Gender Bending at the Leos

Fluid sexuality in 'Crossing' and 'she's a boy i knew.'

By Dorothy Woodend 16 May 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Up for a prize: Gangster love.

The other day I was talking with somebody about the difficulty of reviewing a film after you'd met the director. If you can't put a human face to a film, or filmmaker, it's often easier to review their films. You don't feel swayed by any softer, squishier emotions. It's also far easier to be unkind. A case in point is the Leo Awards, which are handed out every year to B.C. filmmakers and their work. I've been hard on B.C. filmmakers in the past, and not because I didn't think they deserved it, because they did. But there are some fine offerings at this year's Leo Awards, so, I take it all back.

Among the nominees screening at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver are a pair of locally made films that take as their subject the intersection between the sexes. Director Roger Evan Larry's "neo-noir" drama Crossing and Gwen Haworth's documentary she's a boy i knew make a curious duo. Both films tackle the fluidity of gender identity. One does so in a fictional sense, and the other engages with the very difficult realities of real people. But each film is an equally individualized take on the definition of male and female and all that falls in between those two polarities.

Haworth's film she's a boy i knew, chosen by VIFF audiences this past fall as the most popular Canadian film, is remarkable for its candor and openness. The story, told firsthand by the person who lived it, is about a man becoming a woman. But that is really only the barest gloss on the subject. The film is more about what happens to a family when one of its members fundamentally alters his or her existence in the world.

From Steven to Gwen

Once upon a time, Gwen Haworth was Steven Haworth, a good looking young man with a bright future as a filmmaker, a beautiful wife, and a loving family. What more could you want really? In Steven's case it was a vagina. I don't say this to be glib, but I say it to underscore the importance of one's physical perception of self, gender and identity.

As the film recollects Gwen's decision to undergo male-to-female gender transition, one of the most startling things it reveals is the capacity for understanding and compassion that is present in average folk. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Gwen's parents -- Colleen and Tom -- a Catholic cheerleader who married the high school football star. They produced three children and seem the picture perfect middle-class couple -- a fact attested to by Colleen's comment that having produced a son, her job was done.

Their first-born boy, Steven, appeared to be a perfectly ordinary Canadian kid who played hockey, "wrestle-mania-ed" the couch and ultimately married a lovely young woman.

But things are not always what they seem. From age four, Steven knew he wasn't comfortable in the body he'd been born into. Although he admits early on in the film, that he hates the expression "a woman trapped in man's body," that was, in fact, his predicament. It wasn't until his mid-20s that he began to realize that this submerged feminine identity wasn't going to go away.

Meaning of desire

The decision to risk everything including family, friends and love for something as nebulous as a sense of self, goes beyond agonizing. But it also indicates the true power of desire. Not simply desire in a sexual or romantic sense, but in a more fundamental meaning of the word. The Latin root of the word desire (desiderare, from de- + sider-, sidus) actually means heavenly body. How perfectly fitting is that? In Gwen's experience, the physical is critical, from breasts to a man-made vagina that must be stretched lest it atrophy. The need to be physically female cannot be denied, even as Gwen's family mourns the loss of the face and body that they knew as their son. In the case of Gwen's ex-wife Malgosia, who learns that it was Steven that she desired and not Gwen, the connection between mind and body is inextricable.

In the very beginning of the film, Malgosia talks about smelling Gwen's clothes, "That's the person I love. This their essence, that's their smell," she says. But what is that essence made of exactly -- history, personality, biology or something more ineffable?

How does that shift over time? When Steven first revealed his long-kept secret to his wife, her reaction was visceral. "I wanted to throw up." But wanting to be a woman didn't automatically mean wanting to have sex with a man. When Steven became Gwen, she still desired women, and still loved her wife. This is where things get tricky, I suppose. Do you fall in love with the gender of a person, or the person?

Who do women want?

Just when we think we know all there possibly is to know about sex stuff, something new emerges. I don't even pretend to fully understand the complexities of Gwen's situation, but a recent book from Harvard press entitled Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by author Lisa M. Diamond tackles the idea that desire is a fixed star. Diamond's thesis is that sexual identity, in women at least, is not resolute, but a movable, changeable thing. Her explanation for these shifting notions of sexual self is that for women, gender can be largely irrelevant. when it comes to matters of love. "I fall in love with the person, not the gender," is the summation of Ms. Diamond's almost 10 years of research.

While this is true for some, it is not for others. In the case of Gwen and Malgosia, physically changing genders meant the loss of desire by one partner, but not the other.

Watching Gwen and her family (Gwen's punk-vegan-dumpster-diving sister Nicole is a particular hoot) navigate these murky waters with compassion and humour leaves you with the feeling that we should all be so lucky to have such a supportive collection of family and friends. To manifest who you are inside and out takes a great deal of personal courage. As Gwen says at the end of the film, "I wish I could relate to you how good it feels to be operating from a place of love rather than fear."

'Crossing' twists genders and genres

If you'd like to tussle with gender issues in a lighter way, director Roger Evan Larry's film Crossing provides ample opportunity. The persistence of desire, pernicious, undeniable, inexplicable is also the subtext to Crossing. The title is a play on words, meaning double-crossing, cross-dressing, or perhaps crossing over into something new, a place where there aren't many solid definitions left.

In wine-dark fashion, the film spins the tale of Daniel, a hard man, who likes to wear silky drawers. But does this desire make him anything less than a man? Just because Daniel likes to dress up like a beautiful lady doesn't mean he doesn't want to bed other beautiful ladies, and bed them he does.

The sex in this film is pretty steamy stuff. Caught between his own needs, and his sense of himself as toughie, Daniel must devise a new definition of manhood, even as he's fending off other bad guys, shooting guns and running around downtown Vancouver in eyeliner. The film doesn't take itself particularly seriously, and this is what gives it a great deal of charm. It's a romp, and approached as such, it's a fun, odd dip into Vancouver's kinky underworld.


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