Filmmaker Whitney Skauge, whose short film The Beauty President is part of the 2022 San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, grew up queer in Montana, where there was nothing better than the Bay Area’s celebration of trans identity. For her, the festival is much more than just a place to show her own work.
“It’s all about representation,” Skauge said in a phone conversation with The Chronicle. “I think festivals like this can be a catalyst for change. … It’s important to have regional festivals and festivals specifically for communities that really need to see themselves on screen.”
Founded in 1997 by Christopher Lee and Alex Austin as the Tranny Fest, the festival returns to the Roxie Theater Thursday through Friday 10th and 11th November; and online Saturday, November 12 through November 20, as the festival marks 25 years of providing transgender and gender variant filmmakers with a platform for their art.
“Traditionally, the film festival is a place where members of the transgender community can safely gather and connect,” said the festival’s artistic director Shawna Virago in a video interview with The Chronicle. “It’s kind of a respite from the outside world.”
“We’re creating a beautiful space for people to show each other and showcase their art, and also for us to uplift people,” added festival coordinator Eric Garcia.
At a time when transgender people are perhaps more visible than ever — Oakland’s Amy Schneider and her 40-win “Jeopardy!” streak is just one example — the community is also being assaulted by violent crime and an avalanche of anti-trans laws that pushed by conservative politicians.
A change that Virago, who has been in her capacity at the festival since 2003, is watching closely. When she first started, fundraising was a challenge as the festival was not yet on the radar of foundations and other funders – a state of affairs Virago has changed as the festival currently receives support from several organizations including Queer Cultural Center, the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Zellerbach Family Foundation and more.
The community also seemed smaller. Street violence, police harassment and discrimination in the workplace have been part of life, but Virago sees the stakes being raised in the current political climate.
“One of the things that has radically changed is the number of organized right-wing attacks on transgender people,” Virago said. “We’ve become a target in many ways, a rallying cry for them to organize people. It’s really sobering to think that so many people in the United States don’t like transgender people.”
Against this atmosphere of hatred speak the 47 films in the 2022 edition of the festival, a wide range that includes a program for families and one with adult content for an adult audience. Among the films are Roberto Fatal’s “Chaac and Yum” and XAV SF, about dual-spirited Mayan deities who meet in a San Francisco bar; “Blind Angels: Durham, North Carolina,” a short documentary about the community that forms around an activist living with HIV; and Skauge’s The Beauty President, which explores the 1992 presidential campaign of San Francisco drag queen Terence Alan Smith, aka Joan Jett Blakk.
“Terence doesn’t fully identify with the trans community,” Skauge said. “But within that, I think it shows the spectrum of what gender expression can be and that it’s not just one way and that there’s no dichotomy. You can be a gay, cisgender black man, but you can also do drag and you can have a personality that allows you to get out of your everyday life.”
English filmmaker Bea Goddard captures everyday life in M(other)hood, which will be screened online in the festival’s family section. The documentary follows Jack López, a transmasculine parent of four young children and a friend of Goddard’s from their boxing club, and was inspired by a story he told about his young son.
“Jack said Diego jumped on him and said something like, ‘You’re a man with boobs. … Next year for your birthday I’m going to buy you a Willie,” the filmmaker said in a video interview with The Chronicle, referring to the British slang for penis. “It was just this beautiful, very childish — no offense meant — take on gender identity and transition. And I figured this is what the world really needs to see.”
For Goddard, festivals like SFTFF are a natural fit for her film, not only because it fits the festival’s focus, but also because of the audiences it draws.
“It’s such an empowering experience for a queer filmmaker,” Goddard said. “You don’t have to explain yourself in the same way. It’s more likely that (the audience) sees Jack the way the kids see Jack.
“At more traditional film festivals, you might have a film or two about trans people and you don’t get the full nuance of the subject matter that you get at specialized film festivals,” they added.
Virago and Garcia liken the festival to punk rock for its energy, grassroots culture, and integrity. The festival has grown over the past quarter century but has tried to maintain the gruff spirit from which it was founded.
“There’s something about the heartbeat that still feels very real,” Garcia said. “And whoever comes to this event feels like living history. I feel so excited to be a part of it.”
“I see us still wearing steel-toed boots and throwing our elbows all the way to the right in this mosh pit,” Virago said. “I feel even more empowered to keep going. … We’re not going away. In fact, we’re going to push back even more, and I think that’s part of what makes the festival really good.
“And besides, you know, we’re sweet and fluffy and cute. And I think a lot of people love the festival for all of those reasons.”
San Francisco Transgender Film Festival
Program 1-2: 7 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 10-11 November. Graduated from $0 to $50. Vaccination and face masks required. Roxie Theatre, 3117 16th St, SF Available to stream Monday, November 14th through November 20th.
Program 3: Live broadcast Saturday, November 12, 2 p.m. Familyfriendly. Available on request after the live broadcast until November 20th.
Program 4-6: Live Stream 2pm and 7pm Saturday-Sunday 12-13 November. $0-25. Available on request after the live broadcast until November 20th.
Program 7: Available to stream Saturday, November 12th – November 20th. $0-15.
Visit sftff.org for tickets and more information