Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The Gendercator drama, part 1

Filed By Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore | November 05, 2007 8:40 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Annise Parker, assimilation, Catherine Crouch, Frameline Film Festival, identity politics, lesbian filmmakers, transphobia

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...)

Mattilda blogs at nobodypasses.blogspot.com


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i think removing the movie amounts to censorship.
Let people see it, let them decide if it is transphobic or not.

I am tired of hearing the same tired old argument when a movie comes out were someone is questioned about their perceive dgend3er or someone is questioning or justifying the social boundaries that exist.

The constant whining that comes from some in the trans community is a sign the community is not ready for prime time mainstream life just yet.

Where can i see this movie?
I would like to do something revolutionary and make up my own mind.

Take Care
Susan Robins.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 5, 2007 1:30 PM

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?

The movie did not become transphobic once people protested: it was always transphobic. What happened is that members of the committee who chose the film either weren't very savvy on the issues in question and/or subscribed to some of the myths the movie promotes.

Yes, even in San Francisco, not all LGB people are trans-allies.

The film promotes what I consider to be the most upsetting and offensive myth about FtMs in particular and transsexuals in general, namely, that we uphold gender stereotypes and roles by transitioning and that FtMs in particular are misogynists and anti-feminists. Prior to this film, the myth has been most widely promoted through the book “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male,” by lesbian academic Janice Raymond.

This film has a context, which can be illustrated by a representative quote from that book: All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves .... Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.

Promoting discussion is one thing, showing a blatantly anti-transsexual film at an LGBT film festival is quite another. Would you expect to see a film promoting Nazism at a Jewish film festival? How about a film that presents Matthew Shepherd’s murder in a positive light at an LGBT film festival? Both acts would be controversial, but appropriate for their respective film festivals? No. And not showing such films is less about censorship than showing respect for your audiences.

The film promotes what I consider to be the most upsetting and offensive myth about FtMs in particular and transsexuals in general, namely, that we uphold gender stereotypes and roles by transitioning and that FtMs in particular are misogynists and anti-feminists. Prior to this film, the myth has been most widely promoted through the book “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male,” by lesbian academic Janice Raymond.

like it or not this myth has it's roots in some truth. many M2F TS and one of the two F2M TS live up to that myth. You know what is remarkable?
they chose to do just that.

The real myth is that all TS are steeped in the LGBT and drink the Queer Kool-Aid. and if you don't there is something wrong with you.

for as long as the feminist movement has been going on feminists are still a minority in female society overall.

Just from what you feel is the reason why this movie would be removed from LBTB film fests, is the very reason why it should be left in.
There is a dialog here that needs to be allowed to continue. While i may agree with your feelings regarding certain types of TS being seen as a archetype for all TS, to say they don't exist is living in denial.

Just as an example i could name 2 people who i know or have known who self identify as She Males. they work in the sex trade and both of them were invited to speak at the same venues i have spoken in when i use to do the speaking gig.

Just because we don't like a certain part of the community doesn't give us the right to deny it's existence.

Thankfully i don't live that lifestyle nor do I fit into the Trans-feminists mold ether.

Like most members of the mainstream female community i have taken a little from the feminists and a little from the traditionalists.

it's about using what works the best to be successful in society.

Take Care
Susan Robins

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 5, 2007 4:36 PM

for as long as the feminist movement has been going on feminists are still a minority in female society overall.

And your point is...?

Moreover, the movie in question doesn't deal at all with she-males. Nor did I say a word criticizing she-males. (That's because I have no criticism to make.) So how does the movie promote a dialog about she-males?

It's not surprising that some people conform to stereotypes--that's the nature of stereotypes. They start with a type then generalize to make false statements about many people.

But this movie promotes extremely negative MYTHS--which are different than stereotypes--and you want to do that within the context of an LGBT event. I don't. Could that be because I have a vital investment in queer culture and you, judging by your "Queer Kool-Aid" comment, don't?

Likewise, I wonder if you'd feel so supportive if the film were pointedly promoting a myth that applied directly to you, as this one does to FtMs.

i can see you miss the point completely.
Let me simplify things.

you said and i quote...


The film promotes what I consider to be the most upsetting and offensive myth about FtMs in particular and transsexuals in general, namely, that we uphold gender stereotypes and roles by transitioning and that FtMs in particular are misogynists and anti-feminists. Prior to this film, the myth has been most widely promoted through the book “The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male,” by lesbian academic Janice Raymond.


So given what you just said what is your problem with the movie

the very same stereotypes you sight are the very myths you seem to have a problem with.

I am sorry you need to clarify your position because you appear to contradict yourself.

The fact is Janice Raymond whom you sight here; did the trans community a favor by forewarning said community of some of the concerns mainstream feminists have.


There is a big difference between you and I

I was borne blind i had some of my eyesight restored 18 months later. Unlike you and many others i lived under the cloud of myths from that point on. I overcame those myths and not only lived them down but became a successful person in mainstream society and had a very satisfying and prosperous career in electronics both as a partially sighted person but as a paleo-transgender person who lived full time as a woman from 1980 to the present.

Take it from someone who knows first hand...
You can't kill a myth by censorship, there is only one way to kill an a myth and that is by dialogue and education.

Get as many people to see that movie as possible then open a dialogue on it's content. Educate people DON'T tell them what to think or censor their choices. You will only breathe life into those myths you are so sure exists.

Been there done that.

Conversation kills a myth not censorship.


Take care
Susan Robins

Brynn, you write:

"The movie did not become transphobic once people protested: it was always transphobic. What happened is that members of the committee who chose the film either weren't very savvy on the issues in question and/or subscribed to some of the myths the movie promotes."

Of course I agree that the movie didn't *become* transphobic once people protested -- what I'm simply trying to indicate is that that's how Frameline operated. In other words, they've done nothing to address structural issues of transphobia in the organization, just a rush to pull the movie because it was deemed controversial.

Love --
mattilda

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 6, 2007 3:55 AM

Hi mattilda,

In other words, they've done nothing to address structural issues of transphobia in the organization, just a rush to pull the movie because it was deemed controversial.

Do you really know that? Do you know what's going on behind the scenes? It's seems quite possible that the whole experience could have prompted some consciousness-raising on the part of the board screening and films.

One of the things that bothers me about this debate is that FtMs are such a minority in the LGBT community, a lot of people know very little or nothing about us. Is it our job as a minority to “educate” the larger community? To a degree. But it’s also the larger community’s responsibility to make an effort to learn about us. Alluding to race, I remember an African-American friend once expressing anger and frustration about the expectation among white people that African-Americans were there to “teach” them about racism, rather than getting off their duffs and raising their consciousness themselves.

This may sound like a contradiction to my previous stance, but it’s not because I don’t see this movie as a means to educate people. Rather, it is the perpetuation of insulting, ignorant and, quite honestly, hurtful myths.

Finally one last point. Because we were socialized as women, we are accustomed to assuming a sort of "second-class" or even submissive role when things become confrontational. The fact that in this case, FtMs (and our allies) made a stink is a great thing, not something to be criticized.

Regards,
Brynn

I agree, Brynn, since I learned a lot from this whole controversy. I had actually never heard that stereotype about FTM's - that they're complicity in the patriarchy and that their existence is a threat to women's bodies - until the Gendercator drama, as Mattilda called it, got started. Then I learned a lot more about this whole thing, and not just as it relates directly to the film.

And people need to get used to hearing trans-people speak out and learn to listen. I think that was a positive outcome of this controversy.

Brynn, of course I have no idea what's going on inside people's heads, nor do I have any interest in acquiring that particular power (talk about nightmares!) But I can say that Frameline has made no public actions over the last six months to address the controversy, other than pulling the movie and releasing their statement in May.

I've actually seen very few people in this conversation asking that transmen "educate" others, so perhaps that can be seen as progress...

And you're quite right that this movie participates in "the perpetuation of insulting, ignorant and, quite honestly, hurtful myths." My intent is to broaden the conversation -- in fact, I would say that a large percentage of the movies at Frameline (and other "LGBT" film festivals) participate in "the perpetuation of insulting, ignorant and, quite honestly, hurtful myths."