Artist. Educator. Diva.
Felicia DeRose wears many hats and proudly proclaims them atop her website. But now the Columbus luminary can claim one more label to the list: documentary film subject.
In the new feature length film “DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition,” director Angelo Thomas follows the trans artist in a fusing of personal interviews and home video footage from her childhood to the present. Coming out as transgender at the age of 43, DeRosa reflects on her transition and life with unflinching honesty and authenticity.
The Buckeye Flame spoke with DeRosa to get her take on why she agreed to be in the film, what it’s like seeing herself on screen, and what she wants people to walk away with after the credits roll.
Why did you agree to do this project?
Angelo was a good friend of mine and a former student from [Columbus College and Art & Design] and he had done as a class project — a nine minute mini documentary — about me in regards to an art show I was doing in 2017. I was doing my first solo exhibit since I transitioned. For me, it was a big deal. The work was very different. It came from a much more personal and contemplative space. It had some mixings with my transition because it was part of the story of the art show.
After that, he said, “I would like to do a real full documentary with you sometime.” I gave him hours upon hours of footage of myself. I document pretty much everything I do. I had art talks and activist stuff that had been recorded — stuff from high school and photos going all the way back to when I was a little kid.
Part of it was that I wanted to support my friend and my former student because I love him like family and I want to support people I care about. Also, from an activist standpoint, visibility is protest. The trans community can’t get to a place of some level of mainstream acceptance for better or for worse without visibility. Right now, the conservative christian right just has us under a microscope in the crosshairs because they can’t have us being anywhere in the public eye.
For me, this is a big “fuck you” to them. [laughs] For me, it’s a way to do my part to help the cause because I have a debt that I want to pay to my childhood self and to be the person I always needed when I was little and struggling with my identity. I had no community and no one to talk to. I was all by myself suffering. I want to try to do my part to make things better for the next generation so they don’t have to go through years of trauma and intense dysphoria.
What do you hope that audiences will get out of the film?
I hope that they can have a more human point of view of people in the trans and nonbinary community in that they’re no longer being influenced by statics or some kind of weird second or third party interpretation of trans people. They will realize that we’re people trying to fit into our skins and live our best life.
I think what has been out so far, you’ve seen people in our community that are well-established. They have a buffer. They’re in Hollywood, making a very comfortable income. There’s not really a lot of roadblocks for their care and whatever they may or may not want to do for their transition.
For someone like me, I’m just slightly above the poverty line as a working artist. Getting any kind of what I need for my transition is either way out of my price range and I can’t always afford insurance. I think the director was looking at me as an example of an everyday person as opposed to someone who is in higher social rankings. Which I don’t take offense to! Sure, I’m the girl on the ground. I’m also an educator, so I saw this as a moment to provide an educational tool.
Every trans person, every nonbinary person — our experiences are unique to the individual. We took it from a very autobiographical standpoint because I didn’t want to speak for everyone. I didn’t think it was my place. I was sharing my personal experiences and letting people read into whatever they wanted to read into it.
As an artist yourself, how would you define your relationship with the director?
I do think I drove him nuts a couple times. I saw myself as a collaborator. He is a gay man of color. So, we had a lot of moments where he told me he related strongly to things I was going through. I think that made him a really good facilitator. He’s not telling my story. He was facilitating me to tell my own story.
I think for trans and nonbinary identities that’s important. People open a door and then yield the floor to us. People can’t really relate, not exactly. Our experience is pretty unique as far as the human experience. For myself, the issue was not seeing myself in the mirror. I felt like I was riding shotgun in someone else’s body. I don’t feel that way anymore which is kind of incredible.
What was it like to see yourself on screen?
I was very impressed at the dramatic difference. I look related to myself but I don’t look like I’m literally the same human. I’ve only had two surgical procedures. I had my affirmation surgery in Spring 2019. Beyond that, there’s no alterations done to my physicality so the differences I’m seeing — part of it is largely due to HRT.
Also, I think just because I’m happy fundamentally. It really reads on my face. I am always surprised when I see old pictures of myself at how miserable I look in those pictures even though I might be smiling or laughing. I didn’t really notice it at the moment. In hindsight, I’m screaming behind my eyes and how did I never notice that before?
As an educator, how have you seen a shift in young people as you have been working with them throughout the years?
It’s working with the younger generation that empowered me to come out. I was working with 17-19 year olds at CCAD. They were coming from this place where they had online communities where they could work through “I’m feeling this, I’m thinking that” and they had access to language that has been popularized. I learned so much from them about myself and about the community.
I’m pre-internet. I didn’t have that avenue to find other people that were going through the same things I was going through. All this time, I thought I was kind of a freak and the only one going through this. I know that when I was coming out of college and I was looking into possibly transitioning, as much as I could at the time, there was this idea that you come out of the closet long enough to go through a lot of gatekeeping, jump through a lot of flaming hoops, to be able to be allowed to transition. You had to agree to certain things. You had to agree to dive head first into cis culture as your chosen target identity. There wasn’t room at this time for anything other than a binary.
So, I have no idea what kind of hell that was for anyone who was gender fluid or genderqueer or nonbinary. In 1997, you had to be A or B. If you were going to transition into a woman, I would have to fit weird stereotypes of the male gaze and you had to conform to the way that they thought women should be. If you didn’t, you weren’t allowed to transition. I understand why a lot of younger generations just assume that the trans identity is new. They learned that from me from my own experiences. I learned from them a better way to be and what we can work towards as a community and how our intersectionality can really help a lot of people.
Do you ever think about how awesome it is that a cishet person, meeting someone in the gender variance, can feel encouraged to allow themselves some sort of latitude? The fact that they could meet someone like me or someone who’s nonbinary and realize that its not an A or B. There’s a whole galaxy of gender identity. You don’t have to feel like you have to conform to a set of ideals. If you wanna sparkle, fuckin’ sparkle! Knowing that being in our community encompasses all ethnicities, races, orientations, political standings, we’re a snapshot of the entirety of the human condition.
- “DeRosa: Life, Love & Art in Transition” premieres at the Gateway Film Center on Saturday, December 4th at 4:30 pm EST Tickets are available for purchase via the Gateway Film Center’s website. Proceeds from this event will benefit Stonewall Columbus.
- Learn more about Felicia DeRose by checking out her website.