The following post is part of Blog for International Women’s Day hosted by Gender Across Borders. This year’s theme is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.”
Trans-girls of color need to be a part of how we mark International Women’s Day, especially in a year when the theme is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” Often absent from our discussions about girls’ education and girls’ empowerment programs, trans-girls remain invisible to our re-imagining of a dynamic and inclusive future for all girls.
That’s why today I screened the film Gun Hill Road (2011) for my high school students taking my LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) literature and film class. Winner of the Best Acting Ensemble Award at the Ashland Independent Film Awards, Gun Hill Road features the story of a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx whose patriarch, Enrique, returns from prison only to learn gradually that his son, Michael, now identifies as a young woman, Vanessa.
As a queer teacher of color, I personally feel a responsibility to bring a range of narratives about the LGBT experience, especially those that have an intersectional lens of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, to my students, who themselves acknowledge that the queer images they see in the media are too often of white, upper middle class Will & Grace types. For me, screening a film about a young Puerto Rican trans-girl is imperative for teaching students that we need to disrupt mainstream narratives of what it means to be queer, young, and of color in today’s transphobic, misogynistic, and racist world.
In addition to illustrating the struggle between Vanessa and her father, the film offers opportunities for educators to have important conversations about gender and sexual identity and bullying in schools. In one locker room scene, Vanessa is taunted by her peers both in Spanish and English, where phrases like “metemelo” (put it in me) and “don’t forget your panties” are hurled. Scenes such as these should give educators the opportunity to discuss important issues such as sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.
Indeed, according to GLSEN’s (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educator’s Network) 2009 climate survey: “90% of transgender students heard derogatory remarks, such as ‘dyke’ or ‘faggot,’ sometimes, often, or frequently in school in the past year.”
Educators should also note scenes related to discussing bathroom accommodations for transgender youth as well as safe sex practices for all queer youth.
As part of the screening, Rashaad Green, the director of the film, also came to speak to my class. When asked what his goal was in portraying the life of a trans-girl, Green responded:
It’s not necessarily a coming out story. I think when we meet Vanessa, we meet somebody who is pretty realized in her own journey. She can’t be who she wants to completely to her own family. But she knows who she is.”
I found this sense of self-actualization to be true in the scenes where Vanessa performs spoken word. In one scene, her poetry reveals not only her need for her father’s acceptance but also her desire to be seen as she truly is: “I’m begging right here for you to see me . . . see me.”
My student Aaron said that he found Vanessa’s transformation on stage as a transgender poet important for understanding her character:
To see her change our of her clothes, recite her poetry, and completely bare her soul was powerful.”
Rashaad was impressed with my students’ overall reaction to the film: “The masses aren’t as progressive as say, this school is. At other schools, I’ve had to preface the material, they aren’t necessarily ready to accept Michael’s transition.”
While it may be true that not all schools are progressive as the school where I teach, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard towards creating safe spaces where these discussions can be had for students and teachers in all settings. If we really want to create schools that allow students to learn without fear and anxiety as well as support families that are accepting of all our children, then Gun Hill Road certainly provides an excellent starting point to create those spaces not just today on International Women’s Day but throughout the entire year.
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