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Towards Gender-Blind Casting: Conversion Therapist Writer/Director Bears Fonte on Trans Performers

Conversion Therapist

On June 12th, 2016, I woke up to coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting and felt my heart being ripped out. Even worse, I was due to moderate a Q&A of the Sandy Hook shooting documentary Newtown that night. What world were we living in? In the aftermath of Pulse, I couldn’t believe the bigotry of certain “ministers” who did more than hint that they believed the terrorist had done the world a favor. Roger Jimenez, a Sacramento preacher, said in a sermon to his parishioners, “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die… I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job!” Unfortunately, he was not alone.

I dug up an old, revenge-motivated script that I had never solved and poured my anger into it. In Conversion Therapist, a pansexual, polyamorous trio kidnap a bigoted conversion therapist and torture him until he sees the light. Justine is the ringleader of the polyamorous trio, vindictive and loving at the same time. Many writers put themselves in their scripts, so I split myself into two, Justine and Salina, with Justine taking on all my vengeance; Salina a trans woman who had been sent to conversion therapy before her transition by her parents. As I was working on it, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to bring it into the world and honestly discuss the story with the actors, crew and audiences without first being honest about myself. For the past thirty years of my life I’ve hated my body. I didn’t know the term gender dysphoria in high school, but I knew I felt more comfortable hanging with the girls than trying to “be one of the boys.” Conversion Therapist became an opportunity for me to discuss these feelings with those around me, slowly, and then publicly.  

Sara Fletcher—who plays Justine, the lead in the film—has always been my go-to actress. She starred in my feature iCrime, and in the three shorts I’ve done since. As I was writing role after role for Sara, I realized she was more than my artistic muse—she gave me an outlet to explore a side of myself I was not able to in my day-to-day life. She was my creative avatar, and I was writing myself as her under these circumstances. Sara became the first person I confided in about how I felt inside, and I don’t think I could have come out to anyone else without her support and love. Conversion Therapist became my ticking clock to reveal myself to the world. Of course, having to do a crowdfunding campaign to finish the film gave me a deadline. Launching the Kickstarter would be the day I came out to the world as transgender.

A filmmaker has to realize they are on the front line at festivals, represent these issues as they represent their film, understand what is “in play” with their film and be ready to defend it. For my film, in addition to conversion therapy, I know the discussion will be about my own journey and the character of Salina, on whom the entire plot hinges. The most important thing about making any film is casting—you can’t fix that in post. With Conversation Therapist, this was especially important; I refused to cast a non-trans actress. Films and series like Transamerica, The Danish Girl and Transparent have been great for trans-visibility, but the casting of cisgender actors in these roles has been increasingly offensive to the trans community. Transgender actors should be able to tell their own stories.  

Just a few weeks ago, news broke that Scarlett Johansson would be portraying mob-connected massage parlor impresario Dante “Tex” Gill, appropriating another important trans character for her own, I guess, pursuit of an Oscar. For years, Gill lived, worked and dressed as a man and asked to be referred to as “Mr. Gill.” Johansson’s rep provided this retort to Bustle from the actress herself: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.” This follows particularly disappointing writing in the original announcement from outlets like Deadline that referred to the film as being about Jean Marie Gill, instead of his chosen name, (a name even his transphobic obituary used, and misgendered Gill throughout the article. The misguided belief that transgender roles are acting challenges reinforces the notions that trans women are really just “men who want to play dress up,” or that trans men are women just masquerading in pursuit of fame and fortune. It is damaging to the identity of the community because it undercuts its very truth. Fortunately, someone talked some sense into ScarJo, and she pulled out of the project, but the fact that it she had been offered the role in the first place, the invalidating language of the articles about the film, and the possibility that without a ‘name’ star the project might not happen shows Hollywood has a long way to go.

On Conversion Therapist, I delayed setting a production date until I had found my Salina. I conducted an exhaustive nine-month search, posting on every casting board I could and received headshot after headshot of cisgender actresses saying they believed they could handle the challenge. Living through my own internal crisis for thirty years, I sincerely doubted that anyone could just step into that challenge. More importantly, this film was going to be a political flashpoint: I wanted to see an ultra-violent short at LGBTQ+ film festivals, something virtually unheard of, and I wanted to see an LGBTQ+ film at genre fests, something I had seen far too few of in the 100+ festivals I had attended with previous films. I knew that we would be an outlier at both types of festivals and that I would be looked at to represent this community, and I didn’t want to let them down.

After almost giving up on making the film, I discovered Evalyn Jake, a young Michigan-based model, through modeling agency Trans Models. Evalyn had only done a bit of acting, but a Skype conversation really established that she could nail the role I had written and give it a life I could never have imagined. There is no substitute for having someone in a role that truly understands the life circumstances of that character. After watching Evalyn embrace her first major role, and blossom on screen over our four-day shoot, I can’t imagine why anyone would try to cast a cisgender actor in a film like this. It is also important that the industry change the way it thinks about casting. If we can do it on an indie budget, Hollywood should be able to do it as well. Stay committed and widen your methods if you are not finding who you need.

Part of the difficulty in casting came from limitations in casting websites, most which only offered two gender choices.  I argued with one prominent site that wouldn’t let me say in my casting notice that I would only consider trans-actors, as if people don’t do the same when they list race or age or body type specificity. It is hard enough for trans actors to be cast at all, so why are we making it difficult for them to find parts written for them? Many trans actors may feel burned by the system and look for roles in other places, like music or comedy. Also, please, if at all possible, consider trans actors for roles that don’t have to be cisgender; if we can work toward color-blind casting, we can also work toward gender-blind casting. In addition, not all trans people are sex workers; they are bank tellers and doctors and CEOs. You can cast trans actors in virtually any role in your script.  If you are writing, consider writing a character as trans who is just part of the ensemble. The entire plot does not need to hinge upon a character’s gender identity to have them play an important role in the plot. 

Casting Evalyn in the film ended up being more than just the right choice artistically. Despite being almost twice her age, I found in Evalyn a confidante for my own coming out, someone who I could talk to about my hopes and fears as I slowly let my friends and family see the real me. I began to open up more in my trans support group and feel confident of who I was for the first time in my life. 

With the film shot, the clock ticked louder and louder in my head.  I made a list of everyone I wanted to tell one-on-one, so they didn’t first read about my transition on Facebook.  Some were easier than others, of course. I actually found the more people knew my work (my female-empowerment genre films and inaugurating the Mary Shelley Award for Other Worlds Austin) the less surprised they were.  

As we launched the Kickstarter, I had some second thoughts. Was I exploiting my gender identity to further my career? Unanimously, my trans friends said either “no” or “Fuck it, you’ve hidden who you are all your life, you should absolutely get to use it to make up for lost time.” Many people suggest crowdfunding campaigns can be ridiculously exhausting, but I didn’t find that at all, I only found inspiration and renewal. 

The film is in post-production now and we hope when it’s finished and on the festival circuit that Conversion Therapist can search as a beacon for transvisibility and to continue conversations about the horrors of conversion therapy, which is, disturbingly, still legal in 41 states. As I write this article, Justice Kennedy has announced his retirement, the deciding vote extending the right to marry to all citizens. I refuse to become silent, and hope this film can give a voice to people who have had theirs drowned out by bigotry. Every morning, the news delivers a fresh affront to my values. It is easy to feel powerless in the face of the wave of bigotry and hatred that has taken hold of the country. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As a human, I want to raise my voice for change; as an artist, I feel like my films are my voice. 

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