Transgender documentary subjects shaping "hirstory"

by Chris Holmlund

This essay evaluates documentaries about trans* leaders in the fight for visibility, equality and justice in the United States during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. A few are still alive and still activists. No one of these leaders identified as "trans*" or "transgender" at the time—the term has only been widely used and given an expansive meaning since the early 1990s.[1] [open endnotes in new window] "Shaping" here refers to the diverse forms that documentaries take—essay films, avant-garde work, archival compilations, portraits of individuals or groups, interactive interviews, witness and expert testimony and so on. "Shaping" also implicates embodiment through voicing, apparel, gesture, musculature, wigs, hair, hormones and surgery.[2] "Hirstory" draws on one of several transgender pronouns in current usage[3] to pun on "history." I want to honor trans* and queer agency and to question the idea that history is objective, authorless, unchanging or perennially "true": these documentary subjects relate and contextualize their own stories, their own histories.

All these ten short and feature-length documentaries figure and mold embodiment and craft "hirstory" through what they say and don't say, show and don't show, "organizing perceptions and prescribing actions" (Väliaho 2010, 11). Most foreground their subjects' experiences and expertise. We also see people "making conscious, informed choices about the best way to live their own embodied lives" (Stryker and Bettcher 2016, 7). Each film catalogues the violence, harassment and discrimination directed at and fought against by gender variant people. Most of the films emphasize the multiple ways that class, race and age impact lives and inflect categories like "gender" and "sexuality." Several recognize that how their subjects have described themselves and been described—and treated—has changed. All rewrite or avoid the transphobic tropes dear to earlier mainstream films. There "'reality' [was] sutured to the privileging of sight" (Snorton 2017, 140) in three principal ways: 1) "genital reveals" positioned trans* women (in particular) as "deceptive" or "pathetic," predators or victims, 2) "before" and "after" photographs made a binary gender system seem "natural" and bodily variations or modifications "artificial," and 3) physical transformations were sensationalized.

The documentaries I analyze were made beginning in 1987 over a 30-year period. One is not yet finished. Some have aired on television, others have enjoyed theatrical release. Most have screened at festivals and are currently in U.S. distribution. Several can be found on the Internet, though availability especially on YouTube comes and goes.[5] I provide brief information about production and distribution with each of the films I analyze because how a film is made, for whom, when, affects how its story or stories are told. I have no data on reception.

The essay is divided into three sections:

My examinations move from documentaries about catalytic incidents, to individual "hirstories" of showpeople, to broader commentary about communities. The last group of films is primarily concerned with the present. The first two groups are memory projects. In conclusion I reference films about early trans* leaders that have recently been made, and name trans* activist elders about whom documentaries have yet to be made. I end by talking about Susan Stryker's documentary-in-progress Christine in the Cutting Room. An off-screen narrator voicing Christine Jorgensen says,

"Movies were my life.... Cinema made the body plastic.... It taught me how to be what I became."[7]

Through commentary and visual montage, Stryker considers post World War II identities and politics from wider perspectives than most of the other documentaries. She plans to foreground the connections between embodiment and editing in order to evoke ethics, enlist emotions and allude to experience.

Taken together, juxtaposed and compared, these documentaries foreground how complicated visibility is as a tool of political power. Nicole Morse is right to argue that "the tools and methods through which visibility is negotiated matter" (2016, 12). All these films offer pieces of transgender history, of transgender "hirstory." All refuse a universalizing, "one size fits all," explanatory "master" "his-story." It is up to us to make sense of what we see and hear, and up to us, in turn, to act.

"Debuting on the stage of American political history"

Both Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton Cafeteria and Stonewall Uprising recount events in trans* history using talking head interviews, photographs, newspaper articles, recreations and snippets from "educational" films and television shows. Some of the older film and TV footage they incorporate was intended to inspire fear.[8] Other early footage showcases transsexuals, homosexuals and lesbians (to use their terminology) who are determined and self-confident.[9] Both include testimony from transgender women. In neither case could the filmmakers draw on film coverage of the original riots. There are not many photographs of the incidents either. Both documentaries are thus what Stryker calls "recovery history" projects (2013).

One of the few extant photos of protesters at the Stonewall riots is used repeatedly in Stonewall Uprising. Explanatory texts accompany voice-over narration and testimony in Stonewall Uprising.

San Francisco's 1966 Compton Cafeteria riot was largely unknown until Stryker's 2005 film. New York's Stonewall riots, in contrast, have long been seen as the beginning of gay militancy and hailed as initiating the transgender rights movement. Heilbroner and Davis' 2010 film, however, frames Stonewall as a gay and lesbian uprising.[10] They and Silverman and Stryker are all at pains to explain why the revolts they chronicle happened. Participants, witnesses and experts talk about violence directed against those who look different, laws making homosexuality and cross-dressing illegal, police persecution, rampant job discrimination and psychiatric and medical "treatments" administered to anyone with "deviant" desires and/or presentation.[11] In one of the more powerful sequences in Stonewall Uprising interviewees describe the shock treatments, lobotomies, and drugs that were administered to gay people to erase same-sex desire. One of the drugs was the pharmaceutical equivalent of waterboarding, one felt as if one were drowning. "You could be taken to jail at any time, at any second, for no reason at all," says Suzan Cooke in Screaming Queens, or for having long hair or wearing lipstick, mascara or a blouse with buttons on the "wrong" side, adds Amanda St. Jaymes.

San Francisco's trans* community and New York's trans* and gay community viewed the cafeteria and the bar, respectively, as relatively safe spaces. They bonded there and in the streets. "We became each other's family," St. Jaymes explains. When police raided the bar and cafeteria yet again in 1966 and 1969, respectively, trans* and gay people finally fought back.

In both films the selection and placement of the interviews and the positioning of the accompanying archival material operate according to broadcast documentary conventions, guiding viewers toward a pre-determined meaning (Rughani 2013, 99). In Screaming Queens the chosen meaning, Stryker-as-narrator says, is the transgender movement's "debut on the stage of American political history."[12] The interviewees who took part in the Compton's Cafeteria riot concur. They refer to themselves as "queens," "female impersonators," "gutter girls," "transsexuals" and "transvestites." In conclusion they describe transitioning to be the women they always knew they were. Proto-lesbian and -gay organizations like the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society provided support, as did San Francisco's radical- and church-affiliated Vanguard group. Police sergeant Elliot Blackstone even became an advocate for trans* concerns, and was instrumental in getting the laws against cross-dressing changed.

Based on a book by David Carter, Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, Stonewall Uprising emphasizes gay and lesbian concerns even though Carter acknowledges in passing, that there was lots of "gender transgression" at the bar (2010, 153).[13] The Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine Society are again cited as paving the way, here for a lesbian and gay movement. Some interviewees refer to themselves as "drag queens," "nelly queens," "sissies," "faggots" or "queers." Jerry Hoose, who describes himself as a street kid with nothing to lose in 1969, tells about the song that he and others sang to taunt police:

"We are the Stonewall girls./We wear our hair in curls./We wear no underwear./We show our pubic hair.../We wear our dungarees/Above our nelly knees."

Throughout, however, Heilbroner and Davis sidestep the "T" in what has become an LGBTQ+ movement.[14] The words “transsexual” and "transvestite" are never uttered, and captions identify no one as "transgender" though one participant, Yvonne Ritter, is shown wearing a dress, lipstick and jewelry.[15] Heilbroner's script adopts the single focus common in many made-for-TV documentaries rather than mention, as Carter does, that transsexual street queens of color sparked the riots and butch lesbians also played a crucial part (2010, 153).

Stonewall Uprising does not identify Yvonne Ritter as trans*, though she is. Raymond Castro, here shown when younger, is the only non-white gay man interviewed in Stonewall Uprising.

Only a few photos and bits of archival footage show queens of color, and all of the talking heads save one, Raymond Castro, are Anglo and white.[16] Such silencing and whitening occurs all too frequently in mainstream gay activism that has argued, from the 1970s on, for the validity of homosexuals as "manly men." To be accepted, so the logic goes, men, whether gay, trans* or straight, must be masculine, and masculinity must seem natural, dominant and sincere. Femininity is accordingly—inherently—conceived of as "contrived," "frivolous" and "manipulative" (Serano 2007, 43). Trans*, lesbian and gay people of color disappear into a "shadow history" (Snorton 2017, 143).

Screaming Queens' openly trans* witnesses are more racially and ethnically diverse. We hear, for example, from Felicia Elizondo and Tamara Ching, and they say their experiences were not the same as those of white entertainers like Aleshia Brevard. Elizondo and Ching walked the streets because they could not find other work; Brevard performed on stage. Clearly the "contours of racial or class experiences ... shape and reshape what gender or sexuality themselves can mean" (Valentine 2007, 18).

Both films thus delimit "stage" and define "debut." Each shapes embodiment using participant testimony and occasional "experts." Although we see some photographs of interviewees when they were younger, neither film includes before and after photographs or salacious/threatening/ comic—take your mainstream film genre pick—"reveals." Made with funds from a variety of LGBT-friendly foundations, distributed by Frameline and shown on public TV, Screaming Queens' co-director/co-screenwriter Stryker is present throughout Screaming Queens. She begins by describing how momentous the discovery of the Compton riot was to her: she had just finished her Ph.D., come out as transsexual and started to transition from male to female. "I felt really hungry for a community," she says as she looks at files in the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Historical Society. She is the only filmmaker to identify as trans* on camera in the documentaries I discuss. Her co-director, Victor Silverman, is not seen, heard from or identified.[17] Made for public television's American Experience series, Stonewall Uprising's directors are invisible and inaudible.[18] Their "voice" emerges only through their script and editing. The kind of expository and interactive documentary they practice derives power from the witnesses who speak, yet it constructs and restricts the tales that are told—here to the detriment of trans* and non-white voices.[19]

Stonewall Uprising concentrates solely on the birth of the lesbian and gay movement. Co-director, author, trans* activist and academic Susan Stryker is seen throughout Screaming Queens. She tells us why San Francisco's earlier trans* leaders are so important to her and to "hirstory."

"Playing the part of being themselves"

Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Bambi Lake and Stormé DeLarverie all made history as entertainers. Three (Darling, Curtis and DeLarverie) worked in New York. Darling and Curtis were part of Andy Warhol's Factory in the 1960s and 1970s. Older than the others, DeLarverie emceed for the Jewel Box Revue in the 1950s and 1960s, then worked as a bodyguard and bouncer at lesbian clubs. Younger, Lake performed with the Cockettes and in punk clubs and cabarets in the 1970s and 1980s, usually in San Francisco. All used drag to make a living and to be themselves. For each of them drag served as a means of expression and as a manifestation of embodiment.

James Rasin's 2010 Beautiful Darling and Craig Highberger's 2004 Superstar in a Housedress are documentary features. Both were independently produced and participate in the current fascination with Andy Warhol's Factory.[20] Both received theatrical release. Both Silas Howard's 2015 Sticks & Stones; Bambi Lake and Michelle Parkerson's 1987 Stormé: The Lady of the Jewel Box are shorts. They have primarily screened in festivals. Sticks & Stones was finished thanks to completion funding from LGBTQ distributor Frameline. The earliest of all the documentaries studied here, made before the rise of trans* movements in the early 1990s, Stormé was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the D.C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Gay Education Fund (Washington, DC), Women's Project–The Film Fund and Film News Now Foundation.[21]

Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis were both dead when the documentaries about them were made—Darling in 1974, age 29, of lymphoma; Curtis in 1985, age 38, of a heroin overdose. As a result both films rely on archival footage and reminiscences. Focus is on them as stars. Some historical context is provided. We hear from people who, like Darling and Curtis, participated in the 1960s and 1970s downtown New York performance scenes: writer/actor Taylor Mead, actress Penny Arcade, Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn, actor Agosto Machado, performer Paul Ambrose and director Paul Morrissey.

Jackie Curtis's Heaven Grand in Amber Orbit was a low-budget hit at LaMaMa in 1976. (Superstar in a Housedress) Sister Superstar Holly Woodlawn is interviewed in Superstar as well as, here, in Beautiful Darling.

Beautiful Darling adds the voices of other notables, among them filmmaker, artist and author John Waters, producer and actress Julie Newman, and author and occasional actress Fran Lebowitz. Younger, Chloë Sevigny becomes the "voice" of Candy Darling, reading from Darling's diaries. Lily Tomlin narrates Superstar. Critic Michael Musto, Superstar Joe Dallesandro, actor Harvey Fierstein, and playwright/theater director John Vaccaro also speak. Candy Darling's longtime friend, Jeremiah Newton, who helped produce Beautiful Darling, is seen in photographs as a young boy and in present day footage as a much heavier and older man. He conducted audio interviews with Darling's friends and family after her death and these are included, too. His preparations for the burial of Darling's ashes provide the film's through-line. He is as close to an "author" as this film gets. Rasin is neither seen nor heard, nor is Highberger.[22]

Both of the Superstar documentaries look back on earlier decades with affection, remembering parties, friends and lovers, though mentioning tough times, too. Candy Darling's father was homo- and trans*phobic and abusive, Beautiful Darling informs us. She and Curtis risked being arrested because female impersonation was illegal. Interview editor Bob Colacello tells us that Darling knew she was different already at age five. (At birth she had been named James L. Slattery.) We see "before" photographs of a long-legged adolescent and a younger boy but they are not introduced to say the "real" Candy Darling was male. We also see photographs of Curtis (born John Holder) as a boy and young man. He performed and lived throughout his adult life both as a woman and as a man.

Friends describe Curtis as a shy, lonely boy. (Superstar) As an adult Curtis lived and performed as both a woman and a man. (Superstar)

Some diary entries detail Darling's regrets:

"I am living this strange stylized sexuality.... I try to explain my identity as being a male who has assumed the attitudes and somewhat the emotions of a female. I don't know which role to play.... I can't go swimming, can't visit relatives, can't get a job, can't have a boyfriend. I see so much of life I cannot have."

No attempt is made to straitjacket her words into medical terminology such as "gender dysphoria."[23] Some interviewees describe Jackie Curtis fondly as "insane" thanks to constant ingestion of drug cocktails. Harvey Fierstein says:

"We need to take care of our insane. They are the Christopher Columbuses of the mind."

Movies fueled Darling's desires and influenced her embodiment. In archival footage she speaks in breathy imitation of her idol, Kim Novak. Darling took hormones to enhance her femininity but never had a sex change. In her diary she declares herself "not interested in genuineness. I'm interested in the product of being a woman and how qualified I am." On her deathbed, dressed in her finest, she is clear that

"You must always be yourself. No matter what the price. That is the highest form of morality."

Most interviewees refer to Candy as "she." Warhol liked that Candy was "a person playing the part of being themselves.... Real but ... not real," explains Vincent Fremont, head of the Warhol Foundation. Although she also talks about the violence that Darling and other cross-dressers confronted, Fran Lebowitz protests:

"A man who wants to be a woman [should] keep [his] winning hand.... A woman has to be a little girl. Candy was a fantasy."

Trans* singer Jayne County corrects her:

"That is like someone slapping you in the face. You have to accept a transgender person's perception of what they are or you are disrespecting their gender."[24]

Jackie Curtis lived as 'James Dean' for a year. (Superstar) Curtis's final persona was 'Shannon Montgomery.' (Superstar)

Superstar Jackie Curtis 'speaks' in an opening text. (Superstar) Jackie Curtis simultaneously comes on to and chides Mr. America in Women in Revolt (Paul Morrissey, 1971). (Superstar)

Jackie Curtis was more "gender queer," writing plays and poetry, performing sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a man. Curtis lived in James Dean "male drag" for a year and as Shannon Montgomery in the final months before death. Stars like Maria Montez, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Barbara Stanwyck provided inspiration but were not models to be copied. Musto admits that Curtis liked playing large diva roles but was a movie star in a housedress—or an ingenue in torn up, pinned together gowns. Some interviewees talk about "he," others use "she." A text at the start of the filmcontradicts everyone:

"I am not a boy, not a girl, not gay, not straight, not a drag queen, not a transsexual. I am Jackie."

A quote from Warhol follows:

"Jackie Curtis is ... a pioneer without a frontier."

Broad-shouldered, athletic, using plenty of drugs but never hormones, Curtis gave performances of femininity that were not imitations.[25] Morrissey says,

"There was nothing feminine about Jackie. He made no attempt."

And according to Tomlin, he

"lived his life as a kind of performance art. Everybody would get very sexually disoriented—you just weren't sure how you wanted to relate."

Curtis wanted to be known as a writer, but performing in drag brought more fame.