"Venus Boyz"
Interview with Gabriel Baur
(full version)

"Je suis l'autre."
Gérard de Nerval
Gabriel Baur, what inspired you to make a film about Drag Kings?

G.B.: Don’t we all dream of slipping into the skin of the opposite sex? Of experiencing so-called "maleness" as a woman? In 1996 I heard about women who appear on stage as men and this, as I was told, with lots of black humour. The very next morning, when I woke up, I booked a ticket to New York... Ever since I was very young I was fascinated by the question: What if everyone wore green glasses and no one even noticed it? The question of social norms and transcending them, the question of identity and gender, have always formed a central aspect of my film work. I have been fascinated by the question of how society defines such terms as "masculine / feminine", e.g., what it associates with "the woman" as opposed to "the man" and I used this theme in earlier projects and films – DIE BETTKÖNIGIN, LULUTOPIA or CADA DIA HISTORIA. VENUS BOYZ was a logical continuation.

How did you research for the film?
G. B.: I began my research in New York and it didn’t take long for me to see that the Drag King shows were far more than simple entertainment. I made the acquaintance of the Drag Kings. They were women with great personality, like the Drag King pioneer Diane Torr, who examined social power structures and discussed them with much reflection in her courses and discussions. Or Dréd Gerestant, a member of the younger generation, who is trying to live her life completely differently.

But you didn’t only film in New York
G.B.: No. In the course of my research activities, I came to London, where I met women who had just begun to take testosterone. This added a new dimension to the theme. In the moment in which external appearances painfully manifest themselves on their bodies, the question becomes much more basic, more existential. My encounter with the transgendered New Men in London deeply shook my perception of the human body as well as my understanding of the dichotomy between man and woman and convinced me that I must absolutely make this film. And it should be a feature film. It should be a journey that takes us from the familiar – from the performance artist Bridge – to the unfamiliar, to Del who is taking testosterone. I needed the length of time and the space of a cinema screen to do justice to the complex emotions of the protagonists as well as the multiple perspectives of the subject matter itself.
Not only that. VENUS BOYZ touches a topic that is taboo. This generates caution and skepticism, which must be treated with care. We need to leave it plenty of room. The journey in the film portrays, in a certain sense, my own journey. I learned a lot of new things while I was making VENUS BOYZ. I laughed a lot, I was touched, I was confused – and I wanted to share this journey of discovery with my viewers.

In VENUS BOYZ you limit yourself to the current situation and only briefly deal with the historical dimensions. Why?
G.B.: For me, it was important to concentrate on what is happening now. The current Drag King movement goes way beyond what has been known thus far. Modern Drag Kings reflect the transition from women into men also through parody, with the added touch of cultural differences. They do not simply put on men’s clothing so they can appear on stage and slip into a man’s role, as Marlene Dietrich did. Nor do they do it in order to make femininity more erotic. In addition to their lively desire to dress up in "disguise", their behaviour is obviously targeted at deconstructing and innovating masculinity. That evidences a certain distance and, at the same time, a new self-awareness.

Many Drag Kings simply produce stereotypes...
G.B.: But these stereotypes are portrayed in a different context, they are parodied. When you target machismo and disrespect towards women, for example, using pithy humor, then you release them from their usual context and they are suddenly perceived as absurd.

Then in your eyes, the appearance of Drag Kings in these modern times reflects other social phenomena that we are experiencing now?
G.B.: Very much so. The possibility for women in western cultures to break out of traditional roles was never as great as it is today. The relationship between the sexes is on the way to very basic change. We are experiencing a paradigm change. One of the main reasons for this is that reproduction is no longer a fundamental aspect of the sexuality that binds man and woman. This creates new space, allows a completely new evaluation of the roles of men and women and the various forms of sexuality. Another release mechanism can be found in the new economic possibilities that women have today and in the self-understanding they have acquired as a result of the feminist movement...

In VENUS BOYZ, the protagonists’ distinct self-confidence and intense reflectiveness comes across very strongly.
G.B.: The fact that Drag Kings, especially the pioneers, appear to be such reflective characters is certainly relevant to the fact that, on the one hand, they are – or were – women. In our society, women are generally forced to think about their behaviour and their appearance. On the other hand, when they play masculine roles, they are called into question by society. In order to conquer new space they must have an awareness of what they are doing.

What does Drag Kinging mean to the transgendered characters in London ?
G.B.: For Del and the London group this represents a different kind of problem because they are perceived as men. Drag Kinging played an influential role in their decision to take testosterone. They continue to appear occasionally as Drag Kings, but it no longer has the same significance.

You casually mentioned before that you made the acquaintance of several Drag Kings in New York. Wasn’t it rather difficult to get into this scene – which must be somewhat small and exclusive?
G.B.: Not really. But it would be an exaggeration to say that I was welcomed with open arms. There were certain reservations when it came to strangers who were interested in making a film about them. The New Yorker scene is, however, quite large and thus quite open. Because I had lived in New York for several years previously, I felt at home there and I had friends who were able to introduce me into that scene. What is important is the long time we spent in realizing the project. If I had shot the film in 1996, when I began my research, the intimacy and confidence that characterizes VENUS BOYZ would not have been present in the film. Our long cooperation helped the participants realize that I was not presenting them as some kind of shimmering exotic birds – as they were accustomed to in talk shows – but rather that I took their situation seriously and was seeking genuine clarification. This was more important for the protagonists in London than it was for those in New York. The London scene is more critical – and has been much more strongly attacked. Del, for example, who was still Della when I met him, was very wary in the beginning. He wanted to know exactly what I had done in New York. It was only once he had seen the filmed material I had made in New York that he agreed to work with me. He was favourably impressed with the fact that I had framed the images in a special way, that I had sought a certain beauty. What he had experienced thus far was that his world is often rejected, portrayed as ugly and distorted – and that bothers him.

Nearly all the protagonists are artists and rely on their public. At the same time they move on the edge of society, are outsiders. Isn’t that a major conflict for them?
G.B.: It is no coincidence that they have professions like this. Their occupation with the world of images and imagery in relation to their own bodies and appearance is a basic condition of being Drag Kings with a conscious trans-identity. For many of them, like Del, for example, as photographer, making pictures / images of their own bodies is existential. It should be mentioned, however, that most of them have a bread-winning job in addition to their artistic profession. In these modern times, though, this is not a condition which is limited to an artistic existence, but is also perhaps characteristic of urban life as such.

How did you finance your film?
G.B.: Financing the film was very difficult. In Switzerland we were confronted with extreme rejection and skepticism, especially in the more established commissions. Without active support from abroad, this film would never have been realized.

What were people so sceptical about?
G.B.: If I were to go into all the arguments of rejection here, it would be very embarrassing for several established Swiss commissions. Back in 1996/97, when I began to work on "Venus Boyz", there was a lot less awareness of this theme in Switzerland than there is today. I’m convinced that there were a lot of unconscious fears involved. I have learned that this subject matter represents a great taboo for many people. Some reacted with the suggestion that I stick to what is familiar. They recommended that I film a single biography, from A to B, from woman to man. And that was exactly what I did NOT want to do with VENUS BOYZ. Others made it clear that I should in no case film Drag King performers or performances. Although it might have a special kind of attractiveness, it would not be profound enough. But it was exactly the attractiveness of the performances that appealed to me, because they contradict our prejudices and expectations, they challenge the associations we have about masculine women: that they are ugly, Amazon-like, women with hair on their chests…

Why didn’t you want to film any individual biographies?
G.B: In answer to that, I would like to quote Hans Scheirl, one of the protagonists in the film. He is also a filmmaker and after he had seen my film, he sent me an e-mail. "Mainly I realize that what happens here is that a trans-personal protagonist, or a protagonist-multiplicity is created. Every character has an effect on the perception of every other character, so I think this movie is very futuristic." In addition, it was very important for me to show the individuals embedded in their societies, which were linked with one another, no matter where they were.

Your protagonists live "the man within themselves" very differently…
G.B.:...I find it very fascinating to observe what kind of men emerge when women create their alter egos. In Diane Torr’s workshop – which was attended by many women who wanted to apply this knowledge professionally in the office or privately when they traveled – I saw women who were gentle in appearance and manner suddenly change into very convincing machos. Cultural background also naturally affected the form of maleness that appeared. The protagonist Dréd, a Haitian-American, related differently to what it means to be a man than a white middle class German. More important for me, however, is the fact that transformation and dressing differently actually caused a shift in perception, questioned the concepts of "What is masculine, what is feminine?", "What is woman, what is man?". That there is both masculinity and femininity in every person. What interests me is the question of how humans actually capitalize on the resulting possibilities that open up when we express something we would not normally express. It takes a lot of courage to break out of the traditional dichotomy of the sexes.

Could you explain that more specifically?
G.B.: The example of Del LaGrace would be the clearest. Many people consider him a man, some even still as a woman. Del LaGrace Volcano doesn’t specify either. He takes testosterone, describes his fundamental attitude as masculine, but does not consider himself to be a man. He does not regard himself as transsexual in the classic sense, but uses terminology such as transgender or intersexual or gender variant. Del says he is on the path to himself, but creates a language of his own as he proceeds and is constantly fighting to achieve recognition as that which he is.
In "Venus Boyz" there is a transsexual man who does not want anyone to find out that he was born as a girl. I respected this wish. He had always felt he was a man. People who feel they were born into the wrong body – or into the wrong gender identity – often have to fight painfully until they are able to openly live their true identity. Many just want their peace and quiet after that. But they only achieve this peace if they accommodate society’s conventional idea of man and woman. Transsexuality is only accepted socially if the body is physically transformed – through surgery – into the other sex.
Those who do not want to go so far often dare not admit their transsexuality because otherwise their status in the desired identity is denied them. But even all those who do stand up for their identity are virtually forced to undergo surgery, just so they can be recognized legally. Not only that. Seeking to evade the convention of a dichotomous sexual system can be highly dangerous. The most famous case is that of Brandon Teena, who paid for this with his life. He felt he was a man, but apparently did not want to undergo surgery to change his body.
In my film I want to show that there is a place "in between", that there are forms outside of the usual area of perception. Interestingly enough, there are many more than we would like to admit. The question remains: Just why does society force its members into such rigid roles?

Isn’t this because it arouses a lot of insecurity and fear?
G.B.: Of course – but where do these fears come from, fears that lead to the situation that little children are already forced into specific roles? And what happens when the roles are not fulfilled? Let’s talk about Storme Webber: Many people perceive her as a man. She, however, lives her life as a woman – and is happy about being a woman.

Perhaps we should ask if human beings need a definition of their own sex in order to perceive themselves accordingly.
G.B.: Let’s ask the question differently: If we did not have any gender, would there still be sexual desire? Sexual desire establishes itself in the traditional understanding about the distinction between man and woman. The problems which homosexuals have result from this socially constructed gender binarity. It denies them the "ability" to experience "natural" desire. Today we all know that sexual desire is possible in every direction: man-man, woman-woman, man-woman... The less sexuality has to do with reproduction, the freer it becomes and the more society changes. Instead of blood relatives, a freely-chosen "family of friends" forms. The importance of the classical family as such diminishes. The protagonists in my film live in very different "family forms". Diane Torr lives alone with her daughter, the New Men in London share a very close relationship...

VENUS BOYZ is a documentary, but contains experimental elements. What is the reason for this?
G.B.: Documentary film always involves staging. To make a documentary you construct your portrayal of reality. In VENUS BOYZ the moment of staging is strengthened. The Performances, that is, the interpretations of the protagonists on the stage, are interwoven with their conscious as well as their unconscious performances in every day life. Their permanent staging of themselves helps us perceive that there are only very gradual differences between gender performances in every day life and those on stage. These performances (diese Inszenierung) concern all of us. The dichotomy of the sexes is so obvious to us that we seldom think twice about it. We grow into these roles and unconsciously "perform" our gender every day. Or, freely interpreted according to Ru Paul: every morning when we get up, we dress in Drag. I think that in "Venus Boyz" there are moments that are especially touching because the protagonists open up to us emotionally, but also because, through them, our ideas about fiction and reality, about imagination and convention, about man and woman are resolved. Space is created for something new and not yet defined. In its form, VENUS BOYZ attempts to be consistent with these constant staging of gender. I filmed the whole time with two cameras: the main camera was accompanied by a small camera that filmed the same scene from a different perspective. We also experimented with film speed and lighting. By doing so I wanted to achieve a release from "reality", I wanted an undefined visual zone. Both levels were mixed as we edited the film. In addition, there were the black and white pictures I made three or four years ago during my research – and then there are the blue pictures. For me, the blue images are "reality in drag". They represent a third level.They indicate short moments extracted from a world of dreams, of imagination. They achieve – like the experimental images – a certain distance and refer to the act of constructing film reality. Film is, after all, "reality in drag".

How did the protagonists react to "Venus Boyz"?
G.B.: Quite differently, but in general, very positively. The picture you have of yourself is always different than that which others have of you…and sometimes this is very difficult. After viewing "Venus Boyz" there were some hefty discussions.

Do you have the feeling that VENUS BOYZ will have some kind of cultural and/or socio-political effect?
G.B.: VENUS BOYZ is a film about Drag Kings and transgendered personalities, but above all, it is a film about people who take risks and refuse to succumb to their problems. Instead, they become creative, seek a new identity beyond the field of tension between man and woman. That affects all of us and, along these lines, I hope that my film will open doors and provide a glance into a world that was thus far relatively unknown. My wish would be that it makes a small contribution towards more tolerance in our encounter with other human beings. I would be happy if those who see the film begin to perceive ideals of beauty in a new way, and think more consciously about where the freedom of individuals begins and where it ends...

Zürich, in October 2001
Irene Genhart
Imagine - the world in Drag