A Place in the Middle


November 29, 2019:

In Introduction to Transgender Studies, published in February 2019 by academic LGBTQ publisher Harrington Park Press, author Ardel Haefele-Thomas explores the historical and political contexts of transgender lives. They also share intimate personal stories and essays by trans people from around the world, and celebrate transgender people’s contributions to the worlds of art, literature, and culture.

The inclusion of “Films and Television of Interest” lists at the end of each chapter was an attempt to make sure that the book, which is the first ever introductory textbook for undergraduate-level transgender studies, is able to have an impact beyond “Transgender 101” courses in LGBTQ or gender studies departments.

“I have often found that students experience a good deal of anxiety, trepidation, and confusion when studying issues pertaining to sex and gender, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation,” stated Haefele-Thomas. “I wrote this book to create a safe space for the full spectrum of undergraduate students, ranging from those who have never thought about gender issues to students who identify as transgender, trans, nonbinary, agender, and/or gender expansive. In short, the language and the artwork in this book are meant to be welcoming.”

In this article, Haefele-Thomas recommends 13 films about transgender people and featuring transgender subjects and themes. If you feel less familiar with the transgender experience than you’d like to be, this list is a good place to start.

1: Southern Comfort
This teaches beautifully. And, it is one of the most perfect documentaries. The filmmaker is incredibly respectful of the community she is filming. And although the subject matter is heavy – a trans man dying of ovarian cancer because clinics refuse to care for him because he’s trans – the film itself is so full of love, simplicity (not in a bad way), and beauty.

2: Georgie Girl
Another documentary – this one about Georgina Beyer, the first trans member of Parliament in the world. As an out Maori trans woman, this documentary is wonderful to use for discussions of the continuing effects of colonization, and for discussions on intersecting identities.

3: A Place in the Middle
A PBS short film that explores a middle school student who is Mahu (third-gender people highly regarded within indigenous Hawaiian culture). This is a perfect film for in-class and for discussion.

4: Leitis in Waiting
A wonderfully complex documentary that looks at trans people in Tonga. This film shows the effects of incoming evangelical missionaries who are calling for the eradication of the Leitis (trans women). A beautifully researched and filmed documentary.

5: Two Spirit People
This film is quite old now, but it still beautifully explains third-gender identity (sometimes fourth- and fifth-gender identity) in Indigenous cultures of the Americas.

6: Mulan: Rise of a Warrior
The original title was Hua Mulan – such a beautiful film from China that is a meditation on war and on the legend of General Mulan. It is really interesting to compare this to the Disney version, where the “gender reveal” is what is sensationalized. This Chinese film, though, is complex and rich as it looks at the fluidity of gender.

7: Still Black: A Portrait of Black Trans Men
Outstanding documentary that looks at intersecting identities and the stereotypes around Black masculinity.

8: Rocky Horror Picture Show
So, once this book was finally “put to bed,” the first thing I wanted to watch was the scene with Tim Curry coming down the lift in those fishnet hose, tapping his heel. Is the language outdated? YES! But this film continues to empower gender outlaws in their small towns, where they cannot be out – but they can go to the midnight show and feel at home for a couple of hours. I still have students tell me this film changed their lives. It sure changed this trans and queer Okie’s life when I saw it in OKC in 1982!

9: Queen Christina
So, Hollywood tried (with the Hays Code), but they could not erase all of the gender slippage in this one! Greta Garbo. Dressed as a man. An amazing film.

10: Dream Girls & Shinjuku Boys
I am cheating and putting these two together. But they need to go together to see a fully rounded look at gender diversity in Japan. Both are stunning.

11: The Believers
This is a documentary about a trans choir in the San Francisco Bay Area. They are an incredibly diverse group of trans people who have come to a progressive Christian church, where they and their choir are welcomed. An outstanding documentary.

12: Major!
The iconic Miss Major Griffin-Gracy is featured in this fabulous documentary. The film honors our amazing trans elder – and all of her fight and strength and beauty come shining through in this film.

13: Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria
Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman’s documentary about the 1966 San Francisco Riot that pre-dates Stonewall by three years is an outstanding look at the trans community in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco in the late 1960’s. The film beautifully studies the nuances of political difference and disagreement between Vanguard, a radical queer youth group, and many of the trans women in the Tenderloin who were trying to get through each day in the face of racism, transphobia, and police harassment. This film is also really inspirational in an academic context, because it exemplifies the ways that a seemingly small find, hidden in an archive, can lead to a major documentary film and the recovery of a nearly lost history.

Ardel Haefele-Thomas is chair of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies at City College of San Francisco. Haefele-Thomas’s academic work focuses on the intersection of gender identity and gender expression, sexual orientation, race, and class based in part on frameworks and structures of postcolonial and queer theory. They are the author of Introduction To Transgender Studies and coauthor of the forthcoming book Transgender: A Reference Text, with Aaron Devor.

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