Seattle-based punk musician, artist, animator, and proud trans man Clyde Petersen’s parents split when he was six. Moving to San Diego with his mum, her undiagnosed schizophrenia meant that their life together was a little unusual.
“I was pretty accustomed to her talking to herself or having hallucinations or really strong opinions about the world that seemed abstract,” Petersen tells SBS Sexuality. “I was just a kid, so I didn’t know very much about the world.”
His mother’s deteriorating mental health came to a head when he was 12, as she packed them into the car unannounced, headed to Washington DC. “She felt really strongly that we needed to go speak to the President of the United States of America about the collusion of hippies and aliens and the government,” he recalls.
This cross-country voyage, leaving panic in their wake as Petersen’s father frantically searched for them, forms the basis of Melbourne Queer Film Festival highlight Torrey Pines. Originally conceived as a song, sung by regular collaborator Kimya Dawson (of Moldy Peaches fame) over the film’s closing credits, it’s a hypnotically trippy, largely dialogue-free, gorgeous stop-animation film told in cut-out-and-coloured paper. Like a zine come to life, it depicts a journey both literal and metaphorical, offering insights into the early awakening of gender identity.
As we speak over Skype, Petersen - who studied documentary filmmaking and shoots music videos for a living - is in coastal New London, Connecticut, near the tail end of two years of touring the film with his queercore, pop punk band Your Heart Breaks. They’ve hit up countless venues from North America to the UK, Europe to Japan, playing Torrey Pines’ score live, even at Regina Pride in Saskatchewan, Canada, “for, like, six trans women in a mall next to the Casino.”
Sadly, they can’t afford the trip to Melbourne, but travelling bleeds into whatever Petersen does, lending Torrey Pines its mesmeric quality. “I really enjoy quiet times, even though I am a musician, and I think this film is like visual listening,” he says. “I spend so much time just driving in circles around America, and sometimes through the middle or up and down, but I feel particularly connected to the landscape. It’s such a strange and beautiful land, regardless of the absurd politics and occasionally horrifying people. Some days you drive like 10 hours through Texas and you just watch the telephone poles. It’s really, truly poured into my body.”
That unexpected road trip at 12-years-old awoke something in his soul, as did a certain seminal science fiction franchise. The film features a plethora of late 80s/early 90s pop culture, from Whitney Houston to Crocodile Dundee, but most predominant is Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series was a cultural touchstone for a young Petersen, with Torrey Pines lovingly referencing fan favourites from the original series’ Spock to TNG’s Deanna Troi, even recreating the controversial death of Lieutenant Tasha Yar.
It seems that sci-fi and fantasy often offer a safe haven for queer kids, perhaps the promise of a better, more inclusive life? “For sure,” Petersen agrees. “I think there are those writers who understand, right? Like Gene Rodenberry kinda got it. He knew that there are people who don’t fit in the world and he wanted to make a place for them, which is so sweet, and that’s why he’s probably beloved, you know?”
The 90s become a character in Torrey Pines in much the same way as the ocean and the road are, Petersen says. The film also addresses the emergence of his trans identity, sometimes in a nightmarish fashion, with a bloody breast cutting and pregnancy scene the sort of body horror that would make The Fly director David Cronenberg proud.
“That was 100 per cent autobiographical,” Petersen says. “I saw my mum come out of the shower one day and I was like, ‘damn, that’s my future,’ and I was like ‘No. Just please no. Hips and tits and babies. No. None of those things’. I definitely identify more on the f*g end of the spectrum.”
Inspired by genderqueer creative Canadians Ivan Coyote, a writer, and musician and writer Rae Spoon, Petersen has performed in their multimedia live show-turned book Gender Failure. “I just saw Ivan in Vancouver a few weeks ago and they came to Torrey Pines, which was so special to me because when I was a young person in high school, I saw Ivan perform and I was like ‘who is this person? I love them’. At the time they were telling short stories about working on movie sets and they just seemed like the most magical person in the whole world to me.”
This made working with Coyote 10 years later even more special. Spoon, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, about a four and half-hour drive or a three-hour ferry from Seattle, just recorded an album with Petersen, My Side of the Mountain. “Rae and I are like weird twins because their dad has mental health issues too. We both travel on the same weird journey together.”