Some might think former KSTP-TV reporter Mark Saxenmeyer’s new project is a drag, but it’s not.
Saxenmeyer welcomed me into his “lavish Richfield estate,” his words, recently to talk about “The Queens,” a documentary he wrote, edited and produced about the transgender subculture of competitive female impersonation.
“It’s part ‘Paris Is Burning,’ part ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ and part Miss America. And don’t call them drag queens,” he said. Our interview was a minefield as Saxenmeyer enlightened me about Miss Continental, the only national transgender female impersonation beauty pageant. Contestants “spend all this money to win a pageant nobody has heard of outside of their world. They spend thousands to win and say, ‘But in our world it’s everything.’ Everybody has goals and dreams. Who am I to judge?”
The contestants are so eager to win Miss Continental because that increases the chance they can work at Chicago’s well-paying Baton Show Lounge, an elite lounge for female impersonation, said Saxenmeyer, who shot some of the documentary there.
“It’s a slim niche of the transgender culture,” he said of his documentary, which also explores the community’s intersection with societal issues such as AIDS, drugs and violence directed at this population.
The documentary is being screened publicly for the first time at 6:45 p.m. on March 10 at Lush, a northeast Minneapolis nightclub. (Doors open at 6 p.m.) The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Minnesota’s Tiffany T. Hunter, who now lives in St. Louis. Tax-deductible tickets are $12 through givemn.org.
See the opening minutes of the documentary at vimeo.com/249870186.
Q: I know one thing on this subject, it’s rude to ask if someone has had the surgery.
A: Right. When Caitlyn Jenner had the surgery she said, Now you know. No more questions about that. ... When I left Fox Chicago in 2011 and started Reporters Inc. [thereporters.org], before I came to Minnesota, I thought, What documentary subjects would be interesting? You have to go back to Reporters Inc.’s mission, we’re a nonprofit, and that is to cover stories underrepresented, misrepresented, avoided or ignored by mainstream media ... to discover something about humanity and our culture that people don’t know. I thought, let’s take a look at the women at the Baton. [Some of it was also shot at the Gay 90s in Minneapolis.]
Q: Can you be transgender if you don’t have the surgery?
A: They are transgender because that word essentially means you are in a transition, male-to-female, female-to-male. You yourself can determine where you are on that spectrum. A lot of these female impersonators still have the male part, per the rules of the pageant. When we first edited this film and showed it in March, a lot of transgender activists were furious. This is an archaic, regressive way of thinking. If you’re a transgender woman, you’re not a female impersonator, you’re a female, you are living your life as a woman. There’s a lot of politics involved in it.
Q: Everybody in your documentary has a male body part?
A: [Laugh] Well, no, no. I specifically didn’t ask because that is none of my business. But the pageant owner, who is a key part of the movie, is a 70-something man and his rule is you have to still have the bottom part to be in my pageant and perform in my club. That’s really controversial in the transgender universe. About a quarter into the film most people lose sight of the transgender notion; they really believe they are watching women. They are women, and there is no sign of maleness in this.
Q: Can you read the faces of women who are jealous about seeing a female impersonator who is pulling off woman better?
A: That’s a whole segment of the film. They are either jealous or they get mad almost. The best retort by one of the performers is: You can look like this. You have female hormones; I don’t.
Q: Did you think about making this a reality show?
A: When I left Fox Chicago, I felt I was done with news. And I had done two [“Real World”-inspired] reality show-based documentaries at Fox [about] race relations and then gay-straight relations, so I thought this is my niche. We shot a sizzle reel — [which] was a semifinalist in the New York Television Film Festival — then no one would commission it. Some of the feedback was offensive. They wanted to replace the owner with a younger owner who wasn’t really the owner and then there was an overweight woman and they didn’t want to see her at all. In reality TV, not everything is always real. I couldn’t feel good about myself making up stuff.
Q: Have you ever dressed up as a female impersonator?
A: Thank you for that great question. Yeah, in college, once. It was Halloween in Spain. I was studying abroad [in 1987]. They don’t celebrate Halloween. They thought we were prostitutes. We got names hurled at us; felt pretty threatened. So I am not a pretty woman.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.