Groundbreaking Film and Video Festival Moves Transgender Lives Center Screen
Gordene MacKenzie and Nancy Nangeroni
Progress is here. The future is now. You know times are changing when the Massachusetts Department of Public Health helps sponsor The 1st New England Trangender Film & Video Festival happening May 18-20 at the Coolidge Corner Theater. This festival follows successful trannie film festivals for the past two years in London and elsewhere, and reflects the growing global interest in trans issues. Although the scope of Boston’s festival is necessarily narrowed by limited sponsorship, it nonetheless presents a collection of works that promises to broaden the perspective and challenge the gender experience of every viewer.
“We are always fighting for our own reflection,” Leslie Feinberg asserts in Alisa Lebow’s inspiring documentary “Outlaw,” just one of the films that will be shown at the “TranSpective” film festival. A collection of independent and alternative films will offer rare glimpses and reflections on lives that are too often absent in mainstream films. Abreath of fresh air, these exciting pieces defy the formulaic mass produced celluloid images of transpersons in popular US films. Their filmic stories hold out hope that, as trans stories move from the personal to the public sphere, cultural gender attitudes are changing.
Often visionary and transporting us into alternative realities, where gender moves center stage, these films function as cultural story-tellers. Finally, the trans voice and image moves to center stage, disputing the popular media images that have for too long stereotyped and demeaned transpersons. Their images and voices reflect some of the vast diversity and complexity found in the trans community, challenging the known gender universe.
TranSpectives is dedicated to the memory of Rita Hester, a gender outlaw who was brutally murdered in Allston late last year. The timing of the festival could not be more appropriate, as hate crimes skyrocket nationally. Transpersons, especially MTFs, are being brutally murdered at a rate of one a month. Just last week another MTF transperson was found beaten to death in rural Georgia. One local retiree commented, “They say he was wearing a dress. Most people in this area would say, ‘Hell, he needed killing.’” Attitudes like this are pervasive. Last October, a young FTM Columbus, Ohio high school student was driven to suicide by the hostility and hate inflicted on hir by fellow students. The perpetrators of these crimes – and the other affronts exposed by the works presented here – are working out their own gender discomfort on the bodies of those that arouse their most private fears, those seen as the “other.”
Intersex Society of North America founder Cheryl Chase’s pioneering “Hermaphrodites Speak” courageously confronts the non-consensual genital mutilation routinely performed on young intersexuals. Filmed entirely outdoors in a grassy meadow, this riveting documentary with the feel of a home-movie transports the audience into a circle of activists as they bravely recount the medical horrors, secrecy, and shame they were subjected to as children. Activists proudly break the silence with heart wrenching stories of how their parents, bullied by doctors, consigned them to the cruel scalpels of a dual gender system. One activist candidly recounts what it was like to be viewed as a “freak,” displayed in surgical auditoriums for all to see. Another, remembering the pleasure hir hermaphrodite body gave hir prior to surgery, suggests that maybe the surgical brutality derives from fear and misunderstanding of the power and beauty of hemaphroditic desire and sexuality. Bodies seen as “different” are systematically destroyed. The one speaker who escaped the brutal genital resculpting shares the love and comfort s/he feels for hir own body, and the love and respect shown for hir body by lovers. This is a film as beautiful in its strength and courage as it is powerful in its potential for transformation.
Alisa Lebow’s “Outlaw” is an extended (26 minutes) interview with Leslie Feinberg that spans many of the issues that transpeople face. Released in 1994, it remains as vibrant, visionary and instructive today as it was ahead of its time then. Feinberg speaks with a measured dignity and language so compassionately inclusive that few viewers will remain unmoved. Leslie’s words provide an introductory course second to none in transgender identity, politics, and the reality of life as a transgender person. S/he speaks of the violence, stigma and pain endured by people whose gender cannot be easily categorized into one of two little boxes, and the need for a more inclusive perspective. Hir language provides a living example of how we can talk about one another without inflicting stigma, in this “must-see” piece for every student of transgenderism.
“The Salt Mines,” by Carlos Aparicio and Susana Aikin, is a documentary about a group of homeless Latina trans women living in discarded garbage trucks in New York City. Honest about how they got there, more than one tell of their fondness for drugs as their downfall. Their strength and resourcefulness in living on scraps is remarkable, and the beauty that they achieve when dressed up for an evening working the street is truly amazing. Told entirely in their own words, they nonetheless manage a story which draws the viewer in and earns respect for their commitment to living their own gender, despite the cost. Lurking in the background, though, is the sinister hand of AIDS, and Sara/Ricardo fears that she will die alone on the street. She begins taking food from some church people, and contemplates taking their helping hand to get off the street.
“Transformation,” also by Aparacio and Aikin,continues the story told in “Salt Mines”, following Sara, who accepts the help of church folk to get off the street. The price is complete rejection of transgenderism and homosexuality, but she makes the deal, and we watch her conversion to “appropriate manliness” with disbelief. Her newfound heterosexuality is cemented by marriage to a woman who insists she doesn’t care about “Ricardo’s past life”. As viewers, though, we can’t help but wonder about the truth of Ricardo’s feelings, and the film doesn’t disappoint: before it is over, we get to hear the truth from hir mouth.
“Transformation” makes a powerful statement about the subversive war on alternative lifestyles waged by religious groups seeking “disciples.” They offer social, economic, medical and material goods in exchange for the rejection of individuality and independent thought. For a homeless person dying of AIDS, the offer can prove too good to resist, especially when they are more often than not effectively barred from assistance by established AIDS service providers because of their gender. The “discipled” is then trotted out by the church as a poster child for rejection of homosexuality and transgenderism, when in fact they rejected homelessness, hunger, and social stigma. A deserving winner of the 1997 Emmy Award for Outstanding Interview, “Transformation” provides rare insight into way social stigma is pressed into the service of religious “rescue.”
“You Don’t Know Dick,” directed by Candice Schermerhorn and Bester Cram, celebrates the lives of six FTM Transexuals of various sexual preferences. Exploring body image, sex, desire, relationships, family and more, this pieces asks, what really makes a man? One particpant’s comment that “when you are in the wrong gender you are almost afraid to dream” underscores the pain felt by many FTMs in the journey to the self censored by the larger society. “You Don’t Know Dick both challenges and reinforces traditional gender beliefs. Ted holds out hope for a traditional heterosexual relationship, while James Green asserts “the exact shape of a penis and its size are not what make a man a man,” and Loren Cameron proudly displays his muscled and tattooed manly body with a vagina. The fact that most of these transmen view their gender ambidexterity as a plus, something we should all be so lucky to discover, lingers as a pleasant flavor.
A second piece on FTM transpersons, “Trappings of Transhood” directed by Chris Lee and Else Hurwitz, opens the camera lens wider to how sex, gender, race, ethnicity and class intersect. In this fast paced documentary, accompanied by a thrilling soundtrack of tranny music, the question of identity forms a rich silken thread for the viewer to follow. Various identities are explored in relation to the body, including a white FTM transfag who speaks about the difficulty of gay desire without a penis, and a latino FTM who talks about the dual oppressions of being a person of colour and a transgender person. A black working class FTM notes that he has become a poster boy for “no hormones or surgery” and reflects on the difficulty of occupying that position within the FTM community, while a Phillipine FTM talks of being expelled from the lesbian community for being too butch. The complexity of gender consistently underscored in the film reminds us, as one participant advised, not to let other people tell you who you are, but to be proud of who you know you are.
The award-winning “Chocolate Babies” by Stephen Winter, is a powerful piece which blends fiction with reality, depicts a group of HIV-positive radical tranz queers of color practicing in-your-face street terrorism of politicians who oppose assistance for low-income people with AIDS. Although the terrorist incidents – several street accostings and a kidnapping – appear surreal, the dialogue and character of the group strike home with the power of genuine experience. Reminding us that the cure for AIDS cannot be afforded by those with no health insurance and limited means, the piece shows us the doubly marginized queers of color who fall below the radar for our social and health care programs. Brilliant acting lulls the viewer easily into the feeling they are watching a documentary.
“Ma Vie En Rose,” a popular feature-length movie that won Golden Globe and Cannes Film Festival awards, tells the story of a young person born male but convinced they are a girl. The opposition she encounters – including beatings from her mother – will first break your heart, then draw a cheer when she courageously sticks to her guns and wins the support of those around her. The loving support she eventually receives from her parents will make her the envy of many transpeople out there. An amazingly sympathetic portrait of an MTF transgender child, this film is a gift of love to transgender people everywhere.
“Transmission” a 7 minute film directed by transman Ivan Coyote and winner of the 1998 best Canadian short film, is a beautiful gender poem. Shot in stark black and white, it explores a queer family where a young butch wants to be like hir queer FTM dad. The film artfully explores top surgery, clothing and drag as gender signifiers. Visually rich, beautifully seductive and combined with an exciting and original soundtrack, “Transmission” combines poems and images to convey the powerful multilayered message of “I want to be just like you dad without the scars.”
Marla Leech’s “Tranny TV” blitzes the audience with a collage of the good, the bad, and the ugly portrayals of transgender persons on US TV. It treats us to the specter of transexuals persuaded to come out to their boyfriends ‘live’ on “The Jerry Springer Show,” and trannies as demented murderers as in “Psycho” and “Silence of the Lambs.” Unfortunately these are not isolated representations, rather we regularly see transpersons on prime time, presented in a formulaic way that humiliates and denies the complex experience of being a transperson. “Tranny TV” also shows positive representations of transpersons, portrayed not as objects of scorn, but as true subjects and participants in a gender revolution that has the potential to free us all from the chains of a deadly bipolar gender system. Begging for audience participation, Leech asks us to consider what we think of as entertainment and at whose expense?
Other pieces to be shown include “Adventures of Tucking” by Toronto transactivist Mihra-Soleil Ross, “A Mermaid Called Aida” by Indian director Riyad Wadiam, “Remembrance” by David PcPherson, and “Murray for Mayor” by Lucia Davis.
Although representations of cross-dressers, more diverse MTF images and gender fluidity are notably lacking, this film festival provides us with rich representations of a large slice of the trans experience. Those seeking to fill in the gaps might want to seek out A&E’s “Transgender Revolution” for a look at current political action, “Stonewall” for sympathetic portrayal of an MTF, and “Just Like a Woman” for a superb portrait of a “straight” crossdresser.
Gordene MacKenzie is a gender activist and the author of “Transgender Nation” and can be reached at Gordene@gendertalk.com
Nancy Nangeroni is a transactivist, host of GenderTalk radio at www.gendertalk.com, and can be reached at Nancy@gendertalk.com