New Haven transgender rights activist IV Staklo didn’t know how much a country could support the identity, rights and healthcare of its transgender citizens until they saw a movie about Cuba’s first transgender woman to receive sex reassignment surgery.
For Staklo, En el cuerpo equivocado (The Wrong Body) is not just about the exceptional life of Mavi Susel, who in 1988 became the first transgender person in Cuba to receive surgery to help her realize her female gender identity.
The 2010 documentary is also about the impact that a national educational initiative, like Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), can have in helping shift a country’s attitude toward LGBTQ people over time from one of homophobia and transphobia to one of tolerance, legal protection and institutional support.
“If we look at revolutions historically, they don’t happen overnight,” Staklo said on a recent episode of WNHH’s “Deep Focus” radio show. “Major change in a system doesn’t happen overnight. And that’s something we can learn on a macro and on a micro level.”
Next week, Staklo will have an opportunity to share En el cuerpo equivocado, along with a handful of other trans-positive films, with New Haven audiences as part of an annual local celebration of the diverse stories, challenges, joys and concerns of being transgender.
Organized by the New Haven Pride Center, a local LGBTQ advocacy nonprofit based out of 84 Orange St., New Haven’s Transgender Awareness Week starts next Monday, Nov. 13, and will feature a variety of trans-specific performances, lectures, conversations and marches all geared toward raising awareness of the issues facing New Haven’s trans community.
Trans poet and spoken word artist Alok Vaid-Menon will perform at Westville’s Lyric Hall on Monday, Nov. 13. Representatives from the transgender support hotline service Trans Lifeline will hold an info session at the Pride Center on Tuesday, Nov. 14.
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, the Pride Center and the United Church on the Green will host screenings of five different documentaries and fiction films that feature transgender characters, actors and stories.
The week’s festivities culminate on Monday, Nov. 20, with a demonstration on the New Haven Green in honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, a nearly two-decade old national day of reflection on the transgender people who have died during the previous year as a result of gender-related violence.
Although New Haveners have been celebrating Transgender Day of Remembrance for at least half a decade, Staklo and Pride Center executive director Patrick Dunn said that they want this year’s Transgender Awareness Week to be about more than the violence, loss, sorrow and danger experienced by many in the trans community.
They want the week to express the courage and vitality of a community that is slowly growing in attention, power and respect locally and nationally. This week alone, seven out transgender candidates were elected to local and state office throughout the country, including Danica Roem in Virginia and Andrea Jenkins and Phillipe Cunningham in Minneapolis.
“In New Haven, there has been an effort by the local trans community to expand [Transgender Day of Remembrance] beyond just a somber event that reflects on the lives that we lost,” Staklo said. “We want to expand it to celebrating the lives that continue existing and continue fighting for each other.”
At the center of the push to celebrate the positive and affirming alongside the challenging and difficult aspects of trans life is a screening series that brings together movies about everything from two transgender prostitutes and best friends who work the seedier side of the Hollywood strip to a story about the life and work of a current New Haven trans advocate and life coach.
Staklo and Dunn said that they picked the movies with the help of a committee of local activists, college students, and professors. “When we were going through the list of films,” Staklo said, “one of the most important criteria for me was to find films where trans characters were played by trans actors. Not just because the film was produced in a better way with sourcing from the trans community, but also because I know that people who see those films aren’t going to have the misrepresentation that a trans woman is really just a man in a dress, which is what having a cis man playing a trans woman on screen implies.”
From Psycho (1960) to Silence of the Lambs (1991) to Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Hollywood has a long history of casting cis men in transvestite and transgender roles as a means of playing up the garishly horrific or comedic nature of men who wear women’s clothing. Even more contemporary, sympathetic portraits of trans characters in such prestige pictures as 2015’s The Danish Girl have cast cis men instead of transgender actors in the leading roles.
“That’s a very harmful thing,” Staklo said. “When movies are shown to hundreds and thousands of people, that’s the idea that gets engrained and that is the type of thing that perpetuates violence against trans people.”
The Transgender Awareness Week movie series will feature screenings of Boy Meets Girl (2014) and Tangerine (2015) at the Pride Center on Friday, Nov. 17, The Life and Death of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) and En el cuerpo equivocado (2010) at the Pride Center on Saturday, Nov. 18, and A Self-Made Man (2013) with a talkback with Tony Ferraiolo at the United Church on the Green on Sunday, Nov. 19.
Still in his first year as executive director of the Pride Center, Dunn said that this screening series, along with the wide swath of events taking place during Transgender Awareness Week, afford him an opportunity to work towards one of his main professional goals of facilitating events that reflect the diversity of New Haven’s LGBTQ community.
“I want everyone to see themselves in any program that we’re doing at the center,” Dunn said. “I really want it to feel welcoming and inclusive.”
Click on the audio players below to listen to the complete Deep Focus interview with Staklo and Dunn, and to listen to a 2016 WNHH interview with New Haven transgender advocate Tony Ferraiolo.