The first time I realized I was transgender, I was doing the dishes. This was not the first time I’d considered being trans, but it was the first full-bodied realization. My arms went weak. I dropped a dish underwater and heard a muffled thud against the basin that sounded like a gunshot underwater. The authors of most transgender memoirs describe the moment they understand who they are as a relief and revelation: an arrow of knowledge that finally cut through the miasma of unpleasant feelings and radiated hope into their heart. The clouds part and the sun comes out.
I started to cry. The arrow of knowledge did not set me free—it wounded me beyond what I could comprehend. My chest hurt as I struggled to breathe. I turned away from the sink and sat on the floor of my mother’s house. I did not want to be trans. I did not want to be trans.
I did not want to die.
Up until this point, all the films I’d seen with transgender people had them dead by the end. And it was always a brutal, bloody ending. I was 22—only a year older than Brandon Teena. During that first full-bodied realization, all I could feel was despair, not hope.
Eventually, it would turn into hope. Two weeks later, I would shave my head in the same kitchen as I listened to Bowie, Queen, and Prince. I would get a new wardrobe, change my name, and try to watch Boys Don’t Cry without feeling a sinking sense of dread that this would be my life now.
Deep down, another voice repeated: I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.
A week before the realization in the kitchen, my girlfriend had given me a book by Julia Serano called Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. My girlfriend was trans and wanted me to be able to understand what she was going through. Even though I’d received a degree in English and women’s studies, I’d somehow never come across this book—or even the actual definition of a transgender person.
Instead of the typical sex/gender model that I’d been taught in school, Serano laid out a threefold system that accounted for sex, gender presentation, and gender identity—or “subconscious sex,” as she calls it. Cisgender people often don’t realize there is a third element of gender identity (subconscious sex) because theirs aligns with their sex, so it becomes invisible. Gender presentation—sometimes conflated with gender performance and Judith Butler’s notion of performativity—is a lot more mutable and changeable. Gender performance was what I’d studied in school; it’s what Susan Sontag talks about in “Notes on ‘Camp’,” and as I’ve mentioned, it’s where Butler’s writing seems like it bridges that gap between cis and trans.
But it doesn’t. Queer gender performance, like the stuff David Bowie does on stage, is not trans, because the person who is performing is still assumed to be cis; their subconscious felt sense of gender identity matches up with their biological sex. All the praised moments of gender transgressions I’d studied in university were transgressions in performance—and the performance was always assumed performed by a cisgender body. I could never connect with those moments of transgression because no matter what kind of performance I gave—if I was hyper-femme or super butch—my body would still be read as a woman’s body.
In my head, I wasn’t envisioning myself as a woman, or even a man—I saw myself as something else entirely. The felt sense of gender, a “subconscious understanding or intuition that there is something ‘wrong’ with the body due to its sex,” is what makes a transgender person. Serano’s definition caused me to consider whether or not I could be transgender—but it was fleeting, an academic exercise at best.
The misunderstanding of the difference between gender identity and gender performance is why cisgender people are still cast to play transgender people in film and television. Most directors try to explain their choices by claiming they don’t know trans actors, or appealing to the economic necessities of finding an audience. Most feminist critics call this transphobia. But I also think that directors just don’t understand the difference between gender identity and gender performance. I was trans, and I didn’t understand the difference until I was 22.
And watching these films about transgender people—or worse, drag queens who are supposed to represent trans people—made me even more confused. I thought in order to be trans, you could only be a transgender woman (since they were the only ones depicted), which meant you needed to have a cisgender man’s body underneath all the makeup and costume changes. Since I didn’t have a man’s body, but I kind of wanted one, I ended up relating to a lot of trans women on the screen without actually identifying myself as trans. When I did find a character who I could relate to a little bit—Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry—he was dead by the end of the film.
All of this is why, on the first date with my trans girlfriend, I committed one of the less obvious micro-aggressions people do to trans people: I told her she was brave. The films about trans people that I’d watched had confused me, to the point that I not only felt that I understood her struggle, but I’d also conflated being transgender with living in a hostile world, with danger itself. This was the strongest—and more persistent—message I got from those films: if you are trans, you will die by the end of 90 minutes. Even if I had some conscious awareness that I wasn’t like most women I knew, I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it because I was worried I was actually too much of a coward to ever be trans.
“Meeting you for coffee is not brave,” my girlfriend told me. The next date, she gave me Serano’s book with a scrawled message inside the cover: I think it would be good for you.
In her book, Serano breaks down the two types of transgender representations in media: the deceptive and the pathetic. The deceptive trans person is the one that passes so well she becomes dangerous—usually to a straight man’s heterosexuality. Think of Dil from The Crying Game; part of being the deceptive trans person on the screen means a “big reveal” scene where the camera pans down to their genitals for a moment of shock and awe. It’s a way of dismantling the transgender person’s identity. Usually after scenes like this, the trans person is harmed, and often times killed.
The pathetic trans person doesn’t pass. They fumble through their gender transition, requiring help from the cisgender person in the film and the sympathy of the audience. And yes, they too often die at the end of the narrative, and usually it’s in direct correlation with their transition.
The pathetic trans person is the stuff of the transgender biopics. In Dallas Buyers Club, Rayon needs to depend on Ron Woodruff in order to get her HIV/AIDS medication. The film conflates her gender identity with her drug use and presents her death as her own fault. In The Danish Girl, Lili Elbe fumbles through her transition, othering herself by speaking in third person to her wife, who believes all of this gender stuff is only a game. As the audience, we sit through two hours of Lili getting her genitals radiated and suffering through two surgeries, only to watch her gasp and die in a wheelchair.
In Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon Teena manages to be both pathetic and deceptive trans person at the same time; he’s deceptive because he’s a criminal who forges checks (and as the film implies, forges his identity), and pathetic because he hasn’t had surgery at all. Transgender men tend to embody the pathetic narrative on the screen more than the deceptive because their surgery is more difficult to obtain (phalloplasty is expensive and painful; some scholars say less than 3 percent of trans men have it). Without a “final” surgery, their transition seems as if it’s a failure from the start. Moreover, like trans women are assumed to be really men in drag, trans men are assumed to be really women underneath. Kimberly Peirce, the director of Boys Don’t Cry, has been criticized by Ann Cvetkovich and several trans scholars for depicting Brandon as a butch lesbian, rather than a transgender man.
These stories were all based on real people and real events, but as adaptation scholar Thomas Leitch says in Film Adaptations and its Discontents, “because the description [based on a true story] may be claimed or not at the filmmakers’ pleasure, it appears only when it is to the film’s advantage.” The pathetic trans person is the one who wins sympathy (and awards; Hilary Swank, Eddie Redmayne, and Jared Leto all received Oscars for playing a trans character), but they can only win sympathy if they fail and die. The biopics always turn the transgender person into a lesson to be learned for the cisgender audience.
When I re-watched Boys Don’t Cry and other trans-focused films after reading Serano’s book, all I could think was: this was never made for me. As much as I wanted to watch these films, I couldn’t bear to see my identity, and the identities of those I loved, turned into inspiration porn.
I watched a lot of documentaries after that. I figured if the biopics made by cis people were limiting, then why not watch documentaries where trans people got to speak for themselves? Over the course of six months as I transitioned, I watched Red Without Blue, Gendernauts, Trained in the Ways of Men, Cruel and Unusual, The Brandon Teena Story, Becoming Chaz, Let Me Die a Woman, and Paris is Burning, among others.
The same messages of death persisted. Many of the documentaries covered hate crimes (Brandon Teena Story, Trained in the Ways of Men), or they documented deplorable conditions in the prison (Cruel and Unusual) or military (Transmilitary). Even the documentaries where there was a hopeful ending present—Becoming Chaz and Gendernauts—were still presented with an aura of death around them. The “transploitation” film Let Me Die A Woman ends up being the most positive—and the most succinct—one in this genre because the message is built right into the title: transition and live as the authentic self or die by your own hands because you’re a fraud.
But after and during transition, transgender people still faced the dangers of the cisgender world and could possibly die because of it. The deaths didn’t all have to be violent, either. The film Southern Comfort documents Robert Eads, a transgender man, who was refused treatment for his cancer because it could hurt doctors’ reputation to have a transgender patient. By the time he got treatment, his cancer was too advanced. He was put into a bind of his identity or his life. He could not have both.
There was no way out.
So I stopped watching movies all together.
Sometime after I swore off all transgender-themed films, I canceled a surgery appointment. I moved two hours away. I still kept my changed name, but since people still read me as a cis woman, I wasn’t visibly trans. And I didn’t bother to correct people. I knew they were wrong—I was nonbinary, something else altogether—but I didn’t need to tell them.
Some part of me wondered if I was being a coward, but I never let the thought linger too long.
When I stumbled on the documentary film Regretters, I broke my ban on trans media. But my purchase—from a Norwegian film site I needed to use Google translate to help with—filled me with a new kind of shame. I worried that by getting a film about people regretting their gender affirmation surgeries, I was reaffirming the cissexist (as Serano says) ideology of our culture. I was allowing myself to view these former trans women as deceivers and all transgender identity as a fake.
Instead, Regretters introduced me to Mikael and Orlando, two people who spoke openly about their life stories. The director is present, but non-invasive. The film is nothing like the sensationalist Let Me Die a Woman or as prescriptivist as The Christine Jorgensen Story. It’s a confessional booth with soft lighting, and it’s only two people as they speak about themselves.
While they seem to regret getting surgery, they don’t seem to regret being trans. Mikael describes the pressures from his doctor and Orlando describes the societal force of the beauty myth for being a trans women. Neither one, when really pressed, seems to regret who they are—they regret the intervention of the medical field in who they are. Being trans and getting surgery were kept as separate notions, not as a connecting timeline. Being transgender didn’t mean you had to get surgery. To be transgender was to have a different conception of yourself than what others perceived you as—a different gender identity than what your sex dictated—exactly as Serano stated.
Gender performance, as always, was up to you.
I’d known this all along, deep down, but hearing it from a documentary film filled me with a sense of relief. I didn’t have to feel shame about not wanting surgery, about not being a “good” trans person and following the rules. Moreover, I didn’t have to worry about death anymore. Both Orlando and Mikael comment about experiences with transphobia, but they do not talk about death. It had been years since their surgeries and their lives had changed, but they were still trans and they were still alive. Seeing that, above anything else, was more than what I needed. It gave me a future.
After I shut off Regretters, I put on another film about trans people. And then another. Not all of them were good, but it didn’t matter. I could watch movies again.
And more importantly, I could talk about them too.