Birthday Boy, directed by Leo LeBeau and screened at this year’s Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF), perfectly captures this feeling of being on the “wrong” side of the gender binary. It follows the character of Alex, a transgender teenager attending an all-girl’s private school, played by Sebastian Emmerson – an out trans man himself.
Throughout the film, which was part of the GA(Y)MERS showcase, it’s the little moments that pinprick my memory the most. Alex is friends with a boy from the neighbouring boy’s school and they have band practice together, but he’s only able to talk to him online away from the prying eyes and gatekeeping of his classmates. Do you remember that? When we weren’t allowed to talk to the boys anymore, the gender divide a gulf only the bravest or most popular could cross? When you couldn’t chat to a boy without the cooing of, “Omg is he your boyfriend? Do you have a crush on him??” Maybe I’m projecting, but Birthday Boy implies I wasn’t the only one who had a problem with the girls on one side and boys on the other of it all.
There’s a screen in the corner of the room that says, “CW: transphobic violence throughout” and just as I was starting to think “God, this bullying is kinda triggering” someone got up and left. You felt every small act of violence – the sketchbook that’s stolen, the cheek smashing into the bathroom mirror, the belongings broken, the mean girls blocking his way, the false friendliness.
It’s not all awful though. His dad greeting him as “birthday boy” even though Alex is wearing a skirt as part of his school uniform was a nice moment, showing the importance of small, everyday gestures of acceptance. His friendship with Henry, played by former EastEnders star Ted Reilly, did not end in tragedy and betrayal like I was expecting – instead the film ends on a hopeful note, implying that their friendship will only deepen (or possibly even develop into something romantic).
In the Q&A after the screening Lebeau explained that the intention was to make a film about trans masculinity that wasn’t about the transition process itself. He said, “[It’s] just a nice film where you have a trans protagonist, but it’s not focusing on the transition as if that’s the only story they have to tell”.
I look forward to seeing more of these other stories. Maybe I’ll even work out how to tell them myself.
By Luke ‘Luca’ Cockayne