8 North Texas trans women tell how they feel about Israel Luna’s controversial film, and why

Tammye Nash | Senior Editor nash@dallasvoice.com

TOTWK protesters

THE PROTESTERS | Among those opposing ‘TOTWK’ are, from left, Pamela Curry, Kelli Busey and Joanna Leverette. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Dallas filmmaker Israel Luna’s latest effort, “Ticked-Off Tr*nnies With Knives,” has made headlines and stirred controversy across the country, from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in May, to the Seattle International Film Festival last weekend, with a stop in between at Fort Worth’s Q Cinema Film Festival earlier this month.

Luna himself has described the movie as a “grindhouse transploitation comedy,” an homage to the uber-violent revenge fantasy movies of the 1970s like “I Spit on Your Grave.”

But at the same time, he has said, there is a serious message at its heart, a message about the epidemic of violence and hate that is claiming the lives of transgender women and men.

Luna has said he hopes that while people might walk into the theater to be entertained by a dark comedy, they will walk out with a better understanding of the potential violence trans women face every day. He has said he hopes that the movie will focus public attention on that violence, and in doing so, help bring an end to it.

But for many in the trans community, Luna’s movie is part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

The protesters

Kelli Busey with Dallas Transgender Advocates and Allies is one of the most outspoken opponents of “TOTWK,” promoting protests in New York and Seattle when the film screened there, and organizing the protest held outside Fort Worth’s Rose Marine Theater when it screened there as part of the Q Cinema festival.

“The title, the content, the whole concept of this movie is unacceptable,” she said, adding that she views Luna as a misogynist who is expressing his disdain for and underlying anger toward trans women through his film.

Busey compared “TOTWK” with the June, 2009, murder of Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old woman who was shot in the streets of Tehran during protests over Iran’s controversial presidential election. Video of her death captured international attention, making Soltan a rallying point for the reformist movement in Iran.

“That woman was murdered by a man, a man who wanted to kill a movement with a bullet through the heart,” Busey said. Luna, she added, was trying to kill the trans movement with “a shot through the heart” in the form of his movie.

“Why would anyone think that transwomen being murdered [for laughs in a movie] is acceptable?” Busey said. “It’s not funny. It’s not comical. It’s not humorous. Israel Luna is a misogynist who hates trans women, and making a film where trans women are parodized by drag queens is his only outlet for his anger.”

Busey does not include drag queens — cisgendered men who live as men but dress in drag and perform for audiences for pay — under the transgender umbrella.

However, using the broader definition of transgender accepted by others interviewed for this article, all of the actors portraying trans women in “TOTWK” are transgender. At least two of them — Krystal Summers as Bubbles Cliquot and Erica Andrews as Emma Grashun — are transsexuals.

Busey also has condemned the use of the word “tranny” in the film’s title, saying that Luna took a word that trans women often used affectionately between themselves and turning it into something demeaning and insulting.

“The word ‘tranny’ has always been owned by the transgender community. We owned it. But now it’s become a perjorative. And gay men and lesbians have done that to us,” Busey said.

For other local trans women who oppose the film, more problematic was the fact that the trans characters all fit what they call an insulting stereotype — that all trans women work as performers — and that trans people are likely to “snap” and become violent when provoked.

“Why villainize trans people more when we are already villainized every day in society?” said a woman who asked to be identified only as Stacy. “Imagine waking up every day and not knowing how people are going to treat you. And this movie only promotes the stereotypes that cause the prejudice. People already think the only thing trans people are good for is entertaining them in the clubs. It puts trans people in a purely comical light.”

Joanna Leverette agreed. “I like to work and have a job that doesn’t require me to lay on my back or dance for people to make a living,” she said. “Trans people have a hard enough time already. It’s a grindhouse film, fine. But you can make a grindhouse movie that doesn’t portray [trans women] as being stupid or silly or only capable of being performers.”

None of the four women interviewed for this article who oppose Luna’s film have seen it, and they all said that they have no intention of watching it.

“From watching the trailers, I think it’s just too comical for the topic [of anti-trans violence] for me to even think about going to see it,” said Leverette.

For longtime activist Pamela Curry, the idea of dealing with anti-trans violence through the medium of a grindhouse film at all is problematic.

“I’m not going to watch it, ever,” Curry said. “It’s about the darkness. Why would I pay to see a movie about darkness when I have to see it all the time in real life? It’s like those violent video games that depersonalize violence. I don’t need to see that darkness. It’s not funny.”
For Busey, seeing the film is not necessary to oppose it. “Do you actually have to go to Dachau to know that Jews were murdered there?” she said, adding that as a survivor of violence, just watching the trailers for the film made her physically ill.

“I did actually manage to finally watch the trailer. [But when it came to the scene of an attacker holding a baseball bat and standing over a trans woman], I just got sick to my stomach,” Busey said. “The man standing over me had a metal pipe, not a baseball bat, but he had that same look in his eye. It was too much. It just came too close.”

The graphic violence and what she sees as the implied message that people should answer violence with violence also offends Busey’s moral sensibilities, she said.

“I am a Christian, and I think that violence is never right. I firmly believe in defending yourself, but the idea of getting revenge that way is wrong. And you’re going to give that message to the children out there, that if they face violence they should react with violence.

“The whole message is wrong. Dancing suggestively for people in clubs, drinking, drugging — those things are almost always involved in instances of anti-transgender violence. This is what we need to come out of if we are going to empower transgender people,” she said.

But for both Busey and Curry, Luna’s greatest transgression was using the names of actual transgender murder victims, including Angie Zapata, in an early trailer promoting the film.

“That’s what really inflamed my anger” against the film, Busey said.

She said that some 160 trans people have been murdered since Luna first announced his plans to make “TOTWK” in January 2009. And she said she believes Luna bears at least some responsibility for those deaths because, she said, his film promotes anti-trans violence.

Although Luna removed the names of trans murder victims from his trailer before the movie premiered, due to complaints from the trans community, “He still frames this movie as a tribute [to victims of anti-trans violence]. But he takes no social responsibility for promoting that violence,” she said.

“He’s making money on this, making money off their deaths. He’s greedy,” Busey charged. “If he wants to prove he’s sincere, then let him take all the profits from this movie — all the profits, not a percentage — and contribute that money to a trans organization.”

Curry agreed. “If he really meant this as a tribute, he would have gotten permission to use those names before he did it,” she said. “The organizers in general of Transgender Day of Remembrance [an annual event commemorating transgender victims of violence during which those killed in the past 12 months are read aloud] are against this film, against using the names of our dead that way.”

Leverette added, “If you want to honor those people, then make a serious movie, not a grindhouse comedy.”

During the protest outside the theater when “TOTWK” was screened as part of the Q Cinema film festival, when Busey and others drew chalk outlines on the sidewalk and labeled them with the names of murdered trans women, other trans people attending the screening protested.

It was, they said, no more permissible for the protesters to use the names of the dead than it was for Luna to include them in his trailer.

But, Curry said, there is a difference: “We are not using their names to try and make a profit. Israel Luna was.”

The supporters

TOTWK supporters

THE SUPPORTERS | Among those supporting the film are, from left, Tori Van Fleet, Maeve O’Connor and Winter Mullenix. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Marla Compton agreed that Luna was wrong to include the names of murder victims in his original trailer. “But he has removed them since getting complaints about it,” she said. “Including them in the first place might have been ignorance on his part. But he has been educated, and he did the right thing and removed the names.”

Compton — who stressed that she was speaking as an individual and not as representative of Resource Center of Dallas and its Gender Education Advocacy and Resources program, with which she is affiliated — went to see “TOTWK” during Q Cinema, and “I honestly enjoyed it. I didn’t find it offensive in the least.

“It was entertaining, and that’s what I go to the movies for, to be entertained. I didn’t go to be empowered or anything like that. I went to support Israel and to enjoy the movie,” Compton said.

Her problems, she continued, are “with all the controversy around this and the issues of freedom of speech and expression. I endorse Israel’s right to make the film, and I endorse people’s right to protest it if they want. We in the transgender community are the epitome of self-expression. We take what’s in our hearts and put it out there for the world to see, 24-7. So as advocates for self-expression for ourselves, we should defend everyone’s right to self-expression, even if we disagree with them.”

Compton continued, “I decided to get involved when I started seeing all the hypocrisy and the leap-frog logic [on the part of the protesters]. I am sorry, but that kind of thing is far more damaging to the trans community than any movie could ever be.”

“Leap-frog logic,” she said, was using the list of names of murder victims from Transgender Day of Remembrance and “trying to tie that to this film, to say this film caused those deaths. Come on, James Bond movies are more believable, more realistic than Israel’s movie. Nobody is going watch this movie and walk out of the theater saying, ‘Oh, that’s what all transgender people are like.’ It’s a fantasy. It’s silly. It’s supposed to be silly.”

Compton said she went to see “TOTWK” with a group of other trans women, and all of them, she said, enjoyed the movie.

“There are some very funny parts of the movie. There were parts where I laughed so hard, I choked on my water,” she said. “There are funny parts, and there are some very tragic parts. It’s an emotional roller-coaster.”

Rather than offensive caricatures, Compton said she felt the characters were well written and well acted within the structure of a movie in the grindhouse genre.

“I don’t think it makes fun of us [as trans women] at all. We laugh with the characters, not at them,” she said. “I thought the way he portrayed the violence against trans women was very well done. For me, porn movies about ‘shemales’ and ‘chicks with dicks’ are far more offensive than ‘TOTWK’ could ever be. If you’re going to protest, go protest the porn industry. That makes much more sense.”

Maeve O’Connor, Winter Mullenix and Tori Van Fleet were among the trans women who went with Compton to see the film in Fort Worth. O’Connor and Mullenix are both survivors of anti-trans violence.

When “TOTWK” first came out, Van Fleet said she sided with those protesting against it.

“I have never liked the word ‘tranny.’ And I was upset when I heard the title, so I attacked the film for using that word,” she said. “And I was bothered by the idea that it portrayed us as lunatics who go around attacking people.”

But then, Van Fleet said, she talked about the film with a friend who suggested that she see the movie for herself before passing judgment.

“I realized that maybe what I was hearing about the movie from other people who hadn’t seen it either was actually true. I decided to see it for myself and make up my own mind, instead of letting other people tell me what to think.”

The result, she said, was a 180-degree turnaround. Following the screening, Van Fleet stood up during a panel discussion to make a public apology to Luna for her earlier protests.

“Seeing the movie, I understood the context. I realized that ‘tranny’ really was the only word that worked in that context. It fit,” she said. “Yes, the movie was violent. There were parts that really made me squirm. And I laughed and I cried and I got angry. I realized, this is the level of violence that transgender people face every day, and people need to understand that. If this movie helps them understand, then that is fantastic.”

O’Connor said she isn’t usually a fan of the grindhouse genre, but she went to see the movie because it was about transgender women, and not many movies are. She also wanted to see it because, “as a survivor of a hate crime, as someone who was raped and beaten and left for dead, I wanted to know how the violence in this film was handled. And now, I know it was handled well.”

Mullenix said the graphic violence in the film hit very close to home for her, as well. She said she was raped and beaten, and when she reported it to police, “They just laughed. They told me there was no crime, because boys can’t be raped.”

So when she watched the film, “I had to stop myself from crying at parts of the movie, but by the end of it, I was cheering and applauding. It was nice to see trans women finally standing up for themselves and winning.”

O’Connor agreed: “There were parts where I was definitely cheering, celebrating the women having the courage to fight back, celebrating the fact that they weren’t defenseless against their attackers. Even though, as a survivor, you might never act on those feelings of wanting revenge, you still have them. You still cheer for the idea of someone winning over the people who want to hurt them.”

O’Connor, Van Fleet and Mullenix also condemned what they called the hypocrisy of those who are protesting “TOTWK” without ever having seen it for themselves, and for dismissing the lives of the characters in it and the actors who portrayed them because they work as showgirls.

“I’m not angry [at those protesting],” O’Connor said. “But I am frustrated. I have reached out to them as a hate crime survivor. I asked them to talk to me. But I got no response. They’ve got a pre-determined plan of attack, and they are going to stick with that no matter what.”

Mullenix said the protesters have “a kind of religious zealotry” and “aren’t being logical. They are just angry. We can’t educate people with angry voices.”

Compton, too, said she is “most disappointed with the name-calling and the childishness. We can’t accomplish anything that way.”
And they condemned the attacks on Luna.

“I am friends with Israel,” Mullinex said. “I know he wants to help trans women. He’s not just some random gay guy who decided to make a movie about trans women. He talks to us. He listens. He educates himself.”

And Van Fleet added, “And he is bringing to light the issue of violence against trans people. He is making people talk about it. My fiancé saw the movie, and he said it needs to be mainstream so more people will see it, and think about the issue.”

Mullenix summed it up: “This is a movie that helps us focus on the fact that we are all humans. It lets us celebrate survival. We are always talking about who’s gone; this lets us talk about who survived. Silence on the part of the survivors doesn’t help anybody. The dead don’t have a voice anymore. It’s up to those of us who survived to be their voice. This movie helps us do that.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 18, 2010.