The documentary TRANSSEXUALS features a look at the transgender community in New York in 1971.
Note: This video will only be available to view through October 29th, 2020.
Video continues to be a force in generating social change and exposing the realities of life in America. That’s why Media Burn Archive is presenting a series of screenings and discussions with pioneers of video art and activism. This edition features Susan Milano, Christina Milano, and Andrew Gurian presenting a screening of the film TRANSSEXUALS and a discussion of the topics it addresses.
NOTE: The title “TRANSSEXUALS” was chosen the year the film was made (1971). At that time, it was the commonly-used term for transgender individuals. The filmmakers recognize that the term has since fallen from favor, and that transgender is a more accurate and respectful descriptor.
Fifty years ago, it was virtually impossible to access gender affirming surgery in the United States, so Deborah Hartin, one of the individuals featured in this documentary, traveled all the way to a doctor in Casablanca to achieve what she had long wanted. Having spent most of her 20-plus years trying to conform to life in the body of a man, she ultimately made the choice to follow her destiny and fully become the person she knew herself to be.
Living in a society that lacked understanding about the transgender experience (medically, psychologically or sociologically), Hartin’s day-to-day survival was often tenuous, with danger as a constant companion. A sense of desperation had even driven her to cope with this conflict between mind and body by attempting surgery on herself. For Hartin, it had become a matter of life or death and nothing was going to stop her from going through with her decision to transition her body to be more aligned with her affirmed identity.
In 1971 — a year or so after her surgery — a group of students in New York City learning how to use the nascent technology of portable video, interviewed Hartin for a documentary they were making about the subject. Along with Esther Reilly (who was recently post-operative) and others in the transgender community, Hartin shared her story and revealed how the procedure had transformed her body.
In the years since then, gender-affirming healthcare has become accessible in many areas of the United States, and the opportunity for transgender people to live more openly and authentically has significantly evolved — although there is still much room for improvement. By virtue of the fact that TRANSSEXUALS was made almost 50 years ago, it serves as an inflection point from which it is possible to spotlight how attitudes, medicine and human understanding of gender have — and have not — changed.
After the documentary was originally completed, Deborah Hartin went on to become an outspoken activist, and subsequently lived a private life until she passed away in 2005. Because of technical limitations, TRANSSEXUALS could not be broadcast on commercial television. It was never distributed and rarely shown publicly. In 2016, it was converted from the obsolete format in which it was originally produced so that it could be preserved and presented anew.
Susan Milano (she/her) – In 1971, Susan Milano became an assistant to John Reilly, her friend and co-founder of Global Village, where she learned, and then taught classes in video production. At the invitation of Steina Vasulka in 1972, she organized what came to be the first Women’s Video Festival, at the Kitchen, and went on to produce numerous iterations of the show in the US and abroad, the last of which took place in 1980. During those years she directed the video program at the Women’s Interart Center, a feminist hotbed in Hell’s Kitchen, and ultimately took a workshop with Shirley Clark, who invited her to join the TeePee Videospace Troupe based in Shirley’s tower residence on top of the Chelsea Hotel.
Milano went on to create interactive video environments and gallery installations, one of which, BackSeat, was a show of video in automobiles which she produced with Videofreex, Nancy Cain and Bart Friedman in 1978. Bad habits like food, shelter, and clothing eventually led her to the field of commercial video production. For more than 20 years she worked for Japanese producers, directors and networks shooting on location all across America.
Andrew Gurian (he/him) – As Gurian puts it, his film career peaked at the age of thirteen, when his first 16 mm production, “That Rotten Teabag” was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art for their collection. He went on to work with Shirley Clarke for several years as a member of the TeePee Videospace Troupe, touring to colleges and universities for workshops and performances. Gurian has continued to work in video, collaborating with dancers and performers, especially with an ongoing project, Subway Moon, in which jazz musicians work in residence with students in high school music programs, in the U.S. and abroad, and present the results in public performances.
Christina Milano, MD (she/they) – Dr. Milano is an associate professor of Family Medicine in the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) School of Medicine, and Medical Director of the OHSU Transgender Health Program – the only academic, interdisciplinary program of its kind in the country. She cares for patients as a primary care provider at OHSU Richmond Clinic, a federally qualified health center, and in the inpatient family medicine teaching service at OHSU Hospital. She originally hails from San Francisco, where she received her medical degree from the University of California at San Francisco. It was during a volunteer clinical experience at UCSF that she had her first exposure to gender-affirming care and hormone therapy. Dr. Milano went on to complete a residency and clinical leadership fellowship with OHSU’s Department of Family Medicine, and has been training regional and national audiences on the subject of gender-affirming care for over a decade.