In July of 2017, Sam Feder showed an early reel of some of the research that would eventually become Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen. The 20-minute archival montage, preceded by Feder’s warning that the audience of Outfest Los Angeles’ Trans Summit might find some of the images difficult to stomach, was a rapid, chronological look at some of the more and less well-known images of trans representation over the past 100 years of cinema. A good two thirds of the montage contained scenes where trans or trans-coded characters were ridiculed, murdered, assaulted, or doing the murdering (and always the deception) in turn, and waves of unease and audible sighs ran through the crowd.
It was as if the audience were remembering the shock and visceral mixed emotion of watching every little act of brutality for the very first time—like in the case of Hilary Swank’s portrayal of Brandon Teena in the oft-brandished Boys Don’t Cry, or the infamous twist in The Crying Game. It was mixed catharsis and horror, in which one could see how important it was to tidily confront a history of violence, and be grateful for the chance to watch in a room full of empathetic peers, but that still didn’t make it the kind of watch from which a queer film festival audience might emerge lighthearted and effusive.
Around the final third, however, something on the screen began to change.
Rather than cisgender actors wearing wigs and dresses, or cutting their hair short and affecting a pelvis-forward walk, a handful of trans performers began to make their way into the roles imagining their tortured existence. Alexandra Billings, Candis Cayne and Laverne Cox first made their montage debuts as sex workers on crime procedurals or patients whose hormones were killing them, but within a matter of year-spanning minutes, arrived at the roles now associated with a more positive, since complicated “tipping point.” Orange Is The New Black, Transparent, Dirty Sexy Money and Doubt all crossed the screen, and although there were still setbacks in more recent years (a la The Danish Girl, or Transparent’s since disgraced lead), by the end of the reel, the room settled into a relieved, anticipatory chatter. There was more reason to hope than to fear.
Several years later, Disclosure is now on Netflix, having been released to fairly warm critical and popular reception. It’s become a starter kit of sorts for uncovering some of the psychic damage done to the legitimacy of trans existence by mass media, and is being cited as such: A reference tool that does its best to forward the opinions of trans actors. While I’m thankful to have been involved in the coordination of its Trans Filmmaker Fellowship program, and am grateful that it’s so accessible as a gender and media studies text, in the three years between that Outfest first look and now, there’s one sequence of the montage that I haven’t stopped thinking about, nor stopped wondering why it hasn’t itself become the center of revived appreciation.
The first clip to receive any type of applause and a few whoops from the Outfest audience, which preceded the more popular 2010s installments by at least fifteen years, was simple, intriguing and totally unrecognizable to me. It’s a rapid shot-reverse-shot of two young white people: One with a bloody nose, striped beanie and twisted, wispy beard; the other with short, shiny hair, a bedazzled button down and a totally bemused expression. As they breathlessly run from whatever is chasing them, they stare at each other with wonder and confusion. Who is this person? Do they know me? Are they like me?
This is the first meeting of Shy (Silas Howard) and Valentine (Harry Dodge), in the nearly perfect, delightfully gender-fucking 2001 buddy comedy By Hook or By Crook. The first feature from co-stars and directors Howard and Dodge, its zany but sincere tone follows the development of their friendship, their individual romances and their greatest fears as they figure out how to survive (and maybe rob a bank) in queer San Francisco. Twenty years after its Outfest premiere, and with the conversation stirred around trans representation made by trans artists, it’s surprising that the digital video caper, available for free on Vimeo, hasn’t had its time in the retroactively deserved spotlight.
The film, like many independent hidden gems of queer cinema, ticks off a good number of the boxes so sought out by queer audiences wanting to avoid more mainstream tropes of queer life—or death, as it more often happens to be. It features an unconventional but deeply caring friendship between two genderqueer miscreants; supportive romantic relationships; hot queer sex; a sympathetic portrayal of neurodiversity and frank picture of incompetence within institutional, punishing psychiatric healthcare; and an unqualifiably optimistic ending. More than filling out any sort of checklist, though, it’s a funny, well-written and endearingly performed film that mixes those aforementioned antics with salient philosophical musings.
Shy, the occasional narrator of the film, is so scared of human connection that, in a Practical Magic-esque superstition, they think anyone they meaningfully let into their life will die. Valentine, whose adoptive parents sent them to a mental hospital for wanting to wear boys’ clothes, is so desperate for connection that they search for their birth mother’s name in every phone book and call a stranger at every booth. When the newly arrived, perpetually broke Shy rescues Valentine from an unnamed mugger one dark night, the two strike up a friendship of convenience that eventually turns into a true familial connection. After pocketing Valentine’s wallet, Shy decides to return it the next day, and encounters the haphazardly-decorated apartment and the loving relationship that’s been cultivated between Valentine and the gorgeous, unpredictable Billie (contributor to the film’s script and aesthetic, Stanya Kahn). Shy’s initial apprehension and fascination with the lyrically-rambling Valentine turns into a lightbulb moment: This could be Shy’s partner in crime.
The crimes are petty enough. Despite Shy’s aim to buy a gun and rob a bank (their deceased father’s home was repossessed and they’re “tired of being poor”), the price of the gun is so high that they have to engage in a wonder wheel of schemes first. Hotwiring a car, posing as contractors to re-sell a stolen chainsaw and using Ye Olde Water Gun Trick to force a vending machine to give up its quarters are on the shortlist, and each law broken is a complete delight to watch. Even the laws of appropriate dinner choices are fudged when Billie and Valentine make a celebratory meal to officially welcome Shy into their protective circle. But when they get reported by a nosy neighbor, Valentine is 51/50’d to the state psychiatric hospital, and Shy has to fully confront the previously evaded concept of taking responsibility for the people they love.
In much of the commercial trans representation and casting post-tipping point that seeks to empower, rather than efface or make an uninformed caricature of, trans people, there’s an understandable pressure to get things right. “Things,” however, can often turn out to be the bare minimum: Not casting cis people in trans roles (still happens), not focusing on medical transition (still happens!) and writing dialogue that informs a presumably cisgender audience on pronouns or societal mores. By Hook or By Crook doesn’t focus on the cut-and-paste correctness of representation; its making and unmaking of gender is woven into the aesthetic and profile of its characters, and when they do verbally acknowledge their gender, it’s complicated, sometimes poetic and occasionally hilarious.
One such example comes when Shy starts to embroil Valentine in a scheme to make a quick buck at the local hardware store. Shy asks, “Can you look like a carpenter?” to which Valentine replies, “Brother or sister?” Another comes when Valentine fills Shy in on the details of their hospitalization history and escape, remarking that in their bid to stay in their home and out of the claustrophobic walls of the institution, “I now do an impersonation of an actual man.” A cherubic Shy replies with a smile and an ostentatious wink: “Oh yeah? Me, too.”
Valentine and Shy play at being carpenters, criminals, ladykillers and, in one of the more emotional subplots of the film, parents to each other. In the comedown of one of Valentine’s breakdowns, they express to Shy one of their gnawing insecurities: That even if they were to find their birth mother, she wouldn’t like to find out the daughter she gave up is a beard-sporting “fruitcake.” But Shy won’t take any of it, instead praising Valentine’s looks, beard and personhood as “the fucking smartest guy I know.” It’s a totally sincere evaluation, delivered in a moving display of unconditional support that cements how devoted Shy is to this newfound family—as resonant now as ever.
Quite a few of the film’s quick meditations on sexuality and gender are laugh-out-loud funny, and some are heartbreakingly hopeful, but nowhere does By Hook or By Crook feel like a PSA for cis people on how to interact with an unfamiliar, previously intangible gender. One could point to any number of reasons for that: A shoestring budget without corporate oversight, independent production by trans and genderqueer artists roping in just about every queer filmmaker and friend they could find, inclusion on the latter end of New Queer Cinema, or simply Howard and Dodge’s determination not to explain themselves, as Howard stated in a panel for this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Despite this verbal ambiguity, there’s no question that this is a queer and trans film that delights in exploiting the loopholes of polite society in order to make a better life on one’s own terms.
By Hook or By Crook is outsider cinema exactly of its aesthetic era, but in considering the last 20 years of queer and trans cinema, it’s markedly ahead of its time—and it’s a blessing to be able to access it so easily. Looking back on Howard and Dodge’s mix of bewilderment, bravado and attempts to make a better life in an unfriendly wilderness inspires a host of soul-searching questions. Have you done enough crime today? Do you need to give someone the tools they want to categorize you? How do you love? And most importantly, have you remembered to add festive sprinkles on your mac ‘n’ cheese to make today of all days into a special occasion?
Shayna Maci Warner is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.