimical. The need for visual consciousness and a certain amount of illusion benefits both. Cecil Beaton made full use of the stagier sides of his talent in his documentary no less that his fashion pictures. Here Kay seems to be doing a pastiche of every stage style you can think of. In photographing Ayesha, a cheap and convincing blonde, he plays for a kind of false naturalism, like fashion photography without the high sheen. On a bench Ayesha peers coyly at a very fat man (almost the male counterpart to Lisette Model’s famous French woman) and his thin, parched-looking friend. She seems to be hooking. But on the facing page, Ayesha stands laughing in front of a poster advertising “Les Girls All Male Revue”, with an arrow that changes from positive to negative bisecting her legs. Again, it’s insufficiently clear what Kay is trying to say about this woman, so we start to look for clues in the obvious.
Nearly all the people in this book, when they aren’t ready to nod out altogether, are posed in attitudes of passivity. Yet the more latitude Kay allows his instinct to order the scene, the better the results. Some very creditably composed scenes strike a properly uneasy balance between spontaneity and the theatrically disaffected languor of grade-B movie women – the very women gender-confused males always seem to fix on.
The less formal snapshots are pictorially weaker, but with them the book begins to work. Kay has stopped intruding, conceding the show and glamour value of cross-dressing and sex change, relaxing his arch fashion style, and letting the scenes play. He is an earnest photographer. He means to do well by his subjects, and there is a kind of sweetness to the way he records the domestic scenes of the transsexuals and transvestites, acceptingly and without invective. He photographs Tanya and Angelique in a domestic tableau, one sitting at a dressing table littered with bottles, staring out into the middle distance, the other lighting a cigarette. It’s a deliberate picture in a way that jibes with the subject matter. Tanya’s high forehead, pale complexion, and the fuzzy net catching up her brushed-back hair cast her as a disaffected Memling madonna. Angelique has a hard cast to her face, balancing the scene perfectly, as if to concede we’re playing scenes ad this is just another.
Many of the transsexuals and transvestites have trouble coping with their feminine identity. The strain of self-scrutiny seems to require an antidote. To achieve this, one highly paid administrator who supervises the work of a group of female employees as a woman by day, works as a barmaid near the docks at night, Kay writes. It reminds us of Jan Morris, whose sex change brought out the “soft and fuzzy” side of him, what he imagined as the feminine self. The way these men react to conditioned, and largely illusory attitudes, is pitiful. They are the worst victims of patriarchal society because there is no possible image that fits.
Many transvestites make their livings in Sydney’s all-male revues. The highlight of these shows comes when, having successfully suckered and aroused the predominantly male customers, the flasher undoes his G-string and reveals his true sex. Kay does the same thing. He gives us Robbie, Rita, and Colleen, heavily made-up strippers, with a petulant sexiness, wearing fishnet stockings and ridiculous feathered headdresses. Your eye goes right to the bare breasts. They aren’t large, and the nipples seem sharpened, edged too laboriously with eye pencil. But they are real and their impact is terrific, like being flashed, except that it ends there. We see nothing more of the people, and the quick shot is irritatingly unsatisfying.
There is another sort of explicitness about Alice. Wearing a bra and panties with what looks like undersea flora on them, she gestures with a cigarette, palm upturned. Alice is old, crepey around the neck and arms. The chest is broad. There are two small, misshapen bumps in the bra, and another confusing one in the panties.
In a letter to his publisher Kay wrote of Alice, He was a linesman working for the post office in Tasmania. At the age of 50 he suddenly lost his wife, to whom he had been deeply attached. After a long period of grief he began disposing of her clothing and was overcome by a compulsion to try on one of her dresses. There was no further recurrence of this until much later. While fixing a line on a high pole he was involved in a severe fall, and his first recollection was of waking in the hospital with the firm conviction that he was a woman. Since then he has lived and dressed as a woman, basing his personality entirely on the departed wife. This is never mentioned in the book.
Among the final images are some pictures of Mel and Pearl. Of all those Kay photographed, Mel is most convincing. He is very pretty, small-featured. Beside him sits Pearl on a low concrete wall at the edge of a graveyard. Mel is standing. Both wear skirt and sweater sets, boots, and stylishly streaked hairdos. They look as if they’re waiting for their children to come home from school, or for the bus to take them home to families.
* * * * *
We don’t actually know whether Mel is a woman or a man, if she/he is still masquerading, or has made the change surgically. Regardless, we understand in this one picture that waiting isn’t a temporary condition for Mel or Pearl or any one of the these confused people. It’s the bottom line.
The Village Voice – 21 February 1977