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-Justice is different from violence and retribution: It requires complex accounting. -- bell hooks
-Justice is what love looks like in public. -- Cornel West
I am a transgender woman who occupies many spaces. I am an actress and have often worked within the context of drag performance. I wholeheartedly embrace my drag sisters and my camp sensibilities, but my entire life is not a campfest. My gender identity is not a joke. This is an admittedly difficult space for me to occupy: working in venues where gender performance is often presented as a joke and simultaneously being a woman who wants her gender identity to be taken seriously and not mocked.
Emphasizing the multidimensionality of my womanhood and humanity is the way that I resolve what might on the surface seem to be contradictions. This is the challenge director Israel Luna faces in representing the transgender women in his film Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. How to represent trans women who also work in the context of drag performance and not present their identities or the very real violence that is perpetrated against them as a joke?
In a recent interview, Mr. Luna explains his reasoning behind making Ticked-Off. "It pisses me off ... I don't understand why, whenever there's a gay bashing, the gay community has to play all nicey-nice. We're just like them. If they hit us, then we're gonna want to hit them back." He goes on to say that he didn't want to write about a male gay-bashing victim. "That's a story we've seen all too often ... I wanted to do something more modern and I thought 'Whose story do you never see on the news these days? It's not gay men -- it's transgenders.'"
Luna's comments suggest to me that he wasn't moved, driven, or inspired on a deep level to tell a story about the lives of transgender people. He was merely looking for a fresh angle to tell a story that's really about his own desire as a gay man to seek revenge against bashers. All too often, representations of trans women aren't about actual trans women. Elements of our identities are appropriated for various agendas while the reality of who we are is of no real interest.
I don't believe, or at least I don't want to believe, that Luna intended to make a film that exploits the identities of transgender women. But, because subconsciously he had an entirely different agenda, exploiting trans women is just what he did. For me, this is a really important point: intent.
Many times in our society we don't intend to be transphobic, homophobic, racist, or sexist. However, because we haven't interrogated our own location, our subconscious motivations, and the extent to which we've all internalized transphobic, sexist thinking, we might find ourselves having a transphobic or sexist moment. Regardless of our identities, we all have the capacity to oppress and exploit.
Since Mr. Luna wasn't really interested in telling a story about trans women but rather in spicing up a revenge narrative against gay bashing by using "trannies" as surrogates for gay men, it was easy for him to view his trans characters -- always and only -- through the lens of camp. Characters are truly made human and three-dimensional when, through the trajectory of the narrative, the audience is allowed to gaze into a human soul and understand its complexities. This is the glorious potential of representing disenfranchised groups in film and the media -- that we can have moments where we truly begin to see someone whose humanity has been denied through repeated violence, discrimination, and prejudice. Mr. Luna's choice to portray the trans characters as only camp falls short of that potential. The representation works to keep them on the surface and to keep the audience at arms length.
It's telling that the main "bad guy," Boner, is represented with more dimension than the trans characters. The violence he and his colleagues perpetrate against the women doesn't feel camp at all; it feels disturbingly real.
In the opening scenes we learn that the lead character, Bubbles, has been attacked. When we later meet her attacker, he describes how he drugged Bubbles with the intention of raping her. Once he discovered during the rape that Bubbles is transgender, he "had to" continue the rape. Bubbles also "has to" die because she "tricked" him. It's not new that transgender women are portrayed as deceivers, "freaks" who merely exist to trick straight men into sex, and that we have to be punished for it. Murderers often use the panic justification as a blanket rationale for murdering transgender people. This movie takes that oppressive paradigm to an even more grotesque place.
Further, their friends never mourn Tipper and Emma -- the two trans characters in Ticked-Off who are killed. There's no expression of grief by their survivors for the lives lost. All of these elements serve to dehumanize the transgender women.
I have been harassed, threatened, chased, and even kicked once on the street simply because I am trans. I have had several of my own revenge fantasies, but I know that retaliation against one or a small group of attackers isn't going to change the institutionalized mind-sets that make people want to attack me. Lesbian activist and poet Audre Lorde said, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house," tools meaning mind-sets. I think there's been so much outrage over this film because the master's house has merely been renovated and painted a different color. But it's the same house.
I have love for everyone who worked on this film and for all artists, particularly those who want to employ and represent transgender people. With that love, I can say it is essential that we as artists and as an LGBT community at large are able to engage in open dialogue about how representations of transgender folks may or may not be reinscribing the systemic logic that oppresses us.