Filmmaker Gwen Haworth: Why it's important for trans people to make their own media images
Local filmmakerGwen Haworth's 2007 documentary about her gender transition, She's a Boy I Knew is enjoying a local revival. This past year, it's been shown at the UBC Film Production program's 40th anniversary screening series The Big Picture, at the first annual Vancouver Trans Film Fest (part of the first Vancouver Trans Forum), and at In the House Festival.
It'll next be shown on Thursday (July 29, 7 p.m.) at Pride Movie Night at Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street), along with the documentary Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride.
Chatting with the Straight at a Kitsilano coffee shop, Haworth explains that she made the documentary for friends and family of trans people, in addition to trans people themselves, as a resource for learning and understanding the journey and issues involved.
When Haworth came out in 1990, the internet was still developing and she didn't see a lot of grassroots activism or groups at the time. But since then, however, she's seen a lot of changes. She notes that she's observed a shift over the past two decades from "focusing on transsexuals specifically to looking at transgendered and then transfolk as an umbrella term, which includes diverse people.”
While she thinks that although images of trans people have changed in mainstream media, there is still a lack of accuracy and authenticity.
Watch the trailer for She's a Boy I Knew.
In the past, trans people, like many minorities, were portrayed as villains or evil in Hollywood films. "You have Psycho, you have Dressed to Kill, you have Silence of the Lambs, where individuals who are showing gender variance are somehow sociopathic or psychopathic," she says. "Quite often we see these representations—hyper-sexualized representations or sociopathic representations of trans folk—when the true reality is it's the trans folk who are actually being murdered by individuals that would be considered to fit the mainstream or the norm. It's the trans folk who are being told that they can't work in a certain profession because they don't fit the norm, who, because of lack of employment, end up having to work the streets because no one else will accept them for the education or experience that they already have."
Although she's seen more positive images develop, she still sees persistent areas of weakness or omission.
"I think there's still a propensity to want to show the stereotypical images," she says. "Perhaps nowadays these people are seen as more likeable, that we enjoy who they are. But still, if we look at trans representation, trans men and the gender spectrum is quite invisible still, while trans women, more often than not, are still portrayed as often having worked or working in street work, hyper-feminine, heteronormative, often the films end up having them as being the comical element of the film, often they'll have mental health issues going on, addictions, maybe they're involved in petty theft or things of this nature."
After traveling around the world with her film, she also noticed that the stories of trans people she had met, who were all working a variety of different fields—academics, doctors, artists—are never represented.
Part of the problem may depend on where the images are coming from.
“Most people have, at this point in time in their lives, seen images or representations of transgendered individuals," she says. "What they haven’t probably seen is images of transgendered individuals that are actually made by transgendered individuals. So if we look at the movies we’ve seen, even the TV shows out there, we should ask ourselves, ”˜Who’s making this? Are they trans?’ And in almost every occasion at this point, no.”
She emphasizes the need for trans people to produce their own images in order to counter or reduce stereotypes. "That's where community activism comes into play with media, is the importance for us to get out there and shoot our own images and show that we are more than just what the mainstream media perpetuates our image as." She adds that it's important to have a variety of different images, voices, and experiences represented to reflect the diversity within the community as well, rather than having just one or two individuals representing a community. As an example to illustrate how varied members within the community are, she points out that she has about as much in common with some members of the trans community as she does with other people who have blue eyes.
But it's not just straight people that she thinks this will benefit.
“In the GLBT community, there’s still a lot of misinformation or misconception about one another. I think the more that we start telling our own stories, the more that we’ll learn in an empathetic manner and be able to be more inclusive and appreciative of one another.”
By doing so, she sees this as a means for overall social growth.
“I think it’s great that we’re evolving, moving forward, and learning because as human beings, it’s what we need to do and that’s how we’re going to come more together and be more empathetic and less hostile to one another.”