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...)