Activist media success

Alex: In relationship to activist media about HIV/AIDS, I think of success when, for a short window of time, dominant society’s ideas about how to know and think about HIV/AIDS was, at least in part, being controlled by us. At that time, we changed some of the terms and some of the understandings of AIDS in our culture. For instance, we created, defined, used and promoted the terms PWA (Person with AIDS) [12] and safer sex. [13] [open notes in new window]

From that, political and social change occurred. Then, when we stepped away from naming things, showing things, telling things, from our point of view, the agenda shifted right back to where it was. So, I learned that it’s a constant job, and we did walk away from it, mostly because people were dying and sad. But we did have a voice that we fought hard for and used for many of the years of the conversation. And that is a position I think that trans media is in right now. Trans media makers and activists are part of the discourse in the culture right now, naming terms (alongside others), naming the questions. Trans people can play some part in the direction of the society’s understandings as long as the movement stays diligent and makes a lot of media, as long as you participate in staying visible. As soon as that stops, it defaults back to the stupid place it was: the most bigoted place where there is no respect. It just goes back there. And it’s exhausting to keep the work up.

Sam: Why do you think that cycle is inevitable?

Alex: The dominant culture doesn’t care about us or our issues, so it’s going to default to the place of stupidity, the generic place of comfort which is knowing things in a very simplistic, dogmatic, power-ridden way. The nuance, the complexity of difference and its demands, that’s what activist media provides, the other narratives, the harder questions (like the ones that start and will also end this conversation). Do you need to ask these hard questions in a representational formula that’s familiar? Maybe. Again that’s not something I’ve ever been able to do. But, you’re still bringing new questions to the table, questions that dominant society is not going to ask because it doesn’t think it is implicated.

That’s the other job of activist media: to implicate. Of course everyone is implicated in HIV/AIDS. Of course everyone is implicated in the lived experience, the civil rights and human dignity of all human beings who live in our society. Why wouldn’t you be implicated? The fact that our political movements for human autonomy and justice aren’t deeply held by most people in this society is mysterious to me. But that’s what our activist media work is: to help people see that they are connected, implicated. We don’t need empathy like you were saying before, “oh, boo hoo, I care for you, isn’t that sad? I see your feelings.” Instead, our work is successful when we help others see that they are implicated because they live in a society where some people have access to things and others don’t.

Sam: Perhaps that’s why people are more open to messages when they feel empathy rather than feeling implicated. They’ll reject stories that focus on their implication, but embrace a story that helps them access feelings of empathy via a sustained difference. They can leave the theater thinking they have done their part, had their feelings. And, they are not responsible for any more work towards justice and equality. How do we get the audience to question the usefulness of visibility – in particular when visibility puts populations in harm’s way due to systematized oppression via class, race, religion, ability, citizenship, etc. Perhaps visibility isn’t the goal after all?

Alex: Viewers certainly like media that allows them to enjoy simple, recognizable emotions that feel big and then go away. But they don’t want complexity and nuance. They don’t want an uncommon and unresolvable feeling.

The efficacy of media activism

Sam: I’m starting to question the efficacy of media activism!

Alex: Don’t say that here in this essay! [laughter] But really, what do you mean?

Sam: The idea that activism is relegated to a specific action is ridiculous at best and oppressive at worst. Activist concerns inform how I navigate all aspects of my life, in the world, every day. But, more on that later. In terms of this essay, I wonder, to what extent am I, as a media maker, implicated in dominant media that I feel is so destructive? I’ve been motivated by social justice to make media about trans lives. Witnessing the dominant media’s focus on trans people’s lives now as a “hot new trend” motivated by the bottom line (i.e. money) causes great dissonance. Sure, there are some activist voices being heard because of the mainstream attention, but will it last? Or is it just a blip that will easily fade out while the narratives-of-the-day that HBO is putting out become louder and louder? Will queer and trans media makers with the privilege of money and power continue to exploit those of us who have less money and power like I experienced with Lana Wachowski? This has also happened to my friends with other richer more powerful filmmakers. But it’s not my business to share those details. Here’s a very short recap of my experience with Wachowski to give context. After I finished the film Kate Bornstein is a Queer & Pleasant Danger (2014), Wachowski approached me about making a second version that was more accessible to the mainstream. After a few months, I realized I wasn’t on board with her storytelling decisions (they echoed some of the tropes I mentioned earlier). So we parted ways. But she had copies of all the footage I shot for over four years of Kate before Lana and I ever started working together. I asked her to destroy or return all my footage and she refused. Who knows what she will do with it? To this day she has copies of my footage. It’s not technically illegal until she tries to use it. But, she’s certainly asserting her power over me by keeping my property without my consent. And, when she does use it, will I have the financial means to legally stop her?

Alex: As you know, there are activist practices for making media, not simply activist content. You make this very clear in your difficult story above. When the making feels empowering, collective-building, when in the process you are engaged in a world where all are implicated and all enjoy the dignity of access to full personhood and linked expression, that’s activism in and of itself. A significant part of activist media occurs for me in the making, in the community, what production and reception does for the individual maker, the activist, the people you are working with, interviewing, talking to. A critical, embodied, engaged making is where some of the best (of) activism occurs. We are changed in that process. And the object itself, the video, does it change the world? I’m less sure about that as a simple one-to-one equation. Of course other things can happen at reception, which can be activist as well, if watching encourages a viewer to then produce themselves. I don’t necessarily only mean produce media. I mean produce an activist engagement for themselves in the world.

As someone who has been engaged in several past media movements that I now see being historicized, media activists might not alone, or in one video, make change. But we are players in a much larger constellation and we have an important role there, in our movements: a small one and a necessary one. Without our images, movements won’t be running on all cylinders because the people that we are engaged with, in opposition with, they certainly have media at their disposal. Without us, we’d only have their images. Right? So, you should make activist media! Your images feed us. And you need to be fed! Are there key moments in the history of trans activist media that have sustained you?

Sam: How are we defining trans activist media? Is it the process of making, who’s making it, or the activism itself being captured on media? And, how can we trace that history when some people are stealth? [15] 

Most of the images we see from the past of trans people are not of activist moments per se. What’s more common are headshots of a person who was known to be trans or “discovered” to be after their death. Thinking of early trans activism, I can only recall a few images of Angela Douglas protesting Myra Breckenridge in the 70s or Reed Erickson launching the Erickson Educational Foundation in the 60s, or Lucy Hicks Anderson in the 40s who was sent to prison for receiving (via her husband) federal money reserved for military spouses. How have these moments been used for trans media activism?

In terms of images of trans media activism, the first thing that comes to mind is the iconic video of Sylvia Rivera getting shooed and booed off the platform by gays and lesbians at a gay liberation rally in 1973. That video has become part of so many people’s memories of trans activism and the resistance towards trans people from the larger LG movement. I also think of a photo of Sylvia and Marsha together at that same rally holding a STAR banner. I think about Lou Sullivan in the 80s and the VHS footage of talk show interviews where he reflects on how he was repeatedly denied surgery because he identified as a gay man. After testing positive for HIV he wrote, “I took a certain pleasure in informing the gender clinic that even though their program told me I could not live as a Gay man, it looks like I’m going to die like one.” I also think about Loren Cameron’s cover photo on his book, Body Alchemy (1996). This was the first image I saw of someone injecting testosterone, an image that has now become an overused trope. And, of course, going back to the 50s, I think of the images of Christine Jorgenson on the cover of the Daily News and getting off the plane. Iconic images of Les Feinberg come to mind, speaking to crowds of workers or students with ze’s fist in the air or ze’s unyielding and defiant stare into the camera. And, the image of Les visiting CeCe McDonald in prison bringing awareness to the Free CeCe campaign. I also revel in the image of Reina Gosset and Liz Bishop, during the NYC Trans Day of Action. Reina is holding a sign that says, “This is our Life, This is our Time.” I also think of the images of the riot at Compton's Cafeteria that Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman made iconic through their film Screaming Queens (2005).

(Above) Lou Sullivan founded FTM International, one of the first organizations specifically for FTM individuals.


(Left) Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at the 1973 Gay Liberation parade the same day Sylvia was booed off the stage.

Current historical moments are often captured on our phones and seen through social media outlets like the photo of Reina and Liz. Or Jennicet Gutiérrez speaking up during Obama’s LGBT victory speech in 2015.[16] She got heckled in the same way Silvia did in 1973. As a media maker, I think media activism is not limited to a finished product but is also reflected in the production process, in the ethics of interviews and conversation, in skill sharing, hiring, and how we treat our team when making work. That’s trans activism in production. I was recently on a set for a film written and directed by a queer trans person. An established cisgender DP was flown in to work with them. At the end of the last day of the shoot, he made a point to tell the director that they were spending too much time “being nice” and checking in with everyone. When he walked away, we all agreed to ignore that comment! That was an activist moment of departure from industry standards.

(Above) Reina Gosset and Liz Bishop, NYC Trans Day of Action.

(Left) Cece McDonald and Les Feinberg’s hand. Les posted this photo of visiting CeCe McDonald in prison bringing awareness to the Free CeCe campaign.

Trans media activism/feminist media activism

Alex: Can you further discuss the links between trans media activism and feminist and queer activism? For example, feminist filmmaking has always understood that communities of care in production are part of feminist film production.

Sam: The productions I’ve been part of are entirely informed by feminist media making. This comes down to the dissemination of power, working in a collaborative, accountable space, hiring people invested in the topic, job training, mentorship, making space for checking in to see how people are feeling – a holistic sense of care and responsibility for each other within production and outside of it. Process as product. Being transparent about how things come to fruition, funding, and budget, how decisions are made; being ruthless in accountability and in connecting to the historical past; nodding to our past, showing legacy and connection.

A feminist tradition that has informed my non-fiction work is attention to the distribution of power. I give my subjects editorial power over their image. If they say something they regret in the moment or a month later, they can tell me, and I will delete it. I ask them to try and not do that once I lock the film, but I will respect their needs at any time. And, I believe in offering compensation.[17] I’m not speaking for journalism or news broadcast but for a video or film documentary that requires time and knowledge from the participants. Among many of the arguments against compensating the subject, the one I have the most trouble with is that the truth is compromised if there is compensation. What is “truth” when the director makes the editing decisions? These are myths perpetuated in the name of colonialism and exploitation, racism and classism. As documentary filmmakers, we are using other people’s lives to make our work. Subjects for these documentaries should be offered compensation for their time and their knowledge. It’s very simple math.[18]

Alex: When I made We Care: A Video for Care Providers of People Affected by AIDS (1990)with a collective of women in NYC, we worked together for six months. I couldn’t pay people, but I did give them trainfare and food at every meeting. We then got a distribution grant to show the film and as part of that paid everyone who showed the film (in their own communities) a fee for that work. So I’m totally with you here, Sam, about paying people for their time, knowledge, and labor! This is only one way to manifest my understanding of feminist filmmaking and film theory where there its awareness of power being written into all aspects of media making. This is opposed to most filmmaking that has historically and still does pretend there is no power at stake, or that even if there is, it doesn’t really matter, leading to ruthless abuses of the camera’s, filmmaker’s and cinema’s power. This also goes to dominant practices for depicting people as well. Our responsibility as activist, feminist media makers is to also think about remaking or unmaking those traditional dynamics that produce images where power is written into what and who we see—not only in being uni-directional (from camera to subject; from viewer to image)—but in those how those interactions are colonial or objectifying or dominating in connection to the ways that power structures the scene of seeing and being seen. Do you think of your work on this film and others as activism? Do you think of your research as activism?

Sam: I wonder about the nature of activism vs. education vs. art, and the intersections. Is there anything to gain by teasing those differences out? My work—filmmaking, teaching, community building, volunteering—is all informed by my activist concerns, as is my personal life. I used to feel like unless I was on the front line it was dishonest to call myself an activist. Instead, I thought maybe my work would be used as a tool for activism. Or, as Kate Bornstein says, she’s “an artist in service to activism,” taking cues from activist issues, hoping her work will be of use. I’m dedicated to the act of making media being an activist act. Just as I’m dedicated to everyday activism as way of life. All my actions are concerned with and informed by what I’ve learned through activism and how I want to see the world function. So, all of my work stems from, is informed by, my current activist concerns.

Alex: I think anyone who is being thoughtful about the function of their media work has to have these moments of doubt. I too think that media making is proto-activist, or as you said, in service to activism. Activism needs these images and ideas. Artists and theorists think about, articulate, and share complicated ideas that motivate and educate people, and from that activism occurs. So the media is proto-activism: it inspires, initiates, sets into motion. Activism is when somebody takes this and then goes to the streets, or cares for another or themselves, changes a law, says no at a particularly important moment. Artists register and express the ideas of the moment, and movement, in ways that people who aren’t artists dearly need (and to be clear, I think everyone can, and should be an artist. Expressing ideas about our world, or communities, or experiences is one of those core human rights that all should have equal access to. Thus, expanding access to art-making/personal-expression is one of my core activist goals). Artists who are activists, at times engage in this fundamental human right in relationship to political movements. They express, manifest, analyze, and articulate ideas that sustain themselves as well as their movement.

Intersectionality, commodification and more questions

Alex: To begin to wrap up, do you think there is something unique about trans media activism? Is there something that makes it different from feminist or queer activism, anti-racist media activism, the other identity-based movements that we are familiar with?

Jennicet Gutiérrez speaking out at the White House.

Sam: Unique? It’s not isolated from any of those movements! Trans people are feminists, queer, lesbian and gay, of all ethnicities and races and citizenship, class, ability, religion, etc. We are inherently dealing with all those issues at the forefront of our movement. Two of the most famous trans people are trans women of color who diligently work towards racial, economic, and gender justice. How lucky are trans activists that Laverne Cox, who became famous for her acting, is an activist? And that Janet Mock, years into her mainstream success, stays at the forefront of current activist concerns? The movement, in many areas (not all) has become a manifestation of intersectional theory.

Alex: Yes, some of the earlier media activist movements took longer to understand that each one of those “identity” positions was deeply written into each of the others, and also laced through the movement. Or maybe because trans media activism’s “tipping point” comes so much later in history, it can’t help but begin from that place of intersectional knowledge. So, maybe that’s a wonderful legacy from which to end this conversation. What else did you learn?

Sam: I liked learning about the trajectory of other social movements and their media activism. How HIV/AIDS media activism created ideas or terms that it said over and over until it showed up in the dominant media (Silence = Death). I think the growing social awareness around the murders of trans women, specifically trans women of color, is a success of that model. What more can we, as trans media makers, all agree on that would help to push our activist needs forward?

The bulk of what I’ve learned is based on questions I am still ruminating on: Is commodification inevitable for an identity-based social movement? Is a social justice movement sustainable without becoming commodified and what does that look like? What happens to the movement and the individual once they become commodified? What has this trajectory looked like for previous social justice movements? What have they done once their images have become a commodity? How do we talk about the history of an identity-based movement when we’re using a context and language that is changing so rapidly? For example, what does a trans identity mean in early twentieth century film? At what point is a character cross-dressing vs. transgressing gender or doing both? Were there any roles in the past that mirror what we understand a trans identity to be today?

And there are more questions: is there any way to avoid the singular story when we are dealing with mass media? I’m also starting to question what does “mainstream” even mean? Is it about reflecting and shaping prevailing currents of thought? Or about being a viable commodity? What does the past for trans people tell us about contemporary trans lives? What do contemporary lives tell us about the past? What do catch phrases mean once they’ve entered the public vernacular? For example, when you hear people who have no experience with the queer community say or stumble over saying LGBT and they say it like it’s one thing, “an LGBT person, blah blah blah...” What does that mean to them? Because I don’t know anyone who is L & G & B & T. I’m thinking about the emergence in TV news and talk shows of the use of the phrase “trans women of color.” It’s phenomenal that the public is starting to understand the role and significance of trans women of color in our community, but do they? Do they know how that identity-based term became so important for so many people? Do they understand the urgency? And do we need them to understand? What happens when such phrases enter popular culture?

Also, I’ve also been questioning the lack of trans masculine visibility in dominant media. Is it about a threat to masculinity or simply due to misogyny or something else entirely? How does technology create identity? How do images inform how we create our own identity? What are the intersections of media technology and the science of medical transition and identity? Do trans lives threaten capitalism? Lots and lots of questions is where I am at right now even as I learn more from my research, my media making, my activism, and even this conversation.[19]