Visibility has always been a guiding principle of queer liberation. From Harvey Milk’s “Come out, come out, wherever you are” to the debates over cis/het actors cast in queer or trans roles, centering the lived experiences of LGBTQ people is foundational to the struggle.

But for many transgender people, visibility can cut both ways. Being out can demonstrate resilience and strength, but it can also put one’s life at risk — as the epidemic of murders of trans women of color attests. Then there are fights in US schools over trans-inclusive restroom policies, like a district in Georgia that backed away from doing the right thing over death threats to faculty and students. 

This is the ambiguous political backdrop against which the SF Transgender Film Festival opens on Thursday, November 7, at the Roxie Theater.

“I would say there’s been an explosion of trans representation in film,” artistic director Shawna Virago says. “That being said, we still have a long way to go to where trans and gender-nonconforming people are telling their own stories.”

Since its inception in 1997, the festival has played at numerous venues in the Bay Area, with highlights including the 2015 screening of Major! at the Castro, which legendary trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy attended (shortly before she relocated to Arkansas).

That evening had “a lot of symbolic resonance,” Virago says, observing how Miss Major is one of the most important figures in the history of queer liberation yet she’s unlikely to be invited on Rachel Maddow — and 2019’s opening night is sure to do the same. 

“This year, we are just as proud to screen what we consider a feature film, Transfinite,” she adds. “The program will be ASL-interpreted, and we hope to have a good Q&A after the film with the director [Neelu Bhuman], some of the stars, and our community.”

Described as a “sci-fi omnibus feature film composed of seven standalone magical short stories where supernatural trans and queer people from various cultures use their powers to protect, love, teach, fight and thrive,” Transfinite makes use of tropes familiar to may queer people of all stripes — namely, superheroes and superpowers. 

There’s been pushback to this from within the world of film. Martin Scorcese recently remarked that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is “not cinema,” and while it would be a stretch to describe such an observation as transphobic per se, it certainly has delegitimizing undertones for a genre that many LGBTQ people flock to to help make sense of their place in the world.

Virago cites the example of Rachel Pollack, who wrote for DC Comics in the 1980s and ’90s, as “an important example of a trans writer finding space in the fantasy realm,” but also of the importance of trans people taking the helm of trans stories. (Pollack created Doom Patrol’s Kate Godwin, aka Coagula, the first trans protagonist in mainstream comics.) 

This remains an important point, even in 2019. Possibly to many people’s surprise — or not — the festival gets a lot of submissions by cisgender directors casting cisgender actors.

“The content is usually stereotypical,” Virago says. “Either it has the big reveal scene or it always ends in tragedy for the trans person.”

That’s not unlike gay and lesbian art from decades past — and it underscores the rationale behind SF Transgender Film Festival’s curatorial vision, which tends toward the experimental, the non-linear, the intersectional, and other stories even Hollywood’s more trans-aware quarters aren’t interested in telling. 

“I always think our film festival is more of a 1980s punk label, sort of like SST Records,” Virago says, citing the label that was home to Black Flag, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr. “In some ways, we are consciously holding space for more films that maybe expose white supremacy or expose police abuse or the prison-industrial abuse against trans communities — and so content matters a lot for us.”

This helps account for the inclusion of Malic Amalya’s Run!, which Virago likes because it’s not an identity-based film but an exploration of the history of nuclear technology, pesticides, and other militarized horrors that complicate the question of just how progressive it is for openly transgender Americans to sign up for military service. 

Then there’s To Be With You, about a Latinx trans man in L.A. who reconnects with an old flame while reclaiming his father’s ashes.

“It’s kind of a love letter to overlooked communities in Los Angeles,” Virago says. “What I liked about this movie — and I haven’t said this to the director yet, but I hope to have the chance — is I’m interested in the character of Alex, the protagonist, I want to know where he goes next. It reminded me of Francois Truffaut and his series of films about [Antoine Doinel]. You get a depth of this one character you don’t normally get in film.”

Not to be overlooked is Tender, which concerns itself with the day-to-day lives of Black trans women in the Tenderloin, now the site of the Compton’s Transgender Cultural District. In spite of having been shot right here in San Francisco, it came to Virago’s attention through the festival’s ordinary call for submissions. She likes it as a response to the city’s reputation as a “progressive jewel box,” that has all the answers.

“Now we’ve become another neolberal city that’s fast becoming the whitest city in California,” she says. “So people overlook the fact that in the Tenderloin, there’s still many strong trans connections and lives that are happening within this hyper-gentrification and displacement — and it’s beautifully filmed.” 

I think people enjoy the festival and have a good time and it might be because our aesthetic might be a little more edgy than some festivals,” she adds. “But it’s still a really warm and welcoming environment.”

SF TRANSGENDER FILM FESTIVAL
November 7-10,
Roxie Theater, SF. 
Tickets and more info here.