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Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1968) was perhaps the first major novel in English to have a transgender protagonist. Myra, née Myron, undergoes gender confirmation surgery. In order to retain Myron's assets without being outed as trans, she pretends to be his widow. She lives a flamboyant life fueled by sex, drugs, and alcohol. At the end of the novel, a car accident compels her to have her breast implants removed. In the meanwhile, she has fallen in love with a woman named Mary Ann, so she re-adopts her previous identity of Myron and settles down with Mary Ann.

On the one hand, Myra is an engaging, attractive, vivacious character. For the 1960s, Vidal made a bold choice in having an unabashed and fun-loving trans protagonist. On the other hand, Myra is presented as self-destructive in many ways, and the end of the novel, with Myra domesticated and detransitioning, seems regressive.

How does the trans community read Myra Breckinridge? As a pioneering but flawed work? As an empowering presentation of trans identity? As a cis-normative pathologizing of trans identities? Any of those readings is defensible, and many others are possible. So I'm wondering how the novel has been seen by trans readers and their allies. I understand that the trans community as a whole might not have a consensus reading of Myra Breckinridge. I'm hoping for an answer that summarizes representative opinions, not a definitive "trans readers all say this one thing about the novel." One that includes the opinions of cis scholars such as Judith Butler whose work has informed discussion of trans identities would also be welcomed.

It seems relevant that very unusually for his time, Vidal was himself openly bisexual. His 1948 novel The City and the Pillar created a firestorm by having a sympathetic gay protagonist who does not die a sad, lonely death at the end of the novel.

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  • That larger character arc is a story with a trans protagonist written by someone who is not trans who let themselves trivialize what it means to be trans in order to sell a book. Vidal's conceptualization of Myra's gender identity turned out to just be a plot twist. As such, it's just another mediocre story about trans people written by a cis person.
    – Frances
    Dec 17, 2023 at 16:59

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The response from the trans community contemporary to the publication of the novel seems to be largely negative, although there aren't many sources available. Many of the sources that mention Myra Breckinridge are referring to the 1970 movie adaptation of the novel, which makes isolating remarks on the book difficult (and from what I could find, the movie was regarded as even worse than the book, with it being referred to as "one of the worst films you could ever hope to see").

The Transvestia magazine, which ran from 1960 to 1986, was a magazine focused on the "transvestite" community and expanded to the broader trans community over time. In the October 1968 edition, a book review of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge is included, written by Sheila Niles (who I was unable to find much more information about). She writes (page 64):

The big mystery about this book is what made the general public run it up to best-seller status. It is simply impossible for me to read it from their viewpoint, as I (and everyone I’ve talked with about it) knows far more about the subject than the author, and so have non-typical reactions (mostly bad ones).
[...]
My feeling was that the book had little to offer the TVia reader, and most of my TV friends who have tried it agree. The portrayal may well be accurate in the sense that this is what a “converted” drag-queen would be like; my limited knowledge of them makes this plausible. It is NOTHING like the TSs I have seen come up from the heterosexual side; and I’ve seen the whole range of those, from sweet to top-quality bitch.

She further details some of the unrealistic and disappointing elements of the novel, although I'm not going to reproduce the whole review here.

As the 1970 movie adaptation of the novel garnered a whole lot more attention than the book, it was "a natural" that a question about it be posed to Christine Jorgensen, one of the most well-known trans people at the time.

In the July 31, 1970 edition of "Boston Record-American" (which went through a series of iterations and is now known as the the "Boston Herald"), they ran an article about another trans-related movie, The Christine Jorgensen Story, that was also released the same year as the movie adaptation of Myra Breckinridge (i.e. 1970).
As part of that article, written by Peggy Doyle, they asked Christine about Myra:

It was a natural that mention be made of "Myra Breckinridge", the Sack Cheri's highly controversial film of Gore Vidal's more panned than praised novel on the subject we had been discussing.
"This is a completely different story from mine. I haven't seen the film yet, but I do know the original script was not the one which was brought to the screen.
"Gore Vidal doesn't know what a transsexual is. He created a sadistic homosexual. He doesn't teel tell [sic] a story. He knocks everything and never sees any good. He's an overblown stuffed shirt who does nothing but write trash."
That off her chest, Christine Jorgensen got down to the making of the film basef [sic] on her autobiography and in which John Hansen is cast in the title role in his screen debut.

Taken together, these would seem to indicate that the contemporary response to Myra Breckinridge by the trans community was not particularly favorable, from what records we have.

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