Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Euro Trans Hookers in Love

"There is only one plot—things are not as they seem"
- Jim Thompson

How many plots are there when it comes to films with trans people... well, not many. 1) Trans person transitions—confusion ensues; 2) Trans person is found out—violence ensues; 3) Trans person has a lover—loss ensues. Needless to say, there aren't too many films about trans people with happy endings, especially ones where they have a happy relationship. One might mention the unique 1990s British film, Different for Girls (she got the jerky boyfriend she wanted but it probably won't last long). In the past few years, there have been a number of well reviewed European films about trans sex workers and their boyfriends. It seems as if we got a theme going here.

Crossing over to Italy by train, Princessa is stared at
by a young girl who whispers to her papa.

Princessa (2001) is based on a memoir by Fernandinho Farias de Albuquerque, a Brazilian trans woman (sometimes called travesti) who moved to Milan, Italy to do sexwork to ultimately afford her SRS. In 1990, she was convicted for the murder of someone she said stole money from her. In men's prison, she met one of the members of the revolutionary group, Red Brigade, who helped her write her autobiography called Princessa. Her book was optioned by director Henrique Goldman, but she ultimately commited suicide before the actual filming.

The title role of Princessa was ultimately played by Ingrid De Souza, a trans woman who also moved to Italy from Brazil and was a sex worker who had never acted before. She gives a low key yet highly moving and real performance as the main character. She does identify as a woman (unlike her crossdressing sexworker friend) which is one of the reasons she's highly prized as someone different from some of the other sex workers. She has profound insecurities about her humble origins, being accepted and who she'll ever be able to become. De Souza gives tremendous vulnerability and likability to the role, far beyond many professional cis actors who've "performed" being trans in films. She is a real life Cinderella and you ache to think what her life could have been like had her circumstances been different.

Social Context -- foreign to US filmmakers
What gives Princessa its power is how it places trans women in the sex trade within a class structure and a society which ultimately marginalizes yet uses them for it's own momentary secret curiosity and pleasure. Princessa deals with immigration officials, her messed up travesti friend who seems destined to OD or get murdered, a psycho trans woman pimp, her johns, and the "straight" people of Milan. Ultimately, she meets a middle class man who becomes obsessed with her, leaves his wife and shacks up with Princessa, albeit with her having to assume the role of housewife.

There are some moving scenes in this film. When Princessa first enters Italy by train, she's intensely stared at by a young, white upper-middle class tween sitting with her father. She stares at the immigrant and Princessa smiles back, girl to girl. But the girl then witnesses Princessa being hassled by the Italian border officials. One can feel the shame and aloneness being put upon an impoverished woman as seen someone who was born into Western European privilege. Another powerful scene is when her boyfriend's estranged wife connects with her woman to woman and literally pleads for Princessa to not break up her family—a moment unlike any other I've seen in a trans-related film. This film is a case where reading the plot does a disservice to the complexity it ultimately presents. And it's all the more timely considering the recent scandals which have erupted over high level Italian politicians involvement with Brazilian trans sex workers which resulted in the suspicious death (perhaps assassination) of one of the prostitutes.

Wild side is a 2004 French film by gay filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz. I can't say I think it's on the same level of filmmaking as Princessa, but it has some unique aspects. One of them is certainly it's wonderful opening sequence featuring Antony Hegarty of New York queer-chic band Antony and the Johnsons. He walks through a room full of trans women from a Parisian gender center. The camera focuses on their languid, thoughtful and sometimes sad faces as Hegarty sings a mournful song about losing an androgynous love (perhaps himself?). It's one of most heartbreaking openings to any film I've seen. The rest of the film doesn't quite match up to this sublime scene.

Antony Hegarty sings about a dead boy.

Sexy, but no shemale
Trans woman Stéphanie Michelini plays the main character also named Stephanie. She supports herself doing sex work in the Bois de Boulogne park just on the outskirts of Paris, notorious for it's rough trade of trans prostitutes. She hears her mother is sick and returns to the run down village where she grew up—which brings back sad memories of life before transition. While there, she's involved menage á trois with her gay/bi boyfriend and a young Russian man named Mikhail. It becomes a kind of queer version of Truffaut's Jules and Jim with some rather racy, highly erotic bathtub and sex scenes. The scenes are graphic, but totally not genitally fixed the way many US film are with sex... it's about two (or more) bodies relating to one another with openness and vulnerability. While the film doesn't totally hang together, it is one of the better representations of a trans person's sexuality.

Michelini is a somber but beautiful presence in the lead role crowned with a headful of long voluminous, curly locks. She gives the character a mask of sorrow and regret for a complex life in transit which is quite memorable, but she doesn't quite have the range Ingrid De Souza has. Still, the film won major awards at the Berlin International Film Festival (the world's largest) including Best Feature Film.

The poster for Queen Raquela's US release...
typical US sense of maturity—she's
in a men's restroom with urinals.

The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela is by Icelandic director Olaf de Fleur Johannesson. This 2008 movie has a lot in common with aspects of Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 group of artists, who strip film down to its bare essentials and favor a kind of "fictional documentary" approach which blurs the lines between performance and non-fiction. It has much in common with Princessa in terms of being about a third world trans sex worker who moves from Cebu City in the Philippines to Iceland and then Paris (and is actually referred to as "a cinderella story" in its advertising). As in Wild Side, the main character, Raquela, is played by trans woman Raquela Rios. She gets sexually involved with an American man (played by the film's actual producer) from New York who meets her from her work on the Internet webcam porn site he owns. As the director Johannesson states, it's about globalization and commodification of the world's peoples.

It gives a mostly upbeat, plucky view of how our dreams of love and self-realization can come true—albeit with an ultimately somber, fatalistic ending. Of the four films, Queen Raquela comes closest to having a kind of fetishistic objectification towards trans women and, especially, the idea of a western guy with an Asian "ladyboy." (and, of course, the ladyboy is honorable and the westerner is an exploitive jerk). Yes, the character of Raquela is mostly treated with respect by the filmmaker, but I also had a feeling that he had no real problem with her narrow options in Philippine or European society, it's just how it is. He has pretty much stated their lives are hopeless and they're in some way deluded just even trying to be women. They're a metaphor for an unattainable status rather than human beings.

Fact or fiction?
Ms. Rios is an engaging, funny actress (again, totally amateur). She gives a wry commentary and narration throughout the film. Rather curiously, it was originally intended as a documentary about pinay trans sex workers but eventually morphed into a fiction film and it's either intriguing or maddening to figure out what is documentary and what is scripted. The character of Valerie, an Icelandic pinay transsexual Raquela befriends seems altogether concocted, while the scenes in the Philippines with her two "ladyboy" friends have an immediate reality about them. Curiously, in spite of winning awards at many mainstream and LGBT film festivals (including, yes, a Berlin "Teddy" award for best feature), and having a successful release in Europe, this film was barely seen in the US with just very quick engagements in NYC and LA and a small scattering of other indy theaters.

Maria Callas as a trans woman?

Strella (Internationally released as A Woman's Way) is a 2009 Greek film directed by Panos Koutras which, yes, debuted at last years Berlin Film Festival (just remember the huge Berlin Film Festival literally shows virtually every film of note released in Europe that year). I've only seen sections of this film, and it hasn't been distributed for any US release and won't be on DVD for another several months. It differs from the other films in tone, having perhaps a somewhat comic oddball twist to its story about an ex-con named Giorgos who's just out of prison, searching for his lost son and gets shacked up with a trans woman (who is, yes, a prostitute). The title character, played by trans woman Mina Orfanou—not a sex worker, but a performer who in real life (as her character does on the side) specializes in impersonating the late opera diva Maria Callas. Orfanou's passionate performance has been compared with Melina Mercouri and Anna Magnani—so, NOT a low-key performance but very charismatic and full blooded. Again, this film has had a full release in Europe, been seen at nearly 50 film festivals but isn't on track for a US release.

Director as sociologist or creepy dude?
While it's true all these films were all made by men, some gay and some straight, it's hard to not be suspicious about their interest in trans women sex workers. There is an aspect of exploiting the "exotic" and "outsider" status of these women to create edgy films (something directors have always done with trans people). However, it's true western Europe is currently flooded with trans sex workers from Colombia, Brazil, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, so perhaps it's not a big surprise they would become central characters in European film. Europe seems to have a clearer understanding how theses women are part of the global sex trade and subject to the social vulnerabilities of that "industry" and not some bizarre and comic offshoot as is often portrayed in U.S. media.

Different kinds of trans films
While there are elements of cliche in all these films (they are, after all, about trans sex workers and their boyfriends) they also provide refreshing changes from US films about trans women. They all feature actual trans women. While media in the U.S. like to make a big deal how a film like Ticked Off Trannies with Knives features some transgender women (and uses the presence of those women to justify the legitimacy of the film's message and presentation), international cinema has long since gotten over that hurdle. None of these films are about plot#2 (trans panic). None of them are really about transition, even though some of the characters wish to go further in transition when they have enough money. They are very much presented as women and in no way camp. Perhaps they are women with challenges stuck in a dangerous way of living, but there is never any reference to them being gay men in a skirt, somehow fake, nor even theatrical in the way Pedro Almodovar films about trans women can be. There are no jokes about the women's personhood, former status as "men" and identities, even if there are acts of transphobic violence from some of their johns.

Strella hits the streets

While plot is important to a film's deapth in presenting trans issues, presentation is equally important. None of these plots are especially revolutionary when it comes to expanding understanding of trans lives, but the way the films are crafted, written and performed is very much a change from U.S. drag-based, comedic and highly objectified portrayals of trans women.

No freedom of distribution
What's especially disturbing is how none of these quite successful films have been received a real release in the US. While we like to pride ourselves on our freedom from censorship, these have, essentially, been censored from the wider US market by virtue of their inability to receive distribution (the preferred US form of censorship... pretend it's an open market, but control what gets shown). The US only gets access to a tiny fragment of world films and most of our foreign films shown here are heavily weighted toward middlebrow French films and Asian action/horror flicks. Compared to most of the film festivals in the United States, The Berlin film festival literally gets hundreds of films from all over the world many of which end up being shown on European tv channels like Arte in France and Germany.

Once one looks at the wider range of world films, you start to come across many depictions of trans people which are vastly different and, perhaps, more mature and more fleshed out than what we see in this country. In all these roles, the main characters are women first, trans second. They all have sexual relationships as something other than objects of sexual curiosity. They may not be the women they totally want to be, but they move through the world as women and, for the most part, receive some level of respect as such. They are all in relationships which are not about objectification or a man being on the down low. What a marked difference it is from what we see and expect in this country.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Media's Discomfort With The "H" Word

Cheyenne (top) and two of her alleged attackers

Hate crime against people within the LGBT coalition became nationally legally acknowledged late October with Obama's signing of The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. It expanded upon the hate crime law created in the 1960s to include acknowledgment that hate crimes are frequently perpetrated against people for reasons of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and disability. Yet, many in the media feel it's a sign of their "journalistic responsibility" to keep the question of a possible hate crime out of their stories until it's officially acknowledged by the police or district attorney. Many media outlets don't even like to use the phrase, "being investigated as a possible hate crime" or "could be seen as a possible hate crime" in their stories until it's literally screaming from the consciousness of anyone encountering the story. One has to wonder, what's the issue with noting the obvious and stating, "this is a serious possibility" much like other endless conjecture which so often finds its way into hate crime stories (the victim's sex life/drug usage/atypical "lifestyle").

Kids will be kids
This story appearing in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader leads with the headline, "Police say there is no evidence an attack against gay teen was a 'hate crime'." In it, the paper goes to great pains to assure us how police do not think a hate crime occurred against a lesbian student, Cheyenne Williams, when "Williams said three teens (girls) took her against her will to Flat Lick Falls, physically abused her and tried to push her off a cliff." This occurred on the 'Day of Silence' when students are supposed to be made aware of bullying and harassment against LGBT students). Part of the crime (including hate speech) appears on video. Of all the aspects of this crime (the 3 girls have been charged with kidnapping and attempted murder.) the Herald-Leader needs to first assure us those who know best (the police) say it's not a hate crime. There is no mention in the headline how this incident involved attempted murder (trying to push Cheyenne over a cliff) or how she was kidnapped. Its subtext needs to first calm the reader how this community is not about hate—it's a group of crazy kids.

All opinions are equal
Mention is made farther down in the story how, on the Day of Silence, students at the school were wearing tags saying, "Gay is not the way" until the principal made all students remove their stickers related to the commemoration (as if wearing a sticker promoting tolerance is somehow the same as wearing a sticker expressing bigotry).

Oh Mommmm...
The local CBS News affiliate reports on it this way: "Police say the incident involving high school teens may have been a prank." Okay, but it might NOT have been a prank. They admit they have arrested the 3 girls on attempted murder and that they tried to push Cheyenne over the cliff. (Just like MTV Punk'd, isn't it?) At the same time, it's called, "a prank gone bad." Define "prank." The station goes on to report (referencing Cheyenne's mom who wants it investigated as a hate crime), "In fact, police are saying this whole ordeal may have been blown out of proportion." They beat her daughter, called her homophobic names and tried to push her over a cliff.. Moms can be so over-protective!

Nope, no hate crime. Show's over—move along

Crossdressers: beloved by all
Another story from earlier this week falls into a similar category of refusing to even acknowledge the possibility of hate crime. In Danielson, CT (a town of several thousand near the Rhode Island border) the body of a dead male-bodied person was found who was dressed in women's clothes. There was a trail of blood leading to the body. Of all the possible headlines for the story, the Norwich Bulletin chose this one, "Police: Foul play unlikely in death of Danielson man." WFSB Channel 3 in Hartford used this headline, "Police Say Crossdresser's Death Not Criminal." Phew, good thing we got that unpleasant possibility out of the way. Now we don't have to question our own dominant culture of transphobia so life, unchanged, can continue.

There is no questioning (in the media's mind) whether police have ever had issues with people in the LGBT community, whether police have ever had sensitivity training related to the involved populations and whether their, perhaps, narrow view of the story should automatically be viewed as gospel.

Mayberry RFD
The detective said, "There was no trauma to the body and it appears he died of natural causes or some type of illness.” Yes, it turns out the deceased (who was a local named Queenie/born Patrick Kelly) had been coughing up blood at a bar earlier in the evening. It's also true, however, that without an autopsy certain types of trauma are unlikely to turn up by immediate visual examination. For instance, if someone punched Queenie in the stomach, ruptured an internal organ (yes, a hate crime) which in turn caused vomiting blood. Is that impossible? Is the idea someone male-bodied wearing woman's clothes could have been attacked so far-fetched it has to be immediately dismissed?

WTNH-TV includes a quote which further cements the idea how he got along with everyone (a familiar meme in reporting transphobic crimes) "That's actually kind of sad (him dying) because for him, he was a guy who kept to himself,” Delvalle explained. “(He) walked around town and never tried to get into a fight with anybody.” Who said he did? Do all victims get attacked because they start fights? In another account, a local told News Channel 8, "Kelly used to wear skirts and dresses and high heels, which was just fine with the many people who knew Kelly." But was it fine with the many people who didn't know Kelly?

She didn't have problems with people
so then what's the problem?
The NY Daily News reported the murder of Amanda Gonzalez Andujar this way, "She never had any problems with anybody. She was full of life." Sorry, but lots of people had problems with her. She very likely got stares from them every day on the street, or from the comments of guys who both sexually objectified her and ridiculed her womanhood, when she walked into possible places of employment or to receive health services. We know, as a trans woman, she had lots of problems in this world. Why does media feel the need to smooth over the likely oppression a gender variant victim encountered?

It's fair to say, in a culture which marginalizes people who are different, where there has been a pervasive pattern of violence against those with variant gender presentations and identities, when someone attempts to push one of those people over a cliff or their dead, crossdressed body is found in a parking lot, NO possibility should be excused. Media... thanks for reassuring us the world isn't an ugly place with people filled with hate. But I think we're capable of deciding those issues based on the facts and the social history and values of the involved communities.

4/24/10 Addendum: I notice in the reporting of a recent attack on a trans student in a bathroom at CSU-Long Beach special emphasis is being made to characterize it this way: "The University Police, according to the release, believe that this was an isolated incident and there is no additional threat to the campus community." And they know that how? You mean it's not part of systemic societal transphobia? No "regular" people have to worry about their safety? That so comforting.

4/24/10 Addendum: Lez Get Real has more information about the Cheyenne Williams kidnapping and attempted murder which further disputes the police and media notion of the attack as some kind of prank.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

EQUALITY (of Coverage?)

Jorge (l)... Ashley (r). Which death is more important?

The horrible murder of Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado in November, 2009 was unquestionably, the most highly reported crime against an LGBT person since Matthew Shephard's murder. Not only were there literally hundreds of news stories in major media, but there were vigils throughout the United States held in memory of Mercado's death. Moreover, the crime was written about and featured on countless large blogs throughout the Internet.

What so many of these stories and memorials didn't cover was how Lopez Mercado was completely presenting as female at the time of the murder which police have stated happened while Mercado was doing sexwork. Lopez Mercado was always very clearly identified by media as a gay male and how the crime was an example of homophobia and "gay panic." Needless to say, gender identities can be complex and evolving and it isn't entirely clear what the victim's gender ID was... gay man who did occasional drag but had recently started hooking while presented as a woman, or young person who was evolving into a more trans identity with a pit stop in the gay community? While this issue is still being debated, it's clear there was a large will by much of the media to paint the murder as a homophobic crime against a young gay male. Almost immediately, Lopez Mercado entered the realm of anointed community martyr. The trial of his accused murderer is scheduled to begin on May 3.

Considerable controversy was generated when some local memorials for Lopez Mercado were scheduled on the same date as the Transgender Day of Remembrance without even acknowledging the TDOR or suggesting the two should be combined since the Lopez Mercado murder was, even taken at face value, a transphobic crime. Regardless of one's ID, the accused murderer has stated he thought he was picking up a female prostitute (or, at its more reductionist, a trans woman prostitute) and not a guy.

Ashley's grieving mother

Yup, another one of those...
The naked, dead body of Ashley Santiago, a transgender woman who worked as a beautician and lived near in the town of Corozal near San Juan, Puerto Rico, was found in her kitchen last Monday, April 19. She had been stabbed 14 times and was lying in a large pool of blood. Her mother had tried to reach her on Sunday, was unable to get through and contacted the police who, ultimately, discovered her body. Ms. Santiago's 2009 Toyota Corolla was missing and her house was in disarray. Her murder was reported in a couple of Spanish-language outlets—misgendering her as male, calling her a homosexual and using her male birth name.

We're all queers, that's all that counts
Pedro Julio Serrano, a native of Puerto Rico who works for the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, spent a lot of effort in the Lopez Mercado case justifying his identification of the victim as a gay man (and faced many accusations from the trans community of perpetrating "trans erasure"). He did speak out about the Santiago murder and try to clarify that she was, in fact, a trans woman, not a gay male and that her female name and appropriate pronouns should be used. Queerty, in reporting the murder on 4/21, referred to the crime as a "Queer Murder" without even knowing if the victim actually identified as "queer" or not (not all trans people do). Evidently, putting queer in the headline makes it more interesting to their readers than just identifying her as a woman or another trans woman.

Don't even bother
While news of her death is quite recent (in English, it was only reported in the Boston Edge LGBT newspaper) it's quite a contrast to the huge outpouring which accompanied the Lopez Mercado murder which was discussed and condemned by virtually every large LGBT organization and media outlet and, within a few days, mainstream media like the New York Times. In contrast to to either story is another recent trans murder which occurred at the beginning of April. Toni Alston, an African-American trans woman, was murdered at her front door in Charlotte, NC and there has overwhelmingly been silence from LGBT media and nationwide mainstream media (and a profound amount of misgendering by the local Charlotte media which identified the victim as a crossdressing male). Three crimes, three deaths, three dead LGBT people, totally different media outcomes. What is different about these cases? Why does one case create a torrent of outrage while the other two are largely ignored or receive only minimal local coverage.

Either you have star quality...
Similar questions can asked about the Constance McMillan case in which a lesbian student wasn't permitted to attend the prom of her Mississippi high school while wearing a tux. It received an huge outpouring of national outrage and international coverage. Curiously though, many of the stories and blogs got the issues wrong. The school was okay about her going to go to the prom with her girlfriend, what the school objected to was her wearing the tux. Again, an issue of gender presentation not sexual orientation. An excellent discussion of these issues is in the April 6, 2010 Bilerico post by Antonia D'orsay called "A Prom and Pretty (Ugly) things."

Media star Constance with Ellen (l)...
unknown outcast Juin (r)

... or you don't!
What made this even more bizarre was the entire underside of the story: that a gender variant student, Juin Baize (then identifying as MTF) was literally blackballed from even attending the school and was forced to leave town after bullying. This student was a friend (or, at least close acquaintance) of Constance and Constance really only wanted to wear the tux as a protest against Baize's harassment (Constance did not initially plan on wearing a tux). The school officials largely didn't want her to wear the tux because they were afraid another crossdressed boy—or Juin—might try to attend the prom. Subsequently, Constance appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, received a $30,000 scholarship for college and was invited to be a presenter at the GLAAD Media Awards in LA. Juin Baize... received none of those and only scattered media attention. This is not to minimize Constance's incredible courage and what she went through, but one has to ask, which is worse, not being able to dress the way you like at your prom, or to be unable to attend school and be harassed from even living in your town?

Constance presenting Wanda Sykes
at the LA GLAAD Media Awards:
Was Juin invited?

One has to question how stories are prioritized within the LGBT media world? (much less the larger mainstream media) Are all LGBT lives really equal? Are all stories of murder and injustice equally valued? Which stories generate outrage and mobilization and which stories are largely ignored? Which victims become icons and community flag-bearers and which are doomed to invisibility?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Journalistic Art of Total Obfuscation

On April 3, a person who was born with the name Tony Alston 44 years ago was shot in front of their house in Charlotte, NC sometime after 10pm. After the victim was shot, they managed to get to their neighbor's house and ask for help. The victim, barely conscious, managed to give police some basic information about the shooter before dying at the Carolinas Medical Center. The inside of the home appears to have not been touched or ransacked. The victim was described as working long hours at as a manager at several Family Dollar stores in Charlotte.

And this is where the story gets confusing... really confusing.

Earlier this week, the victim's two sisters came down from New York to ask for help from the police and media in finding out who would murder their sibling. As they said, "Tony was a man who for years dressed like a woman." But different news sources give widely varying suggestions of what exactly that statement means. The Charlotte Observer wrote: "Alston had dressed as a woman since high school." In their interview with homicide detective Bill Ward, he stated, "(People) knew he was a man, called him 'she' and respected his lifestyle." . Okay, got that, but what "lifestyle" was he referring to. WCNC-TV News reported, "Alston was a crossdresser and spent most of his time dressed as a woman." WBTV-Channel 3 writes it this way, "Tony was a man who for years dressed like a woman."

Say it again... slooowly
So, let's add up what we know so far. The victim has been dressed as a woman at least most of the time since high school. Or, alternately, since after finishing high school, the victim spent some portion of time dressed as a woman. What "most of 'his' time" means is confusing to the hilt. To try and get some picture of the victim's identity becomes almost impossible from these reports.

Enquiring Minds want to know
Was the victim (and I'm only using this term because it's very unclear whether they had a female/male or other gender identity from these accounts) presenting as female when shot and killed? No mention of this is made. Did the victim use "Tony Alston" as their day-to-day name or did they use a different name? No mention. Did the victim live 24/7 as a woman? Was the victim a gay man who occasionally did drag?

Did the victim primarily dress as a woman when at home or at private functions or did they present as female within society? The detective's statement about "people respecting his 'lifestyle' and "calling him she" sounds as if the victim was out in the world as a woman. So, what's the problem, why does this have to be so difficult? Was she called she all the time or was he called she while he was presenting as she? It's not rocket science folks, it's journalism 101. Ask a question, get an answer, evaluate the facts surrounding the answer, write your copy.

Instead of actually explaining (just for now, let's call her Ms. Alston's) life, all the articles quote the sisters thusly:
Prophete (one of his younger sisters) said Alston's dressing hadn't been an issue with his family and they didn't know of anyone would harm him because of that.

"It didn't matter; we didn't judge him," she said. "Anybody, please, give us something. That was my oldest brother." -- Charlotte Observer


Ms. Prophete said, "Maybe we should have been more concerned (about 'his' lifestyle). Yeah should have been now. So the homosexual community, anybody please. Please give us some kind of information. -- WBTV

One of the victim's sisters went on to say, "(Alston's dressing) hadn't been an issue with his family and they didn't know of anyone would harm him because of that." "investigators don't have any evidence (crossdressing) played a role in his killing."-- Charlotte Observer
It had nothing to do with something
Since it's hard to figure out what "crossdressing" even means in this context it's even harder to imagine how much part it might have played in Ms. Alston's death. If she cross-dressed once in a while at home or at private functions... then perhaps it had no connection to her death. If she lived as a woman (which is entirely possible) then it might have everything to do with her death.

While not wanting to minimize the heartbreak the two sisters have for losing their kin, wouldn't it help to begin understanding what actually happened in this crime if we knew how cross-gender presentation actually fit into Ms. Alston's life? Rather than just saying, we don't have any evidence or don't think it had anything to do with the crime, wouldn't it be more productive to state how cross-gender presentation and transphobic reactions to it have frequently been a motive for fatal attacks in the past and might provide an explanation for what appears to be a murder? Maybe we should start from there and work backwards rather than just pretend we're eliminating the obvious?

Police say *wink-wink* they have no idea
why this man *wink-wink* was attacked

Just in case you didn't know why
they were (or should have been?) attacked
Furthermore, as has happened in so many other cases, the journalist completely throws the facts of the story up in the air when they use male pronouns, and male name, yet show pictures of the victim presenting as a female. Did they not have pictures of the victim presenting as a male? If not, then perhaps you better take an extra step and find out what name she really used in life (hint: ask her fellow employees at the store she managed). If she mainly presented as a male and only situationally presented as female, then what's the point of the female-presenting photo—to remind the reader/viewer that she was kind of freak and eminently liable to be murdered?

Signs of a "getting murdered" lifestyle
This would seem to be what the tv news segments are suggesting when they use the male name and say "he lived an alternative lifestyle—dressing as a woman". There are repeated references to "his lifestyle" without actually clarifying what that "lifestyle" consists of. The detective says (cryptically) "of course, in this lifestyle, you have cell phones, you have the Internet...". (??) Yes, there are a number of lifestyles in this world which involve cell phones and the Internet. Why, what point are you trying to make by saying this? Yes, try checking the victim's calls and browser history and bookmarks. Brilliant. Needless to say, this ain't exactly CSI-Charlotte with artsy closeups, punked-out scientists, witty terse comebacks and hawt detectives.

Okay, to give Charlotte media a small boost, at least they didn't say she was a "male transsexual." (see my post about the often misread descriptor of "male transsexual")

The purpose of journalism is to begin the process of understanding and clarity, not to create total confusion about the victim and a fog surrounding issues which might have had a profound influence on why this horrific crime was committed. It shows how totally lost much of the press is when discussing a person who has any degree of gender complexity in their lives. Stuck between being totally helpless to comprehend someone whose life differs in some small ways from their own to being completely tongue-tied about not sounding ignorant to the point where they communicate, well, nothing but their own ignorance. Moreover, for all the talk of respect and acceptance, it's clear the media in Charlotte has no idea how to respect the victim's life nor how to frame this within the often-repeated frameworks in which anti-trans crimes often occur.

4/21/10 Postscript: Charlotte media has confirmed that Toni Alston (note the spelling) lived 24/7 as a woman for nearly 20 years.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Creepy Creepazoid as New Journalist

Truman on the cover of his own non-fiction book

New Journalism was a revolutionary style of non-fiction writing from the late 60s and 1970s associated with writers like Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and the one who named it, Tom Wolfe. It combined many novelistic techniques such as writing in the first person, removal of a wall between the writer and the subject, and less emphasis towards imparting facts, and more towards describing a milieu and personal behavior. As Wolfe wrote in his essay which described how new journalist departs from traditional journalism:
The essential difference between the new nonfiction and conventional reporting is, he said, that the basic unit of reporting was no longer the datum or piece of information but the scene. Scene is what underlies “the sophisticated strategies of prose."
Often considered a milestone in what would later be called new journalism was Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, often considered to be a "non-fiction novel." In the book, Capote literally becomes a kind of unseen character, placing himself in Kansas and into the lives of the townspeople and mass murderer subjects. As pointed out in the two recent films about Capote, and Infamous, Capote was not only obsessed with his subjects but had an intense crush on one of the killers. Moreover, Tom Wolfe in his 1976 essay decontructing In Cold Blood and exploitation films wrote,
In the absence of mystery and the unpredictable, Capote's book retains the audience's attention with the promise of disclosing gruesome details about the true crime it discusses, thus degenerating the work to the level of sadistic sensationalism, or, indeed, pornoviolence.
Wolfe uses the term "pornoviolence" to describe any work which uses voyeurism as a way of keeping the reader or viewer interested.

New Journalism was featured in bestseller novel-length works like In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's book about murderer Gary Gilmore called The Executioner's Song (featuring Mailer's bromance with Gilmore), the works of Hunter Thompson like his groundbreaking piece for The Nation magazine about the Hell's Angels, and especially in magazines like Esquire and New York Magazine, which featured and fostered many pieces by New Journalist writers.

Gay Talese bemoaning how hard it is to be a New Journalist

One of the most famous writers for these publications was Gay Talese, who literally put himself into the non-fiction pieces he wrote. In his 1966 article about Frank Sinatra for Esquire, Talese not only writes about Sinatra (in fairly lurid terms) but also about Talese's attempts to even meet with Sinatra, dealing with Sinatra's large entourage,etc. His ultimate non-fiction work (starring himself) was the book Thy Neighbor's Wife, about the "swinger's lifestyle" in which Talese literally has a an affair with his neighbor's wife and writes about it in detail.

The lowest common denominator... you!
Ultimately, New Journalism filtered into publications like Rolling Stone (with it's numerous Hunter Thompson pieces) and eventually, newspapers like The Village Voice and its much-imitated rock critic, Robert Cristgau. To this day, aspects of New Journalism dominate feature writing in women's magazines, Vanity Fair, men's magazines like Maxxum, and even sports publications like Sports Illustrated. One could make a case Michael Moore, much of what's on Fox News and Frontline are forms of New Journalism. And, of course, it's largely filtered down to the Internet. Most blog writing incorporates some parts of New Journalism. The idea of "my (the author's) experience is news" is total New Journalism.

Instant expertise! (AKA I know what I know)
One of the liberating aspects of New Journalism is that one really doesn't have to be any kind of expert to write about a subject because you're writing about your experience of the subject matter. Facts are altogether secondary and, of course, subject to interpretation. In addition, New Journalism liberates the concept of subject matter, since the mundane, sordid and even trashy are considered just as important to report on as what used to be deemed highly esteemed, cultured or of major import. Moreover, macho writers like Mailer, Thompson and Talese often traded on their reputations of "the writer as crazy adventurer/wild man," a tradition which lives on in the writing of authors like William T. Vollman who places himself into a number of his works (including one about his part in rescuing sex slaves). In his novel Butterfly Stories, he turns New Journalism iconography back into fiction in writing about a "New Journalist" (bascially Vollman) writing about Asian sex workers who then loses himself in that world.

Vollman (left) and his 'butterfles'

So, what does this have to do with trans people? Well, a number of wannabe Gay Taleses have dipped *ahem* parts of their bodies into the world of tranny porn and sexwork. Vollman, in his book Kissing the Mask (mostly about the Japanese Noh Theater) also involves forays into LAs trans community including side trips to one of Vollman's big fascinations... trans sex workers. Another writer who's very out front with his transsexual obsession is humor writer Jonathan Ames. He goes so far as to write a piece in his book Sexual Metamorphosis about how he had an airport quickie leading to an affair with iconic trans woman actress and writer Aleisha Brevard (fulfilling both his MILF and transsexual obsessions).

New Journalism as Social Science
New Journalism has also found its way into pop social science books. Don Kulick's somewhat sensationalism and very New Journalism work, Travesti: Sex, Gender and Culture Among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes, like Gay Talese, is not only a study of these women, but how Kulick lived among them and sat with them while they pumped silicone. He uses this intimacy to make some rather unscientific sweeping theories about their identities. Equally lurid is Michael Bailey's supposed social science book The Man Who Would Be Queen, which uses a Chicago bar frequented by trans women as a core setting for the book. There are parts of the book which seem to obsessively dwell on both the bar and its customers. One of the tenets of these books is proximity breeds understanding (an important concept in many works of New Journalism). What they don't tend to honestly discuss is the author's own assumptions and even fetishistic fascinations which drove them to place themselves in these settings in the first place. They will freely admit to the obsession, but will not question what fuels the obsession.

What Gay Talese and Hunter Thompson hath wrought.

Wanna Read About My 'Dirty' Experience? Sure you do.
Ultimately, just as couture is copied ad infinitum and eventually becomes bargain knock-offs in discount stores, so In Cold Blood eventually leads to pieces like this one in the New York Press. It's by Will Johnson and called Of Trannies and Trepidation. It's a first person account of the (straight-identified) writer's visit to a trans sex worker.

He starts his piece with, "STRAIGHT MEN DESIRE trannies. It’s true. Her name was Rita and I found her on AdultFriendFinder". They wrote to one another, "She got right to the point: So, how big is your cock she asked?” “Um, 8 inches.” “Ooh! That sounds nice!” she said. “How big is yours?” I asked her. “About 6.” “That sounds nice,” I said, "figuring I should say something."

He's on his way to see her and writes, "I wanted to talk first and feel out the situation. I have always been paranoid of STDs, and I wanted to make sure that Rita would respect my limits." As soon as he comes through the door, (she shares the place with a roomate) she asks to suck his balls. In short order she takes off his pants (but not without him asking to see her penis as well and commenting on its size). They mutually masturbate one another but then, she does something beyond the author's comfort level and says, "“Come on, papi,” she moaned. “Stick that dick in my ass.” I was not ready. Things were moving too fast."

She offers to show him her HIV test but he demurs, he doesn't want to have sex, just, maybe suck her off again. She's turned off and asks him to leave. When he offers to call her again she replies, "whatever." He then writes, "I arrived home and inspected my fingers (he had one up her anus) for any unknown lesions." He finishes his little tale by imparting:
Why can’t there be a happy medium, I wondered. Some people move too slowly and others too fast. Why can’t everyone be as sane as I am?

After I calmed down I was still glad I did not have sex with Rita. It’s always better to err on the side of caution. Especially when going to the apartment of a tranny stranger.
This is doubtless meant to be a humorous piece about a neurotic nerd trying to taste the supposedly forbidden delights (sic) of sex with a trans woman and, in some ways, a takeoff of the "wild man writer myth" (personified by Hunter Thompson or William Vollman). But it's also interesting how the writer doesn't really confront his own homophobia/transphobia and masks it with his obsessions concerning health and cleanliness. While he might be a loser, he also makes sure we know Rita is viewed by him as "unclean" and obsessed with sex (he never thinks that she's just trying to get him out of there as fast as she can... pretty much the modus of most sex workers).

It's true, I have this friend who...
Again, he's using New Journalism's dictum proximity bestows a right to make observations and judgments about the subject matter because it's really all about the writer not the subject matter ostensibly being discussed. In so many contentious discussions about trans people, cissexual participants (non-trans people) will trot out their proximity to a trans person (I have this friend who's a tranny...) and then proceed to make statements about trans people based on those qualifications. In a way, non-trans people become their own New Journalists when discussing the trans community, using their own first person sense of the world and placing themselves squarely in the middle of someplace sordid (us), including the typical New Journalist devices featured by "In Cold Blood"... voyeurism, broad social judgements, repulsion/attraction and sometimes overstepping forced intimacies (discussions of our bodies and identities) without culpability of what the writer (and central character) brings to the experience other than "I'm writing this, I'm fascinated by it and I'm, ultimately, in control."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Duanna Johnson: NOT the new Rodney King

The former Officer McRae

The federal trial of former police officer, Bridges McRae, began yesterday morning in Memphis. McRae was the police officer who, on 2/12/08, was caught on tape repeatedly beating trans woman Duanna Johnson while another officer, James Swain, restrained her. The reason for this beating? Ms. Johnson didn't "cooperate" after she was called "faggot" and "he/she" by Officer McRae. Ms. Johnson will not be testifying at the trial because she was killed on 11/9/08—murdered execution-style. Nope, no suspects have been identified for that murder. Perhaps they didn't want to delve too deeply into who might have had a grudge against her.

Funs over. Pack up and let's go home
While the February attack on Ms. Johnson did receive widespread US and international coverage, the trial of her attacker is another story. No one outside the Memphis area has been covering the first two days of the trial. Other than a Fox News outlet (with a mostly very balanced story!) and a short digest of events in the Memphis Flyer, a gay Memphis newspaper, there has been little to no coverage. Is the trial not as compelling as the beating? That a trans woman whose vicious beating was caught on tape, officers were terminated and charged for this crime and then, 9 mos. later, the victim was murdered execution style... are you trying to tell me this isn't a big story?

Rodney King "resisting" the LAPD

Compare this to the beating of Rodney King, also caught on tape. It was covered in literally every news outlet in the country (and abroad) and received repeated widespread coverage on national broadcast news media. Coverage of Ms. Johnson's beating was largely fueled over the Internet first by gay and trans blogs and also having the video of the beating on YouTube. Only after much of that buzz was the story covered by outlets outside of the Memphis area. Yes, two very different eras. The Rodney King incident in 1991 was before the Internet had really penetrated the American consciousness. As a result, in that era, crimes like those perpetrated against Ms. Johnson, which weren't covered by mainstream media, largely went invisible or, perhaps, sometimes covered by community newspapers (the African-American press, gay newspapers, etc.).

Duanna Johnson "resisting" Officer McRae

One of these is not like the other
To compare the Johnson beating with an Internet-era crime, the 1/1/09 suspicious killing of an African-American male, Oscar Grant by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer. It was also caught on video, widely nationally reported in all forms of media, as is the trial of the officer who shot him, Johannes Mehserle. Yes, one is an alleged killing, while one was a vicious beating. One happened in the Bay Area (a larger media market) while the other happened in a larger city but smaller media market). Both victims were low-income African-Americans. But a key difference was that one was a transgender woman while the other was a young male.

Oscar Grant "resisting" BART police

Only a few weeks ago, a story about an on-duty San Antonio police officer allegedly raping a trans woman received only local coverage. Again, without Internet-generated buzz, even a major story of police brutality, such transphobic crimes seem to evaporate in mainstream media. You'll notice most of the statistics for the Transgender Day of Remembrance don't pre-date the Internet because there was overwhelmingly no coverage of crimes against our community in print and broadcast media before that time. The reality is, without the pressure of coverage over Internet channels, many stories against members of highly marginalized communities continue to go vastly under-rereported or ignored and why so many of those crimes are shelved, investigated with minimal resources and continue to go unsolved.

Accused rapist/former San Antonio cop Craig Nash

A personal example of this was the trial of Lateisha Green's accused murderer in Syracuse. Only a few weeks before the court date, there was still a total media blackout. For several months there were no stories about either the crime nor the impending trial. It was only when bloggers like Monica Roberts (on her Transgriot site) started asking "where's the coverage" did others (including myself) start spreading the word about this case and the trial. It ultimately was widely covered (even though some outlets, like the New York Times chose to ignore the trial while others, like the LA Times, only included stories about it after the trial was over).

Duanna Johnson 1965-2008

Which brings us back to the trial of the police officer caught on tape attacking Duanna Johnson. Where's the coverage? It seems as if this trial, which includes one of the most damning pieces of evidence of police brutality (and bigotry) since Rodney King, might be going down the same road of invisibility.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Transphobic Panic in the NY Times: Opinion?

No, it's not porn... it's the New York Times

Remember The NY Times, the once distinguished newspaper which has increasingly shown itself to have a rather unprofessional attitude when it comes to trans people? Yes, that one. In a one-month period it had several absurdly amateurish articles in their blog about the controversy over "Ticked Off Trannies With Knives" written by Dave Itzkoff which were little more than huckstering for the film (eg. one of the trans actresses in the film responds to the protests). Itzkoff quoted sources without checking whether there was any validity to their claims (including the assertion that GLAAD supported the film until they issued their "call-to-action"... a claim GLAAD has absolutely denied). Last week, the NY Times reported on the murder of Queens, NY trans woman Amanda Gonzalez-Andujar with a headline which stated "man, 29, found stabbed to death in Queens" even though the first police reports clearly reported the victim was a woman. There was absolutely no mention how Ms. Gonzalez-Andujar lived 24/7 as a woman. The Times later came out with a new article which added a bit of new information about the murder (she was strangled, not knifed as first reported) but was basically a big backtrack as to why they had such an insensitive first article about the crime (note: even the frequently transphobic NY Daily News had a more respectful article out about this story before the Times).

We're entitled to our opinions...
Added to these incidents comes the New York Times' latest jab at the trans community on its Opinion page (as first mentioned by Helen Boyd in her blog En/Gender) It concerns a slide show of a photo essay by photographer Alec Soth about New Orleans on Ash Wednesday after this year's Mardi Gras celebration. Noticeable in the photos are several transgender people, presumably for the usual freak window dressing filmmakers and photographers so relish. It translates to... wow, this Mardi Gras was kinky and crazy... there were trannies! Really!

Most of the slide show depicts a messy city with a few remaining revelers left on the empty, littered streets. He then has a Diane Arbus-like series of portraits of people from New Orleans who've attended Ash Wednesday services with the characteristic ash mark on their foreheads. One is a picture of a what certainly appears to be a young Latina.

Later, he talks about going to the casino and running into one of this photo subjects... the young Latina. Does he ask her about her life, is she a native of New Orleans, what Ash Wednesday means to her, how she was affected by the floods? There were many possible questions.

Fancy meeting you here. Aren't you worried
you'll get picked up by some kind of... pervert?

Instead, he next has a title card about how he invited her to his hotel room to photograph her.

No, I didn't ask her how old she was, why?

Needless to say, she looks young. I don't know what age you need to be to go into the casino, but she still looks like a teenager. She's next shown sprawled on his hotel room bed being photographed. No mention is made of how old she is, why he has to photograph her in his hotel room and not against the backdrop of New Orleans (supposedly the city on which he's doing his photo essay) much less why she's lying on his bed.

Lie still and think about appearing in
the New York Times Opinion page.

Ever the artiste
He snaps a few photos of her on his bed while she looks mostly bored and passive. Let's see, for a professional photographer, taking photos of a young woman lying on his bed in his hotel room is pretty much the closest metaphor he can get to having sex without actually disrobing.

He then has a title card which kind of says it all:

"R. was a man. Ewww, why did I lure HIM to my hotel room?"

Now, this isn't a case of meeting someone and not knowing their gender. He spoke with her, she has breasts, I assume she had a female name beginning with the letter R... this was no mistake. Yet, as Helen Boyd commented, Alec Soth's title card said "(Not even used to be a man but) was a man." Boyd then very rightfully remarks, "I think the punchline is supposed to be along the lines of even this nice Catholic girl with ashes on her forehead is really one them sinful transsexuals. Wow. What a hipster this guy is."

And you included this because...?
Was Soth's point, this is a city of evil and illusions and nothing is what it seems and all is temptation? Was it "I got this stupid girl to come back to my hotel to photograph her (aka, see my etchings), was planning to fuck her and... whaaaa, she's a dude! OH MAN! What a crazy fucking city!" Or, more likely, was it "creeper, narcissistic photographer (see my previous entry on artist Charlie White who also relishes his sleazy peeping tom artist persona) lures young trans girl to his apartment and exposes her as the man she really is? Ex-frat boy office workers love that kind kinky sex tourism.

The late Angie Zapata

What makes this all doubly creepy is that the trans girl has a slight resemblance to 2008 trans girl murder victim Angie Zapata. You want to take "R." by the hand and say, honey, do not go into the hotel rooms of strangers, even if they claim they're doing photo essays for the New York Times. And, of course, he had no idea she was trans before he took her to his room. He was tricked, he thought he was getting a real teenage girl to come to his hotel room to be photographed on his bed and, instead, was shocked to find out she was A MAN. Sounds curiously like convicted murderer Alan Andrade's claim he didn't know Angie Zapata was trans until after she gave him oral sex even though he had gone to the DMV with her earlier in the day and heard them call her by her male birth name. Or Gwen Araujo's murderers who claimed they didn't know "she was a guy" until a woman told them at the party even though Gwen hadn't even started hormones, has been described as having a not-especially passable voice and was well known at some of the murderers' high school (where their younger siblings still attended) for cross-dressing.

All the news that's fit to print
So, the final lasting image of his slide show on New Orleans is this young trans girl lying bored on Soth's hotel bed having been outed as "a man." What Soth doesn't mention is what they did after the photo session and how he treated her after whatever they did was finished? He leaves those details for the imagined titillation of their readers so they can confirm what a risky livin' wild man he is.

So, New York Times, exactly what is the opinion you're sharing with us? New Orleans, city of shattered illusions? New Orleans shouldn't be salvaged because there are trannies running loose trying to fool guys? Or we hire sleezeballs and why would a once-esteemed newspaper feature something as bigoted and tawdry as this?

I'm Alec Soth, photographer, also a man
and possible sexual predator