Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Gendercator drama, part one

Okay, I was going to go right into a description of a panel discussion I went to about the movie The Gendercator, but maybe you don't know about the Gendercator so I better start with a brief summary. The Gendercator is a short film by Catherine Crouch that follows a lesbian tomboy who gets high at a party and passes out in 1973, only to wake up in 2048. Times have changed, and she can no longer inhabit a non-binary gender presentation -- instead she can conform to socially-assigned roles of "female" or hormonally and surgically transition to "male.”

The controversy over The Gendercator first arose in San Francisco when trans politico Robert Haaland circulated a petition in May demanding that Frameline, the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival, pull the film from its schedule.
The petition declared:

We, the multigendered LGBT community and its allies, declare that there is no space for hatred and transphobia in our community institutions. We reject the notion that transsexuality is anti-feminist or anti-gay. We demand that our community artists be held accountable for the messages that they deliver, and that artistic projects not be allowed to hide under the mask of “sparking dialogue” when the intention is actually to divide and demonize. We further ask that Frameline’s LGBT Film Festival and other LGBT institutions refuse to show the hateful movie “The Gendercator,” which makes no attempt to engage in actual dialogue. We assert that the dialogue that most urgently needs to happen is not around the validity of trans people, but instead around the double standards that trans-related material continues to endure within our own community.

The film had only screened in a few locations (and not yet in San Francisco), so much of the controversy centered around the original director's statement, which read:

Things are getting very strange for women these days. More and more often we see young heterosexual women carving their bodies into porno Barbie dolls and lesbian women altering themselves into transmen. Our distorted cultural norms are making women feel compelled to use medical advances to change themselves, instead of working to change the world. This is one story, showing one possible scary future. I am hopeful that this story will foster discussion about female body modification and medical ethics.

Within a week after Haaland first urged people to pressure Frameline, close to 200 people had signed the petition, and Frameline decided to pull The Gendercator from its lineup, declaring, "Given the nature of the film, the director’s comments, and the strong community reaction to both, it is clear that this film cannot be used to create a positive and meaningful dialogue within our festival.” This was the first movie that Frameline had pulled from its lineup in the festival’s 31-year history.

Now, since Frameline had originally programmed the movie, it was unlikely that they decided to remove it from the festival due to "the nature of the film" or the director's comments -- clearly the "community reaction" was the deciding factor. This made me uneasy -- shouldn't the largest "LGBT" film festival in the world stand by its curatorial decisions? Did the movie only become transphobic once people protested its inclusion? Should a movie be removed simply because it is controversial? Shouldn't controversy be part of a queer film festival? And why couldn't Frameline create a meaningful dialogue within the festival? (I'm not sure what a “positive” dialogue is -- maybe when you know the results ahead of time?)

Frameline, like other gay film festivals, has come to center around consumer-friendly depictions of gay and lesbian identity (and a bit of trans and bi) -- coming out stories, lifestyle profiles, adventure stories, talking-heads documentaries, celebrity biopics and niche-marketed identity flicks. Is there some brilliance? A little bit, but you certainly have to dig. While Robert Haaland initially expressed shock that Frameline would program a transphobic movie in the festival, I was much more shocked to learn that this was the only movie in 31 years deemed transphobic enough for withdrawal. Last time I checked, transphobia was part and parcel of mainstream gay culture, which also embraces the charming "values" of racism, classism, misogyny, ableism, ageism, body fascism, bi-phobia, etc. (all, no doubt, represented in this year's festival). This is why I was more disturbed by the rhetoric around the removal of The Gendercator (“We won," declared Robert Haaland) than I was surprised that Frameline would plan on screening a transphobic movie.

Obviously, winning did not mean challenging the validity of a market-driven lifestyle institution, but instead meant engaging in a single-issue campaign. The Gendercator, a 15-minute film screening as part of a sci-fi program late at night at the smallest venue in the festival, had suddenly become the embodiment of transphobia, and any institutional analysis of structural transphobia (or racism, classism, misogyny, etc.) at Frameline was no longer deemed necessary. All Frameline needed to do was to remove this film from its schedule, and try not to program anything so “controversial” in the future.

But what about the movie? I was able to see it after writing to the director for a DVD, and I'll admit that initially it's quite seductive, opening with colorful Super-8 footage of 1970s lesbians partying on park benches to the Rare Earth anthem "I Just Want to Celebrate." The lead character, Sally, a stylish butch lesbian wearing yellow pants and shirt, tweed vest and cap with leather jacket, is led into the woods by a full-bodied femme and they start to make out until Sally passes out under a tree and the other woman leaves her. The drama happens when Sally wakes up 75 years later and a nurse and doctor are evaluating her gender presentation. It's still humorous enough until Sally meets two of her friends from the old days, one of whom has transitioned from female to male. He tells her, "It all began with the evangelicals -- you know, one man/one woman and all that -- then the next thing the trannies went along with it.” His wife (and former lesbian partner) adds, "Before long, butches and fairies were forced to make the change -- you have to be a man or a woman, no more in between."

While the movie is allegedly engaging in satire through sci-fi stylings, the notion of evangelical Christians joining with transpeople to impose binary gender tyranny was certainly jaw-dropping. Satire generally takes a terrible situation and brings it to an extreme that reveals insight about the actual predicament. Here the “insight” is that Christian fundamentalists and transpeople are on the same team. While there are some funny moments in The Gendercator, it's this irrational fear of transpeople that ends up dominating -- the movie ends with a transman, "the Gendercator,” deciding to nonconsensually reassign Sally, and we see hair growing on Sally's arms and face as she gasps in heavy breaths like a Frankenstein-type monster while machines beep ominously.

This fear of a Brave New TransChristian World is juxtaposed against a naïve faith in 1970s white feminist visions of womyn’s land, as one scene (a dream?) depicts Sally rescued by a group of women in a VW bus who declare, "We're taking you home." Home is apparently a wooded area where Sally can play softball with long-haired white women wearing bandannas. It's hard not to think of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, the largest public gathering still celebrating the womyn’s land ethos, and riled in controversy for its abominable "womyn-born womyn" (i.e. no transwomen) policy for entry (only recently amended to the contradictory policy of asking transwomen not to attend, but not necessarily denying entry).

I do believe this notion of lesbian homeland, however fraught and potentially fraudulent, is exactly what is at the heart of Catherine Crouch's movie. In other words, the question she's trying to ask is: what becomes of homeland when more people are allowed inside? I would say that if the borders aren't shifting to allow for innovation, exploration and transformation, then it doesn't sound much like home. But Crouch, like many identitarians (and the gay establishment), is more interested in policing the borders.

It's hard for me to feel impassioned about forcing Frameline to remove a movie from its roster when I think that most of the movies in the festival are absolute garbage that should never have been made. I'm more interested in creating possibilities to foster the discussions that the controversies over this movie, transphobic and silencing as it is, has nonetheless provoked.

(Oops -- now I don't have time/energy to write about the public discussion after this "introduction," so stay tuned -- I promise a sequel sometime soon...)


Anonymous said...

Hi Mattilda-I am a longtime reader of your blog who has never felt the need to comment until now. Thanks for speaking up against censorship. I am a younger formerly homeless queer girl who has felt increasingly marginalized by the well-to-do trannyboi scene that seems to have taken over the mission. i have a much easier time hanging out with poor straight folks or queers from the sticks who arent quite so educated and dare i say elitist about their politics. recently a writer by the name of ariel levy made the connection between butch as a working class identity as compared to trannybois, who are mostly upwardly mobile. the gendercator embodies the sentiments of many working class dykes throughout this country. the trans explosion has characterized many of these women as oppressors and painfully unfashionable. by the way, my girlfriend is a transwoman who i have been with for over 5 years-so i am not that easy to categorize. i havent found classism to be as prevalent among transwomen, for whatever reason. maybe because theyre all living in sros? lol
i hope crouch's film generates more
discussion around these issues, but really, up until now, the only responses ive seen have bordered on hateful.

Anonymous said...

as a follow up, i also want to say that i am highly concerned about the medicalization of transpeoples bodies, especially those i am close to. and the distopian vision portrayed in crouch's movie seems about right to me. the fda issued a warning about the health risks of synthetic estrogens for postmenopausal women several years ago--things like fatal blood clots, strokes, and high blood pressure. so i guess trannies get to be the guinea pigs.
not to mention the environmental damage. why dont people ever talk about this? synthetic estrogens leaking into the environment have been causing birth defects in wildlife for a long time now--i recently read an article analyzing how estrogens from birth control pills have been found in high amounts in city water. can we start thinking about how our actions effect others please?
in boston, the childrens transgender clinic has begun hormone treatment for children age seven and up--how will these drugs effect developing bodies? the answer is that we really don't know. but if i had a trans child, i can tell you that those doctors sure as hell wouldnt be experimenting on them!
how does the trans communtiy contribute to creating medicalized bodies as the standard? does the promotion of the medicalized trasexual identity contribute to wiping out indigenous genderfluid communities? do we really want to be agreeing with psychiatrists that our bodies and minds are disordered?
anyways, food for thought-cypress

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Cypress, thanks so much for writing! This is certainly a lot to think about... I'm not so sure I would use the word "censorship" exactly -- I do think Frameline can make its own decisions about what belongs in the festival, but what becomes particularly problematic for me in this case is when Frameline is responding to outside pressure (i.e. they're worried about looking good, and not appearing transphobic -- but not about actually doing anything to combat transphobia). Speaking of Frameline's high standards, have you seen the new coming out biopic, Teenage Boys with Their Shirts Off, Part 651 -- well, that's not *controversial*! But I digress...

I do think you're right about class divisions in queer communities, not just in dyke, lesbian, queer, butch/femme, trans and genderqueer cultures, but across the board -- and always these class divisions are pushed aside, or rather they are hidden behind the veil of "community" so that the people with the most privileged can continue wielding that power.

When you say, "the gendercator embodies the sentiments of many working class dykes throughout this country. the trans explosion has characterized many of these women as oppressors and painfully unfashionable," I think you're right on the mark. Unfortunately, The Gendercator doesn't exactly rise to the challenge and deliver a brilliant class/gender analysis, and I do think that there are an incredible range of complicated, critical, engaging, politicized, incisive, explosive, and transformative conversations, identities, and radical challenges to every violence of the status quo that are emerging in trans, genderqueer, and gender-defiant circles -- that's where I get so much of my inspiration!

But you're right, also, about the elitism and the immediate rush for the "correct" ways of speaking and being that are often dramatically different from day to day -- these rapid shifts are part of the glamour and excitement, but how can anyone be expected to always grasp of the right language, gestures and expectations?

Of course the medicalization of everyone's bodies, transpeople included, is something to be frightened of when the medical/pharmaceutical industry is so violent and unrelenting, but I do believe everyone should have access to the widest possible options for self-determination (all healthcare included), while of course considering all of the implications...

Thanks again for writing!

Love --