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ELIZA GREENWOOD: “If an individual is transgender it’s just who he or she is. You don’t need a diagnosis for it”

ELIZA GREENWOOD: “If an individual is transgender it’s just who he or she is. You don’t need a diagnosis for it”

«Austin Unbound is winning an award for "Best Film that breaks down stereotypes"!» The documentary is about Austin, a deaf man burdened by female anatomy who is on a road trip to finally undergo a double-mastectomy. Eliza Greenwood, the director walks up to the stage. Holding the award in her hands she looks calm and focused. She thanks the jury and then says:

“It’s not easy to tell people about your disability. I have a sister who is deaf. And I think it’s safe for me to say that I … (she pauses just for 2 seconds) am a lesbian. And maybe…  I have some mental disorder. Maybe I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder”. Eliza thinks a bit more and says in a very lively tone: “But it has nothing to do with me being a lesbian. It’s too different issues”.

by Anastasia Khokhlova

I and Eliza did the interview just before the ceremony. The first thing she asks me is whether she is safe here in Moscow representing the movie about a transgender person:

– It’s very confusing for me to read about the news in Russia and your laws for gay and lesbian and transgender people. I still am not clear about what’s illegal or what’s legal.

– We are not clear about that either.

– Maybe it’s okay because it’s a disability film festival so I felt very safe and no problems, thank goodness.

– But you are definitely not going to participate in a riot or make it public in any way so you’ll be fine.

– I think if I stand up after the film screening and say “Hello, I believe it’s okay for Austin to be transgender” maybe it’s public?

– I see what you mean. Now I understand. Alright, I don’t know…

– I don’t know either. Normally if I get on stage if I go to a film festival it’s not the first thing I say – “Hello, I am Eliza, I am a lesbian”. That’s not the first thing that I tell somebody. But if I am on stage and someone asks me some questions and it comes about that I am going to tell you this, then in the US I am very safe to share. I am not worried about losing my job or getting deported or arrested. I can tell you about my girlfriend or my life. But when I was coming here I thought “Oh no, are there things I guess I shouldn’t say”?

– Maybe. Maybe you wouldn’t get arrested but you would feel uncomfortable, that’s for sure. Because people would stare.

– Really??

– Of course!

– Oh, everyone today was so friendly!

– You shared this information with somebody?

– One on one, yes, I have, after the film – no, we just talked about the film, it didn’t come up. Austin goes to some festivals with me too and now I think maybe it would have been safe for him to come. But if it’s another festival in Moscow - I don’t know if it’s safe for him to come.

– Maybe no. Here at the festival the audience is specific which makes it safe. What is it like in America, are you and Austin safe there?

– Austin is very safe in the north-west where we live. It’s very normal and accepted. I live in Oregon which is just to the north of California, we have a strong culture of support there for gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people. However, we also brought this film to the south, we’ve been to Tennessee and maybe there we were more nervous. The audience was more timid, they didn’t know what questions to ask. So it depends on where you are in the south.

– Were you here after the film had been showed at the festival?

– Yes, just two hours ago.

– What was the reaction like?

– It was a very positive reaction. People wished that Austin could have come. People were just very interested in him as a human being, which is always nice, I think. As a director it’s nice to see that people relate to the story the way that it’s told. Some people were very interested in his medical condition. One person came up to me afterwards and was asking me about his medical diagnosis. I’ve never gotten that question before because in the US we don’t talk about that anymore, it’s not important. If an individual is transgender it’s just who he or she is – as if you were born in a wheelchair or black or whatever your diversity is. You don’t need a diagnosis for it.

– I think here we do need a diagnosis and a long doctor check.

– For us maybe five or ten years ago we needed that and now not so much, now we have a “gender identity disorder”. And I assume maybe here in Russia as a lesbian I need a diagnosis too?

– For what? Where would you use it?

– I don’t know. If someone says “Well, why are you a lesbian, what does a doctor tell you”?
I mean what kind of a medical exam do I go in for the doctor to decide how I became a lesbian? (laughing)

– I don’t know, I don’t think there is any. What’s going on here is sad and funny at the same time.

– I like Moscow very much, I’ve had a nice time here. My family hundreds of years ago came from Kiev, maybe at that time it was Russia. So I’ve often dreamed about coming here and meeting people. I had a fantasy tonight that maybe some of my distant relatives were in the audience watching my movie.

– That would be nice, I like that fantasy.

– And I think my family was very touched that I was coming here too because I don’t think that anyone out of my cousins and other relatives has ever been to Russia.

– And how is Austin? What does he feel like? What is his life like?

– Austin is very excited that the film is finished. It took us a long time to finish it – 7 years. It took long time to edit and find the funds. When we started making the film it was all just unfolding, so we started shooting right away, and then to edit and work with the material - it took a long time to finish it. So now the film has been out for 1 year and he is meeting more and more people from around the globe who are deaf and transgender and I think he likes this very much.

– Why did you choose Austin as a character for you movie and how did you meet? 

– I have one sister who is deaf, and I’ve been involved in the deaf community, I am a sign language interpreter. At the time when we started the film I was not an interpreter but I was in the community. Austin has a very strong personality. If you look on the website there is a trailer and you can see a little bit of his personality. So Austin’s personality was just very strong and I knew his was going for this surgery, so it felt like a good time as community was coming together to support him and help raise the funds so we can have the operation.

– What do you think makes a strong personality?

– Although Austin looks very young, he is actually now almost forty years old which means for us in the US he is from the earlier generation who was very strong and fought for their rights and fought for recognition. As you can imagine, in the deaf community that provides many more barriers. Maybe someone his age who is hearing can go to a support group or they find information by going to a councilor. But for him as a deaf person at that time there were no captions on television. If he goes to support group, he has to find someone who will interpret the session for him, it’s very expensive. Even to find information online, there was no internet when he was young and figuring this out. So all of his community sees him as a fighter because he knew his identity even without access to resources.

– Wow, I understand now. I wonder what’s the coverage in media like, because here in Russia people with disabilities are often portrayed in two ways – either like heroes who fight and struggle or poor things.

– Well, to relate that to my film I had some issue with this because people really look up to Austin as a hero. So we portrayed him as a hero in our advertising of a film, we called it “A deaf journey of transgender heroism”, and in our case he is very heroic and people will agree with that. In the US at this Society for Disability Studies conference where we screened we got some of this feedback as well, you know, “We wish we saw more films about disabled people, why do they always have to be the inspiration or the hero?”. I think it’s a good point, for us in the deaf community we don’t always identify with disability although I think it makes sense. It’s good to identify with disability but for deaf community they say “Why where are so many films about cohlear implants”, you know, the operation. For me I was coming from the deaf community perspective, I was so excited to make a film that was not a cochlear implant film about a deaf person and now it turns out it’s a film about a hero.

– So you felt frustrated about the reaction?

– I think it’s important for us to keep looking at these issues, you know for me as a documentary film maker its my responsibility to be more aware of that in my next project. It’s important also to portray disabled people in their every day lives, and I think the film does that. It’s a little frustrating maybe. I am frustrated that deaf people don’t want to be involved with the disability in the US. Here at this festival I’ve seen many deaf people and I am happy to see good mix.

– Why don’t they want to be involved?

– I don’t know… For example, my sister who is deaf - if she comes to this party, and she is the only deaf person, she still has a disability because she can’t understand what anyone is saying. She looks around the room and everyone is still hearing. So why should she belong to people who don’t speak her language?

– Is she still worried about that?

– My sister now is a mother, so she thinks about how it relates to her son, if she will hear him crying in the night time, of how she will understand what he is saying if he is using his voice. There are other issues but her focus is her son.

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