The transgender actresses of The Garden Left Behind -- a searing new film directed by U.S.-based Brazilian refugee Flavio Alves about the epidemic of violence against trans women of color -- have an important message for cisgender people.
Shea Diamond, the trans singer of "American Pie," was among the cast members who took the stage after the film's screening Monday at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ Film Festival to deliver this lesson on privilege.
"For a lot of you, you can go on and listen to your earbuds ... and walk down the hood without a problem because society has made it that way," Diamond, whose song "I Am Her" is also featured in the film, told the audience at the Plaza de la Raza theater. "But when you're Black and you're trans or when you're brown or you're trans, your experience is different. We don't have the privileges to walk peacefully down the street and mind our own business. We don't have the rights to have love, to have access to love, to a good quality of life like everybody else."
In The Garden Left Behind, an undocumented trans woman of color, Tina (Carlie Guevara), is attacked while walking down a street in New York City by a man who is attracted to her, Chris (Anthony Abdo). When asked by the Outfest moderator why the film devoted so much time to depicting the backstory of the attacker, the film's trans actresses defended the creative decision. They stressed that it was important to see how the lovers of trans women may sometimes turn into their assailants -- and how society and its gender-policing are also responsible.
"We created him," Diamond said of Chris. "These are the standards that we put forth. There are pressures that society gives us that we are supposed to act a certain way. So that's why they call him 'sissy,' and 'Why are you acting like a girl?' These are the things that are keeping us in check. We're never being ourselves. We're always forced to fit into the boxes that people make for us. After we come out of the closet, we're forced right back in the closet."
"It's conditioning too," added Kristen Parker Lovell, a coproducer of The Garden Left Behind who also plays the part of Regina. "If you look like when we were growing up, we had Jerry Springer, Maury Povich. They would put [trans women] up there like this and you have to choose whether it's a man or a woman or not. And people are going to point and laugh and tease."
(Shea Diamond, Kristen Parker Lovell, Flavio Alves, Carlie Guevara, Ivana Black)
And it's not only straight people who are complicit in this toxic culture.
"We're talking from the outside -- the outside world, this is what they think about us and what they feel about us. But it's also on the inside, in the LGBT community," said Ivana Black, who portrays Amanda. "[Gay people] also don't -- some people don't -- understand us and why we are the way we are. They won't even acknowledge that we are the mothers and fathers of the movement. So for me, that too is problematic. I tell my friends all the time, I'm so glad that you got your gay marriage. I'm happy for you. So you and your husband can come to my funeral."
"All too often, you hear these conversations with gay people or with the lesbians talking about trans people. We're the butt of the jokes," Diamond said. "Because lesbians and gays fit more into the cisnormative, they have a sense of privilege that they throw into our face every single day and they still ask the same questions that cisgender people ask: Why? Why did you do this to yourself? Our lovers: Why did you do this to yourself? Everybody wants to know why we do this to ourselves. This is who we are."
"I've gotten past the point of asking for acceptance," Diamond added. "I'm 41 years old. A lot of us don't make it past the age of 35 years old. So it's important in this hour, in this season that I don't ask for acceptance. I demand it."
At least 24 transgender people -- most of them black trans women -- were killed in the U.S. in 2018. Into late July of 2019, 12 murders of trans Americans have been reported this year, all women of color. Due in large part to this high rate of violence, the average life expectancy of a trans woman of color, as Diamond stated, is indeed 35.
The Garden Left Behindreceived the audience award at SXSW earlier this year and was funded primarily by donations through eBay. The film, which cast trans actors in every trans role and also included 50 transgender filmmakers in roles behind the camera, is currently touring the film festival circuit.
In the clip from the film below, community leader Lily Villahermosa (Amanda Rodriguez) rallies a group of trans folks in a laundromat after Rosie, one of their trans sisters, is murdered.
"We have a right to exist," Lily says. "Tonight we unite. From this day forward we are one. Because I am Rosie, you are Rosie, we are all Rosie."
Watch it below.