copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

Does visibility equal progress? A conversation on trans activist media

by Sam Feder and Alexandra Juhasz

Summer 2016

The transgender tipping point: who succeeds, who benefits?

Alex: Hi Sam, can you tell me about your background as an artist and your current work on a documentary about trans[1] [open endnotes in new window] media history?

Sam: Hi, Alex. I started making films in the early 2000s. Since then my work has focused on current activist issues that I’m part of and witnessing, specifically regarding transgender lives. My present film is in response to the growing visibility of trans people in the media and puts that visibility into historical context. How did we get here? How have images of trans people evolved? How does increased visibility intersect with how trans people understand ourselves or how society understands trans lives? Does visibility equal progress?

Alex: How is this moment of visibility different from earlier examples of trans visibility?

Sam: This moment is different because there are more opportunities, there is a slight shift in how dominant films and TV shows write trans characters, and being trans has become a commodity that sells. I struggle with how the current moment casts trans visibility as something new and in that process breaks it from an historical narrative, rendering the past invisible. That’s largely why I became interesting in making a film on the history of trans people in media.

Regarding this “moment,” just like any good story, there was a moment of change in June 2014 when Time magazine published the beautiful cover photo of Laverne Cox with the words “Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier.” Two years earlier Joe Biden said that transgender discrimination is the civil rights issue of our time. In opposition to the prevalence of historically flat and stereotypical portrayals of trans people, there has been an overt shift in how transgender lives are showing up in the media. A few respectable and somewhat well-rounded trans characters have been written for TV (The Bold and the Beautiful, Transparent, Orange is the New Black) with some trans people cast as trans characters (Laverne Cox, Trace Lysette, Alexandra Billings, Ian Harvie, Scott Turner Schofield). With media attention declaring a shift in visibility as a “tipping point,” I hear liberal allies noting this as a success for trans people in general. However, I don’t see success reflected in our lived reality except for the uplift of a few actors. Visibility is not always or necessarily a good thing. It can leave some people more vulnerable to harm, particularly when we consider the intersections of race, class, citizenship, religion, ability, etc. The recent increase in opportunities for visibility is often framed as success, presuming an improvement for all trans lives. This quick move to call this particular visibility “success” performs two erasures: of the ongoing (or increased) struggles in trans people’s lives and of the previous visibility of trans people in media.

However, this is not the first time trans people have gained visibility through casting. 2000 was a first in American television history: Jessica Crockett, a transgender woman, was cast as a transwoman on Dark Angel (Sarah Pia Anderson). In 2005, Alexandra Billings played an out trans woman on the TV show version of Romy & Michelle. In 2007, Candis Cane was the first transwoman to have a reoccurring role as a transwoman on Dirty Sexy Money. But even with this increase in trans casting, the default has always been and continues to be cis people cast in trans roles. [2]

In considering these issues, many questions come to mind. What does success mean in this equation? What does that mean for social justice? What does it mean for trans people who are not invested in Hollywood? What was the role of trans social justice movements in leading up to this “tipping point”? Are we, trans people and trans activists and media makers, accountable for this? Did any of our work lead to this? Are social movements and services concerning trans lives benefiting from this “tipping point” at all? This “tipping point” made room for Caitlyn Jenner to come out. Did any trans people who weren’t on her show benefit from that? Jenner is calling herself an activist. Transparent is hiring trans actors and crew. Do the opportunities for those few individuals size up to the opportunities the cis people involved will embrace due to the Emmy, Golden Globe, and Peabody awards they’ve received? Who is actually benefitting from this “tipping point”?

Alex: It is certainly the understanding in contemporary popular culture that there is more visibility or a new visibility, that there are more images to see, and that trans voices are more available within dominant discourse than before. But what the mainstream culture understands is one thing; from where you stand is there a tipping point?

Sam: To what point are we tipping? Visibility of whom to whom? Social justice for whom? Assimilation of whom? A shift in public discourse by whom and about whom? Does visibility actually mean serving as a profitable commodity? Trans people are not yet authorized to set the terms of our own visibility. To be visible, we must conform to the demands placed on us by a public that wants to buy a story that affirms their sense of themselves as ethical. There is a semblance of conversation around what accountability and respect look like in regards to how we talk and write about, frame, and cast trans people. But as we see time and time again, the media experiences historic amnesia: filmmakers and show runners are not showing enough regard for our legacy and history in the media. In their rush to present themselves as doing something new, they remove from view a rich legacy and history of trans people in the media. Some are discovering trans people for the first time, finding our lives interesting for plot development. Others still use being trans as either a distasteful metaphor or a set of tropes we’ve witnessed since the early days of cinema such as tropes of trauma, pathology, deception, and pathetic-ness. A few seemingly respectful roles pop up and people are overjoyed by that tiny crumb. When you look at those roles they beg questioning: are they actually respectful? Are they doing anything new or different? Or, do they echo ongoing archaic – and harmful – themes and ideas of what it means to be trans?

We have Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black, and she’s behind bars. What does that tell us about the life chances of trans women of color? Or in the Danish Girl, Lili Elbe dies at the end of the movie due to transition-related medical complications. Whether or not that is true to her life, we still need to question why that’s the story people are telling, why that story is the one being funded at this time of tipping. And, we have to unpack how it’s perpetuating violence against trans people to cast cis people in trans roles the majority of the time. The arguments for why cis actors are necessary for the specific roles has been debunked. So, let’s look at the underlying issue of transness being something one (a cis actor) puts on as a costume (to play a trans role) and how that myth becomes part of a belief system. I’ve spoken with trans activists who were brought on as consultants for The Danish Girl who gave concrete feedback on what they saw as problematic. Their feedback was completely disregarded. And the filmmakers were still able to say they “consulted with trans people,” and that gave them credibility. However, this logic of tokenism will never redistribute logics of power between communities and groups.[3]

I’m trying to figure out what kind of space has been made for trans people, why it’s been made, and how that benefits capitalism, because entering the mainstream media means you’ve become a viable commodity. As an activist and media maker, what is my responsibility in this moment of mainstream attention, especially since this kind of visibility and being a commodity was never my goal.

Alex: At this moment of the so-called Tipping Point, there has also been a related (or unrelated?) set of rather visible social justice activities and struggles around the use of restrooms that had a tipping point of its own. Do you think the visibility in dominant media of trans people and these hyper visible political issues are related?

Sam: While trans visibility alone isn’t the reason, it seems like it created a new target, a face, and a singular issue for people to rally around. Since marriage equality and trans military inclusion became law, there has been an upswing in reports of backlash against LGBT rights. The media gave a ton of airtime to the legislation in North Carolina. Before that, legislatures in 22 states proposed bills threatening equal rights, with transgender people receiving the brunt of it. So, visibility has created the space for the media to see this issue as newsworthy, for now. It’s inaccurate to say that trans visibility caused the backlash because this implies that the backlash wasn’t already there.

Trans tropes as ideology

Alex: Sounds like in your research you have named a set of recognizable types or stereotypes of trans people?

Sam: I am interested in how recognizable types, stereotypes, or tropes work to create myths and ideology. We see three or four unflattering types of trans people. But, then what? Is it better to just make three or four flattering portrayals? There’s more to look at, including how an audience is taught to fundamentally trust these recognizable stories. Or how filmmakers learn to mimic each other without question. What is the responsibility of the media maker in perpetuating or challenging harmful images?

Putting those questions aside for now, here are the tropes I’ve seen, in no particular order (although I do think there is a meaningful evolution to these portrayals which I’ll show in my film).

Julia Serrano writes about two central media depictions: the “deceptive” trans person and the “pathetic” trans person.[4] The deceptive trans person is a character whose trans identity is unknown to the viewer and/or to the other characters. Early cinema uses this act of deception to create forbidden spaces and/or sexual predators. For example, Fatty Arbuckle in the film Coney Island (Roscoe Arbuckle, 1917) puts on a woman’s bathing suit and relaxes, ogling some women until he is discovered and thrown out. We also see deception concerning romantic desire. A character’s trans identity is unnoticed by their love object because they seemingly blend into the expectations of hegemonic femininity or masculinity. Their trans identity is undetectable so their disclosure acts as an unexpected plot twist fooling innocent straight guys into falling for “men.” Then the audience is expected to experience the same sense of betrayal the character in the film feels at the moment of disclosure. The classic example is Dil in The Crying Game (Neil Jordan, 1992). This trope has appeared for 25 years on Jerry Springer and in the film adaptation of Gore Vidal’s novel, Myra Breckenridge (Michael Sarne, 1970).

There’s the pathetic trans person who doesn’t deceive anyone. Their gender is not taken seriously, and they are considered innocuous. This role is often used to create empathy in the viewer but also revulsion: for example, John Lithgow’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of ex–football-player Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp (George Roy Hill, 1982) and Terence Stamp’s role as the aging showgirl Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephen Elliott, 1994). Even Maura Pfefferman in Transparent (Jill Soloway, 2014) echoes this trope. 

There is the pathological psychotic trans killer in films such as Psycho (Alfred Hitchchock, 1960) or the lesser known Homicidal (William Castle, 1961), Dressed to Kill (Brain De Palma, 1980), Sleep Away Camp, (Robert Hiltzik, 1983), Switch Killer (Mack Hall, 2015), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), and Hit & Miss with Chloë Sevigny (Paul Abbott, 2012).

A year after Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) premiered, William Castle directed and produced Homicidal (1961)a film about a transman who dresses as a woman in order to kill people who know that he is trans. The trend of the trans killer continues Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980), Switch Killer (Mack Hail, 2004), Hit & Miss (Paul Abbott, 2009).

Those are a few we see over and over, none of which is flattering, nuanced, or complicated. These films both reflect and intensify common tropes that teach people how to respond to trans people. For instance, in the Crying Game, Stephen Rae’s character is not condemned for punching Dil in the face and then vomiting for a long 49 seconds of screen time. This is framed as an acceptable response to Dil having a penis. This scene has been satirized over and over again and not as a point of critique but as a point of humor like in Ace Ventura Pet Detective (Tom Shadyac, 1994). When this is the common experience viewers encounter when seeing trans people, should we be surprised about the high rates of transwomen being abused, threatened, or killed by the men who desire them?

Alex: What else have you learned through your research interviews about the history of representing trans people?

Sam: In my research interviews I asked a lot about dominant media. At some point I stopped experiencing the joy of mainstream films and TV because I found most of it so offensive. So I stopped watching. Every other joke is homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic, you name it! Why can’t mainstream comedy be more clever than that? This representational history is what most marginalized groups face. By this I mean anyone who is pushed to the margins because they do not mirror the dominant center, i.e. white, cisgender, heterosexual, temporarily able-bodied, middle to upper class male – the majority of people who are in power.

This is the problem that keeps me going back to making media in hopes of impacting social movements. I believe media is the greatest myth-maker of our time and that cultural myths often lead to dominant ideologies. Media creates ideologies, and ideologies create social norms. The biggest obstacle for trans people and any marginalized group is that because we are outside the visual (and other) regimes of dominant power, we are seen as outside, different, and lesser-than. Through that process we are dehumanized. Dehumanization leads to violence, which is then systematically sanctioned in such places as the legal and the criminal justice system, health care industry, and employment and housing, thereby denying us our basic human rights.

Stories about marginalized people tend to be oriented around trauma. There has to be a traumatic event that is part and parcel of representations of transness which limits the stories being told and acts as erasure of other aspects of our diverse lives, experiences, and beliefs. And, yes, trauma is real and vital to talk about. The problem is, when that is all that gets talked about, the individual is reduced to one dimension. As activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett asks, “How do we tell the stories of people navigating enormous amounts of violence without simply reducing them to that violence”? How does that singular story affect how society sees trans people and how we see ourselves? From the research interviews I’ve done with trans people who work on both sides of the camera, I’ve learned that a majority could recount a specific scene from The Jerry Springer Show where a trans person was not only sensationalized and exploited but often berated or punched in the face for the amusement of the audience. I’ve learned that visibility does not equal progress and that we need more trans people making stories about trans lives. One of the first things film students learn is the power of writing from your own experience. And, of course some of those stories will be problematic, but I’d like to see space made for a critical mass of trans storytellers. This is not to say, by any means, that people should not write or work or speak on behalf of another’s experience, but when there is so little in the canon, and much of what is in the canon is horrible and authored by cis people, it’s time to prioritize trans voices. 

Alex: As we both know, independent media is where this prioritization can happen. What is your understanding of a possible Tipping Point in alternative media?

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?

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).

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.

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?

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]


1. When we use the word trans, in this moment in Fall 2016, it is an umbrella term used to describe people with a gender identity and/or gender expression different from what they were assigned at birth. This term has evolved and changed over time and we assume it will continue to do so in order to reflect the current needs of transgender communities. [return to text]

2. For more on the politics of casting in the mainstream see Diana Tourjee, Jen Richards, and Monica Roberts.

3. I’m paraphrasing Chase Joynt here from a conversation we had about this issue.

4. See Serrano, Whipping Girl , 2007

 5. A more detailed list of alternative trans media will be explored more thoroughly in my film and book on the topic. The majority of this conversation focuses on feature docs; a few shorts are included. My film and book will also include films beyond what I could afford to see at the festivals or what we have time to discuss here.

6. I remember watching: A Boy Named Sue (Julie Wyman, 2001), Just Call Me Kade (Sam Zolten, 2001), Southern Comfort (Kate Davis, 2001), Sir, Just a Normal Guy (Melanie La Rosa, 2001), Shinjuku Boys (Kim Longinitto and Jano Williams, 1995), You Don’t Know Dick: Courageous Hearts of Trans Men (Bestor Cram, 1997), The Branden Teena Story (Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir, 1998), Gendernauts (Monika Treut, 1999).

7. Prodigal Sons (Kimberly Reed, 2008), Red without Blue (Brooke Sebold and Benita Sills, 2006), She’s a Boy I Knew (Gwen Haworth, 2007)

8. Sam Feder and Dean Spade, “Sparking Difficult Dialogues: On Trans Documentaries,” Make/Shift Magazine, 2007.

9. A few that come to mind are Major! (Annalise Ophelian, 2016) about Miss Major Griffin Gracy and, Transvisible (Dante Alencastre, 2013) about Bambi Salcedo, Happy Birthday Marsha (Reina Gossett and Sasha Wortzel, 2017) about Marsha P. Johnson.

10. In 2012 Rhys Ernst directed The Thing. More recently, Eden’s Garden (Seven King, 2015) and the Emmy nominated You Tube series, Her Story (Sydney Freeland, 2016).

 11. Taken from the film’s website “SUITED follows its subjects—clients seeking a personalized experience—into the minimalist office space of Bindle & Keep, a bespoke tailoring company based in Brooklyn that caters to a diverse LGBTQ community and looks beyond the gender binary, creating custom-made suits for gender-nonconforming and transgender clients.”

12. The Denver Principles, which came from early 1982 self-empowerment activism begin: “We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ a term that implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ a term that implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘People With AIDS.’”

13. Jean Carlomusto’s recent documentary, Sex in an Epidemic (2011), focuses on this history.

14. Chuck Kleinhans correctly reminds us that “the remarks on empathy, feelings—of course this is the basis of Aristotelean drama and Brecht’s critique of ‘culinary drama.’” See http://nebo-lit.com/drama/illusion-and-alienation-drama.html.

15. Stealth refers to trans people who choose to not disclose their trans identity.

16. In June 2015 President Obama invited a LGBTQ constituency to the White House. He discussed how trans women of color are being targeted. Jennicet Gutiérrez spoke out about his administration holding LGBTQ and trans immigrants in detention. For more see http://www.washingtonblade.com/2015/06/25/exclusive-i-interrupted-obama-because-we-need-to-be-heard/

 17. an honorarium, a meal, a barter, etc.

18. Because of tabloid culture there is an association that it is sleazy to pay someone. Why isn’t it sleazy to not pay someone for their time and knowledge?

19. All the conversations I have with colleagues and friends greatly informed my thoughts and ideas in this essay. In particular, the research interviews I did for my upcoming film and conversations with Ted Kerr, Joseph Hankins, Finn Paul, Vika Kirchenbauer, Aleksei Wagner, Amy Scholder, Alex Berg, Chase Joynt and Cris Beam.