CANS Can’t Stand, Exposes Controversial Law and Trans Activists Fighting For It’s Repeal in Documentary

CANS Can't Stand film cover
Photo source: CANS Can’t Stand

For forty years, police and prosecutors have weaponized Louisiana’s Crime Against Nature by Solicitation (CANS) law to terrorize queer/trans Louisianians. 

A documentary by filmmakers Matt Nadel and Megan Plotka entitled CANS Can’t Stand follows a group of Black trans women in New Orleans who are fighting to repeal that law—and advance trans liberation across the state.

According to the film’s press release, CANS Can’t Stand explores the impact of the controversial 40-year-old law that made it a felony to solicit “unnatural carnal copulation for compensation,” disproportionately affecting queer and trans survival sex workers, especially those of color. It focuses on co-producer Wendi Cooper, who serves as executive director of TRANScending Women, Milan Nicole Sherry, House of Tulip co-director, and other trans activists. 

CANScantSTAND was founded as a program within Operation Restoration to advocate for the law’s repeal that disproportionately targets the LGBTQ+ community and particularly trans women of color. While it duplicated the state’s anti-prostitution law, CANS made offenses punishable by five years in prison and ten years to life as a registered sex offender, while prostitution is a misdemeanor offense.

“Under CANS, you can go to prison for twenty years to life, if you have multiple offenses,” explained co-director Matt Nadel. “You also have to register as a sex offender upon release; ten years for a first offense and for life as a second offense.”

He explained that CANS way a legal way to terrorize and ruin the lives of queer and trans sex workers.

“Crimes Against Nature includes incest and bestiality,” Megan Plotka added. “When an employer sees Crimes Against Nature by solicitation, they could mistake prostitution for something else. As a result, it could affect their ability to be hired for a job.”

The idea for the film came in 2019 when Nadel and Plotka heard about Wendi Cooper through an exhibit about incarcerated women at Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane. Cooper was one of the featured women, and the filmmakers thought her story was incredible. 

“Wendi is such a kind person and she tells her story really well,” Plotka said. “She made our job easy.” 

In 2011 and 2012, there was some reform around CANS. Women with a Vision launched the No Justice Project along with the Center for Constitutional Rights. Nine plaintiffs, including Wendi Cooper, filed a lawsuit against the State of Louisiana, alleging that the sex-offender part of CANS was unconstitutional. As a result, almost 1,000 people’s names were removed from the Louisiana sex offender registry.

Wendi Cooper launched CANScantSTAND in 2018 to correct other injustices perpetrated under the CANS law, such as offenders still having a felony mark on their record. Nadel notes that there are people in prison serving 20-years to life sentences, under the “three strikes” law, due to CANS being considered a felony. If this felony connection were dropped, he said, many of these people would be released.

The filmmakers co-produced the film with Operation Restoration, a non-profit supporting women and girls impacted by incarceration, and New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC). It was accepted to the American Pavilion Emerging Filmmaker Showcase at the Cannes Film Festival, which showcases the films of the next generation of filmmakers.

Nadel explained, “The Emerging Filmmaker Showcase is designed to give early-stage filmmakers the chance to meet people, have their work seen, and enter what is otherwise an inaccessible world.”

“We were some of the youngest people there who weren’t full-time filmmakers,” Plotka added.

Plotka attended Tulane and studied international relations, social policy, and Spanish. She had planned to be a lawyer until she started writing for the University paper, The Hullabaloo.

“I really enjoyed journalism,” she said. “I started at WDSU and worked at NOVAC, where I met Matt. I then became an associate producer at WDSU and I’m now a reporter at WAFF in Huntsville.”

Nadel is from Florida and made films at the arts high school he attended. He majored in American Studies at Yale University, where his studies concentrated on American communities. 

“It’s the closest thing to a journalism major that Yale has,” he explained. “I made a criminal justice-related documentary in college called 120 Years. It did pretty well at festivals, and I fell in love with the process and telling the story. So, I worked at NOVAC over a summer to stay in that same realm.”

Nadel now works at NBC News Studios, the feature documentary arm of NBC News, producing his own content.

Nadel and Plotka hope for a full release of CANS Can’t Stand, but for now they are working the film festival circuit. The film will be available to stream through Frameline Pride Encore, June 24- 30. In addition, a local screening event is planned on July 15, at an event called Sync Up Cinema, co-presented by the Jazz and Heritage Foundation and NOVAC.

Nadel said that he hopes the film will make a difference and educate people on the danger of CANS, especially for Black trans women.

“You can see through the film how CANS is just one part of a battery of forces that’s conspiring against Black trans women in Louisiana,” he said. “I’m glad that some more people will hear these stories. It speaks to a broader reckoning that is happening.”

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