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Identities aplenty

Filmmaker Chris Vargas explores the changing meanings of identity

Ever consider dating Barbara Walters? Oakland filmmaker Chris Vargas has. "First I'd like to take [her] to a soft, sandy beach for a long walk at sunset. Then we'd go to nearby hotel overlooking the water, where a nice romantic candle-lit transgender sensitivity training was taking place in one of the hotel's plush corporate conference rooms."
To be fair, I asked Vargas to plan the date. Walters is featured in one of his new flicks, Extraordinary Pregnancies (2010), which reworks Walters' interview with pregnant female transgendered man (FTM) Thomas Beatie by splicing in Vargas' responses. Why Beatie's interview? "The whole affair initially made me really uncomfortable because while Thomas was unapologetically rejecting gender conventions—by identifying as a man and having a baby—he was also reproducing a very normatively gendered, heterosexual picture of himself and his family."
Some would celebrate Beatie's on-air hours, but Vargas is attuned to the ambiguities of representation. "After reading his autobiography … countless transphobic news items about him … [and] many mean-spirited forum discussions (trans and not), I realized that in many ways he failed. He did not gain the acceptance and sympathy from straight, non-trans people that he wanted, and many FTMs were angry at him and rejected his experience as unrepresentative … I wished he could get some revenge for enduring all that."
This uncommon savvy about visibility is a Vargas trademark. In Have You Ever Seen a Transsexual Before? (2010), he visits Mormon Headquarters, "vast salt flats," "death valley" and beyond. Everywhere, he flashes his chest and announces the titular question—until he escapes to an animated world where even birds and beachballs bear the scars and nipples of FTMs. This addictive short "is about the politics of visibility, but also about the limits of it. I don't think just being out and visible is always all that radical in itself. There has to be more, and thank the Goddess there is!"

Vargas has plenty "more" ideas on offer. In Criminal Queers (co-dir. Eric Stanley), radical queers bust folks out of prison. "What many people understand as the first rumblings of a gay liberation movement were actually responses to relentless police harassment of queer bars and street culture. Criminal Queers is situated within this history and asks why the gay movement today is dominated by liberal ideals that tend to ignore the huge injustices that non-affluent LGBT people still face."
Will the crew foil the white gay jury foreman who is aghast at the defendant, "another young African-American male … in a dress [who] bombed a gay wedding"? (chrisevargas.com will satisfy your curiosity.)
Vargas' boyfriend and collaborator Greg Youmans (who plays the gay jury foreman) "has made it his special project in life to critique all things white, gay and male while negotiating that identity within himself." When I asked Vargas what advice he would give to such jury foremen, he offered a wise gem about the personal costs of being turned into a teachable moment: "if I had 30 seconds to appeal to all future gay jury foremen I would hand them over to Greg. My back is not a bridge." Damn. Will you marry me, Chris Vargas?
Not! Vargas' character in "A Special Election PSA" says: "only queers should tell queers they can’t get married." When I mention Prop 8, Vargas asks: "what does a queer do … who doesn't really care about gay marriage but who doesn't want homophobia to prevail … who has no faith in electoral politics but who doesn't want to continue to decimate the world and its people in the name of freedom?!" How about: visit Edmonton? "Of course," Vargas says, "as long as afterward we get to play with magical tranny wildlife." Deal.
Vargas' loving critiques of queer wildlives are wide-ranging. "My character in Falling in Love … with Chris and Greg [is] a caricature of a self-righteous, dogmatic radical queer, one who walks the party line uncritically and who non-consensually forces his boyfriend into an open relationship. I have been on dates with this person. It was hard." Barbara Walters?
Maybe she learned something from Extraordinary Pregnancies. When Walters suggests Beatie is "trying to have it both ways," Vargas declares a thesis statement of his oeuvre: "I don't believe there are just two ways to have it." V 

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