against a trans narrative. Directed by Jules Rosskam. Chicago: Video Data Bank, 2009. 61 minutes.

American Transgender. Directed by Leslie Schwerin. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2012. 45 minutes.

Trans. Directed by Chris Arnold. Pasadena, CA: SexSmartFilms, 2012. 93 minutes.

Transilience. Directed by Joelle Ruby Ryan. Durham: University of New Hampshire Health Services, 2012. 40 minutes.

Reviewed by Peter Cava with David Jacobsen

“Our Lives Are Normal Now”: Contemporary Trans Documentary Film and the Feminist Classroom

In “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” Sandy Stone critiques transsexual autobiographies for reinscribing medical narratives about transsexuality and calls for transsexual people to deconstruct these narratives.1 In the decades following the 1991 publication of Stone’s manifesto, trans documentary films, such as American Transgender,Trans, against a trans narrative, and Transilience, have been sites for the construction and deconstruction of gendered and racialized narratives. These films can serve as excellent objects of analysis in the feminist classroom.

American Transgender and Trans, the more mainstream of the four films, invite views into several trans lives. For example, viewers may remember Clair Farley, whom American Transgender features prominently, from the 2007 documentary film Red without Blue, and they may be pleased to learn of Farley’s recent life events.2 Through sympathetic representations, American Transgender and Trans perform the valuable cultural work of eliciting compassion. In this regard, American Transgender could be usefully juxtaposed with National Geographic’s more sensationalistic treatment of trans people in a 2012 episode of Taboo, which places trans genitalia on display through a CGI simulation of genital reconstruction.3

Although American Transgender and Trans are sympathetic, they are politically problematic. For example, in American Transgender, the lives of numerous trans people are edited into a coherent narrative that culminates in a trans marriage. The marriage is crosscut with an interviewee stating, “Our lives are normal now. All of our lives are normal.” This editing constructs perceived normalcy through the institution of marriage as the telos of  “all of our lives.” Therefore, this film could be combined with “Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got,” by Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade, to frame critical classroom discussion about the role of marriage in contemporary gender and sexual politics.4

Further emphasizing a narrative of progress, Trans repeats the following sequence three times: first, one or more racially minoritized trans people experience severe oppression; then, one or more white trans people pursue medical transition or form a nuclear family. Insofar as this sequence follows a “tension-resolution” structure,5 it constructs white people’s medical transitions and nuclear families as resolving trans oppression. In doing so, it elides an intersectional analysis of oppression and it effaces the agency of trans people of color. To enhance classroom discussion about the racial dimensions of trans politics, instructors could show this film when they assign “Retelling Racialized Violence, Remaking White Innocence,” by Sarah Lamble.6

In comparison with American Transgender and Trans, against a trans narrative and Transilience are more distinctly subcultural. against a trans narrative is an avant garde pastiche of selections from interviews, from dramatizations, and from roundtables, all centered on transmasculinity. One of the filmmaker’s techniques is to encourage viewers to believe that they are watching an interview, only to reveal that they are watching a dramatization. They are thus prompted to ask, in what sense might other trans documentary films—or, more broadly, other iterations of gender—follow a pre-established script? This question could be examined in relation to Gender Trouble, by Judith Butler.7

against a trans narrative’s roundtable segments could serve as springboards for classroom discussion. An excerpt about lesbian communities could be paired with “Of Catamites and Kings,” by Gayle Rubin; an excerpt about identity politics, with “Intersectionality and Identity Politics,” by Kimberlé Crenshaw; an excerpt about privilege, with Just One of the Guys? by Kristen Schilt; and an excerpt about feminism, with “Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory,” by Cressida Heyes.8

Whereas against a trans narrative actively deconstructs the conventions of trans narratives, Transilience simply sets these conventions aside as the filmmaker, Joelle Ruby Ryan, tells their9 life story on (and with) their own terms. For example, although Ryan’s 2003 film, TransAmazon: A Gender Queer Journey, explicitly critiques the expectation that trans people will undergo gender confirmation surgery, Transilience lacks any mention of medical transition. 10 This lack may frustrate viewers’ attempts to define trans people by their surgical status.

If Transilience is not about transitionas conventionally defined, then what is it about? According to Ryan’s definition of the titular portmanteau, it is about the “transgender resilience” that gender-nonconforming people must call upon “to survive a world in which we are mocked, defamed, pathologized, verbally assaulted, beaten, raped, and murdered simply for being who we are.” The film’s autobiographical vignettes detail how Ryan’s transilience has been sparked by textures, colors, sounds, and tastes, such as ruby red grapefruit juice, which inspired Ryan’s middle name. This observation could be considered alongside “Beauty Laid Bare,” by bell hooks, to facilitate classroom discussion about the role of aesthetics in political struggle.11

Transilience concludes by highlighting Ryan’s journey from women’s studies student to women’s studies lecturer. For many feminist educators and students, the film’s conclusion may raise the fundamental question of what place “trans” has in the feminist classroom. An exploration of this question could be aided by Toby Beauchamp and Benjamin D’Harlingue’s “Beyond Additions and Exceptions.”12

In the posttranssexual manifesto, Stone describes transsexual people as being written and as writing.13 Through interactions among trans subjects, filmmakers (who may or may not self-identify as trans), and viewers (who may or may not self-identify as trans), trans documentary films exemplify the push and pull of trans people being narrated and narrating. Interrogating these processes, as well as discussing the films’ other themes, can deepen one’s understanding of the films, of gender, and perhaps even of oneself.

Thank you to Marjorie Jolles for recommending a resource and to Dennis Hall, Heather Murphrey, and Jane Caputi for their feedback on earlier drafts.

1 Sandy Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifeso,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, ed. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle (New York: Routledge, 2006).

2 Red without Blue, directed by Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills, and Todd Sills (Los Angeles: Cinema Libre, 2007).

3 Taboo, “Changing Gender,” season 9, episode 12, first broadcast 30 September 2012 by National Geographic.

4 Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade, “Building an Abolitionist Trans and Queer Movement with Everything We’ve Got,” in The Transgender Studies Reader 2, ed. Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura (New York: Routledge, 2013), 653–67.

5 On “tension-resolution systems,” see Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your Own Life (New York: Fawcett Books, 1989), 76–88.

6 Sarah Lamble, “Retelling Racialized Violence, Remaking White Innocence: The Politics of Interlocking Oppressions in Transgender Day of Remembrance,” in Transgender Studies Reader 2, 30–45.

7 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 2006).

8 Ryan uses the third-person singular pronouns they, them, and their. Joelle Ruby Ryan, e-mail message to the author, 1 July 2014.

9 Gayle Rubin, “Of Catamites and Kings: Reflections on Butch, Gender, and Boundaries,” in The Transgender Studies Reader, 471–81; Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Intersectionality and Identity Politics: Learning from Violence against Women of Color,” in Feminist Theory: A Reader, 2nd ed., ed. Wendy K. Kolmar and Frances Bartkowski (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 533–42; Kristen Schilt, Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Cressida Heyes, “Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender,” in Transgender Studies Reader 2, 201–12. Thank you to Marjorie Jolles for recommending Crenshaw’s article.

10 See TransAmazon: A Gender Queer Journey, directed by Joelle Ruby Ryan (Durham: University of New Hampshire Health Services, 2003).

11 bell hooks, “Beauty Laid Bare: Aesthetics in the Ordinary,” in To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), 157–65.

12 Toby Beauchamp and Benjamin D’Harlingue, “Beyond Additions and Exceptions: The Category of Transgender and New Pedagogical Approaches for Women’s Studies,” Feminist Formations 24, no. 2 (2012): 25–51.

13 Stone, “The Empire Strikes Back,” 232.

Peter Cava ( is a PhD candidate in Florida Atlantic University’s (FAU) Public Intellectuals Program; FAU’s Lynn-Wold-Schmidt Peace Studies Fellow; and a contributing author for Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies (Wiley-Blackwell, forthcoming).

David Jacobsen is an MA candidate at the City College of New York’s Study of the Americas program. He is also a member of the European Graduate School’s MA program in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he has studied with Avital Ronell at length. He plans to pursue a PhD in the fall.