Aiden Ramirez-Tatum, Morgan Shaw-Andrade and Dr. Kathleen Battles were panelists at the the 33rd Annual Women and Gender Studies Film Festival on Jan. 21 at Oakland University. BTL Photo Kate Opalewski

OU Film Festival Explores Trans Visibility

Spotlight on 'Suited,' a Documentary about Genderless Clothing

BY KATE OPALEWSKI

ROCHESTER - "We all have the right to be handsome." That's what Rae Tutera, a jack-of-all-trades from New York said in "Suited," a documentary about custom suits, accepting difference and living bravely in one's own skin.

That film was featured during the 33rd Annual Women and Gender Studies Film Festival, "Style Beyond the Binary, Transgender Visibility & Recognition," on Jan. 21 at Oakland University in Rochester.

The festival strives to show films that speak to the needs of women, LGBTQ people, and other historically underrepresented groups on campus.

"For people of all genders to feel welcome, involved and supported," said Ami Harbin, Ph.D., assistant professor in women and gender studies and chair of the film festival planning committee. "That is consistent with our work in Women and Gender Studies at OU, and we think the film will open up a lively and thought-provoking discussion."

After navigating the cis/straight custom menswear landscape in 2010 as a transmasculine person, Tutera felt there was a unique need for a trans/queer-identified clothier. "Suited," directed by New York native Jason Benjamin, follows its subjects - clients seeking a personalized experience - into the minimalist office space of Bindle & Keep. The bespoke tailoring company based in Brooklyn caters to a diverse LGBTQ community and looks beyond the gender binary, creating custom-made suits for gender-nonconforming and transgender people.

Going deeper than fine fabrics and silk linings, "Suited" takes a modern, evolved look at gender through the conduit of clothing and elucidates the private and emotional experience surrounding it. With heart and optimism, the film documents a cultural shift that is creating a new demand - and response - for each person's right to go out into the world with confidence. The characters in "Suited" are not all trans men -- there are women and gender nonconforming people too. And none of their experiences were framed as less valuable or valid than the other.

The film screening was followed by a panel discussion for an audience of 30-40 people in attendance to discuss the work some local organizations are doing and how it relates to LGBTQ issues and communities, what panelists see as some of the most important issues facing transgender individuals in communities today, and what are some of the most important steps people can take toward supporting transgender individuals and communities.

Panelists included Dr. Kathleen Battles, associate professor, department of communication and journalism, OU; Morgan Shaw-Andrade, OU student and health and wellness counselor at Transcend the Binary in Ferndale; and Aiden Ramirez-Tatum, student lead of training and education at the Spectrum Center, University of Michigan.

Battles specifically studies LGBTQ representation in the media and as transgender visibility is emerging, she said she doesn't like to think about it from the perspective of accuracy as much as she does diversity.

"So when we think about how a group is represented, our question doesn't necessarily need to be is this an accurate representation or not because everyone has different experiences in every group so figuring out what's accurate for one person doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be accurate for another person. This doesn't mean there aren't harmful stereotypes, there are, but what it does mean is that sometimes we just need to push our thinking a little bit...what are the range of representations that are available," she said, pointing to the extra weight in media representation of the LGBTQ community in comparison to other social groups.

"So many LGBTQ folks - they don't necessarily grow up in a community where there are people like themselves...one of our earliest exposures to those groups of people are media images so those media images become important for self-identity and for how other people think of LGBTQ folks...as trans visibility emerges, how do we watch out for what might become the dominant face of trans visibility and how do we fight against what might become this kind of normalizing discourse so that we end up with 'yay, we get to see trans people,' but only a very narrow slice of trans life when there's so much variety of trans life, which the film emphasizes."

Shaw-Andrade, a transgender individual, said it's important for the LGBTQ community to become loud again as "we've been quiet and fearful since the election of Donald Trump." He is doing his part to "give my community a friendly face where they feel comfortable and they don't feel they have to fit this certain mold - that they can be authentically themselves because that's how we're happiest. I feel that when you are happy with yourself and authentic with yourself you give others the freedom to do the same."

Ramirez-Tatum encouraged people to ask more questions and figure out what's going on at the local level.

"What does my university say about this? If my university has a non-discrimination ordinance that includes gender identity, how far does it go? What does that look like historically? Have people been protected? Is there gender-inclusive housing? What happens when a trans person needs to live somewhere on campus? What happens when a trans person needs to use the facilities? What will happen now that there is a conservative anti-trans person at the front of the office of civil rights? What is my school going to do? Are they doing to unravel any protections that they have? In my student organizations, do we talk about protecting trans people? And this is any student organization. Are there any bylaws in the groups that I am a part of that protects trans people? Does the city I'm in have a non-discrimination ordinance? If it doesn't, what do we do so that it does?," said Ramirez-Tatum.

"Because once these things are rolled back federally, those are going to be the only protections and if the federal government decides to make laws or create norms that are against trans people, there's not much we can do except stand with our communities - so you have to. You have to say am I being a good enough ally and the answer is no for everyone because everyone can reach out more. Everyone can say what more can i do in the spaces that I am in? What more can I do to create more understanding? What more can I do for the trans people that I know? If i don't know any trans people, how can I educate myself to still benefit that community? If I am trans, who in the trans community is most vulnerable? We need to create community strength, we need to push forward policy and we need to create a safety net that is made of people and not of laws that could so easily be taken away from us."

Learn more about the OU Women and Gender Studies Program online or call 248-370-2154. The program office is located at Varner Hall, Room 521, in Rochester.
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