Dec 11

“The Danish Girl”: The First Transgender Surgery

Tom Hooper‘s new film The Danish Girl is based on David Ebershoff‘s 2000 novel about the lives of artist Gerda Wegener and her transgender artist spouse Einar, who became Lili Elbe in the 1920’s and 30’s. Although a fictionalized account, the book was based on Wegener’s actual diaries.

Not all would agree, but Rex Reed, New York Observer, calls Eddie Redmayne‘s role as Lili “the performance of the year” and further states, “Lucinda Coxon’s beautifully collated screenplay…tackles a complex subject with dignity and respect, leaving nothing out. In the process, you will learn more about gender crisis than you ever thought possible.”

Reed adds that The Danish Girl is “about the first known case of transgender surgery recorded in medical history.” More about the plot:

It’s 1926 in Copenhagen and Einar is a painter of landscapes on the verge of success, and the passionate and actively heterosexual husband of a beautiful fellow artist named Gerda (Alicia Vikander), who specializes in portraits. Then everything is altered dramatically the first time he poses as a favor for Gerda while she’s waiting for her model to arrive. Reluctantly, he dons silk stockings and matching pumps, and his embarrassment slowly turns to a confusing confrontation with feelings he’s repressed since childhood. The unexpected ecstasy in Mr. Redmayne’s face of the way the fabric feels to his touch is a clue to things to come.
You experience firsthand the challenges transgendered people endured nearly a century ago and still experience today—brutal physical examinations, homophobic violence, specialists who prescribe primitive medical experiments like penis radiation and drill holes into the brain to cure what they erroneously diagnose as schizophrenia. Einar loves Gerda, but the only way he feels fulfilled is to live with her as Lili…

The Trailer

Portrayal of Trans Issues

Jase Peeples, The Advocate:

Redmayne spent months preparing for his role by doing what he believes is essential for every ally: listening to trans people share their experiences. He credits the many people who generously shared stories with informing the choices he made bringing Elbe to life. ‘One woman talked about when she was transitioning, this period that she called hyper-feminization. A time when you start investigating using makeup, but you use too much or the clothes you choose — you’re going to extremes. She described it as sort of being like a teenage girl’s adolescence when you’re trying things, you’re finding things, and discovering things. That was important to me to bring to my performance.’

Dana Stevens, Slate: “In the early days of Einar’s transformation, Redmayne conveys the degree to which gender is, for all of us, a skill acquired through observation and imitation. Observing a pretty girl through the glass at a Paris peep show, Einar longs not to possess her but to be her, and the quiet moment that passes between them when she sees him copying her gestures makes for one of the movie’s best scenes.”

Peter Debruge, Variety: “At one point, reunited with boyhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), he admits that he has considered suicide, but held back because he understood he would be killing Lili at the same time — a sentiment that all too many trans people share and one of the many reasons such a well-rounded portrayal is long overdue.”

Selected Reviews

Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “The Danish Girl looks like a dream and is about as elusive as one too. What is there can suffice, educate and provoke interest and conversation, but ultimately, it’s hard not to want more.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “The movie…touches rather too lightly on its portrait of a marriage in which one partner is vanishing before the other’s eyes.”

David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle: “Hooper’s strategy of keeping it safe is bound to bring in folks who might otherwise avoid such material. For the rest of us, we must settle for a film that is solid, but never quite soars.”

Alonso Duralde, The Wrap: “For all its period setting and opulence, ‘The Danish Girl’ is less removed from our own era than you might think; the physical violence and medical ignorance that Lili faces over the course of her evolution remain in place today. And while this film should by no means be the last word on an under-explored subject in mainstream cinema, it makes an interesting guidepost toward bolder stories in the future.”

Dana Stevens, Slate, reflecting on the existing controversy over actor selection: “If we can just get some of those groundbreaking roles—and maybe even those shiny gold statues—into the hands of lesbian, gay, and transgender actors, the battle against shame will be that much closer to being won.”

Nov 19

Leslie Feinberg, 1949-2014: Truly Brave Transgender Pioneer

Yesterday as I was going through my daily bookmarked sites I was shocked and saddened to see this news from the Advocate: “Leslie Feinberg, who identified as an anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist, died on November 15. She succumbed to complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections, including Lyme disease, babeisiosis, and protomyxzoa rheumatica, after decades of illness.”

(Although Feinberg sometimes used non-traditional pronoun choices, in using “she” the magazine was following the lead of her wife Minnie Bruce Pratt, who submitted them a writeup regarding Feinberg.)

Feinberg had been an important fixture at LGBT writers conferences I attended in the 1980’s. Alongside fellow activist Kate Bornstein, at that time she was one of the most outspoken and visible transgender-identified persons the community had ever seen.

“We have a right to live openly and proudly…(W)hen our lives are suppressed, everyone is denied an understanding of the rich diversity of sex and gender expression and experience that exist in human society,” she’d later said in her nonfiction book Transgender Warriors (1996).

Like many others in the world, I also learned so much from her earlier semi-autobiographical novel, the award-winning Stone Butch Blues. 

As expressed by Mary Emily O’Hara, Vice, “When the novel Stone Butch Blues was first published in 1993, it quickly became one of the only depictions of masculine lesbian life to ever cross over into mainstream popularity, finding its way onto bookshelves and college syllabi everywhere.”

One of the most quoted lines from the book: “Everybody’s scared, but if you don’t let your fears stop you, that’s bravery!” That was Leslie Feinberg. A truly brave pioneer.

Just before her death Feinberg had actually been actively working on a 20th anniversary edition of Stone Butch Blues; now the project will be completed by some friends. Watch for it and other things of interest on the site Lesliefeinberg.net. In the meantime you can find her books on Amazon and elsewhere.

Jul 02

“Gender Failure”: A Collaborative Book By Binary Misfits

Being a girl was something that never really happened for me. Rae Spoon of Gender Failure

I am a rare species, not a stereotype. Ivan E. Coyote of Gender Failure

The above quotes are by the authors of Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote. “In their first collaborative book, Ivan and Rae explore and expose their failed attempts at fitting into the gender binary, and how ultimately our expectations and assumptions around traditional gender roles fail us all,” states the book’s description.

Before the book was a live show they created and performed in this country and Europe. Below, courtesy of the British Film Institute, is a trailer for their London performance in 2013. The art projected on a screen behind the duo is by Clyde Petersen.

Carla Gillis, Quill and Quire, about the authors expanding their material into a book: “Gender Failure gave Coyote and Spoon more space to delve into their individual journeys from confused female-assigned youth to productive, creative adults who refer to themselves using the gender-neutral ‘they’ pronoun.”

Spoon and Coyote alternate chapters to tell their stories, which are presented in chronological order. Spoon’s tidy, humorous prose focuses on the difficulties of dating when one’s identity is in flux: having a boyfriend as a woman; coming out as gay; dating women; coming out as a man; dating women as a man; dating men as a man; and coming out as trans. (Spoon is now gender-retired.) One anecdote recounts Spoon’s somewhat hostile first encounter with the idea of someone wanting to be called ‘they.’

Erin Flegg, Daily Xtra, offers another example from Gender Failure:

In one story, ‘YouTube Gender,’ Spoon learns about YouTube while living in Germany and posts an acoustic version of a new song. Viewers’ posted comments range from ‘boy or girl? :)’ to ‘nice voice but what’s up with your hair?’ to ‘HOLY SHIT DUDE YOU’RE A CHICK!!!!’ and ‘WHAT GENDER ARE YOU?!?!?!?!’

Sassafras Lowrey, Lambda Literary, further describes the book’s content: “The essays, stories, and lyrics included in this collection explore the often-winding road to self-realization, the process of finding oneself again and again through shifting identities, and decisions around physical transition. Ivan and Rae are both exquisite storytellers and bring the page not only the struggle and danger that come with living authentically while simultaneously having to exist within a binary gender world, but also the humor,and joy that those outsider experiences create.”

SELECTED REVIEWS

Beatroute: “If you’ve ever felt at odds with your gender identity, have someone in your life who has struggled with their sex, or you are just curious about the politics and ideas behind gender, Gender Failure is a can’t-miss read. Packed with touching pathos and thought-provoking food for thought, this book could very well give you a whole new perspective on traditional gender roles.”

Vivek Shraya, creator of the What I LOVE about being QUEER project: “Rae and Ivan create intimacy through their charming, insightful, and sometimes painful storytelling, and I even found myself wanting to sing the haunting handwritten lyrics. Most compelling are the surprising moments of hope that help illustrate how defying gender is not a failure at all—but rather something to celebrate.”

Kate Bornstein, author of A Queer and Pleasant Danger: “Ivan and Rae have written a magical, down-to-earth, painfully honest step beyond any predetermined transgender narrative that I know of. At times hilarious, at times heartbreaking, their storytelling is top-notch. This book is unputdownable.”

Michelle Tea, author: “Brutally honest, tenderly funny and totally real…”

NOW Magazine: “Sometimes heartbreaking, sometime hilarious, these outlaws’ tales make a convincing argument that gender expectations fail us all.”

Jun 02

Transgender Issues in the News

A selection of several recent newsworthy items regarding transgender issues:

I. A Child’s Transition

The following Huffington Post headline recently caught my eye—“WATCH: Incredible Story Of Transgender Son Will Have You Ugly Crying…And Then Cheering.” Obediently, I watched. And I highly recommend you do too.

Part of the introduction to this family’s well-told and moving story:

Two of the greatest things a parent can give a child in this life are unconditional love and acceptance, and the Whittingtons have done just that. Jeff and Hillary Whittington found out they were expecting their first child, which they were told was a girl, in 2007 and soon welcomed little baby Ryland. As Ryland grew up, they noticed their child was not just a ‘tomboy’ or going through ‘a phase.’ Ryland eventually began show signs of shame. One day, Ryland said: ‘When the family dies, I will cut my hair so I can be a boy’ and asked, ‘Why did God make me this way?’ The Whittingtons refused to let their child become another statistic. So they let Ryland be his true self.

Watch it at this link.

II. Time Magazine’s First Transgender Cover Story

Transgender actor and activist Laverne Cox plays Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black, the popular Netflix series.

Her recent failure to make Time‘s annual list of “100 most influential people” had sparked significant social media protests. Now Time has seemingly responded, and perhaps atoned, via the above cover article “The Transgender Tipping Point.”

Some excerpts from the article’s interview with Cox:

Is there a moment or time you remember first feeling like you might be transgender? I tell this story about third grade. My third grade teacher called my mom and said ‘Your son is going to end up in New Orleans wearing a dress.’ Up until that point I just thought that I was a girl and that there was no difference between girls and boys. I think in my imagination I thought that I would hit puberty and I would start turning into a girl.

How did your thinking change after that moment in third grade? Going to a therapist and the fear of God being placed in me about ending up in New Orleans wearing a dress, that was a profoundly shaming moment for me. I associated it with being some sort of degenerate, with not being successful. My mother was a teacher. She was grooming my brother and me to be successful, accomplished people. I didn’t associate being trans, or wearing a dress, with that, or wanting to be a girl with being successful. So it’s something I just started to push down. I wanted to be famous, I wanted to perform. Those things I really, really wanted more than anything else.

The people out there in America who have no idea what being transgender means, what do they need to understand? There’s not just one trans story. There’s not just one trans experience. And I think what they need to understand is that not everybody who is born feels that their gender identity is in alignment with what they’re assigned at birth, based on their genitalia. If someone needs to express their gender in a way that is different, that is okay, and they should not be denied healthcare. They should not be bullied. They don’t deserve to be victims of violence. … That’s what people need to understand, that it’s okay and that if you are uncomfortable with it, then you need to look at yourself.

III.  Reversing the Questions Frequently Asked of Trans-Identified Folks

Author and transgender activist Janet Mock, author of Redefining Realness (see previous post), works with Alicia Menendez to illustrate what it’s like to be asked certain questions about her identity:

Jul 29

“Laurence Anyways”: Film About Male-to-Female Transition

Laurence Anyways, the new Canadian film written and directed by Xavier Dolan, as described on Rotten Tomatoes“Laurence, a French teacher and soon-to-be-published author, enjoys an intense and mutually loving relationship with his fiancée, Frédérique. But on the day after his 35th birthday, Laurence confesses to Fred that he longs to become a woman, asking her to support his transformation.” The leads are played by Melvil Poupaud (Laurence) and Suzanne Clément (Fred).

Time period?The 1980’s to 90’s. “Our generation can take this; we’re ready for it,” Laurence’s fiancée remarks to her sister, who doesn’t seem so sure.

The Laurence Anyways trailer for U.S. audiences:

What About the Almost-Three-Hour Length?

Is it a problem? Yes, for many—and it comes up a lot in the reviews. An example from Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times: “Clocking in at just under three hours, ‘Laurence Anyways’ is longer than it needs to be, potentially taxing the patience of those who might otherwise be receptive to its uniqueness and depth.”

Calum MarshVillage Voice: “…The film expresses, with much style and sophistication (if, at nearly three hours, perhaps an overabundance of both), the personal tragedy of love torn apart, of watching helplessly as your life crashes hard into another’s but fails to stick.”

But the declaration of Noah Tsika, The Huffington Post, is that sometimes longer is good, or at least okay: “The film’s running time is entirely necessary. You don’t feel it…”

It’s About Love

Dolan tells Tyler Coates in an interview for Flavorwire, “I’ve never thought of it as a story about a trans person. The story does not revolve around LGBT issues or the hardships of sexual transition — it’s always been a love story from the very beginning.”

Tomas Hachard, NPR: “This film is as much a portrait of a loving if dysfunctional couple as it is an examination of identity.”

Laurence’s Admission Regarding Gender Identity

When Laurence announces, early in the movie, her need to transition, Fred says to her (according to Olivia Collette at rogerebert.com): “Everything I love about you is what you hate about yourself.” Laurence asks, “That’s everything you love about me?”

Laurence’s fiancée makes it clear, though, that she does want to make things work. “If you want to take the next step, I’m your man,” Frédérique tells Laurence.

Other Responses as Laurence Transitions

Jeanette Catsoulis, New York Times: “As Laurence begins to fade, Frédérique swells to fill a screen that can barely contain her pain.”

David Lewis, San Francisco Chronicle: “Laurence’s compelling interactions with his icy mother (Nathalie Baye, wonderful) pack a wallop without resorting to theatrics. Laurence’s first day in class dressed as a woman is an unforgettable exercise in silence.”

Noah Tsika, The Huffington Post, elaborates on Frédérique’s family dynamics:

Throughout the film, Fred must contend with two terrifyingly contemptuous familial forces: her imperious mother, Andrée (Sophia Faucher), and her more disturbingly dismissive sister, Stéfie (played by Dolan stalwart Monia Chokri), whose self-consciously ‘hip,’ semi-punk style is little more than a half-assed affectation, as she demonstrates when expressing disgust over LGBT concerns. Stéfie may support abortion rights, drug abuse, and casual sex, and in so doing seem ‘progressive,’ but she appears to accept the historically specific, pseudoscientific party line on transgenderism: that it’s a ‘mental illness.’

Stephen Dalton, Hollywood Reporter: “…a sumptuously orchestrated love story about a transsexual man’s decade-long struggle to maintain a passionate romance with his female soulmate in the face of creeping hostility from friends, family and society”.

More Reviews: To Sum It All Up

Jeff Shannon, Seattle Times: “’Laurence Anyways’ examines sexual identity, societal intolerance and Laurence’s emerging confidence (as a woman and a published author) with remarkable empathy.”

Olivia Colletterogerebert.com: “The film’s biggest strength is dealing with a taboo as if it wasn’t…Despite her ability for great tenderness, Laurence can also be selfish and rude. She’s not an angelic transgender heroine; she’s just exceedingly normal.”

Joshua RothkopfTime Out: “Forgive this film its marvelous moodiness—someone needs to go there once in a while.”

Joe PeelerPaste: ”…(I)f the movie were to grow legs and walk down the street, the reaction would be much the same as that of so many bystanders to Laurence himself, over six feet tall, heels, wig, manly face, flashy dress. Some will gawk, some will avert their eyes, but others still will be unexpectedly smitten.”