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An Interview with Jane Fonda on Gender

Mother of Troy Garity, star of the award-winning gender-defying film A Soldier's Girl

by Michael Rowe, The Advocate, U.S.A.
Article appeared in Polare magazine: June 2003 Last Update: October 2013 Last Reviewed: February 2014

Jane Fonda.

Transsexual women have given up 'penis privilege' This is profoundly threatening to people on so many different levels.

An exclusive interview with the famous mom of Troy Garity - star of the upcoming gender-defying film A Soldier's Girl - becomes a fascinating give-and-take on 'penis privilege' and how breaking down gender barriers could change the world.

In the Showtime original film A Soldier's Girl, actor Troy Garity plays Barry Winchell, the doomed Army private whose love affair with transgendered nightclub entertainer Calpernia Addams led to his brutal murder in July 1999 at the hands of a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, U.S.A. In the course of writing this issue's cover story on Soldier's Girl, journalist Michael Rowe had occasion to speak with Garity's mother, actress Jane Fonda. Although she rarely grants interviews, Fonda agreed to an exclusive one-on-one with The Advocate to discuss her son, the political family in which he was raised, and the elusive notion of gender - particularly as it applies to patriarchy, homophobia, and the violence that led to Barry Winchell's murder.

The Advocate: You saw A Soldier's Girl at the Sundance Film Festival screening this past winter. It stars your son, Troy Garity, playing murdered soldier Barry Winchell. What was your impression of the film?

Jane Fonda: I'm really proud of it. I think it's very powerful, and I think every performance in it is outstanding. It raises many issues. One of the issues - the army's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is raised by the film, but it has also been raised by Barry Winchell's parents, specifically his mother, Pat Kutteles, who was there at the screening. She is extremely brave.

The Advocate: Have you talked to her?

Jane Fonda: Yes, I have. I was in Kansas City with Barry's parents last month. As you know, the family have been very sharp critics of the army's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy and in fact hold it primarily responsible for creating the climate of frustrated rage and intolerance that led to their son's murder.

'Don't ask, don't tell' is a sham and needs to be revamped or looked at again. Something needs to be done. There was a marine in the audience at Sundance who stood up. He introduced himself as a U.S. marine, and I thought, Uh-oh. What's he going to do? He said, "Thank you for this film. We need to look at this issue in the military, and the film is a great way to open it up."

The Advocate: Did you meet also Calpernia Addams at the screening?

Jane Fonda: I had the pleasure of sitting next to Calpernia for the rest of the evening, and at the party afterwards. She was on one side of me, and her roommate, Andrea, was on the other. Andrea is also a transsexual. I see her as a theoretician of the transgender movement. She views what transsexuals do as smashing patriarchy.

The Advocate: What is it, do you suppose, about transsexual women that causes such a wide divergence of opinion among the general populace? The pendulum seems to swing from adoration to the purest loathing, in some quarters.

Jane Fonda: Transsexual women have given up 'penis privilege'. This is profoundly threatening to people on so many different levels. I suddenly saw how hard it is, and how vulnerable they are. I've since put them in touch with Eve Ensler, who is interviewing them to develop a monologue to add to her one woman show, The Vagina Monologues that will speak to these women who have given up the 'penis privilege' voluntarily. We hope to do an all-transgendered Vagina Monologues in Los Angeles next February.

The Advocate: Troy made some very interesting points during our interview yesterday

Jane Fonda: I'm not surprised! [Laughs]

The Advocate: I asked him what it was like to be raised in a family with a tradition of social awareness and social conscience, and how that shaped him as an actor and as a man. He indicated that it helped shape his view. Did you raise Troy in any conscious way that might have shaped his later political views? And I mean political in the largest human sense. For instance, was Troy raised with strong feminist sensibilities?

Jane Fonda: Yes, although I have to fess up that I'm late coming to all this. He saw it because I was always strong and independent, but I didn't have a strong feminist consciousness when he was growing up. I didn't understand these things, not really.

The Advocate: Do you think that was a generational thing? There is a whole generation of strong working women who didn't know at the time that they were living the feminist ideal. Do you think you were part of that?

Jane Fonda: Yes, I do. I think that's absolutely true.

The Advocate: In our interview, Troy was a ferociously articulate and quite passionate critic of the current war in Iraq, and indeed the impulse behind the military imperialism that is so much a part of modern warfare generally. Is his anti-war, pro-peace stance something that might have originated with you and his father, Tom Hayden?

Jane Fonda: We never proselytized. Our politics certainly took us away a lot, and he could have gone in the opposite direction out of rebellion, but he has his feet squarely on the ground. I learn from him all the time. All the time.

The Advocate: What struck me the most, especially coming from a man, is his view that in these violent times, what the world needs is to become more 'feminine' and less 'masculine'. What are your own thoughts on gender in the context of social constructs, particularly violence?

Jane Fonda: I'm sixty-five years-old, and it's taken me a long time, but I've come to see gender as the core, central issue facing humanity. It informs everything. If you deal with this issue, which is older than agriculture, it'll be the last bastion. And if we don't deal with it, we're not going to survive as a species. Because from that issue of gender emanates violence, hierarchy, homophobia - all of the social ills we deal with. We call them many names, but they come back to this one notion: that men are above women. Anything that challenges that notion is scary. You can trace any issue back to hierarchy, patriarchy, and power.

The Advocate: Michael Moore certainly addressed American culturally ingrained violence with stunning prescience in Bowling for Columbine.

Jane Fonda: I sat next to Michael Moore the other night, and he said, "I watched Columbine for the umpteenth time, and it suddenly hit me. I'd left out the gender issue!" I said, "Hello! That's why I wanted to sit next to you tonight." [Laughs] But my theory is, you can't put everything into one film. There should be a whole other film about it. But he said, "Hey, guys - the violence? It's male." Suicides are women and gays, violence is men.

The Advocate: But violence is so often subject to group sanction, meaning that if enough people - specifically men - are violent, it's thought of as a virtue rather than a vice. It's thought of as an example of male strength.

Jane Fonda: That's why I do a lot of work with Eve Ensler. And of course, Troy has become an honorary 'vagina warrior'. [Laughs] I'm sure he told you about that?

The Advocate: He told me that he'd just returned from an enlightening tour of Afghanistan with Eve. As North Americans, we so often forget that the true measure of the evolution of human culture needs to be taken in places other than the West. Have you noticed that happening elsewhere?

Jane Fonda: What I see happening is, and I hope it's not wishful thinking, a groundswell going on everywhere in the world that seems to be the opposite of patriarchy. I wish I had another word to use besides patriarchy, because it sounds so rhetorical. We'll just call it 'the vagina-friendly ethic' [Laughs]. It's rising. Whether it's at the critical mass yet, I don't know, but it's getting there. Eve Ensler is one of the people on the cutting edge of this. I've travelled with her to other countries. It is amazing what is happening, and it's not just women. It's women and what she calls 'vagina-friendly men'. With what's happening in the world today, these guys could be shooting themselves in the foot. If the structure that is waging the wars - and cutting back on the caring, giving institutions - collapses, we're going to be ready with a whole new paradigm.

The Advocate: It's interesting, isn't it, when you take away all the gender-based prohibitions, for instance, the way we act, the way we dress, the way we relate to one another, what's left is something extraordinarily personal and unique.

Jane Fonda: We just finished our 'G.C.A.P.P.' conference (Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention). We had a workshop called 'Faith and Sex', or something like that. There was a wonderful Baptist minister who talked about androgyny. He cited research that showed that the most resilient people in the world are androgynous. He had a graph that showed that 10 percent of people are totally homosexual, and 10 percent are totally heterosexual, and the other 80 percent are somewhere in the middle. And the healthiest people are right smack in the middle. The different degrees on the spectrum are fascinating, and the more it's accepted, the healthier the society is.

Soldier's Girl

Actors: Troy Garity, Lee Pace, Andre Braugher, Shawn Hatosy, Philip Eddolls
Director: Frank Pierson
Writer: Ron Nyswaner
Producers: Doro Bachrach, Lena Cordina, Linda Gottlieb, Ron Nyswaner
Released: 2003

The 2003 drama, Soldier's Girl is based on a true story: the relationship between Barry Winchell and Calpernia Addams and the events that led to Barry's murder by fellow soldiers.

Barry is a private with the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Calpernia works as a showgirl at a transgender revue in Nashville, Tennessee when the two met in 1999. Barry's roommate Justin Fisher (Shawn Hatosy) brings Barry to the club where she performs. When Barry and Calpernia begin seeing each other regularly, Fisher begins spreading rumours on base about their relationship, which appeared to be a violation of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy about discussing the sexual orientation of military personnel. Barry faces increasing harassment and pressure, which explode into violence over Fourth of July weekend. While Calpernia performs in a pageant in Nashville, Barry is beaten to death in his sleep with a baseball bat by Calvin Glover, who had been goaded by Fisher into committing the crime. The film ends with a discussion of the aftermath.

Polare Magazine is published quarterly in Australia by The Gender Centre Inc. which is funded by the Department of Family & Community Services under the S.A.A.P. program and supported by the N.S.W. Health Department through the AIDS and Infectious Diseases Branch. Polare provides a forum for discussion and debate on gender issues. Unsolicited contributions are welcome, the editor reserves the right to edit such contributions without notification. Any submission which appears in Polare may be published on our internet site. Opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect those of the Editor, The Gender Centre Inc., the Department of Family & Community Services or the N.S.W. Department of Health.

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