4 min

Hurt feelings & censorship

Trans activists protest youth video

Unlike the other young people who have participated in Inside Out’s annual Queer Youth Digital Video Project, Jo-Anna Davidson is straight. As she does have a transsexual parent, and a unique perspective in the queer community, she was encouraged by some queers and transsexuals to apply to the project, which each year trains a group of young people, all under the age of 25, to write, shoot and edit their first videos.

Davidson was accepted into the 2002 group along with six other young people, and her resulting work is entitled Dent On The Wall, described in Inside Out’s program notes as an experimental work about “the feelings of one experience when a biological parent comes out to his daughter as queer.”

It sounds innocent enough, yet even before the six-minute video screened at Inside Out’s Toronto Lesbian And Gay Film And Video Festival in May, Dent On The Wall was a lightning rod for controversy. Inside Out received a torrent of angry letters and phone calls objecting to the video’s “transphobia” and “hate propaganda.” One letter writer began with, “First let me say [that] I’ve not seen your movie,” and then went on to compare Dent On The Wall to Birth Of A Nation.

Almost everyone opposed to the video demanded that it be pulled from Inside Out and any subsequent screenings. The less radical suggestion was even more chilling: Davidson should re-edit her video in manner approved by members of the transsexual community.

When Dent On The Wall screened at the Supporting Our Youth Project’s Fruit Loopz event on Pride weekend, the objections were raised again, with the original letters to Inside Out forwarded via e-mail to dozens of community organizations and individuals.

Whether one feels the video is offensive or hateful is a matter of personal opinion; people who have seen it are divided. In essence, Dent On The Wall focusses on an androgynous child about nine years of age who is in the midst of a temper tantrum. She throws a framed photograph of a man (presumably her father) against a wall, rips the limbs off a doll and smashes a dollhouse. At several points, a parent is present, an enigmatic figure dressed like Jackie Kennedy who appears to be either a transsexual woman or a man in drag. In one scene, she pats the child in comfort when someone asks, “Are you sure that this is your father?”

In another, the child and parent eat imaginary food off clocks set on a table like dinner plates. The video ends with the child and parent seated together watching television and the parent turning to the child and saying, “There’s something I need to tell you.”

The complaints about the video include criticisms of how Inside Out handled the objections and the physical appearance of the parent. But by far the objection cited the most is that by depicting a child who is angry with her transsexual parent the video suggests that all transsexual people are incapable of raising children.

Much of the fear that fuels this objection comes from real, lived experiences of discrimination. Transsexual people do not enjoy the human rights protections they need and deserve, which makes their rights as parents vulnerable. However, to suggest that Dent On The Wall is a sweeping statement about the inability of all transsexual people to parent misses the point and the intention of the video altogether.

With its exaggerated camera angles and costumes, and its Alice In Wonderland-style sets, Dent On The Wall is an impressionistic work, not meant to be interpreted literally. In fact, the video is not about the trans parent at all, nor is the parent depicted as being uncaring or abusive. Dent On The Wall captures the emotions of one moment in the life of one child who is confused and overwhelmed by her parent’s revelation of a profound change in her life.

As Davidson explains in her program notes, the video “reflects the feelings that I felt at the time when my parent came out to me. It was not made to criticize or attack anyone in the queer community, even though I did not include the acceptance I feel now…. I wanted to point out that coming out to a child is much different than coming out to the world. There are a lot of implications and politics that are not fully understood by the child.”

As the first significant wave of children reared by queer parents comes of age, they have important stories to tell. That those stories might not always be happy or positive or politically convenient does not mean that we shouldn’t listen – or that we can tell our children what they should feel and how they should express it. To tell a child of a queer parent that she must never discuss her times of struggle and confusion for fear that it might offend or hurt some queer parents, is akin to asking a queer parent not to come out for fear that it might upset or hurt their child.

Ultimately, this does boil down to the issue of freedom of expression, which we of all communities must protect – even when it’s complicated or painful. If we follow the logic of “if it offends someone, it must be stopped,” then gay men, lesbians and transsexual people would never be allowed to say or create anything at all. Our lives, our culture and our art offend too many people – including some within our own community.

None of us can, as individuals, handpick the gatekeepers of free expression. We can’t demand our right to say what we want, and then turn around and tell others to shut up when we don’t like what they have to say. The price we pay to freely express ourselves is that sometimes we will be hurt, or angered or insulted by someone else’s expression.

But given the alternative, it’s a small price to pay.