Max Klinger is, I suggest, one of TVs most famous transpeople.
When Klinger first appeared on M*A*S*H, he just popped out in a sheath dress and a rifle and said “Halt! Who goes there?”
Jamie Farr said that they originally tried it with a fey, swishy kind of reading, but it didn’t play funny, so they just went with his own Toledo voice.
Some say that he cameo was a reference to a story in Lenny Bruce’s 1965 autobiography “How To Talk Dirty And Influence People.” In it, Bruce wants to get discharged so he dresses in women’s clothing, but because he doesn’t want to be seen as unpatriotic, rather than heels and a boa he has a WAVE uniform made up. In the end, he is given a dishonourable discharge but the Red Cross intercedes and it is changed to a general discharge.
There were always LGBT people in the military a topic well addressed in Allan Bérubé’s “Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II” While some commanders felt the need to purge units, most were well accepted as part of diverse units, often in roles of medical staff or assistant clergy where a kind of tenderness was required.
Max Klinger is just a fictional character in a very long running TV show, so his role was first and foremost to serve the production. That meant getting a laugh, or showing instincts, even to the point where he had to take the role of company clerk when Gary Burghoff left, abandoning his finery.
This obligation to be whatever the production needs is the downfall of every fictional character where any sense of purity gets abandoned for something as simple as a better camera angle or dropping a red herring. A character is at the whim of the director, so they are not real, not authentic, only game pieces used to forward the story.
For his first years, though, it was made very clear that Klinger cared a great deal about his wardrobe. He needed to win in the poker game to win a new garter belt, adjusted his outfit to suit the occasion, was always ordering new clothes and even lent his frocks to needy nurses.
Farr notes that his dresses were pulled from the wardrobe vault at 20th Century Fox so he was always amused when the tags inside showed it has previously been assigned to a famous actress in a big 1950s movie.
The amazing thing about Klinger is how in the context of the story and in the context of the television audience of the time, his crossdressing was just no big deal.
The premise of M*A*S*H was astonishing. These people worked incredibly hard to save the lives of those damaged in war everyday, often losing them, and so when they were off duty, they went a little nuts. What other show had routine scenes in a canvas operating room and could cut from tragedy to hilarity so quickly with the audience happy to be there?
As long as we believed these people did their horrific jobs with intensity and dedication, well, we could cut them plenty of slack.
We knew Klinger did his job well and while doing it he kept spirits up, entertained the troops and claimed his own love of the fancy, all while rationalizing the whole thing was just to get sent home. That kind of crazy didn’t seem so bad crazy in the midst of the craziness of armies trying to kill each other.
Klinger wasn’t Milton Berle, broadly playing broads for laughs, or even Peter Kastner stuck in a very stupid premise. He was, instead just someone trying to stay sane in an insane world, his crossdressing just accepted by the people he worked with everyday.
Even though I know the canonical version of Klinger went on to “After M*A*S*H,” I like to imagine a very different outcome for him.
In my version, he goes back to Toledo where his clear peddler roots lead him to open a women’s clothing store and spends a lot of time in amateur theatre where he likes to get dressed up, but is willing to take the lead in “Guys & Dolls.”
I mentioned Klinger as a crossdresser to some transpeople recently and they just laid out the rant against CIS people playing trans, and how the character was just some joke. None of them, though, had spent time at trans support groups in the 1980s where lots of crossdressers came just to have an evening out while always holding tight to their man role, the one they had to wear everyday.
Even I know that by serving the story, Klinger was just a pawn of the writers, directors and producers, but it was my sense that they knew guys in Hollywood who were a lot like Klinger. In Altman’s 1974 “California Split,” the call girls the guys flirt with have a “date” with a “Helen Brown,” played by Bert Remsen, who wants a night out with the gals but gets more than she bargained for.
When I see Klinger, I hear the cry that is out on some many trans sites: why can’t I just wear whatever I want to work?
That’s just what Klinger did, and in a war zone no less.
This doesn’t make these people comfortable, though, because they don’t want to look like Klinger, no matter how lovely his movie star wardrobe was. They are more like “Helen Brown” who want to be seen as women, beautiful and feminine, even though they know the limits and don’t want to give up their standing as men.
Klinger was one ballsy crossdresser, doing his part for the soldiers and claiming his own freedom while doing it. How American is that?
I remember back the 1990s when I was on an escalator in a mall in San Francisco. There were a troupe of queens shooting a movie scene below, which made me smile.
“Isn’t it great to live in a free country?” I said to no one in particular.
The man on the step behind me said “That’s just what I was thinking!”
His wife said “I want to know where they got that raincoat.”
Klinger was trans, out and proud, even if his character was bent and twisted for the needs of the show.
His coworkers and the audience thought the same thing; do your work and claim your own freedom. Whatever you want to wear, that’s OK with us.
For those of us who don’t want to be seen as a guy-in-a-dress (1999), there are other challenges that I have covered in profusion.
But Max Klinger, well, I salute you.
And I hope the whole thing with the dress shop and the local theatre worked out great.