Five Questions With… Susan Stryker

Posted by – November 2, 2005

susan strykerSusan Stryker is a researcher, writer, queer historian, artist, and a filmmaker. She is the former executive director of the GLBT Historical Society of Northern California, and a former history columnist for Planet Out. She has written and co-authored books like Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area and edited “The Transgender Issue” of The Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol 4, No 2, 1998. She recently discovered and made a film about the Compton’s Riot – riots by transpeople in San Francisco that pre-date Stonewall – and turned that discovery into a documentary film, Screaming Queens.

1) I was really excited to learn that someone else is a fan of Cronenberg’s films. Why do you love them?

I love Cronenberg because he disturbs me, and because he’s such a fierce auteur who’s not afraid to show even the most unsettling aspects of his sensibility. I like that he is such a philosphically smart filmmaker, and a whiz at making things look stylish on a low budget. But I think my favorite thing is that he really, really pays attention to the fact that we are bodies, that bodies are different from one another, and that bodily difference is a source of fascination, pleasure, dread, and horror for everybody.

That said, I don’t always like Cronenberg. I think his take on women is sometimes mysogynistic, that he finds horrific things I find familiar and desirable. I think he sometimes despairs that his mind is inextricably embedded in flesh, rather than reveling in that. But I totally admire the unflinching way he looks at and represents those feelings. I guess that’s the biggest turn-on for me–that he is alive and engaged with the phenomenogical, existential, emobodied situation of human experience. He feels what it means to be made of meat, and helps us see that.

Favorite moments? Hard to top Videodrome, start to finish–the snuff films, growing new orifices, the flesh gun, infections by viral images, the disemebodied Great White Man in a post-death virtual existence on videotape. What a brilliantly twisted film. And Deborah Harry was just plain ol’ hot. I also love the doomed romance between Jeff Goldblum and Gina Davis in The Fly, and those dwarves who burst out of the rage-sacks growing on Samantha Eggar’s body in The Brood, who then beat that kindergarten teacher to death while all the kiddies look on. When I saw that, I though “this is what filmmaking is all about–see it, don’t say it; show it, don’t tell it.” Cronenberg is such an amazing visual storyteller. He lets you see feeling in an unprecedented way. I could go on and on, but I guess I should stop here.

2) I just heard Screaming Queens was screened in full at Fantasia Fair, and I’ve missed seeing it yet again. When will there be DVDs available? Is it done?

Yep. The film’s done. We wrapped post and laid to tape (see how I’m picking up all this film lingo?) in May ’05. I took it on mini-World Tour to Sydney, New York, and Amsterdam before the offical world premiere at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in June. We had a packed house, about 1200 people. Absolutely one of the highlights of my life. We also broadcast on KQED, our local PBS station and had about 100,000 viewers.

Since then, we’ve been holding off just a little on festival distribution, because we still have hopes of getting into Sundance and the Berlin Biennale in February, and they frown upon showing things that are already in festival or theatrical release. So we’ve concentrated instead on college and university screenings, in conjunction with speaking engagements for me. I’m travelling about a week a month right now, doing gigs all over the country.

We expect our festival bookings to pick up after February. We’ve already been invited to Sydney again, and Iceland, and lots of smaller festivals in the US. We also expect a national broadcast on PBS in June 2006–and the way that works is that our station partner in San Francisco will make it available to the national broadcast feed, but it will be up to the individual local stations to pick it up in each market. So if you want to see the film broadcast in your locality, you might need to call the station, and get your friends to do so, too. We’ll be in educational distribution (schools and libraries) for fall of ’06, but probably not in home DVD until ’07.

3) Tell us a little bit about why you decided to tell the story of the Compton’s Riot as a film documentary (instead of just writing aboutit).

First, I always wanted to make a film, so I probably would have made a film as my next project regardless of the topic. But I think transgender topics are especially suited to film, because I think the visibility of the bodily surface of trans people is where the action is, so to speak. It’s one thing to read about trans people, and quite another to see us. And I appreciate how film lets you capture nuances, through body language and facial expression or tone of voice, that you simply can’t capture in words. I wanted to bring all that emotive power, that affect, to bear on telling the story of how trans people first got together to resist police violence. I wanted the audience to feel something, not just learn something. And finally, I think film has the ability to reach mass audiences in a way that most of us never get to do in print. I’ve written a couple of books, and edited a couple more, in addition to scads of articles and essays. And I doubt I’ve had 100,000 readers, total. We reached that many people on one night with the film. Basically, I want to educate and motivate people on trans issues and activist causes, and I felt like I could be a more effective rabble-rouser as a filmmaker than a writer.

4) Do you think any two queer people define queer the same way? How do you define it, for yourself?

No, I don’t think any two people are the same about much of anything. The deeper and more intimately you know another person, the stranger they become. Which I find beautiful.

I think queer means valuing that which is off-center and against the norm. That’s not to say queer people can’t be normative in many ways (I have two legs and can see out of both eyes, and drive a Saturn station wagon, fer chrissakes), but being queer means you have some consciousness about norms, and how they are produced–often through violence and suppression of difference–whether that’s a norm of embodiment, or gender, or sexual orientation, or class, or spiritual belief, or political practice, or whatever. If you are queer you are aware of where your boundaries are, and when you cross them; you know the ways you are privileged, as well as the ways you are marginalized. And you celebrate your differences and uniqueness.

5) What’s your next project?

I’ve got lots of little things going on right now, while we get the film out into broader circulation. We’ve written some grants to support grass-roots distribution to community and activist groups, so if those come through, I’ll be busy with that for a year or two. I’m currently writing up all the research I did about San Francisco transgender history, that didn’t fit into my film, and hope to have a book on that topic finished by summer of 2006. I’m also writing some articles, tangential things that have come out of this project, about feminist theory, geography, media studies. But all of this feels like mopping up, tying up loose ends. As much as I’ve loved doing this work, I’m kind of sick of it now and would like to move on to other things as soon as I can. I have no clue what’s on my plate after that, though. I’ve got some ideas, and some interests, but nothing has gelled enough to start tallking about it in public yet. I’ve got some time to sort it all out.

6 Comments on Five Questions With… Susan Stryker

  1. [...] Area and former executive director of the GLBT Historical Society of Northern California, over at (en)Gender where Susan shares with us her belief that no two queer people define themselves the same [...]

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