Seattle Trans Film Festival – The Brooklyn Railroad
Translations: Seattle Trans Film Festival
May 5 to 8, 2022
The spotlight on transgender people is a magnifying glass under which the privileged among us become more privileged, while the marginalized are burned. –Angelica Ross (paraphrased)
This is a central concern addressed in Framing Agnes (2022), one of the feature films featured at the 2022 Seattle Trans Film Festival (aka TRANSlations). It speaks to a truth rarely recognized in trans spaces: the same visibility that has improved the lives of affluent white transgender people has been unnecessary or even dangerous for many of our black brothers and sisters, our Indigenous brothers and sisters, our and colored sisters. Framing Agnes explores the history of transgender sociology research by Harold Garfinkel and encourages us to ask ourselves which voices we are raising and why. Who benefits from increased visibility? Does visibility really create positive change?
These questions have never been more important. When we first reached the so-called “transgender tipping point” in 2014, the cultural zeitgeist’s sudden interest in transgender lives was touted as a gateway to transgender civil rights. Eight years later, we see that the truth is much more complicated. In the UK, powerful figures such as JK Rowling are being applauded for their transphobic hate speech. Texas parents who allow their transgender children to medically transition can now be charged with child abuse. This past year has been the deadliest for transgender people since records began—375 transgender people were murdered worldwide in 2021 only. Meanwhile, white and otherwise privileged trans people continue to dominate the conversation, citing all of these issues without acknowledging that they disproportionately affect the most marginalized among us – trans people of color, trans sex workers and trans people living in poverty.
The organizers of TRANSlations are pushing back against this trend. The film festival has taken particular care to elevate marginalized voices; for one, their website featured a “BIPOC track” that highlighted films that centered on Black, Indigenous, and trans people of color. Several of the films in this track are the strongest and most important of the festival.
caer (2021) is a feature film about two undocumented transgender women – Paloma and Rosa – who are arrested for sex work and must struggle not only with the American legal system, but also with immigration. In Spanish, “caermeans to be caught; this title is dropped near the end of the film by Rosa as she and Paloma sit in the back of a police car, again under arrest after an undercover cop finds them working at the corner of a street. “Our lives revolve around being caught,” Rosa says, which is reflected in how their arrests wrap up the film’s story. Created by TRANSgrediendo Intercultural Collective, caer Deftly blends fact and fiction: the story of these two women’s struggle is intercut with footage of the collective discussing topics such as their annual Slut Walk, the difference between decriminalizing and legalizing sex work, and the legacy violence of SESTA/FOSTA. Even fiction is not really fiction, explains the collective within the film. It was both written and performed by trans immigrant sex workers and provides a fictional account of their own lives. caer is both deeply moving and informative, and worth watching for anyone who wants to learn about and support an often overlooked part of the transgender community.
Framing Agnes, mentioned at the start of this article, first appears to be a look at historical icon Agnes Torres, a transgender woman who lied to sociologist Harold Garfinkel about her intersex in order to gain access to gender-affirming surgery. Instead, the film takes a step back from Agnes to examine the other subjects of Garfinkel’s 1958 transgender study. Their interviews were never published but remained under lock and key until released. discovered by filmmaker Chase Joynt in 2017. Framing Agnes reveals this forgotten disc through reconstructions. Joynt, playing Garfinkel, with a small cast of transgender actors, reads transcripts of the 1958 interviews; these reconstructions are interspersed with conversations between actors, filmmakers and historians. Particular attention is paid to Georgia (represented by Laid star Angelica Ross), the only black transgender woman in this white sociological world. Speaking in a standout interview, it’s Ross who calls visibility a “magnifying glass” that hurts marginalized trans people. She and others wonder if it’s possible (or even desirable) for us to reclaim “the Georgias of the past.” At the end of the day, Framing Agnes is a critical and nuanced exploration of transgender historical records.
Beyond its small handful of features, TRANSlations offered an impressive array of shorts, ranging from comedic to heartbreaking, kid-friendly to downright steamy.
One of the standout shorts at the festival was the black comedy How not to date a trans (2022), which explores the love life of Andie, a black trans woman struggling to find love. Between cis and trans worlds, Andie tells her story with an ironic humor that masks a deep and desperate loneliness. By joking about how she would “look good” lying bloodied and murdered on the floor, she deflects her fear of being the victim of a hate crime if she were to choose the wrong romantic partner. (A terrifying danger for trans people, as “gay/trans panic” is still a valid legal defense in many states – in May 2022, a Virginia jury found a man “not guilty” of murder, saying his actions were justified because his victim had not revealed his assigned gender during a sexual encounter with the killer.) Moments of vulnerability sometimes bleed through Andie’s attempts to cover her pain with humor, such as when she gets a taste of the simplicity of her romantic life. be if she was cisgender. Poignant, funny and memorable: I really cannot recommend How not to date a trans sufficient.
Other notable shorts include: brothers beforea satirical comedy about two trans “brothers” that morphs into a touching exploration of both transmasculinity and queer polyamory; Final line, a bittersweet story about a trans comedienne who suffers a hate crime and turns it into a bit on her stand-up show; and I am lionwhich represents a non-binary child going wild when they get their first period.
Although TRANSlations was largely virtual, organizers took care to make the festival feel like a community experience, with events like speed-friending, game night and a midnight movie streamed on Zoom. The in-person day provided new opportunities to meet new people. These group events, alongside the festival’s focus on BIPOC films, demonstrate TRANSlation’s commitment to building an intentional and equitable community. Visibility may be a trap that has sparked a wave of transphobic violence in recent years, but it has also encouraged an unprecedented surge of trans people coming out of the closet, especially young trans people. Recent data shows that 5% of Americans under the age of 30 identify as transgender and/or non-binary, and 44% of Americans report knowing someone who is transgender personally. It’s hard to estimate how that number compares to years past because the US Census doesn’t include trans people, but to offer a personal anecdote: I came out in 2011, a few years before we reached the transgender tipping point. At the time, my dad told me that I would always be a freak, an outsider – he said that only one in 60,000 people was transgender and that I would probably never meet another trans person. Obviously, he was wrong. I’ve seen our trans community explode in size over the past decade. Plus, every newly-exited trans person I meet can point to another trans person whose visibility gave them the strength to come out of the closet.
Ultimately, the visibility trap is that the transited is exposed to dissection for a cis audience that looks at transgender people as if we are a modern-day freak show, something monstrous that needs to be fixed. This disproportionately affects black trans women and trans sex workers (among others), as their bodies are made dangerously hypervisible. Simultaneously, their particular struggles are ignored, even by other trans people, despite the fact that trans women of color and trans sex workers have led the queer movement since before Stonewall and continue to do so today.
Visibility is a given for a film festival, and TRANSlations must face this trap head on. The festival is based on the question of who benefits from visibility into something actionable: how can we change Who benefits from visibility?
By highlighting films like caer and Framing Agnes, TRANSlations gives a political platform to some of the most vulnerable and important members of the trans community. Additionally, rather than enabling one-way, consumer viewing, TRANSlations is about building community and therefore uses viewability as a tool to bring trans people together. Transited is a chain linked by the bonds we weave with each other through recognition and care, and TRANSlations does its part to strengthen and extend this chain.