- Willmer Broadnax, Midcentury Gospel, and Black Trans/Masculinities
In 1989 Billy Tipton died of an untreated hemorrhaging peptic ulcer. In the process of trying to save his life, paramedics discovered that he was female-bodied. Tipton, a white divorced family man with three adopted sons, had been a minor regional jazz musician and bandleader, with the height of his career in the 1950s. Postmortem, the media seized on the story, and he was mentioned in tabloids and talk shows. Much later he has continued to generate interest, including a biography, a fictional novel, songs, and plays, with academics and even bands taking inspiration from him. Three years after Tipton's death, Willmer Broadnax died in a stabbing, and it was discovered that he, too, was female-bodied. Broadnax, a black unmarried childless man, had been an extremely successful gospel quartet singer and was a member of some of the biggest quartets during the height of the golden age of gospel in the 1950s. Broadnax did not become a postmortem media sensation like Billy Tipton. He did not get songs written about him or become the center of discourse. Why did Tipton attract so much attention while Broadnax lingers in obscurity?
Of course, race is always a factor; however, I argue that there is more to the story. Tipton conformed to a hegemonic masculine gender ideal (suburban, married with children, performing hierarchical dominance over women, emotionally cool, middle class, white) that emerged in postwar America and continues to be dominant to this day. Broadnax, on the other hand (urban, unmarried, without children, performing a solidarity with women of color, emotionally expressive, alternative class expression, black), challenges a number of accepted and intertwined narratives all revolving around the performance of masculinity. Considering the centrality of the 1950s as the location of the hegemonic gender imaginary, even now, a trans man of color from the 1950s can serve not only to illuminate the ways [End Page 117] in which men of color have constructed masculinity differently but also to challenge the stability of 1950s gender constructions that are continuously evoked, spoken or unspoken, by conservative politicians and transgender passing guides alike. Broadnax's existence challenges the normalized constructions of trans/masculinity as rooted in whiteness, and his vocal performance of gospel expands the possibilities of black trans/masculinity to include solidarity with black women rather than opposition to them. Broadnax's vocal performance of gender gives insight into alternatives means of constructing trans/masculinity in relation to women, emerging out of intersectional racial-gender communities of color rather than from the fantasies of white suburbia.
A persistent critique of transgender men articulated by scholars such as Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys is that trans male identity is not the legitimate expression of an internal identity; rather, it is a means to gain male privilege and a top position in patriarchy while perpetuating sexist and retrograde notions of manhood and womanhood.1 Longtime Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist BevJo sums up many of these positions:
If patriarchy can't kill us outright, then they co-opt and confuse us. They make us want to become our own enemy. Add to the female-hatred and Lesbian-hatred until many think trying to change gender will be the easier way out. Or, as a woman in a documentary I watched said recently about why she wanted to become a man: "It's better than being an old woman." Notice that this individual didn't even bother with the "I always felt like a boy" crap. It was clearly a cold, calculating decision based on measuring privilege gained versus oppression lost.2
These critiques are not confined to the 1970s. Jeffreys's work is very contemporary, and the notion that trans men reify the oppression of women through the act of transition is a charge hurled at trans men in many contexts, from community conversations to LGBTQ film festivals with film shorts like 2007's The Gendercator. It should be axiomatic that there is nothing inherently antiwoman about being a trans man or a trans woman. However, neither are trans men inherently prowoman just because they may have lived as one. A number...