Penny Page's statement regarding Richmond International Film Festival
The Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF) aspires to be the next South by Southwest (SXSW), yet paradoxically positions itself as a transphobic version of SXSW. This is a puzzling choice, especially in the arts, which is generally seen as progressive and inclusive.
This year’s festival featured the controversial film Affirmation Generation, alternatively titled No Way Back: The Reality of Gender-Affirming Care. The film masquerades as a heartfelt story of a few people who once identified as trans, later trying to detransition but finding their lives ruined by their former queer identities. In actuality, the movie is purely a vehicle for transphobic propaganda, offering a range of misleading to blatantly false viewpoints on trans identities. It aims to instill fear that transgender individuals are coaxing young children into making irreversible, life-altering decisions about their bodies.
The only gender-affirming care that is actually offered to trans youth consists of very reversible things like puberty blockers, and even this is only available with the involvement of their parents. Top surgery, which changes the appearance of a trans person's chest, is rarely available to 16 and 17 year olds, and only with parental consent and documentation of an extensive history of other treatment for gender dysphoria. Bottom surgery, referring to below the waist surgery altering a trans person's genitals, is not available to anyone under 18 and is actually uncommon even in trans adults.
Gender-affirming surgery in general is met with high levels of satisfaction, far exceeding that of other surgeries like knee and hip replacements. In fact, only 1% of individuals who undergo surgical transition procedures express regret after doing so, compared to 20% of those who undergo knee surgeries and similar procedures (on the conservative side, some estimates say as much as 35% of patients having knee surgery later regret it). In this way gender-affirming care is objectively better all-around than many other medical treatments. Moreover, access to puberty blockers and similar gender affirming care has been shown to significantly reduce suicide rates among teenagers. Yet, RIFF chose to screen Affirmation Generation, a film that seeks to convey the polar opposite of this reality.
There’s an interesting history behind the film Affirmation Generation and its numerous inaccuracies. One of the principle tenets of the film is a fabricated condition termed Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. This so-called “condition” purports that children, upon encountering a transgender individual, experience a kind of temporary insanity, becoming obsessed with a desire to surgically alter their genitalia, only to come to later in life and regret their decisions. The original medical paper that aimed to legitimize this fictitious disorder was rejected by peer-reviewed journal due to its poor methodology, incorrect data interpretation, and illogical conclusions. Yet, transphobic and extremist blogs embraced it as though it were credible science; it oriented perfectly with their brand of absurdity. This movie serves as a vehicle for both this false science and the dangerous rhetoric it supports about groomers and queerness being a social contagion, something you “catch” from being around other queer people.
It was challenging for the makers of Affirmation Generation to find people willing to go on camera and tell a story that would support these fake ideas. Of the estimated 300,000 trans individuals in America, six agreed to appear in the movie, though they did so under some very questionable circumstances. One participant quickly went public, saying that they were told the movie would celebrate the benefits of gender-affirming care provided using the consent-informed approach that is standard practice in all medicine, even going so far as to say, “Every single thing I said was taken out of context, cut all apart, piecemealed into something that served the agenda of another party entirely.“
To be clear, the detransitioners who participated in this film told some stories about receiving poor health care and that should inspire our sympathy, but experiences like these are extremely atypical when it comes to gender-affirming care. Focusing on these few cases where things have gone wrong distorts the reality of how safe gender-affirming care actually is. It's also outright immoral to intercut these real experiences with the film's constant lies, and to manipulate the words and intentions of well-meaning people to make them seem to fit into a harmful and untrue narrative.
Due to the film’s numerous inaccuracies and unethical production methods, along with the potential harm these ideas could cause to trans communities, many movie theaters, including AMC—the world’s largest theater chain—refused to screen it. Vimeo even attempted to remove the film from the internet. The movie was quickly headed toward being universally panned, which would’ve been a big blow to those trying to perpetuate its transphobic agenda. This is where the Richmond International Film Festival (RIFF) stepped in.
Despite the film being widely discredited, RIFF had a jury of its members review it for inclusion. It wasn’t the act of a single, misguided individual but a collective decision by many of those steering the direction of the festival to legitimize this film, thus making a deliberate decision to incorporate transphobia into their very brand identity. The Richmond Independent Film Festival wanted to be known for showing the movie so transphobic that no one else would touch it.
RIFF has a considerable distance to cover if it wishes to match the status of South by Southwest, a festival that has attracted notable figures like Barack Obama, Dolly Parton, and Megan Thee Stallion. By comparison, RIFF’s big name this year was the writer of Dead Poets Society—a classic film, to be sure, but how many people actually know the name of its writer?
It’s Tom Schulman, and he’s an Oscar-winning writer who is certainly of acclaim, though he is rarely thrust into the spotlight to the extent he was by RIFF. Another big name on this festival was John Russell, the frontman of band The Head and the Heart. Like Tom Schulman, Russell’s name isn’t as recognizable as his work. Now, he, along with noteworthy local organizations like The James River Association and Venture Richmond, must address their involvement in this suddenly very controversial festival. And that’s my point. No one is positioned well to be associated with this. Whether you’re a known and respected entity in a city the size of Richmond, an up and comer on the verge of breaking into a really large market, or at the end of a celebrated career that still affords some level of privacy, it isn’t good for anyone to be attached to transphobia.
Do John Russell and Tom Schulman now need to consider how this association could impact their future work? The Richmond Independent Film Festival seems remarkably committed to this transphobic agenda, showing little concern for how it might affect not only its own growth but also the various community partners involved. I guess, for them, attacking trans people is more important than being successful.