Transgender documentary subjects shaping 'hirstory'

Professor Chris Holmlund will use images and clips to examine ten documentaries made with and about transgender elders who worked for visibility, equality and justice in the USA during 1950-80.

A few of these people are still alive, still activists. Many are dead. In every film, however, we see and hear them 'making conscious, informed choices about the best way to live their own embodied lives' (Stryker and Bettcher, 2016).

Each film catalogues the violence, harassment and discrimination directed at and fought against by gender variant people. Most emphasize the ways that class, race and age impact people and inflect categories like 'gender' and 'sexuality.' Several recognize that how their subjects have described themselves and been described - and treated - has changed. All rewrite or avoid the transphobic tropes dear to earlier mainstream films.

Taken together, the films emphasize how complicated visibility is as a tool of political power. Each intentionally offers only a piece of transgender history, of transgender 'hirstory,' refusing a universalizing, one-size-fits-all, explanatory, master 'his-story.' Importantly, their focuses - and their omissions - suggest strategies for today’s pioneering LGBTQ+ subjects as well as media makers to reflect upon, adapt or adopt.

Professor Chris Holmlund is Professor Emerita in Cinema Studies, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and French at the University of Tennessee.

This event is made possible through the kind support of the Leverhulme Trust.