May 5 – 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 up. –Angelica Ross (paraphrased)
This is a central concern tackled in Framing Agnes (2022), one of the feature films highlighted in the 2022 Seattle Trans Film Festival (aka TRANSlations). It speaks to a truth rarely acknowledged within trans spaces: the same visibility which has improved the lives of white and affluent transgender people has been unhelpful or even dangerous for many of our Black siblings, our Indigenous siblings, our siblings of color. Framing Agnes explores the history of Harold Garfinkel’s transgender sociology research and encourages us to ask whose voices we are lifting up and why. Who is benefiting from heightened visibility? Does visibility actually beget positive change?
These questions have never been more important. When we first hit the so-called “transgender tipping point” in 2014, the cultural zeitgeist’s sudden interest in trangender lives was presented as a gateway to transgender civil rights. Eight years later, we can see that the truth is much more complicated. In the United Kingdom, powerful personalities such as J.K. Rowling are applauded for transphobic hate speech. Texan parents who allow their transgender children to medically transition may now be charged with child abuse. This past year was the deadliest for transgender people since records began—375 transgender people were reported murdered worldwide in 2021 alone. 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.
TRANSlations’s organizers push back against this tendency. The film festival took special care to uplift marginalized voices; for one, their website featured a “BIPOC track” which gave spotlight to films that center Black, Indigenous, trans people of color. Several of the films in this track are the festival’s strongest and most important.
Caer (2021) is a feature-length film about two undocumented transgender women—Paloma and Rosa—who are arrested for sex work and must grapple not just with the US justice system, but with immigration as well. In Spanish, “caer” means to be caught; this title is dropped towards the end of the film by Rosa as she and Paloma sit in the back of a police car, once again under arrest after an undercover cop finds them working a street corner. “Our lives revolve around being caught,” Rosa says, which is reflected in how their arrests bookend the film’s story. Created by TRANSgrediendo Intercultural Collective, Caer expertly blends reality and fiction: the story of these two women’s struggle is intercut with footage of the collective discussing topics such as their yearly Slut Walk, the difference between decriminalizing versus legalizing sex work, and the violent legacy of SESTA/FOSTA. Even the fiction is not really fiction, the collective explains within the film. It was both written and acted by trans immigrant sex workers and provides a fictionalized account of their own lives. Caer is both profoundly moving and informative, and is well worth a watch for anyone who is interested in learning about and supporting an often-overlooked portion of the transgender community.
Framing Agnes, mentioned at the beginning of this article, seems at first to be a look at historical icon Agnes Torres, a transgender woman who lied about being intersex to sociologist Harold Garfinkel in order to access gender-affirming surgery. Instead, the film takes a step back from Agnes to look at the other subjects of Garfinkel’s 1958 transgender study. Their interviews were never published but remained locked away until they were uncovered by filmmaker Chase Joynt in 2017. Framing Agnes reveals this forgotten record through reenactments. Joynt, playing Garfinkel, along with a small cast of transgender actors, reads out transcripts of the 1958 interviews; these reenactments are interspersed with conversations between the actors, filmmakers, and historians. Particular attention is given to Georgia (portrayed by Pose star Angelica Ross), the one Black transgender woman in this white sociology world. Speaking in an out-of-character interview, it is Ross who calls visibility a “magnifying glass” which harms marginalized trans people. She and others grapple with whether it is possible (or even desirable) for us to recuperate “the Georgias of the past.” Ultimately, Framing Agnes is a critical and nuanced exploration of the transgender historical archive.
Beyond its small handful of feature films, TRANSlations boasted an impressive array of short films, ranging from the comedic to the heartbreaking, the child-friendly to the downright raunchy.
One of the most remarkable short films in the festival was the dark comedy How Not to Date While Trans (2022), which explores the dating life of Andie, a Black trans woman struggling to find love. Caught between the cis and trans worlds, Andie relays her story with wry humor that disguises a profound, despairing loneliness. Joking about how she would “look good” lying bloody and murdered on the floor, she deflects her fear of falling victim to a hate crime if she were to choose the wrong romantic partner. (A terrifyingly real danger for trans people, as “gay/trans panic” is still a valid legal defense in many states—just this past May 2022, a jury in Virginia declared a man “not guilty” of murder, claiming that his actions were justified because his victim had not disclosed their assigned gender during a sexual encounter with the killer.) Moments of vulnerability occasionally bleed through Andie’s attempts at covering her pain with humor, such as when she gets a taste of how much simpler her romantic life would be if she were cisgender. Poignant, funny, and memorable: I truly cannot recommend How Not to Date While Trans enough.
Other standout shorts include: Bros Before, a satirical comedy about two trans “bros” that shifts into an affecting exploration of both transmasculinity and queer polyamory; Punch Line, a bittersweet story about a trans comedian who experiences a hate crime and turns it into a bit at her standup show; and I Am Leo, which portrays a nonbinary child who lashes out when they get their first period.
Although TRANSlations was largely virtual, the organizers took care to make the festival feel like a community experience, with events like speed-friending, game night, and a midnight movie streamed over Zoom. The in-person day allowed further opportunities for meeting new people. These group events, alongside the festival’s focus on BIPOC films, demonstrate TRANSlation’s commitment to building intentional and equitable community. Visibility may be a trap which has brought an onslaught of transphobic violence these past few years—but it has also encouraged an unprecedented wave of trans people stepping out of the closet, particularly trans youth. Recent data shows that 5 percent of Americans under thirty identify as transgender and/or nonbinary, and 44 percent of Americans say they personally know a transgender person. It’s difficult to estimate how this number compares to past years because the US census has not been inclusive of trans people, but to offer a personal anecdote: I came out in 2011, a few years before we hit the transgender tipping point. At the time, my father told me I would always be a freak, an outsider—he claimed that only one in 60,000 people were transgender and that I would likely never even meet another trans person. Clearly, he was wrong. I have watched our trans community explode in size over the past decade. Moreover, every newly-out trans person who I meet can point to another trans person whose visibility gave them the strength to come out of the closet.
Ultimately, the trap of visibility is that transness is put on display for dissection for a cis audience which gawks at transgender people like we are a modern-day freak show, something monstrous which must be corrected. This disproportionately affects Black trans women and trans sex workers (among others), as their bodies are made dangerously hypervisible. Simultaneously, their particular struggles are overlooked, even by other trans people—in spite of the fact that trans women of color and trans sex workers have led the queer movement since before Stonewall and continue to in the present day.
Visibility is a given for a film festival, and thus TRANSlations must confront this trap head-on. The festival builds from the question of who benefits from visibility into something actionable: how do we change who benefits from visibility?
By foregrounding films like Caer and Framing Agnes, TRANSlations gives a political platform to some of the most vulnerable and important members of the trans community. Furthermore, rather than allowing unidirectional and consumptive viewership, TRANSlations frames itself around community-building, and thus uses visibility as a tool to bring trans people together. Transness is a chain linked together by the bonds we form with each other through recognition and through care, and TRANSlations is doing its part to strengthen and extend that chain.