Memorials set for trans filmmaker Christopher Lee
by Cynthia Laird
Memorial services will be held in San Francisco and Berkeley this weekend to remember transgender filmmaker and Tranny Fest co-founder Christopher Lee.
Mr. Lee, who in 2002 served as the first female-to-male grand marshal in the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade, died by suicide December 22, 2012 at the age of 48, said his friends Shivaun Nestor and Marie Morohoshi.
Friends and members of Mr. Lee's chosen family said that he suffered from depression and mental illness, but that he was a creative, generous person who would turn up with a surprise gift or help finish a project.
It was his work helping start Tranny Fest – now called the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival – for which many will remember him.
In mid-1997 Alex Austin produced the first LGBT film festival in Oakland called Alternate Vision and in her search for films representing the full spectrum of the queer community, came across one called Christopher's Chronicles that was about Mr. Lee's transition.
"I just fell in love with it," said Austin, who identifies as someone along the butch to trans continuum.
On opening night, which is when she had programmed Mr. Lee's short film, the two met and "just connected."
"It was like a house on fire, we fell in brother love," Austin said.
After conversing and determining that there was enough content, the two decided to put on a transgender film festival and the first Tranny Fest took place that November. Elise Hurwitz served as the first technical director and Nestor was the original webmaster.
"It was very serendipitous that we found each other," Austin said. "As I understand it, it was the first transgender film and cultural event in the world."
The two continued producing the festival until 2002. They brought in Shawna Virago, a trans woman, as a co-director in 2003, and she and her partner, Sean Dorsey, a trans man, took over the festival and remain the co-directors.
Austin, 52, is an arts, entertainment, and media attorney and runs her Austin Law Group business in the Castro. She said one of the highlights of her collaboration with Mr. Lee was that they were successful in including Tranny Fest in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library.
Dorsey, 40, is the artistic director of Fresh Meat Productions and the director of Sean Dorsey Dance. He met Mr. Lee when he moved to San Francisco and volunteered for the 2001 Tranny Fest.
"I remember just making an amazing connection," he recalled, adding that Mr. Lee, Austin, and Virago kept the festival going with no funding in those early years. By 2003, Fresh Meat was a co-sponsor and co-presenter.
Jennifer Morris, who was the programming director at Frameline for many years, said that Mr. Lee was very enthusiastic and had great plans for Tranny Fest. He was able to generate interest in the community so that people would come out and support the festival, and he was able to get volunteers to help out, she said.
People who were interviewed for this article said that one of the proudest moments for Mr. Lee was when he and Virago were chosen as community grand marshals in the 2002 LGBT Pride Parade. The two ran as a team that year, said Virago.
"Christopher and I met and were kind of a certain generation," she said. "I think the 1990s, the key things were the city ordinance around transgender rights, Tranny Fest, and Trans Action, which was exposing police abuse. Those things completely leap out for me. Police violence was long-standing and we were getting it out there. The first time I remember clicking as friends with Christopher was at a Trans Action party in the late 1990s."
A few years later, in 2002, Mr. Lee and Virago found themselves nominated for Pride Parade grand marshal.
"It was fun and exciting. I felt in many ways that we were nominated as wild cards, the two most anarchistic people nominated. We both came from punk rock backgrounds and were about the same age," said Virago, who asked that her age not be printed.
During the public voting that year, the two noticed that the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee had various polling places in the Castro and other gay men-centric places such as the bars.
"We couldn't get anyone to vote for us," she said. "Then we realized as organizers, activists, and artists, we were going to take matters into our own hands. We went to where our communities were – art events and political activism events. It demonstrated, in a way, how out of touch Pride was."
Neither of them had a computer, Virago recalled, but they made up posters, and had parties at the Lexington Club and Cafe Du Nord.
When the public voting was done, Mr. Lee and Virago received the most votes in the recent history of balloting at the time.
"Christopher was really happy then," said Virago. "He got a spark out of that."
Added MeiBeck (Chino) Scott-Chung, a close friend and chosen family member, "He loved it – he'd done so much work on Tranny Fest. I was in the San Francisco Fire Department then and had [then-Mayor] Willie Brown write a commendation for him."
Friends sought help
Friends had tried to help Mr. Lee over the years. Scott-Chung said it would have been better if Mr. Lee received consistent care.
"He suffered from depression and mental illness and I think the system really failed him. There wasn't one person overseeing his medical care," Scott-Chung said.
"Christopher had this huge life force and also had struggles," said Virago.
Scott-Chung and several others pointed out that it is especially difficult to find resources and medical support for transgender patients.
"He was a wonderful person," Scott-Chung said, recalling that Mr. Lee once stayed up all night to finish work on repairing a porch at Scott-Chung's Oakland home for his birthday. "He was that kind of person."
When he was having a hard time, Scott-Chung said that he "tried to connect the dots for him."
"Finding services for transgender people is so challenging, even in San Francisco, the most progressive, open place where they have the most services," Scott-Chung added.
Mr. Lee was living in San Leandro at the time of his death. He had previously lived in San Francisco and other places around the Bay Area.
Mr. Lee was also in recovery for many years, and in that circle he was known as Christoph. Spencer F., Mr. Lee's boyfriend for the past couple months, first met him in 2006. Spencer asked that his last name not be used because he is in a 12-step program.
"He had been homeless and a mutual friend took him up to my neck of the woods and he – or his spirit – brushed up against me," Spencer said.
"He just lit up a room," Spencer recalled. "He was always a sharp dresser – a sharp dressed man."
In addition to Spencer, Mr. Lee is survived by his biological family, father Curtis Lee, mother Helen Lee Rios, uncle Charles Thorne, sisters Sabrina Lim, Roberta Lee, Melinda Tolmie, and Lori VanSteenberge. He is also survived by two loving families of choice: the Scott-Chung family of Oakland: MeiBeck (Chino) and Maya Scott-Chung, their daughter Luna and MeiBeck's mother Teresa Chung; and the Hadley Carranza family: Jae Carranza/J Zapata, Cosmo Joseph Hadley Carranza and Lisa Marie Hadley.
In San Francisco, a celebratory gathering will be held at 1 p.m. Saturday, February 2, which was designated Christopher Lee Day by Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Scott Wiener, at El Rio, 3158 Mission Street.
In the East Bay, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and at-large City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan have designated Sunday, February 3 as Christopher Lee Day. Also on Sunday, a healing and release ceremony (non-alcoholic event) will be held at 3 p.m. at the Center for Transformative Change, 2584 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. For updates, visit www.facebook.com/christopherleememorial.