On the last full day of programming at Outfest LA 2021 on Saturday August 21st, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ film festival centered trans, non-binary, intersex, and gender-nonconforming storytellers with its fifth annual Trans and Non-Binary Summit with a rich and exciting lineup of events at the Directors Guild of America.
The event opened with Kieran Medina, who curated the day for Outfest, setting the 2021 summit in the context of the aggressive current wave of Republican legislative attacks across the country targeting trans youth and healthcare rights, as well the Human Rights Campaign’s ongoing monitoring of known fatalities of trans or gender-nonconforming people who have been shot or killed by other violent means, which already stands at the horrific number of 34 lives lost in 2021, with Medina saying that he was “tired of us being desensitized to it. Against this backdrop of backlash and a cultural war that insists on erasing us, we need more than visibility.”
Expanding on the theme of this year’s summit, commUNITY, Medina continued, “Community is our call to action. It’s the practice of solidarity and accountability to each other, the act of showing up and being there for each other and making sure that we have the rights that we deserve. Community offers us the opportunity to transcend fear, to find purpose, and grants us the collective power to reshape our lived experiences. I wanted today to be a celebration of our power as a community of storytellers and how the narratives we tell have the power to reshape our world.”
A powerful and inspiring Keynote Address by artist, filmmaker, cultural producer, writer, and activist Tourmaline, then followed, setting a hopeful tone. During Tourmaline’s speech she examined the power of question asking, a practice that was emphasized by the Black freedom movement of the 1960s, which Robin D. G. Kelley referred to as “freedom dreaming”. “For me, the emphasis on pleasure as a tool and as a destination”, Tourmaline said, “is about aligning with what we really want and making more of it. I believe the most compelling work is about reevaluating the importance of pleasure and abundance”.
In discussing LGBTQ+ trailblazers Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera—subjects of Tourmaline’s short films Happy Birthday Marsha, co-directed with Sasha Wortzel, and Salacia—the filmmaker talked about how those icons came together “to fundamentally transform our landscape” in 1969, the year of both the Stonewall uprising and the Apollo 11 Moon landing. “Marsha and Sylvia were demonstrating that they didn’t need to be part of NASA to be the innovators at the really high level that they were, fundamentally transforming culture. They were dreaming beyond what seemed possible and harnessing that power and making it real.”
In conclusion, Tourmaline urged the audience to be inspired by the freedom dreaming practice of posing the question, “What is here already that feels good?” Adding that doing so “allows for so much power and clarity. Our dreaminess and openness sets such an important tone, where we can be softer towards ourselves and not judge ourselves or punish ourselves about being where we’re at. To me as an artist, that is the ground for creating really powerful, impactful work.”
Next, actor, writer, producer, and Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story author Jacob Tobia took to the stage as moderator of the Post-Pose: The Future of Trans and Non-binary Storytelling Panel which featured multimedia artist, filmmaker, and Outfest board member Zackary Drucker (The Lady and the Dale), writer, producer, singer-songwriter, and advocate Our Lady J (Pose), actor, writer, and comedian D’Lo (Death and Bowling), and filmmaker, actor, writer, model, and intersex activist River Gallo (Ponyboi).
Tobia opened the discussion by saying that they wanted to see things move from “singularity to plurality”, adding “it is my hope that Pose will be the last show to ever feel like the trans show” looking forward to a landscape where there will always be a multitude of trans television shows, so that “we will never be able to accurately use the definite article to describe a show that way again.”
Watch our exclusive red carpet interview with Jacob Tobia:
On the meaningfulness of the summit Zackary Drucker offered, “It’s so incredible to be in community today. We’ve done this for so many years and Outfest is a marker for me every year. Where we’re at now feels like a nascent stage of the rest of our lives. It feels like we’re on the precipice of the future.”
She later continued, contemplating the next chapter in trans and non-binary storytelling, “I think that we had this reset maybe eight years ago when we were trying to rectify a history of being maligned and misrepresented, and in correcting that we over-corrected and tried to maintain a kind of respectability and dignity that wasn’t possible before. As an artist coming out of a counterculture history, I was never that fascinated by the culture of respectability and have really craved the stories of outlaws and badasses. I think when you look into our history of gender expansive people surviving through time, it’s not a clean history. Folks survived by any means necessary and it was difficult and painful; a life of intense humiliation, incarceration, murder, and suffering. Those stories need to be told. We need to see stories of people whose names we don’t know. It’s incredible to witness these figures emerging from history.”
Away from the subject matter of what she hopes future stores will focus on, Drucker contemplated structural evolution within the entertainment industry, looking forward to “not just working within the Hollywood framework that’s already there, but transforming it and improving it.” She alter added, “I hope we can create content in equitable ways with new models that allow a kind of porousness of people coming into telling stories and for the kind of gatekeeping that is so traditional in Hollywood—in the union system, in the studio system—to be a vestige of the past. I think we need more representation in every aspect of story development.”
Watch our exclusive red carpet interview with Zackary Drucker:
Emmy-nominated writer and producer Our Lady J went on to speak about her current focus as a creative. “I’ve been working on cultivating bravery for the irreverent in my work. It’s such a scary thing to tell stories about our history when historically we have used tools that are different from generations that are using other tools to survive. I just turned in my second draft of a historical piece, Rub & Tug, which is about Tex Gill, a trans guy in the 1970s in Pittsburgh. I’ve been reading about him and just having a lot of fun in that space of 70s Pittsburgh, when community meant survival more than anything. There weren’t panels back then, there weren’t safe spaces, though some people created safe spaces.” She also joked that during the pandemic she began speaking her mind to her dogs, which she believes has translated into “rigorous honesty” in her work.
On telling more nuanced trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming stories, Our Lady J said, “With every show that I’ve worked on, there’s always the balance of, ‘What can I say? What are people ready to hear? And what will be honest and yet might hurt the community if we say it?’ It feels like the more storytelling there is, the more of us there are, the more creators, the more content we have, the more honest we can be with our experiences. I’m really looking forward to the day where I don’t have to be afraid to be honest.”
D’Lo shared that his current focus is on trans-led comedy, revealing that he is currently working on a screenplay with Shakina Nayfack, which he described as “a trans buddy comedy. It is so dumb”, he continued, “but smartly dumb! We want this to be a gift for our queer and trans family, so we can just sit back and laugh together! Why not give people our funniness too?”
Watch our exclusive red carpet interview with D’Lo:
River Gallo told those gathered at Outfest’s summit that they are currently working on a feature version of their 2019 NewFest-winning short film Ponyboi, adding that Ezra Miller was attached to the forthcoming film as a producer. They also announced that they had recently signed with the prestigious talent agency, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which caused them to pose the question, “Am I the first out intersex person to be signed to CAA, or to any huge agency? Quite frankly, probably, because there aren’t any or many out intersex actors in history.”
On their hopes for the future, River commented, “I think what I’m most looking forward to is the day where I don’t have to explain myself, where I’m not commended for my vulnerability, because we’re all vulnerable, and we’re all being authentic. I think that’s what trans and non-binary and intersex people stand at the helm of, our ability to be vulnerable, and we’re commended for our courage, but that’s only because we live in this capitalistic patriarchal system that wants us dead.”
“I can’t wait for the day when we can just do the work that we want to do and it’s not based on our trauma,” they continued. “I can’t wait for the day that our stories aren’t boxed in transition stories and coming out stories, where there could be trans superhero movies, and rom-coms, and we’re just at the center of it and it’s not explained. I truly believe that people are ready for that and it’s up to those gatekeepers to take that risk and understand that the revolution is here, it’s upon us, it’s not tomorrow, and it’s about risk-taking today.”
Watch our exclusive red carpet interview with River Gallo:
The panel also spoke about the importance of self-care as creatives, as well as knowing one’s personal boundaries, with River offering, “I think when you are intersex, when you’re trans, or non-binary, your body is at the center of so much discussion between yourself internally and with other people that it’s just a lot.”
Following the panel, the Emerging Trans and Non-binary Filmmakers Shorts Program showcased four genre-spanning films ranging in form, exploring the themes of being and belonging, with a post-screening Q&A session with the creators.
The program featured Sepand Mashiahof and Sepehr Mashiahof’s chilling and gripping trans horror Love You Forever, the innovative live-action and animation hybrid transition narrative documentary F1-100 by Emory Chao Johnson which received a special mention in Outfest Jury Awards, the deeply personal and moving documentary Ni Aquí/Ni Allá by Ley Comas, and the beautifully rich and uplifting musical short Little Sky by Jess X. Snow, which premieres on HBO Max on September 27th.
Watch our exclusive red carpet interview with Little Sky filmmakers Jess X. Snow and Tomilyn Sideco:
After the short film program, award-winning trans non-binary filmmaker, actor, and LGBTQ+ activist Bowie Starr then introduced a Live Table Read preview of Razor Tongue Season 2 by Rain Valdez, saying “whether you’re here tonight because you’re of the TGI umbrella, or the LGBTQIA+ umbrella, or you’re here as an ally, I hope you walk away empowered and inspired to own your voice. That is the through line of Razor Tongue; own your voice, own your truth. I think if we can do that together in unity—commUNITY being the theme of this year’s summit—I promise you we will see a completely different, changed world.”
The first season of Razor Tongue, produced through crowd-funding by creator, writer, and showrunner Rain Valdez, resulted in a Primetime Emmy Award nomination in the Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series category for Valdez’s work as the lead character Belle Jonas.
The incredible lineup of talent for reading included Bowie Starr, Jacob Tobia as the narrator, Rain Valdez as Belle, trailblazing actor and author Candis Cayne who has been appearing on screen for nearly three decades, actor and producer Alexandra Grey (Gossamer Folds), Emmy-nominated actor, creator, and activist Scott Turner Schofield (Becoming A Man in 127 Easy Steps), actor and producer Trace Lysette (Hustlers), Pose star Angelica Ross, as well as Sterling Jones and Rachel Leyco, who are both reprising their roles from season one.
Watch our exclusive interview with Razor Tongue creator and star Rain Valdez:
After the hugely entertaining preview reading of the compelling, hilarious, and poignant season 2 of Razor Tongue, during a Q&A session, Valdez said that the Emmy recognition for the first season had “validated everything that we do. It made it feel really good to work as hard as ever and to not second-guess my creativity and my talent.” She went on to add, “Being able to take agency of your own career is something that I find to be very fulfilling and empowering because I wasn’t getting the kinds of roles that I knew I was capable of, or that I was interested in playing. Every trans character that I was asked to do was outed in the first five pages of the scripts that they were sending me, and that never leaves any room for layers or nuance or flaws, because then suddenly I have to be this perfect trans character. That was really exhausting.”
“Belle has been a gift,” Valdez continued. “She’s messy and she’s vulnerable. We didn’t talk about her transness until the last episode of the first season, so I was able to tell this story and have an audience either like her or not like her before even knowing that she’s trans.” Giving an insight into the writing the second season, Valdez said, “In season one Belle always lived on the edge, and so for season two, I was like, ‘What if I just threw her over the cliff?!'”
For Alexandra Grey, part of the fulfillment of being involved in Razor Tongue was being offered the opportunity to portray a non-trans character for the first time. “Shout out to Miss Rain Valdez for writing and creating those kind of opportunities”, Grey praised the show’s writer, “It’s been such a joy to just show up. I love telling trans stories and playing trans characters, but as an artist I want to portray all characters.”
Angelica Ross, who has come on board as executive producer of season two and co-written one of the episodes with Valdez, said that her influence on the series was to suggest “amping up the stakes”. On working together as a community of creatives, Ross commented that she “wanted to start developing a space that felt safe for trans people to work in,” adding, “this does not have to be an exceptionalism type of game where only one or a few of us is winning, we can create power together. That’s why I came onto this project in the ways that I did.”
Reflecting on now being part of a community of creatives, Candis Cayne said, “When I first started in this business in Hollywood, there were no trans voices and so it was a lonely and a scary place. You had to figure shit out on your own. There was no sisterhood. So the fact that this stage can be laden with this caliber of trans actors is such a relief and a joy for me to see.”
Trace Lysette concurred, “When I walked in today I felt excited in a different kind of way, because there wasn’t this extra layer of responsibility. When you walk into a project that’s for us, by us, you know you’re going to be cared for in a different way and that the script is going to be right, and detailed, and nuanced, and dive deeper than—I hate to say it—a lot of cis writers are capable of writing for us. I pinch myself every time I’m around Candis Cayne. She was a huge inspiration to me in New York City. Rain is my sister, as well as the rest of you are my siblings. I just hope that we can create for a very long time in this business. I think we’re still elbowing our way through, but things like this give me hope, they make me think that one day we’re going to be running writers’ rooms, we’re going to be leading films, and series, and we won’t have to answer to the cis gaze as much.”
By James Kleinmann