Arts + Culture » Film + TV

Lost in translation?

Brendan Dunbar finds out how Hollywood deals with the realities of transsexuality in TransAmerica.

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Hollywood does not handle ordinary realities like weddings and relationships very well, so I worried about TransAmerica’s treatment of transsexuals long before the movie arrived in Halifax. In the mid-1990s The Crying Game, To Wong Foo and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert used transgendered people as main characters, but they were either tragic plot devices or something to laugh at.

You can see why I had reservations about TransAmerica, which has received critical acclaim for realistically portraying a male-to-female transsexual. Because I am not a male-to-female transsexual, I thought it might be a good idea to take a friend to the movie with me who knows more about the realities of transwomen’s lives.

“It’s more likely that transwomen will face discrimination in the workplace and in society in general,” Eric MacDonald says as we drive to the theatre. MacDonald sits on the board of the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, a non-profit group that fights discrimination against the “rainbow community” of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. MacDonald, a transsexual man, specializes in trans-issue education.

Many of the discrimination complaints the NSRAP receives come from transwomen who are going through the sex-reassignment process. MacDonald says many women quit their jobs rather than report the discrimination.

“Transsexual people do have human rights under Nova Scotia’s charter,” he says. “We tell the workplace that.”

He tells me that transwomen are more likely to get assaulted than transmen, especially early in their transition, before hormone replacement therapy takes effect. “You’re in this in-between stage, where people wonder ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’”

Psychologists have long advocated hormone treatment and sex-reassignment surgeries as the only successful way to resolve the conflict between body and brain, but even some medical professionals discriminate against transwomen. “They have trouble understanding why these people ‘want’ to be female,” MacDonald tells me. “But they don’t ‘want’ to be female. They already are.”

By the time we enter the theatre I have an inkling of what it’s like to be a male-to-female transsexual: Between the workplace discrimination and the threat of getting beaten, living a normal life is challenging at best. Many transwomen leave Halifax for bigger cities. Those who stay try to live in “stealth” mode—they don’t tell anyone about their past.

Will TransAmerica deal with any of these realities? Surprisingly, yes.

The first hopeful sign comes in the casting. Instead of putting a man in a dress, the casting director chose Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives to play the central role of Bree Osbourne, a pre-operative transwoman.

The movie examines the steps a transsexual woman takes to undo her earlier male socialization and biological foundation. Bree constantly monitors her voice to keep it in a higher range, even taking diction lessons from a DVD that promises to “help her find her female voice.”

Bree’s taste in clothing runs to pink and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. She wears too much foundation. But she never looks like a drag queen. As the movie unfolds, I wait for Bree to become another tragic figure, in keeping with that great Hollywood tradition. It doesn’t happen.

TransAmerica has a central character who happens to be transsexual. Bree is a complete person. She has a job, gets along well with her coworkers and she tries to live an unremarkable life. To do this, Bree lives stealthily. She longs for her upcoming surgery to transform her genitals so completely that “even a gynecologist won’t be able to tell the difference.”

The plot complications force Bree’s therapist to withhold permission for surgery until Bree deals with issues from her past, male life. Doing so puts Bree in situations that would make disclosure dangerous. Her fear of disclosure subtly permeates the movie.

As we leave the theatre, I ask my friend if he thought the movie depicted a transwoman’s reality. “There’s no such thing as a universal trans experience,” he says. “But I gotta tell ya, that came pretty damned close to showing it.”

TransAmerica is now playing at Park Lane, lone gutsy Park Lane.

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