On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp told a patron in a bar that he was a cross-dresser who liked to put on nylon stockings and heels.
Moments later, five men beat him nearly to death, leaving him in a nine-day coma, 40-day hospital stay, and with brain damage that stole his memory of the majority of his life before the attack.
“Apparently just saying that I like to wear women's shoes was enough to get me punished,” Hogancamp told The Advocate. “Do I think this was a hate crime? Yes, and that's why I created my world of women, killing those five Nazi-like guys over and over again for 13-plus years, until my revenge hid itself from the surface of my face.”
The world he’s referring to is Marwencol, a miniature World War II-era Belgian town Hogancamp created in his backyard. There, he intricately dresses and photographs dolls. These figurines are made up to resemble him, the women he admires, and the attackers who left him severely disabled and without the funds to continue necessary therapy.
The 48-year-old artist has invented his own means of healing through acting out his joys and traumas through photographing the dolls in elaborate scenes. To recover from the anguish of being stripped of many of his abilities, he dresses up the five men who attacked him as Schutzstaffel — the paramilitary group in Nazi Germany — wreaking havoc on his quaint town. Hogancamp brings them to justice.
“I created a world where women are in charge, and Nazi-like men get punished for eternity,” he explained.
The world of Marwencol is so fascinating, a documentary with the same name was made about it in 2010. Now it’s caught the eye of Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, who recently produced and directed the film Welcome to Marwen, in which Oscar nominee Steve Carell plays Hogancamp.
“I met Bob and Steve last July, for a whole afternoon of talking and me showing my world to them,” says the artist, “Then Steve and I corresponded with one another so I could tell him some of the disabilities that go along with a brain injury, and that was it. That's all that the production required from me.”
But when the moving trailer came out, Welcome to Marwen made no mention of Hogancamp's cross-dressing, which is completely erased from the footage revealed to the public at present.
It’s not that Hogancamp (who at the time of this interview had not seen the film but is excited by how the trailers appear) isn’t open about his cross-dressing. “I wore nylon in secret before the attack, and then after the attack I wear my stockings proudly in public, as women once wore their stockings proudly,” he told The Advocate. The information about the reason he was attacked is readily available online as well.
“I am a male, and I always want to be a male,” Hogancamp explained. “I am not homophobic, just a heterosexual cross-dresser, from the waist down. I do not want to change into a woman, nor do I feel as though I'm a 'woman trapped in a man's body.' I merely re-create women with my own legs and feet in a mirror on the floor, to stay close to women, and for my pleasure.”
Hogancamp owns over 300 pairs of heels, with which he “recreates nylon-wearing women in my mirrors on the floor.”
When asked about Hogancamp’s assertion that he was the victim of a hate crime and if the truth would be mentioned in Welcome to Marwen, a representative of Universal Pictures declined to comment.
Zemeckis was evasive when asked about this inclusion in a July interview with The Telegraph. “We can’t give everything away,” he said. “There’s a lot more story than we were able to include. You’ve got to let the audience see something that they don’t know about.”
It remains to be seen if Hogancamp’s cross-dresser makes it into the final cut. As of now, there have been no images of Steve Carell in nylons, even though they — and gender — are a major part of the inspiring artist’s recovery. Reviews of the film, out this weekend, have not yet been released.
“When everything I once knew was taken away from me by men, and a woman found me and got help for me, and then women attempted to teach me how to get back the things that men took from me, and then a man took my therapy away from me... I felt so much rage, and abandonment, and that 'kicked off of the planet'-feeling, that I had to find a way to get the 'poison' out of me,” remembered Hogancamp. “Right after the attack on me, I hated every man in the tribe of men on Earth; I feel differently now. I made my town full of nylon-wearing lesbians, and me.”
“I wear the best nylon in the world and I take in every moment of never losing touch with mature, nylon-wearing women in my isolated, big-little world,” said Hogancamp. “I do not know if I have earned a place in your community of LGBTQ, or not.”
Though he does not identify as transgender, if Hogancamp had not survived the near-fatal attack he experienced for even talking about cross-dressing, his story would have resembled the many lives taken for not abiding by the societal rules of the gender binary.
In 2017, at least 27 transgender people were killed in the United States from fatal violence. That number was the most ever recorded. At least 24 trans people have been murdered in 2018.
Through telling the full story behind Hogancamp’s inspiring road to survival, Welcome to Marwen could be an opportunity to shed light on the epidemic of violence against gender-nonconforming individuals. The film, which also stars out actress Janelle Monáe, is scheduled to be released December 21 — right before Christmas. The subject matter is not necessarily the easiest for a holiday movie to address, but a necessary one.
Hogancamp’s story of courage is not cheapened by the honest reason he was attacked. It gives it one more layer to celebrate. But whether or not it's addressed, Hogancamp is celebrating the fact he’s having a second film made about his life.
“It makes no difference to me if some folks don't acknowledge the fact that I got beat up because I simply told those fellas that I like to wear women's stuff, or because I enjoy re-creating women's legs in a mirror on the floor,” he said. “I have myself to worry about and take care of every day and every day is frustrating for me nowadays.”
And Hogancamp is still creating cinematic scenes of his own back in Kingston, N.Y.
“What I hope some people get from my story, is that there's always a way out,” the survivor said. “You just have to find yours.”