As Transamerica was garnering critical attention and a Best Actress Oscar nod for Felicity Huffman last fall, the much less visible eight-part documentary Transgeneration aired on the Sundance Channel and Logo (the pay TV, all-queer network). Produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato and directed by Jeremy Simmons, the new DVD set of Transgeneration (with only a scant few extended scenes as extras) is a more comprehensive and complicated look at the difficulties faced by transgender individuals than Duncan Tucker’s film.
They do share similarities, emerging primarily in the psychological and medical pathologization of the trans “condition.” In Transamerica, Bree Osbourne must say the “right” thing in order to be approved for sex reassignment surgery. In Transgeneration, Lucas (FTM) struggles to explain to his mother the necessity of submitting to the diagnostic assessment, even while he resists the implications of being labeled as “suffering” from Gender Dysphoria Disorder. As Lucas observes, “They say it’s a ‘mental illness,’ but the cure is to fix the body,” which suggests GDD is a physical malady in the first place.
The implication is clear: if you experience yourself as female and behave in feminine ways, you must have a female sexed body. Regardless of the seeming contradictions of the psychological determination, the result is the same, the medical production of “normally” sexed and gendered bodies and minds.
A critique of this discipline exists within trans communities today, and many transmen and women question the necessity of the surgical fix, or decide for themselves the extent to which they will submit to medical procedures. Many transmen, for instance, don’t get a surgically constructed penis, given the low success rates and limited functionality. Even those who desire full surgical reassignment often reject the psychological pathology. Some renegade trannie groups in major urban centers coach TG individuals who want surgery how to work their way through this diagnostic morass as quickly as possible.
Transgeneration illustrates these debates through the experiences of four college-aged transwomen and men over the course of a full academic year at different universities. As each subject negotiates the presence of the camera, the documentary shows both differences and similarities between their experiences. Lucas and Gabbie (MTF) struggle with familial acceptance and “proper” gendered comportment. Despite differences of class (Gabbie’s privilege vs. Lucas’ working class roots) and family structure (Gabbie’s parents remain married, Lucas’ have been divorced many years), both have supportive if confused family networks.
Gabbie has the hardest time behaving “like a girl.” Socialized for most of her life as a boy, she acts in what she believes to be traditionally feminine ways (playing with her hair, painting her nails), but her actions are often received as aggressively masculine. Asserting herself into personal spaces, she pats her girlfriends on the top of the head in a “maternal” manner that drives them batty.
After her SRS, Gabbie believes these and other troubles will be over. As she says post-op, “I’m a real woman now.” Consequently, she is lax in the care of her new vagina, neglecting to dilate the vagina several times a day to keep it from collapsing, a lifelong necessity for MTFs. Transgeneration includes her doctor’s cautions and friends’ complaints about her seeming intractability. Despite the documentary’s efforts not to pass judgment, Gabbie often appears immature, irresponsible, or just plain annoying.
Lucas, on the other hand, worries incessantly over physical changes like body hair and a lower voice after he begins to take hormone therapy, and is the most informed on the benefits, costs, and potential health risks of SRS. Lucas and his FTM pals behave in what seem hyper-stylized interpretations of masculinity, roughhousing and wrestling. Their masculine bonhomie is sedimented by talk of their growing dicks (one of the effects of testosterone therapy is the enlargement of the clitoris) and the pleasures of being able to penetrate a girl and thus “prove” their manhood.
These scenes raise another problem of Transgeneration: it leaves binary gender proscriptions intact. T.J.‘s conventional interpretation of masculinity is set off against Andy, a FTM acquaintance whose genderfuck performance is anathema to T.J.‘s desire to be a “normal guy.” Andy appears in one episode in order to establish what constitutes a “good” trannie, and demonize those who don’t submit to such normalizations.
Looking for another sort of normalization, Raci is bothered by the possibility that her associations with other MTFs will give away her secret (she passes in most social situations). By the end of the series, she realizes she needs and wants the support of a trannie community and must be out to get it. Raci also struggles to procure the necessary hormones to maintain her transitioning with little income and no health insurance. Her Filipino immigrant family fully supports their new daughter, who has earned a full scholarship to Cal State-L.A., but they can’t fund her physical change. She turns to buying black market hormones from street dealers.
Here Transgeneration draws attention to the plight of the many transgendered individuals who are disadvantaged or homeless, and have high rates of HIV infection from sharing needles to distribute street-grade hormones. Even while Raci does, with the help of a friend and L.A.‘s gay and lesbian services center, find health care and access to legal hormones, the documentary exposes this dire fact of life for many transmen and women. When Gabbie does buy doctor-prescribed hormones on her parents’ credit card, the documentary shows underscores the lack of access for underclass and poor individuals to health care. While Transgeneration often collapses the differences among the four to suggest a sort of hierarchy between its “raced” and “white” transmen and women, it nonetheless suggests that their struggles connect us all.
T.J. is most afflicted by family problems. Born and raised in Cyprus, he has been studying in the U.S. for seven years, and faces an imminent return to his insular Armenian-Cypriot community and an intractable mother. She refuses to accept his transgender status, asserting that this “thing” has been caused by “American” culture. Her major concern, she says, when Tamar (T.J.‘s birth name) left for the U.S. was that it would “turn her gay.” But the more obvious effect is a turn to individualism; his mother says he has become selfish, only thinking about what he wants, not what might be best for the tight Armenian community.
As the varying achievements and anxieties of Gabbie, Lucas, Raci, and T. J. demonstrate, Transgeneration offers a wide-ranging representation of transgender life and politics. Last fall, the Out Crowd, the queer student group at the university where I teach, screened several episodes for the public. In discussion afterwards, students worried about trans inclusion on our campus, how to get out in to the public sphere that the group and the university as a whole welcome TG students, and how to address trans issues as part of their political actions. They came to no conclusions that evening, but have since petitioned the university to include transgender language in its employment and student rights non-discrimination policies.
That is precisely what Transgeneration offers. It prods us to think seriously about transgender issues, and to transform that thinking into concrete practices to create more inclusive communities.