Gender Reel Festival promotes equity onscreen

The Gender Reel Festival celebrates the transgender and queer community. Photos by Jennifer Chaussee

The lavender-walled Humanist Hall usually designates two bathrooms: one for men and one for women.

But last Friday, the signs that would normally mark two gender-specific facilities were papered over in anticipation of the transgender and other nonconformist guests of the Gender Reel Festival.

The national film and performance art festival held its first Oakland-based event over the weekend, giving the city’s transgender and queer community the opportunity to see films made by and for people like them — without leaving Oakland.

Now in its third year, Gender Reel was founded in Philadelphia by activist Joe Ippolito as a response to the lack of a TQ perspective at more mainstream lesbian, gay and bisexual film festivals. “Our goal is to create space where gender non-conforming and transgender stories and experiences can be expressed or viewed,” Ippolito said.

Transgender and queer men and women make up a relatively small percentage of the overall LGBTQ community. UC Berkeley’s Gender Equity Resource center defines transgendered as people whose gender identity differs from their physical sex. Those who identify as queer consider gender identity and sexual orientation fluid.

In 2013, Gender Reel expanded into Minneapolis, Portland, and Oakland, choosing community-based venues that were LGBTQ-inclusive, like the Humanist Hall, an alternative church of secular humanism that describes itself as promoting progressive values and tolerance.

“We try to serve communities that are not served by the mainstream,” said David Oertel, president of the hall, which stands on 27th Street between Telegraph and Broadway. The church offers a rentable venue for events on diverse issues ranging from ecology and social justice to ending poverty. An event like Gender Reel easily fits in with the hall’s progressive values. “We believe that there is a shared humanity between us and others with very different cultures and value,” Oertel added.

Gender Reel’s film programming covered all genres, from horror to documentary to comedy. In one film, a trans man fights to survive the zombie apocalypse. In another, a Bay Area filmmaker comically documents his dating misadventures. And then there was “Unicorn Gangbang,” a short film whose visuals are best left to the imagination.

Oakland’s event was organized by Vega Darling, a former Bay Area resident who excerpted his documentary, “Riot Grrl: The Self-Told Narrative,” on Friday night.

“It’s really important to me to see more event for trans folks and LGBT folks in the East Bay, and also to get the people from San Francisco out to the East Bay,” he said.

Darling tailored Oakland’s programming to honor Christopher Lee, a transgender Bay Area filmmaker and co-founder of the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival, who committed suicide in 2012. Lee’s 1998 porno, “Alley of the Tranny Boys,” is regarded as the first film to showcase a cast of trans men. “I really wanted to show how Christopher’s art impacted radical queer porn and invented the genre,” Darling said.

Most of the small crowd of Gender Reel attendees belonged to Oakland’s close-knit trans and queer clique, guessed James Darling, a trans performer and director of “Unicorn Gangbang” who is unrelated to Vega.  The event is a way to meet more people in that community, he added.

Producer, director and performer Courtney Trouble’s company, TroubleFILMS, co-sponsored the festival, where she also debuted her 17th production, “Trans Grrls: Revolution Trans Porn Style Now.”

An Oaklander for the past few years, Trouble said she relocated from San Francisco’s Mission District because it made financial sense. She appreciates the punk-rock, underground appeal of Gender Reel. Mingling with the audience and chatting with friends, she said, “Homegrown community outreach, to me, is really important.”

While Friday night wrapped up with transgender erotica, Saturday kicked off with films about LGBTQ kids and showcased blocks about trans men and women. Some shorts looked at the transition experience.  Then there was “3 Queer Mice,” which reimagined a well-known children’s story.

Gender Reel’s programming aims to showcase diversity within the community, Vega Darling said.  “We come from every different walk of life just like everybody else,” he said. “So it’s important that we have stuff that speaks to our trans kids just like it’s important that we have stuff that speaks to people who want to watch sexy films.”

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