Directed by Lee Grant
“I just knew I was a woman. It wasn’t about wanting to be a woman. I felt that I was misplaced. In other words, the way my life developed, I knew that I was supposed to have been a woman and something went wrong. I feel like I was born with a birth defect and I finally got it straightened out.” -Jodi, a transgender woman
In 1985, Oscar winning director, Lee Grant made a documentary about what it was like to be a member of the trans community.
Did you get that?
Want me to repeat it because maybe you thought that first sentence had a bit of a typo with the year? I certainly thought so when I first read the year this documentary was released.
Well, guess what?
That isn’t a typo.
In 1985 (yep, really, 1985), Lee Grant made a documentary about what it was like to be a member of the trans community.
That means back in the dark ages/caveman/dinosaur days of pre-internet and pre-social media, which very much helped to make it trendy to be all LGBT-friendly, Lee Grant went out and did what basically no one else was doing at that time (because back then it was most definitely trendy to NOT be LGBT-friendly), she shot a film that showed in 1985 a true, sympathetic, empathetic, mind-opening, heartbreaking, triumphant, real-world view documentary about what it was like to be trans.
In 1985 it wasn’t safe at all to be gay, so imagine what it was like to be trans? I sure don’t want to imagine it because I was 12 going on 13 in 1985, and I remember what it was like to be gay back then, pretty much fucking awful, which is why I chose to live in denial-land about that very cold, very hard fact for another decade and a half. And one of those awful things during that time was that there was nothing for us to watch about people like us and nowhere for us to go to find information about us, because at that time, history was not kind to us, so history mostly ignored our existence, so we rarely made it into their books and documentaries during that time. In other words, What Sex Am I? is that rare LGBT documentary, it shows us our history as our history was actually really happening. And since LGBT history didn’t get a chance to talk much back then, I’m going to let our history do most of the talking for this review. These brave pioneers in the LGBT community have a lot better things to say than I ever could anyway.
“I didn’t even know that the sex change operation existed. I knew they were doing research in the direction, but I wasn’t sure how far it had gone and even my doctors didn’t…I don’t think it takes anymore courage to do that than it would be a person who says, ‘I’m riding in a wheelchair and I want to walk.’ I don’t think that’s courage. I think it’s need.” –Christine Jorgensen, the world’s first renowned transsexual
The thing about What Sex Am I? is that it was shot in 1985, so words are used that many don’t use now or even consider hurtful or wrong. We are so incredibly sensitive and self-righteous about words now; I would hate to see anyone pass up this documentary because of words. This was history being shot as history was happening. And while history was happening, we used words then like “transsexual” and “transvestite” and in 1985, Christine Jorgensen was known as a transsexual, so this is how the documentary describes her. And it is her story that the film opens with because it was her story that got many of the trans people in the film where they were in 1985, the ability to be themselves.
“There I was in front of a bunch of men that were looking upon me as nothing but a woman…It’s a satisfying feeling and yet kind of a little giggle inside. These could have been the people that were making fun of me at one time and here they are now enjoying me. I got the last laugh, I guess, you could say.” -Cathy, who was earning money as a stripper to complete her transition
In 1985 it cost $8,000 for the surgery Cathy needed to finish her transition. We learn in the film that she was only allowed to have the surgery after completing a rigorous program in one of the 40 gender clinics that were in the country at the time, where she had to undergo psychiatric evaluation and counseling. She then had to change all her legal documents to match her gender and had to complete the “real life” test, which meant she had to live and work as a woman for 18 months. This is what it took in 1985 to be the person you were meant to be.
“…Cathy has been away for several years and I do get these pictures out and look at them occasionally. And I looked and I thought, ‘Yeah, I can see those little eyes. They’re beautiful and look how sad they look.’ But see, I didn’t notice that at the time because we were a happy family. Other than liking to play dolls and all with his sister, Glenn acted no different than any other child at all. But in the seventh grade, names had been called like “queer” and he came home crying and he didn’t know why, you know, ‘Why are they saying this to me?’ And I said, ‘Well, honey, I don’t know why…” -Cathy’s mom
Cathy is a Texas gal, who was lucky enough to have a mother who came to support her during the operation. We get an inside look into this quite loving and amazing bond, even though Cathy’s mom didn’t allow her face to be filmed, afraid if she showed her face, she would be exposed to tremendous repercussions in her small Southern 1985 town. As Cathy’s mom talks about her child and the pain and fear Cathy faced when she was young, it’s heartbreaking to listen to, both knowing that a parent just wanted to see her child happy, and that this parent was doing what most parents in 1985 were NOT doing, supporting her child to become the woman she always knew she was.
“If you’d ask me ten years ago, I would have said it was a psychological phenomenon, some…abnormality in rearing or in family dynamics, etc., etc. I’ve come full cycle. I really believe it’s a biological and organic phenomenon.”
-Norman Fish, Psychiatrist and co-founder of Gender Program, Stanford University
It was quite surprising, I do admit, to see several doctors/mental healthcare professionals in the documentary who were very open-minded and logical about being trans. The psychiatric community was only just a few years past finally getting us gays out of their textbooks of wrongness, so I didn’t realize that in 1985 trans people were becoming accepted in the psychiatric community as well. That psychiatric community sure is slow, but at least they caught up with that one and even before it was trendy.
“I don’t know. I’m the only one I know. I’m not willing to say that there are none. You know, I don’t have time to anymore to go off creating lifelong relationships. So that’s why I stayed in this one.”
-Paula, Jodi’s wife on why she has stayed in a relationship with her spouse who is now a woman.
“The very first time we were together, he told me how he felt, you know and that he wanted to have a sex change and I just fell apart, like no, you know, you can’t do this…and I think that at that particular time I thought it was ‘Janet’ that I was in love with and he kept, she kept telling me, you know, well, you know I’d be the same person and I think I was just fearful that maybe now, looking back on it, I was fearful of what other people would think or say.”
-Susan, the wife of John, who is a transgender man
The documentary also takes us into the lives of the spouses of these trans pioneers and it is both heartbreaking and uplifting to see these brave women weather the storms that they faced because they were in love with someone who dared to be different.
“She thought I was gay. And she was going to change me. All I needed was a good woman. And she couldn’t cure me and consequently, it’s not the only reason the marriage didn’t last.” -Joe, a cross-dresser
In 1985, cross-dressers were known as transvestites and so that is how the cross-dressers in What Sex Am I? are referred to. I found this part of the documentary the most fascinating because this is a community that gets so little coverage that I didn’t realize until I watched What Sex Am I? that I knew almost nothing about them. We get an extremely rare inside look into these men’s lives and why they dress in women’s clothing, and I found myself finally starting to understand why.
“My torment came inside. Inside me. I wanted to be who I was. I wanted to also fit. And to be who I was and fit would not go together.” -Steven, a transgender man
“Sometimes people are brought into this world and they’re not as fortunate as others, you know and I feel that’s the same thing that happened to me. I always felt that I was brought into this world with a deformity and because of medical technology now it can be taken care of and I’m not a freak anymore.” -John, a transgender man
There are two transgender men in the film, Steven and John. They both suffered in women’s bodies and the pain they describe is quite frightening compared to how happy and free they both were in the film now that they were finally able to be themselves. They are the most relatable/everyday people of the film and by being so relatable and so everyday, they make you feel how terrifying it was for them to be the opposite for so many painful years.
I have gotten the opportunity to see quite a few documentaries in the last few years about the trans community and all of these films that I have been privileged to view have been eye-opening, insightful and heartbreaking, but I have to admit that I was completely blown away by What Sex Am I?. So much so that even now, days after watching the film several times, I have found that I am still speechless about it, which is why I decided to allow the voices of the film to speak for themselves here. They had such amazing things to say and such wise words on how they decided to just be themselves. They were brave enough to not only go out into the very dark LGBT world of 1985 and be free, but to also have their freedom forever saved on film. In 1985 these LGBT pioneers helped those of us out there who were just like them and they helped those of us out there who wanted to understand who they were and why. And now in 2017 these brave pioneers are still reaching through time and showing the world that we are indeed just like everyone else. We just want to be loved and accepted, just like everyone else. We just want to live happy and fulfilling lives, just like everyone else. They did what many couldn’t do back then, just be. So even during this very dark time in 1985 to just be us that would grow even darker as AIDS took over our community and almost wiped us out, we had a ray of light in this film of survivors. And I just want to thank these survivors now for reaching through time and showing me that it is possible to just be yourself and survive. And maybe this is why I am speechless when it comes to this review; these trans pioneers said it all in this film and by saying it all, they have blown me away by their bravery.
Special thanks to Karmic Release, Ltd. for providing the screener for this film. They were only the second film company to contact me about reviewing a film for this website, just two years ago, when they sent me the wonderful and quite historical documentary Wallowitch and Ross: This Moment. And now I got lots of people contacting me (or at least lots of people to me, since I’m running the whole show that is MOTR) and it is, in part, thanks to them. 🙂 And if you’re wondering what the first film ever sent to me to review here was, a documentary called Limited Partnership that aired on PBS. Kind of a lifelong dream of mine to be asked to review a film that was appearing on PBS. Yes, I know that I have odd dreams, but these odd dreams are coming true. 😉