Rekha Basu: Remembering a transgender activist who taught people to live authentically without fear

Rekha Basu, Des Moines Register on

Published in Op Eds

In the same week that Iowa's governor signed a law stripping Medicaid payments for sex-change surgery from transgender Iowans, the state also lost a 57-year-old activist who 21 years ago broke down walls by sharing his story of living on the boundary between male and female.

There's a phrase in journalism about "putting a human face" on a topic to help people understand it better. In my decades of journalism, no one put a more human face on what it means to be transgender – or why it matters – than Casey Gradischnig, who died last week of cancer.

When I first met him through mutual friends, Casey was identified as female. Twenty-one years ago, well before transgender was in most people's vocabulary (initially it was "transgendered," no longer in favor) he approached me about doing a column to help people understand what it meant. He was then 36 and working in the corporate world, producing films for Saks Inc. He later worked as senior art director for a Meredith Corp. company.

"While I can't claim to understand everything about the message, I trust the messenger and her experiences." I wrote back then, Sept. 29, 1998. The column noted that Casey's appearance -- closely-cropped, flat-top haircut, black-rimmed, Roy Orbison-style glasses, eyebrow ring -- made people uncomfortable. But Casey never chose to:

"There's a scene in 'The Birdcage' where a drag queen has to be taught to walk like a man. Try as he might, he can't do it. The pinkie goes up. The arms swing with a flourish. The steps are too exaggeratedly dainty.

"Try as she might to force herself into a skirt or pumps or lipstick or grow her hair long, Gradischnig can't look the part ... .

"If you ask her whether she'd rather be a man, she asks you whether you'd rather think in Russian, when all you spoke was English."

Back then he called himself "a genetic female with a masculine gender identity," and said he was rewriting the gender rules for himself. Later he would grow full facial hair and take hormones.

Back then, transgender people were lumped in with gay people, but many gay people were reluctant to be associated with them. It was hard enough to be accepted as gay without adding another layer of stigma.

Then there was the question feminists like me had trouble wrapping our minds around: Were there really such innate biological differences between men and women that dictated gender roles? Wasn't it just culture? Casey answered that by sharing his experiences as a child involved in theater and choosing to only play male roles, and as a tenor in the band at Roosevelt High School, who wore a tie in the senior class picture. Later I got a kick out of hearing and writing about a milestone high school reunion that Casey attended as a guy.

In 2016, disturbed by North Carolina's new law requiring everyone to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender at birth, Casey suggested an experiment. We'd go into women's public bathrooms across the Des Moines metro area and observe the patrons' reactions to having someone like him washing his hands at the sink.


We attracted a range of responses. Casey was ejected from one and someone called police from another. But at a few other places, no one raised an eyebrow. We understood why women patrons were uncomfortable, but that was the whole point: North Carolina's law would force that situation on them.

What made Casey so great to work with on these topics were his self-awareness and lack of shame or fear about the stigma of being different. He approached everything as an intellectual and artist, and with his funny, endearing personality, never took himself too seriously. He also stood up for the civil rights of other groups.

In 2000, Casey and our mutual friend Lisa Deaton teamed up to present something they called Urban Anthropology, a visual and performance art spectacle in an old 4,000-foot Des Moines warehouse. There was art and photography, dance, poetry, film and male impersonators. It was a space to, in Casey's words, "throw out the rules ... to be able to talk, laugh and not feel censored because they don't understand the performances or they're not wearing the right clothes." He'd been to similar events in London.

Most importantly, Casey trusted people to be open-minded and decent once they understood. He believed if they had all the right facts, they'd respond the right way.

It tells you a lot that the Iowa lawmakers who voted against Medicaid coverage for sex-change surgeries didn't bother reaching out to any transgender people for input. Clearly, putting a human face on the issue would have made it harder to hate and stigmatize people, or deny them coverage. But I'm pretty sure it's largely thanks to Casey that so many people who aren't directly affected are pushing back. I guess he was right.

About The Writer

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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