Recent controversy surrounding the use of perceived trans-phobic slurs on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Heklina’s rebranding of Trannyshack, the multi-city drag show she has been producing for the last 18 years, sparked an internal debate over the power of language. The argument quickly splintered into various threads about regulating speech, understanding the contexts in which certain words are used, and who can claim the right to use such words (the re-appropriations of queer, fag and the N-word come immediately to mind), especially when these words can be perceived as hurtful or even hateful.

Coming quickly on the (high) heels of this colorful exchange, the 38th edition of the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival (now commonly known as Frameline) starts tonight at the Castro Theater in San Francisco — and not a minute too soon. What better place to reflect on these issues? Viewing images of the multiple facets of LGBTQ (XYZ) life from around the world play out onscreen in the company of one’s peers is what has always been so empowering about the festival. Seeing how people from different cultures grapple with similar issues provides us with the opportunity to put these conversations into a much wider context.

Black is Blue
Still from Cheryl Dunye’s Black Is Blue, featured In the City of Shy Hunters program

Though they are not called out within the festival’s press materials, I counted at least 11 feature-length narratives and documentaries and two shorts programs (In the City of Shy Hunters and Transtastic!) featuring prominent trans characters — and set about watching them. One thing I found refreshing about the group is that they were definitely more engaging than most of the gay-male or lesbian-centered films I have seen in recent years, which have become increasingly formulaic. The once-revitalizing addition of queer elements has grown a little stale, revealing an all-too-familiar set of film conventions.

True to the their two-spirit, Frameline’s trans selections follow a third path. Sure, the characters struggle with complex realities, but their struggles are less about self-acceptance, and more with the way others attempt to limit and define them.

Boy Meets Girl
Boy Meets Girl

There are two narratives tied for my favorite in the bunch. The first, Boy Meets Girl, couldn’t be sweeter. As the title implies, Eric Schaeffer’s movie is really just a simple love story featuring probably the most adorable cast you will see in ANY film this year. Boy Meets Girl is anchored by trans-woman Michelle Hendley‘s charming and open-hearted performance as Ricky, a 21-year-old who works in a small-town coffee shop in Kentucky, but dreams of moving to New York and becoming a fashion designer. She spends most of her time with Robby (Michael Welch, Twilight), her best boy friend, who has remained steadfast during her transition from cute little boy to beautiful young woman. Complications ensue when Ricky and a local debutante develop a (very) close friendship, which confuses everyone but Ricky.

Open Up to Me
Open Up to Me

Just across the globe but seemingly light years away from small-town Kentucky, Finnish director Simo Halinen’s Open Up to Me follows Maarit (Leea Klemola) as she attempts to put her life back together after completing the transition from man to woman. Mistaken for a prominent psychotherapist, whose office she is supposed to be cleaning, Maarit uses her education and background in social work to counsel Sami (Peter Franzén), a handsome soccer coach who is struggling in a difficult marriage. There is some serious chemistry between Franzén and Klemola, which the film attributes to Maarit’s former identity as a pro soccer player. To say that things get complicated would be an understatement, but they never go over the top. Against Finland’s wintry landscape a simple story unfolds about people trying to make their way in a confusing world.

One recurring theme pops up: Identity is fluid, and none of the characters understand this as intimately as the trans characters do. In fact, gender is almost less stable than personality in these films, though this is perplexing to people who cling to order even after it’s been revealed to be an illusion. The world is a much harder place to handle when things are in flux — and people aren’t easily identifiable.

Side note (trust me, it’s related): I teach a film class at a local university. Delicately approaching the subject of personal pronouns, I was informed that one of my students would rather be referred to as “it,” instead of “he” or “she.” I had never heard this before, but I always struggle with the possibility of offending when it comes to the use of personal pronouns in situations like these. When I relayed this experience to a friend, she thought it sounded “dehumanizing” to call someone “it.” How limiting. I thought it sounded kind of fun; I’ve always felt more like an “it” myself. Why should the gendered forms be considered more “human,” especially to someone who identifies with neither — or both?

Drunktown's Finest
Drunktown’s Finest

This formulation is actually explored structurally in Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest. The film begins in the rough; three Native American characters do their best to navigate a scrabbly, hard-knock life in the middle of the New Mexican desert. Expectant father Sick Boy needs to stay out of trouble long enough to join the army, where he hopes to secure a regular paycheck to support his family. Nizhoni is back visiting her white adoptive parents for the summer, racking up community service hours to secure a college scholarship, and using the opportunity to seek out her birth family. Felixia is trying out for a slot in a “Women of the Navajo” calendar, while also trolling “Tranny” sex sites for a hook up. As Felixia’s grandfather, the local medicine man, explains, Felixia is “nadleeh” (transgender) and meant to play an important role for the tribe. Sick Boy and Nizhoni are struggling to find their places within the family fold, while Felixia is preparing to strike out on her own and evolve into something new. Though no one ends up happy exactly, each character finds strength by reconnecting with Native American traditions, which provide a clearer perspective on the way forward.

Kumu Hina
Kumu Hina

Speaking of cutlural heritage, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson’s Kumu Hina tells the powerful story of Hinaleimoana Wong Kalu, who is both a “mahu” (transgender) and a “kumu” (respected teacher). The documentary reveals Kalu’s struggle to protect the bones of her ancestors as a government representative inspecting construction sites, teach hula to a group of lackluster teenage boys and navigate a new marriage to a much younger man. Kalu experiences confusion around how to gracefully carry out these various roles, but never wavers in her understanding of the special place she holds within traditional Hawaiian society.

Boys Don't Cry
Boys Don’t Cry

There are a couple other documentaries of note. Elisa Amoruso’s Off Road is a portrait of mechanic and off-road racing champ Pino who became Beatrice and, through an aggressive form of femininity, forced his community to adjust. Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s The Dog tells how in 1972, John Wojtowicz held up a Brooklyn bank and became an unlikely gay rights pioneer — and the subject of the Oscar-winning film Dog Day Afternoon.

There is also a 15-year anniversary screening of Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, which features Hillary Swank’s Academy Award-winning performance as Brandon Teena, a trans boy who was brutally murdered shortly before his 21st birthday. Peirce is also featured on a panel of women filmmakers called Change Makers (Thursday, June 26, 3:30pm, Roxie).

You and the Night
You and the Night

Finally, Yann Ganzalez’s debut feature You and the Night is probably the sexiest movie I previewed for the festival. Surprisingly, for a film about a group of people convening for an orgy, there isn’t much sex. The orgy is sort of “Godot” in this BDSM version of Last Year at Marienbad or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, except that it does finally arrive (sort of). You and the Night is full of old school European characters that express their world-weariness with hilarious existential pronouncements. They are tired of living and seek escape through sex. Around midnight The Slut, The Stud, The Teen and The Star begin arriving at the sleek, brutal-modernist apartment where Ali and Matthias live in a love triangle with Udo, their transvestite maid. As the night wears on, each character passionately recounts the laugh-out-loud story of what brought them to the apartment and into the company of this group of outcasts. Nobody does privileged angst like the French! The movie never goes for laughs, it just gets them by sending up Surrealist cinema so effectively that it becomes a classic of the genre itself.

What’s great about this collection of films is how the struggle, which we have seen repeatedly throughout the short history of LGBTQ cinema, isn’t about the main character coming to terms with his or her or its difference, but rather how the expression of and confidence in that difference ripples through whole communities. The trans characters in these films play a much more interesting role than their straight and gay counterparts because they pose such deep questions about subjects (like gender) that most people take for granted.

On a Trans-mission at Frameline 38 13 August,2015Mark Taylor


Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor founded KQED Arts in 2005 and served as Senior Interactive Producer for Arts and Culture through 2014. Taylor was the online arts editor of KQED’s daily arts blog for nine years and created the station’s first web-original podcasts, Gallery Crawl and The Writers’ Block.

Taylor is an experimental filmmaker and visual artist whose work has been collected by the Library of Congress, Stanford University and the New York Museum of Modern Art, among many others. He teaches Media Studies at the University of San Francisco and is exploring the connection between film and food.  Visit Mark Taylor’s website at

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