Kalil Cohen: TEP Alumnus Honored as Founder of Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival

Cohen was recognized with KCET's "Local Hero" Award for his creation of LATFF and his work as an educator and activist.

When Kalil Cohen (‘10, M.A.) was a student in the Teacher Education Program (TEP) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, he was encouraged by his professors to share ways to create safe spaces around gender identity in the classroom.

“TEP talks about creating an egalitarian classroom, where the teacher is not the only expert,” Cohen says. “Everybody has something to learn and everybody has something to teach. [The professors] reflected the same values in the way that they taught their own classes and they empowered us to teach whatever our expertise was.”

While still a student, Cohen had begun making films. He presented research from his master’s thesis project on the experiences of transgender youth in LAUSD, the legal requirements for protecting students of all genders in school, along with a film of interviews from the research project, called “The Next Gender Nation” at TEP’s yearly social justice conference as a student and later, a graduate of the program.

Cohen went on to become an educator, teaching 20th Century Jewish American history to youth programs in Los Angeles and conducting workshops on gender identity at high schools, colleges and universities. He also concurrently made films geared toward building solidarity within the LGBT community. His four films, “Queering Gender” (2005), “Queerer Than Thou” (2008), “The Next Gender Nation” (2010), and “So Pomo” (2012) have been screened worldwide at academic conferences, college campuses, and film festivals, as well as being incorporated into college curriculum. Recognizing the void that existed in representing the uniqueness of the transgender community, Cohen founded the Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival (LATFF) in 2009 in order to provide a forum for films that explore the transgender experience for members of that community. He says that the festival’s aim is to present the transgender perspective without merely documenting it.

“The purpose of the film festival is to make that content available for our own communities,” says Cohen. “In terms of programming, it’s really thinking about what kind of content we would want to see for ourselves. There are movies with transgender content that are very ‘documentary.’ It’s important work, but it’s not made for us. So, we don’t tend to screen that type of work just because there are already places for that to be screened.”

LATFF has grown from a one-day festival with 200 attendees in 2009 to a three day festival of more than 700 attendees participating in film screenings, an award show, workshops, panel discussions and post-screening festivities held throughout Los Angeles. The festival is also on tour internationally. Last year, 13 screenings took place throughout California, Israel, and Australia.

In his filmmaking and his teaching, Cohen strives to “tell stories that I feel aren’t being told, and to bring them to audiences that I don’t think have access to them.” He says that in teaching his workshops on gender identity, he emphasizes the overlap between gender and sexuality, which is often confused in mainstream culture.

“Each of us has a unique gender actually, and they’re all on the continuum of masculinity to femininity, androgyny as well,” he says. “There are many different aspects of gender. There’s your gender identity, which is what gender you feel like you are. There’s your gender presentation, which is how you present yourself to the world. There’s your gender attraction, which genders are you attracted to.

“Trying to break that down a little, we all have a range of masculine and feminine qualities and gender is more complex than just two or three categories. So then, when you think about sexuality, you can think about how those intersect.”

Cohen says that attitudes toward the LGBT community are continuously changing, with the younger generations becoming more accepting of the diversity of genders and sexualities within the human experience.

“When I was doing these interviews with youth, their concepts around gender are a lot more fluid,” he notes. “I’m 30 right now, and even [within] that age difference… it’s happening very rapidly. For kids who are in school right now, there’s a lot more tolerance for gender fluidity… kids are figuring out what they are comfortable with. Now, there’s a wider range, partly because the media is starting to show more transgender people and also gay people who either are more masculine or feminine. You’re also seeing people about whom you would say, ‘I would never know that person was gay.’”

Earlier this year, Cohen was recognized with KCET’s “Local Hero” Award for his creation of LATFF and for his work as an activist and educator, which includes serving as an assistant programmer for Outfest: The Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. He will be recognized at an awards ceremony at Club Nokia in Los Angeles on Oct. 22; the ceremony will be broadcast on KCET on Nov. 28, 8 p.m., PST.

Cohen says that the greatest reward of teaching for him is “the process of watching someone learn.”

“In general as an activist, sometimes I feel frustrated with how little people care or know about issues that are really important to me,” he says. “But when I’m teaching, I can let all of that go because watching them go through the process of learning feels so satisfying. When I have my teacher hat on, I can just be excited about them learning and about that transformation process that happens through learning. It helps me accept the reality of what is.

“The reality is that we all have things to learn from everybody, including the smallest child,” Cohen says. “I’m a very curious person and part of why I love teaching is because I love learning. When other people can see that you’re open to learning and that you’re engaged and interested in whatever they have to teach you, I think they’re more open to hearing what you have to teach them.”

Cohen says that we was compelled to work on his master’s degree at GSE&IS because of the School’s commitment to equity and access for all students, particularly in terms of social justice and urban education. He says that his advisors in the TEP program made a great impact on his education and career, among them Jeff Share, who specializes in media literacy, and Laurence Hadjas, who shared her experiences as a woman growing up in the patriarchal society of Algeria and the mother of a special needs student. He also credits the example of mentor teachers that he worked with in LAUSD who were TEP alumni and showed that they “really did respect their students and came from a place of seeing them as valuable and having something to teach. It was so evident how different the feeling was in [other] classrooms, with teachers who were basically using power dynamics and discipline procedures to control students rather than igniting or inspiring them to learn.”

“I feel like our educational system is one of the pieces of our country that is so broken and is causing such a ripple effect in so many realms,” Cohen says. “If we can address it in a meaningful way, it can have such a greater impact on so many other areas.”

Cohen is the former director of the Southern California Region of The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, a secular nonprofit that supports Jewish culture, the study of Yiddish, and progressive activism. He is also a member of the Trans Inclusion Committee of JQ International, an organization that promotes inclusion of LGBT Jews. Now living in Oakland, Cohen is currently a Media Arts Teaching Artist at Streetside Stories, a nonprofit that brings art education into public schools. He currently teaches filmmaking to 4th and 5th graders in the San Francisco Unified School District. In addition, he teaches Midrasha, an afterschool program with classes for 9th graders on Jewish identity and Jewish social justice activists.

Cohen says that growing up in a family that practices Conservative Judaism made his transition a more supportive experience.

“Within that movement, they ordain lesbian rabbis and perform same-sex weddings,” Cohen says. “I feel lucky because my whole family has been really accepting and on board with my whole process. There was a process for them to go through in adjusting to a new reality. I came out as gender queer when I was 19, and then transgender at 21. Then I started transitioning physically at 23. But when I was growing up, my parents had gay and lesbian friends. That’s sort of coming from a baseline understanding.

“If you’re not exposed to anybody who is different from you, it’s hard to know that they’re human. But if you see people and work with them, it’s a lot easier to understand that they might be different from you, but they’re [basically the same as you].”

Cohen is a contributing writer for “Oy Gay,” a blog of the Jewish Journal, and has been featured in news media, including The Progressive and the national news program, “Democracy Now!” He has won several recognitions, including the honor of The Pride Award for Service and Dedication to the Transgender Community from Trans-Unity Pride in 2008. In 2009, “Queerer Than Thou” was named Best of Fusion Shorts of Los Angeles’ Fusion Film Festival and was voted grand prize winner of the 7th Annual One in Ten Film Festival shorts contest held at Pennsylvania State University.

“With the growing attendance of LATFF and our international tour, it is clear that there is a real need for a forum in which these stories can be told,” says Cohen. I hope that this year’s festival will help inspire more filmmakers to make great art, and will give audience members a sense of hope and belonging, a sense that they are not alone in their struggles, and that the world really is changing.”

For more information on the Los Angeles Transgender Film Festival, which takes place Nov. 23-24 in Los Angeles, click here.