In today’s media, representation is becoming more and more vital. The impact of seeing someone on screen who is relatable and has gone through similar struggles as the audience is something immeasurable, and perhaps what makes film such an impactful medium.
However, not all films are highlighted by mainstream media or feature diverse casts and crew — especially in the case of big studio films — a common trend which leads to a lack of representation.
In 2019, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) reported that while LGBTQ+ representation went up in 110 film releases from seven major studios, with 20 characters identifying on the spectrum, none featured trans characters. This was the second year out of the last five to not include any trans characters.
A 2017 survey by the Jasmin Roy Sophie Desmarais Foundation also found binary trans, non-binary trans, and genderfluid Canadians were about a quarter more likely than their cisgender LGBTQ+ counterparts to say the Canadian media represents them “very poorly.”
Showcasing trans creators
To combat the lack of trans representation and awareness in popular media, Carleton University associate film professor Dr. Laura Horak launched the Transgender Media Portal (TMP) in 2019.
“Discussions of transgender film are usually dominated by representations of trans people, not representations made by trans people,” the TMP website reads.
Currently, the website includes trans film-making resources, including a list of trans filmmakers in North America, educational resources, and measures to support trans artists, but Horak has bigger plans for the project.
By 2022, Horak hopes TMP will be a searchable, crowd-sourced database which will highlight the works of transgender, Two Spirit, non-binary, intersex and gender non-conforming filmmakers and artists to provide the public with an inclusive database in addition to educational resources.
Jay Cooper, an undergraduate research assistant who got involved with the project through friends, said he was honoured to be involved with TMP, describing it as “groundbreaking.”
By presenting what Cooper estimated to be the biggest database of trans filmmakers, TMP pushes the doors of representation open to the public, giving them a chance to explore something that they may not have been exposed to otherwise.
One of the filmmakers currently listed on TMP, Two Spirit genderfluid filmmaker Thirza Cuthand, said she thinks the project is a valuable resource for the trans film-making community.
“Anything that sort of gathers scholarly research around queer trans films is important,” Cuthand said. “[TMP is] just a really good community — especially for trans film to be studied and understood and acknowledged, especially by other trans people.”
Intersectionality of the trans community
Also a performance artist and writer, Cuthand has been involved in Canada’s film making industry since the mid-90s, but said she initially began making films at 16 years old. The lack of LGBTQ+ media representation in Canada inspired her to begin film-making shortly after coming out when she was 14.
“There wasn’t any representation of lesbian teenagers at the time — I didn’t even really know you could be a queer teenager,” she said. “So I wanted to make representations of teenage lesbians.”
Of Plains Cree and Scots descent, Cuthand said her Indigenous roots also inform her film-making.
“There’s just like, not very good representation of Indigenous people either,” Cuthand explained. “So that was kind of like the impetus for getting involved in film, trying to increase representations — authentic representations — of my communities.”
In the 2019 GLAAD report, there was a notable drop in the number of LGBTQ+ characters portrayed by people of colour, slipping from 57 per cent to 42 per cent.
Over her decades of involvement within Canada’s film industry, Cuthand said she thinks she has seen some progress in trans and Indigenous media representation, but it depends where people are looking.
“I know being sort of a trans-masculine person, like there wasn’t a lot of representation of trans-masculine people — especially [in the mid-90s],” she said. “And then trans-feminine people, there is so much trans misogyny being sort of perpetuated in media.”
One way to stop the perpetuation of harmful depictions is to get film-making into the hands of people with lived trans experiences, Cuthand said. She has previously partnered up with the Toronto Queer Film Festival to teach emerging filmmakers, some of whom she said were trans, about how to make films.
“It’s important to especially emphasize that trans people be in charge of telling their own stories,” she said, echoing the TMP’s mission.
While Cuthand said she is glad negative trans media depictions seem to be on the decline, she also doesn’t completely agree with advocates who are calling for positive representations to take their place.
Valuing realistic depictions over-romanticizing, Cuthand explained she aims to capture nuanced and authentic trans media depictions in her work.
“I’ve always wanted to sort of complicate things, especially having multiple communities that I belong to, I never really just wanted to make something that was just about being Indigenous or just about being a lesbian or just about being trans,” she said.
“I kind of wanted to have overlap of all of those things in my work and talk about complicated identities that are not just European queer people or things like that,” she added. “Things that are a little bit more mixed up and real.”
Horak also emphasized the importance of supporting local trans and genderqueer artists, especially those who are in other minority groups, such as Cuthand.
The team behind the work
Because the TMP is so large, it requires a team of dedicated individuals. At the project’s inception, Dr. Horak presented the opportunity for a PhD fellowship to students who are interested in developing their dissertation on an aspect of film-making and could use their research to further develop TMP.
“Media creates horizons of possibility that in turn shape reality. When transgender people create audiovisual media, rather than simply being represented in it, their world making helps change our collective world,” reads a TMP fellowship posting on the Carleton website.
Socially-engaged interdisciplinary artist and digital storyteller, Evie Ruddy, is the recipient of the fellowship and will begin their PhD at Carleton in September 2020.
“It’s exciting to be at the early stages of a project that has the potential to make meaningful change,” Ruddy said. “I’m honoured to be the first Transgender Media Lab PhD fellow and to have the opportunity to collaborate with and be mentored by Dr. Laura Horak.”
Ruddy added the project also has personal significance.
“As a non-binary person, I rarely see myself or my experiences reflected in mainstream movies or TV series,” they said. “I’m often in search of media that are made by and for trans people, and that centre trans voices and stories, rather than centring cisgender assumptions about trans people.”
As an artist working in visual media, Ruddy also said they hope TMP’s accessibility will contribute to long-lasting, positive change in the film industry’s portrayal of trans narratives.
“I’m hoping this will in turn foster a better, more nuanced understanding of the diverse experiences of trans people,” Ruddy said. “And that it will help to create connections, collaboration, and community for trans filmmakers and artists.”
Persevering through COVID-19
Much like other research projects, the team at TMP also has to adjust to the new circumstances presented by COVID-19. Moving weekly meetings to Zoom, and research being largely online are only a few of the compromises made. Dr. Horak, who is set to be on sabbatical next year, also lined up various conferences and discussions to present TMP to other film academics throughout the early months of 2022, which were cancelled due to the pandemic.
The circumstances of COVID-19 also put a pause on Dr. Horak’s other project, a collaborative DVD collection titled “Cinema’s First Nasty Women” from the early days of film, dating back to the 1900-1920s.
Access to archives in order to digitize the films is limited at the moment, and Dr. Horak said given that the situation regarding COVID-19 is unclear, she is unsure when the project will be able to commence.
Though research is affected, Dr. Horak said she is excited for the future and emphasized that there are still many ways to support the project, such as sharing social media pages on Facebook and Twitter, visiting the website, and continuing to educate oneself.
By seeking out and supporting projects like TMP or other databases which feature the works of minority filmmakers, Dr. Horak said everyday people can continue to propel minority creators’ voices to tell their own stories.
Featured image by Aleks Dorohovich via Unsplash.