Posted by Editor Editor
on 29 May 2013 in Arts
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As I settle into my seat at the Filmhuis Cavia, I slowly come to the realization that I don’t really know what to expect. I bought a ticket to one of the many screenings that compose TransScreen, Amsterdam’s transgender film festival and one of the largest in the world. The flyer I am holding says that the festival “primarily focuses on masculinity, femininity, and anything in between, outside, and underneath,” and the shorts that I am about to watch will lead me on a journey “through various modalities of seeing and being seen.” As I’m grappling to make sense of this, the lights dim and the films begin.
By the time the last short was screening, I was reeling from the way in which the filmmakers had guided me through their world in such a raw and poetic manner. One of the best things about this festival (and one of the things that this festival prides itself on), is that they are showing trans* films by trans* people. The energy in the room was palpable, and I felt great to be a part of it.
The films were followed by a great discussion towards the end that made me feel like I was out of my depth (again) in issues that I have been blindly unaware of, but it opened my eyes to the daily struggles and triumphs of the trans* community.
I was lucky enough to speak to a lovely member of the festival collective, Mijke van der Drift. She was essential in helping me tackle some pretty big questions about owning your identity, fairness, and sexism.
1) During the discussion after the shorts of ‘To See & Be Seen,’ you guys spoke about how some of the main themes of TransFest hinged on visibility, accountability, and ownership. The last film of the series, “At Least You Know You Exist,” seemed to thread these concepts through the narrative in a way that pertained to the experience of being Transgender. How do visibility, accountability, and ownership play a role in coming out as trans?
Coming out as trans* (in whatever form that is, in whichever community) has a few strange features. The locus classicus is having a secret (your transness) that has to become public: one should tell it to people otherwise transitioning is not possible. Fortunately, there are transfolks that decide to stay out, claim openness, and even fight the shit they are receiving as a ‘community’ or as a ‘group’ or ‘cluster’.
Here, accountability starts to play a role: not only as the awareness of whom one is speaking for (as a member of a community/group/cluster), but you may also be a person who does not want to speak on behalf of your community or group for fear of being ashamed or bowing to other personal pressures. Considering that transfolk are still marginalized this is both understandable as well as regrettable. Those that are visible have to do the work, unfortunately, as well as bear the brunt of the misunderstandings, violent acts, and transgressions. This is where the accountability comes in: when does one accept a responsibility of a group (when is that possible), and when is somebody actually leeching of the work of others?
Simple answers are not often found in ethical questions like these, and the context of the situation plays a large role.
Ownership has a lot to do with this. Trans* as marginalized point of view and identity has too little control over their own stories. For one, it is extremely challenging to articulate the nuanced specifics surrounding the experience of being trans* because our language does not allow for it. In addition, people are hesitant to accept the consequences coming from a trans* point of view. When language doesn’t permit you to express yourself, it is impossible to articulate actions as belonging to one’s perspective. Ownership of stories, fragments and other ways of vocalizing and experiencing transness is crucial since it can come finally from the viewpoint that matters to people belonging to one of the three groups (not a hard cut) without having to deny one’s perspective. And the denial of one’s perspective is what marginalization is all about.
2) How has your background in Philosophy had an influence on the way you navigated through your transition?
When I started to transition I had not yet a background in philosophy, I was a performer and theatremaker. I stopped this profession because I was vulnerable and wanted to avoid transploitation. Since I wanted to become a philosopher for a decade it seemed a fair enough moment to start studying this. Then, the fun started of course. I am a moral philosopher, and dealing with academia has been difficult on various levels: a) being trans* in academia in a department that is best described as old fashioned, b) coming with perspectives that are not acknowledged, c) bringing in a politicized version of my identity to the table after I dropped my initial hesitation to do so.
Now, I do really enjoy being a philosopher because often in queer studies, or cultural studies morality is put away as ‘bad’, while ethics is acknowledged as ‘good’. First of all; I like norms. Second, social norms and moral norms are two different things. Moral norms are what we call upon when we say that something is unjust, unfair, or trying to give people incentives to change their hurtful behavior. So in that sense being a philosopher changes the way I view theories that claim to protect my point of view. Lastly, I can read any book from the humanities and understand most of it, since I had good training. That helps. But mostly being a philosopher helped me to sift through the nonsense people claim about my identity and me. Having been a performer, and being a performer again, helped me to connect theory and life as I’m living it. Mostly being an artist and being a philosopher connect closely in not making sense of facts alone, but about translating practices to points of view and vice versa.
3) It seems as if we have a long way to go before we achieve justice. Where do you think such hatred comes from? Is it misinformation? Ignorance? Such instances raise very tenuous debates regarding agency and blame. How do you think we ought to set about fixing these attitudes?
Apparently 91% of the population has heard of transgender and can give a relatively accurate description of what it is. This leads me to conclude there is hardly any ignorance.
The other things that I think are at stake are twofold:
1) Misogyny in all its forms.
If it becomes accepted that changing gender is only a hormone treatment away, to keep claiming and using all sexist structures is rather precarious. People want to hold on to those structures because they are privileged and do not want to spend the energy understanding what they have to do to change patriarchy, heteronormativity, and heterosexism. We can blame people for that as soon as those structures are marginalizing and hindering people that do not fit in those structures. Whether or not that is the most relevant strategy is another matter. Allies are crucial, nice, and nothing will change without them. We do not need to blame people for individual thoughts, attitudes and acts, but sometimes we can, and that’s called speaking up, which is also what allies are for.
2) Discourage people to break taboos and to question why the concept exists in the first place.
Taboos are rules that are in place to make running a society possible. Some of them are more or less rational, some are simply there, and some are dangerous. Heteronormativity is one of the rules that is there, and needs to be addressed again and again because it is a dangerous rule, which can only change slowly. The amount of freedom people can take defending such a rule shows the extent to which the taboo is ready to become obsolete or not.
There is work still to be done. Recently, Julie Burchill was published spitting transphobic vileness in The Observer. The Observer is a serious newspaper, and the fact that this was even published is a concern, because it happens under the pretense of ‘opinion.’ If the same language was used about the Black or Jewish community, it would be an outrage. Interestingly enough, we can see some parallels with language used against Islam/Muslims.
And Mijke is right. There is still quite a long way to go before we reach a point where difference is not only accepted, but celebrated. I’m just thankful that there are people like her and all the other film makers who are willing to take the time to tell you their story.
For more information about the festival, visit transscreen.org.
written by Anna Hutchcroft