Jim Dey | Furor over gender issues puts Urbana artist's film in crosshairs


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Local filmmaker Nina Paley's latest movie — "Seder-Masochism" — will be shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign.

Free and open to the public, "Seder-Masochism," which was written, directed and animated by Paley, follows the Passover Seder story "with events from the Book of Exodus, Aharon, the Angel of Death, Jesus and the director's father," the late Urbana mayor and longtime University of Illinois math Professor Hiram Paley.

But there's a story behind the story of the showing of "Seder-Masochism" — it's a protest against efforts by local transgender activists who've taken exception to Paley's online writing, labeled her "transphobic" and sought to block the public from seeing her film.

"Apparently, I'm a white supremacist, right-wing eugenicist who wants to kill trans people," Paley said.

That's quite an indictment, one not normally associated with someone of Paley's left-wing world view.

But in the view of some trans advocates, Paley crossed the line with comments about differences between men and women that divide the sexes into two distinct categories.

Her critics' objections have resulted in two outlets — a Lincoln Square coffee shop and the Art Theater in downtown Champaign — refusing to show her movie.

That prompted Robert Naiman, a friend of Paley's, to book her movie at the Virginia and solicit donations — about $4,000 — to cover the costs, including those for security in the event Paley's opponents decide to cause a problem.

"Let's show the movie. That's the protest," Naiman said.

Paley's troubles began about two years ago, when she expressed support for women who do not want to share bathrooms with men. When critics suggested her viewpoint expressed hostility for people of one gender who identify with the opposite gender, Paley cited the definition of a woman as an "adult female" and further claimed that "if a person has a penis, he's a man."

Calling her comment "trans-erasure," Ben Joselyn, president of the Channing Murray Foundation Board, wrote to demand an apology.

"Your public views on trans people hurt me and my community. I am going to continue to speak out against you and your views until you find it in your heart to be less hateful. ... Say you're sorry, and this town can heal. You can heal," he wrote.

Other critical comments, including threats of violence against Paley, have been posted online.

One critic, self-identified as a female UI professor in gender studies, wrote to Arcadia to call Paley "a transphobe" and threaten to "never attend your events again."

"I'm the chair of Gender and Women's Studies. I know what I'm talking about," she said.

Neither Joselyn nor the UI professor responded to News-Gazette inquiries.

Some commenters expressed support for Paley's viewpoint on human biology.

"Why are women silenced for acknowledging basic biology? Is up now down?" replied a Paley supporter.

The veteran filmmaker and cartoonist said she's "not apologizing" for her comments but acknowledged the vilification directed her way is causing her to "contemplate" leaving Champaign-Urbana.

Referring to a recent film festival in Poland that she attended, Paley said: "It was such a relief to get out of this town."

Wednesday's showing is largely the result of Naiman's anger over what he called Paley's "blacklisting." A strong advocate of free speech for all, Naiman said those who challenge her viewpoint are free to disagree but that shutting down her work betrays an authoritarian mind-set.

He said his first preference was to book the Art Theater, and he secured a play date with a $175 deposit. Naiman said he was subsequently informed by the Art's executive director, Porshe Garner, that she had decided not "to allow me to rent the theater to show the movie because of political controversy apparently not related to the movie."

Naiman complained about Garner's decision to Jerald Payonk, president of the Art's board and director of engineering at Clark Dietz in Champaign.

"The board supports our executive director's decision to deny this rental," Payonk replied in a brief email to Naiman.

He also did not respond to a News-Gazette inquiry.

In contrast to the Art, Naiman said, the Virginia has been "totally wonderful" to work with.

In addition to showing the movie, Paley will participate in a audience discussion about it afterward. She noted that it's ironic that her movie has nothing to do with the trans controversy but everything to do with efforts to keep it from being shown.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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