Over the last last few years, transgender representation in film, television, and other forms of popular media has evidently reached an unprecedented height. Perhaps the jumping off point was Laverne Cox’s ground-breaking 2014 Time magazine cover, swiftly followed by Caitlyn Jenner’s equally publicized coming out. Whereas in the 1990s and early-aughts, transgender visibility was mostly relegated to odd moments such as a sub-plot in one of Jim Carey’s askew comedies, today there is a growing body of new media depicting trans people from all walks of life. Enter into this milieu Danielle Lessovitz’s Port Authority, a film that follows Paul (Fionn Whitehead), a homeless youth who falls in love with Wye (Leyna Bloom), a trans girl enmeshed in Harlem’s present day ballroom scene.
Port Authority is, more than anything, about navigation and the difficult decisions one makes in order to survive and protect the people closest to them. Poverty, queerness, familial and erotic bonds, and their counterparts comprise the political meat of the film. And, though Paul is the main character, it is Wye who feels like the star. Paul is immediately enraptured by her beauty, her compassion and her open demeanour. He is equally mesmerized by her ballroom KiKi community and the sense of belonging and protection its members enjoy. For a boy who has experienced myriad forms of rejection, the draw of Wye and the McQueen House is irresistible.
Port Authority is a heavy hitter for writer and director Danielle Lessovitz’s first feature film and a home run at that. Paul and Wye — two subjects, a homeless youth and a trans girl, who are often villainized or at best made tragic stereotypes in contemporary media — are characters the audience can root for. The film explores a range of related contemporary social themes, all of which are at play in Wye and Paul’s relationship and which each must navigate in their own way. Paul struggles with macro problems like poverty as well as the nuanced toxic masculinity of his coworkers and his latent fear of physical contact — a result of childhood abuse. Meanwhile, Wye navigates an unforgiving landlord and underemployment. Much of the drama of the film arises from the question of whether or not these challenges will be the undoing of Paul and Wye.
By now it is no secret that the history of trans representation in Hollywood has left much to be desired. Major motion pictures like The Danish Girl, Dallas Buyers Club, and Boys Don’t Cry have all been rebuked by various members of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies. Hollywood depictions of trans characters typically share a handful of unfortunate similarities: the trans characters are played by cisgender actors, the film shows gratuitous violence levied upon the trans characters, the trans character is a one-dimensional, token subject.
However, in less mainstream spaces, indie media makers have been working in earnest for decades to produce more well-rounded trans narratives. The cult classic film Paris is Burning (1990) as well as the lesser known By Hook or By Crook (2001) and Her Story (a TV series released on YouTube in 2016) are all evidence to the fact. In these decidedly more egalitarian depictions, the trans characters are multidimensional, their bodies are not festishized (as was the case in The Danish Girl). The characters experience tragedy and adversity but come out the other side as survivors, not victims, martyrs, or cautionary tales (not the case in Dallas Buyers Club). In sum, representations of trans characters in indie media are overwhelmingly more diverse, more authentic, and resist sensationalism when compared to their mainstream counterparts.
Port Authority seems to follow suit with its indie predecessors. The character of Wye is played by Leyna Bloom, an openly trans actress, model, and activist. The members of her ball house are also played by an entirely queer POC cast, many of whom have real life ties to New York City’s contemporary ball scene. Meanwhile many (if not all) Hollywood depictions of trans characters are given to cisgender actors, taking precious work opportunities away from trans actors and often resulting in less-than-authentic depictions of trans people. Such casting decisions have been widely rejected by trans advocates.
Port Authority also doesn’t commit the egregious error of fetishizing its trans protagonist — a common pitfall in mainstream trans representation. In their pivotal sex scene, Wye’s body is not an object of mystery being revealed to a potentially voyeuristic audience. Rather, her body, her sexuality, are shared with her partner, entrusted into his care. Importantly, if Wye is vulnerable in this moment, she is not alone, since Paul is rarely capable of physical intimacy. The two lovers recognize and hold one another through a moment that has equally high stakes for both parties. It’s a beautiful, poetic synthesis of Paul and Wye’s relationship, one defined by intimacy produced through vulnerability, and a blueprint for anyone wanting to shoot a great love scene.
Unlike Jared Leto’s depiction of Rayon is Dallas Buyers Club or Eddie Redmayne’s Lile Elbe, Leyna Bloom is not some cis guy in a wig vying for an Oscar nomination by camping for the camera. She is not pantomiming femininity, as Redmayne did in his egregious peep show scene. Nor is she creating a tragic character whose only purpose in the film is to educate, support, or blindly love the cisgender protagonist. Wye is a multidimensional character who yes, experiences discrimination, but is not solely defined by that experience. Her character faces challenges realistic to a trans millennial living in an urban center, but portraying these challenges on screen does not affect a sense that living as a trans person is ultimately impossible.
Port Authority not only gives us a full-bodied, realistic trans character, it also gives us a story of a cisgender man loving a trans woman. Paul falls, unapologetically, in love with Wye, and is heartbroken when she eventually leaves him, spending roughly the last 30 minutes of the film trying to win her back. The narrative of a cis man loving a trans girl, even feeling undeserving of her love, is rarely seen in film but found frequently in the real world, and thus one that needs to be told. One exception to this rule is the heartwarming romance that springs up between Angel and Lil Papi on season two of Pose. Lil Papi is enamored with Angel, eventually winning her esteem with his unfettered affection and support. Bustle called their relationship “one of the best representations of a romance between a trans woman and a cis male on TV”.
Hopefully, Port Authority signals a new standard for trans representation to come. As an indie film with a Hollywood leading man (Whitehead was the lead in 2017’s Dunkirk), Port Authority hopefully signifies that positive trans representation is en route to becoming mainstream. Perhaps Hollywood is not quite ready to produce a compelling trans narrative, but we can be thankful that films like Port Authority are here to bolster the status quo for trans representation in film.