The Grey Area: Local Filmmaker Keagan Anfuso and the Masculine Female Perspective
Photos by Verance Photography and Geek Chic Photo
Keagan Anfuso is more than the sum of what you see. She’s a filmmaker, rock-climbing enthusiast, experience junkie and a consummate talker. She speaks in complex ribbons of thought, layering paragraphs as needed to illustrate a point. She’s passionate about film and dedicated to creating compelling art that sparks meaningful conversation. A single question often elicits a multi-pronged response, branching off down different paths, but ultimately winding up exactly where she was meant to be.
She looks you in the eye and is quick to smile. Her eyes are rimmed by dark frames, her hair cropped close, her demeanor warm and vaguely self-deprecating. Her compact frame tenses visibly when the conversation turns to tough subjects, like the abuse she suffered growing up a masculine woman in the conservative south or the negative reactions of those unsure how to reconcile her appearance with society’s definition of a traditional woman. This is all part of who she is.
“The Grey Area” is a documentary co-directed by Anfuso and actor, playwright, and filmmaker Drew Brown exploring the stereotypical definitions of gender and how that affects the life of masculine women. The idea of a grey area isn’t limited to geography or sexuality. It’s open to anyone that has felt judged or marginalized for their lifestyle, the way they dress, or the way they move through the world, but it’s Anfuso’s personal narrative that frames the story.
“At various times in my life, people say, ‘I don’t know, you’re just kind of in this grey area.’ Most of those conversations came across as that individual basically saying, ‘I don’t know where to put you. You’re so in the “in between” I’m not sure which direction to shove you to understand you. I can’t figure you out’,” she says.
“Further than that, it was assumed that I was confused about who I am and my identity, like an unfinished person. I’ve always felt pretty completed. This is it. There is no next step for me. This is not my decision phase. This is where I’m at. Specifically, in the path of this film, we’re talking about women and how masculinity is frowned upon, and because it doesn’t fit the societal definition of what women are. I felt that by saying the grey area, it’s saying this is a place to be in itself.”
When Anfuso set out to create a film about her experience, the notion of putting herself and her story in the light brought back dark fears of a world that refused to accept her authentic self. Growing up rural Palatka, it was the only reaction she’d ever had. Teachers, classmates, administrators, even her own family, railed against her for wearing “boys’ clothes.” She was told if she chose to live this way, she’d better toughen up.
“Hearing over and over: ‘You can change this any time you want. You can make this stop any time you want. Just dress different, be different, be someone else, and it will stop. Just look how you’re supposed to look. It will all go away.’ There was just something in me that knew this was not possible. This is who I am.”
As the concept for the film began to take shape, Anfuso worried that people would be confused about her message, as if this was something that only happened masculine lesbians in the south. “I really came to believe that if you asked anyone enough questions, they will realize they are in a grey area about something. Specifically, with women, because that is the main focus of the film. Obviously, there are all these other threads that connect to bullying, identity in general, accepting people, in general, for who they are and personalities that they have and not letting that define their gender or anatomy. Essentially, the film is about the woman voice and masculinity being frowned on in women.”
“The Grey Area” originally began in 2010 while Anfuso was a film student. Her documentary film professor suggested she explore her life as the concept for her senior thesis. He’d witnessed the curiosity of other students who were curious about her background but seemingly afraid or unsure how to approach her. Anfuso noticed it too. She’d experienced that stare many times before: the look that made her feel uneasy, unsafe, unsure of the motivation behind the attention.
“He said, ‘I think people are very curious about you in a way you haven’t realized.’ Because of what happened to me in high school, he saw that maybe I was taking it as judgment, criticism when people stared at me in a certain way and whispered about me. I thought it was negative, and I wanted to get away from it, and he noticed that they wanted to know me and ask me questions and figure out what was going on. That was something I’d never really thought about before.”
The project took “100,000 turns” and was ultimately shelved until 2015 when Brown, who won a student Oscar in 2014 for his short film “Person,” encouraged her to revisit the concept the way she wanted to make it. He was the first person to understand the vision without trying to explain her story in a voice that didn’t belong to her.
Less than a week from One Spark 2015, the pair brainstormed into the night. Anfuso discovered new trust in the project as a vehicle to explain her experience in a way that would help other people. Five days before the event, they decided to pitch the film, but they weren’t sure what that even meant.
“We said we know we want to make a film about the masculine female perspective and that perspective is [mine]. We knew I was the person that needed to tell that story, and he was kind of the driving and guiding force to figure out what that story was. That was the partnership. I would make sure the story was accurate and real and not overdramatized and be able to stand behind every single moment and say that is exactly what happened and that’s what it felt like and this is exactly what I believe needs to be said about that. He was helping me take that and turn it into what does that look like, what does it feel like, is it an interview, a reenactment, what does the world look like?”
The team distributed “I am a Grey Area” stickers throughout the event. The concept of existing in a world that doesn’t accept them for who they are and what they represent seemed to connect across the board. It was subtle but a powerful statement that captured attention. People wanted to know more.
“I wasn’t prepared for it. It was just so unexpected. I was prepared for the negative or people to say, ‘oh, that’s cool,’ and walk away. I was shaking, I was sweating, I couldn’t remember what I was going to say. I was terrified,” she recalls. “In my mind, I was going to go on stage with Drew, and people were going to roll their eyes, be annoyed, ‘here’s another gay person trying to tell me what to think.’ Or, deeper than that for me, it was going to be more of, ‘You don’t make sense. You look like a dude, you dress like a dude, you have hair like a dude. You obviously want to be a dude’. Surface-level stuff, even from women. ‘Why would you not want to look like a woman, why are you not celebrating your body?’ I heard it my whole life.”
Besides winning the 2015 Art Juried Award, the last thing Anfuso expected was a group of women gathering around her to thank her for the message and share their own experiences. It was an affirmation and the first time she’d ever felt included by members of her own gender who, until then, seemed to view her as if she were on display for resisting biology rather than celebrating the female voice.
Anfuso was raised in the backwoods of Palatka, a landscape dotted by double-wide trailers, dense woods backing up to an above-ground swimming pool surrounded by a pack of hunting dogs. “I was outside. We were just a bunch of feral kids, no shirt, shorts, barefoot, running crazy, and I loved that part of my childhood,” she recalls.
In elementary school, there was no dress code among her peers. T-shirts, shorts, tennis shoes, messy hair was the order of the day. Things took a turn in middle school when Anfuso transferred to a school “in town” where cliques were established and boundaries of the sexes clearly defined.
Her earliest memory of being treated unfairly because of how she looked opens the film. Anfuso’s eyes flash between fear and sadness for the young girl already in the most awkward, confusing adolescent stage and subjected to a torturous existence endorsed, if not inflicted, by the adults charged with her well-being.
The summer before sixth grade, Anfuso’s favorite aunt took her shopping at JCPenney for a first-day-of-school outfit. She chose a green polo shirt and a pair of khaki pants. “I was so excited. I loved this outfit so much,” she recalls. “I get dressed and get on the school bus, and that’s the first time I realized these were strangers. There were a couple kids I knew, but these were not kids from my neighborhood or my family. All these kids were staring at me, and it just felt different.”
Anfuso entered a crazy crowded hallway teeming with skater kids, athletes, and ultra-feminine girls regarding her like an alien. It was overwhelming and intimidating: the frenzy, the noise, trying to figure out where you are and where you’re supposed to be going. The chaos was interrupted by the sound of a woman’s voice screaming “Young man,” over and over again. She didn’t realize the yelling was directed at her until she felt the angry grip on her arm, spinning her around.
“’Young man, I know you heard me calling you.’ I said, ‘But I’m not a young man.’ This woman was so mad. She takes me to the office and calls my mom, and I hear her on the phone saying, ‘Your kid is a problem. She can’t come to school dressed this way. You have to come pick her up.’ They sat me outside in the parking lot by myself to wait for my mom to pick me up because I was wearing a green polo and khaki pants.”
Her mother was furious, but not at the school for leaving a child outside without supervision. And not because her daughter had broken no rules, done absolutely nothing to invoke such disgusting treatment from an infuriated administrator who’d mistaken her for a boy. It was the arrival of a situation her mom knew was coming. She replaced Anfuso’s wardrobe with clothes she thought matched her gender. The result just exacerbated the problem. “She said it was time to look like a young lady, but I just looked like a little boy in girl’s clothes. My masculinity was natural. It wasn’t something I was working to create. It was something that she was working against to try and tone it down,” she says.
“The Grey Area” features a heart-wrenching scene of a young Anfuso being victimized by students who paid one another to torment her. The scene takes place in the cafeteria where a boy locks eyes with teenage Keagan, played at that age by Silas Rose, making sure she knows what’s coming when he advances and flips the tray of food from her hands. The entire exchange is witnessed by school officials who do nothing to prevent or discourage the behavior for over two years.
Anfuso says the team originally resisted casting a young boy because it would inevitably invite negative comments about the film’s message. “What are you trying to say? You’re saying you don’t want to identify as a boy, but you bring in a boy to play you. We brought in a lot of young girls, too, but he looks like I looked at that age, from his build, his height, the walk he walks, and the way he sat, all of it.”
As a first-time actor, Silas, who turned 13 during the filming, was learning how to get into that emotional space. It was a powerful exercise for everyone on set, especially intense for the young actor who struggled with the reenactment of the cruelty that made life hell for Anfuso.
“He read the script, and he was so emotional. He said, ‘I think this is really important, and I am so upset that this happened to my friend, and I want to do whatever I can if this will help this not happen to other kids.’ But there were a couple scenes, particularly the cafeteria scene, where it was really hard for him to accept this really happened. He kept going to this place, and I think the whole crew did, that we were creating an idea, an over-dramatized version of events,” Anfuso remembers.
“Silas would turn to me and say, ‘This really happened to you?’ I would tell him, ‘Yes, every single thing, it did happen.’ But I always tried to tell him that so much worse happened and continues to happen to so many different others, and that’s why we’re here.”
Brown struggled, too. He pushed against Anfuso’s memory of the event, that such bold acts of violence and callous disregard of the adults in charge could even exist. He worried audiences wouldn’t believe that these kids could be so cruel in front of everyone, and no one would try to stop it.
“We could not connect where our emotions were coming from. It was extremely tense. But it was not about being angry at each other. It was trying to navigate something so sensitive and not really being prepared how that was going to unfold. Drew was getting really frustrated with that scene. He kept saying it doesn’t make sense. He’s not going to be so obvious…but he was,” she says.
“They paid each other to target me and do this to me in front of everyone. This is what being bullied is like and having no one come to help. There was a school official standing right there. Her opinion was that I was bringing this on myself because of the way that I looked. And it didn’t happen just once. It happened every day for two and a half years. This was just one example. There are kids literally today that this is happening to, and we can’t dumb it down because it is not going to reflect their experience.”
Anfuso implores kids in the midst of their own hell to understand this is a temporary preamble to the life that stretches out ahead. “It’s terrible, it’s awful, its suffocating, it’s so frustrating, it’s so defeating, and it feels like an emotional prison. You don’t have any control over what’s happening to you, but it is so temporary,” she says. “This is barely step one, and it will end. You can build whatever kind of life you want to have. Being in this grey area doesn’t have to mean figuring it out. If this is where you are, allow yourself to feel complete. Don’t let the world push you into categories if you don’t want to be there.”
She also urges parents to consider how they communicate their fears about their children. “Do you sound like the bully? Do you sound like everyone else your kids are afraid of? Changing the way you communicate those fears lets them know that you’re not. Just that step alone can make something so different,” she says.
After tensions softened on the set, conversations percolated among experienced crew members – many of whom had worked on horror films involving mutilation, gore and rape but turned away during filming of the cafeteria scene – asking themselves, ‘What would I have done? Would you have said something? Would you do something now?’
“I think that was the most important thing that came from us doing that scene together as a crew was taking that scene outside of production and thinking, if that happened in front of us, how would I handle it? What would I do if that happened to my kid? That is the important stuff,” notes Anfuso. “We want people to watch and think, ‘Am I doing this to my daughter, my friend? Am I a teacher and this is happening, and I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing? That’s the point. Viewing it, I hope it resonates in the way it did to us making it.”
As “The Grey Area” nears completion, the team plans to submit the film to Oscar-qualifying festivals next year that support the film’s message. Anfuso hopes it performs well, opens doors to distribution offers and establishes relationships with youth organizations willing to showcase the film and spark a conversation.
Preparing for a positive response is still a challenge for Anfuso; quieting the voices that say, ‘It’s not enough, you’re not enough,’ isn’t easy. Vulnerability is uncomfortable, and envisioning the worst makes her feel more prepared for what’s to come. It’s all part of who she is. But when the wonderful happens, she’ll be ready.
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