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INTERVIEW WITH TAMI GOLD
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Tami Gold in May, 1997.
Would you talk about how you got involved with Jennifer Miller and
how you started the project for JUGGLING GENDER?
Okay. Well, I had recently finished a film called "WHY WOMEN'S FUNDS". It's a film that deals with some of this philosophy. I did it with Beni Matias for the National Network of Women's Fund. In the course of doing that tape, we had traveled all over the United States: Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York. Just name it. We interviewed lots of women. And some of the women who I met were doing some of the greatest work imaginable in organizing in the field -- such as dealing with three generations of women who are migrant workers -- and I would ask "Are you a feminist?" There would always be this kind of painful reflection: "I don't know. I don't know. The word doesn't work well in my community." So, as we finished the film, Benny and I decided we wanted a movie to explore feminism and [ask,] What is feminism?
And in the process of trying to do something about what is feminism, I kind of tripped over interviewing different women, and one of them was Jennifer Miller. And I asked her to be part of this larger discussion of feminism and what is feminism for her. Is she a feminist? And speaking with her forced me to go deeper into myself to ask, What is a woman and what is gender? And what is feminism and what is strength? And I met Jennifer, basically as a friend of my partner. I had known her for about three months when I asked her to be part of this chorus of women who are discussing feminism.
So, when I did the interview it was the day of her performance at P.S. 122, "Circus Amok." So, I went with her and I videotaped "Circus Amok." And when I interviewed her afterwards a lot of things happened. I was asking her about feminism and some man on the street came and wanted to feel her beard. And then he pushed his face against hers. And it blew me away, in a sense. When I walked down the street with her I noticed the people around felt very hostile towards her. And it wasn't just men; it was women too. And it was almost like they were thinking, "You are violating the limited space that women have to be women." And it really was the impetus for me to just hang with this thing. And look at feminism and look at womanism and women. What does it mean to break a very rigid definition of seeing a woman in terms of appearance? And that's kind of how it started.
So, when you continued shooting with her, how did that progress?
Well, then I said, "Let's do something together," and she said, "Fine. " So I tried to raise money for the project, but I couldn't get money and I didn't try that hard. I went to a few places for funding and I did not succeed. So I was shooting this on a small format, Hi8. And I had access to the equipment and also had a lot of support at my job at Hunter College. So Jennifer and I decided to just do this, and not look for money but just play with it. And that's kind of what happened. So, then she got a job at the sideshow at Coney Island and I videotaped her at the sideshow. And the performance at the sideshow was really about using performance and using her appearance and the question of facial hair, and she really confronted the audience to deal with their own fears.
And, then after, that I went to her home once with my oldest stepdaughter, who was helping me. And we couldn't get sound because of the World Trade Center having such a powerful signal into Williamsburg. We kept getting interference, so I couldn't do an interview and then we just did visuals. And then it was freezing cold so Jennifer decided to take a bath. And then Kelly Anderson and I went up to the Experimental Television Center, and worked with some of the material through their fantastic and unique equipment. And the material lent itself to a certain level of manipulation because it was performance. And so, it felt very organic again to do some work with the piece.
And then after a certain point, it felt like there was a story there. And you know, I edited it very much with Jennifer by my side a lot of the time. I cut it at my home. I borrowed a friend's editing equipment for three weeks, and just cut for the three weeks. It was a very fast project, in terms of shooting and cutting and everything. It was just made in a very short amount of time. And when I had the equipment for that period of time, Jennifer would come regularly. It was the Christmas holiday season and my kids were all arriving, so I had a chorus of children who were reacting to the rough cut, like an inside critical view. And that was great because there were all their issues about it, too.
And so then I went to Prudential Life Insurance, where I did the online edit -- with a whole bunch of boys. Over the years I had a relationship with Prudential as far as its audiovisual department. I was able to do a lot of work there and pay really below commercial rates as a New Jersey artist. And so I called them up and said I wanted to cut this piece, but that it was kind of delicate. I didn't want people coming in and staring. Because the entire department was men, and it took me a long time to either accept their calling me "baby," or to help them talk to me a little differently. And there I was, kind of juggling gender -- showing a woman with a beard who talked about being a lesbian who was naked in the bathtub with her breasts and her beard in the same frame -- and I just didn't know how these men would react. So, we really talked about it.
And it was really fabulous because by the end of the cutting, the online edit, one of the guys from Jersey who edits, Tom Terreri, said, "This really pushed me. Thank you." So I said, "Oooh, good. So, that's what I wanted this to do." And many people have had that reaction to the film. And sometimes it surprised me: that they allowed it to push them to some other place -- to a place with greater definition of gender and of acceptance. And it's embracing a community of humanity that's a lot larger than a lot of us start out able to embrace because of these very, very little windows we have to define people.
On the other hand, people still have so much trouble with the film and that really blows me away. Jennifer and I certainly have shown it in many different places. When it was first made, we really went to a lot of different schools and universities, to art centers and film centers, etc., and we had many different reactions. But one thing amazes me. Right after Jennifer and I did it, she said to the audience, "I feel very far away from JUGGLING GENDER now because my life has moved and I've matured. I look back and I was so young and naive in JUGGLING GENDER. I guess to me it's a beautiful Valentine's Day card." But I still get people's reactions that are very hostile and filled with anger. When it was in the video section of The New York Film Festival, the writer for The New York Times wrote a very mean-spirited comment -- I wouldn't even call it a review -- but she wrote about the piece, "How dare a beard and a breast be in the same frame. How violent." And it still provokes that response from women, from lesbians, and from men. So, it needs to be out there because people have such deep, deep problems and fears about gender.
You know, I often tell my students when I'm showing them JUGGLING GENDER, because I want to prepare students, particularly, for anything I show, so that they know they have the right to be critical of it and they have the right to walk out of the room if they choose to. And when I talk about gender I talk about myself: When I'm walking down the street, if I see somebody who seems like they might be black -- they might be Dominican, or they might be Cuban, or they might be light-skinned black -- you know, it doesn't throw me. I have a large tolerance to react to that person and the possible identities I could attain as to their ethnicity and race. But when I see somebody walking down the street and I can't define if they are a woman or if they are a man, if I can't put my finger on it, it stops me. And I look and I turn my head. I think we need to be able to look and admit that we are thrown by that. Then we handle our defense about why, why are there such rigid categories. I think that's one thing I hope the video can do for people is to open up this kind of critical path -- there's much in this discussion of gender and it just is not answered simply by the categories of males and females, women and men.
Well, you know, one of the things I really liked about the piece is the performative aspects of Jennifer's life and how she makes her living in terms of her own performance work -- like the work she took on at the sideshow -- but also the way you shot this, allowing it to be playful. Would you talk about those kinds of decisions you made when you were shooting, and especially in the editing process?
Yeah, I think that you've got to able to let people laugh. And if they laugh they'll release a little of the anxiety. And I kept thinking, when I was editing it, how is my father going to feel watching this? And I felt that he needed to be able to laugh. There is a question of that space and I'm actually faced with a real problem within a current piece, because I can't find any humor. And humor to me is a fabulous part of all complexity. And not just intensity and all sadness and all depression and all pain, but also our ability to have humor and laugh -- really laugh at ourselves.
I had a funny thing happen. When I was doing JUGGLING GENDER, I was at a period in my life where I didn't have a lot of contact with my mother. We were cordial, you know, those on-and off-again cordial moments. So I hadn't spoken to her for a long time and she lives in Florida. It was her birthday in March. A little later than that I finished the piece and I wrapped up a copy of it in Happy Birthday wrapping paper and sent it down to her in Florida, in Delray Beach. And her VCR was broken. And she kind of bragged about her daughter, "Oh, my daughter's a filmmaker." And she's actually bragging in this condominium hallway and she was able to corral a whole bunch of these women together to the community center to watch this piece of which they knew nothing about. So, they're all watching Lucille's daughter's video on the VCR, and everyone's getting into it and watching it and they were blown away. And my mother called me up really upset. Very upset. She said it was humiliating. I asked her what really was upsetting? How come you're so upset? What hurts so bad? And she said the gay pride -- that Jennifer used the word "faggot" -- that Jennifer laughed at herself. So, it's interesting. And of course, now my mother has moved to a different place and she reacts to that part of it that she found hard. And she had to try to discuss it with her friends who were just blown away by it.
But what I think is happening and why a lot of audiences, in fact, do laugh at the gay pride part is because Jennifer is saying "What's drag? What's performance? How do I perform myself? As a lesbian with a beard. Where's my space? And that's really the question . . . where's my space. When I march in this parade, it's the boys who look at me because I look like a gay boy. Or who knows, because I can have it interpreted so many possible ways." And she laughs and it becomes a joke and she's playing with the crossdressers and the whole thing of, What is drag?
And then, you know, it sounds somewhat didactic and a bit simplistic, but aren't we all, in some capacity, living a drag life? And that's the only line in it that one of my daughters hated. "Cut that out. That is so didactic. That is so simplistic." And you know, it was a funny discussion, because it is simplistic and sometimes simplicity really does contain with it a strong resonance. And, it's a funny thing, some people like the humor. They really can appreciate it and it allows them to say, "Ah. Isn't Jennifer beautiful?" To be able to laugh at some of their anxiety. And find their ability to love.
Right. Right. Oh, that's great. Did you have any other incidents when you were shooting, like you said the guy in the street, but did anything else happen that you can remember?
Well, you know, it happened all the time. When you walk with Jennifer, you feel very protective of her. You feel very much like . . . you know, it's very hard. We were driving up to Bennington and we stopped and looked at this beautiful highway to buy something to eat, and we went to this rural highway fast food place. And everybody had trouble with Jennifer. And, you could become a bitter person, or you could transcend and become a very, very superior person, and that's what I think has happened with Jennifer. You know? She doesn't make herself into something special, but on the other hand, she really allows for people's discomfort. I don't know how she does it.
Yeah. Well, she's a great model. So do you have anything else you want to add?
There's one small thing that I'll add. One of the biggest criticisms of JUGGLING GENDER has come from the lesbian community. Because people feel that I should not have included the part when Jennifer talks about not being included into lesbian space. And in fact, she has had that experience in her life as a lesbian. That having a beard and looking transgenderish has really made some women probably uncomfortable with her, because she feels that it somehow violates their lesbianism. And so, I think that's great to profess this in this film, and that it gets people uncomfortable. And to challenge their own identity and constantly expand. And so, that's truly what happens to Jennifer, as it happens to many women who are in fact transgender.
Yeah, I've noticed that with transsexual friends of mine, too. Well, this has been great. Thanks, Tami.
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