Donning a blond wig and a magnificent red dress, she dances salsa like only the legendary Celia Cruz... "Celia" is the alter ego of Oswaldo Garcia, a gay Venezuelan trans who is the face of the new documentary Ti@s.
Directed by acclaimed Venezuelan-Italian filmmaker John Petrizzelli, Ti@s* offers a rare glance into the lives of six aging homosexual "uncles" as they navigate a society that values youth and heteronormativity. The product of three years of research involving over 100 interviews conducted by LGBTQ activist Ricardo Hung, the film will screen in theaters beginning May 15.
The ti@s at the center of the film include Felix Blanco, a working class Afro-Venezuelan seamstress from Caracas' sprawling barrios who joyfully dedicated his life to sewing and ironing before sadly passing away several months ago prior to the film launch.
Orlando Daza, a retired trans cabaret dancer who goes by the stage name "Madame Margara".
Alfredo Giuliani, a hair stylist driven by his passion for cutting hair, rebelling from contemporary norms of fashion.
Armando Rojas Guardia, a melancholic poet who as a youth left the seminary on account of "an unpaid debt with [his] body".
Edgar Carrasco, a lawyer and long time activist with Venezuela's LGBT rights NGOs, and Ramón Font-Carrera-Felizola, the late uncle of Perizzelli who was ostracized by his aristocratic family for attempting to pursue a career as a ballet dancer on Broadway, suffering chronic depression as a result.
Shot in a variety of locations, the documentary narrates the lives of the six protagonists both in their own voices and through the voices of their nieces, nephews, friends and other family members.
"It's a movie about human relations that explores the patriarchal context of the machista Venezuelan family in its different social classes," the director told Venezuelanalysis.
Visibilizing the Invisible
For Petrizzelli, the goal of the film is to visibilize a population virtually ignored by mainstream society, namely elderly gay people, as captured in the slogan "I have an uncle like that".
"The mediatic image is the homosexual of the Ricky Martin variety, an eternally young pretty boy, which comes from Romantic literature, Dorian Grey, Byron, Keats. Many people didn't know that there are elderly gay people, so for Venezuela it's an issue that is being seen for the first time at the cinematographic level."
The documentary seeks to accomplish this visibilization by exploring the intersection of the overlapping oppressions experienced by the protagonists, which according to LGBTQ activist Ricardo Hung, amounts to the denial of their right to sexuality and livelihood "as homosexuals and as elderly people".
All of the ti@s interviewed for the film recount their experiences of state repression during the Fourth Republic that preceded Chavez, recalling different instances in which they were arbitrarily arrested by the police under the Law of Vagrants and Criminals designed to "cleanse the city" of "beggars, homosexuals, and the homeless".
"I experienced the repression in my own flesh, they [the police] would take us out of the discos all of the time [and arrest us]," remembers trans dancer Orlando.
Shunned by their own families, many of the protagonists also lament the solitude of growing older without a partner or family to care for them.
Armando in particular writes poetry to assuage his deep melancholy stemming from emotional and physical isolation.
Politics Raging Backstage
Although the documentary is a moving testimonial to these intersecting oppressions, Perizzelli nonetheless insists that its purpose is not "political".
"It's a film more about feelings rather than militant elderly gay rights activism- that's there, it's evidenced that there's a problem- but the objective is to touch people's spines. The idea is that people who have an 'uncle like that' they haven't visited for 20 years remember these elderly adults who suffer much loneliness and lack of love from their families."
In many ways, Petrizzelli is right insofar as the film avoids explicit discussion of contemporary LGBTQ politics.
Despite featuring testimonials of the harsh anti-gay oppression seen under the Fourth Republic, the documentary omits any mention of the current status of LGBTQ rights under the Bolivarian Revolution.
This rather glaring omission is quite likely deliberate, given that the question of LGBTQ rights is currently a topic of heated political debate within the sexual-diverse community and in international human rights bodies.
This past March, a delegation from the LGBTI Network, a Venezuelan LGBTQ rights NGO, testified before the OAS Human Rights Commission, describing the levels of homophobia since 2009 as "alarming" and alleging state complicity.
While denouncing real issues of homophobia, chavista LGBTQ activists have nonetheless slammed LGBTI Network and other NGOs for their external Washington funding and insulation from grassroots sexual-diverse communities, whose diverse social and economic needs go beyond same-sex marriage and other forms of legal recognition
In prioritizing the fight for legal rights, many NGOs marginalize poor and working class LGBTQ people from the barrios whose demands are radically interlinked with struggles against capitalism and racism.
In particular, mainstream rights groups have consistently ignored the elderly LGBTQ population, especially the HIV positive, says Hung, who is director of the HIV-positive advocacy group Alianza Lambda and coordinator of the International AIDS Film Festival
"This is an issue that other human rights organizations in Venezuela have never cared about, 'Why are you going to give a condom to a grandfather,' they ask [...] Only now coincidentally are they interested."
The Emancipatory Violence of Appearance
While Petrizzelli consigns these tense debates to the background, we might nevertheless read this visibilization of a population largely excluded from the official LGBTQ rights agenda in Venezuela as an implicitly political act.
In fact, nothing is perhaps more political than the image of Celia- the Black, queer proletarian trans whose face now dons posters and flyers throughout Caracas- erupting into the Venezuelan public sphere, disturbing its racial and gender normativity.
For Celia merely to appear in public space constitutes an act of what George Ciccariello-Maher following Franz Fanon terms "symbolic decolonial violence" that enforces the recognition of her humanity in a open threat to the the racist, capitalist, and hetero-patriarchal structures of Venezuelan society that enshrine her ontological disqualification.1