Drew Burnett Gregory is back at Sundance, reporting daily with queer movie reviews from one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Follow along for her coverage of the best in LGBTQ+ cinema and beyond.
Watching Jules Rosskam’s experimental documentary, Desire Lines, I had to remember there was a time I didn’t know trans people could be gay.
It feels absurd now. While I certainly know some straight trans people, the vast majority aren’t just queer, they make dyketactics or faggotry — or both! — their entire personality. But, once upon a time, I questioned my own ability to be trans, because I had only dated women and my understanding of transness was still shaped by the theories of 20th century pioneering cishet doctor Harry Benjamin.
Desire Lines is about Ahmad (Aden Hakimi), an Iranian American trans man, embarking on his own queer journey through gay and trans history. He arrives in a liminal space of an archive run by a transmasc named Kieran (Theo Germaine) — an archive that literally transforms into the past taking Ahmad from looking at a photograph to suddenly being in a bathhouse.
Ahmad is learning about the history of cis gay men and the history of transmasculine people who fuck cis gay men and figuring out where he fits in. As he researches — and time travels — the film embraces more conventional tools of documentary like archival footage and interviews with a wide variety of queer transmasculine people.
Of course, Lou Sullivan is a major part of Ahmad’s journey and the film’s archival footage. And while there may be nothing new in this inclusion for trans people who have been out for a while, it’s worth noting that the only documentaries that exist about Sullivan are still the two shorts by Rhys Ernst (watch here and here). He may be famous in the community, but he’s not famous in the world at large — which means he’s not famous for trans people who are either new to their transness or new to that part of trans history.
Many of the interviews feel similar. Not much in Desire Lines hasn’t already been said at many trans hangouts. And yet, there’s still a value to having these varied experiences captured on-screen.
Ultimately, that’s what the film is about: the importance and magic of an archive. It’s about the experience of discovering there have always been others like you and the necessity to make this experience more accessible for all.
For queer trans guys who are not in community with other queer trans guys, I can imagine there will be an immense comfort in hearing such a vast range of relationships to one’s genitalia, to the types of sex one has, to what words are used during sex, and to who people have sex with. It can be a cinematic version of that first trans party you attend when you learn not only are you not alone, but you’re actually kind of cliché.
And for trans people who are not in need of this education, there’s still something touching about witnessing a character go on this journey. The dreamy sequences that take place in the past are lovely, especially an erotic moment between the two lead actors in a recreated bathhouse.
To be trans is to constantly be discovered. Every decade cis people act as if we’re new and every year a trans person invents themself and finds our history. The longer I’m out — approaching seven years — the more exhausted I am by the former and the more heartened I am by the latter. Every newly out trans person deserves a Kieran guiding them through the archive.
At least, until there are enough Kierans and enough Ahmads to change the world and this history is known to all.
Desire Lines is streaming on the Sundance virtual platform January 25-28.