This article critically examines two documentary films – The Salt Mines (1990) and The Transformation (1995) – which record the lives of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara, three self-identified Latina transvestite prostitutes who make a living among the streets of New York City. Exceptional to the latter film, however, is the “transformation” Sara undergoes to become a man after Christian missionaries intervene to “save” her once it is discovered she is HIV+. While The Salt Mines captures the unique life experiences of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara in order to question the precarious nature of queer kinship formations in public spaces, The Transformation follows the new Christian life of Ricardo (Sara in The Salt Mines) to document the forceful nature of ideological state apparatuses in constructing and maintaining the dominant norm of cisgender heterosexuality. This article aims to understand the role of gender in the lives of queer people of color within public and private spaces, while specifically questioning the politics of representation and what it means to be authentic in terms of the lived and felt experiences of the transgender body.
Panning through the dismal space of out-of-service garbage trucks against a dreary city skyline, the opening scene of The Salt Mines (1990) introduces us to Sara, a self-identified Latina transvestite working as a prostitute in New York City. A diamond in the rough with goldilocks hair similar to Farah Fawcett of the 1970s, she is presented as both a seasoned veteran of the streets and a mentor to Gigi and Giovanna, two other transvestite prostitutes whom we also meet in the film. As an image of grace surrounded by the squalor of poverty, disease, and death, Sara is also an image of queer defiance, seemingly unfazed by her physical environment and oppressive life experiences as an exile from Cuba and a refugee of the Mariel boatlift. One year later in the follow-up film The Transformation (1995) we meet Sara again; only this time, Pastor Terry Wier is our medium to her life, or rather, death as a woman and “born again” into a man. Sara is now Ricardo, transformed by his devotion to the Christian faith and teachings of a heteronormative lifestyle.
While the Salt Mines follows the unique lives of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara as they make a home among the salt deposits used by the New York Sanitation Department to clear away snow in the winter, The Transformation centers on Sara’s new life as Ricardo, undergoing the transition in order to be “rescued” by a conservative Christian ministry after discovering she is HIV positive. As seen in these documentary films, how is it possible that, in the space of cinematic time, what once was an image of queer defiance – Sara in The Salt Mines – becomes the epitome of queer catastrophe and Christian fundamentalist triumph, as embodied in Ricardo in The Transformation?
Viewed side-by-side, The Salt Mines and The Transformation charts a series of dynamic ambiguities and continual movements across differences of race, gender, sexuality, class, and religion. Moreover, as a genre of film intended to record and interrogate aspects of reality, the latter documentary does not offer a “picture perfect” conclusion to Ricardo’s new life as a born-again Christian who is happily married to the woman of his dreams. Rather, it ends with a brutally honest moment in which Ricardo, now physically impaired by the onslaught of the AIDS virus, reveals his desire that if he still had a choice, “I would choose to be a woman.” Concluding on a somber affect that leaves viewers stunned at Ricardo’s self-confession, The Transformation challenges the notion of fixed, visible, and transparent identities, as captured in The Salt Mines.
When making the films, directors Susana Aikin and Carlos Aparicio utilized a style of documentary that allowed viewers to deduce their own conclusions of what is seen on screen, free from stylistic choices of music, interviews, scene arrangements, or voice-over narrations. Known as the “observational mode” of documentary, this perspective helps to demonstrate the role of documentaries as instances of discourse rather than “window[s] on unscripted, undirected, unrehearsed, and unperformed realit[ies].” Nevertheless, I would argue, the force of these films stems from the fact that they remain narratives grounded in some version of actuality and experience, involving social actors as opposed to stock characters. By engaging the visual texts as offered in these films, this essay explores the incongruities that exist between reality and representation.As separate texts, The Salt Mines and The Transformation also offer distinct examples of what Donna Haraway terms “situated knowledges,” where each film holds a distinct and partial point of view—rather than a disembodied objectivity—that provides a more nuanced account of information constituting a specific context or environment. The questions these documentaries raise are thus linked and different: while The Salt Mines looks at an exceptional group of transvestites in order to question the precarious nature of queer kinship formations in public spaces, The Transformation follows the new Christian life of Ricardo (Sara in The Salt Mines) to demonstrate and document the forceful nature of ideological state apparatuses—to borrow Althusser’s term—in constructing and maintaining the dominant norm of cisgender heterosexuality. In using Cynthia Fuch’s description of the self-conscious representations of documentary conventions, The Salt Mines and the Transformation ultimately map “a constellation of anxieties about queer expression, verification, and representation by complicating traditional links between visibility and identity and, in particular, by insisting that race, gender, class” – and, I would add, religion – “are inextricable from sexuality in any conception of identity or reality.”
Technique for Visibility: Queer Reframing in Observational Documentary
In Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image, Roger Hallas (2009) examines a corpus of queer films and videos made between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s in response to the AIDS epidemics in North America, Europe, Australia, and South Africa. While he does not incorporate The Salt Mines or The Transformation as films within his body of “queer AIDS media,” Hallas’ use of the term reframing is particularly useful for my analysis of the two documentaries. Hallas explains how his archive of queer AIDS media radically reframes not only how viewers perceive HIV/AIDS but also the spaces in which they circulated. As these films are “neither mere ideological critiques of the dominant media representation of the epidemic nor corrective attempts to produce ‘positive’ images of people living with HIV/AIDS,” their importance lies in the ability to document both the individual and collective trauma of AIDS. As he clarifies further:
This discursive act required a sustained dialectical tension between directly attesting to the medical, psychological, and political imperatives produced by AIDS and contesting the enunciative position available to people with HIV/AIDS in dominant media representations, which had consistently subjected their speech to either a shaming abjection or a universalistic humanism. Moreover, the dialectical dynamic of these works reframed not only the bodies of the witnesses seen and heard on the screen but also the relationship of such represented bodies to the diverse viewing bodies in front of the screen.
In line with Hallas’ description, The Transformation highlights the specific capacity of documentary to “bear witness” to the historical trauma of AIDS, as evidenced by the circumstances that inform Sara’s decision to become Ricardo. However, unlike the films analyzed by Hallas that also document the culture of care emerging from the queer community’s response to the epidemic’s effects of illness, death, and loss, The Transformation does not incorporate AIDS activism or any type of political mobilization against queer discrimination. Rather, and more tellingly, the film attest to the ways in which dominant discursive regimes, as depicted through Pastor Terry Wier’s use of religious rhetoric, have the power to shape queer bodies into “right” subjects. In using Althusser, to what set of interpellating calls does Sara respond?
Because Aiken and Aparicio reframe the discourse on AIDS within narratives of the ordinary and everyday versus through sensationalist accounts, The Salt Mines and The Transformation must also be understood as falling within the observational mode of documentary filmmaking. In Bill Nichols’ influential study (2001) of contemporary documentary film, he identifies six types, or modes, of documentary. While his classification scheme recognizes the performative mode as particularly salient for social groups who have been historically shunned from the lens of the camera, it is the observational mode of documentary that is at play within Aiken and Aparicio’s films. Arising from technological innovations of the 1960s that made possible mobile lightweight cameras and portable sound recording equipment, observational documentary allows the viewer to get an intimate and immediate sense of individual human character in quotidian life. As Nichols elaborates further the perspective of observational documentaries:
We look in on life as it is lived. Social actors engage with one another, ignoring the filmmakers. Often the characters are caught up in pressing demands or a crisis of their own. This requires their attention and draws it away from the presence of the filmmakers. The scenes tend, like fiction, to reveal aspects of character and individuality. We make inferences and come to conclusions on the basis of behavior we observe or overhear. The filmmaker’s retirement to the position of observer calls on the viewer to take a more active role in determining the significance of what is said and done.
From Nichols’ description, viewers of both The Salt Mines and The Transformation see and hear firsthand the daily struggles of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara – ranging from material conflicts between Gigi and Giovanna over feminine articles of clothing and hormone injections to better “pass” as women, to the internal struggles of Ricardo as he questions his decision to transition for communal and social belonging outside of his former life in the streets as Sara.
The social commitment of observational documentary is wholly apparent, then, given the presence of the camera “on the scene” that records daily events and lived experiences in the historical world. However, “this also affirms a sense of fidelity to what occurs that can pass on events to us as if they simply happened when they have, in fact, been constructed [and edited] to have that very appearance.” This constructed nature ultimately demonstrates the power of the queer moving image to simultaneously depict the historical world as it participates in the fabrication of the historical world itself. Given this assertion, how do we read the representations of Gigi, Giovanna, and particularly Sara: are they agents of their own reality, or is it the artistic choices of the filmmakers themselves that makes conceivable the agency (or lack thereof) we see on film?
The Salt Mines: Who Are The Salt People?
The Salt Mines is the first of two documentaries about the lives of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara, three Latina transvestite prostitutes living among heaps of snow-melting salt, pieces of scrap metal and debris, and broken-down garbage trucks converted into makeshift homes in an area cordoned off by the Sanitation Department of New York. As the camera provides a glimpse into the everyday and internal realities of these three transvestite women – covering their distinct personal histories of family abandonment, experiences of coming out, and their decline from drugs to prostitution and vice versa – the viewer encounters images of abjection depicted through non-normative bodies, subjects who are spatially and socially confined to the lower rungs of society. While the film chronicles the relations among the three close friends as they navigate the evening streets of Manhattan to support their ongoing drug addictions, it also provides the viewer a glimpse into the varied community of homeless people they inhabit “The Salt Mines” with, affectionately known as “The Salt People.” From J.R., a male-identified crack addict, to Ruben, a black gay male whom we later learn develops AIDS through prostitution, The Salt Mines depicts a community of exiles who cling to each other for mutual aid and support. “In a culture which appears to arrange always and in every way for the annihilation of queers,” as Judith Butler reminds us, The Salt Mines is depicted as a safe haven for outcasts of mainstream society. This is most evident through the statement of recently unemployed Bobby, another member of this shunned community, who emphatically declares:
[I] got laid off. [I] used to see people who stayed at The Salt Mines and decided to stay with them. Our lifestyles are different, you know? They go out, they hustle. As far as tricks, selling your body, that’s not my thing. [However] I don’t condemn them… because they’re my friends right now. As far as I’m concerned, they’re my family.
By “offering a window into understanding the ethics of association and sociality between strangers and anonymous individuals who, through recurring encounters, become familiar with each other,” the use of observational documentary creates an intimacy among the viewer and the community of The Salt People projected on screen, thus making their cinematic experiences a part of historical reality.
Ranging from George Chauncey’s (1994) seminal account of “vice” districts in Manhattan that illuminated urban gay life and culture in New York City from 1890-1940, to Nayan Shah’s (2011) recent study of intimate relations among transient male laborers in the United States and Canada at the turn of the twentieth century, The Salt Mines draws attention to queer kinship formations absent in conventional accounts on poverty, homelessness, and prostitution in New York City. Moreover, despite the difference in medium from Chauncey and Shah’s written historical texts, the use of film nonetheless reveals the way “people manipulate the spatial and cultural complexity of the city to constitute neighborhoods and community despite the interference” of outside agencies and institutions. Specifically, an analysis of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara’s testimonies provides a rich picture of the cultural terrain on which they navigate, a space often intruded by people malevolent to queer identities and by born-again Christians “benevolent” to “saving” transgender people through the healing power of Jesus Christ.*
Dressed in a black leather jacket and faux denim jeans with thinly sculpted eyebrows, Gigi provides the first testimony into a day in the life of “living in the salt.” While her narrative speaks strongly to the everyday struggles for food, clean water, and protection from the elements, I want to focus on two aspects of her story that stress the precarity of transgender lives within public spaces, as well as the identification she makes of being and feeling like a woman.
First stating that “life in the street [prostitution] is miserable and it’s more so for us because we are also living in the street,” Gigi goes on to provide an example of avoiding a certain city block notorious for bodily violence, particularly the shooting of transvestite prostitutes with pellet guns. Additionally, she explains her move from the salt deposits to making a home inside the spaces of dilapidated garbage trucks because of persistent police surveillance. These two examples lend weight to the film’s importance in highlighting otherwise hidden histories of queer lives that are silenced and erased by a society dominated by heterosexual and gender normative regimes of power. The Salt People, even in their abjection, are ultimately seen as beings that threaten the greater social order and thus warrant government control and suppression.
This assertion is most poignantly demonstrated at the end of the film where the removal of salt by plows in the winter stands in as a metaphor for the destruction and disintegration of queer public spaces and culture, as described in such works as Samuel Delany’s (1999) Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. In speaking to the urban center’s redevelopment for the safety and well-being of tourists and families, “the city… instituted not only a violent reconfiguration of its own landscape but also a legal and moral revamping of its own discursive structures, changing laws about sex, health, and zoning, in the course of which it has been willing, and even anxious, to exploit everything from homophobia and AIDS to family values and fear of drugs.” As Gigi acts as a tour guide to The Salt Mines, showing the viewer the barbed wire fence erected around the now-abandoned space she once called home at the conclusion of the film, the documentary functions as a piece of evidence to demonstrate the impact of state and government repression in the lives of The Salt People. Within the space of New York City, as the film alludes to, individuals like Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara are not allowed nor welcomed to exist in their difference as transvestite prostitutes of color.
In terms of Gigi’s discussion of identifying as a woman, she speaks candidly to the camera about her revelation, at the age of 13, of feeling she was “a woman encased in the body of a man.” The viewer soon learns that this identification is what leads to her exclusion and loss of support from her family, led by her mother’s lack of acceptance of what Gayle Salamon calls the “felt sense” of the body that Gigi experiences. Moreover, the viewer watches as Gigi becomes teary-eyed when speaking about the admiration she holds for her father, a man who accepted his child’s identification with something other than their assigned gender at birth. We thus empathize with Gigi’s affective loss and longing for her father’s love.
What this provocative scene highlights is the way Gigi explores what it means to be embodied and the subsequent costs, consequences, and sacrifices of living out that embodiment. In discussing Gigi’s felt sense of the body versus her bodily materiality, it is useful to invoke Salamon’s summary of the connection psychoanalyst Paul Schilder makes between the two via the body image:
We only have recourse to our bodies through a body image, a psychic representation of the body that is constructed over time. The body image is multiple (any person always has more than one), it is flexible (its configuration changes over time), it arises from our relations with other people, and its contours are only rarely identical to the contours of the body as it is perceived from the outside. … Thus our sense of the body image, the postural model of the body, is a sedimented effect without a stable reference or predictable content, since it may be different in form and shape, moment to moment, through each new iteration.”
As understood from this description, the (trans) body is a site that encompasses an abundance of materiality and meaning that denaturalizes gender—the presumed binary categories of male and female—as a self-evident or natural fact. Far from being a biological given, the body, according to Schilder, must always be understood as contextually situated and formed, in relation to other bodies and to the world writ large: our bodies and the genders they inhabit are malleable. This assertion is not one held by Gigi’s mother, whose lack of recognition of gender’s constructed nature causes her eventual rejection of Gigi and her subsequent alienation from the family. Despite Gigi’s fear of not being able to see her father as he aged toward death—a father who accepted her transition but was unable to sustain a paternal relationship because of his wife’s disapproval—the documentary ultimately frames Gigi’s embodiment of a female subjectivity as more than enough reason to sever immediate family ties.
As Salamon quotes Schilder to further explain how “changes in the body-image tend immediately to become changes in the body,” the viewer recognizes this on screen with the use of hormone injections by Gigi and Giovanna to better “pass” as women. Conspicuously absent from this scene, however, is Sara, whom we later learn is staying at the Terminal Hotel at the end of the film. Given this conclusion to The Salt Mines, it then comes as a surprise when The Transformation presents us with Ricardo, the formerly homeless transvestite prostitute once known as Sara. As Gigi abruptly responds to this turn of events: “To hell with that man business… to me he’s always a woman!”
I now turn to a reading of the film to analyze the power of Christian rhetoric that informs Sara’s transformation to become a cisgender, heterosexual man we are confronted with on screen. Ultimately, Ricardo’s presence in the second film speaks to the shaky grounds on which observational documentary can capture “reality” as experienced in everyday life.
The Transformation: The Interpolating Calls of the Christian Church
The opening scene of The Transformation, the companion piece to The Salt Mines, resembles that of an expository film more so than an observational documentary, as narration takes precedence over the images on screen that influences viewer perception of what is taking place. Within the introductory frame we are presented with a photo album held open by two white hands: on the right side of the album we recognize a black and white photo of Sara, while on the left side we see another black and white photo of a person assumed to be male, given the cues by their gender presentation in posture, demeanor, and clothing. As the camera focuses on these two photos, we hear the voice of Pastor Terry Wier, whom the viewer learns is the one holding the album. Speaking contemptuously about Sara’s life on the street as a prostitute and transvestite, he then reveals to the viewer that the photos we are looking at are of the same person: Sara is now Ricardo – with the help of Terry’s Dallas ministry of born-again Christians – who, in his life as the former, was missing an aspect of his identity that did not make him a whole person, and thus is the reason why he ended up on the streets. As Terry states, “[Ricardo] never knew what it was to be a man.”
Terry’s opening narrative introduces a moral and ideological perspective that sets up the chronological sequence of the documentary, which chiefly follows the life of Ricardo as a churchgoing and married man in Dallas who has renounced his gender presentation as female, as well as his homosexuality, for the sake of a life espoused in biblical scriptures. The Transformation also exposes the power at work through the personhood of Terry, whose missionary goal of “saving” transvestites and drag queens through offerings of shelter and monetary assistance comes at a deep price: the renunciation of their queer identity in order to become subjects of the Christian Church and to experience the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ. By highlighting the point of view of Ricardo’s new life from two distinct yet interrelated narratives, The Transformation raises provocative questions regarding gender identity and the strive toward self-determination. Given the film’s conclusion with Ricardo’s painful disclosure of wishing he could once again become a woman, the piece ultimately questions whether authentic conversion and representation of queer subjectivities can be achieved, respectively in the life of Ricardo/Sara and within the medium of documentary film itself.
Up until the concluding five minutes of the film, the camera provides a perspective of Ricardo that presents him in what seems to be a genuinely cheerful and happy demeanor. Here the documentary records and acts as evidence of Ricardo’s transformation into a cisgender and heteronormative man by accomplishing what are considered “milestones” within American society. From tying the knot with Betty, another member of Terry’s church in Dallas, to moving into a new home to start a nuclear family, the viewer listens to Ricardo’s chilling words of appreciation and gratitude for contracting AIDS, the virus that “enabled” him to lose any semblance of Sara and that brought him within the fold of the Christian Church. As he relates in a rather charismatic tone: “I thank God that I have AIDS. If I hadn’t found out I was HIV positive, I wouldn’t have come off the street and I wouldn’t have devoted myself to God. I am not a fanatic: I just love you the way God loves me… and it doesn’t matter if you are a hooker or a crook because I’ve been there before.”
Ricardo’s chilling statement stands in direct contrast to such “AIDS as punishment” narratives espoused by prominent conservative religious leaders like the late Jerry Falwell, as well as to results from a 2013 survey that revealed fourteen percent of Americans believing AIDS might be God’s punishment for “immoral sexual behavior.” By reframing the narrative so that AIDS becomes the divine catalyst to a life off the street and a life free from Sara, Ricardo produces a discursive and material subjectivity aligned with the fundamentalist beliefs espoused by Terry Wier’s ministry. Here we are reminded of Schilder’s assertion that “there is no question that our own activity is insufficient to build up the image of the body.”
Ricardo’s narrative and new subjectivity as a born-again Christian is further supported by the filmmakers’ inclusion of interviews with Jim and Robby, a church couple from Terry’s ministry whom the viewer learns provided shelter and mentorship to Ricardo on the “correct” ways to be a man. These interviews further support Schilder’s statement that the body image is something that is flexible and can arise out of relations with other people, considering the responsibility placed upon Jim and Robby in helping to “discipline” Ricardo with male mannerisms – for, as Jim proudly relates, “If something needs fixing, it’s generally fixed by the man. … So I started showing him how to do things, showing him how to do a little yard work, things he had never done before.” This statement automatically creates a binary model of gender in which masculinity is defined by what it is not, which is embodied in all things that are weak, submissive, and incapable – or, stereotypes of what it means to be feminine. Here Robby speaks for Ricardo by saying, “He had a heavy desire that no one would look at him and see any kind of female mannerisms or traits. He worked at it very hard.” She goes on further to state: “He never believed he could be anything ever different than a homosexual… Then all in a sudden he had a desire for women that he never had before. You know, a helpmate, a wife. He couldn’t believe that the Lord could do that for him. And when he met Betty that was it. It was history from there.”
I include this quote to highlight the gross conflation that Robby makes between gender and sexuality, in which sexuality replaces something that is really a critical issue of gender for Ricardo. In Susan Stryker’s (2004) commentary on the relationship between trans and gay and lesbian studies in “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin,” she rightly asserts that
… all too often transgender phenomena are misapprehended through a lens that privileges sexual orientation and sexual identity as the primary means of differing from heteronormativity. Most disturbingly, “transgender” increasingly functions as the site in which to contain all gender trouble, thereby helping secure both homosexuality and heterosexuality as stable and normative categories of personhood. This has damaging, isolative political corollaries. 
While the exploration of this question is beyond the scope of this article, are such “damaging [and] isolative political corollaries” symbolized through Ricardo’s regret and eventual death at the end of the film?
Turning now to Terry Wier’s role in the documentary, The Transformation characterizes him as the pastor Ricardo/Sara relies on for guidance (read: material and financial support) after discovering he is HIV positive. Terry, in describing the significance of his ministry for the “salvation” of transvestites and prostitutes, justifies his missionary work through constant appeals to biblical scriptures. Specifically, he invokes Bible verses that speak to the similarities that exist between transgender individuals and eunuchs in biblical narratives, who he states are people “born without the desire for the opposite sex” and who are “upheld to a higher standard within the Kingdom of Heaven.” Here he cites Matthew 19:12 to self-righteously state: “Satan says you are either a man, woman, or gay. God says you are either a man, woman, or eunuch.” This leads him to conclude that, given their privileged status in the afterlife, transvestites should rejoice in their temporal suffering – because in a theology of sanctification through suffering, earthly trials will lead to greater glory in heaven.
This example is just one out of the many instances throughout the film in which Terry’s appeal to Christian fundamentalist rhetoric justifies his patrolling of queer identities. In God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence, Michael Cobb (2006) describes Christian speech as a forceful entity, describing religious rhetoric as a secure form of language:
Its semantic security reveals something unique about religious rhetoric, at least in the United States: there’s something about Western religious language – mostly white Anglo Protestant Christian religious language – that makes one feel its importance for reasons well beyond the actual content the language communicates. This seemingly inherent social conservatism of religious language guards, if not creates, a nation that does not want to have its foundational social organization, the family, substantially and systematically changed or challenged.
Cobb’s analysis helps to demonstrate how Terry’s use of Christian theological discourse becomes the complicit actor in some of the worst forms of social coercion and injustice seen in the documentary, evidenced by Ricardo’s regret at becoming a man at the end of the film.
Moreover, theologian Dale Martin provides the most striking critique of Christian fundamentalists (as represented by Terry, Jim, and Robby) who use theological discourse to justify oppression. Martin states that such Christians fail to understand the simple concept that the Bible does not speak:
When people talk about “what the Bible says,” they are using a metaphor that has confused them into thinking that the Bible actually exercises its own agency in “telling” people what to do. … Real knowledge of the text of scripture and the history of Christian churches shows that opposition to [LGBT] Christians and their full inclusion in the church is motivated not by loyalty to scripture and tradition but by prejudice and discrimination.
Given Terry’s use of the Bible as a “rule book” to sustain a life of Christian morality for Ricardo and the transvestites he proselytizes in the streets of New York, its contemporary use as an epistemological foundation for ethics is ultimately what informs the walking away of queer individuals from any type of organized religion. Consequently, “Why does Ricardo stay?” becomes a key question for viewers at the end of the film, when it is revealed that Ricardo’s story is selfishly used for fundraising efforts by Terry’s church to build a live-in program for transvestites, drag queens, and other gender variant people to “free themselves” from sin. As the documentary concludes with a follow-up with Ricardo a year after the film’s initial recording, we hear his final words in the film:
I repented for my past life and now when I think about everything I lived, I get very emotional. [However] I remember some of it as beautiful because the real truth is that I enjoyed it… If I still had the choice, even if I could change my life right now – even now that I have my wife and everything – I would choose to be a woman.
This stunning revelation signals a moment in the documentary when viewers are left to question the “success story” of Ricardo’s transformation. While having the capacity to become a woman, he feels as if the choice is no longer an option. How come? According to Gigi, it is because the material and social sacrifices to become Sara (i.e., renouncing his chosen “family” of the Church and access to medication for AIDS) would be too heavy of a burden to bear. As she states: “Finding out he was HIV+ affected his mind: he grew afraid of dying alone in the street. The church as the only way out, the only chance he had to take care of himself because in the street, it would have been impossible.” The Transformation thus leaves its viewers with a lingering and haunting question: does Terry’s ministry really “save” Ricardo?
Conclusion: Reflexivity and Documenting Subjectivity
When questioned about Ricardo after filming The Transformation, co-filmmaker Susana Aikin reflects:
I think there are many layers in what happened to Ricardo. There was a material layer where he basically transformed from a very marginal social person to an integrated social being into our mainstream society. I think also that he went through a spiritual change in the sense that he learned to appreciate himself better as a human being. … But in terms of whether he became a straight man, I think we’re talking about very shifty things here, and I think the film speaks for itself.
Presented with Aikin’s acknowledgement of the “shifty” nature of Ricardo’s identification as a born-again Christian and a newly straight man, the documentary ceases to be purely observational. Rather, it becomes one that is reflexive in nature, as Aikin and Aparicio ask the viewers themselves to see documentary for what it really is: a construction and/or representation. As Nichols explains the “reflexive mode” of documentary: “Rather than following the filmmaker in his or her engagement with other social actors, we now attend to the filmmaker’s engagement with us, speaking not only about the historical world but about the problems and issues of representing it as well.” As the filmmakers provide space for the viewing audience to come to their own conclusion of Ricardo’s life, we are allowed to question how The Salt Mines and The Transformation represent the historical world, “as well as to what gets represented.”
Furthermore, as both films function as politically reflexive documentaries, The Salt Mines and The Transformation permit us to engage and reframe “our assumptions and expectations about the historical world more than about film form.” Such visual texts call social conventions into question; so while the former film involves most of the aspects of observational documentary, it also seeks to produce a heightened consciousness about the marginalization and policing of queer public life and sexuality in the contemporary world. It counters the prevailing tropes of transvestite prostitutes with radically different representations and displaces them with innovative forms of queer kinship relations despite the hardships of poverty, illness, and death that define homelessness in urban spaces. In terms of the latter documentary, The Transformation challenges entrenched notions of the goodwill of Christian missionary work and serves to give name and face to what was once before invisible: the oppression and destruction caused by Christian fundamentalist rhetoric. Specifically, Ricardo’s painful transformation acts to support a new way of seeing, a distinct perspective on the social order created when “the code of the penetrator”—to use Robert Goss’ term to describe people who employ a heteronormative reading of the Bible—is taken to be the literal word of God in all matters of the secular.
Although this article has detailed the lives of Gigi and Sara/Ricardo as (re)presented on screen, I would like to conclude with a final comment on the transformation Giovanna undergoes between the two documentaries for the encouraging implications it has for the future. Like her two close friends, Giovanna’s presence on the streets is defined by drug use and prostitution, but with one major difference: we also learn of her dreams to escape the confines of The Salt Mines, replete with “a job and a home that [she] can go to. To be looked and be treated like a regular human being. It’s simple.” As she bluntly questions, “It’s not too much to ask for, is it?” While such dreams exist as phantasms in the first film, the second documentary demonstrates those visions becoming a reality. Here we meet Giovanna again; and while she goes through a similar transformation to Ricardo, her change is not one of becoming a man through the saving grace of Christianity. Rather, it is a transformation to live fully as herself – a woman living at home with her mother and sister, two individuals who respect and understand Giovanna’s “felt sense” of the body.
Taken together, the narratives of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara/Ricardo, as stated by Paige Johnson, “point the way to a different understanding of how bodies mean, how representation works, and what counts as legitimate knowledge, all of which are epistemological concerns [that] have material consequences for the quality of transgender lives.” Ultimately, The Salt Mines and The Transformation provoke viewers to achieve a heightened state of consciousness regarding the precarity of queer kinship formations and non-normative bodies. They stimulate the viewer to make a critical assessment of not only how trans lives are visually depicted but also how trans lives are lived, and how they can survive, in the historical world. By making visible the “stuff” of social reality that contributes to the policing of The Salt People and the disciplining of Gigi, Giovanna, and Sara/Ricardo, the documentaries give a sense of what we understand reality itself to have been, of what it is now, or of what it may become for transgender lives.
- Thomas Waugh, “Walking on Tippy Toes: Lesbian and Gay Liberation Documentary of the Post-Stonewall Period 1969-84,” in Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 110.
- Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Routledge, 1991), 187.
- Cynthia Fuchs, “’Hard to Believe’: Reality Anxieties in Without You I’m Nothing, Paris is Burning, and ‘Dunyementaries’,” in Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 191.
- Roger Hallas, “Introduction,” in Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 3.
- Bill Nichols, “How Can We Describe the Observational, Participatory, Reflexive, and Performative Modes of Documentary Film?,” in Introduction to Documentary, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 174.
- Ibid., 177.
- Judith Butler, “Gender is Burning: Questions of Appropriation and Subversion,” in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 124.
- Nayan Shah, “Policing Strangers and Borderlands,” in Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 60.
- Ibid., 59. * The latter group will be elaborated further in the next section.
- Samuel Delany, “Writer’s Preface,” in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999), xi-xii.
- Gayle Salamon, Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 2.
- Ibid., 29-30.
- Ibid, 32.
- See Robert S. McElvaine, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (New York: Crown Publishers, 2008), 35. Jerry Falwell is quoted as saying in 1993: “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals; it is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.”
- Antonia Blumberg, “Fourteen Percent Of Americans Believe AIDS Might Be Gods Punishment: Survey,” The Huffington Post, accessed April 15, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/28/aids-hiv-gods-punishment_n_4876381.html.
- Paul Schilder, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body: Studies in the Constructive Energies of the Psyche (New York: International Universities Press, 1950), 126.
- Susan Stryker, “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10, no. 2 (2004): 214.
- For more information, see 1 Pet. 4:12-19 NRSV.
- Michael Cobb, God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 22.
- Dale Basil Martin, “The Misuse and Abuse of Scripture and Tradition,” The Anglican Communion, June 15, 2007, http://www.anglicancommunion.org/listening/book_resources/docs/Dale%20martin.scripture.tradition.pdf.
- POV – The Transformation,” POV – Acclaimed Point-of-View Documentary Films | PBS, July 9, 1996, http://www.pbs.org/pov/thetransformation/film_description.php.
- Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 194.
- Ibid., 198
- Robert Goss, Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002), 187.
- Paige Johnson, “Trans Studies” (GWS 210 Keyword Entry, University of California, Berkeley, 2012), 2-3.
Blumberg, Antonia. “Fourteen Percent Of Americans Believe AIDS Might Be Gods Punishment: Survey.” The Huffington Post. Accessed April 15, 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/28/aids-hiv-gods-punishment_n_4876381.html.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1995.
Cobb, Michael. God Hates Fags: The Rhetorics of Religious Violence. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Delany, Samuel. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Fuchs, Cynthia Fuchs. “Hard to Believe’: Reality Anxieties in Without You I’m Nothing, Paris is Burning, and ‘Dunyementaries’.” In Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Goss, Robert. Queering Christ: Beyond Jesus Acted Up. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002.
Hallas, Roger. “Introduction.” In Reframing Bodies: AIDS, Bearing Witness, and the Queer Moving Image. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.
Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Routledge, 1991.
Johnson, Paige. “Trans Studies.” GWS 210 Keyword Entry, University of California, Berkeley, 2012.
Martin, Dale Basil. “The Misuse and Abuse of Scripture and Tradition.” The Anglican Communion. June 15, 2007. http://www.anglicancommunion.org/listening/book_resources/docs/Dale%20martin.scripture.tradition.pdf.
McHugh, Kathleen. “Irony and Dissembling: Queer Tactics for Experimental Documentary.” In Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Nichols, Bill. “How Can We Describe the Observational, Participatory, Reflexive, and Performative Modes of Documentary Film?” In Introduction to Documentary. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
“POV – The Transformation.” POV – Acclaimed Point-of-View Documentary Films | PBS. July 9, 1996. http://www.pbs.org/pov/thetransformation/film_description.php.
Salamon, Gayle. Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Schilder, Paul. The Image and Appearance of the Human Body: Studies in the Constructive Energies of the Psyche. New York: International Universities Press, 1950.
Shah, Nayan. Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Stryker, Susan. “Transgender Studies: Queer Theory’s Evil Twin.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10, no. 2 (2004): 212-215.
Waugh, Thomas. “Walking on Tippy Toes: Lesbian and Gay Liberation Documentary of the Post-Stonewall Period 1969-84.” In Between the Sheets, in the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, ed. Chris Holmlund and Cynthia Fuchs. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 110.