Zak Szymanski

A real dialogue on trans issues


OPINION What I love about the queers in this town is just how messy and offensive we allow one another to be in our unified goal of relentlessly trying to strengthen our community. In some circles, the evolution of dyke space into a multigender population of transsexuals, genderqueers, femmes, tg-butches, bisexuals, lesbians, and men of all birth sexes has led to tension about queer visibility and discussions about misogyny, privilege, and appropriation. I am frequently pissed but never lacking for a group of people who will continue to engage the issues and attempt imperfect solutions no matter how hurt they have become in the process.

And yet, during Pride season there will be countless potentially offensive voices we will not hear. The ex-gay and right-wing Christian movements — arguably homosexual communities in their own right — will not be given unchallenged space at our events, and there won’t be an uproar that these views should be included for the purpose of "fostering dialogue." As many journalists and artists can attest, ensuring the free exchange of ideas often means knowing what to leave out.

Still, it was predictable that supporters of lesbian director Catherine Crouch’s film The Gendercator would claim censorship and blame transgender community allies for "silencing dialogue" when the Frameline International LGBT Film Festival decided last month to pull this film from its June schedule. It was a setup; victims could either remain silent during an attack or speak up and "prove" that they have malicious intentions to take over the world.

For those unfamiliar with The Gendercator, a quick look at Crouch’s film summary and deliberately defamatory director’s note says it all: Trans people are the product of "distorted cultural norms" who uphold antigay values and change their sex "instead of working to change the world." Male-identified trans people are altered lesbians, despite the fact that many have never held that identity. And not even the femme dykes are safe, considering Crouch’s tomboy-or-else definition of acceptable queerdom.

Crouch says the film comes from her anxiety about what she perceives as the loss of gender-variant women and the rise of binary gender norms. But the film itself strikes a different note, depicting trans bodies as sci-fi horrors and trans characters as coercive perpetrators of nonconsensual body invasions — all the familiar rhetoric used to justify antitrans violence and deny basic civil rights.

If there’s a dialogue to be had about our community’s valid anxieties surrounding the spike in sexual reassignment surgeries, it certainly wasn’t raised in Crouch’s The Gendercator. Unlike the creators of other films that have been controversial in the trans community, Crouch is disinterested in the lives of the people she portrays in this work. Imagine making a film alleging an inherent pedophilia in gay people to "spark dialogue" about gay culture’s obsession with eternal youth. As Rae Greiner, a queer woman who launched the Frameline letter-writing campaign, points out, "You can’t foster genuine discussion when you demonize your subjects or when you intentionally forego nuance in favor of stereotypes, false accusations, and outdated perceptions."

In fact, The Gendercator provoked very little dialogue at all until San Francisco activists protested it. Far from trying to silence it, they aimed to call attention to the film and create an actual conversation. They distributed flyers with Crouch’s position and responded with the truth about trans people’s lives: trans people are often queer social-justice activists with a nuanced and feminist view of identity.

The reason nontrans gay people have not seen blatantly antigay or antilesbian films yanked from their festivals is that such movies don’t make it past the selection committee. To decry the ban on The Gendercator is thus disingenuous, particularly when many of the "anticensorship" and "nonbinary" voices support events that ban trans people from attending based on the presence or absence of a penis.

Yet there are some important messages about this film that should not be lost.

First, if our community artists are going to claim dialogue as justification for blatant attacks, then they should expect to have that dialogue. Some of the questions the queer community has posed in its discussion of the film are: Why does Crouch think her views are nonbinary? How do femmes, bisexuals, butches of color, nonop male-identified trans people, and dykes who choose breast cancer reconstruction fit into her limited view of sex and gender? How does the glorification of masculinity in lesbian circles and the sexism in butch and genderqueer communities contribute to this perceived pressure to transition to male?

Most important, if gays and lesbians feel that the growing transgender population means they are under attack, how can we come together to make sure this concern is heard and validated without demonizing one another? Several events exist in San Francisco to deal with such tensions, but perhaps they aren’t reaching the smart and articulate people whose need for real dialogue has been reduced to lamenting the loss of a 15-minute monster movie.

Opposing the inclusion of a deliberately divisive and dialogue-stopping film in an event designed to build community was something we did not do because we don’t want to have a community conversation, but because we do. *

Zak Szymanski

Zak Szymanski is the producer and editor of the short film The Wait.