Redistributing Life Chances: The Fantastical Homotopias of Chris Vargas – Lucas Crawford

At a time when the word transgender has graced the televised lips of Oprah and Tyra, Obama and Tilda, and Hillary – both Clinton and Swank – it is perhaps time to pause and take stock of the ways in which our bodies have gained traction in the representational world of lights, camera, and action.

Chris Vargas, an Oakland filmmaker, allows us the opportunity to do precisely that. With a queer taste for speaking back to mainstream trans representation, Vargas takes on Barbara Walters, the Mormon world headquarters, and the Human Rights Campaign with equal humour and aplomb. While watching Vargas’s sharp and witty critiques of, and alternatives to, lukewarm assimilation-based gay politics one gets the feeling that his worlds are worlds worth inhabiting. I want to watch TV specials that substitute Vargas for Thomas Beattie (Extraordinary Pregnancies); I want to frolic with him among FTM songbirds and beachballs after flashing a myriad of American landmarks (Have You Ever Seen a Transsexual Before?); I want his satire of pro-imprisonment gay white men to become a reality for more and more of us (Criminal Queers with Eric Stanley).

However, Vargas’ films suggest that these chancy worlds are already thriving, when and where the aesthetics and politics of queer representation are themselves turned inside out. In his collaboration with Greg Youmans, Falling in Love with Chris and Greg, for instance, Vargas shows that replacing assimilation politics with an equally programmatic and predictable set of queer politics is not necessarily an easy or useful answer. As he says,

My character in Falling in Love … with Chris and Greg [is] a caricature of a self-righteous, dogmatic radical queer, one who walks the party line uncritically and who non-consensually forces his boyfriend into an open relationship. I have been on dates with this person. It was hard.

Vargas takes no refuge in old solutions. With a fresh lens on the world, he instead gives us cartoony, fantastical, absurd places and laughter. (Indeed, don’t bother trying to watch Have You Ever Seen a Transsexual Before? without giggling.) He and his collaborators thereby hammer out a hard-won vision of queer and transgender futurity that is neither hokey nor hopeless.

Below, I ask him about the ways in which he has helped pull trans representation back from the dead-end realm of water-cooler office talk to the hot realm of serious (and seriously fun) hot tranny business.

Lucas Crawford: In Extraordinary Pregnancies, you edit yourself into Barbara Walters’ interview with Thomas Beatie. What was it about his representations of trans life – and the media coverage to follow – that motivated this piece?

Chris Vargas: Thomas’ pregnancy story fascinated me because of the way he presented an FTM trans narrative to a mass media audience. The whole affair initially made me really uncomfortable, because while Thomas was unapologetically rejecting gender conventions—by identifying as a man and having a baby—he was also reproducing a very normatively gendered, heterosexual picture of himself and his family. There were so many interesting contradictions. Then, after reading his autobiography, as well as countless transphobic news items about him, not to mention many mean-spirited forum discussions (trans and not), I realized that in many ways he failed. He did not gain the acceptance and sympathy from straight, non-trans people that he wanted, and many FTMs were angry at him and rejected his experience as unrepresentative. I identified somewhat with Thomas, though I was still suspicious of his intentions. Nonetheless, I wished he could get some revenge for enduring all that he did. So I made Extraordinary Pregnancies in an attempt to convey these compassionate yet critical feelings and fantasies of alternate outcomes.

LC: Where would you take Barbara Walters on a date? I mean, she’s a bit of a chaser, right?!

CV: You’re right, she is a chaser! First I’d like to take Barbara Walters to a soft, sandy beach for a long walk at sunset. Then we’d go to nearby hotel overlooking the water, where a nice romantic candle-lit transgender sensitivity training was taking place in one of the hotel’s plush corporate conference rooms. That interview with Thomas was horrific! Barbara could’ve definitely done a bit more homework before barraging him with those awful questions. She was relentless!

LC: She was! At a time when gay youth suicide has taken such precedence in the press, I find myself thinking back on the 20/20 episode Walters did that addressed transgender youth (My Secret Self). There’s this part where a mother tells a supposedly tragic story of her child asking her, “when is the magic fairy going to come and, you know, change my genitals?” Given that your films make magic and alternate worlds seem so very possible, I wonder if you ever think about youth as a particular audience you’re trying to reach. Is there a place for the “childlike” in your work?

CV: I don’t think the work I make is so different from fairy tales, you’re exactly right. The videos do imagine alternate worlds and possibilities. When Eric and I toured around Homotopia, I met a lot of young people who were excited and/or shocked by the politics of the movie. It made me realize that many young queer people want to know that there are worlds for them to struggle for, beyond what little marriage and the military can offer them. With the recent rise in media exposure of gay suicides (which may or may not be statistically more than usual) and the huge homophobic backlash that I see taking place, I started to question myself about the work that I do and the part it plays in the broader queer conversation, particularly in relation to queer youth. In one of my lower moments, Greg stepped in and pointed out that for me in my youth in Los Angeles, it wasn’t the culture of WeHo (gay for West Hollywood, i.e. Boys Town) that was important to me—though seeing my high school sociology teachers there fagging-out was one of my highlights. It was in the queer subcultures that I found myself, among latino punks and goths, in campy John Waters movies, doing psychedelic drugs at desert “parties” (raves). I wanted to see other options and other possibilities for my future; I assume young and old queer people still do as well.

LC: I think of the moment in “Have You Ever Seen a Transsexual Before?” where the character flashes Las Vegas, flops onto the bed, and proceeds to a fantasy world. It’s a moment that feels filled with loneliness, imagination, casino buffets, energy, and release. I have two questions here: first, can you talk about that moment in the film – what are the emotions happening there? And secondly, can we create better “life chances” for youth without educating them that everyone gets a fair and equal chance to become the president? What role does film play here?

CV: That Las Vegas scene is the last place that I flash and ask the video’s titular question (sans tits) Have You Ever Seen A Transsexual Before?” This is also the scene right before I enter into my magical world of animated beach balls and responsive wildlife. That moment marks a point of exhaustion in my and the video’s project of FTM visibility, the video is about the politics of visibility but also about the limits of it. Like many people know, being uniformly “out” and “visible” is not always the safest or best option, and if we have the option, we pick and choose how we present our queerness to the world. There is a sentiment in that video that prefers the project of fantastical utopia over baring one’s scars to an ambivalent straight world; it’s about choosing to imagine something better over struggling to gain inclusion into something potentially mediocre. I think there are multiple narratives that could be pulled from that video, that’s just one.

LC: “Chance” is a strange word. When I hear the word chance, I think of “luck” and the popular idea that everybody in our culture has a chance. Thankfully, many (including trans theorists Dean Spade and Craig Willse), use the phrase “uneven distribution of life chances” to talk about how oppression is reproduced. How does Criminal Queers in particular critique the idea that our world is a world of fair chances?

CV: The movie Criminal Queers takes up issue with the fact that queer and transgender, and specifically queer and trans people of colour, have and continue to be impacted by relentless police surveillance, harassment and imprisonment. On one hand, this doesn’t sound like a circumstance of “chance” (or accident) that there exists heavy policing and punishment of people’s bodies that don’t conform to normative races, genders, and sexualities. And on the other hand, the access to resources (education, employment, housing, healthcare, etc.) that offer the privilege to live free of this kind of surveillance and harassment is evidence of an unfair distribution of life “chances”.

My co-director Eric and I were responding to the fact that, as a community, transgender people have been and still are overwhelmingly targeted by institutions of policing and imprisonment, in short the Prison Industrial Complex. What many people understand as the first rumblings of a gay liberation movement were actually responses to relentless police harassment of queer bars and street culture. Criminal Queers is situated within this history and asks why the gay movement today is dominated by liberal ideals that tend to ignore the huge injustices that non-affluent LGBT people still face. Also, I think Eric and I are very excited by the growing Prison Abolition movement in the U.S. and queer and trans people’s integral role in it.

LC: In Criminal Queers, there’s a scene where some folks are fundraising for bail, and they bust a bag of golden loot out of an HRC (Human Rights Campaign) safe. In 2006, you made stickers for Against Equality that read “HRC Hates Trannys” and “HRC is not your friend.” How have they earned such a special place in your critical heart (and art)?

CV: I made those stickers for an action that Gay Shame organized in San Francisco called “HRC Sweatshop Playland.” The event was meant to bring attention to the Human Rights Campaign’s exploitation of sweatshop labor to produce much of the merchandise sold in their stores. The action also coincided with the moment when the HRC was endorsing an ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) bill that neglected to protect transgender or any gender-variant people. They also have more corporate and affluent gay money, and stolen jewels, than they know what to do with, so we decided to do them a favor and take some off their hands. Fictitiously, of course.

LC: Is filmmaking an art of chance?

CV: I must admit that many of the films and videos that I’ve made were results of pure chance, or lucky accidents. Honestly, I never plan that well but my collaborators and I have been more or less lucky in the chances that we take, especially shooting out in public. Film and video for me is all about chance, and knowing how to dig through bad footage and bad performances to find treasures. I think the biggest chance I’ve ever taken as a film and video maker is putting myself in front of the camera.

LC: I have noticed that we share an affinity for the word “tranny.” What does it mean when you use it?

CV: “Tranny” means love and eternal life. It’s part of my 1990s third-wave feminist-dyke affinity for reclaiming derogatory terms. I know many people feel uncomfortable with it but I don’t. Tranny is love! Tranny is life!

LC: Sing it.

Redistributing Life Chances: The Fantastical Homotopias of Chris Vargas

Lucas Crawford is a performer, organizer, and Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Alberta. His obsessions include transgender, architecture, twentieth-century fiction, perfumery, and food. Lucas’ writing on these topics has appeared in or is forthcoming from Women’s Studies Quarterly, Meatpaper, Saveur, Seattle Journal for Social Justice, the Routledge Queer Studies Reader, and elsewhere.

Chris E. Vargas is an MFA candidate in UC Berkeley´s Art Practice department. With collaborator Greg Youmans he creates the video sitcom series Falling In Love… with Chris and Greg, and with Eric Stanley he is the co-director of the movie Homotopia (2006), as well as its forthcoming feature-length sequel Criminal Queers (2010). www.chrisevargas.com

Comments from old site:

Submitted by TONY (not verified) on Fri, 12/31/2010 – 18:56.

Really good interview and well written overall. Thanks.