Queering the Canon: Where Are All The Trans Rom-Coms?

The two genres I enjoy working in most are horror and romcoms. They are polar extremes — showcasing our greatest fears and our greatest desires. And yet trans people have been largely absent from both — except as one-note jokes and villains.

That’s why it was such a joy to moderate this panel as part of Newfest and BAM’s Queering the Romcom entitled “Where Are All the Trans Romcoms?” It’s time trans people get to showcase our desires, in all their variety, in all their complexity, in all their possibility.

Rhys Ernst, Rain Valdez, and Eva Reign join me as we discuss the trans romcoms that do exist, what we’ve sought out in the absence of more, and what this lack says about society’s views of trans people.

Here is a Letterboxd list of all the films discussed in the chat.

Watch here. Transcript below.


Nick McCarthy: Greetings. My name is Nick McCarthy and I’m the director of programming here at NewFest, New York’s leading LGBTQ+ film and media organization and one of the curators of Queering the Canon: Rom-Coms, running April 28th through May 2nd, both virtually nationwide, and at BAM in Brooklyn. This series is presented by NewFest and BAM. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to this virtual conversation, titled Where Are All the Trans Rom-Coms? with an esteemed panel of artists and filmmakers. We’d also like to thank our friends at Autostraddle for helping make this conversation possible.
Now, it’s my pleasure to introduce the collaborator and the moderator for this conversation, a writer, critic, filmmaker, and co-host of the podcast Wait, Is This a Date?, Drew Gregory.

Drew Gregory: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining us. I’m so excited about this panel and our panelists. I’m just going to jump right in and introduce them. First, we have Rhys Ernst. He is an Emmy-nominated artist and filmmaker, the director of Adam, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and screened at NewFest, in addition to winning awards at Outfest, Oslo Fusion, the Mezipatra Film Festival, and was nominated for a 2020 GLAAD award. Rhys?

Rhys Ernst: Hello, thanks for having me.

Drew: Next… Sorry. Are we supposed to see… Okay, great. Can you-

Rhys: Hi, I wasn’t sure if I was on camera. Hi. Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Drew: Thanks for being here. Next, we have Eva Reign. She’s an artist, actress and activist. She’s the star of Billy Porter’s upcoming directorial debut, which is a high school-set romantic comedy that’s set to be released later this year.

Eva: Hey.

Drew: Hi, Eva. And finally, we have Rain Valdez. She is an Emmy-nominated actress and filmmaker. She’s the writer and star of the 2019 rom-com web series Razor Tongue, and is currently in development on her directorial debut, a trans-led rom-com titled Relive: A Tale of an American Island Cheerleader.

Rain: Hi.

Drew: Hi, Rain. Thank you all so much for joining me. I’m really excited about this conversation because I love rom-coms and I love trans media and I love talking about how we need to improve both of those things. I want to start off by… Okay. I put together a list of trans rom-coms that do exist. Maybe we can disagree about whether they should be considered rom-coms or trans, maybe I forgot things, but I just want to start off by listing them off. So, first, Adam, then Alice Júnior, Better Than Chocolate, Boy Meets Girl, Girl Stroke Boy, Holy Trinity, and Some Like It Hot. Have we seen these? Do we like these? I’ve seen and like Adam, I’ll say that right here, but how do we feel about this list? And did I forget anything?

Rhys: I would add Victor/Victoria.

Drew: Ooh.

Rhys: I don’t know if people have seen that one.

Rain: Yeah, there’s some bad ones from the ’80s and ’90s that I don’t want to list, but I think we talked a little bit about them on Disclosure. But that’s a good list.

Rhys: Yeah.

Eva: I haven’t seen most of the things on that list. I’ve seen Adam. I’ve seen Boy… yeah, I’ve seen Boy Meets Girl. Aside from that, everything was kind of new to me, but, yeah.

Drew: Yeah. I don’t know. I just watched Girl Stroke Boy, have any of you seen that?

Eva: No.

Drew: It’s a British movie from the ’70s that is like a riff, I guess, on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but I think is actually a little bit sharper. But as that list shows, there’s not a ton out there. So I’m curious what each of you have turned to in the absence of explicitly trans rom-coms. We can start with Rain.

Rain: Hmm. Well, first of all, I did see Adam. I loved it. And I saw Boy Meets Girl. I’ve seen that. It’s been a few years. I didn’t necessarily think that was a rom-com, but I saw it kind of gearing towards that genre, that people refer to it as a rom-com and I just kind of agreed. I’m like, “Yeah. Yeah.” But it’s more like an indie vibe. But I appreciate it for what it was.

Rain: There isn’t very, to be honest with you, in terms of trans-specific rom-coms, there isn’t anything that I gravitate to, but there are a lot of old classics that I can see from a trans lens because of… The thing about rom-coms is there’s always this high-concept conceit. There’s always this ruse or a lie or something. And so, for me, I can easily find myself relating to some of the rom-coms that are traditionally done by white creators and has Julia Roberts in it or Sandra Bullock. Because of that high-concept conceit, I can level up my imagination and kind of see myself in them.

But in terms of an actual go-to, I don’t really have any, sadly.

Drew: You don’t have a favorite, even among not trans rom-coms, but of those old Hollywood or even newer Hollywood rom-coms, do you have a favorite rom-com in general?

Rain: I do, yes. Oh, so that’s what you mean by that question?

Drew: What have you latched onto in the absence of trans rom-coms?

Rain: Well, I always thought Pretty Woman was very trans allegorical or whatever, because any trans woman who’ve seen that movie can relate to Vivian Ward or Kit De Luca. Maybe because they’re sex workers, which is a narrative that we haven’t really quite seen before in terms of that genre, and having it also be aspirational. And because they weren’t specifically cis or trans or anything like, in my imagination, I was just like, “Oh, Julia Roberts is playing a trans woman.” So I can enjoy it from that perspective because of the whole conceit of they’re doing this thing for a week, but then also they don’t want anybody in the Beverly Hills circle to find out what she really is. I found myself being able to relate to that, and then having a little bit of shame when people do start to out to find out. She started to… Well, she got angry about it and she almost left the whole thing because of that sense of betrayal of him saying something to his lawyer friend about what she is.

For me, it’s always in these high-concept rom-coms or movies that is somewhat rooted in identity that has a little bit of a shame to it, but then ends up being aspirational. The Little Mermaid, for example, I don’t know if that’s a rom-coms necessarily, but it kind of is, even though it’s Disney and it’s animation and it’s… To me, Ariel is the ultimate trans girl, because she identified… Well, she was born a mermaid, but identified as a human and did everything she could to become that person, and ended up having a better life because of it, or at least a happy ending. So things like that.

Even with, I think one of my favorite Sandra Bullock ones… Well, actually there’s two. It’s While You Were Sleeping and The Proposal, which are very similar to each other, because, again, there’s this high-concept conceit, there’s this ruse, there’s this lie. As the stakes get higher, there’s more of this pressure of making sure that no one finds out that she’s been lying this whole time. But then, as she falls in love with the family and the family falls in love with her, there’s this duty to tell them the truth about who she is or how she got there, in hopes of letting them know that, “I need to tell the truth because I love you all too much.”
Because of those ideas and concepts that are very similar… Like, The Proposal is very similar to While You Were Sleeping, it’s just a different ruse, it’s just a different lie. But I think a lot of people can relate to that or at least find that connection. At least I have been able to, which is kind of why I think I love rom-coms so much, because…

Drew: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Rain: Yeah.

Drew: Eva, what about you? Do you have a favorite?

Eva: Well, The Little Mermaid is definitely one of my favorite films. I literally have a mermaid tattoo on my leg just because… yeah, I think just the whole notion of starting out as one thing and then turning into another and then having issues with the bottom half. Just all of those sorts of things, it’s like super, super trans. So yeah, The Little Mermaid is something I’ve watched a dozen times. Fairy tales in general, I think there’s a lot for trans folks to pull on, just this whole notion of magic, changing, being something different than what people say that you are, and breaking the rules to do that. I think those are the sorts of things I’ve definitely latched onto.

Growing up, I couldn’t really find myself in film or anywhere on television or even, really, in books. So I just tried finding as many queer movies as possible. Most of it I found on Tumblr, not legally, but it was there. I mean, I was always just trying to find some sense of self and anything queer. A lot of just super indie movies that don’t get a ton of press, but yeah, those are the sorts of things I’ve latched onto. I think also comic books and also even just other cis-centric narratives, I try to find something there.

I can’t really think of anything at the moment, but yeah, any love story, I’m kind of obsessed with because I’m just sappy that way. A lot of movies from the ’90, 2000 to 2004 stuff, with Sanaa Lathan, and just a lot of movies that were, I guess, thought of as Black Hollywood, those are the things that I latched onto because that’s something that I can see myself in. Maybe gender-wise, it’s not super specific, but yeah, those are the sorts of things that I’ve always latched onto, really just looking at any sort of media. I guess anything grounded in something real, but that still has that sense of flair to it is what I would look to.

Drew: Rhys, you mentioned Victor/Victoria. Are there any others that even are less trans?

Rhys: Yeah. Well, I wanted to touch on the point that other people have mentioned about The Little Mermaid, because I thought that was a really interesting one to bring up. I wouldn’t have thought of it as romantic comedy, but it is, that does really work. However, the original, the Hans Christian Andersen story doesn’t have a happy ending, of course, and the mermaid… It’s actually quite sad.

For me it brings up something I was thinking about with this question, which is, Rain, you mentioned the problematic ’80s rom-coms that we can put to the side, but some of those to me, as a trans person, I think are both problematic and quite interesting, in particular some of the gender-swap ones, like-

Drew: Right, I want the titles. Let’s talk about them, even if we’re-

Rhys: Yeah. I feel like there could be a lot more said about some of these ’80s gender-swap movies that we grew up on, and what did they do to us as trans people, or how do we feel about them? Maybe that’s what you’re getting at here with this whole panel. But Just One of the Guys, Strawberries, there’s others. Those are the main two. Ladybugs was Jonathan Brandis joins an all-girl soccer team, so he dresses as a girl. Just One of the Guys is the reverse of that, where a girl cross dresses as a guy and then of course falls in love with the guy on the other side. In both of those cases, it’s kind of like The Little Mermaid. Well, they don’t die at the end, but they don’t get their love. Or actually that’s not true. They do… I guess I’m sort of misspeaking. They get the girl, get the guy, but they have to go back to the way they were before. It’s sort of a unhappy ending. It’s annoying for us as trans people, that was what we grew up on.

One that I came across more recently, that I think is really interesting, is called Something Special / Milly/Willy. Do you know about that one?

Drew: I do. I actually just watched it this week for this panel.

Rhys: I actually really like it. Jenni Olsen turned me onto it. Jenni, who’s a queer/trans historian and filmmaker, she owns prints of it. We did a talk after the film… Because it’s one of these gender-reversal rom-coms, mistaken-identity films from the ’80s, but it’s kind of weirdly… I don’t know what you think about it, Drew, but I think it’s almost weirdly… It’s just a touch ahead of its time. I mean, it still falls back where the main character de-transitions, but not exactly. The main character sort of ends up non-binary or something in [inaudible 00:16:29] way for an ’80s rom-com. I guess we could get into a whole conversation about that film in particular.

I think it’s interesting to look at particularly the ones that deal with gender directly, and how in the past what we see as queer and trans people, that justice was not served, in fact the wrong thing happened at the end in that these protagonists had to de-transition or didn’t get the girl or something like that. But how do we think about that and course-correct it? And also just think about how those affected us as young people, watching those films. Not just in all bad ways, but in complex ways.

Drew: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think what’s interesting about that movie is, at the end, when she de-transitions, her hair’s still short. Pamela Adlon plays the kid, and even still now she has such a tomboy aesthetic. So it’s not convincing at all. She’s in this dress and you’re like, “Okay. Give it another year and I think you’re going to be a boy again.”

Rhys: Asymmetrical haircut or something like that.

Drew: Yeah.

Rain: Yeah, I remember that one. Yeah. Pamela Adlon, short hair at the end with the dress, yes, I do remember that one. I’m glad you guys brought that up.

Rhys: It’s sort of a lost jewel, almost. I mean, it’s kind of a weird film, but it’s interesting. You can find it on YouTube. The whole film is on YouTube. You can watch.

Drew: I mean, it also goes to me including Some Like It Hot, which I think falls into this, I would say. From Shakespeare’s time of cross-dressing rom-coms that are not trans, and oftentimes the cross-dressing is played as a joke, I think, the worst of it is that way and feels really bad. It’s a lot of what I think of growing up with, like even just cross dressing in Monty Python and stuff like that. But Some Like It Hot, for me, whenever I revisit it, the joy that Jack Lemon has being a woman makes it feel so trans to me. I’m like, I don’t know if it’s supposed to be played as a joke, but it doesn’t feel like that’s the joke. But I don’t know how we feel. Are there ones in that sort of genre, whether it’s a Shakespeare play or a movie from the ’80s, that you really love, and are there ones that you still remember as being sort of traumatizing?

Rain: I mean, I do love that you got that perspective From Some It Hot, because I got the same perspective. It’s a movie that I enjoy watching. I had my my acting class, we did, over the pandemic, we did like a book club kind of thing where we’ll watch a movie and we’ll talk about it. That was one of the movies that we watched and we talked about over the pandemic. I do appreciate how they just carefully crafted it so that it didn’t feel jokey or like a costume. At the end, with that line on the boat, it was just so sweet and it was just so gratifying. It was just so different from all the other movies that I was watching, growing up, that at the end of that movie I didn’t feel bad about myself.

Drew: What about you, Eva?

Eva: I can’t think of anything from the ’80s, but I don’t know if you all have seen Billy Elliot, the movie about the boy who starts dancing. His best friend, Michael, would play with gender and dress. I watched that movie when I was 10 and I always thought that Michael would grow up to be a trans woman. In the last scene, when they’re 10, 15 years older, he isn’t. I don’t know, that’s just something I’ve always seen as… I don’t know. There’s just different moments where I saw someone assigned male at birth, who was super feminine and it was kind of hinted that they were struggling with gender one way or another, and then either they “manned up” at the end or they were just like a cis gay man in the end. That’s the only thing that really comes to mind.

But yeah, that’s something that I always talk with my friends about, about how Michael was actually meant to be trans. I’ve gone through Reddit threads and there’s other people who have the same thoughts, so, yeah.

Drew: I love that. I love how we find these works and a lot of us will find the same things within them. I mean, I know for me a lot of old Hollywood, like screwball romantic comedies really resonate in a sort of trans way, in this very, I don’t know, basic, maybe even stereotypical way. But as a kid, they were this version of this soft masculinity that like Carey Grant would have sometimes where he was sort of bumbling and sensitive. And then you’d have like Katherine Hepburn being this strong, powerful woman. At the time, I feel I was so drawn to Katherine Hepburn from a romantic sense, because that’s what I was told that I could do, and also because how could I not be, but also then would latch on to Carey Grant.

I think, as I got older, I realized that I was sort of splitting myself. I also feel this way about the before movies, like Before Sunrise and stuff, where I’m like, oh, as a kid, I was equally identifying with both of these characters. It was like my masculine side, which was sort of effeminate, and the feminine side having these conversations and falling in love. It’s interesting to see that oftentimes in romance genre is where we get a soft masculinity because they’re often targeted at cis women, and so you get to have men, or I don’t have to do quotes, I guess, they’re men, men who had some of the qualities that I was bullied for, but they’re lifted up as a romantic lead.

I want to pivot a little to talk about what we think that this absence… Because it’s great that we’re finding this and it’s great that I can watch Bringing Up Baby and be like, “Oh my god, this feels very trans to me,” but it’s not. We can also acknowledge that and be like, “What we deserve and what should exist does not exist.” So, I’m curious, we could talk about what we think this absence represents for society’s views of us, and what it means to be denied this wish-fulfillment love story.

Eva: Yeah. I was actually talking with one of my trans sisters yesterday. We were talking about how, when it comes to finding a partner, especially for cis people, trans folks are not something that really comes to mind. I think the way a lot of us are raised, and it doesn’t even matter class, culture, race, whatever, your partner says a lot about who you are. People have a lot of shame just buried within their own hearts, their own minds. The thought of being with a trans person, I think, is kind of overwhelming for a lot of folks, even those who are attracted to us in whatever way, whether it’s secretive or it is something that they are trying to be more open and public about.

I think a lot of folks… I think trans people, we kind of represent this notion of someone who defied all odds, who deviated from culture and from what the world wants us to be, and people just want their white picket fence, their spouse with the 2.5 kids, and with the dog or a cat. I think the fact that there aren’t a lot of trans rom-coms, or just even the idea of trans dating being this constant topic of debate, scrutiny, I think it says a lot about how people value us and how they don’t want to think of us in that way. I mean, they do, obviously. There’s debates about it on Fox News every other day. But people don’t want to think about us, especially in a positive way and a way of, “Oh, yeah, maybe my son one day will grow up and marry a trans woman. Maybe my daughter will marry a trans man,” or whatever. People…
Ooh. There went my light.

People, they want their perfect idea of whatever, and I think they see us as wrong, as deviant. When people go to see some happy, perfect movie about love, they don’t want to have all of the questions running through their mind that trans folks bring up. So I think it’s a really deep thing. Yeah.

Rain: I agree with everything that Eva is saying. I think it also says a lot about Hollywood and how much influence and power it has over the world, society and culture. Rom-coms to me is the most subversively political genre because it teaches us who gets to be loved and who doesn’t. It teaches us who is deserving of a certain kind of love and a certain kind of partnership. So if we’re constantly centering cis and white and heteronormative, then we’ve just been telling Hollywood or the industry, through this media, has just been influencing and telling the world that these very specific type of people are deserving and are worthy of being loved or being in a relationship or having a happy ending, and, basically, trans people don’t.

So, for me, it’s like that sort of… As a actress and a filmmaker, it’s like it’s been a thing that I’m constantly learning. It’s like, “Oh, it’s maybe not necessarily how we’re perceived or how the majority of the world feels about us, it’s just what we’ve been putting out there in terms of information and conditioning.” So it creates that fear that Eva was talking about, of how people don’t aspire to fall in love with trans people, or that when they do, they think it’s something to be ashamed of.

Rhys: Yeah. I would just add… I agree with everything that both Eva and Rain have said, but also that I just think it’s still a product of so few trans filmmakers being given access to create work. We just have such a bottleneck of… I mean, if we just think of… I was actually trying to think, “Well, outside of rom-coms or what could be construed as rom-com, how many trans comedies have there been made?” And then I’m like, “Well, what about trans genre films like mysteries?” You know what I mean? It’s just like there’s just not that much, period. I think it’s still just… Because I wouldn’t really… What I’m certainly not asking is for cis filmmakers to start telling trans rom-coms. I mean, I don’t know, I’m not saying they’re not allowed to ever if they do an amazing job, but it’s not really what is underneath the ask. It’s about access.

I think we still have this challenge, this catch-22 about recognizable actors and if actors haven’t been given the chance, and then how that’s so connected to financing. So there’s that whole thing, which is very old thinking, I think, and to evolve. It’s starting to evolve in some places. You’re starting to see more underrepresented types of people on streaming and in some films. But we just need to escalate this access, the financial means and material means to make more work. So, yeah.

Rain: Yeah. I definitely think the material is there now, well, with this group of people particularly, but also just with how many filmmakers and actors that are now working their way into the system and into Hollywood. But we just haven’t really found that direct line to financing that bridge of getting just people to really put their wholehearted belief that this is something that could actually work and that people actually want. Because I think we’re still stuck in this idea that, “Oh, well, we already have that one show where we already have that one actor, actress, so why do we need another one? Why are we listening to this pitch?” I think that that’s an archaic belief system as well.

It’s really hard for people to recondition that thinking and get past that, because there’s, I think, there’s an obsession, in a way, to trans people’s origin story, like the transition and the struggle and how that creates an explosive dynamic with their family or their work or whatever, but they can’t seem to fathom that there’s more story to tell beyond that. So we never really get stories about love or healing, or even starting from there and seeing what else is beyond that, because there just isn’t that belief that that’s even warranted.

Drew: Yeah. I’m also interested in the romances that are told in trans movies, specifically, in trans movies that are made by cis people, because that’s mostly what’s existed, at least in the mainstream. The fact that I can think of movies that are explicitly trans and have romantic storylines of sorts, but that I wouldn’t even suggest in a rom-com conversation, because it’s always filled with a lot of darkness. So I also feel that is connected to all of this, like the idea that cis people are very aware that either they or people are drawn to us, but then it’s this idea that it has to be done in a way that’s taboo, in a way that, I don’t know, involves death often, or at least some sort of trauma.

Rain: Yeah.

Rhys: Actually, Drew, can I ask you, because you’re such an expert, I would say, on queer and trans film history and film history in general, do you feel like there’s a parallel to what you just described, like the gay and lesbian films, and how close… you know what I mean, in terms of like 30 years ago with gay and lesbian films, or further back even? Because there was always, for example, the trope of the doomed lesbian romance where one of them dies. So you have some of these parallels with some of the trans romances you were talking about. Do you think that very close or…

Drew: I think it’s really close. I also think it goes to what you were saying about how the goal should be to have trans creators who are getting to tell a variety of stories, because I could see a world where we’re having these conversations, we’re fighting for change, then the changes that happen are done in a way that’s simple. And not to say that there aren’t a lot of really incredible cis queer rom-coms and romances now, because there are, but a lot of them are more independent, and even among films that are independent on a Sundance scale, a lot still tend to be very… They feel straight, but they just are gay. I don’t necessarily want a world where it’s like, “Oh, it’s cis, but we’re casting trans people.” I mean, that’d be great. I obviously would rather that than nothing. But I think all of us here could bring more nuance to what a trans rom-com could look like, in a way that I hope… I hope that’s the future.

But, yeah, I even think about, I don’t know, this other movie from the late ’90s, I think, like Different for Girls. That is probably the closest, I think, there is to… It stars that cis guy as the trans man, but it’s probably the closest-hitting basic rom-com beats. But then it has just brutal acts of transphobia and it’s so unpleasant. It’s as if like you were watching a Sandra Bullock rom-com and in the middle of it, she was brutally assaulted. It would be so jarring and it would not do well. But this idea that even in that version of a cis person being like, “Ooh, let’s take the rom-com beats and apply it to a trans person,” it’s going to be, “We still need that moment. We still need to show the pain.” I just think that there’s such a world in between ignoring the differences of being trans and in love in the world, and acknowledging them in this way that is simplistic and violent and painful.

But, yeah, I definitely think we’re at a place, like we are on a lot of categories, for trans people where cis/queer people were, both the ways that we’re attacked in media, whether directly or through fiction, I think we’re seeing very similar patterns, for sure.

Rhys, I want to ask you about Adam and about whether you were thinking about the rom-com genre when making that. Was that something that was… Do you think of the movie as a rom-com? Now it’s sort of fun because the actor who plays the cis-bisexual girl isn’t cis, and you can read that onto that performer, but were you thinking of it as a rom-com?

Rhys: You know, I actually wasn’t. Well, that’s not totally true. I wasn’t at first, but then, particularly towards the second half of working on it, and when I was really zeroing in on Adam’s relationship with his roommate, Ethan, who’s played by Leo Sheng, that relationship is what I gave the rom-com treatment to. But it was kind of like the secret rom-com of the movie, was the romance between them. Particularly in the edit, I was really working with the editor, like, “Let’s give Adam and Ethan the rom-com pass. We have to really do eye contact when they first meet.” Really we were looking those beats.

But no, I didn’t at first. Even for this conversation, I was like, “Oh, rom-coms, huh. Well, what rom-coms do I even like?” I wasn’t even sure if I liked rom-coms. I had to think about it for a second. I guess I don’t identify as a rom-com fanatic. But then, when I thought about it, a lot of movies I love are rom-coms. It’s a funny thing. I think there might even be some belittlement put on this category because it’s perceived as for femme… I think that there’s a misogynistic lens on how we talk about rom-coms sometimes. But I’m a lover of film in general, so I think we need trans takes on The First Wives Club or something like that and we also need trans takes on really challenging art-house whatever. You know what I mean? And everything in between.

But you all are raising really important points about not only how do viewers identify with perspective and an amorous gaze… Can we have an amorous gaze towards a trans person or as a trans character, one or the other or both? I mean, obviously the gaze is so important to the construction of film history, and it’s been the white cis male gaze for so long, straight, I can add qualifiers onto it. I think it just, in a way, it just takes something to break open. I was thinking about… I just saw the film Desert Hearts recently, which was a… I don’t know if it’s a rom-com. It’s kind of rom-com, right? It’s a romance.

Drew: Yeah. I don’t know if I’d call it a rom-com, but it’s definitely a romance and there’s definitely humor in it, so it’s like-

Rhys: Yeah.

Drew: Yeah.

Rhys: But I guess I was interested in it for many reasons, but one was that it was, I think, the first film that was directed by a lesbian, the first feature, at that time, from a lesbian perspective that depicted lesbians. I think. That’s at least how it was presented in the conversation. I’m not sure if that’s exactly historically-

Drew: Yeah. I mean, I was just at a… Were you at the screening at UCLA?

Rhys: I was.

Drew: Oh, I was there too.

Rhys: You were there too?

Drew: Yeah. But yeah, they did say that. I was whispering to my friends, I was listing off reasons why that’s not true. Because I think we always have this desire to talk about first, but even when we get the first of trans rom-coms, you’re going to be able to go back and be like, “No, there was this British move from the ’70s that we can have mixed feelings about.” Like, oh, Alice Júnior, this Brazilian movie, is so good and hits a lot of those beats. So I think firsts are always a tricky conversation. But Desert Hearts is incredible.

Rhys: No, that’s totally true. I don’t know. I wasn’t really around at the time of when that movie had its impact and so on, but it seemed like… Well, I guess what I mean is that if there’s one that just can get out there and break through, it can then… That there’s game-changing moments, where people are suddenly like, “Oh, I enjoyed that even though it wasn’t from my lived experience and I was in that point of view.” You know what I mean? I think it essentially takes some film gate-keeping financier people to green-light something and go for it. I think that the audience is ready. The audience obviously is champing at the bit. There’s so many different models of distribution and ways to find your audience now.

Rhys: I will say, to the audience who’s listening, I hope that people go to the movie theater and go to film festivals like NewFest and do all those things to support, because that really actually has an important impact on independent filmmaking and filmmakers who are underrepresented. People can get lost in the streaming algorithm, so it’s actually important to go and take proactive steps, to vote with your wallet and stuff like that. I’ll leave it at that.

Drew: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a really good point. I can think of rom-coms that are short films and web series, like Rain, like your web series is very much a rom-com. I do think sometimes it just takes a little bit more effort to find the stuff, but because of the internet, if you have access to the internet, there is stuff there. It doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve a lot more and deserve it on a larger scale, but I would even say that what we really deserve is all the people who are making those web series and shorts should get more money so they could do similar things, but with more resources. Which actually brings me to Rain, is there anything you can tell us about your film?

Rain: Yeah. Well, speaking of financing, it’s been challenging because of the pandemic putting a halt on a lot of things, including people wanting to take more risks with investing in a film like this, because of the theaters and all that stuff. But now, coming… well, I don’t know if we’re coming out of the pandemic, but now that we’re here in 2022, there’s a little bit more interest. So we do have a very soft schedule of shooting at the end of this year, October, November or December, that’s our soft schedule, but we have to close our financing gap.
But the exciting thing is we do have a big-name actor-producer who has come on board as executive producer and we’ll be announcing that person next week. I’m excited about that because they think that’s going to really change the next steps or people’s interests, because we have interest in the international space because it’s a very… It’s a trans rom-com, but it’s also very Asian American. The actress who’s playing my mother is one of the biggest actresses in the Philippines, so we got the attention of the Philippines market in that way. This announcement next week is going to really get the attention of the American market. I’m really excited about that because there’s…

The challenges that we’ve been facing is that me and Rachel Leyco and Shant Joshi, who’s producing the film with me, we’re all very young filmmakers and we haven’t done anything this big before. It’s all of our first, in a way, even though I’ve directed and even though that I have a strong proof of concept and… Well, I’m very consistent. Even before Razor Tongue, there was Ryans and Hexed. So, even though I have that, there’s still this, like, “Well, what has she done feature wise?” We’ve always been facing these, like, “Well, what’s going to come first, the financing or me getting that opportunity that’s going to make people think that I’m worth investing in?” But this person that we’re bringing on board, I think, is going to change that because they have that resume and they have that experience on set. Just having their belief and them like, “Yeah, this is the project for me to really put my money on it and my passion into it,” is going to get everybody else get involved.
That’s kind of where we are with that. I’m really excited about that. It’s been a long time coming. There are times when I’m just like, “Gosh, is this ever going to happen?” But I think it will because, like everyone was saying and Rhys mentioned, the audience is ready for it. It’s primed. It’s up to us to really continuing that path and not giving up and getting everybody else to get on board, that this is the project to… well, mine and everyone else, is that these are the kinds of projects that we need to start investing more in.

Drew: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Eva, is there anything that you can tell us about the film that you shot last year?

Eva: Yeah. There’s so much that I want to say but I don’t want to get in trouble.

Drew: Absolutely. I would not want to get you in trouble.

Eva: Yeah. I honestly think a lot of people are going to be really excited for it. After hearing everything that everyone said on this panel, I think that this film will check a lot of those boxes. I mean, do not hold me to it, if you hate it, just don’t tell me. But I know that I had a lot of fun doing it. I mean, when I got the script, the first casting draft, I was like, “Oh my god, this is actually a happy movie. Wow. That’s so different.”

I didn’t have reps or an agent or anything throughout the casting process, but just being an actor who was trying to get some sort of work. People would send me scripts for short films that they were like working on. It was kind of wild, the number of times I got a script that was like, “Oh yeah, trans girl hanging out with friends. She gets up to go grab some water. And then suddenly she gets beat up in the middle of the park.” And I was like, “Oh. Okay. That’s cool. Not something I think I want to do.” And then this film really is just a total 180 from all of that.
The character I played, named Kelsa, she is really just… I mean, I kind of struggle with saying this, but she really is just a girl who’s just out here, living her life and just… How much can I say?

Drew: Okay. I have a question that can make this easier for you.

Eva: Okay.

Drew: I’m curious, just how did it feel? Okay, so we know that it’s in the rom-com world and that it’s happy. Just for you as an actor and as a trans person, what was the experience like filming it, and what do you feel emotionally you’re carrying with you after that experience?

Eva: Honestly, playing Kelsa was kind of trippy at times, just because there’s a lot of things in our lives that are very similar, even beyond us being trans, even things with our families. It’s kind of wild how many parallels there were with all of that.

But, yeah, I really felt like I was playing this alternate version of myself that didn’t go through a lot of my own personal traumas. I literally had to leave a lot of that at the door. That’s something that Billy and I talked a lot about, like he would say to me, “I want you to lean into the joy,” and I had to constantly think of that. I had to really just find more of my own joy. Even a couple of months later, after we wrapped the film, I was talking about it with some friends and I was like, “That was maybe some of the most fun I’ve ever had.” I really hope that translates to the audience. But yeah, it was just a lot of fun.

Rain: I can’t wait to see it. You know when it comes out?

Eva: You know, that is the million-dollar question. This summer, tentatively. But I don’t know for sure. But I think the trailer’s dropping soon.

Drew: That’s great. I’m so excited to see it. Well, thank you all so much for talking with me and talking about this. Can you all just go around and say where people can find you and your work? Rain, you start.

Rain: Me?

Drew: Yeah.

Rain: Yeah, you can find me on Instagram, mostly. I don’t really tweet very much. My Instagram is @rainvaldez. My work is on YouTube, so you can search Rain Valdez Razor Tongue or Rain Valdez Ryans and you should be able to watch my work. It’s available on YouTube. It’s completely accessible. It’s free. And then hopefully Relive will be coming out and, well, hopefully we get into production this year and then sometime next year, hopefully, I can talk more about when that’s coming out.

Drew: Great. Eva?

Eva: Yeah. Mainly Instagram too. You can find me at @msevareign. That’s Ms., not M-I-S-S. A lot of my writing is on Them and a few other places, but yeah, just follow me on Instagram.

Drew: Great. Rhys?

Rhys: I’m on Instagram and Twitter at @rhysernst. Adam is on Kanopy and iTunes and Amazon and maybe Apple.

Drew: Great. And you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory. You can find a lot of my writing at Autostraddle and you can find a trans rom-com that I wrote and directed and starred in on Vimeo, if you just search my name and The First Time.

Well, thank you all so much for being here. Oh, the last thing I’ll say is that I’m going to make a letter-box list with all of the movies that are referenced in this panel, so if anyone wants to… The good and the bad. So if anyone wants to watch those, you’ll have an easy list and you can find that by, I don’t know, going to my socials. Thank you all for joining us.


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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew Burnett has written 313 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. I’m still watching, so there is more, but thank you so much for making me think about this!
    Such an eye opener about cis films that read as trans! I do that kind of “slashing” too, only it’s not slashing (aka reading a straight text as gay), it’s reading something that is cis as trans- is there a word for that practice? There certainly should be!!

    Do you have Yentl? At least the first half. That’s the uber-gay-ftm romcom.

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