Something that was constantly heard from Donald Trump’s supporters on election night was that it was a victory for people who have long been ignored by the system. Less than 24 hours later, journalist Zach Stafford reported that at least eight American trans kids had committed suicide, and over 300 calls had been made to the suicide hotline Trans Life Line.
Trans Life Line is a suicide hotline run and operated by trans people for trans people.
300 is the most they've ever received in 24hrs
— Zach Stafford (@ZachStafford) November 9, 2016
But of course, Trump supporters weren’t talking about trans people. When they talk about the marginalised they mean “ordinary Americans,” which in turn is code for straight cis white people (and even then, it’s mostly men). The only demographic that American society has always catered to. Contrary to what Trump supporters believe it is the trans community, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, who are forgotten by mainstream American society. They always have been. While imperfect, Barack Obama and the Democrats offered some semblance of progress. Now it looks like all that work will be dismantled by a racist, sexist president and an openly anti-LGBTQA vice-president. Cinema has not been innocent when it comes to the marginalisation of those who aren’t white and straight. But in 2015, Tangerine made an effort to depict the lives of America’s forgotten people.
Tangerine tells the story of two LA transgender sex workers on Christmas Eve; Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor). Sin-Dee, after finding out that her pimp/boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was in prison, goes on a rampage to find the girl who stole her man, dragging along a belated Alexandra. On their journey they encounter the people who were truly forgotten by the system: recovering addicts in a food line, fellow sex workers both cis and trans, and immigrant workers. Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s story eventually collides with one of their customers, an Armenian taxi driver called Razmik (Karren Karagulian).
Current writing on the film often neglects the Razmik sections because the most memorable moments of the film belong to its trans protagonists. However, Razmik is as ‘forgotten’ as Sin-Dee and Alexandra. His first few scenes show him ferrying various customers around the city. They either ignore him, talk at him, or drunkenly vomit all over the back seat. Again, when Trump supporters talk about left-behind people, they aren’t thinking about people like Razmik. He is seen by other characters purely for his Middle-Eastern background, and is referred to as ‘falafel.’ Razmik’s status as outsider in American society unites him with Sin-Dee and Alexandra.
As a film about trans women of colour and an immigrant taxi driver, it would be easy to criticise Tangerine for being directed and written by cis white men. One could reasonably argue that its view of trans life in LA is skewed by a cis perspective, much like Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl. But this interpretation risks erasing Rodriguez and Taylor’s contributions to the film. While there aren’t a lot of details about the production, a video featurette suggests that Taylor and Rodriguez could draw upon their real-life experiences as sex workers to make the story a more authentic reflection of their reality. In the video, Taylor says “I wanted it to really have our personality.” She told director Sean Baker that she would only do the film if it was “brutally honest” and hilarious. “When you think about it the story is really sad,” Taylor elaborates. “We’re some prostitutes on the street and we don’t have no place to go and I wanted it to be funny.” This tone goes against how mainstream cinema usually portrays queer people. The LGBTQA experience is glossed over as a tragedy to be sympathised with by a presumably straight audience. Think of films like Boys Don’t Cry and, again, The Danish Girl. This type of representation meant that the relatively hopeful ending of Carol was a breath of fresh air.
This tone of comedy mixed with honesty is crucial to understanding how the film depicts trans experiences. For most of the film, comedy dominates the audience’s attention, especially with the livewire-straight man dynamic between Sin-Dee and Alexandra. The humour is important because it shows how their lives are not wholly defined by oppression. These women have personalities and desires that are not intrinsic to their position as trans women of colour. However, the comedy serves a second purpose. It allows for throwaway lines and understated moments to fly under the radar, and it is in these moments that the difficulties of their reality become apparent. Some examples include the police officer’s assumption that Alexandra is on drugs because she is angry, or the fact that both characters are misgendered throughout the film. There’s also a brief, easily missed moment where trans prostitutes on a street corner are filmed by a guy in a car; a reminder that society sees trans women as an alluring, exotic other. By downplaying these moments, the film demonstrates how these injustices are just an everyday reality for the characters.
Certain elements of the trans experience are made conspicuously absent in the film. One of the greatest fears you can have when you are trans and closeted is that your family will reject you. This is not only a loss of love, but also a loss of economic support. Many trans people are lucky to have families who will love them no matter what, but there are so many who don’t. This is one of the great absences in Tangerine. In a quieter exchange between the two, Alexandra reminisces to Sin-Dee about how she was given a Barney doll as a child. When she took it to the bath with her the doll couldn’t play the “I Love you” song anymore. Alexandra concludes by saying “the world can be a cruel place”. It’s the only time in the film that either one mentions their family, the safe assumption being that they no longer have one.
The absence of a family support network can just be one of many reasons that so many trans women become sex workers, a line of work which is fraught with dangers. Throughout the entire film Sin-Dee is fierce as fuck, but in the final scene a random white stranger throws a cup of urine in her face. If the film was guilty of glamorising the lives of its character through comedy, then that spell is broken here. It reminds the audience that women like Sin-Dee and Alexandra live with the constant threat of violence from the combined societal forces of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. These prejudices were given an outlet by Trump, whose supporters have no qualms with using slurs like “faggot” and “tranny”. Non-white trans women in the sex industry are most at risk in Trump’s America, as they have always been. One major problem is VP-elect Mike Pence, who has repeatedly gone on record as a homophobic dickhead. He wanted to divert funds from HIV treatment and put it into conversion camps that do nothing but wreck the lives of the LGBTQA youths.
I live healthily everyday with HIV. I am in FEAR of what a Trump Presidency will mean for those who don't have access to proper care
— THE STUNT QUEEN TOUR (@MykkiBlanco) November 9, 2016
With debacles like the Bathroom Bill in North Carolina, the Target Bathroom Boycott and the proud homophobia of Mike Pence, every queer person in America is now more vulnerable. As a trans person rewatching Tangerine after Trump’s victory I fear for the real-life Razmiks, Sin-Dees and Alexandras. Faced with the reality of a presidency that has already claimed the lives of eight trans kids, American filmmakers should turn to films like Tangerine for inspiration. Future films have to tell the stories of marginalised people who are being threatened by Trump’s so-called forgotten people: White America.
Now, if you're unwilling to talk about what this data means, then you're not ready to talk about the work ahead. pic.twitter.com/iXsbxVUHiK
— deray mckesson (@deray) November 9, 2016