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Filmmakers look back at pioneering movie 'Transsexuals'
by Matt Simonette
2020-09-02

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Chicago-based Media Burn Archive presented an online screening of the rarely-seen 1971 documentary Transsexuals Aug. 27, and hosted members of its original crew, who presented insights on both its production and recent restoration.

Transsexuals was created by a collective of New York City-based filmmakers, who were utilizing then innovative mobile video technology to document the lives of transgender women.

"Nobody had a concept of what 'video' was [as a medium] at the time," said one of the filmmakers, Susan Milano. A colleague of hers on the project, Andrew Gurian, also spoke, detailing his restoration efforts on the film. The technology used to produce Transsexuals was never widely implemented, so it has been exhibited only on rare occasions.

The film's title is now relatively anachronistic, as "transgender" is the generally preferred term currently, but the term "transsexual" was more widely deployed at the time of the production. The film's subjects also occasionally use the term "transvestite."

Transsexuals mainly centers two transgender women, Deborah Hartin and Esther Reilly, as they describe their transitions. Among those who also appear are LGBTQ-rights pioneer Sylvia Rivera. "It was a real surprise to find out who that was after all these years, after not seeing the film for so long," Milano noted.

Transsexuals is harrowing and explicit in many moments. Hartin, who had her gender-reassignment surgery performed in Morocco, at one point lifts her skirt so viewers can see what procedures she had done. One of the subjects describes an episode from years before wherein she tried to castrate herself.

Milano conducted the film's interviews, and said that she was relieved to watch the film recently without much embarrassment about how she pressed her subjects. "I think I have a pretty straightforward way of asking things, and am pretty sensitive to the people I'm speaking to," she added.

Christina Milano, MD, ( no relation to Susan ) who co-founded the Transgender Health Program at Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland, said, "Watching this video will raise a lot of thoughts with folks. ... We are in an extraordinary time, when paradigms are shifting."

Some participants noted that Susan and her colleagues included cisgender subjects in the film who registered support for transgender people; they had little perspective on the challenges transgender people faced but expressed hope that they would find both self- and societal acceptance.

Christina surmised that "the comments are so timeless, [and are] about a wish for society to be more accepting."


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