Photo: Gregory Pace/BEImages.
You could argue that gender fluidity and acceptance of transgender people is at all all-time high in the cultural zeitgeist. Austrian singer Conchita Wurst won this year's Eurovision in May, and Laverne Cox made history in July when she was nominated for an Emmy for her role in Orange is the New Black. Chicago's LGBT international film festival, Reeling32 — the second oldest of its kind in the U.S. — isn't just embracing this positive trend. It's looking to take it to exciting new places.
This year's slate for the week-long festival includes three narrative films, one documentary, a series of six shorts that all focus on transgender story lines — more than it has ever screened in its 30-plus year history. Why the sudden shift? Festival director Alexandra Ensign says she received more trans-themed entries this year, something she believes is due in part to media coverage reaching a critical mass where the narrative is no longer negative. "We're finally seeing transgender people not as the subject of hate crimes, or in a tragedy," she explains.
Take the opening night feature, Boy Meets Girl, a coming-of-age story that Ensign describes as "organic, optimistic, and charming." The romantic comedy, which is set in a small Kentucky town and stars trans actress Michelle Hendley, centers around three people. Two are cisgender; all are looking for love.
Photo: Courtesy of Reel22.
The film's writer, director, and producer Eric Schaeffer explains that he wanted to make a movie that "people of all genders and orientations" could enjoy. (It seems to have worked: Boy Meets Girl has won 16 awards in the 17 festivals it has played since June.) He was also hoping the film would help "squash the stereotypes" about how the LGBTQ community is treated in the South. Hendley's character Ricky dreams of becoming a fashion designer in New York, but she's not looking to escape her hometown for reasons that are different from any other 21-year-old girl. Boy Meets Girl will screen in select cities across the U.S. this winter.
It has been 15 years since Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, the tragic indie film based on the murder of Brandon Teena, simultaneously blew away and devastated critics and audiences. Since that time, darker themes and story lines have had time to disseminate throughout Western society. Ensign believes that we're seeing more optimistic stories being told now because transgender people are suddenly more visible in all industries, from film director Lana Wachowski to the punk band Against Me!. They are seen winning awards and contributing to both the arts and sciences (like lawyer and science entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt), which has allowed for a shift in the cultural taboos about gender and transsexualism.
"We're in a cultural upswing," Ensign says. By upswing, she doesn't just mean that LGBTQ characters are featured in popular mainstream TV shows or the focus of Tony Award-winning musicals. Now you have ex-Navy SEALs like Kristen Beck and whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning entering the public consciousness, too. The political landscape has altered in recent years: In 2012, at least 30 states banned LGBTQ marriage; now it's legal in 19 states, and this year, 13 states ruled the original bans unconstitutional. The right to live, marry, and be a happy, productive member of society is becoming available to all people, regardless of their sexual orientation and gender. This year's festival reflects this optimism and acceptance, and it's an attitude the rest of the country should aspire to emulate.
Reeling32 runs through September 25. The film schedule and ticket information can be found here.