By Megan Smith
Transgender, intersex, and genderqueer experiences on film? Yep, Gender Reel has it all. The nationwide traveling film and art festival dedicated to showcasing gender-nonconforming, gender-variant, queer, and transgender identities is making its first-ever stop in Houston on November 20–22.
Founded by trans activist Joe Ippolito, Gender Reel held its first festival in Philadelphia in 2011 with the goal of increasing visibility for experiences that fall under the trans umbrella. Since then, the festival has expanded exponentially, spreading to cities such as Boston, Minneapolis, and Omaha. “As someone who does work with film festivals, I am incredibly surprised at how quickly this has grown,” says Koomah, an organizer of Gender Reel Houston.
Koomah—who has regularly interacted with Ippolito at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference—has been in talks for a few years about increasing the festival’s Southern presence and bringing it to Houston. With the help of fellow organizers Jay Mays and Stephanie Saint Sanchez, and with funding from the Idea Fund and the Houston Arts Alliance, the Houston festival is now a reality. “This whole film festival is totally community-funded through the arts community and the City of Houston,” Koomah says, noting that the funding has also allowed for all festival events to be free and open to the public.
Each of the festival’s organizers—who have brought both trans and non-trans perspectives to the table—has worked hard to curate a diverse program schedule. The lineup is pulled from a broad range of submissions, and features everything from professionally shot films to amateur pieces filmed on iPhones. Don’t expect the festival to simply look like an episode of I Am Cait either. “I think so often you have organizations or people on TV that present a very one-sided view of what being trans looks like,” Koomah says. “One of the things about having a film festival that highlights transgender people and issues is that it gives a voice to the people who so often don’t get to share their experiences. And through sharing those experiences, they can hopefully help people better understand what being trans is like from their own [perspective].”
Gender Reel Houston kicks off with the festival’s general film showcase on Friday, November 20, at 6:30 p.m. at Rice Media Center. The evening will include a variety of short films and a screening of Sam Feder’s Kate Bornstein Is a Queer & Pleasant Danger, which highlights the life of transgender theorist, author, and 2015 Houston Transgender Unity Banquet keynote speaker Kate Bornstein.
Saturday’s Southern showcase brings a local flare to the festival. The program—which begins at 9 p.m. at Frenetic Theater following the Houston Trans Day of Remembrance—highlights visual artists, filmmakers, and performers from the South. In addition to Houston artists, several participants will be crossing state lines to take part in the showcase. “It’s really going to be a wide range of things,” Koomah says, explaining that the night will include spoken-word poetry, performance art, burlesque, gender performance, drag, monologues, paintings, sculptures, photography, and more.
Gender Reel Houston is especially excited to include live performances in the festival, Koomah says, and to be able to compensate the artists for their work. “For artists, that’s always a big deal. They’ll have the opportunity to sell their art and keep 100 percent of the sales, which is really unheard of. And for trans people, that’s huge. Trans artists don’t have a lot of visibility, and transgender people have one of the highest unemployment rates. So anything that brings money to transgender people—specifically transgender artists and performers—and gets them exposure is so impactful for the community.”
Sunday marks the festival’s family-friendly event, happening from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Montrose Center. All of that day’s featured content will be rated “G” and “PG” and includes animation, pieces aimed at trans and gender-variant youth, and more. The family-friendly event will be pay-what-you-can, with all proceeds benefiting the Montrose Center’s HATCH Youth program. The festival is proud to give back to the same program that first got Koomah, a former HATCH kid, involved in art. “We’re using our presence to give back to the community,” Koomah says.
“We’re really trying to reach a bunch of different demographics with this [festival],” Koomah adds. “Obviously there is a focus on the trans, gender-diverse, and intersex communities, but we’re also trying to reach people in the arts community, straight friends and allies, and the LGB community as well.”
With this year’s Gender Reel Houston poised for success, Koomah and fellow organizers are already looking ahead to the festival’s future. “We got funding this year, but aren’t eligible for the same funding next year,” Koomah explains. “So anyone who wants to support this, let us know!”
For more information, a full festival schedule, or to contact Gender Reel Houston organizers, visit genderreelfest.com/?page_id=3456 or facebook.com/genderreelhouston. Although submissions for Gender Reel Houston are now closed, artists interested in having their work considered can still submit to the national festival at genderreelfest.com.