Saturday, July 24, 2010

A f*lm r*view

"Should we be in this movie or not?"


A week ago, at the Viz Theater in San Francisco's Japantown complex, I "bit the bullet" (ha-ha) and saw the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival's presentation of Ticked Off Trannies With Knives (aka TOTWK). The small theater was less than 40% full. The audience was mostly straight, nerdy male fans of the gore genre, albeit with some slight overlap in the gay community. Taking into account the possible fallibility of my "trans-dar" (and my apologies to my sister for even having to say this) I can pretty reliably state I was one of two trans woman audience members who weren't involved in the film (Krystal Summers was also in attendance along with the director, the producer and fellow actor, Willam Belli).

It's a lousy job but someone has to do it
Back in early March, when I first started complaining about this film being booked for the Tribeca Film Festival, it wasn't in my plans to see it. But given the repeated (incorrect) statements from the director how none of the people complaining about the film have even seen it, and given that the film has recently gotten distribution for the midnight movie circuit (which is where I predicted it would ultimately find a brick and mortar home) I felt I needed to have a look before writing any more about the subject. The film also has a pending DVD release in fall '10 and felt I had said all I could say about my issues with the promotional materials, clips, and trailer.

Coming redactions
Despite many of the its supporters' comments to the contrary, I found TOTWK's trailer to be an accurate representation of the film I ultimately saw. If you like the trailer and its promotional materials, you'll (sadly for your level of non-taste) enjoy the film. If you thought the trailer looked like crap or found elements of it offensive or banal, then you're wasting your money and will walk away from the film feeling as if you've just thrown away another few hours of your 'haven't-got-a-life.'

Ooh, I got a run in my pantyhose...
The film's opening is a long follow-shot of Bubbles (Kystal Summers), a female-impersonator going to her evening club performance. The character, we later find out, has just been drugged, raped and beaten by a guy she met (they don't clarify the exact time frame of the crime), yet is going to work that evening in a club full of screaming patrons ready to have her gyrate and shake her booty for them. What's wrong with this picture? Her biggest concern is can her black eye be covered up with makeup? The show inexplicably goes on.

Afterwards, the performers: Pinky (Kelexis Davenport), Tipper (Joe Hoselton aka Jenna Skyy) and Rachel (Willam Belli) are encouraged by fellow performer Emma (Erica Andrews) to accompany them to a bar and later to the place of two guys she vaguely knows. Again, Bubbles has been drugged, raped and beaten, feels required (perhaps out of economic desperation) to dance in front of a crowd of yelling people and is now willing to go out and socialize?! Moreover, the lack of compassion and understanding Emma and Rachel display about this reality (and granted, at that time they didn't yet know she'd been raped) made them seem flat, contrived and very much products of a male imagination.

They ARE that stupid
They arrive at a warehouse in a dark part of town, reflect on its possible danger for the blink of an eyelash and quickly find out the two potential loverboys are henchmen for "Boner" (woodenly played by Tom Zembrod) a tv-show casting cliche bad-ass white guy with stringy long hair. It's a cop out the film doesn't have the guts to show what real murderers of trans women tend to look like. Yes, he's the very person who, not long before, drugged Bubbles, raped her and beat her up upon finding out "she's a dude in a dress." What follows is 15 minutes (but seemed like 45) of Bubbles getting hit, tortured and taunted. Honestly, the film would have been far more effective if they'd shown one minute of the genuine homophobic panic and fury most men get before they perpetrate transphobic crimes.

Bad Guys "Streets of San Francisco" style
There is one wrong note after another in this scene, including an admission by Boner (in front of his two Latino henchmen) that he had sex with Bubbles. Um... wouldn't happen. While he says he was tricked, there is none of the real horror at questioning his own sexual orientation and disgust towards his very real sexual desires, which is very much the core of most transphobic crime. Instead, director Israel Luna gives us very stereotypical tv "bad guys"... and it rings both false and dull. Without going into details, Emma is fatally bludgeoned with a baseball bat, Tipper, who arrives late with Pinky to save Bubbles, is stabbed and dies. Rachel is slammed on the head with said baseball bat (including a portion of bloody scalp/wig) and Pinky is beaten senseless and bloodied but they both survive with seemingly no physical impact nor trauma. Guess being swatted in the cranium with a baseball bat and seeing two of your friends murdered isn't so bad.

"Yeah, well, your acting sucks too!"

And this card means... *snore*
After her initial escape (yes, the scene is still going oooon) Bubbles is found again by Boner who blathers on about having 3 playing cards and each one is a different way of killing her (one will give her a head start to escape... blah, blah). Perhaps Luna saw this work in another film, but here it just falls flat. Imagine a transphobic/homophobic psycho, he finds the person who he considers male who he thinks 'tricked' him into having sex and he drones on sounding like the Sicilian from Princess Bride. A better director would have shown the character's real panic at his conflict about being attracted to Bubbles. But this is where TOTWK falls from being a self-consciously bad film to just being... bad product.

"Emma and Tipper are dead"... *silence*
so is this scene

Bubbles is next seen at a hospital waking up from a coma and being visited by Rachel and Pinky. They show no real concern for her, nor display any effects of their own traumas and seemingly care less how two of their friends were brutally murdered. (not to mention why Boner and crew wouldn't kill Bubbles after already murdering two others??!!) Needless to say, because this takes place in slasher/revenge film land, there is no mention of police, family or loved ones having any interest in the dead characters... basically two 'trans women' are murdered and no one gives a damn. Either you buy that or you don't.

"This woman has been raped and nearly
fatally assaulted... she needs to have her
boob squeezed by an oversexed tranny nurse"

Boobeez: alwayz pfunny
In one of the least humorous (and most offensive) sequences in the film, a sexed-up "tranny" nurse squeezes Bubble's breast... yes, a woman who was just raped and beaten into a coma allows the nurse to squeeze her boob. A burlesque show doctor tromps in, does a few limp jokes and leaves. In an interminably tedious sequence, jokes are made about the fact Bubbles has brain damage and can't speak. Smoke some strong weed before you see it and it MIGHT be funny... but no guarantees. Again, Luna repeatedly follows formula... limp laughs, ominous situation, extreme violence, more failing attempts at laughs, rather than really allowing the power and horror of what's happened to Bubbles (and the others) to sink in. Trashy film or not, it ruins much of the later impact of the film. Yes, even good trashy exploitation films need to have a logic and an emotional core.

Seriously, audience, time to take a bathroom break

'Ching Chong Chinaman time'
TOTWK pretty much dies in its middle. A long, completely unfunny scene involving their gay friend in pseudo Chinaman eyeliner teaching the remaining three some form of Eastern Martial Arts is just painful. (reviewer's note: I missed two minutes of it and ran to the Woman's Room to enjoy the Viz Theater's uber-cool heated Japanese electronic bidet/toilets, the highlight of my evening) Stripped of the interior lighting and night shots (which are mostly well lit and shot for a low budget film), here it looks like a teenage bad home video you'd see on YouTube. I timed nearly 10 minutes of zero laughter from the audience during this section (even the 3 yahoos sitting behind me who seemingly laughed at everything were quiet).

Not a woody... just wooden
The next section involves Bubbles at home, taking a Psycho-style™ shower, hearing suspicious noises, etc. Sure enough, Boner turns up at her apartment with his two assistants. Can't say that Bubbles and Boner generate a lot of acting excitment in their scenes. Boner drones on, Bubbles looks passive and vacant and I found my eyes rolling upward. Many of the key moments are stuck in 'bad acting land'. Not hilarious 'Edith Massey bad acting' land, but just cardboard. Now we're left with yet another long sequence of Boner torturing Bubbles, more mentions of the playing cards, yadda, yadda. None of the seeming shock and horror of suddenly re-encountering her rapist/attacker is here, which then makes the surprise of the next scene seem flat.

fill in the ________ expression

Run that by me again
In a confusing twist nearly sunk by terrible editing, we ultimately find out the three women have laid a trap for boner and his accomplices. There is a horrible series of badly-edited cuts (not a pun). We see boner and the henchmen lying on the ground and the three former victims are in their Emma Peel catsuits standing over them. They've stuffed knives up the rectums of the two henchmen and a 'cocked' pistol up boner's behind (not easy to do).

Filmmakings' version of
a knife up the ass
But Luna is clueless how to make the scene work. Instead, the three women are total ditzes and are nearly overcome by the guys yet again who manage to somehow stand up with large dangerous objects in their behinds. Basically, it's called "let's drop the premise and go onto something else because we don't know what to do with it." Word of unasked-for advice to the budding revenge filmmaker: if you're going to put knives up "a bad guy's" behind... somehow show it being done... painfully, in detail, excruciatingly. Show the full impact it has on them, and let it be the cause of a horrible death involving a heaping helping of gore... or don't do it in the first place.

NO, BONER, PLEASE... no more talking about your cards!

Boner as King Lear
Yes, the bad guys are eventually killed and Boner's death, which should be the gory centerpiece of the film, is a serious yawn. I kept thinking Luna already had his micro-budget-rate Tom Savini special effects and then crafted the entire scene around them with no accounting for storyline. But the method of killing Boner has no drama and none of the graphic charge you'd expect from a revenge film. Let's see, you call a character Boner, he's a rapist and a murderer, and how do you kill him... you stick a knife in his mouth (which should have at least been shot with a tremulous close-up). Instead, Bubbles shoots him a couple of times with a pistol and the scene is captured with a medium camera shot (and some disinterested acting from Krystal Summers). Hello... where's the castration... where's the penis jammed in his mouth? If you're going to make a trashy violent film, don't do boring deaths... go for your money shot and stick it in the audiences' faces. Or just don't do it. (I prefer the latter)

Next time, Bulgarian folkdancers
instead of "trannies"
Ultimately, TOTWK has little to do with real transphobic violence (even viewed through a filter of 'comic' trashy revenge film). It's a middle-brow revenge film which uses transgender characters but the violence perpetrated against them has nothing to do with the real world of such crimes. It's just plugging a few "tranny" moments and characters into a cliched framework. Could this be, perhaps, because, as Luna first stated, his impetus for making the film was more about anti-gay crimes than murders of trans women? That's how it reads. As a result, the film has virtually nothing to say about trans women being murdered other than... no one really cares about your death and most of you are rather stupid. As Luke Y. Thompson of the New Times stated about I Spit on Your Grave, the film which greatly inspired TOTWK,
"Defenders of the film have argued that it's actually pro-woman [or in TOTWK's case, pro trans woman], due to the fact that the female lead wins in the end, which is sort of like saying that cockfights are pro-rooster because there's always one left standing".
As the film-ending exchange between Pinky, Bubbles and Rachel states, for purposes of TOTWK there is no difference between the men who rape and attack them and the revenge seeking "trannies." And, in this case, they're right. The violence and deaths are there strictly for the audiences' entertainment, not to enlighten them about trans women's lives (or deaths). Luna's mistake was deluding himself into thinking he was actually making a film about a serious subject and then attempting to sell that premise to LGBT festivals (who overwhelmingly didn't buy it... but the film was presented by festivals like SIFF and Tribeca who felt no need nor interest to justify their desire for easy exploitive "edge" to pissed off trans people).

Don't quit your night jobs
In general, the acting is fairly low budget-wooden but with a few exceptions. Willam Belli has a good comic delivery and timing albeit rather one note (for what it's worth, the aforementioned 3 guys sitting behind me were often amused). Joe Hoselton/Jenna had the best moments of real screen acting in the early backstage scenes. Erica Andrews is asked to deliver a cartoony, stereotyped Chiquita Banana performance and she "succeeds." Kelexis Davenport honestly looked as if she wasn't really into the entire experience and seemed mostly grumpy and out-of-it (and I don't mean in a Warhol/early-John Waters actor... "I'm stoned and you're a creeper for watching me" kind of way). Krystal Summers has a genuine sweetness and dumb teenage gurrl vulnerability which helps the film's 'likability factor' but she tends to go numb in many of the key scenes. The film seriously deflates when Zembrod and Summers are asked to deliver large amounts of dialogue for long stretches and it doesn't create any charge for the "money scenes" of carnage and torture.

A 'nice' slasher flick
For a film with a miniscule budget, TOTWK looks pretty good and has a fairly decent score... and this is one of its problems. It lacks the 'blown-up from 16mm' grainy, graphic punch the 'best' slasher flicks have. The "grindhouse" (is anyone else really sick of this tired retro-wannabe hipster term?) aspects like the blunt cuts spice up the film's tv-ish sterility, but don't really add a period look nor any power to the violent moments. The color is video bland—not the glaring, faded in parts, unadjusted, bleeding, aged technicolor it requires. The missing reels are the director trying to be cute, which is the opposite of what a revenge/slasher film should be. Moreover the camerawork is blandly competent instead of awful/punky/inspired and in your face. Again, none of the "money" shots are thoughtfully captured nor create the lasting iconic sick imagery this genre demands.

For all the issues I have about TOTWK blithely co-opting and trying to ride the tails of the very real and important subject of violence, transphobia, rape and murder against trans women (and, for the most part, ignores or sanitizes it) I am prepared to say that, at the very least, if it delivered on its goal as a genre film I would give it its due. Sad to say, it doesn't.

Two gay men (far left, far right) and
a wannabe 'tranny' (center)

Meet the (boring) public
What's extra depressing is how little audiences ask of a film like this. Yes, there are people who pay a lot of money to see WWF Wrestling and scream their heads off and believe they're seeing an actual exciting event. There are bored teens who see the most derivative punk band and pretend it's 1976 London and they've invented rebellion. There are people who see the most tedious, third-rate drag queens and whoop, hoot and holler because they think they're being outraaaageous for doing so. Or people who think John Water's post-Divine films are worth watching (btw, they suck). Which is why this film is perfect for midnight movies—whose audience is overwhelmingly bored suburban kids, and lonely, older guys who still collect action figures. They'll either be attracted by the promise of "seeing real trannies," experiencing buckets of fake gore or both. My recommendation is to find another one of the Japanese super toilets, push every button and get some real entertainment.

Should you choose to attend this film,
I recommend seeing it only at a theater
with truly professional Japanese toilets.

Note: This review is intended as a general critique of the film and not an examination of all the issues it does or doesn't raise.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

when is a widow not a widow

Nikki and Thomas Araguz married in early 2008 in Wharton, a town near Houston, TX. He had been working as a volunteer firefighter and studying to become an EMT. Nikki, his wife, who was born in California but had lived in Harris County, TX for the last 10 years, owned and ran a local free newspaper. They had originally connected with each other at their church. Thomas, who was previously divorced, shared custody of his two sons who lived with him and Nikki part time. Thomas was also a long time member of the Wharton volunteer fire department and, on July 4, 2010, he and many firefighters were involved battling a huge blaze at the Maxim Egg Farm in Boling, TX. Thomas died when he was trapped inside a burning structure.

Sainted widow
The initial media coverage of his death and of his widow was, as might be expected, highly respectful of someone who perished serving his community:
The firefighter's funeral was full of loved ones finding it difficult to say goodbye, including the 30-year-old man's wife.

"I admired your commitment in what you believe is right, respect your willingness to work hard, appreciate your strength and kindness and love the fun we had together. I can't imagine wanting to share a secret, a little dream or a silly laugh with anyone as much as I do with him. Thomas your love has a home in my heart," said his widow, Nikki Araguz at the funeral.
KTRK, the Houston ABC news affiliate said the following on July 12, 2010:
Araguz was an 11-year veteran of the Wharton Fire Department. But more than that, he was a husband and father of two.
"He was first a father, a wonderful husband, son, brother, friend," said his wife, Nikki Araguz.
A change in the wind
This coverage changed when on July 17, the El Campo Leader-News, the largest paper in Wharton County, ran a story about the Araguzes:
A lawsuit filed Monday seeks to dissolve the marriage of the Wharton volunteer firefighter who died battling the Maxim Egg Farm blaze, on the grounds his wife, Nikki, used to be a man.

Simona Rodriguez Longoria, mother of the late Capt. Thomas Araguz III, and Heather Delgado, Araguz’s ex-wife, both filed court documents after his July 3 death, stating he did not know his wife was a man. Longoria filed July 12; Delgado July 14. The suit, filed in Wharton County’s 329th District Court, also sought a temporary restraining order freezing all of the couple’s assets, a request granted by District Judge Randy Clapp that same day.

According to the parent's and ex-wife's attorneys, Thomas Araguz only learned about his wife's gender history when they were together in a battle to maintain custody of the two boys in opposition with Heather Delgado, his ex wife. Delgado's attorney went looking for dirt on Nikki Araguz and found her original California birth certificate (which, evidently had not been changed, since actual gender changes in California result in a sealed certificate to which he wouldn't have access), and her 1996 name change from her male birth name to her pre-married female name. He also found out she'd had a number of arrests for theft, passing bad checks and a DUI both pre and post her name change (the last of which was in 2004).

The parents and ex-wife want to receive all the late fire fighter's death benefits (reportedly amounting to around $600K, as well as the exclusive right to sue for wrongful death (which Nikki would normally retain as his wife) which may ultimately total in the millions.

The news spread quickly and KHOU in Houston had the revised story about the widow within an hour. The two stone-faced announcers somberly proclaimed, "this story has taken a STANGE turn." Nikki Araguz was "born a man." The KTRK outlet had a long interview with Nikki (who had been in San Francisco when the El Campo News Leader story broke). The legal actions against her state that Thomas Araguz didn't know about Nikki's trans history until Heather's attorney showed him the documentation of her birth certificate and name change in April.

Are you or have you ever had a member...

In her interview, Nikki is repeatedly asked about her trans status, her genitals, her SRS and whether her husband knew about her trans history before the custodial battle with the ex-wife. Nikki stated Thomas knew about her history by their second date in 2007, he said he loved her anyway, they married in 2008 (when she was still pre-op) and she had SRS a few months later. There is also a suggestion from Nikki she was born Intersex, had under-developed genitals (and was mis-assigned male at birth). She said her husband also knew about her prior arrests.

Liar and Sinner

On July 20, 2010, the KTRK headline read:

Suit alleges firefighter's widow was born a man

The story includes some heavily edited clips from the Nikki Araguz interview, but also includes commentary from Heather Delgado's attorney and a family law attorney which both state change of sex isn't possible in Texas and, therefore, voids the marriage.

Some commentators have already mentioned the similarities to the Littleton v. Prange case where a trans woman, Christie Lee Littleton was ruled ineligible to sue for the wrongful death of her husband because she was still a male and same sex marriages aren't recognized in Texas. In a mixed opinion by the 3-judge court, they dismissed Littleton's right to sue because their marriage wasn't legal. Since then, the Texas Legislature passed an amendment. As Cristen Williams, Director of the Houston TG Center notes:

In 2009, lawmakers (in H.B. No. 3666) changed the Texas family code to permit an applicant for a marriage license to use a sex change court order to nullify the birth certificate gender.Sec. 2.002. APPLICATION FOR LICENSE. Except as provided by Section 2.006, each person applying for a license must:

(8) an original or certified copy of a court order relating to the applicant's name change or sex change;

In other words, a post-op trans woman in Texas could get legally married to a man (although it's not impossible it could be legally challenged at some point using the Littleton v. Prange decision). It's not clear whether the 2009 addendum is for trans people from out of state or whether it suggests trans people in Texas can use proof of SRS to legally change their sex. The catch in this case, is that Nikki has admitted she was pre-op at the time of their wedding, which makes it likely the marriage will be nullified (she does, however, have famed attorney, Phyllis Frye on her side, so nothing is a lost cause).

The Devil Himself

By the next day, the ABC station had a story which was headlined:

"Firefighter's widow born a man has criminal history."

The story is mostly about Nikki's arrest record and how she was booked into the Harris County jail up until 1996 as a man and after 2000 as a woman and how she was always held in a male cellblock. The reporter makes a big deal how someone who didn't have SRS until 2008 was booked as a woman (even though, again, she was held in the men's cellblock) and goes on about how the Sheriff's Department couldn't explain how she was booked as a woman other than as a "booking error." It seems fairly obvious they were actually trying to acknowledge that, apart from her still having a penis, she was extremely female looking and sounding at that time and that this wasn't a ordinary "male" prisoner. The reporter acts as if he's doing serious investigative reporting which will result in public outrage. The reporter regularly refers to Nikki with male pronouns (albeit in reference to her "male" arrests).

A zinger on the end

On July 22, 2010, the Houston Fox affiliate had a story about the Houston trans communities' intent to support Nikki at her hearing 7/23/10 and interviewed trans activist Lou Weaver. They have their own legal analyst state that while chromosomal testing is no longer used to determine gender in sports, that it is still used in the state of Texas as determined by the Texas Supreme Court. (which is actually open to question, based on the 2009 addendum, nor did the Texas Supreme Court ever hear the Littleton v. Prange case, it was the 4th District Court of Appeals). The Supreme Court did deny Littleton's appeal to hear the case but made no ruling on whether chromosomes (which would also impact a large number of Intersex people) impacting one's legal status as male or female. They end the report on the trans communities support by restating "she had an extensive arrest record" as if this verifies the evil nature of the individual in question.

Caught in our trap!

As I have previously noted in Skip the Makeup, there's few things the media loves more than outing a passable/stealthy transsexual and it usually results in an instantaneous pile-on among competing outlets. In Nikki Araguz's case, many of the media outlets instantly quoted the attorney's of Mr. Araguz's parents and Ms. Delgado, who stated Mr. Araguz didn't know about Nikki's medical history until May of this year (which would seem to be relatively easily verified by checking the date of her SRS versus the date of their wedding). The fact remains, Nikki has admitted that her and Thomas perjured themselves at the custody hearing and that they were married after she had SRS—both of which are likely to come back to haunt her case later.

Who me? Love someone like that? Never!

What isn't discussed in the reporting of how Thomas was "deceived" is how straight men commonly pretend they were shocked and traumatized at finding out their partner is trans, as a way to rebuff societal judgments about their own sexual orientation. This is the entire basis of the trans-panic defense which is still legal to use in Texas (although banned in California).

As usual, the media is focusing on her past arrest record (trans person as outsider/criminal) and, especially, as the deceiver of a hero who supposedly didn't know his pre-op wife was trans. They've already included interviews with people from Wharton saying they'd never know Nikki was 'a transsexual'... she looked 100% like a woman—encouraging the paranoia of "trans people are among you ready to deceive you and lie to get what isn't rightfully theirs." One of the attorney interviews actually suggested that even though Nikki deceived Thomas, she actually went to his funeral (as if his widow had a nerve even being there).

As so often happens in controversial rape cases, the victim (in this case a widow) is put on trial. Not only is her sexual history examined under a microscope, but she has had former mugshots of her displayed. Nikki Araguz is no saint, and she has a long uphill battle to prove the legality of her marriage. But what's ultimately more important than the money, is how she is no longer allowed to be a woman who's just suffered a painful loss of a spouse, but presented as a common criminal trying to scam her way into big money but never once questioning the motives of his ex-wife and parents.


7/22/10 FoxNews in Houston obtained a film of Nikki when she was 20 years old (and pre-hormones) which was made by a local college student who, no doubt, got paid for it by the station. In it she talks candidly about her youth and when she first began transitioning. In my opinion, this is an offensive infringement of her privacy and irrelevant to the story. She is not a criminal and this situation is about the legality of her marriage, not her personal gender issues. She has admitted she had SRS, so that point is not in question. Once again, media is treating trans people's lives as a sideshow attraction.

Friday, July 9, 2010

"Pretending to be a boy" to corrupt minors

Dye's mugshot

On the outskirts of Cincinnati, Ohio a drama is playing out which has resonances in the trans community. A person identified by news sources as a 31-year old woman, Patricia Dye of Franklin, OH, was arrested for "impersonating" a 14-year old boy named Matthew Abrams, and corrupting a 16-year old female minor. Dye is being held on a $100,000 bond on charges they allegedly had illegal sex.

Try to follow along
The events of this story as reported by the Dayton Daily News are confusing. The girl first communicated with Dye over MySpace and Facebook. The girl's aunt reports:
She changed the girl’s pass codes to Myspace, Facebook and an alumni page for Franklin High School graduates to protect her from Dye, who was portraying herself online as Abrams and under other identities.
The aunt said police showed her as many as five pictures, some portraying Dye as a man, others as a woman.
On June 22, on the girl's 16th birthday, she ran away from home while her mom was in the hospital having gallbladder surgery in another town. The person the mother trusted to keep track of her daughter, Melissa Neumann, assumed the 4' 11" Abrams (aka Dye) was a 14-year old boy. Evidently, the girl traveled to Franklin, OH to a motel where Dye and his parents lived. Police claimed Dye and the girl slept together in a van and had sex. The girl was found wandering the streets of Franklin and picked up as a runaway. She has since been returned to her aunt's custody. On July 8, Dye was arrested and is currently being held in the Butler County jail women's facility.

It's a... it's a...
In the Huffington Post, police are quoted as claiming:
Dye was arrested after the underage girl she is accused of having sex with fled the hotel room that she shared with Dye, reports CBS News. Police say that the girl fled after finding out that Dye was an adult woman and not the boy that she had claimed to be.
The 31-year old Dye

Dye's parents give a radically different portrait of what happened. They say the girl knew Dye was biologically female the entire time. That the two never slept together in a van but stayed in the family's room at a residential hotel (where they lived) called "Collie's". That the two never slept together in the same bed, and that Dye and his mom slept in one bed and "the alleged victim slept on a blanket next to the bed in the room."

Moreover, they give a different portrait of Dye than as a male impersonator for the purposes of obtaining sex.

Both parents said Dye had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Dye’s mother said she’d taken calls from school officials in Lebanon in the 1990s about her daughter pretending to be a boy. “She always wears slacks. There’s nothing wrong with that,” the mother said. Ralph Dye said he believed his daughter was innocent of the charges.

Haven't I heard this before?
The story has obviously strong echos of the Brandon Teena case in Nebraska from the early 1990s (on which the film Boys Don't Cry was based). Brandon was a troubled youth who was also male identified. He came from a marginalized family, got into trouble in high school and repeatedly ID'd himself as male. At the age of 18 he got involved with girls much younger than himself (13 years old) and in a relationship with a 14-year old named Lana and was arrested for passing bum checks trying to buy presents for her. In the act of outing him to Lana, Teena was eventually raped and sexually assaulted by two young men who were Lana's friends. Brandon reported the rape/assault and was later murdered by the two men after the police did nothing to protect Brandon from them. The girlfriend later admitted she knew Teena was biologically female and that it didn't matter to her.

Lez-bean Deceiver *shivers*
His story was first brought to life in a story by Eric Konigsberg in Playboy magazine piece from 1995 called " Death of a Deceiver" which identifies Brandon by his birth name of Teena. Konigsberg writes, "Thus began the double life of Teena Brandon: uneasy tomboy by day, cool lady-killer by night." He is clearly ID'd as a predator of young girls (he was a late teen at the time he met Lana and was 21 when he was murdered). For the first several years of reporting this case, Brandon was almost universally identified as a butch lesbian, and his murder was taken up by a number of organizations involved in lesbian rights.

Later, a documentary called "
The Brandon Teena Story (1998)" (which restored the trans aspect to Brandon's male identity) inspired the Academy Award winning film Boy's Don't Cry which firmly posited him as a trans man.

Brandon Teena (l) and Lana (r)

In both cases, Brandon and Dye were both reported as predators "impersonating" boys to obtain sex. On a CBS site for the series 48 Hours Mystery, Dye is very much presented as a predator. The story has begun to proliferate on the Internet both because of its transgender angle and because of its echos of Boys Don't Cry.

Brandon Teena as a gangster

The wheat from the chaff
Whatever the outcome of the ultimate facts of this case and whether the two even had sex, it remains a 31-year old was having an Internet relationship with 15-year old while pretending to be 14-years old. There is a predatory aspect to that and not something I (as the parent of a teenager myself) take lightly. It's also clear this girl was having problems at home and used her connection with Dye to run away—whether that also involved a sexual relationship or not, she wanted out. In all likelihood, Dye was not "impersonating" being a male but is some flavor of trans and that aspect is being pointedly ignored by media who continue to gender Dye as female (as they did with Brandon Teena). Although the police curiously described them as boyfriend/girlfriend while continuing to use female pronouns for Dye.

The old saw of "
trans people pretending to be someone they're not to fool innocent 'normal' people" is being dragged out yet again. As coverage of this case continues (and it seems likely it will appear on CBS's 48 Hours) expect to see more commentary about how trans people need to be "honest" about who they really are and that violence is to be expected for "deceptive behavior." How unscrupulous people will use gender transition as a way to mask their criminal acts. Moreover, the word "transgender" will continue to be a media synonym for "underclass" and "creepy."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Trans Francisco: postcards from the edge

Kayla not in love in a very
romantic city.

Here's a link to the trailer for Trans Francisco

Glenn Davis
' absorbing new documentary, Trans Francisco, had its premiere in front of a cheering full house audience at the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco on June 19. It's a patchwork quilt of stories of trans women living in the San Francisco Bay Area—their traumas, their activism, world weariness and strengths, their loneliness, and loving partners and families. One of the most powerful aspects of the film is its incredible diversity. No other documentary on trans people I've ever seen has covered this wide a spectrum of races and ethnic groups and a varied socioeconomic spectrum all the way from police commissioner to film producer, to non-profit activists and, yes, to sex workers. And, while the trappings of their lives vary greatly, there is enough thematic overlap which creates the woven fabric of the entire experience. It's a truly inclusive film without judgments or projected stigmas placed onto any segments of the community.

A patchwork quilt vs. a solid piece of fabric
The film centers around a half-dozen women's stories, but also includes a lot of "quickie" interviews with other women. It's a lot to cover in a mere 54 minutes and I think this is one of the film's weaknesses. While the sheer number of interviews creates that diversity, it also diminishes the time allotted to each. We are introduced to someone, hear a sound bite or two and get out. Perhaps it's no surprise Davis has an extensive background in local affiliate broadcast news because some of the representations feel that way. A lot of sound bites but not enough time to always get a deeper sense of the subjects. Davis shifts to another story just when I was beginning to connect with the previous one.

Miss Major and sweet boytoy lover

The heart of the matter
Early on, we are introduced to a young, rather sad-eyed African-American trans woman named Kayla. Pretty and bright, she has an aura of fatalism about her. After two brief, fascinating appearances, she inexplicably vanishes from the film. Miss Major, an iconic activist in the trans community who is both a veteran of Stonewall and an important crusader for incarcerated trans people's rights is profiled, but mostly about her relationship with a much younger trans man. Is this May-December romance really more interesting than other vital work she's done (or her incredible life story)? I wasn't convinced.

Cecilia Chung (l) and Theresa Sparks (r)

Two of the core figures in the film are well known in San Francisco as politicians and members of different commissions. Theresa Sparks (the former CEO of Good Vibrations) was the city's Police Commissioner and is currently running for city supervisor (SF's legislative body). Cecilia Chung was a Human Rights Commissioner and also ran for supervisor. They take us behind their public images as success stories and share with us their degree of familial loss and the painful journeys they went through to become the women they are today.

Mom, do we have have to go out to dinner?
Chung dines with her still-uncomfortable mom in a series of excruciatingly awkward scenes at a restaurant and tells how, pre-transition, her father caught her in bed with a man, she was kicked out of the house and lived in the family car. She began a descent into drug abuse which included sex work, suicide watches, becoming HIV+ and a horrific rape incident. The police photos of the blood smeared car where the attack occurred are the most chilling image of the film.

Sparks comes off as a tough cookie and ex-Vietnam Vet from a Missouri family with a long history of military service. She tells us about her profound personal losses from transition, but never seems to fully open up or show much vulnerability and clearly has a thick skin. Interesting as her story was, I didn't think it fit in especially well with the rest of the film and should have either been a separate, more thoroughly explored film unto itself or omitted. As so often happens in distributing films, "high profile" subjects are encouraged at the expense of often more interesting stories of marginalized people.

Alexandra: born into the life

All about my father
More compelling were the interviews with Latina sex worker Alexandra. Her life story begins with her single mom kicking her out of the house because she, at 13, she was already too femme to be tolerated. She is shipped off to San Francisco where a woman takes care of her but also pimps her out. She then reconnected with her birth father only to find out [he] too is also a trans woman who does sex work and, after a few years of bonding with one another, dies from AIDs. Twelve years on she still achingly longs for the too brief connection they had. She shares her worst nightmare story doing sex work... and it's pretty horrific. I found myself wanting the film to focus more on her.

Center stage, take a bow, exit stage left
Much less explored is an interview with Amelia, an HIV+ sex worker who shares some of her hard-scrabble existence with us, only to disappear from the film. The film also has brief interviews with Nadia (AKA Kitty Kastro, a well-known local LGBT media personality who died in a traffic accident in 2006). Again, I wish Davis had either committed to their powerful stories or omitted them. Instead, we are treated to rather irrelevant scenes like the ones at Diva's... the region's premiere tranny-chaser nightclub in SF's Tenderloin neighborhood. Why?

Married twins(?) Bridgette (l) and Tiffany (r)

Preschool and shag haircuts
The film has a more suburban (yet still interesting) offshoot with trans woman Tiffany, the film's producer (who also directs a vitally important outreach program for trans people in the East Bay), her long time cis-woman partner, Bridgette, and their kids. Possibly a film in and of itself but didn't altogether link with the stories of sex workers (even though Tiffany does a lot of social service work with that population). Their 20-year relationship and marriage was an interesting juxtaposition against the sex worker interviewees who seemed largely isolated and lonely but, perhaps, not explored enough. Also included is former 1980s hair-band rocker Kari (including a hilarious pre-transition glam metal video of her with her band). Other than showing a quickie glimpse of the broad spectrum of trans women, these sequences had limited integration with other parts of the film and seemed too surface.

Hair band Kari before (l) and after (r)

Less is more?
Trans Francisco is well worth seeing for its many absorbing stories, vivid interviewees and complex threads. While the patchwork approach has its own impact it comes at a price. I kept wishing the film keyed in on a more succinct single focus, be it: sex work, relationships, trans women in the Tenderloin or the price 'success stories' have paid to get there. Pick one and stay with it. A film solely about Miss Major or sex worker Alexandra might have made for a more compelling film by itself (but granted, sadly perhaps not as marketable). As when you combine one or two colors together, you might get a vivid new color, but add 7-8 colors and you're left with a muddied result.

Trans Francisco shows San Francisco not as a trans mecca with funny costumes, roller disco musical numbers and rainbow balloons, but as a gritty urban landscape where only the tough survive. Long after the establishing shots of touristy postcard views of Cable Cars, Ghirardelli Square and the Golden Gate Bridge fade from memory, the tough spirits of the women interviewed remain.