Key West and the Trans Traveler
I just came back from a trip to Key West. I was invited down as part of Monroe County Tourist Development Council’s outreach to gay markets but once there the organizer of the press trip shared his concern about my ability to find enough trans related stuff to write about. I’m in of the nation’s top travel destinations for the gay dollar. It’s during Women’s fest and the island is swarming with lesbians. As a ride on the country’s only Gay and Lesbian Trolley Tour attests, there’s dozens of gay and lesbian owned businesses, and a rich gay and lesbian history in Key West. But, from the marketing material, tourist information, guided tour and head of the gay market sales department, there’s no mention of the words transgender or transsexual.
The Key West tourism department even seemed unaware of the trans resources they did have. At the same time as I was being told there was nothing “trans” going on, a few blocks away a small theatre was playing the documentary Boy I am, which explores several trans men’s transitions and interviews a number of lesbians about FTMs—including queer theorist and drag king Judith “Jack” Halberstam who claims in the film that, even for FTMs, misogyny goes hand in hand with masculinity.
This has gotten me thinking about the fact that there seems to be no acknowledgement or understanding of a trans consumer. In the rare situation where trans consumers are recognizedged we are undoubtedly positioned solely in medical and aesthetic terms as in (almost entirely MTFs) seeking reassignment surgeries, electrolysis, cosmetic surgery, big and tall dresses, makeup and wigs.
And while I’m not thrilled with the way our country has confused capitalism with democracy, I do see that when an individual or community is not recognized as viable consumers they are treated as nonentities. I think that the history of the gay rights movement has shown that when the gay dollar was widely acknowledged and courted, it was followed by the acknowledgment of a gay [political] constituency. Of course it also led to the corporatization of gay pride and helped convert dangerous activists to placated consumers, so maybe it’s not something the trans community wants to emulate.
Before my trip one Floridian trans woman had warned me that Key West’s idea of “trans” was drag queens. So when our chauffer drove past the 801 Bourbon Bar and I saw a few of the drag performers standing outside, I barreled out of the car and accosted one, sputtering out a lame introduction like, “I’m a trans guy and a reporter looking for trans women on the island. Are there any T-girls here?”
“You mean pre-op?” She asks seeming completely at ease with my strange question. She takes my hand and pulls me around the corner into an alley, then through a doorway into a darkened club where she deposited me in front of the woman taking money for the 11:00 pm show.
Sitting on a stool, Marilyn is wearing a low cut blouse and very long fake eyelashes. The makeup on her face is thick, but it turns out, it doesn’t need to be. Although she hasn’t undergone gender reassignment surgery, Marilyn is on estrogen and she passes just fine. That’s the problem.
Marilyn used to be the manager of the Denny’s restaurant just down the street, but then she was injured on the job and unable to work. Forced by the bureaucracy of social security to find a job—but unable to in the face of anti-trans discrimination—Marilyn ended up at 801 Bourbon, and that’s when the trouble began.
Drunken tourists attracted to the club with promises of an exotic drag queens (who strip at the end of the show to shatter the illusion) began complaining to the management about a real woman working there.
“That’s when I created this alter ego named John,” Marilyn says, between stamping the wrists of customers so they can come and go during the upstairs performance. ““John’s this truck driver. I’d go over and talk to these guys like this—” Marilyn puffs out her shoulders and lowers her voice to a growl, “I’m all man. See these?” She swipes her chest, “they ain’t real. Silicon. I’m just doing this to put my kids through college.”
Marilyn shakes her head and laughs. “But I couldn’t keep it up. See my fake eyelashes and this make-up? I don’t need them. I’d pass without them. It’s my compromise.” She doesn’t pretend to be John as much anymore. Now she lets the thick make-up cake her face so patrons will assume she’s covering up a five o’clock shadow. She's in an all new closet.
Although Marilyn says she’s often the only trans person to sit on educational panels, she’s far from the only one on the island. “There are a lot of us.” She claims. “Both women and men—though the guys usually don’t want anyone to know.” She tells me that there used to be a support group that met once a week but she says they didn’t get a lot of support from the rest of the community and interest died out a while ago.
After talking to Marilyn for a while I pop upstairs to watch part of the show. On my way out, a man walks in and says, “Oh hi, Marilyn.” Ironically, it’s the guy from Key West’s tourism board, the gay market guru who arranged the LGBT press tour and worried there wouldn’t be anything for me to write about. The same guy who couldn’t give me the name of one trans person on the island.
He knows Marilyn by name. Maybe he just doesn’t know she’s trans.
I live in Key West and would love to talk with you concerning your trip and the atmosphere here in Key West regarding transgender. If you will let me know a day and time and contact information, I will be glad to call.
SCC 2007 Conference Chairperson
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