28 December 2009

Screaming Queens

An article on Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman's film Screaming Queens, originally published in Vertigo magazine in 2008.

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Revolutionary movements prize history above all else. Their narratives are constructed carefully: the most powerful interests determine key battles and individuals, intending to maintain their prominence by emphasising their radical commitment from the outset into – implicitly – the future.

Such movements rely upon a strong collective identity, defined both through struggle against the prevailing order and through dialogue between internal factions. Often, those factions, unified through shared oppression, come together for an epochal moment: once the dominant power is undermined, their expedient unity falters and the struggles become internal – including the struggle over history.

For the (often awkward) Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender alliance, the definitive battle has always been Stonewall. Gay male activists – often the alliance’s strongest voice – have always prized New York’s Stonewall Inn riots in 1969, when gays, lesbians and transgender people rose against police brutality, as the moment when organised LGBT liberation politics began.

The relationship between transgender activists and lesbian and gay groups has often been fractious, both because transsexuality has threatened certain lesbian feminists resenting transsexual intruders upon ‘women-only’ spaces, but also because trans activists have very different interests. Bracketed by the dominant order as a sexual minority, due in part to the complex role of drag within gay club culture, transgender theorists have stressed that gender identity is unconnected to any specific sexual orientation. This emphasis has not always pleased campaigners for non-heterosexual relationship rights, who have often stated that same-sex desire is unrelated to gender incongruity.

Whilst the alliance has empowered the community, it has been crucial for transgender activists to construct their own history – one that overlaps with, and informs, a wider LGBT discourse but focused on ‘transgender’ people. This project flowered in the 1990s after Leslie Feinberg politicised the word, creating a collective ‘transgender’ identity, stretching from cross-dressers to transsexuals. With a definitive umbrella term, historians could write an inclusive narrative encompassing sexological research into transvestism, the possibilities of sex change technology and trans-specific resistance to oppression.

Feinberg credited ‘militant young gay transvestites’ with leading the Stonewall fight. In 1995, historian Susan Stryker asked why the ‘Lesbian and Gay History’ panel at a Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies conference included no transgender speakers. One reply – that transsexuals were psychopaths who mutilated their bodies to conform to reactionary gender stereotypes and discredited the gay/lesbian movement – came from Jim Fouratt, Gay Liberation Front co-founder and Stonewall veteran. Stryker asserted: “I’m transsexual, and I’m not sick. And I’m not going to listen to you say that about me, or people like me, any more.”

Stryker won the exchange, suggesting new interpretations of gender diversity to LGBT activists. Ten years later, Stryker presented her film Screaming Queens, co-directed with Victor Silverman, documenting the little-known transgender riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, three years before Stonewall. Fouratt confronted her, decrying an Orwellian transgender hegemony erasing his experiences through historical revisionism. The audience shouted Fouratt down, and he stormed out.

The Stonewall riots were pansexual, a consequence of the authorities’ ghettoising sexual and gender minorities together – and targeting trans people as the most visible members of the LGBT community. Screaming Queens’ opening emphasises the conservative inability to distinguish – contemporary footage of San Francisco’s impoverished Tenderloin district with ominous commentary about the city’s 90,000-strong ‘gay’ community, warning that ‘only at night do they show their true colours’ as several trans women walk the streets.

Narrating the film, Stryker posits the Compton’s Cafeteria riot not just as a precursor to Stonewall, but also as the transgender community’s “debut on the stage of American political history”. It was trans people, particularly ethnic minorities, ghettoised in Tenderloin: when frequent raids threatened Compton’s sanctuary, a queen threw coffee over a policeman’s face, and suddenly there was an uprising.

Hustlers kicked policemen, queens fought with their heels and handbags, a police car was destroyed and, as transsexual activist and former prostitute Amanda St. Jaymes says, people didn’t care about going to jail – it needed to happen and besides, they were constantly arrested anyway.

The riot was a crucial moment within a long history of increased trans visibility and consequent oppression and counter-oppression. Stryker and Silverman document the shifting balance between police brutality and the confidence that Harry Benjamin’s exploration of ‘transsexualism’ gave transgender San Francisco, evoking a sense that revolution was inevitable by interviewing Tenderloin veterans from inside and outside the trans community, finding compassion from some unlikely quarters.

Sergeant Elliott Blackstone
received a standing ovation at Screaming Queens’ premiere. Asked why, as a straight man, he had fought so hard for LGBT rights after 1966, organising a church collection for hormones for transgendered people, he replied: “Because my religion teaches me to love everybody.” Blackstone and the Reverend Ed Hansen, from the progressive Glide Memorial Methodist Church, offer sympathetic counterpoints to the interviews with Sixties Tenderloin’s trans people (all Male-To-Female – the Female-To-Male community has its own history).

Even within Tenderloin’s community, there were divides: glamorous, white queens such as Aleshia Brevard, who worked as a Playboy bunny, found some economic and expressive freedom in entertaining, whilst the less fortunate feared losing their insecure jobs, police harassment and a serial killer that targeted trans street workers.

The queens lacked the freedom to leave Tenderloin – not just because they were frequently arrested for “female impersonation” and interned if they refused to let the police shave their hair. Tenderloin was excluded from San Francisco’s anti-poverty programmes, and its trans community denied a political voice – the hope offered by Benjamin’s willingness to “give hormones to everybody” and transsexual Christine Jorgensen’s high celebrity simply fuelled their resentment.

Stryker and Silverman weave in archive footage of a transsexual on television, demanding to be treated as “a normal, respectable woman”, voicing the community’s determination to win the right to express their inner gender with dignity. As Blackstone put it, the “unnecessary violence” used by the police at Compton’s finally turned the resentment into rioting, which distilled into one of the Vietnam War era’s most neglected civil rights movements.

“I knew very little about sexuality except that I enjoyed sex”, confides Blackstone, who sadly died in October 2006. “I’d never heard about transsexuals before.” Blackstone and Hansen helped start a welfare programme for Tenderloin’s trans people through San Francisco’s Center for Special Problems. Crucially, transsexuals were issued with new ID cards appropriate to their gender – the first step in their battle for the recognition of reassignment that is still far from being won, forty years on.

“I’m so proud of those women who fought at Compton’s”, says Stryker. “Transgender people need to change a world that still denies us many of our basic human rights.” A clearly defined history, with inspirational individuals standing against oppression, will provide a solid foundation for a trans – and LGBT – movement that will continue the global fight against subjugation. It is a history that can never again be written without Compton’s Screaming Queens.

27 December 2009

British silent cinema

An unpublished review of Christine Gledhill's book 'Reframing British Cinema 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion', written in 2004.

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British silent film, since the introduction of sound, has endured a dismal reputation. Kevin Brownlow wrote that British silents never advanced beyond the sense of technological astonishment visible in early experiments by GA Smith, Williamson’s Kinematograph Company and RW Paul. The period’s greatest director, Alfred Hitchcock, did not peak until his move to Hollywood, despite the success of The Lodger (1926); even Wyndham Lewis, the most iconoclastic Modernist, declined to experiment with film, and the UK avant-garde did not involve themselves with cinema like Brecht, Dalí, or Mayakovsky. The failure of British directors to match DW Griffith’s narrative skill, Murnau’s technical mastery or Eisenstein’s level of formal experimentation has resulted in its critical mauling, as it failed to contribute to the process of determining cinematic form as did American, French, German and Russian films of the period.

Rachael Low’s seminal History of the British Film, with its comprehensive volume on the 1920s, remains the authoritative work on the subject. Gledhill, keen to revise the perception of British silents, builds on Low, looking at how various cultural, social, political and aesthetic debates fed into an attempt to create a specifically British cinematic idiom. A sense of national identity, fuelled by nationalistic demands for a film culture distinct from popular Hollywood movies, was established through various discourses of related binary oppositions, influenced by the massive upheavals of the First World War, which necessitated a rethink of long-held ‘British ideals’. These dialectics eschewed formalist concerns, focusing almost entirely on content, and on acting rather than construction.

Gledhill emphasises debates about film acting, using a wide number of contemporary sources (interviews, newspaper and journal reviews) to pinpoint key discourses in characterising British film: the opposition of ‘British’ restraint and ‘American’ passion dominates, besides competition between naturalism and stylisation, and the casting choice between established stars and ‘non-actors’ playing ‘types’. However, Gledhill avoids centralising her argument around acting debates, and carefully assesses how oral traditions, Britain’s impressive literary heritage, popular fiction and the related art of photography influenced the thematic, intellectual and visual character of the films she studies.

Modernist conceptions of cultural hierarchies, defining avant-garde production as ‘high art’ distinct from popular culture, are crucial to Gledhill’s understanding of the development of British film. The theatrical and literary heritage of the Victorian and Edwardian periods was important: much of British narrative film owed something to dramatic works and ideas by playwrights such as Noël Coward, Dion Boucicault and Stanley Houghton; indeed, the high number of adaptations was criticised in 1920s film journals. This heritage, Gledhill argues, met with music halls, melodrama and traditional images and to form a predominantly ‘middlebrow’ cinematic culture, consciously repudiating Hollywood populism and the Modernist experiments in Europe.

Another binary opposition, crucial to inter-war political debate, fed into the process of establishing a narrative tradition: the conflict of (conservative, liberal or parliamentary socialist) reformism and revolutionary politics. In Britain, Gledhill states, revolutionary politics gained very little ground – only the General Strike, which had little impact on contemporary directors, threatened parliamentary democracy. Gledhill identifies Houghton’s Hindle Wakes, expertly filmed by Maurice Elvey (1927) as exemplary of the class-conciliatory politics, aware of the necessity of post-war social changes, which infused British film; its heroine, Fanny Hawthorne, typified protagonists who ‘set about readjusting rather than overthrowing the boundaries of previous generations’, and the way in which larger social issues were often played out in small, familial scenarios.

An astonishing number of films are assessed by Gledhill, with the deliberate exception of Hitchcock's The Lodger and The Ring, extensively detailed elsewhere, and by no means contradictory to her argument. Key works by Elvey, George Pearson, Asquith, Graham Cutts and others are subjected to impressive technical analysis, with interpretation of content informed by Lacanian-psychoanalytic criticism, Bakhtinian theories and a perceptive understanding of inter-war society and politics. Gledhill does not so much suggest, then, that British silent film was the equal of its American and European counterparts (despite unearthing several forgotten classics), but more that the aesthetic and content debates were so complex that they could not have been resolved by 1928, and that the flowering of the 1940s owed much to foundations laid in the silent era.

B.S. Johnson (1933-1973)

A review of Jonathan Coe's biography of B. S. Johnson, 'Like a Fiery Elephant', published in RARE BOOK REVIEW in September 2004.

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Like a Fiery Elephant is, essentially, a tragedy, telling the story of one of twentieth-century Britain’s most paradoxical literary figures. B.S. Johnson killed himself in 1973, aged 40, after an extraordinarily productive decade in which he produced some of post-war Britain’s most idiosyncratic novels, as well as several films, poetry, radio and stage plays, and numerous football reports for The Observer.

Johnson was the most prominent in an avant-garde scene that included Eva Figes, Ann Quin and Anthony Burgess, among those Johnson praised for ‘writing as though it mattered’. However, despite claiming to continue the formal revolution inaugurated by his heroes, Joyce and Beckett – The Unfortunates, for example, consisted of twenty-seven unbound chapters to be read in any order, representing life’s ‘randomness’– Johnson was aesthetically conservative, a dogmatist who refused to change, or even evolve, his ideas.

This was his fundamental flaw. Johnson was always obsessed with portraying what he saw as ‘truth’: Derrida and Barthes initiated the move away from this authorial autonomy just as Johnson’s career began. Contemporaneously, the English literary scene came to be dominated by Kingsley Amis and company, ‘realistic’ writers Johnson despised for refusing to take up the baton of formal innovation.

Always self-aggrandising, Johnson infused his novels with his personal experiences and kept meticulous records of his activities, making him a biographer’s gift. Indeed, Jonathan Coe – himself a novelist concerned with form – reflects that ‘Johnson always had his eye on posterity, and I reckon he was certain that someone like me would … write this book one day.’

Coe’s portrait of Johnson is rich, full of extracts from diaries and novels, illustrating Johnson’s passions and failings. Coe provides a full transcript of a conversation between Johnson and several associates: the increasing absurdity of Johnson’s position on language and truth, and his refusal to shift, exemplifies Johnson’s desperate adherence to discredited creative ideas. Indeed, Johnson’s working-class world been eroded by post-modernist counter-culture, undermining Johnson’s belief that his novels were not fiction, but reality.

Nonetheless, Coe is sympathetic towards Johnson, intelligently reassessing his legacy – Albert Angelo, Trawl and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry are placed among the most accomplished works in a fertile scene that produced Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, Quin’s Berg and Rayner Heppenstall’s Connecting Door. Coe engages with the spirit of Johnson’s work with considerable insight and humour. Analysing a day on which Johnson spent six hours writing Trawl, Coe highlights the impossibility of writing about Johnson’s creative process, even though that process is the reason for writing this biography, regretting that ‘It shows the whole process I am engaged upon for the potentially dishonest enterprise it is (Dishonest, Bryan, in a way that novels never are!)’.

Like a Fiery Elephant is ceaselessly uplifting, despite dealing with such a tormented, dislocated individual. Written with immense verve, Johnson shines in Coe’s hands: along with the recent film of Christie Malry, Coe’s enigmatic work has been crucial to a revival of Johnson within critical circles. And a neglected novelist can ask no more from his biographer than that.

XXY (Lucia Puenzo)

A review of Lucia Puenzo's film XXY, originally published in FILM AND FESTIVALS magazine in 2008.

Lucía Puenzo
’s debut feature asks the bold question: what does it mean to have to choose your gender?

Placing Alex (Inés Efron), an intersexed 15-year-old at its centre, XXY makes a familiar theme – the tribulations of puberty – disturbingly unfamiliar, as the sexual confusion and self-loathing that characterise so many teenage lives are intensified by Alex’s struggle with her hermaphrodite body.

The daughter of one of Argentina’s most celebrated directors, Puenzo explores Alex’s burgeoning sexuality in a sober, restrained manner. Her family move from Buenos Aires to coastal Uruguay after she assaults her best friend, but the relocations heightens Alex’s isolation, and her repressed emotions gradually explode in a slow-burning style that recalls Lucrecia Mártel’s The Holy Girl (2004).

Alex’s body inspires fascination and disgust simultaneously: she transmits her inner conflict through an awkward sexual encounter with the son of the surgeon treating her, but Alex soon finds the emotional conflict her condition awakens in others can be extremely traumatic.

Puenzo’s film refuses to trivialise the central issue or titillate by exploiting the body that Alex struggles so hard against. Instead, it provides a stark yet sensitive insight into the difficulties of pubescent self-definition, but above all into Alex’s under-explored physical condition.

Thomas Beatie: the "pregnant man"

An article on female-to-male (FtM) transman Thomas Beatie, whose pregnancy in 2008 became worldwide news. Originally published in 3SIXTY in 2008.

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When female-to-male (FtM) transsexual man Thomas Beatie announced that he was pregnant, did he anticipate the ensuing furore? The 34-year-old’s conception, described as a “miracle” by Oprah Winfrey, was premiered in The Advocate, a Los Angeles-based LGBT publication: the story spread like wildfire, with newspapers worldwide reproducing The Advocate’s quotes verbatim.

“How does it feel to be a pregnant man? Incredible,” ran the ubiquitous quote. “Despite the fact that my belly is growing with a new life inside me, I am stable and confident being the man that I am.”

The press revelled in the details that Beatie was born Tracy LaGondino, and before gender reassignment surgery was a finalist in the Miss Hawaii Teen USA pageant. So many questions were raised – what did it mean that a woman wanted to become a man, and then to give birth, before assuming the role of father? And did this mean it was impossible for science to transcend biology, and did it confirm the prejudices of certain religious groups and fringe feminists, that transsexual people were self-mutilating freaks seeking to undermine nature?

Amidst the sensationalist headlines – and anxiety that the story was a hoax, given that Beatie said his confidentiality agreement ended on April Fools’ Day – further personal details were published. Beatie had his breasts removed and had taken testosterone to give himself facial hair, but had not undertaken phalloplasty to give himself male genitalia (a notoriously difficult and unreliable process, even now). He decided to stop taking hormones when his legally married wife, Nancy, proved unable to conceive, and at the second attempt had sustained his pregnancy with donated sperm. Despite eight years of treatment, Beatie became pregnant just four months after ceasing hormone replacement therapy.

So he had conceived before full surgery, using his uterus and womb. This, of course, raised questions about whether he could be called a man (and, by implication, when transsexual people become their desired sex – if, in the beholder’s eyes, they ever do, or can). Jeff Jacoby, writing in The Globe (13 April), was outraged: ‘Could anything be more incoherent or sad? Gender Identity Disorder is not “incredible”, no matter how politically fashionable it has become to claim otherwise. It is not just another hue in the rainbow of diversity. It is a dysfunction. It should be met with sympathy, counselling, and therapy, not with five-page spreads in People and appearances on Oprah.’

Cluelessly, Jacoby’s polemic linked “transgender activists” and “radical feminists” – an awkward alliance at best, as anyone familiar with Janice Raymond or Julie Bindel, both fierce feminist critics of transsexual people, can explain. Like The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy, he peddled the “think of the children” line – but so too did Jamison Green, author of Becoming a Visible Man and one of the few prominent FtM activists willing to discuss the case.

“I wish he didn’t turn himself over to the media,” said Green. “It makes me wonder, Down the line will all this publicity hurt them or hurt their child? Will the media ever leave them alone?”

Courting tabloid attention is a dangerous game. After the initial coverage turned sour, Thomas and Nancy went to ground, temporarily closing their business. Nancy said Thomas would recover their shortfall by writing a book. Will the child continue to attract unwanted attention, wondered Green, who also expressed concern that Beatie’s case “brings back the whole ‘freak’ label to transgender people.”

In The Village Voice in June 2000, fellow FtM writer and activist Patrick Califia discussed ‘Two Dads with a Difference – Neither of Us was Born Male.’ Perhaps this didn’t attract such attention because, without a “normal” woman present, it didn’t overturn notions of the conventional heterosexual family so spectacularly, instead being a different slant on the already unholy idea of same-sex parentage.

So the case made “normal” people nervous – the anxieties of transsexual people, of course, didn’t make the mainstream media, although both sides worried about the child, and its parents’ motives for courting such attention.

This judgement seems somewhat unfair – Beatie, at least initially, did one interview with an LGBT publication – no more, then, than Califia’s interviewees. The couple then refused to speak to the ‘straight’ media – so they reproduced the story themselves, and perhaps Beatie had little choice but to use that media to further his side. On a personal level, it seems most important that Beatie and his wife do their best to give their child a happy, comfortable home, free of further intrusion (as far as possible, anyway).

For the wider transgender community – especially those trying to “pass” – the publicity seems unhelpful, and has certainly prompted numerous jokes at our expense. It reminds us of our ‘difference’, and of how the media would like to portray (and exploit) us – but also that we remain best placed to highlight how far we have transcended imposed ideas of what ‘men’ and ‘women’ do, and are – and how far the rest of the world lags behind us.