When I walked into the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and settled down to watch Frameline41’s “Transtastic” selected shorts series, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. There wasn’t any particular theme to the series, and the synopses of the films posted on the Frameline41 website revealed that they varied in theme, genre, and tone. The subject of the films, of course, centered around trans and gender nonconforming narratives, but I was curious if I would find themes that were present in multiple films. Knowing that the series was being co-presentd by local non-profit TransThrive, I hoped that, as a cis woman, I would have the opportunity to more fully understand the trans and gender nonconforming communities and, given the many issues they face, see some happy endings.
“Transtatic” opened with Umbrella, a short documentary directed by Rhys Ernst in collaboration with Google. As it quickly summarized the current state of trans rights in the U.S., Umbrella was a smart pick to open the series, although seeing the Google logo pop up on the screen made me a little leery (I tend to mistrust corporate sponsors and their motives). I needn’t have feared; Umbrella was respectful regarding its subjects. It was also beautifully meditative with several quiet, slow shots. There was no rush of information, and the audience had the chance to observe the subjects at work, at home, or even taking a momentary break. Each of the four trans people in the documentary were leaders and ground-breakers in the American trans community, including Monica Helms, the creator of the trans pride flag, Jasmine Morrell, head of the LGBT Spirited Tattooing Coalition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Evan Young, head of the Transgender Veterans Association, and Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. These trailblazers never felt stand-offish or aloof. As they shared intimate parts of their lives and their work you couldn’t help but feel close to them. Props to the cinematographer and editor of Umbrella in managing to capture the essence and unique stories of each of the subjects while not reducing them to two-dimensional stereotypes; none of the subjects of the film were defined solely by their trans-ness. (You can watch three of the four shorts individually through Rhys Ernst’s site here.)
It was a bit of a jolt to go from the 15-minute documentary Umbrella to comedic, fictional short The Curse directed and written by Danny Tayara, but a welcome change from some of the more somber Umbrella interviews. Like Umbrella, The Curse made it easy for the audience to connect to its characters. From the moment that Jesse (Karl Cassel), on their way to a date with Sarah Okc (Marita Deleon), is told that there isn’t a gender-neutral bathroom, but that there is a women’s bathroom (I could practically hear the tired sigh that went through the audience in response), you’re right in Jesse’s shoes all the way to the bloody end. And yes, I meant that literally. The story could have easily been overly uncomfortable (small, slightly claustrophobic bathroom stall, full Diva cup, and fate don’t exactly spell a good time), and though you’re definitely cringing from second-hand embarrassment, you can’t help but laugh. Jesse is an every-person even while changing their Diva cup because, of course, everything that can go wrong does. And who hasn’t experienced that? (Apparently, Tayara specifically has; The Curse is based on a true story. Eek!) Thankfully, the laughs continue, and although I won’t spoil the ending, you get the feeling that this story (and perhaps Tayara’s?) will be shared many times in future in answer to the “so how did you two meet?” questions for a while to come.
And then it was time for Iris Devins’ After the Date. I couldn’t help but feel nervous. After the Date‘s synopsis mentioned trans woman Emma (Pooya Mohseni) getting harassed by a police officer and her new relationship with a black cis man Nate (Kwabena Ampofo) being “tested.” I didn’t want to wish for a happy ending, but I couldn’t help but hope for it. Thankfully, the short was dramatic, not tragic, and though Emma and Nate’s dynamic was somewhat what I expected, the story still feels fresh and real. I was particularly surprised to learn that Emma, written by Devins to be the outspoken trans female friend she always wished she had, wasn’t specifically meant to be Asian. Mohseni’s Iranian-American identity is such an essential part of Emma’s character and her struggle to control her emotions and not rock the boat. Despite this challenge, Mohseni’s eyes and face are still beautifully expressive–you know exactly what Emma feels when she feels it even when she’s trying to contain herself: annoyed when Nate cheekily pops out of nowhere and ruins her shot during their meet-cute, closed-off and disappointed when she rolls over to turn her back on Nate on that first morning-after, barely holding it together when she tells Nate about the harassment, steel-sharp anger when she demands to lodge a complaint at the local police office. Ampofo as Nate doesn’t contain his cheerfulness or his protective anger, so it’s a surprise when he’s still and focused. In these quiet moments the camera focuses on Ampofo’s face and the audience can see his eyes, just as expressive as Mohseni’s even if his character is usually more physically open in his emotions. Maybe that’s why despite their differences Nate and Emma fit each other perfectly. As Emma put it, police harassment of trans people may happen all the time, but Devins seems to suggest that relationships like Emma and Nate’s don’t.
Walk for Me by Elegance Bratton is another fictional, but contemporary piece (though set in New York instead of After the Date‘s Philadelphia) that opens with young teen Hassan/Hanna making breakfast for his mother Andrea, a security guard. Like the shorts before Walk for Me, the audience easily connects to Hanna/Hassan, but it’s a surprise when we also find ourselves sympathizing with Andrea. She’s clearly frustrated at Hassan’s lack of communication and fearful when she leaves voicemail after voicemail for an absent Hassan later that night. He’s long gone, ushered into the Gay Ball by his foster mother/fairy godmother drag queen Paris Continental who intimately understands Hassan/Hanna. Hassan’s, now Hanna’s, eyes the Ball’s drag show comes to glorious life. It’s not pale, washed-out, and stifled or uncomfortably silent like home, but loud and loudly colorful. Even Paris’ dressing room, stuffed full with glittering costumes that muffle the music from the front, doesn’t feel cramped or oppressive; it offers Hanna a window into the life that she wants and we can see the shining hope in her eyes when Paris gives another drag queen her daily estrogen shot. And then Hanna’s worlds clash when Andrea, invited by Paris, shows up, and starts arguing with Paris while Hanna huddles in the room’s single-stall toilet. When Andrea continuously shouts for “Hassan,” she shouts “It’s Hanna!” right back, but is silent again when she walks out of the club, bra surrendered to Andrea, but long blonde wig, cut-off tank, and short skirt still on. The audience and Hanna don’t know it, but we’re waiting for Andrea to speak the magic words. When she finally does, Hanna stops, lets her mother walk up to and put a jacket over her, and we and Hanna know that everything’s going to be okay.
We’re not so sure that everything’s going to be okay with Jake Graf’s Dusk. The film centers around an elderly trans man, Chris Winters (Sue Moore) staring out a window and ruminating on their past growing up in 1950s England as the titular dusk slowly descends on their small house. Chris’ painful memories are filmed close-up, the earliest ones with the camera looking up into a young Chris’ face and conveying their overwhelming sense of smallness, of being pushed and pulled and stuffed into a box that their parents, headmaster, and peers have put them into. It’s not until a grown-up, side-burned and mustachioed Chris (Duncan James) meets Julie (Victoria Emslie) in a dark, alluring bar that they are finally happy, or so Chris tells us. In reality, Chris (Elliot Sailors) continues to struggle with their identity into adulthood and shutting Julie out despite her support. When Chris looks at themself in the mirror in a repeat of an earlier fantasy they don’t see the macho man that they want to be, they see a woman with bound breasts and then, suddenly, Julie, whom Chris quickly pushes out of the dark room in anger and fear. When a Chris relives begging a hospital orderly to be let in to see a comatose Julie we’re sure there won’t be a happy ending for the couple. An elderly Chris, pausing in the midst of closing the drapes to see their ideal self reflected back at them in the dark window, seems to confirm this. But this time when Chris sees their actual reflection replace the fantasy, they merely smile and shake their head, turning their back on the window and on the fears that prevented their happiness.
Then there’s young teen Alex in Get the Life directed by Ozzy Villazòn. While Chris eventually finds peace despite not being their male ideal, Alex (Devanny Torres) is steadfastly, fiercely male which complicates his pregnancy. At the clinic Alex is misgendered, awkward, and nearly silent at the clinic. The camera switches to different shots of the girls waiting at the clinic, worried, unsure eyes similar to Alex’s, yet also different, and focuses on Alex nervously clicking his pen as the blank form on his clipboard remains unfilled. He’s not any more relaxed back at home (we’re unsure if he filled out the form) even if it’s much cozier than the sterile clinic harshly lit by fluorescent lights. When Alex’s boyfriend Jesse (Tonatiuh Elizarraraz) comes in and starts kissing Alex it’s clear that Alex isn’t going to spoil the mood with uncomfortable truths. But Alex can’t ignore the issue for long. Between washing his strangely bodiless dildo in the coldly-lit bathroom reminiscent of the clinic and Jesse groping his chest, Alex’s uncertainty turns into anger, pushing him into finally admit that he’s pregnant and that he’s not going to keep the child as Jesse assumes. The scene is familiar–the pregnant partner asserting their choice while the other claiming immorality–but ironic too because, of course, Alex is male. Jesse seems to think that he and Alex can be “dads” after Alex gives birth, but it’s clear that Alex equates pregnancy to being female that his rejection of even the idea of pregnancy (“I ain’t no f*ckin’ girl“) has more than a touch of misogyny to it. Despite Alex’s wan but proudly resolute face in the final, ambiguously shot scene of the film, I can’t help but think that Alex is going to continue hurting for a long time if he continues thinking in terms of a gender binary.
Unlike Alex, the titular Muxes of Juchitán de Zaragoza, Mexico do not operate within the gender binary. Instead, the subjects of Olita’s artistically moody short documentary (which you can view on YouTube) are considered by the indigenous Zapotec culture to be a third gender, occupying the space between male and female, similar in appearance, but separate in identity from the women who adopted the female gender they were initially assigned. It’s an identity that doesn’t fit into the American understanding of transness. In an American documentary, Muxe’s statement that “I try to be [a woman], that is true, but I don’t feel like a woman” would be sad; here in Juchitán it’s matter-of-fact, accepted way of life. Muxes may mimic women, but they are also proud to be Muxes; in one shot, the sandaled feet of a Muxe casually steps on and then over a glittery platform heel. In another a Muxe dressed to the nines walks through the local market in slow-motion, market women’s heads turning in honest admiration and the Muxe’s face lighting up in pleasure. Other impressions quickly follow: Muxes paint each others’ faces; smirk as they walk through the market with their squad, cell phones in hand and purses swinging from their elbows; pose in elaborate lace headdresses; gyrate in the dark street; sit and explain things to children. Olita takes great pains to capture this unique identity, the camera lingering on Muxes’ lips, eyes, butts in a way that feels admiring and a bit obsessive, but never predatory. Muxe, we are told, means both “female” and “fear,” and the dark but exciting music and and many nighttime shots of the documentary capture this fearful femaleness. In reality, Juchitán isn’t quite the gender utopia that Olita depicts, but it’s pretty close. The Muxe identity isn’t something that can be translated or transferred to other cultures and communities, but Muxes is still a fascinating glimpse into the kind of community that other societies eventually could be.
If there is any moral to Frameline41’s “Transtastic” series, it’s that there is no one way to be trans or gender nonconforming. All of the people and characters depicted in the “Transtastic” series and their identities and views are legitimate, whether it’s Alex and young Chris rejecting their femaleness or Jesse for whom their Diva cup is more of an annoyance than a trial; Emma and the real-life Umbrella subjects for whom their transness is so matter-of-fact yet essential to their identity; Hanna still exploring her trans identity; or the Muxes of Juchitán de Zaragoza who live comfortably as neither man nor woman but something in-between and separate.
Yes, they all do face difficult and unique issues and challenges, but they are also able to find great happiness too. Watching the “Transtastic” series I couldn’t help but feel that I understand being trans and gender nonconforming more and hopeful that soon happiness, not a gender binary, will become the new norm.