Otherness Archive guest curated this program for London Short Film Festival 2022 at the invitation of TAPE Collective. It focused on how the practice of archiving trans masculine lives has been forgotten. The intention of the program hopefully generated ideas and thoughts on what a trans masc archive could look like. Accompanying the program was featured films below and words of lived experiences by Erik Shen and Ren Mars. Program curated by Sweatmother:
The Man From Venus, James Diamond, 3', 1999, Canada
Mirror, Mirror, Paula Levine, 3', 1987, USA
What Makes A Man?, Chella Man & Andre, 1', 2021, Portugal
Boys in the Backyard, Annette Kennerley, 1998, United Kingdom
Fly Hole, Malic Amalya, 6', 2018, USA
Mes Chéris, Jamal Phoenix, 13', 2020, Germany
I’ll be introducing two erotic films about gay trans male identity - Fly Hole (2017) & Mes Cheris (2020).
Mes Cheris which I have seen twice, I was incredibly moved by in a way I have never been by a porn film previously or to date. It’s about a trans male performer powerfully reclaiming his high femme escort past self, not rejecting his past identity but celebrating it, and honouring it - with tenderness and respect for a body and gender expression that no longer fits him.
I had ambivalent feelings about Fly Hole, in that it’s premise is the need to hide ones trans identity in order to be allowed into cis gay male spaces - and only in being a so-called fly on the wall by disguising himself as a cis man in a darkroom, is he able to have a brief illicit moment of physical intimacy with the man that he desires.
I felt that this moment of sexual euphoria, whilst undoubtedly thrilling, was tinged with self effacement and rejection. isn’t it sad that he is only able to realise his desires by hiding his true self, or at least one significant part of his true self.
It was something I related to, as a gay trans man, in the moments of early transition where I first felt the thrill of being accepted into gay male kink and nightlife spaces - spaces that had been off limits to me before I medically transitioned and passed.
Reflecting on my own feelings and the inherent contradictions of this gender and sexual euphoria of gaining entry into the closely guarded domains of cis gay hedonism, I finally realised the magic of the film - as an exploration of what pyschoanalyst Donald Winnicott would refer to as ‘playing with a transitional object’ in a transitional space - one arisen out of of gay trans male desire and creativity, to reimagine ones self and ones body as one full of transformative potential - the fly is not only an interloper, someone who is in disguise in the space, he is also a powerful chimera, beholden with a plastic dildo that can suddenly and magically become a flesh dick, and a fly on the wall who is able to enter and penetrate the space and its users without their knowing - in the shadows of the darkroom, where he has full control.
Similarly Mes Cheris, also plays with dual realities, with the now masculine presenting Jamal narrating his fantasy of having his chest be worshipped in the way it had never been, but should have been. In the film, Jamal Phoenix plays both his present self and his pre medical transitional self, who passes as a high femme luxury escort in the red light district of Sydney.
In his defining text on transitional objects, Playing and Reality (1971), Donald Winnicott writes: Play is immensely exciting. (…) The thing about playing is always the precariousness of the interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. This is the precariousness of magic itself, magic that arises in intimacy, in a relationship that is being found to be reliable.
In embracing play, both of these films exemplify the capacity for trans creativity in expanding ideas of gender as monolithic - ie the commonly held cis notion that trans ppl’s self perception of gender identity is always concrete and revolves around a fixation on changing our ourselves to conform to cisgender body standards.
Personally, I have created an identity as a performer out of an innate emotional imperative to draw from an empowered visual mirror of myself as a creative antidote to the embodied systemic trauma and discrimination that I have experienced, in which I have been sexualised and fetishised for my trans identity, gender presentation and race by cisgender men and women alike.
Drawing upon play as a source of strength, even when my mirrored play selves arise from stereotypes which in the cis gaze reduces the complexity of my identity - I find ways to create and discover new ways of celebrating my multiplicity and creating alternate realities where these versions of myself can coexist in alternate space. Like the fantasy spaces made real in these two films. In both Mes Cheris and Fly Hole, the trans protagonists are claiming trans queer agency through playing with self mirroring and transitional objects, be that in the form of fly’s plastic phalllus, or Jamal’s soon to be gone chest that he wants to pay final homage to.
As an erotic performer, the intentional act of creating multiplicity through numerous selves or avatars contains the possibility of arriving at gender euphoria or wholeness, and grants me complete power and control in the creative act of erotic play and manifestation.
In freely switching between gendered archetypes (femme, masc, butch queen) the way only a transfag can, we regain control of our sexualised selves (from the gaze of others) and explode the power of the projections unwillingly imposed upon us.
When I create and perform in pornographic films, I draw upon my this multiplicity and imagination for the capacity to find erotic joy amidst the everyday realities of being a marginal body (subject to being desexualised / dehumanised / objectified) - which is why for me Fly Hole felt both liberatory, but also bittersweet, because it captures a moment of transfag gender creativity and play that arises out of necessity; as self affirming act of resistance to the inherent transphobia and gender essentialism within dominant gay male culture, even today. In being an interloper, the fly on the wall in the darkroom of a gay bar, he is saying ‘I deserve to be here’, it’s an act of pure erotic imagination and creative self actualisation, in a space in which he is not and as far as we can tell will never be welcome.
Thank you, and I hope you enjoy these two incredible films.
I am six years old, small and limitless and curious. Every few weeks or so, I jam a cap backwards onto my head and strap myself into a pair of buckle-front denim overalls. In this uniform of sorts, I'll proclaim to my family that my name is "Joe Kid", and for the day, I will not answer to anything else. My mother takes us to church and I listen with interest to the stories of angels called "He" by men, but with bodies neither male or female or altogether corporeal.
I am eight or nine. At school, the other children have initiated a week-long playground game -- a grand battle of the sexes, boys against girls. I want to fit in, and so at lunch one day I pin one of the boys in my class to the ground and tag him out. I loom over him, one knee on his ribs as girls in my year shout their assent behind me. It occurs to me that something doesn't feel right about my position in the situation, but I am still too much of a child to put words to this emotion that I feel now, fluttering, for the first time in my chest. Unmoored as I am, I grope for affirmation as an anchor. In a mocking voice, hardly really mine, I ask the boy under my knee how it feels to be beaten by a girl. I don't know, in the moment, if my question is more for him or for me. The boy's face changes, and he shoves me off of him. He calls me "sickening" before sprinting off. I sit there in the dirt long after the girls from my year leave; until the bell rings. I feel sickening too. I don't know why. I cry in the car on the way home and refuse to participate in the war game for the rest of the week. I sit in the library by myself instead, reading about the Chevalier d'Eon, wondering if the boy who yelled at me could see more of me than I could, somehow.
I am thirteen and I've been forbidden from cutting my hair short. I do it anyway, by cover of night, and take photos of myself beaming in the bathroom mirror. The cut is shaggy, and unflattering. My hair -- chemically straightened -- sticks out, dry and straw-like at all angles. I love it anyway. I've spent the last several years getting in trouble for stealing clothes. Not from shops, but from my father's closet, and my sister's handful of boyfriends. But I am a teenager, and smarter now. Now I carry wads of cash to school in my bookbag, exchanging the notes for second-hand mens' shoes and shirts that my few friends have grown out of and are more than willing to part with. In the mornings I bind my growing chest under my uniform with ace bandages, and in the evenings I hide the wrappings deep in my closet, lest my parents throw them out. I know the words now, for what I am, and I guard it preciously.
I am seventeen and shouting bitterly. My parents look back at me and in their swimming faces I see hurt, anger, shock, confusion. Holding back tears, my mother muses aloud in the most genuine confusion, "But if you were transgender, there would have been signs", and I burn. I burn with the rage and the pain of the knowledge of all the myriad moments and fragments of thought snatched out of time, pieced together like a fiery lattice in my mind at all times, all of the information adding up to point to an answer screaming to be heard.
It isn't until I am much, much older that I can begin to understand.
"What makes a man?" What are the handful of conditions that, together or separately, define "manhood", "boyhood", the thing we call masculinity?
Muscle? A penis? Body hair? An affinity for tools, or schematics, or the ability to cut a dapper figure in a suit? Associations, maybe, but hardly definitive -- a man is not unmade by being without. Someone who is not a man is not changed fundamentally by the addition thereof.
Perhaps it is masculinity's more classical associations with chest-beating bravado or rigidity that makes it more so much more difficult to listen out for the gentle notes of softer or more alternative forms, makes them somehow easier to dismiss or misread to the untrained eye or ear. Perhaps it's the tendency for the very concept to be tangled up with harmful stereoptypes and idioms of what it means to be a "man", like "Boys will be boys", or "Boy's Don't Cry".
My Mother, my Father, my peers -- it's ultimately unsurprising that they didn't see transness in me. They didn't really know what to look for. On our island, older ideas still tend to prevail. Boys should be loud, boisterous, and active, girls should be introspective, social, and caring. Even here in metropolises like London, I'd venture that we are still acutely limited in the range of what can be read as falling under the umbrella of masculine experience, especially positive masculine experience, even within the queer community. It's still easier for some to rationalize away the transmasc experience as butch lesbianism dogged by self-loathing and internalized misogyny than to see it for what it is, individuals having experiences of masculinity outside of its conventional structure. So much of the time, we still don't know what to look for, and so many of these experiences go unrecognized.
I've said before that Otherness can be a feeling. A subtle, but distinct emotion of not belonging — alienation, isolation, the stranger in a very familiar land. This face of Otherness is sometimes softer, often much more everyday. It offers us a lens into the stories and perspectives of those who fall outside the range of the bell curve of common experience, and consequently, so often go unseen, overlooked, or forgotten. These are films about or by those for whom what we may consider the fringes of society may be a way of life.
I'd ask you to consider the works on show here tonight as part of an archive of "alternative masculinities" as a form of Otherness. An exercise, maybe, in learning to look for manhood or masculinity not defined by its volume, or its appearance, or in opposition to femininity. But for masculinity as experienced by trans men, by GNC femmes, by non-binary people. Masculinity in a form where it is, for once, not the default, and can therefore be made radical.