Filmmaker Rhys Ernst and artist Zackary Drucker have a name for their situation. They sometimes refer to themselves as "reverse heterosexuals."
"It's radical to most people that we're such a normal couple," says Ernst, who met Drucker three years ago in the backyard of a mansion in Los Angeles, the city where they now share an apartment. At the time, both were beginning a period of life-altering transition: Drucker from male to female, Ernst from female to male.
"Rhys was probably six months into his transition," says Drucker, "so he had longer shaggy hair."
"I had puffy, early-testosterone face and body," Ernst adds.
"When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we can't even fathom how different we are," says Drucker, who, when they met, had yet to begin injecting estrogen.
"We have conflicts like any other couple would, but gender is never actually one of them," says Drucker.
For the two, even beyond gender identity, sharing is way of life. This summer, they will be showcasing their first truly collaborative work at L.A.'s inaugural biennial, Made in L.A. 2012, with an experimental film titled She Gone Rogue. It was shot and edited by Ernst and stars Drucker as Darling, a sprightly waif journeying through fantasy realms populated by the legends Holly Woodlawn, Flawless Sabrina, and Vaginal Davis. Much of the film is set in the actual apartments of all three -- Davis, who plays the "Whoracle Adelphi," has faces of silent-film stars and shirtless men plastered all over her living room wall -- and the props include a "sacred vagina dentata"; a cavalcade of chattering toy teeth screaming the film's title; and a "Holy Grail bejeweled walker in the desert," according to Ernst. The film also features Drucker's parents and a family cabin they own in upstate New York.
The impetus for She Gone Rogue was a grant Drucker received in 2009 to travel to Berlin and work with Davis on a project, but Ernst was involved in the writing and creative process from the start.
"The day after I graduated from [CalArts], Zackary took me to the desert," says Ernst. "We were in a little boutique hotel, we were the only guests there, and we hung out by the pool and started talking about ideas for it."
Ernst, who is interested in more mainstream film projects -- "To sneakily bring along my subversive representation" -- is having a landmark year with the acceptance of his MFA thesis, a short titled The Thing, to the Sundance Film Festival. It features a trans man, his girlfriend, and, naturally, their cat, driving along the desert to an ominous roadside attraction and teasing out the tense dynamics of their relationship. Though the festival entry represented a major lifelong goal of his, Ernst recalls having to explain his and his characters' identities more than he would have liked.
"I began sort of always coming out as trans on stage in Q&As," he says, "which was kind of a weird thing for me at first. There's so little understanding of trans as a phenomenon in most of America that, if I were to say, 'I'm trans,' people don't even fully understand what I'm getting at."
This type of conundrum -- trying to be neither too didactic nor palatable -- characterizes both Drucker and Ernst's work, as well as their personal lives.
"Even though we can and do pass," says Ernst, "we both still feel a lot of individual responsibilities to really be actively out and queer and visible and radical in our work and how we live."
"It's just like in any relationship, though," Drucker adds. "We go to Trader Joe's together."