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Facing Race Panel
Interviewing Isis King
I had an alter ego named Keisha when I was 10 years old. Like me she had bouncy tendrils and a flirty disposition, but unlike me she could present as female to all of our friends.
She was someone that I hid as a tween. She didn’t have a space in my house, where Dad ruled. I was his son, Keisha didn’t exist to him – until a boy who knew her knocked on our door and asked for Keisha, whom Dad soon discovered was me.
I remember the glare in Dad’s eyes upon this discovery. He flashed a look that frightened me because it was a complex mix of love and shame and rage. My father didn’t understand why God gave him a son who was such a sissy, a kid who skipped around the house with his hips swaying and his wrists limp.
That boy at our door who unknowingly outed Keisha was a public acknowledgment of things Dad had known my entire life: that I was different. And because I was different, I needed to be fixed.
Dad grabbed me by my arm and forced me into the bathroom, sitting me on the toilet. In tears, I pleaded, “Daddy please please…” He plugged in his clippers and a buzzing noise cut through my cries.
“You’re not supposed to be this way,” he pleaded in return. “You’re my son.”
More than 18 years later, I can’t sit in barbershops. The sound of buzzing clippers still haunt me, and Rashaad Ernesto Green’s trailer for Gun Hill Road tore those long-healed wounds open. There’s a scene where Vanessa (played by newcomer Harmony Santana) has her curls lopped off by her father (played by Esai Morales) who doesn’t understand why his son Michael is “this way.”
“You’re a man, Michael,” Vanessa’s father pleads. “You’re not a fucking woman. This shit is gonna end.”
That heartbreaking scene was the sole motivation as to why I pre-ordered tickets for Gun HIll Road‘s New York premiere at the Angelika Theater on Aug. 5, where I watched a Bronx family in transition: a man (Morales) is released from prison to resume his duties in a home where his wife (played by Judy Reyes) has been a single mother for three years, raising their teenage child (Santana), a trangender teen boldly taking steps to embody her female self.
Gun Hill Road is a brave film, one that courageously attempts to begin a conversation for communities of color, where their children, brothers and sisters are grappling with family, gender, body and sexuality, where being LGBT is a solitary struggle no one speaks about.
“It’s made for the folks who need it most,” the writer-director said of making the film for the blacks and latinos he grew up with during the opening night Q&A, where a heavily-banged Santana demurely stood in a curve-hugging LBD.
Unlike her character in the film, Santana had blossomed and was becoming fully self-possessed. Though she was just as shy as Vanessa, she was no longer a woman living in the in-between. She was a young woman, who bravely allowed cameras to follow her as she marched on her road to womanhood.
Though I was delighted to see a vibrant trans teenager in transition, getting the chance to live life as a young woman (a journey I myself knew all too well), I don’t believe a $13 admission was sufficient enough to watch Santana unfold, explore and physically transition onscreen.
Where did Vanessa begin – and Harmony end? I wondered.
WARNING: SPOILER ALERT
“What makes this film particularly savory is its combination of gritty realism and the ambiguity that pervades reality,” Dr. Jillian Weiss, whom I sat next to at the premiere, wrote in her review for the Bilerico Project.
And it’s that realism that left me perplexed as I left the theater.
It took me nearly two weeks to write this post. I applaud the filmmaker and the cast and crew for making a film that finally rings true to my adolescence and that of many others, and showing that many vulnerable trans youth are not only battling their own bodies and gender norms but also struggling to still be themselves while also having love for their family, who often times don’t understand why they are “this way.” Though Vanessa’s struggles are her own, she dances an intricate choreography of her own self-fulfillment and of that of those closest to her.
It took me so long to write this because I feel that no cisgender person can “replicate the grunts, moans and groans” of a trans person, as Maya Angelou wrote in a foreward to Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on the Road, where she argued that a “learned” white person could not tell a Black persons’ story.
Many African-Americans are currently at battle with The Help, and I understand the complexity of this racial issue with author Kathryn Stockett using the voices, stories and struggles of 1960s-era black domestic workers to tell a story she feels is important to her upbringing.
During my graduate studies at NYU, I read this passage from Angelou – yet it hasn’t fully resonated until now:
It is rather astounding that so many noninformed, or at best partially informed, yet otherwise learned personages have felt and still feel that although they themselves could not replicate the grunts, moans and groans of their Black contemporaries, they could certainly explain the utterances and even give descriptions, designs and desires of the utterers.
This passage sums up my feelings in regards to a “best partially informed” cisgender writer-director, who says he wrote it “based on a family I knew who went through a very similar situation,” aiming to tell the story of a young transgender person (with few societal/economic privileges beyond her attractiveness) in a family unit. I know from experience, first-hand, that even the most well-intentioned cis writer can make mistakes when communicating the nuances in a trans person’s journey, as evidenced in my gripes over my own coming out story. It takes a man or woman who has been there to truly tell our stories, hence the steady stream of memoirs and autobiographies about our people, about our struggles in our own voices.
In the film, Vanessa has a fierce determination to embody her true self: she dates a sex-focused man who gives her money for her transition; she injects her behind with street-bought hormones; and she naively and dangerously gets “pumped” in her derriere by a woman who is obviously not a doctor. She encounters many dangers to fully embody Vanessa and leave Michael behind.
That’s the character we are moved to root for. Then Green, in my opinion, takes creative liberty and butches her up in certain instances towards the close of the film, even going as far as having her father drag her to a female prostitute where she begrudgingly allows the woman to fondle and “please” her. This sexual assault of a scene leads to a heartbreaking shot of Vanessa tearfully hurting herself in the shower.
The final scene in the film is of a newly shorn Vanessa in a bicep-revealing tank top running towards her father on the street. To me, despite the hormones and the lip gloss and short-shorts that have gotten much screen time, the ending symbolizes this young trans woman running back to Michael, her male self.
Gun Hill Road began a much-needed conversation in a community that doesn’t yet know they need to have this discussion. But it also left me with many unanswered questions.