Engendered Species: A Transgender Support Group and a Film

In the past few years Engendered Species, one of Salt Lake City’s groups for transgender people as well as those who identify as transsexual or cross-dressers, has mentioned a documentary film on its Web site. Titled simply Engendered Species, the 48-minute film features several members of the group speaking candidly about such things as coming out as transgender, advocating for transgender rights and even deciding on which outfits to wear each day.

The film was made in 2005 by Julie van der Wal, then a graduate student in the University of Utah’s film studies program. And until now, it has received little attention in the media.

As Engendered Species founder, Deborah Dean, explains, the film began as a five-minute project for one of van der Wal’s undergraduate classes and gradually evolved into her master’s thesis.

Unfortunately, van der Wal has since left the state and was unavailable for comment on this story.

“The film is hers except for like five minutes at the beginning, because there’s something I thought needed to be there and she didn’t want to deal with it, so she gave me the footage and I put it in,” said Dean. The footage she added was a clip from an interview with one of the group’s members, a trans woman named Liz (few last names are used in the doccumentary). In this clip, Liz speaking about meting fellow closeted transgender woman she met while serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and how that transgender woman died in her arms after being fired upon during a covert action. Her last request was for Liz to call her “Judy.”

“The bonds of combat can be very close. It can be closer than anything you find in civilian life, but still these two guys were transgender in some form and they didn’t know about each other. This was 1970 and you didn’t talk about it,” said Dean.

“I very much wanted that story in there because it’s one of the most compelling stories I’ve heard in years, and Julie wanted a happier lighter film. So there’s a compromise,” she continued. “I took that footage she shot and put that on the front, and then I have me telling the attitude [about transgender people] I want to convey and contrast, which is once you know us as human beings you’ll know our good and positive aspects.”

While the film begins on a somber, indeed heart-wrenching note, much of it is, indeed, a lighter look at the members of Engendered Species, who recount their coming out as transgender women or as cross-dressers as they socialize, shop for clothing and put on make up. Along the way, they and Dean provide some insights about what the word “transgender” means to them.

“There are people who dress up once a month and that’s enough, there are people who dress up once a week and that’s enough. There are people who do it every night and that’s not enough,” says Dean at one point. “The gender bridge is recognizing that people are varied in gender like they are in height or weight or anything else. We’re not so much men or women as we are individuals.”

Dean, however, recalls a time only 14 years ago when few Utahns who would have identified with any definition of the word transgender were so open. When she began Engendered Species in 1995, Dean said that the only group for gender-variant and transgender Utahns in Salt Lake City met “secretly in a hotel room.”

“People were afraid that they could be manipulated,” Dean explained. “I thought that was wrong.”

Deciding that she wanted to make Utah a safer place for people like her, Dean outed herself as transgender and began speaking publicly about the issues that she and others faced. Along the way she encouraged members of the fledgling group to come out in public, encouraging them to meet for social events like museum outings and road trips, and even to march in Salt Lake City’s annual Gay Pride Parade, which the group has done every year but one since its founding.

“We try to do all kinds of stuff like that to let people know you can be under the open dome of the sky and be who you are,” she said. “If you act right, you can control how people relate to you. You can navigate society without ill effects or ill approval. If you’re acting nice to someone, unless they’re a psychopath, they’re going to start acting nice to you, but if you act suspiciously they’re going to treat you accordingly like they do to people [regardless of whether they’re transgender or not].”

Allowing van der Wal to make the documentary, Dean added, was one more part of her mission and the group’s mission to help people live openly.

“I wanted the word out. I enjoyed doing this stuff too. I have to or I wouldn’t have done it for 15 years,” she said.

For more information about Engendered Species, the group or the documentary, visit es-transgender.com. To obtain a copy contact Deborah Dean at deborahthai@yahoo.com.

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