Ok, this is a repost of a previous two part post in which I reviewed Kortney’s film (below) and a film by Harjant Gill. While I could apologize for not offering up a new post as part of black herstory month, instead I am going to point out how important I think this documentary is to a growing understanding of gender and sexuality for both black and queer communities. While the documentary, and its amazing director, are both new, the issues it tackles are a part of our her/his/hirstory and therefore part of this February series. (In going over the piece recently, I realized what re-posted was a draft version. I have corrected the text to reflect the final version.)
still black: A portrait of black transmen
Kortnery Ryan Ziegler’s debut documentary, still black, centers on the narratives of six black transmen about their identities and their lives. They discuss themes as expected and varied as: transitioning, employment, marriage, parenting, poetry, ability, sexuality, gendered space, and social movements. The group of participants is also extremely diverse, vary by age, education, faith, and location. This serves to remind us of the diversity within the black transcommunity as much as within the larger black and queer ones.
For me the two most groundbreaking aspects of the documentary are
- its insertion of black masculinity in a transgender narrative in which black is almost always seen as MTF/transwomen if represented at all
- the complexities of the participants stories; they ask us to think critically not only about gender but also social space, family, and identity in the intersections.
The majority of the participants in still black tell the expected/required medical narrative of gender – feeling discomfort in women’s clothing, playing with toys coded male, wondering when their “penis was going to grow in,” etc. While I don’t question the authenticity of their memories/stories, I wonder how the film would have differed had each participant not retold this story at the beginning of each of their segments. I ask this not to undermine the narrative, which comes across in the film as authentic, but rather because of the growing body of theory questioning the medical model. These theories argue that there is a formulaic narrative of gender required to receive approval for transition and anyone unwilling or unable to repeat this model not only remains outside of hardening gender categories but also access to medical transition. The participants themselves have much more complex relationships to gender identity than the narratives imply as well, making me all the more curious about how they would have talked about themselves and their transitioning without the overlay of the medical model.
Far more interesting to me is the way that Ziegler’s participants discuss learning socially accepted gender codes or masculinity. Her first participant, Kylar, discusses workshops at trans conferences about how to dress, tie a tie, etc.
“I’m already the man I want to be. I just have to live it.”
While two other participants talk about their father and brother showing them how to “be a man;” and while both locate gender knowledge in those interactions with their father, they are also both jokingy about this process. For some, bodies matter in ways that some in the audience might not expect. Ethan, quoted above, says that a uterus was not a problem for him but breasts, which are “external and visible,” had to go or he did not feel right. On the other hand, Louis believes “feeling like a guy and having a period just sucks.” These narratives, and others in the film, serve to remind us that gender is not only constructed but also learned. It is mapped not only on the bod but also on the socio-cultural understandings of oneself and gender in general. There is also a communal investment in gender codes, both in the sense of transmen pooling their knowledge about masculinity to fit normative gender identity and in born-men passing on their knowledge to ensure proper adherence to dominant codes. The documentary’s discussion of this latter issue could serve invaluable in discussing how we all subconsciously know there is a gender script and how to follow it even if consciously some deny it or call it natural.
At the same time, many of the participants in the film discuss wanting to do gender differently. For instance, Jay spends the bulk of his narrative talking about the fluidity of his gender identity. While he is a man, he is not invested in “[male] manners” and likes that he can identify with and be identified with by women while “still being a man.” He admits however that the pressure to conform makes him “question [his] manhood” on occasion. Deacon Carl credits feminists for making him aware of his traditional gender adaptations and expectations and wanting to be more fluid about gender roles and dynamics in his marriage.
The discussion of sexuality is equally complex in this film, reminding us that sexuality and gender are not uniquely tied together. Ziegler’s film includes a gay man, a lesbian couple turned heterosexual couple, a hetero couple, and a transman who desires women but spent a considerable amount of time in early transition dating gay men. The range of their sexual identities and the anxieties and triumphs the come with them again show a complexity that is not normally missing in academic discussions of genderqueer identity.
For people who are lesbian identified even those attracted to butch lesbians there is something about being with a man that is not compelling to them at all.
So says one of Ziegler’s participants in discussing the importance of seeing transition not only as a project of
the self but also a process for partners and family. Louis discusses how his partner, a femme lesbian, had to consider both desire and her own identity in order to make the transition with him. Their negotiation included what it meant to go from being lesbians to being seen as straight, exclusion from all female and lesbian spaces as a couple, and also the layers of invisibility that would occur sepcifically for his femme partner. His articulation of this process as individual, shared, and communal is one of the most fruitful moments in the documentary.
While Louis finds a positive resolution to these negotiations, he and his partner get married and have a solid relationship, Rashad, another participant, muses about possibly never having a committed long-term relationship. In the early days after Rashad’s transition he talks about dating anyone who desired him in order to suss out “who is attracted to transmen.” He found he was most attractive to straight and gay men.
” Everybody wants to be desired.”
Rashad said he willing went out with gay men for a while but that he has always and will always desire women. There is a reticence in his voice about how his desires and those who desire him may not match up, that made me wonder about the common narrative that FTMs are moving into a position of universal male privilege. One of the key pieces of patriarchy is the ability to attract what you desire and to take it by force when you cannot without much fear of the consequences. And while black men have mediated access to that kind of male power, as strange fruit, masculinity still implies power over the female body and female desires. Defying gender ultimately has consequences for sexuality, hetero or queer, that we need to be more cognizant of when discussing the transcommunity.
“We don’t have a white picket fence yet, but we have everything else.”
Deacon Carl and his wife Wanda met after he had transitioned and had children shortly after they got married. Much of their narrative is taken up discussing family and parenting. They discuss the typical trials of gender divisions in household labor, difficulties with childbirth and parenting, and figuring out balance in marriage. What I loved about their story was when Wanda said they wanted to write a book about family and parenting. Unlike other more media oriented transparents of late, Wanda and Carl seemed genuinely interested in discussing the family dynamics of early marriage and parenting as part of a normative lifecycle and a desire to ensure that every type of family is represented. (I hope they get their book deal)
Ethan, on the other hand, knew that he was gay. He had a long term relationship with a woman as a lesbian prior to transitioning but felt that was a part of moving into the body and identity that he had always known.
They [gay men] wouldn’t want to be with me the way my body was . . . I lived
as a lesbian just to be a part of the queer community.
Ethan makes a point of saying how much he loved and respected his female partner before her death, she died of
cervical cancer, so that there is no confusion about his feelings for her. However, of all of the stories about gender and sexuality I find his the most engaging from multiple vantage points. What does it mean to change one’s body in order to express one’s sexual desires? This question, prompted by an early screening of Ethan’s interview last year, kept my colleagues and I deep in conversation well into the night. And in what ways does our discussion of sexuality and desire have to shift, if at all, to make room for both Ethan and Rashad’s stories. Often theory has talked about the fluidity of desire but reality has led to the shunning of long time lesbians who marry a man or transition. Does Ethan’s story or Louis’ story make us have to take new stock of practice?
Many of the participants also discuss the intersections of race and gender. They question both the meaning of black masculinity as it is presented in society and the impact of becoming black men on their own mobility and status. Ethan’s story of being stuck in his wheel chair a block from home is perhaps the most illustrative of the fear and loathing that black masculinity creates in the minds of the mainstream. He talks of being stuck in the snow for over 1/2 an hour while no one stopped to help. People stared at him from inside their cars for an endless amount of time until finally someone rolled their window down slightly and offered to call the police. Ethan explained that he was only a block from home and that he would likely be frozen to death by the time the police came. Yet it took even longer for someone to do what they had done multiple times before, when he still had a female body, which was to get out of their car and help him on to the sidewalk. Ethan is incredulous that anyone would fear his permanently disabled and visible immobile (lower half) body. Yet he has not grown up with the fear and loathing that would allow him to understand the particularly gendered grafting of criminality onto the black male body that makes people doubt their own eyes and worry that he is faking it to lure them out of their cars into a carjacking. Or worse, that the fear of the black man trumps the infantilizing ableist gaze to the point that they literally cannot comprehend his immobility. Nancy Lopez has done some interesting work on the difference between the way men of color and women of color are criminalized along specific gendered expectations and its impact on their development. Since it is less about the criminal justice system and more about youth and development it might make an interesting companion piece to this part of the film.
Kylar also talks about racism, locating his critique within the transcommunity itself. He observes the easily recognizable exclusions many of us in social movements have experienced, where transmen of color are cut out of public imaginings, conference participation, and movement building by the age old “where can we find qualified people of color?” question that dogs all of us. While he does not discuss the unspoken assumption in that question, that poc are never qualified, he does discuss the white normative gaze that allows white transactivists to know and interact with transmen of color and still not think of them when it comes time to plan events.
He also points to how his insistence that race be an integral part of planning and discussion in the movement has
led to powerful recriminations from white transmen that he is trying to play “oppression olympics.” Again, like most of us in social movements, he has made a point of saying “No oppressions are greater than any others.” His point is not just that race matters but that discussing race and racial oppression does not negate any other oppression present including transphobia. More importantly, racism is part of transphobia since transmen of color experience both as well as a transphobia that is irrevocably racialized.
Louis also tackles the problem of movement building across intersections. For him the issues are ones of gender because he was once “an elder in the lesbian community” and is now a transman. He felt that his most painful critiques came from butch lesbians who felt he was selling out the community and himself. Like Kylar, Louis works hard in his own social movement work to address the real and the perceived transphobic issues within the lesbian community and to trouble the latter in productive ways.
Ultimately, Ziegler’s film is a complex and engaging look at transgendered identity through the lens of the black transmale experience. It offers us a chance to understand and explore identities in the intersections and the margins of multiple communities. The subjects it tackles have not always been given the attention and respect that are so clearly presented here. Ziegler’s attention to complexity makes them all the more poignant. Hir film challenges us to think differently and more in depth about queerness (all of the letters in the GLBTQ pantheon) and ultimately about ourselves. It is a film not to be missed.
still black promotional image
“Kortney Ryan Ziegler”. unattributed
“Jay”. Kortney Ryan Ziegler.
Poster for Oakland Black LGBT Film Festival 2007
“untitled.” Kara Delahunt. Colorlines Jan/Feb 2008 (from article on similar themes.)