Where Gender Variance and Geek Culture Collide: ‘TransGeek’ Premieres in St. Louis

 In Culture, Interviews

Virtually everyone’s a geek for something, whether you’re spending every weekend at cosplay conventions or or giddily scrolling through art blogs. But for transgender people, geekdom can become a particularly powerful place of refuge—that’s what director Kevin McCarthy found as he embarked upon making his feature documentary “TransGeek.”

Undertaken as a collaboration between transgender and cisgender people (as well as geeks of all stripes), the film explores why many geek cultures have become a haven for the gender variant—even as, sometimes, the larger world’s transphobia still manages to sneak in the back door. And along the way, “TransGeek” introduces us to many of the transgender pioneers who are pushing the geek worlds forward, from video game designers who are creating diverse avatars beyond the de facto cis-white-dute-with-a-five-o’clock-shadow-and-a-gun, to  science fiction writers who are building new worlds where non-conforming people can thrive, to the groundbreaking women, men and non-binary people who started it all. (Did you know that the first competitive video gaming champion in the United States was a trans woman?)

The Midwest premiere of “TransGeek” will kick off the QFest St. Louis film festival on April 28. We sat down with director Kevin McCarthy and producer Mallory Anna Wood (shown in the featured photo) to geek out about their project.

Guided: St. Louis: Kevin, tell me a little about the genesis of the project and why you decided to approach this topic as a straight, cisgender man.

Kevin McCarthy: Aside from my work as a filmmaker, I work in IT for a small company that does virtual learning environments, and in the course of my job, I noticed that there seemed—at least, what seemed to me—to be a disproportionately large number of transgender people in the software development field, and especially trans women. I thought that was curious, but it was just sort of an observation I filed away in the back of my head.

And then I became friends with Sayer [Johnson, a transgender man and co-producer on “TransGeek”]. He invited me to go camping with him and some friends a few times. Eventually, as we got to know each other, Sayer became curious about what I did for a living, and as I told him about it, eventually I mentioned this observation I’d had about trans women in software development. And Sayer reinforced that observation, saying that many of the transfolk that he knew were big gamers and things like that, and that it was a topic that was worth further exploration.

It was through our friendship, and through talking at church and things like that, that Sayer encouraged me to go ahead and explore this through the medium of a documentary film. At first I was reticent, thinking that this was really not the place of a straight cisgender man to be making a film about this. But Sayer said, well, granted, but nobody else is doing it, and I’ll make some introductions. And I’ll also give you a dope slap when you do something stupid.

Where Gender Variance and Geek Culture Collide: 'TransGeek' Premieres in St. Louis

Director Kevin McCarthy.

Guided: Mallory, how did you get involved in the project?

Mallory Anna Wood: I’ve known Kevin more or less my whole life—he’s a family friend—and he and his family have been very supportive of me in my own transition, and just in general. Still, as a trans person, when you see a cis person making media at all about us, there’s a certain amount of suspicion. There’s a certain amount of, “Oh God, are they going to do it right?” And so even though Kevin had always been supportive of me, even though we’d known each other for a very long time, it started out with me kind of testing the waters. Seeing where the film was going. Seeing where Kevin’s heart was in it. Seeing what his motivations were. Slowly coming to trust that this was going to be a piece of media that was going to be respectful, that was going to explore multiple perspectives, that was not going to fall into some of the common tropes and pitfalls and general screw-ups that most media about trans people, honestly, does.

That said, at the end of the day, this project just spoke to me. I mean, I am transgender, and I am a geek; that’s my entry point. It made sense as a part of that culture and holding that identity. And I’ve made the same observation that Kevin did—there area lot of trans geeks!

This was certainly my first film, and early on, mostly I was just kind of making sure that Kevin wasn’t going to do anything stupid, that the film was going to go in a good direction and that I trusted the process. And as I really came to trust it and become more curious about it, I invested myself more heavily in the project. I ended up doing quite a bit of production work, especially going through interviews and selecting clips and quotes.

KM: Oh, she did an enormous amount of work. Mal went through probably a hundred hours of interviews and made selections.

Guided: A lot of the interview subjects in “TransGeek” talk about the importance of avatars both to their geekdom and their discovery of their own gender identity, whether that’s creating a character in a video game or writing one in a science fiction novel or even just selecting a handle on an online message board. When did you realize this was such a common experience, and why do you think the avatar is so important to trans geeks?

KM: One of the early things that we did during the production of “TransGeek” was to bring our production to GamerX, the first international LGBTQ gamer and comic convention, which was held in San Francisco. As we spoke with people there, this was something that came up again and again.

MW: I think a thread that runs through much of geekdom—and not just gaming geeks—is an exploration of alternate selves, alternate realities, alternate contexts, right? In science fiction, in gaming, even in cosplay, there’s this exploration of identity and of being able to craft identity. To be able to express it in ways that are not available to you in the world. I think that’s something that resonates for a lot of trans people, that’s where the idea of the avatar comes in. Trans people are, categorically, to one extent or another, denied the ability to express our inner realities by these material systems of oppression. It’s only natural that the ability to explore realities of the self in an expansive way would be attractive to many members of the community.

Guided: How did you decide how to define the limits of the word “geek” in the film? Some of your interview subjects aren’t what everyone would associate with that word—in addition to gamers and techies and science fiction/fantasy fans, you interview experimental sound artists, video artists, even commercial pilots.

KM: At least from my standpoint, I wanted to be pretty liberal in letting people decide where or not they consider themselves geeks. Because especially lately, we’ve seen some really toxic gatekeeping around geek identity; I really had no interest in challenging anyone on their geek cred. If they wanted to identify as a geek, they’re a geek.

MW: Absolutely. And especially because most of those challenges to geek identity are misogynist challenges; they’re racist challenges, they’re transphobic challenges; these are not socially decontextualized. It’s not like, “Oh, you haven’t played X number of games, you can’t be a geek.” The gatekeeping may be couched in those terms, but if we’re real about who’s doing the policing, it’s almost always right in line with these systems of oppressions.

Guided: Why do you think that gatekeeping is so persistent, even as more and more diverse people become involved in gatekeeping? 

MW: Yeah, so there’s this idea, especially among straight white cisgender men who are geeks, that they’re the downtrodden ones, they’re the outsiders. My theory is that people like this, who are starting from a place of substantial privilege, when that privilege is challenged in any form—even if just in the sense that their interests are devalued—there’s this violent reactionary backlash, right? Like,”Well, now I want to assert my power!” And the fact is that kind of reassertion of social power is easiest and most convenient to enact on people who are coming from positions of relatively less privilege in a variety of categories.

For example, there’s a shot in the film of the opening of a famous Dungeons and Dragons shop in England, and the picture of it is all young cisgender white men. As much as science fiction and programming and any of these categories of geekdom can provide opportunity for marginalized people to find respite and community, they’re also really heavily populated and heavily policed by people in positions of relative privilege.

KM: I think it’s hard for groups that have enjoyed that sort of privilege for so long to understand that the inclusion of everybody does not necessitate a diminution of their own experience. You can expand the experience for everyone, rather than thinking of geekdom as a limited playing field that you have to divvy up to more and more people of different experiences and make your own plot smaller. To call that a failure of imagination doesn’t do it justice, because it’s not just imagined—there’s a lot of real oppression and violence associated with [this gatekeeping]—but it really does come down to, these are the privileged stories we’ve had, we don’t want to give up our privilege and we’re going to fight to keep that privilege.

Guided: The film gradually opens up to a more general discussion of the systemic oppressions that trans people face that are not exclusive to trans people who are a part of geekdom, whether that’s disparities in health care, in the workplace or in terms of the violence enacted against trans people’s bodies. Why did you think it was important to include these things in the film?

KM: I wanted to bring the film into the workplace and into other spheres of the transgender experience simply because … well, let’s take just the workplace as a starting point. A lot of the people who we talked to in the film were not only, say, gamers, but they also worked at game companies. Sure, they geeked out about programming, but their day-to-day jobs were also to work as programmers or engineers. A lot of the people in the film, aside from their avocation in various forms of fandom, also worked in a STEM-based environment.

Many of the same problems that we see in geek culture around, for instance, myths of meritocracy apply as much, if not more, in the workplace. But the difference between feeling uncomfortable in an online game and feeling uncomfortable at your place of work can be stark. Yes, both are harassment, yes, both are misogyny, yes, both are a form of violence, but when you experience those things in the workplace, it’s also like, you’re not going to eat because of those things, too.

MW: I personally struggled with how and where to include the footage [about the disparities in workplace discrimination and other forms of not-necessarily-geek related oppression that trans people face.] But it felt important to address the material fallout of a lot of the more ideological oppression that we talk about in the film that manifests particularly in geek communities. I mean, it was already addressed throughout the film, but it’s particularly stark when you look at how the so-called “meritocracy” you see in gaming community plays out in the workplace. It’s not just a matter of whether or not you get to play a game.

KM: Right. I had people who I met and filmed at TransHack Chicago who contacted me and said, “Hey, I saw the trailer for the film, it’s awesome, but the problem is, I’m looking for a job right now—could you take me out of the trailer? I’m still on board with the film, but I’m actively interviewing right now.”

Guided: What are your hopes for “TransGeek”? What do you want audiences to leave the theater with? What do you think the film could change about our world?

KM: I have hopes for the film on a number of levels. I’ve seen a lot of people from outside the trans community who have seen the film and have really identified with people in it and have engaged with these topics in a way that they haven’t been able to or weren’t willing to previously. My favorite part of these screenings is the discussions afterwards, but going into it, I dreaded those. I dreaded ham-handed questions, ignorant questions, hostile questions … you name it. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how strong the discussions after the screenings have been.

But maybe more importantly, there is a way in which folks in the trans community are seeing themselves in the film and thinking differently about their roles in geek culture. They’re seeing stories beyond simple transition narratives.

MW: Right, yeah. I mean, I didn’t participate in this film as an activist project, even though I do activist work. But if I have a hope for this film, it’s just that trans people can see other trans people wrestling with the same issues as them, celebrating similar things, geeking out in similar ways and geeking out in different ways. There isn’t one singular trans community; there’s a vast number of trans people in the world.

Something that I speak to when I’m interviewed in the movie is the topic of visibility having its benefits and having its drawbacks. For trans people, visibility can invite violence. Visibility allows for the possibility of being hurt for who we are.

Guided: Or being hurt for who you aren’t, right? So many of the most visible depictions transgender people in the media are really vile stereotypes.

M: Absolutely. Growing up, the depictions of trans people who I saw in the media were monsters, murderers, jokes. Absolutely nothing nuanced. Absolutely nothing complex. Absolutely no celebrations of their interests or desires. We’re used as stock characters. So to participate in the creation of a piece of media that just shows trans people for who we are as complete people—that would have been just brilliant for me to see as a child. If I have any hope for the movie’s impact, it’s that it can do that for someone else.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The QFest St. Louis film festival, an event from Cinema St. Louis, takes place April 28-May 2. Ticket prices vary and may be purchased online here.

Images courtesy of “TransGeek.”

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