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Transmissions: Striking gold

by Gwendolyn Ann Smith

Daniela Vega, second from left, stands on stage at the Oscars after "A Fantastic Woman," which she starred in, won the best foreign language film award. Photo: Courtesy AP
Daniela Vega, second from left, stands on stage at the Oscars after "A Fantastic Woman," which she starred in, won the best foreign language film award. Photo: Courtesy AP  

To be transgender in 2018 is to deal with challenging, difficult times. We face attacks from all sides, and the specter of death itself lays heavy upon our community. As a result, I find I often have to spend a lot of time ringing the alarm bells, and warning of dire times.

Yes, it is just as important to take a moment to step back and realize that, in spite of the adversity, we are gaining ground.

I think back to when I started out in the transgender community, such as it was at the time. We met in back rooms of hotels or in shadowy clubs, if at all. We were wholly outside the mainstream, and the notion of being "out" as trans was utterly foreign. Our role models were few and far between, as scarce as rights to protect us, or organizations willing to support us.

Today, we're seeing a bumper crop of amazing transgender people in public roles, including politicians like Danica Roem; authors like Sarah McBride, Jenny Boylan, and Janet Mock; and actresses like Laverne Cox.

Movies and television have churned out a constant stream of bad "cross-dressing comedies" where a person - usually male - was appearing as a female in order to deceive someone and/or get something. All of this seemed to be borne out of the popularity of the 1959 movie "Some Like It Hot," where the main characters - on the run from witnessing the St. Valentine's Day massacre - join an all-female, traveling musical act. The same tropes powered films like "Tootsie," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Juwanna Mann," "White Chicks," and so many more forgettable movies. This was when they weren't making films featuring cross-dressing murderers like the Buffalo Bill character in "Silence of the Lambs."

In those days, we in the trans community were liable to cheer on a movie like "The Crying Game," which featured a trans character played by an actor, Jaye Davidson, who was androgynous in appearance and gay-identified. The film itself was, for many, a breakthrough - even if it still relied on deception tropes and had a male lead character so repulsed by Davidson's character's transgender nature that he vomited on screen.

Over the last few years, we've seen a new type of film take hold, one that features actual trans characters, rather than the capers of the stereotypical "man in a dress" comedies. We've seen characters like Rayon, portrayed by Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club," or Eddie Redmayne's take on Lili Elbe in "The Danish Girl." I think this came out of the success of Hilary Swank's groundbreaking portrayal of Brandon Teena in "Boys Don't Cry," coupled with an overall increase in trans awareness over the last couple years.

Of course, all of these still have an issue: the transgender characters are played by people who are not themselves trans, and who are all identified with their character's birth gender.

But we're seeing a new category opening up, the next step beyond these stories and a sign of how far we've come since the late Robin Williams donned a pair of falsies and a gray wig.

In the 2017 film "A Fantastic Woman," Daniela Vega, a 28-year-old trans woman from Chile, played Marina, who is a transgender waiter and singer. Also out in 2017 was "Strong Island," a true crime documentary directed by black trans man Yance Ford, and telling the story of his brother's murder and the subsequent denial of justice by an all-white jury.

Both of these follow other recent works, most notably "Tangerine" in 2015, which featured a black trans woman, Mya Taylor, playing a black trans woman in the lead role.

When one talks about the transgender comedies above, it is worth noting that "Some Like It Hot" was nominated for several Oscars, and both "Tootsie" and "Mrs. Doubtfire" took home Academy Awards. Likewise, "Some Like It Hot" has been listed more than a couple times as the best comedy of all time. These accolades are likely what fueled so many other films to try to mine this trope for moviegoer dollars.

The same may be said for films like "The Danish Girl," "Dallas Buyers Club," and others, thanks to the success of "Boys Don't Cry." Swank's portrayal garnered her Oscar gold and helped make her the star she is today. It is easy to assume that these other films were banking on similar success, and indeed, "The Danish Girl" garnered a nomination for Redmayne, while Leto won best supporting actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club."

This is why I point at films like "A Fantastic Woman" as the next step, because it, too, struck gold at the Oscars, as it won as best foreign language film earlier this month. Vega was also part of the show, introducing one of the musical numbers, the first time an out trans woman had done so at the Academy Awards. It's well worth noting that the director of "Strong Island" was nominated for an Academy Award as well.

In these times where we see so much pushback against trans rights, with an administration so hostile to transgender people, among so many others, we can and should take hope when we see wins like this. What's more, this isn't - and shouldn't - be the apex, no more than the less-than-stellar "Crying Game" was back in 1992.

Now is the time for a trans-led, trans-starring film focused on trans issues to make it big and cement the next wave of trans films, where we tell our stories, and we can truly be the next big thing in cinema.

We're in an era where in spite of all the adversity we're facing, we're showing just what we're made of - and we shine like gold.

Gwen Smith teared up seeing Daniela Vega at the Oscars. You'll find her at www.gwensmith.com.

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