I came of age during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the years that followed, which means that I am aware of both the injustices that women have been subject to as well as the benefits of greater freedom we have now. Yes, we still face inequality simply because of our gender. But to focus the battle for equal rights on only women simplifies human sexuality and belies the fact that gender — so long thought of in binary terms, female or male — is much more complex.
It seems that we are finally beginning to delineate and clarify the multitude of sexual and gender identifications that non-binary people feel appropriate to themselves, and it is an education in biology, ethics, human nature and sexual politics. The terminology is now comfortably part of the lexicon of the current teens and twenty-somethings – LGBTQ, queer, cisgender, transgender, non-binary — as well as the personal choice of which pronouns to assign to themselves or others — he, she or they.
When I became a producer in 1992, my first project was a television documentary called Boys From Brazil. It followed the lives of some of the “transvestites” of Sao Paolo – sex workers who kept their male genitalia but who also had hormone and silicone injections to create hips and breasts. I have produced some 30 movies since then, but my latest full-length feature and directorial debut, Freak Show, revolves around the sexuality of its central character Billy Bloom, who is based on the drag queen James St. James.
Billy, a young gay man who enjoys dressing flamboyantly and often in feminine clothes, finds himself bullied mercilessly by his schoolmates who have had no previous experience of knowing anyone quite like him — someone who challenges the idea of “normal,” and who is unapologetically proud to do so.
Freak Show, a story about bullying and fighting back, deals with the terrible prejudices that can be suffered by young people who do not identify within traditional binary terms. During filming, we were not aware of how pertinent the subject matter would become. In the same month Freak Show premiered at the International Film Festival in Berlin, Donald Trump was revoking Barack Obama’s guidelines on transgender bathrooms, undermining protections for transgender students.
This struck a particular chord with me in remembrance of the film’s inspiration, Blake Brockington, a young transgender man. Blake pursued his dream of acceptance by running for Homecoming King and winning the title at his high school. Tragically, the short-lived fame this accolade gave him had dark consequences, as cyberbullies pilloried him to the point where he took his own life at the age of 18.
Blake’s story, and the repeal of transgender protection exemplifies the lack of understanding throughout our society. To be transgender is not deviant, it’s not a trend, it’s an absolute truth — and it is incumbent on the rest of us to simply accept and respect that reality.
Our duty now is to build on the wins we’ve made for women’s rights, though that battle is still being fought, and stand together in pursuit of equal rights and equal respect for human sexuality and gender. A global society that values tolerance, education and basic human kindness would embrace myriad differences and diversity — that’s a world worth fighting to create.
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