17 July 2010

Queens at Heart

Outfest, the annual LGBT film festival in Los Angeles, has the Legacy Project, which is dedicated to digging up rare, neglected early LGBT themed movies, restoring them, and preserving them for posterity.

And today, while attending this year's Outfest, I was able to watch a short film entitled Queens at Heart, a 1967 (yes, that is pre-Stonewall) look at four New York area transwomen. As early trans themed films are extremely rare, Outfest made the restoration of this film a priority; the negative is forever lost, and the restoration used digital color enhancements on the two remaining, badly faded reels.

Again, this is a pre-Stonewall era film, at a time when very few heterosexuals understood what it is like to be gay and/or trans, and even fewer could even realize that the two topics were separate. The film is in the form of an interview of four "subjects" of a six-month observation, and the "interviewer" does his best to show off the misunderstandings/prejudices of the hetero world of the era. Namely, the interviewer is trying to approach the four transwomen as effeminate homosexual men, yet the four women end up answering the offensive questions (including those on anatomy, gender transition plans, and sex life with boyfriends) with dignity and spell out what it really is like to have the experience of "a girl trapped in a boy body." The interview is interspersed with extremely rare footages of New York area drag balls, where transwomen would have beauty pageants and dance the night away with men.

And I must also say that I certainly loved the contemporary hairdos and outfits - those iconic 1960s fashions and styles were memorable, and it is extremely rare to get to see them on the transwomen of the day.

Though again, it was the 1960s. In 2000, I remember sitting at some trans support groups in Berkeley, and hearing from some of the attendees about the stories they had, in turn, heard from early transitioners (circa 1980). Namely, the goals for the transwomen back then were to disappear into the crowds as full women, marry a nice man, and live in a suburban house with white picket fences. Very idealized, and very stereotyped, ideas of womanhood. And this film is from an even earlier era. The idea of transwomen being assertive, being lesbians, and/or hanging on to stereotypically male professions (if they had been working in them pre-transition) was completely unheard of then. Or for that matter, living openly as transgender for that matter - or choosing to be non-op.

Although a lot of progress remains to be made - transwomen in many countries are still unable to be anything other than stereotypical boycrazy entertainers, and even stateside, law enforcement often takes the same offensive attitude this film's "interviewer" carried - I am grateful that the LGBT culture and its understanding in hetero culture have evolved, to a point where being a trans lesbian in a stereotypically male profession in a Western country is just another ordinary day. I am glad that both I, and Sarah in the novel, will be able to determine our womanhood and female identities, on our own terms, rather than what stereotypes and social expectations demand, unlike these brave early pioneers.

I was also very pleased with the closing remarks by the "interviewer" - while he alluded to the psychiatric beliefs of the time, when homosexuality could be considered a mental illness (it was de-pathologized in 1973), he did note that when these four "effeminate homosexuals" were so attached to their female identities, maybe it would only be fair to consider their relationships with men to be not a homosexual relationship, but a manifestation of their inborn female identities.

After the film, there was a panel with three panelists - including Bamby Salcedo, a Facebook friend of mine who works with Latino trans youth at Children's Hospital Los Angeles and also tries to elevate trans Latino issues to the Latino community at large - to further discuss how the politics of trans movement can evolve to benefit the most people. Some valuable inputs came from the audience, including a need to be inclusive of intersex individuals as well as mutual reachout to/from allies in the lesbian/bisexual/gay community. Unfortunately I have to say that Ashley Love Sousa, who apparently has returned to Los Angeles after several months in New York, was in the audience, and took up a good chunk of time trying to argue that "real women" do not indulge in politics based on their medical condition, and that she is sick of gay men trying to appropriate the trans community for their perverted agenda; I honestly consider this mentality to be a huge insult to the four transwomen in the film who were such brave pioneers in their day.

When I get back on novel progress, I really need to make sure that Sarah (and by extension, myself) will assert her womanhood in her own way. She will be very open, almost to a vulnerable level - and there will be plenty of male aspects to Sarah, from her "big clit" to her penchant for aviation - but despite those factors, Sarah will still find a way to define and assert her female identity.

No comments: