Gay Dallas filmmaker Israel Luna is sick of reading about LGBT bashing victims. So he made a film about several of them who eschew the victim card — and fight back. Because he’s worked closely with the local trans community, he cast actual transwomen as his leads. And because he’s a fan of horror, he gave them knives and a revenge story that’s as over-the-top as its name, Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives. Let’s get bloody.

In any given week, the continuous scenes of anti-LGBT violence can seem like a horror movie. On November 16, 2009, Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, a queer Puerto Rican teen was got stabbed, burned, decapitated, and dismembered by, police allege, a 26-year-old father of four who supposedly recalled scenes of prison rape and childhood molestation when Mercado asked for anal sex. In the same week, a close family friend of 15-year-old Jason Mattison Jr. stood accused of gagging him with a pillowcase, raping, and stabbing him repeatedly in the head and throat, then leaving him to rot in his aunt’s closet.

Dallas-based gay director Israel Luna read a similar story once about a gay couple that had been bashed while on vacation. The bashing left one of the gay men in critical condition in the ICU, and a friend of Luna’s said, “We don’t need to hate the bashers. A lot of people feel the way they do. We need to sit and talk and understand their mindset. We can’t fight hate with hate. We need to fight hate with understanding and even love.”

Luna thought, “Fuck that.”

“It pissed me off,” Luna tells Queerty. “I don’t understand why, whenever there’s a gay bashing, the gay community has to play all nicey nice. We’re just like them. If they hit us then we’re gonna want to hit them back. If someone bashes me, I don’t care if I’m in prison or the hospital, I’m gonna find them and torture them. So whenever I hear people saying ‘Fight hate with love,’ and ‘Love the bashers,’ I’m like ‘No, fuck that. Let’s go get bats and bash them back.'”

Luna’s revenge fantasies seem especially provocative in light of the increased reporting of anti-LGBT violence and successful anti-gay votes across the U.S. preventing countless same-sex couples from wedding—our community can only take so much degradation. So with payback in mind, Luna started writing his most recent screenplay about several bashing victims who finally get their revenge.

But he didn’t want to write about a male gay bashing victim. “That’s a story we’ve seen all too often,” Luna says. “I wanted to do something more modern and I thought ‘Whose story do you never see on the news these days?’ It’s not gay men—it’s transgenders.” And that’s how he began his most recent film, Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives.

Trannies With Knives features transgender actress Krystal Summers as Bubbles Cliquot, a transgender drag performer, who meets Boner, a trailer park gigolo with eyes for her amazing body. But before Bubbles can reveal her transgender identity to Boner, he drugs her drink, and drags her back to his place, where he discovers her dick. Enraged, he beats and rapes her then returns the next night with a bat and some knife-wielding pals to leave Bubbles and several of her co-worker friends for dead. But Bubbles and two of her colleagues survive and, after some martial arts training, they get their gory, bladed revenge. (Luna was still editing the film as this piece was being written.)

Luna based his plot loosely on Meir Zarchi’s controversial horror movie, I Spit On Your Grave —a film Roger Ebert called “a vile bag of garbage…without a shred of artistic distinction.” Zarchi’s film depicts 45 minutes of unflinchingly brutal gang rape as Jennifer Hill, a young female writer, gets sodomized, skull-fucked, and violated by a whiskey bottle not once, not twice, but thrice—each time more brutally than the last. In the film’s second half, she lures each of her rapists to their death: she fucks and hangs the mentally-handicapped grocery boy, axes her Corbin Fisher-esque rapist in the back, and disembowels the skull-fucker with a motorboat propellor, repeating his own words back to him—”Suck it, bitch”—before starting the motor.

The cinematic revenge fantasies of Luna and Zarchi both stem from real-life violence. In Zarachi’s case, he discovered a rape victim crawling out of the bushes of a New York City park while driving his daughter home. The woman had taken a shortcut to meet her boyfriend, but her attackers broke her jaw and left her with naked, bloody, and alone in the cold night.

When he finished his movie, he originally titled it Day of the Woman and envisioned it as a triumph of the degraded female over her cowardly male aggressors. But his producers renamed it I Spit On Your Grave and put a half-naked vixen in torn bikini bottoms on the movie poster just to make it more marketable. It worked.

Both I Spit on Your Grave and Ticked-Off Trannies With Knives draw from the same sensibility that Quentin Tarantino used in Kill Bill and that Showtime uses in its original series Dexter. Their protagonists may be serial killers, but the audience loves them and forgets about their savagery because their victims (other killers) deserve it. They’re vigilantes, like Batman, cleansing a shitty world of those who mercilessly attack the innocent. But there’s a problem with viewing Luna and Zarchi’s antiheroes positively, especially considering that they’re degraded sex objects.

For one, Luna uses the word “Trannies” in his title, a slur most recently popularized by Project Runway‘s Christian Siriano. Siriano famously called any train wreck of a person or horrendously failed attempt at dressmaking “a hot tranny mess.” He later apologized for comparing transgender people to white trailer trash, saying that he’s never meant any disrespect to the trans community and has since actively worked to remove “tranny” from his speech.

But Luna claims that he didn’t know “hot tranny mess” was a put-down; he’d heard his trans friends call each other that and thought it meant something akin to “ghetto-fabulous”—something over-the-top cool and stylish. When he realized it was offensive, he’d asked his trans-associates their opinions. A lot of them used the word “tranny” as well and found his use humorous rather than offensive. So in the end, Luna decided to stick with it. It was a catchy title and he figured anyone who’d get offended would entirely miss his film’s overall message. Besides, the word “tranny” doesn’t even appear in the screenplay.

Nevertheless, Luna deservingly got called out by Dallas transgender blogger Kelli Busey for using a slur that she considers on par with “faggot.” Regardless of your feelings about the word, Busey makes a good point. Let’s return to I Spit On Your Grave to see why.

In the film’s goriest scene of revenge, rape victim-cum-murderess Jennifer castrates a sleazy gas station attendant in a bubble bath mid-handjob. She locks him in the bathroom and he hysterically screams for his mother while pounding on the door and bleeding to death. Meanwhile, Jennifer sits calmly in the next room, listening to opera until his howls cease.

Herein lies the true horror of the film—on one hand, you’re happy that Jennifer’s not your typical helpless horror damsel, but on the other, she’s become a cold-blooded killer almost as monstrous as her attackers. One wonders how humane or empowering a depiction of trans-bashing victims can really be when in the end, they’re just end up a bunch of Ticked-off Trannies with Knives.

A second potential problem is that unlike I Spit On Your Grave, Luna’s bashing scene contains some humorous elements. The lead actress, Krystal Summers, says that the bashing scene plays on her worst fears of what could happen anytime she reveals her trans identity to a potential boyfriend. Nevertheless, the scene itself still plays out with some degree of B-movie camp. While Boner’s chasing down Bubbles—a tuft of bloody hair left clinging to his bat—Luna cuts to a scene where a dying transgender woman drives a lime green stiletto heel into the eye socket of her attacker with one final head-butt. Yes, Luna endows his women with the intelligence, courage, and strength to fight back, but by adding comic elements he potentially makes light of the reality.

To Mr. Luna’s credit, he’s far from a transploitation film-maker; he’s worked closely with the LGBT and drag community in specific by featuring trans and drag performers in almost all of his previous films.

Furthermore, Ticked-Off Trannies stands as one of the few American films featuring actual transgender actors in lead transgender roles. Three of his film’s five lead actors are trans, something that neither Transamerica nor Soldier’s Girl managed. Some of the only other films we could find with trans actors in trans roles were Jack Smith’s transgressive 1963 film Flaming Creatures, which features several trans actors in a writhing drug-fueled orgy of androgyny; and the 2003 film Killer Drag Queens on Dope, which stars transgender actress Alexis Arquette as Eva Destruction.

Getting a trans actor to play trans roles forces mainstream audiences to grapple with actual trans-issues. Any viewer who found Felicity Huffman a convincing transwoman in Transamerica won’t grapple with larger issues of detaching one’s sexuality from their gender. When the conversation gets complicated or confusing (as it can), one can always fall back on Huffman’s real-life identity as an actress living as a woman who never actually transitioned from male-to-female. Her performance exposed audiences to trans-issues, but at the exclusion of actual transpeople.

Similarly, consider the outrage when Abigail Breslin played the blind-deaf Helen Keller in the New York revival of The Miracle Worker. Advocates of the deaf and blind asked “Why not get an actual blind or deaf actor to play Helen?” The show’s producer claimed that he needed a star instead of a deaf-or-blind unknown to ensure a return for his investors. And while he’s right, keeping the door closed to trans actors ensures none ever achieve star power.

“Being the first sucks” as the national first transgender political appointee, Amanda Simpson, reminded us. And while we have trans actors like Candis Cayne, Calpernia Addams, Aleshia Brevard, Jazzmun, Arquette, and Alexandra Billings, none have lingered for very long in the public eye. If gay media’s just coming out of its infancy, then trans-media remains damn near embryonic. It will take independent media makers like Mr. Luna to elevate trans-issues from drag stages and talk shows into the national discourse.

“I don’t consider myself an advocate. I’m not really a protester or anything like that,” Luna says. “All of my films feature comedy, even my horror films—that’s just my personality.” He sought to make an entertaining, marketable movie rather an accurate depiction of transgender people that would speaks for the entire community. Anyone who begrudges him for not taking the opportunity to make such a film, he says, should make one themselves.

“[My film’s] like Grand Theft Auto. If you have a bad day at work, you can shoot some people, kill some hookers, trash your car and feel better. It’s the same with my movie,” Luna says. “If we can have movies [like this] out there, than we can move on—it’s a type of release and keeps the momentum going for gay movies. I’m not saying for people to go out and start killing people. But maybe if we hear about the raid at the Rainbow Lounge or some other violence again, next time we can have more balls. We can say, yeah, we got bashed, but if they come over here again, they’ll get their asses kicked. I would love for there to be an article about a guy guy who was about to get bashed but instead the basher ended up getting bashed. I would be able to die happy tomorrow.”

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