Let The Gendercator Be Shown

Published in: September-October 2007 issue.


THE SHORT FILM The Gendercator has been pulled from this year’s San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival by the festival producer Frameline at the behest of transgendered people and their supporters. Community organizers declare that the piece by lesbian filmmaker Catherine Crouch is “hateful” and that “there is no space for hatred and transphobia in our community institutions.” It leaves one to wonder how such an opinion can be formed by those who have yet to see the film. At issue is whether a film which may be regarded as critical of the sensibilities and practices of some in the GLBT community can be included in a queer film festival. This question is not specific to films portraying the transgendered. Nor is it related to the merits of the film itself. It appears that in our very modern community there is difficulty presenting a multitude of points of view due to enforced silences and a rejection of criticality from within, dismissed out of hand as bigotry regardless of intent or content.

The film tells the story of Sally, a sporty dyke who falls asleep in 1973 (after too many cocktails celebrating Billie Jean King’s win over Bobby Riggs) and awakens, Rip-Van-Winkle-like, in 2048 to an America where gender reassignment surgery is compulsory for the gender atypical. Sally doesn’t buy into enforced gender binaries; she’s a simple girl who wants to remain who she is. Crouch says on her website: “More and more often we see young heterosexual women carving their bodies into porno Barbie dolls and lesbian women altering themselves into transmen. Our distorted cultural norms are making women feel compelled to use medical advances to change themselves, instead of working to change the world.”

Transgender scholar Susan Stryker supported Frameline’s dropping of The Gendercator. After viewing the film and communicating with Crouch, she opined that the film should be shown in San Francisco if only to subject it to “the rigorous critique it so richly deserves.” Argues Stryker:

The film expresses a long-familiar anti-transgender polemic: the idea that transsexuals are anti-gay, anti-feminist political reactionaries who collude with repressive social and cultural power; furthermore, that transsexuals are complicit in the non-consensual bodily violation of women. … The director’s comments on the website betray a profound ignorance of the ongoing, sophisticated conversations among feminist, queer, and trans activists and scholars about medicalization, pathologization, body modification, and other related issues—and frankly, for that matter, about misogyny and sexism within transgender communities and discourse.

I disagree. The filmmaker is not uninformed. She is perfectly aware of her own point of view. This is not a matter of ignorance but of dissent. It would be well to recognize that the point of view of transgenders was until recently classified as “gender dysphoria.” The view expressed in The Gendercator might be laughably unsupportable, but it exists. If it is to be contested, as its opponents would like, it must first see the light of day. Much is to be gained from arguments about whether transgenderism is an identity that’s off limits to critical inquiry or whether (as Judith Butler would have it) all gender is performance, which would appear to make it susceptible to critique. We have in Ms. Crouch a lesbian who dares to ask whether sexual identities require surgery to be realized. Inclusion of this film in the festival would have added to that discussion. Our community has more to gain from confronting questions about queer lives than from avoiding topics the discussion of which supposedly leads to “disempowerment.”

Posters to the website www.leftinsf.com, some rather less lettered than Stryker, expressed vehement opposition to the screening of The Gendercator. One poster wrote: “This film is labeled ‘sci fi’ to mask the personal threat Crouch feels from transsexuals and other trans people. Like many works devoid of artistic content, it is also touted as a way to ‘generate discussion’ when in fact it relies on hate, not actual intellectual dialogue.” It’s doubtful that these commentators have actually seen the film, which has seldom been screened to date. Is this writer quite sure that the movie is “devoid of artistic content”?

This reminds me of my experience on the student film board as an undergraduate in Cincinnati in 1988. We showed Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail, Mary which caused apoplexy among the large and organized Catholic community, including threats to the student film board. Many of the regular protesters from the local abortion clinic staged a demonstration outside the hall where the film was shown, harassing patrons; stink bombs were released in the theater. Predictably, a similar scenario unfolded when Robert Mapplethorpe’s exhibit The Perfect Moment was shown in that city two years later: community outrage led to the (unsuccessful) prosecution of the museum director on charges of pedaling obscenity. (Perhaps some day people will learn to actually read a book before burning it.) Nearly twenty years later the outraged citizens are not pious prigs but members of the queer community whose protestations succeeded in cancelling the exhibition of an artistic piece. When Frameline dropped The Gendercator from the film festival lineup, advocates of this step responded with an alarming number of exclamation marks: “Great news!!! Frameline did the right thing! They decided to not to screen The Gendercator. We won. Hurray!!!”

Withdrawing a previously accepted film in deference to 130 indignant signatories is not equivalent to censorship, as some have claimed. It is cowardice. The message it sends is that festival attendees can choose from films that present a homogeneously inoffensive point of view; opposing ideas will not be presented. The result will be a film festival that fails to challenge our entrenched commitment to the politically correct.

Early this year Iranian reporter Azadeh Moaveni reported on the rage that the film 300 had produced in Iran. That anger may be understandable. How coincidental that a tiny army of (manly, buff, democratic) Greeks should entertainingly and cartoonishly vanquish a horde of (callow, feminized) Persians. Even W could follow this subtext. “All of Tehran was outraged,” Moaveni wrote. “Everywhere I went yesterday, the talk vibrated with indignation over the film 300—a movie no one in Iran has seen but everyone seems to know about.”

None of the enraged Iranians had actually seen the film, which had not been screened anywhere in the country. Moaveni didn’t appear eager to see the film either, writing, “It is going to take an act of foolhardy courage to distribute that film in Iran. It will truly be 70 million against 300.” Would it not be more advisable just to show the film in Iran? It seems that it would benefit Iranians to comprehend what had aggrieved them. It would permit them to answer the perceived insult by Western filmmakers. And it would allow an understanding of what their adversaries were thinking. Perhaps, like the righteously angered people of San Francisco, Moaveni finds ignorant indignation more satisfying.

The film’s critics—or rather, the lone critic who actually viewed the film, Susan Stryker—take exception to the film’s questioning of the practice of gender reassignment surgery. But surely there is no inherent hostility in raising questions about whether certain medical practices are a good idea. For example, William Saletan himself recently wrote a piece in Slate.com questioning the new packaging of oral contraceptives, which seem to appeal to a segment of the fertile women’s market that uses birth control pills to suppress menstruation. Saletan does not suggest that women stop taking the drug; he simply raises the valid question whether women’s choices around this issue might be informed by their own interests or the desires of others. It seems unlikely that this question arises from misogyny.

Transgendered people, at enormous risk of discrimination and violence, are rightly watchful of how they’re portrayed in the media. This should not preclude frank discussion within the confines of the GLBT community (which was the target audience for this movie), where myths abound about the trans phenomenon. A friend wrote to me of an experience in teaching lesbian and gay studies to undergraduates that gives one pause: “Many students felt strongly that trans(sexuality) was a myth, arguing that these are just gay people who couldn’t face up to being gay. I watched a couple of trans students completely wilt. Having been rejected by their families and most of their peers, they were again encountering a total lack of understanding, now by the one community from which they were hoping to get some support.” It is difficult for the transgendered community to hear that some in the larger queer community question their identity and practices, but ignoring that point of view does not eradicate it.

Not every queer film festival is pulling the film. NewFest, the New York GLBT film festival, has shown The Gendercator, followed by a question and answer period with Catherine Crouch and others. The film will also be shown at this year’s Michigan Women’s Music Festival. Perhaps a group showing and vegetarian potluck with the erstwhile denizens of Camp Trans is in order.

The curtailment of practices that do not harm is a threat to liberty. But it has become the politically correct view of the day that in the arena of sexuality, anything short of uncritical acceptance is homophobia, bigotry, fascism. Doubtless this is because sexual practices are closely tied to one’s personal identity, and this is certainly the case where gender is concerned. It is possible—and necessary—to acknowledge the dignity of people engaged in some practice and still question the wisdom of the practice itself, especially from a medical or scientific perspective.

Over the past decades, certain practices connected with queer identity have provoked questions within the GLBT community, and the questioners have come under attack as hegemonic homophobes. Back in the 1970’s, the practice of having sex with as many partners as possible was considered vital to gay men’s identity. Questioning that practice, even when young gay men started dying from a mysterious disease thought to be related to their having multiple sex partners, would provoke howls of outrage. Such a suggestion was an affront to the dignity and liberation of gay men, and for a gay person to suggest otherwise proved he was a tool of the Right. There’s no incontrovertible evidence to suggest that gender reassignment surgery is harmful to the individuals who undergo it or that it presents a pathological meme that will harm queer culture. But it is both our right and our obligation to examine our culture with an open and critical mind. Willfully ignoring or silencing criticism of our own practices and sensibilities has proved disastrous in the past.

If the purpose of a GLBT film festival is to display the cinematic creations and reflections of the experiences of sexual minorities, Crouch’s position is as valid a perspective for screening as any. Particularly in the lesbian community, where there is both skepticism about the need for gender reassignment surgery and a great many “butch” lesbians who have come to identify as transgendered, there is no injustice  in examining attitudes on this increasingly salient topic. If the film questions the advisability of increasingly prevalent body practices, it does not pass any condemnation upon their practitioners. If the film has merit as a cinematic work of art, this assessment should not be clouded by condemnation of critical inquiry or expressing a point of view.


Edward White recently completed a doctorate in epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale.


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