Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 16, 2020

For They Know Not What They Do

Filed under: Film,Gay,religion,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:46 pm

After having reviewed well over a dozen narrative and documentary films over the years making the case for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, none has moved me as much as “For They Know Not What They Do” (Jesus’s words at his crucifixion) that opened yesterday on iTunes, Amazon and virtual cinema. The documentary tells the story of four young people growing up in strict Christian households, who face both opposition from their families and society as a whole. They say that the key to a successful documentary is choosing subjects that an audience can relate to. That being the criterion, director Daniel Karslake, a gay man, is a pure genius. We meet in turn:

  • Linda and Rob Robertson, fervent evangelicals who put their 12 year-old son Ryan into conversion therapy.
  • Life-long Presbyterians, David and Sally McBride, who were shocked when their youngest boy came out to them as a transgender female.
  • Coleen and Harold Porcher, a mixed-race couple whose child suffered endlessly until they accepted her transitioning to a male identity.
  • Victor Baez and Annette Febo, whose Catholic tradition and Puerto Rican family values put them at odds with their gay son Vico, who was one of the survivors of the homophobic mass murder of people in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

In “Anna Karenina”, Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” His classic novel created fictional characters whose pain spoke for the human condition universally. Karslake’s film speaks to the particular pain of both parents and children coping with the contradictions between the religious beliefs that sustain them and the right of their children to live as fulfilled human beings.

In 2007, Karslake directed “For the Bible Tells Me So” that covered the same territory. It featured interviews with several sets of religious parents with gay children, including former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and his wife, Jane, and the parents of Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Robinson is featured in “For They Know Not What They Do”, making the case for tolerance. Robinson is famous for being the first openly gay priest to be consecrated as a bishop in a major Christian denomination, in his case the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Although the film says nothing about his background, one gleans that Robinson’s class background disposed him toward a genuine Christian sensibility based on the notion that the meek shall inherit the earth. His parents were poor sharecroppers working the tobacco fields in Kentucky. Wikipedia reports that the family used an outhouse, drew water from a cistern, and did laundry in a cast-iron tub over an open flame.

Although I found the story of all four families compelling, Sarah McBride’s store brought me close to tears. Born as Tim McBride in 1990, he sat at his computer when he was 12 years old sending an email to his mother announcing that he wanted to be a girl. Despite society’s animosity toward trans people that the film rightly likens to the attitudes gay people had to put up with before Stonewall, Sarah was self-assured and willing to put up with abuse. While the abuse hurt, it even hurt more to be trapped in a body that does not feel you belong in.

McBride is currently the National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign. Today the New York Times reported that she is set to be the nation’s highest-ranking transgender official, having won a primary for a safely Democratic seat in Delaware. As much as I detest the Democratic Party, I was happy to see footage in the film of her  being the first transgender person to speak at a major party’s national convention in 2016. Hint, it wasn’t the Republican convention.

The film includes a segment that would likely inspire guffaws from Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. While working at the Center for American Progress, McBride met a staff lawyer named Andrew Cray who she felt attracted to and vice versa. As it happens, Cray was born a female and transitioned into a male. When you watch the two walking hand in hand, you wonder what makes people like JK Rowling tick, whose new novel makes an amalgam between crossdressing and its main character, a serial killer. Not long after the two were married, Cray developed multiple forms of cancer and died in 2014. Just before his death, the two got married with the ceremony led by Bishop Gene Robinson.

There was a time when Hollywood made movies about gay people, largely as a nod in the direction of diversity. None were any good, no doubt a function of the dominance of straight people in the driver’s seat either as director, screenwriter or lead actor. It takes a documentary like this to not only do justice to gay and transgender identity but to tell a totally involving story. Not to be missed.

July 21, 2020

Transgender people and the Harper’s Open Letter

Filed under: Black Lives Matter,Harper's Open Letter,transgender — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

A number of critiques of the Harper’s cancel culture open letter have referred to the presence of transphobic signers such as JK Rowling, the British author of the Harry Potter novels. Less well-known is Atlantic contributor Jesse Singal, who is into “concern-trolling” against trans kids. In other words, seeing teens as not having the capacity to decide whether they can make the right decision about transitioning. Of course, when 40 percent of them attempt suicide out of misery, maybe there should be some leeway. Another is Katie Herzog, a freelance writer who was focused on “detransitioners”, those small number of people who regretted their decision and then began identifying with their birth sex again. All three have been “cancelled” for their positions but none has suffered any professional consequences.

Five days after my critique of the open letter appeared on CounterPunch, which had virtually nothing to say about transgender, an article by Robert Jensen appeared there as well. Jensen, a professor emeritus from U. of Texas best known for his articles on foreign policy, defended the open letter and particularly the grievances of people like JK Rowling who have been supposedly victimized for their opinions on transgender issues. A local radical bookstore in Austin cut all ties with him and other speaking engagements have been canceled. In the past, I haven’t gainsaid such actions since they are a democratic right. No matter how much Max Blumenthal complained about bookstores canceling a reading because of his support for Assad, this was not “McCarthyism”. McCarthyism would be, for example, Hollywood screenwriters or professors being fired for signing a petition for the Popular Front in Spain.

Jensen has been writing such articles over the years for CounterPunch and other magazines. In 2014, he wrote one that labeled transitioning medical procedures such as surgery and hormones as contrary to ecological principles as if someone desperately trying to change their sexual identity had something in common with climate change. You might get the idea from such a claim that Jensen has his head up his ass. If you look at his newest article, that take will be reinforced. He writes:

One of the basic points that radical feminists—along with many other writers—have made is that biological sex categories are real and exist outside of any particular cultural understanding of those categories.

If you click the “radical feminist” link, you’ll arrive at an article in Spiked Online titled “The trans ideology is a threat to womanhood” by Meghan Murphy. I guess you can tell from the title that this is openly transphobic. In November 2018, Murphy got booted from Twitter after referring to a trans woman as “him”. She had consistently been using the wrong pronoun and using pre-transition names for transgendered people. I haven’t been following the JK Rowling controversies but I doubt that there’s much difference between her and Murphy.

As for “other writers”, that link takes you to the Wall Street Journal article titled “The Dangerous Denial of Sex”, an opinion piece by Colin M. Wright and Emma N. Hilton. The brunt of the article is to establish that there are two biological categories for sex and that is anti-scientific to accept a transgender person on their own terms. Of course, it wasn’t too long ago when psychologists and scientists held the same rigid views on heterosexuality as a norm.

I come to these discussions not as a theorist but as someone who developed an appreciation for transgender issues as a film critic. Although I never got around to reviewing “A Fantastic Woman”, this great 2017 Chilean film tells the story of a transgender female whose older male companion dies unexpectedly. Excluded from his funeral and left without any support that a married woman might benefit from, the titular character asserts her rights both as the man’s significant other and as a human being deserving respect in her own right”. The film is available on Amazon Prime. More recently, I saw “The Garden We Left Behind” that, like the Chilean film, stars a transgender actor. My review begins:

For most people on the left who are supportive of transgender rights, including me, there’s still little understanding of the realities of transgender life. Having gay friends and comrades is ubiquitous but unless you count a transgender person as part of your social circle, your knowledge tends to be based on what you’ve read about the well-known such as Chelsea Manning. To get that understanding, there’s no better place to start than Flavio Alves’s “The Garden Left Behind” that will be available as VOD on December 13th (Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc).

It stars Carlie Guevara as Tina Carrera, a transgender, 20-something, undocumented Mexican immigrant living and working as a gypsy cab driver in Queens, a far cry from the superheroes, mafia gangsters, ingenues, and cops that you can see in the typical Hollywood movie. Even though Tina’s grandmother Eliana accepts her without qualifications, she still calls her Antonio, a function more of long-time family ties than prejudice.

Unfortunately, the film is not yet available on VOD.

Finally, there is “Changing the Game”, a documentary about transgender teens competing in various sports and putting up with the resistance from parents who feel that they are cheating. This is one of the major issues facing such kids today. My review began:

Like Flavio Alves’s narrative film about a transgender female, “Changing the Game” is a much-needed documentary that will open your minds to one of the most despised minorities in the USA. In this film, we meet a trans male and two trans females who are high school students competing in wrestling and track respectively. As you may know, this has become a major controversy lately as parents of cisgender athletes demand their expulsion from competitions. Mack (born Mackenzie) has been forced to compete with cisfemales even though his deepest desire is to wrestle other boys. That mattered much more to him than becoming the 110-pound class Texas state champion in 2017 and 2018. What makes this film so great in addition to the utter honesty and magnetic personalities of its principals is the support they get from their parents or, in Mack’s case, the grandparents who adopted him after his mom could not provide adequate financial support. They are quintessential Red State personalities but utterly on his side. The grandmother is a cop and the grandfather is a good old boy in bib overalls but don’t let their appearance fool you. Every word out their mouth spells compassion in capital letters.

Like “The Garden We Left Behind”, the film is not yet available on VOD. Keep on the lookout for them.

Most of the articles on the left written about transgendered people involve a lot of theorizing about gender, the biology of sex, psychoanalysis, etc., with references to Judith Butler and a lot of professors writing for specialized journals. I can recommend Richard Seymour’s article in Salvage titled “None Shall Pass: Trans and the Rewriting of the Body” that is roughly divided into two parts. The first part I found most useful since it answers people like Robert Jensen. The second part was an attempt to apply Lacanian psychoanalytic theory to transgender people, which was above my pay grade, I’m afraid. But this snippet from the first part should motivate you to look at the article:

For many who style themselves as ‘trans-critical’, however, being trans is either a delusion or a pretence. “The physical transformations created by hormones and surgery,” Sheila Jeffreys, asserts in Gender Hurts, “do not change the biological sex of the persons upon whom they are visited.”
Jeffreys makes no attempt to argue for this point, but in the past she would not have been expected to, as the state would have agreed with it on the grounds that ‘natural’ sex was the only legitimate basis for heterosexual marriage. Jacqueline Rose recounts the case of April Ashley at length for the London Review of Books, in which the judge made exactly this distinction, claiming that Ashley’s vagina was simply not big enough to accommodate a penis. Anne Fausto-Sterling, in Sexing The Body, describes a similar case in which a marriage between a man and “a woman born without a vagina” was annulled on the grounds that the artificial vagina was only two inches deep, and sex of this kind was a “quasi-natural connexion” to reduce a man to. It is notable that this unexpected convergence of heterosexist, patriarchal reaction with the politics of a militant lesbian feminist takes place around the ‘naturalness’ of the body.

Needless to say, these issues will remain with us for the foreseeable future since the Republican Party will exploit transphobia to win votes for a losing cause.

It is not only the Republican Party that is transphobic. The Socialist Workers Party, a group I belonged to for 11 years, has the same reactionary politics as Robert Jensen. In a recent issue of the Militant newspaper, you can read this assessment of the Supreme Court ruling on a LBGT case:

The decision as issued strengthens the hand of those transgender campaigners who argue that sex is a subjective feeling, not an objective fact, and seek to pillory and threaten anyone who says otherwise. It deals a counterrevolutionary blow to the fight for women’s emancipation.

It also weakens the overall fight to end discrimination against gays and lesbians.

None of these fucking stupid articles take into account the massive sympathy that is developing for the right of people to adopt a sexual identity that allows them a certain amount of gratification as opposed to the daily torture that leads so many of them to suicide. I’ve been retired from Columbia University for nearly a decade but stop occasionally for yearly “international luncheons” in which employees bring meals from their home countries. Yeah, Columbia is big on diversity. Get used to it, Walter Benn Michaels.

When I stop in to take a pee, I get satisfaction out of seeing a sign on the door asking people to use the bathroom whose gender they identify with. As you might expect, an Ivy school is going to be ahead of the curve on something like this. But what if you were a transgender female with a factory job? What would it be like to be forced to use the men’s room because you still had a penis? In most cases, you might get a punch in the mouth. Even worse, if you walk down the wrong street, you might get killed. A March 28th article in the Daily News was titled “Transgender woman fatally stabbed in the neck in Harlem; friend believes she was killed over a wig” Can you believe that? Killed over a wig?

Some commentators took issue with the Harper’s Open Letter showing up during a massive movement against killer-cops. As good liberals, they probably support it but for the kind of support that really matters, you have to appreciate the massive outpouring for Black transgender people at a BLM protest in Brooklyn shown in the video above. It took place on June 14th, the day before Jensen’s wretched article appeared. The NY Times reported:

One speaker at the rally was Melania Brown, sister of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who was found dead in 2019 in a cell at Rikers Island.

“Black trans lives matter! My sister’s life mattered!” Brown said in her speech. “If one goes down, we all go down — and I’m not going nowhere.”

Black transgender people not only bear a disproportionate burden of police violence but also face high rates of violence and harassment on the street. The American Medical Association said last fall that killings of transgender women of color in the United States amounted to an epidemic.

Two more black transgender women nationwide were killed in less than 24 hours while the event was coming together. Dominique Fells, 27, known as Rem’Mie, was found with stab wounds in Philadelphia on June 8, Rolling Stone reported. A day later, Riah Milton, 25, was found shot multiple times in Liberty Township, Ohio.

None of these realities impinge on the articles written by the Open Letter signers, Robert Jensen or any other transphobic leftists. From now until a socialist revolution triumphs in the USA, you can bet that transgender people will be on its side. Just as long, of course, if our movement has the wisdom and the courage to stand up for their rights.

November 26, 2019

The Garden Left Behind

Filed under: Film,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

For most people on the left who are supportive of transgender rights, including me, there’s still little understanding of the realities of transgender life. Having gay friends and comrades is ubiquitous but unless you count a transgender person as part of your social circle, your knowledge tends to be based on what you’ve read about the well-known such as Chelsea Manning. To get that understanding, there’s no better place to start than Flavio Alves’s “The Garden Left Behind” that will be available as VOD on December 13th (Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc).

It stars Carlie Guevara as Tina Carrera, a transgender, 20-something, undocumented Mexican immigrant living and working as a gypsy cab driver in Queens, a far cry from the superheroes, mafia gangsters, ingenues, and cops that you can see in the typical Hollywood movie. Even though Tina’s grandmother Eliana accepts her without qualifications, she still calls her Antonio, a function more of long-time family ties than prejudice.

Tina’s dream is to become qualified for the hormone treatments that will make bring her body into alignment with her mind. To be eligible, she has to be cleared by a licensed physician who can properly evaluate whether there’s a case for gender dysphoria, a condition that describes the distress a person feels due to a mismatch between their gender and biological identities. Dr. Cleary, Tina’s doctor, is played by Ed Asner who turned 90 this month and is as great as ever playing a professional who can be patronizing and caring at the same time. In one scene, the two discuss what it means to be happy. After posing the question to her, she puts the ball back in his court: she asks what makes him happy. His answer focuses on family and career. Why it is so difficult to understand that Tina’s dream is simply to live as a woman if that would make her happy? If this physician who has been treating such people for decades can be so uncomprehending, what can we expect from the rest of society?

Despite her being in limbo between two sexual identities, Tina has a boyfriend who presumably accepts her on her own terms. Ostensibly straight, Jason is a successful professional who finally takes her out to dinner after months of intimacy. When Tina texts him the good news that Dr. Cleary has given her the green light for hormone treatments, he cuts her out of his life. We can only assume that it was her androgynous qualities that turned him on.

This is not the only man who has ambivalent feelings toward Tina. When she shops at a neighborhood bodega, the cashier named Chris gazes longingly at her but must conceal his feelings in order to maintain his friendship with a group of local youths who jeer at Tina whenever they see her walking down the street. The boys play baseball together and hurl homophobic insults toward each other in typical locker-room fashion, even if they sense that Chris is different.

The only man who seems able to connect with her in the way that all transgender people would welcome is Kevin, the owner of a neighborhood bar. Played against type by the 62-year old Michael Madsen, his character epitomizes the decency that many New Yorkers exhibit. When he mentions to her that he needs to hire a new bartender, she offers herself as a qualified applicant. Without blinking an eye, he tells her to get behind the bar and make a Manhattan, which she does effortlessly. The job will pay better than driving a gypsy cab and all bodes well for her future.

Her abuela (grandmother) Eliana, however, does not like living in Queens and would like to return to Mexico where life is easier and where she can tend to the garden she left behind. Since Tina has lived in the USA since the age of six and enjoys the fast-paced and open-minded atmosphere of NYC, she does not share the same longings.

We soon discover that despite Kevin and other good-hearted New Yorkers, there are many filled with hatred toward the “other”. When the target is both trans and a Mexican immigrant, the hatred is multiplied. A transgender Latina woman named Rosie has been beaten up by the cops and Tina is drawn into a movement to halt such attacks. To cast the movement activists and Tina’s best friends, director Flavio Alves took the extraordinary measure of hiring transgender people to play these parts. He also drew in transgender people into the making of the film. It is also worth noting that funding for the film came from an eBay campaign, the first of its kind.

In an interview with “Eye for Film”, Alves, a Brazilian who came to the USA for political asylum, described his motivation for making such a film:

Just like all my films, The Garden Left Behind is about marginalised and overlooked members of our society. When I was making this film I thought yeah, let’s try to tick as many boxes as possible, because it is hard to be a trans woman but it is much harder if you also happen to be undocumented, you know? Especially in the US, there are so many people who flee persecution, especially from Central or South America. They come to the US and they don’t have the papers. They live among us and it’s very sad, you know? At one point in my life I was undocumented, so I know what it’s like to be an outsider and that’s the reason why I made this film… I feel that it’s my obligation to bring to the forefront stories that reflect not only my experience but the experience of marginalised communities.

On December 13, look for “The Garden Left Behind” on VOD. It is my choice for one of the best films of 2019 and will likely be yours as well.

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