Today is International Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day to remember all those who have been killed due to hate and prejudice directed against transgendered people. I know a number of transgendered people – some who attained physical unity with the gender they identify with long before I knew them, some who are in transition, some who have only recently come out as struggling with their gender identity. Some have opened up to me about their experiences and difficulties, for some it has never been a significant aspect of our relationship – simply a fact about their physical past. I hope that none of my friends have suffered violent attack because of this issue, but I don’t know that that’s true. I do know that they have endured unpleasant verbal reactions from those around them, often from people who do not realise how hurtful the things they are saying are, as they have never had to struggle with the way their gender relates to their sex, and prove resistant to anything that threatens their paradigm of normality which is based on that sense of identity.
I watched Soldier’s Girl earlier this year because I was on a Lee Pace hit, but the film ended up being so much more significant than that. It’s based on a heartbreaking true story, which you can read about here. I’m wary of writing too much about transgender issues from the ‘outside’. I have a number of issues with my body and with how my gender is regarded, but at the end of the day I self-identify as a heterosexual woman, i.e. the sex I was born. I don’t want to make any gross generalisations about things that I can’t know from the inside. So, instead, to mark this day of remembrance I wanted to review this film, which brought home to me the horror of the reality of violent prejudice that still exists in our supposedly enlightened society.
Title: Soldier’s Girl
TV Release: 2003
Staring: Troy Garity, Lee Pace
Written by: Ron Nyswaner
Directed by: Frank Pierson
Genre: Drama/true story
Awards: 15 awards, including 2 Emmys and 3 Golden Globes
Note: this review contains spoilers as a matter of necessity. The film is based around a real event which functions as the film’s climax, I’m therefore operating under the assumption that you, like me, will know its content going into the film, and that this is unlikely to spoil your enjoyment.
Barry Winchell (Troy Garity) is a private in the US army. He falls in love with a transsexual showgirl named Calpernia Adams (Lee Pace) after his roommate, Justin Fisher (Shawn Hatosy) takes him to the club where she performs. As their relationship grows Justin spreads rumours about them at the army base, out of what appears to be a mixture of jealousy and discomfort at the fact that Calpernia is transgendered. Justin appears both attracted to and repulsed by transgendered women. When drunk he seems open to treating them as sexual objects, but the idea of Barry having a romantic relationship with Calpernia does not sit well with him.
Most other people on the base seem inclined to respect the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy of the US army. They seem to disapprove of Justin’s stirring, and seem to respect Barry’s privacy. But not everyone is so sanguine. Justin finds a susceptible ear in Calvin Glover, who seems prone to violence and highly impressionable. At the 4th of July celebration, the same night that Calpernia is competing in the Tennessee Entertainer of the Year Pageant, Justin goads Calvin into beating Barry to death.
This is a powerful movie, most of all because it treats its subject matter with such sensitivity. Calpernia Adams was consulted in the production, and I find that deeply reassuring. It is such a sensitive issue that I would have felt rather uncomfortable about it if the film had been made to sensationalise the issue with no reference to the real people who were involved and lived these events.
Truly, I was shocked to hear that a man had been beaten to death little more than a decade ago for having a relationship with a transgendered woman. I suppose I shouldn’t have been, but I was. For that reason alone, I feel that this is an important film – to educate people like me.
I was also impressed with the nuanced level at which the issues are handled. It would have been very, very easy to present Justin Fisher and Calvin Glover as inhuman monsters or stock bullies. But they are not presented as such. Justin has ADHD and learning difficulties, which Barry helps him with. It is clear that they are friends, despite the difficult aspects of their relationship. One of the problems that Justin has is that he forgets to take his medicine and is prone to extremes of emotion when he drinks in combination with his meds. Glover is clearly a troubled boy who is easily led by anyone who gives him attention. He latches on to Justin as a sort of hero, and is presented as beating on Barry in an attempt to impress him. The impression is given that neither man intended to kill Barry – that Glover simply got carried away. The event is no less horrific for this fact.
What’s more, by treating the military with sympathy, the film opens the issues out for us to consider that the more sympathetic aspects of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy are also complicit in allowing crimes like this to occur. Although few characters in the film show active homophobia or transphobia, the policy of not talking about the issue means that Justin and Glover are not checked or confronted in a way they otherwise would be.
I was also deeply impressed with Lee Pace’s performance. I already respected him as an actor, but above and beyond the delight he has given me in other films and TV shows, I admire him for taking this role and performing it with both nuance and passion. Because this is not simply a story about a terrible tragedy. It is also a love story, and the story of a transgendered woman embarking on a romance with a straight man. Her anxieties about his acceptance of her, or that he might regard her simply as an experiment before going back to ‘normality’, are as powerful as they are understated.
I really can’t recommend this film highly enough, and it seemed appropriate to recommend it to you today – a day of remembrance for those who have suffered and been killed as a result of ignorance of and prejudice towards transgendered people.