Sam: Alternative media needs moremore trans people making more media. It also needs narratives severed from the expected trans narrative (as seen in news shows, documentary and fiction films). We need to see transness beyond hegemonic expectations of masculinity and femininity. Get rid of trans as a metaphor for mental illness, isolation, a disruption of patriarchy, misogyny, or radical freedom. Prioritize opportunities for trans filmmakers like funding, scholarships, skill sharing, and jobs. It’s no secret that we aren’t hired as much limiting our economic opportunities and skill set. I left my last job because my boss stopped talking to me when he found out I was trans.

The majority of alternative queer and trans media I’m familiar with has been through the queer film festival circuit over the past 15 years.[5] [open notes in new window] Two of my earliest favorites were Morty Diamond’s film Tranny Fags (2003) and By Hook or By Crook (Silas Howard and Harry Dodge, 2001). Diamond’s film documents trans men having sex with both trans and cis queer men. Howard and Dodge’s film is about a friendship between two gender-queer people. Both films star gender non-conforming people without explaining, apologizing, or pathologizing their gender. Gender is celebrated in all its beauty and confusion as the background to their lives. Such stories were the exception. The most common plot line in the early 2000s was on trans coming out stories.

In 2003, when I began my first documentary film (Boy I Am, 2006 co-directed with Julie Hollar), I watched any documentary with trans men I could find.[6] The majority of these were made by cisgender women, documenting white trans guys through a coming out story, family struggle, and then accessing surgery and hormones. This narrative is rooted in the medical industry’s check-list of what makes a primary transsexual. While Boy I Am explored a larger issue (backlash towards trans men in the dyke community), it was informed by the tropes I saw in previous films that I accepted without question. Films about trans men were programmed (at that time) with lesbian films at film festivals. The few about transwomen at that time (2006-2008) were also coming out stories with a focus on family struggle.[7]

While screening my film in 2006 / 2007, I started questioning these storytelling techniques during Q&As and in writing.[8] Why did we need to see or know about one’s assigned gender via photos or names? Why did we need screen time about surgery? Why did we need to hear about the struggle their gender caused for those around them? Around that time some films moved away from that narrative to document other issues in a trans person’s life such as becoming a black man (Kortney Ziegler, Still Black, 2007), or making music (Madsen Minax, Riot Acts, 2009). There were fiction shorts that pushed the expected narratives like, Falling in Love … with Chris & Greg (Chris Vargas and Greg Youmans2008-2013) and Trannymal & Trannymals Go to Court (Dylan Vade Esq. and Abe Bernard, 2007).

In my current film, I address the lack of trans women in alternative media at that time. In dominant media there has been a lack of trans men. I saw this as more trans men were coming out of the lesbian/dyke community and wanted to remain in the queer community. There were lots of films about trans guys at queer festivals programmed by lesbians and very few with trans women. Where were the queer trans women and the films about them? What did we need to do as queer trans men and dykes to make our spaces more welcoming to queer trans women?

Since then, despite these increases in the quantity of films, we still see a coming out story as the main focus. HBO just produced two this summer! However, we are also beginning to see more attention on movement building: portraits of activists and artists where the story is about the work they do as trans people within a community and not about them being trans.[9] In the early to mid-2000s, most films were about white trans men. Now there is more and more about trans women of color. Indie trans fiction made by trans people is increasing, and the trans voice is clearer.[10]

Across the films in the early 2000s, we see the foundation being laid for certain tropes and story lines in independent media. The trans subject always knew from an early age that they were trans; the film shows before and after photos; there are interviews with people in the subject’s life to see how they reacted to the subject’s transition; next come lots of tears and pain; the trans person might be isolated and sad and then there is an epiphany, they transition, and all is right in the world; or – the tragedy – they get completely rejected by their friends and family. These films are based on a victimhood and empathy model that I am starting to believe is a very dangerous device that usually backfires. Feeling empathy and pity become the way for a viewer to access identification to another. Pity requires a hierarchy of personhood with a power dynamic inhibiting full human rights for trans people.

For trans audiences, films with these tropes might have key information they can’t access elsewhere: the effects of hormones or how best to come out to their family. But to a cis audience, the same representational tropes can reduce transness to medical transition and give cis people the impression they’re entitled to information about a transgender person’s body or birth given name, or that they can ask for photos of the trans person at different stages of their life. There has been some pushback against this narrative in the queer Indie film community, yet dominant media still heavily relies on these tropes. There is a dangerous lack of reflection because cisgender filmmakers haven’t lived through being trans or perhaps haven’t even studied the history. They enter from the side and want to tell an “interesting” story that sells without consideration of what’s come before or what is needed now.

Needless-to-say, I believe in the cause and effect relationship between media and personal ideologies. Along with that, I continue to question if the idea of “representation” itself is bound to fail?

The traumatic rupture

Alex: I just watched one of those very documentaries that you referenced above on HBO. You thought they would be over, but no, here we see that exact same documentary you’ve outlined above. It was about tailors, a company that makes suits for gender non-conforming clients.

Sam: Oh, Suited (Jason Benjamin, 2016)! [11]

Alex: Did you see it?

Sam: Yea, a sweet idea done in all the wrong ways. Why did we see the sexual reassignment surgery of one of the customers? What did that have to do with getting a custom made suit for his wedding?

Alex: Exactly, it was so retro ... It reminds me of all the vile possibilities that can be trotted out in the first wave of visibility (the tipping point): the voyeurism, the judgment. Every single person: you have to show a picture of them as kids? Can’t we just see them walking around in their beautiful suits? And we have to meet the parents and someone has to cry for every character? I thought we were done with that. But, that’s the thing: histories of knowing and seeing are staggered. When one community reaches a saturation point of a certain kind of story or image, it’s just starting for another community.

Sam: I can’t help but question the director’s creative process. Did he look at past films and copy that? Was he just answering his own questions? Where did he learn to ask those questions? Who advised him? Does he even know that it’s rote? Did he ever question his editorial decisions? It was difficult to watch the film and then to witness the glowing reviews and mainstream support as a trans person, as a filmmaker, as an activist. From what I’ve read, the background is that a cis white straight guy read a story in the NYT about this company and thought it would make an interesting movie. This is his first feature film, produced by HBO and premiered at Sundance—a dream come true for most independent filmmakers. Coming out of nowhere, perpetuating these myths, tropes, ideologies ... not looking into any of the history of trans images (at least from what was made, it seems that way). No accountability. He’d been Lena Dunham’s boom operator, giving him access to kinds of institutional support that trans filmmakers don’t usually have.

Alex: That film was so telling. That HBO would allow a person that has no relationship to the community to have that much air time from his voyeuristic, distanced, “I don’t know anything about anything point of view.” There are so many other ways this story is being told. Really, that’s the one HBO supports? That says something important politically about the Tipping Point. Yes, there’s more visibility, but only through the tropes you mentioned before, in this case, the curious, voyeuristic outsider who is going to have big feelings: be nauseated, or maybe it’s funny, or maybe it’s gross, or maybe they will be empathetic. And the end result is “acceptance”? I don’t think so. That documentary was just pure prurience.

Sam: The people making the suits were great, the customers were lovely characters, but the filmmaking was problematic. What editorial control did the participants have? Do they understand the trajectory of trans storytelling that they are taking part in? What would this film have looked like if made by a trans person? A few friends of mine have been encouraging me to write about it. But, where do I start?

Alex: I could have written about it too, but I thought the Internet was going to get flooded with criticism so it didn’t need my voice.

Sam: I hear that, but when a cis person gets it and speaks on it, that feels very supportive. Because the majority of cis people who speak on the state of trans media end up applauding the supportive friends and families pictured in those sorts of stories. When anyone speaks out on the problematic aspects, I for one feel less alienated from the world. What modes of trans political and representational possibility is that story keeping in place? Why is it working and always returned to? What does it do for the viewer? How does that play out with power and positioning? What is the relationship between problems with these story telling techniques and everyday challenges for trans people?

Alex: This need to return to a recognizable starting point that is always traumatic somehow grounds the whole story. There was once a stability and then there is a traumatic break when the trans person speaks the “truth” about themselves and then their whole environment destabilizes and the film works through this to re-stabilize after the family suffers and finally heals. So what happens is a story of a person’s life—which could include their work, causes they care about, their favorite foods—can only be told through that moment of traumatic rupture. But no one has one definitive traumatic rupture or a singular one. It would be interesting to see the fifth traumatic rupture. What does that look like, the fifth time the family or the person goes through it?

Sam: What do you think is so appealing about that trajectory? Why is trauma necessary for identification? How can we question the ways in which we are trained as viewers/ readers/ consumers of narrative? The viewer needs an entry point, but this format is a disservice. A family member admonished me for never telling them what my “journey” was. All I could say was it’s been decades of a slow drip kind of journey—my life. There was not one exclusive thread of a “trans journey” that intersected with every other part of my life. New friends who aren’t familiar with trans history similarly want to know “my story.” I can’t help but think that they imagine that this story will help them understand me because they’ve seen that format for so long. It’s what they’ve been taught as an audience. Do they have an equally simple story to tell me?

Alex: The traumatic rupture is for the cis members of the family and a viewer constructed to be seeing from the point of view of this place within the dynamic. I think this goes back to your point about tropes and their related feelings. Every time you (the expected cis viewer) encounter a trans person, you are expected to experience a repulsion, confusion, bodily disorientation. Those stories produce this anticipated feeling again and again. They replay it and then, finally, there’s a resolution so that by the film’s end the cis viewer gets to feel better. One of the things I noted when I was doing similar research on early AIDS media was that stories that were supposed to be about the visibility of PWAs, and “accepting” or “empathizing” with them, would inevitably show them at their sickest, at their most visibly gruesome. These images were as much about noticing how that person was other, and different, and sick, and you, the viewer anticipated as HIV-negative, were normal, as they were about kindness or respect.

So, each time a set of images play out again, an exact and expected set of feelings also gets played out, in the case of trans images, validating the cisgender person’s confusion, disorientation, uncertainty. These images and narratives are not about the destabilization or trauma of the trans person but rather that of the cis witness. It’s the same thing about demanding to see genitals. It’s sensational and prurient. The experience of the trauma and healing is for the cisgender viewer. These images get a rise as opposed to watching someone living their regular daily life. That’s not as exciting emotionally, right?

Sam: Right! So how can “documentary” ever be an activist tool when it relies on Hollywood tropes of storytelling where the site of trauma is the site of entry and pleasure? It feels good to feel bad. Feeling bad reaffirms the audience member as a caring, ethical person. Emotional response gets the audience’s attention and despair is the easiest emotion to evoke. Tragedy, we are taught, goes hand in hand with transness. At what point does life imitate art?

Trans activism, audience, entertainment

Alex: This raises the issue that dominant films imagine a cisgender viewer that does not view trans subjects as sexually interesting or as visually desirable. These films are based on imagined cis viewers who are going to be repulsed, confused, or concerned but you can also make films for a different cis audience, one who finds trans people in their lovely suits very appealing.

Sam: This is largely why I make my films for queer and trans audiences. It differs from mainstream media because there’s an assumption of identification, desire, and understanding that some think might alienate cis viewers. But that idea is also pretty flat. As my friend and filmmaker Silas Howard says, “I’m not French but I can see a French film. I’m not a shark but I can watch Jaws.”

Alex: Part of activist media making, as I’ve thought about it, is that you as the media maker have clear commitments about your anticipated viewer. Certainly one anticipated viewer for activist media can be the dominant public. You can make an activist film to convince them of something. But there’s also activist media that’s made internally for communities. Here, you are making a trans film where you assume a trans audience or trans friendly audience or queer audience will find the trans subjects attractive, beautiful, desirable, sexy, interesting.

Sam: Right. Then the point of rupture that takes the viewer from disgust to acceptance/ identification isn’t needed. That’s why I’m less interested in making something “for” a dominant audience, because of the limitations of that access point. I’m more interested in making things that could be of use to (to empower, educate, support, be a tool for) a transgender viewer or those invested in our human rights. I never anticipate a dominant audience, and to some degree don’t desire it, because it requires the above tropes and expected point of rupture to sell.

And, at the same time, my career can only go so far before I need a larger audience, at least if I want access to production, funding, and distribution and to pay my rent and bills. Thus, I have to hold both audiences in mind at most times. We are in a moment of more possibility, where more people from all walks of life want to learn about and see stories about trans people’s lives. It seems inevitable that this shift will also change how I envision my audience, even if I don’t want that. Just by the nature of this moment more people are interested in the work I’m doing. We are on the radar of broadcasters and funders in ways like never before. And, two HBO films I saw this past summer—Suited and The Trans List (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, 2016), actually both made by white, straight, cisgender men—functioned in the problematic ways we’ve been discussing so far. I’m conscious about how making work for a dominant audience will affect my decisions around telling the story. I hate when it enters my mind actually because for a split second I might consider how to make this or that more accessible. I teetered on that for an opportunity to work with Lana Wachowski and ultimately decided it wasn’t worth it.

Alex: As someone who’s been at activist media for a long time, I don’t think there is a right answer to your question. Rather, there are people in our movements who are capable of speaking to a broader public and they should do that work. And then there’s people like me, and I’m certainly not capable of that work. I realize that’s just not my function in the larger project. I don’t think one is more politically correct or one is right or wrong. I think movements need both. With AIDS activist media there were people doing both and everything in-between. I think it was a successful media movement in part because even when it had its “tipping point”—and now it’s even enjoying a second tipping point—when there was mainstream acceptability, visibility, curiosity, at the very same time, an active body of work was being made within and for the movement. Those two things were connected. That said, the window where the mainstream is interested to fund and support you is very small, so you should go for it, if it’s there now!

Sam: It's looking like filmmakers have to present very specific narratives to access that support.

Alex: What are the things you think they want to see or hear?

Sam: All the tropes we talked about before—the journey, focus on genitals, isolation, rejection, childhood photos, victim, tragedy, the traumatic rupture, the victory of self-discovery. And some of this is valuable to a trans audience. A lot of what we see in trans media is not appropriate for a cis audience. It’s very different for a trans person to watch a surgery than a cis person.

But, I want to circle back. You said you saw evidence of success for the activist media you were doing around HIV/AIDS. What does success mean in that case? What did it look like?