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Controversial Gendercator Film Screens in Chicago
2007-11-07

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Former Chicagoan Catherine Crouch's controversial short film The Gendercator, censored by some film festivals, makes its Chicago debut Wed., Nov. 14 at Reeling 26, the Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival.

Reeling screens the film at 6 p.m. at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, followed by a panel discussion featuring a wide variety of speakers. The event is free.

The Gendercator has sparked debate across the country for its take on gender identity, including the premise that some butch lesbians might be pressured to become transmen in a right-wing future with room for only two genders.

Also screening is One in 2000, a documentary about intersex people.

For details see www.reelingfilmfestival.org or call ( 773 ) 293-1447.

Windy City Times this week has features about The Gendercator, including two interviews with the filmmaker and a review of the film by trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall.

Tackling Gender

In this Q&A trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall and lesbian filmmaker Catherine Crouch discuss Crouch's controversial film The Gendercator examining cinematic elements, the filmmaker's political sentiments and her concern about the changing dynamics of the LGBT community.

Jacob Anderson-Minshall: You've written and directed some critically acclaimed films like the remarkable Stranger Inside ( co-written with Cheryl Dunye ) . Why did you decide to address this subject in a 15-minute short? Is that enough time to explore a complex issue?

Catherine Crouch: I think 15 minutes is enough time to explore this complex issue and to touch on certain aspects. To comprehensively resolve or complete my thoughts about it would certainly produce multiple features. But to say that I can't complete my thoughts in a 15-minute film doesn't mean that I shouldn't explore [ them ] . I've been making films about gender for 10 years now and I'm sure that I'll make more. The subject matter for many of my films has to do with a core, unresolved issue for me—Am I a boy or a girl? What kind of woman am I? How do I fit into the world?

JAM: The press material describing the film provides more context and detail than the film itself. Did you end up making cuts in the film or changing the dialogue?

CC: In narrative film, you tell a story through a character's point of view. You make your points by creating an environment in which the audience experiences the world through the characters. To have a character recite: 'In the early 2000s the evangelical Christians took over the government and legislated their strict family values…' wouldn't work for a hippie woman from the 1970s who's been forced by a fundamentalist government to undergo a massively invasive surgery. The final version of the film was very close to the shooting script. That scene [ was ] essentially the same in the script as in the film.

JAM: Did you worry about the implications of using a contentious term like 'trannies,' that is still used by non-trans people in a derogatory manner?

CC: As an out lesbian, I certainly am aware that this term is offensive, but as a storyteller, I did not worry for an instant. There's an important distinction between a writer and a character, and too often this gets lost. The use of the term by a character in the film doesn't represent my experience or my personal opinion, and it's not meant to. It represents the character's point of view. In the context of the film, the use of the term serves multiple purposes: to underline one character's perspective and another's ignorance of the social changes that have taken place.

JAM: Many detractors of the film hadn't seen it but were offended by your director's statement in which you seem to equate FTM transition with 'distorted cultural norms [ making ] women feel compelled to use medical advances to change themselves, instead of working to change the world.'

CC: I am careful with words like 'all' or 'none'. Do I see 'all' transmen as having 'no' interest in changing the world? No, I do not. Do I believe 'all' transmen are conforming? No, I do not. I respectfully turn this question back to you, Jake. You are in the FTM community and have witnessed its growth. Do you believe 'all' FTMs were genuinely in need of medical intervention? In my opinion, transsexual activists reacted to my director's statement because they felt like their authenticity was being attacked. I don't dispute the validity of transsexuals and how medical advances have been used to help people with this medical condition. My statement reflects my concern for women: why, in the last decade, are we seeing more and more young women opting to enhance either their femininity or their masculinity through elective medical procedures? I find the rapid escalation of elective medical procedures to solve non-medical conditions disquieting. Specifically, the non-medical condition suffered by most women: social anxiety and feelings of inadequacy magnified by pervasive misogyny.

JAM: In retrospect is there any part of the film, dialogue, director statement or comments about the film that you regret?

CC: I have no regrets at all. I wanted people in the alphabet community to talk about the issue and we are. I felt like whatever conversations were happening prior to the The Gendercator were completely segregated—lesbians were talking to other lesbians about the increasing number of young butch lesbians transitioning, and transpeople were talking to other transpeople. I didn't see a lot of communication between these communities happening. These are difficult conversations, but they are important. What I didn't really realize was how much people want to talk.

JAM: Some scientists have suggested that increases in gender-identity issues have roots in the impact of environmental pollutants on fetal development.

CC: I've never heard of this, but it raises some intriguing issues. I suppose this could be an explanation of the rapid increase in the number of young women who are now choosing to identify as male, my original concern and impetus for making The Gendercator. However, it doesn't explain the examples of women who are known to have passed for men throughout recorded history. Their motivations have been interpreted in various ways: they were transsexuals before medical solutions; or lesbians who wanted a love life with a woman; or women who wanted to be educated; or women who wanted to inherit property; or women who wanted to serve in a war; or women who wanted to pursue a career forbidden to females. If all human beings were valued equally regardless of the body they were born into or their form of gender expression, if all human beings were truly free to pursue their goals, to love whom they want, to reach their highest potential, what would the world look like? Would we be seeing young people putting silicone in their chests? Would we be seeing young people taking large amounts of testosterone? I think that we should be working to create that world, not modifying ourselves according to the standards of a terribly unequal society whose values are detrimental to the wellbeing of most of its inhabitants—but especially women.

JAM: How is concern about the growing trans population different from earlier concerns about an increase in the number of lesbian-identified women—or the fear that lesbians were recruiting?

CC: To me, the difference is obvious: these are women who do not wish to be perceived, identified or treated as women. These are women who … undergo elective medical procedures to surgically and or pharmaceutically change their bodies to … be perceived as male. These changes are permanent [ and ] require a lifelong commitment to the medical establishment. Why would anyone believe the medical establishment has your best interest in mind or cares about women's bodies?

JAM: You've said, 'feminists in the 1970s believed that you could be anything you wanted, in whatever body you were born with,' yet there've been many critics of the early feminist movement, particularly by those who felt they were excluded for their bodies; be they feminist men, women of color, the differently abled, or butch-femme lesbians—who were derided as aping heterosexual norms. Why did you pick that era to contrast with The Gendercator's 2048?

CC: I picked that era because that's the era when I spent my formative sexual and political awakening and I remember it with a romantic fondness. I vividly remember the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. I was 13 years old in 1973 and it was a profoundly influential moment in the development of my strong self esteem and grounded feminism.

I wasn't sure when things started changing so rapidly or what exactly is going on today—in our lesbian community, with the religious fundamentalists taking political power in countries all over the world, and with the increasing medicalization of our society. So I decided to skip over the now and tried to imagine someone floating in a 1970s feminist bubble waking up to a world in which these three social factors had colluded in order to eliminate both homosexuality and gender variants.

JAM: You talk about your female characters being complex, but Sally seems almost one-dimensionally interested in partying and softball. I was surprised that you encapsulated the 1970s era into one pot-puffing, acid-dropping party. Were you trying to establish Sally as a sort of 'natural' lesbian who's inherently lesbian rather than a political lesbian motivated by an anti-patriarchy political agenda?

CC: As you noted, The Gendercator is a very short film. This means you use visual short cuts via symbols to establish character, setting, theme. The party at the beginning gives the audience the genre, time, place, and Sally in one minute. I encapsulated one party from the era, not the 1970s era.

I was trying to establish Sally as a character. Young Sally is a perfect fit to her time and place. She's been indoctrinated by the ྂs clichés of her peers [ but ] she hasn't really thought about them. She's motivated by having fun and isn't really all that bright. She's bought into the prevailing political slogans of her time without critical thought. She isn't a heroic lesbian. She's an 'every' lesbian dropped into an unusual situation. This is certainly intentional. How many of us today stand back and question the prevailing politics of our time?

Sally's interest in partying reflects one of my own deep concerns about our alphabet community. We place a great emphasis on having fun and we sometimes don't pay enough attention to what's going on right in front of us. We'd rather go to a party than deal with serious or upsetting trends that threaten our very right to a safe existence. It's just exhausting to imagine … continually confront heteronormativity in all its insidiousness.

JAM: You say that women starting testosterone treatment 'most often' give their reasons as 'to avoid harassment, rape and ridicule as a gender variant.' Trans demographics, especially in respect to FTMs, have been consistently understudied and many of the studies that do exist are fatally flawed. Where did you get your information?

CC: My information comes directly from conversations with people I know. I'm so glad you asked this because one thing I am passionate about and hope my film inspires is more study of what's going on in the lesbian community. It appears to me that the number of lesbian women who transition into males is escalating rapidly.

As a tomboy, butch lesbian, masculine woman, gender variant, I wonder what this means for me and my community. As an artist, I express my wonder in metaphor and story. I've been told that this is not allowed, that this is hateful, that my very choice of genre is inappropriate. I've been told that because I do not identify as trans I am not permitted to comment. But I dispute this restriction ... I do understand something about the reasons one might choose to pass for male. I know the daily degradation of harassment, ridicule and sexual assault. I have an instinctive fear of men on the street. I understand wanting this fear to go away. I understand wanting to fit into the norm. But I don't fit into the norm. I'm a lesbian woman.

It's this culturally sanctioned misogynism, this hatred and violence that we must address. I remember the horror of that moment when I moved from an active, free girlhood to suddenly having to act like a lady and thinking: wait a minute! I don't want to be female if it limits me! But when I was 13, I heard the message of the second-wave feminists and social change seemed possible. What seems possible for 13-year-old girls today? What do they see as the solution to their gender limitations? They see medical solutions to their gender presentation, their sexual insecurities, their weight issues, their depression issues, their stress and on and on. Where will this dependence on medical solutions lead us? Who benefits from this medicalization of our society? This is what The Gendercator is all about.

© 2007 Jacob Anderson-Minshall


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