New documentary finds Felicia DeRosa stepping out, discovering her purpose

The Columbus artist and trans activist recounts her hard-won happiness in ‘DeRosa: Life, Love and Art in Transition,' from director Angelo Thomas

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
“DeRosa: Life, Love and Art in Transition"

There’s a moment in the new documentary “DeRosa: Life, Love and Art in Transition,” where Felicia DeRosa, overcome by a lifetime of bullying, abuse and deeply personal struggles related to the concept of gender, recalls the day she put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the weapon misfired.

“I threw the gun away from myself and started crying,” DeRosa says in the film from director Angelo Thomas (“The Incredible Jake Parker”), which screens at the Gateway Film Center on Saturday, Dec. 4. “I came to the conclusion that a hard-won life is a life worth living. And then I thought to myself, ‘Clearly, the universe is not done with me.’”

Six days later, DeRosa met Gwendolyn DeRosa while riding the No. 27 bus in San Francisco, where DeRosa attended the Academy of Art University. The two would later marry, remaining partnered for the last 18 years, and this relationship serves as the anchoring point in a film that could have been a tragedy but instead becomes a portrait of strength and healing, with DeRosa recounting her transition from being assigned male at birth to emerging as the woman, artist and vocal trans activist that she is today.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

The journey to this point, however, has not been an easy one, and Thomas and DeRosa don’t shy from these more difficult moments. DeRosa candidly discusses everything from the abuse — both physical and sexual — she said she experienced at the hands of her late mother to her ongoing struggles with mental health, which have included bouts with PTSD, bipolar disorder and gender dysphoria. 

In one harrowing scene, DeRosa recounts how at the age of 11 or 12 she put on a sundress, painted her nails and fluffed up her hair, a process that she said “felt like the most natural thing in the world.” But when her mother entered her room and discovered her playfully twirling, the elder unleashed a brutal beating, striking DeRosa repeatedly in the face and throwing her to the ground. “That broke a piece of me that I don’t know I can ever really fix,” DeRosa says.

“We did a lot of prep work for the interviews because I wanted to know what the boundaries were, and what Felicia’s comfort level was with certain topics,” said Thomas, who joined DeRosa in a late October video call. “There’s a point in the film where, doing the interviews, she breaks down. I was on the other side of the camera, and, as her friend, I wanted to give her a hug and turn the camera off. But the filmmaker part of me is like, ‘This is raw. You’re capturing her emotion in this moment, which is important.’ So it was definitely a tough balance … figuring out where to let art be art and when to have respect for real life and the subjects you’re documenting.”

As the film unfolds, DeRosa gradually begins to come to an uneasy peace with her past, Thomas incorporating moments where the artist reads letters written to both of her parents. DeRosa’s words don’t absolve the pair’s actions, but instead serve as a way to move forward from them. “I don’t hate you anymore mom, but I don’t love you either. … May god forgive you,” DeRosa reads.

More recent onscreen interviews with DeRosa are fleshed out with extensive clips filmed during a cross-country art tour in 2007 and originally intended for a different, unmade documentary. These scenes offer a compelling look into the earliest days of the relationship between DeRosa and Gwen, whose own journey (she was born into a strict Christian home and more recently came out as queer and pansexual) is recounted alongside that of DeRosa, the two portrayed as fellow travelers whose open, honest communication is one on which all couples should model. “I’ve had 59 residences in my life,” DeRosa says of her nomadic ways in the film. “Wherever Gwen is, I’m home.”

“For the last 18 years, it’s been hard to discern where one of us begins and the other ends,” said DeRosa in describing the impossibility of telling her own story without sharing Gwen’s. “We’ve had times when we struggled, and times when we didn’t, and like any long-term relationship it’s been through a series of evolutions.”

“Compared to the very first cut, Gwen became a much bigger part of the film,” said Thomas, who first met DeRosa as a student at CCAD and started work on the documentary in December 2020. “As I would show it to people who are in my filmmaker circle, who are not queer and not trans, they were all really drawn to Gwen. And I think it’s because people, particularly people outside of our community, can see themselves in Gwen, and can kind of empathize with her in a different way.”

Early in life, DeRosa said she made efforts to “pray the girl away,” eventually stepping out as trans in stages beginning around 2014, first to Gwen, and then to the public at large. The film captures these fraught moments, which were shaped, in part, by DeRosa’s fears, rooted in a belief that in coming out as trans she was sacrificing her perceived stability and again opening herself up to the types of abuse she had hoped to leave in the past.

“When you deal with that kind of constant negative reinforcement, and when you’re always being abused, always being put down, whether or not you believe it intellectually, you feel it in your heart. And it’s really hard to un-feel that, and to deprogram yourself,” DeRosa said. “For me, coming out, I was really in denial because I had gotten to a place where things were stable. I wasn’t being bullied or openly made fun of, and I had gotten to a place where I felt sort of safe. … I didn’t want to be transgender, because I saw that as opening myself to more attacks, to more abuse. I didn’t want to be targeted again.”

DeRosa said the death of her mother ultimately served as the catalyst to move forward with her transition, intent on finally living a life free of regret. “I had this one instance where I was like, OK, I’m going to fully transform myself, and it was the first time I had done it since I was 12,” DeRosa said. “And I sat there and went, OK, this is not about fashion. This is not about letting myself be more gender fluid. I am and always have been a female human being.”

It’s a hard-won sense of comfort projected most clearly near the end of Thomas’ film, when DeRosa discusses how her priorities have shifted in more recent years, moving away from wanting to be remembered for the body of artwork she has created as a painter and instead to the impact she hopes to have on humanity at-large. 

“It’s becoming more and more about the love I leave behind,” she says. “I want to be the person that I needed as a kid. That gives me purpose. … I want to do it by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other people who feel othered and feel marginalized, and at least let them know I see them, and I hear them, too. No one should go through their life feeling worthless. Everyone has value.”