She’s A Boy I Knew: Transgressing Gender, Transforming Film

Despite the barrage of media in our daily lives, when it comes to trans stories we haven’t been given much that reflects the lives of actual transpeople. Ignorance is still so widespread that if you’ve ever taken a queer theory class you’re now an instant expert (even though, like most people, you probably still have no idea what the hell Judith Butler is talking about).

Media folks are so invested in sensationalizing transsexualism that they have missed the point completely. As a result, the overwhelming majority of trans portrayals foster attitudes of pity and ridicule instead of genuine understanding. There’s plenty of room for a debate over whether this misrepresentation is conscious or unconscious, but who really cares? The fact is that most trans-narratives lack authenticity because they have been told from a heterosexual majority viewpoint. Sadly, unless you’ve known a trans person (or you are one), your insights have probably been gleaned from a narrow slice of biased third-party media.

Thankfully, there’s a film out there that changes everything — from what you thought you knew to what you really need to know. Unabashedly personal and politically articulate, She’s A Boy I Knew is a “highly subjective documentary” about Vancouver filmmaker Gwen Haworth’s transition from male to female. In 2000, Haworth came out about her female gender identity and decided to document her transition. Foregoing state-of-the-art equipment in favour of a hand-held HD camera, She’s A Boy I Knew began as the final project for Haworth’s graduate film degree, and ended up an award-winning documentary.

Candid interviews with friends and family, interspersed with archival family footage and playful animation make She’s A Boy I Knew an emotional story of love, family and affirmation — without the cliches of victimization and tragedy that weigh down so many other trans-narratives.

 

“We need to continue to create and support diverse proactive representations of our communities that push beyond the compromised mainstream images,” says Haworth. “This is key. I’ve seen a disproportionate amount of films where the trans characters are isolated from loved ones, due to non-acceptance. The cinematic over-representation suggests it’s the acceptable norm and perpetuates unnecessary family rifts by setting people up to expect the worst.”

One example Haworth offers is the ever-so-common depiction of transwomen as street-level sex workers. While this is the reality in some cases, the over-representation of transgendered folk as budget-rate hookers is extremely problematic, reinforcing to the public that gender-variant people are destined for a life of struggle and hardship. Unaware of the ramifications of stereotyping transpeople in this way, even well-intentioned filmmakers can end up perpetuating stigmas that are desperately in need of deconstruction.

As both filmmaker and subject of She’s A Boy I Knew, Haworth has a unique perspective that manages to fill the void of trans-narratives told by real-life transpeople. By chronicling her transition from both behind the camera and in the eye of the lens, she manages to convey (with equal measure) the big picture and the nuance of the precarious journey of gender transition. By embracing the awkward moments no less candidly than her triumphs, Haworth embodies strength in vulnerability and captures the essence of the human condition. Her journey is endearing and empowering, tackling the convoluted notion of gender identity with a hard-won honesty and complete absence of political pretext.

While the film is undeniably poignant, perhaps the most powerful aspect arises from Haworth’s recognition that her transition is located in a realm somewhere beyond the normative standard of gender expression. Haworth is not only aware of the myriad social and economic factors that influence the well-being of transpeople, but she readily acknowledges the privileges she has been granted.

“There have definitely been a number of socially-determined privileges that have been bestowed on me for no other reason than being born assigned-male and able-bodied in a white, lower-middle class, Judeo-Christian family in fairly liberal Vancouver,” she explains. “It becomes an accumulative advantage thing. Not continually confronting discrimination throughout my early life has undoubtedly opened a number of doors and afforded me a generally positive outlook.”

Personally, I’d say that “generally positive” is quite the understatement. Haworth radiates a keen sense of eternal optimism, and it is clear within minutes of meeting her face-to-face that she has a passion for social justice and a deep appreciation for the people she connects with through her work with harm-reduction organizations.

“The personal and political overlap a great deal for me,” she states. “Just summoning up the courage to come out about my gender identity had a huge political bent. Knowing how much I feared that people would have transphobic reactions if I came out left me wondering how many people out there were also tacitly assuming that I, especially before I was out, may be potentially transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic, etc. How often do we self-silence due to our own ego’s fear of what we presume others will think when we could be each other’s allies?”

Conscious of the need to address transphobia with a multifaceted approach, Haworth sees film as a form of “pre-emptive activism” — a medium that can act as both a tool for education and the development of personal connections and intentional community. Finding the tipping point is not easy. With so much emphasis on the challenges faced by transpeople, it can be hard to strike a balance that accurately depicts a transperson’s experience without perpetuating the stereotype of the socially damaged individual.

“I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be tragic or heavy stories,” says Haworth, “but hopefully they focus on individuals with personal agency and character growth beyond obsessing over their gender identity or reacting in a damaged way to discrimination.”

Whereas many trans stories lack the contextual character development needed for genuine insight into the process of honouring one’s true gender, She’s A Boy I Knew is a film dedicated to the task. As gracious as she is inspiring, Haworth is a prime example of how — with a little time and a lot of courage — personal transformation can result in a love that is more stable than gender.

You can watch She’s A Boy I Knew and read an interview with Gwen on BuskFilms.

The Trailer:

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Lindsay has written 4 articles for us.

41 Comments

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    I saw her film years ago at Gender Odyssey conference in Seattle and loved it. Easily my favorite trans documentary, I usually find them meh. Would like to watch it again.

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    All around excellence! A deeply courageous film absolutely worth seeing. Gwen, you make the world a better place! And a very well written and articulate article by the talented Ms. Lindsay if I may say so.

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    Hi. The film looks really great. Sorry to be a stick in the mud, but I feel like the beginning of the article too easily equates a critique of homophobia with an acceptance of trans* issues. As sexual identity and gender identity are to some degree separate, it doesn’t follow that someone who is gay/lesbian/queer is necessarily more accepting of trans* folk than straight people. A heterosexual view point (even a “majority”) one could present an authentic transgender experience even while being homophobic. By which I mean, I know some straight people who are totally cool with my trans issues, but are nonetheless homophobic. I’m not heralding my support for heteronormative/sexist etc transnarratives here, but hey, shit happens.

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      ^Excellent point Jamie. I also want to say that there tends to be a trend in many queer circles to (maybe indirectly) dis trans people who aren’t queer or gender variant ID’d. As much as I passionately believe all of us deserve to have our gender identities/expression respected no matter where on the spectrum we dwell, believe it or not, the overwhelming numbers of binary-ID’d trans people are not trying to oppress or put down non-binary people. That’s kind of like blaming black people for homophobia.

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      While I toootally agree, I think what the author is getting at is that the heterosexual “majority” viewpoint already doesn’t present authentic transgender representation, otherwise this film wouldn’t stand out so much. The oddball good films from heterosexuals (that sounds weird…) are just that, oddballs who better understand. Although I am not sure where the homosexual majority viewpoint is, since the lesbian/gay communities have often ignored trans* issues, but if someone is queer I hope they’re down with transfolk since queerness is not only about sexuality but also gender (as a performance, as long as we’re mentioning Bulter anyway). Which is pretty deviant and not like the majority.

      so yeah, maybe the problem is just that trans-narratives lack authenticity because they are from the general “majority” viewpoint. and not trans people.

      rambling, but once I figured it out I couldn’t just not post

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    Y’all who haven’t seen it: go rent it at http://www.buskfilms.com as soon as poss. It didn’t win so many audience awards at film festivals for nothing! It’s a totally lovely movie. Some of you might recognize me as the one who always pops up and nags you to visit your local queer film festival – this is the kind of great stuff you are missing!

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    Hello there! Thanks for the insightful comments. Perhaps I can clarify a few things… By pointing out the fact that a lot of trans-narratives are told from a heterosexual viewpoint, I am in no way insinuating that this means they are all intrinsically trans or homophobic. I am merely addressing the need that there needs to be more trans-portrayals that come from first-hand sources. Like I mention later in the article, “well-intentioned filmmakers can end up perpetuating stigmas that are desperately in need of deconstruction.” I believe this is true regardless of the sexual orientation and gender expression of the filmmaker. Like Jaime pointed out, we cannot assume one’s politics based on their sexual orientation and/or gender expression, and I recognize that often the greatest sources of judgement come from within the queer community itself, as a kind of knee-jerk reaction to needing to claim identity as a means to visibility.

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      @Lindsay,

      You’re so right about good intentions meaning squat. I guess I still have an issue with mentioning “heterosexual” which in some way which suggests other non-trans queer people have some special understanding of trans issues or lives. That hasn’t been my experience at all. And the vast majority of films about trans women have been made by gay men (with very mixed results). Moreover, I have found a quite a few people in the queer community have some pretty screwy views on medical/surgical transition (viewing it as ‘mutilation’ or fake) or towards trans people who don’t ID as queer. Sad to say, I’ve met a good number of queer women who are ‘okay’ with trans women so long as those women identify first and foremost as transgender queer persons but not cool if those trans women ID primarily as women. :(

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      1st-hand sources on transness are trans sources. 2nd-hand sources are cis ones, not hetero ones. People can be cis and any orientation. The viewpoints on transness being hetero ones do not at all make them remotely less 1st hand.

      That is pretty simple.

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    isn’t this a site for lesbians and bi women. why do you all consistantly publicize transgendered issues on this site. trans want to be seen as men so they are no longer women which means they aren’t lesbians. im over it. trans issues are highjacking glb issues.

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      If the queer community can’t find the time to be allies to the trans* community, who will? Aside from all that; this particular story (and all of Annika’s posts as well) are about lesbian mtf trans people so seem very relevant.

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      whoa whoa whoa. There is so much wrong with your comment.

      My understanding is that site is generally geared towards queer women but open to everyone and makes a point of being inclusive. Trans* issues are often intertwined with queer issues. Also, I believe this particular trans* woman is queer, not that that should matter though. ALSO, trans* issues get unfairly thrown under the bus when it comes to a lot of queer activism.
      ALSO,this site also talks about awesome things and sometimes those things aren’t all about lesbians but the point is that they are awesome. This particular documentary is awesome.
      ALSO, this site has not one but two amazing trans* bloggers (or contributors,columnists..whatever).Perhaps you should read what they write and see them as people and not “the others.”

      If you want a site that deals pretty much exclusively with lesbians and bisexuals (not queers) and butch/femme dichotomy and all the assumptions that go with those, go to AfterEllen.

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      lol @ “trans issues are highjacking lgb issues”

      Since when have trans* issues been a priority in the LGBTQ community? I’m not saying there aren’t people who make them their most important issues, but typically trans* folk get left in the dark… AS is amazing that they cover a wide array of issues that effect queer folk – they just happen to focus on girls who like girls.

      Plus, not all of us trans* men are straight/former lesbians. I’m pretty damn gay, kthx.

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    OMG this movie looks sooo goooood. I am really sick of melodramatic representations of LBT folks and queer women being the only representations.

    I know we are all in this together. I totally love this article, but have a word usage question. I think that “lack authenticity because they have been told from a heterosexual majority viewpoint” conflates gender and sexuality. Being transgender doesn’t mean you can’t identify as straight. I don’t think the “heterosexual viewpoint” is the part that makes it inauthentic, but the “cisgender viewpoint”? Or maybe both?

    Also, please please never stop talking about trans* topics on AS!

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    Thank you for bringing this film to my attention. It’s great timing because I’m dead set on learning about trans*topics. I had never really given it much thought before being a regular follower of AS. And documentaries rock!

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    FINALLY a film about a transgender woman that’s not into men… As a transgender woman myself that’s married to a woman, I was disappointed that every film out there thus far always showed the transgender characters as being sexually into men, and it bothered me, because I felt it created stigma and stereotype. I look forward to seeing this film.

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      The film Prodigal Sons is another documentary starring a trans lady who liked girls if you want to watch it. It’s not really the best in my opinion; it turns out to be way less about her and a lot more about her brother. But it’s representation, yo!

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    This looks amazing! I’m really frustrated right now with my job and how people are still gossiping about a surgeon who is FTM and has been passing for over THREE years! So anything that has good education and positive message about trans people makes me super excited even though I’m sure the nurses and doctors that keep gossiping will never see it. Oh well. Sorry for the rant.

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    This is just an incredible film. I was totally blown away by the frank honesty of everyone in it. There is no feeling that people are editing their emotions for social acceptability, or to spare one another, and yet they are not cruel; they speak their truth as kindly as possible, and always respectfully. It allows everything to be laid bare in a way that families are seldom able to do with one another, because it makes us so vulnerable. It must have been terribly hard to speak those words, and also terribly hard to hear them.

    What a strong, fantastic family. And what a strong fantastic woman Gwen is, to be able to take their words on board without anger and resentment.

    I think what makes this film unique is not just the perspective, but this astonishing emotional openness. I feel privileged to have looked through this window into their lives.

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    I saw this a couple years ago at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, and it is ABSOLUTELY FREAKING FANTASTIC. I lucked out as the filmmaker was present and did a q&a after as well.

    Go see this movie.

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    i saw ‘she’s a boy i knew’ because my classmate suggested to me. it is well filming and directing. gwen did an awesome job as her familly and friends participations were just amazing.

    moving in vancouver really open my mind about trangender. this movie showed that we kind of live in a open minded city.

    thumbs up

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