Dr. Angela Sturm is helping trans people affirm their gender identities through facial plastic surgery
(HOUSTON) — For many people, when they hear about a person transitioning, they immediately recall as much information about gender-affirming surgery to the genitals as they know. For almost as many, that’s not much information. However, what most cisgender people fail to understand is that there’s more to gender-affirming surgery than what is often referred to as “bottom” (genital) surgery. As a matter of fact, NBC News reported than in 2016, less than 0.5% of gender-affirming surgeries actually were performed on the genitals. This news isn’t quite revelatory, as the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reports that 33% of trans people have not medically transitioned, with 14% of trans women and 72% of trans men saying that they most likely will not ever transition fully. But with plastic surgery procedures to the face and chest, trans people are able to become more comfortable in their own skin.
That’s where Dr. Angela Sturm comes in. Dr. Sturm (MD, FACS) is a double board certified female facial plastic surgeon. According to her website, she specializes in rhinoplasty, eyelid surgery, facial feminization surgery, and facelifts. Dr. Sturm attended medical school and her residency at Baylor College of Medicine, and has since gone on to join Facial Plastic Surgery Associates here in Houston. She’s been in practice for about six years, and has been doing facial feminization for five of those.
While Dr. Sturm’s patients aren’t all trans, many are. She sat down with About Magazine to discuss her role in the gender-affirming process and her advocacy as an ally to the LGBTQIA community.
About Magazine: Tell us a little bit about what your specialties are.
Dr. Angela Sturm: So, I do facial plastic surgery. I end up doing a lot more feminization than I do masculinization.
An interesting point I hear a lot is that there’s more of an emphasis on feminine trans issues than there is on masculine trans issues. Can you tell me a bit more about what you see when trans men come to see you?
A lot of times the face shape changes a little bit because the facial fat changes. And then the muscles are a little bit bigger. So, where you may have had an oval-shaped face, it may be a little more square now. So, maybe [the shape] is there, but it’s not quite where they want it. Sometimes we’ll put implants on the jawlines to make them a little stronger. I’ve had people who had jawlines that are good, but have the genetic pooch of fat under the chin. You know? So, it’s kind of, “Well, [the jawline] is there, but I’d like to be able to see it better.” And then, of course, there’s the Adam’s apple. Not all men have Adam’s apple. So, we can do a little bit of liposuction right there and contour the area so that we can see a hint of it. We can also do an implant there, but for the most part, you don’t really need to.
In your patient demographic, are you handling cases for patients that are in their younger years? Or are they more middle-age to later in life? Or is it a mix?
It’s kind of a mix. Not as many younger people. A lot of times they’re just into their transition. And hopefully, if they’re transitioning young enough, they may not need me at all. And it would be amazing if we could get to that place where people were able to get on blockers and hormones at an appropriate time to where they make the transition all on their own. It’s more mid-to-late-twenties all the way up to a patient I had in her seventies. She had lived her life. She was in the military. She raised her kids and grandkids. And then when everyone was raised, she was like, “You know what? It’s my turn.” I thought that was awesome.
I do not, because my specialities are head and neck. But I can do referrals. But in Houston, it’s kind of difficult, because there aren’t a lot of physicians doing that. Which is odd, because we have the largest medical center in the world. There are people in Texas doing it who are doing a really good job. But that’s one of my issues with the entire thing. I feel like it’s really unfair that people have to travel outside of the fourth largest city with the largest medical center. It’s ridiculous. San Francisco has more surgeons, as does California in general because they’re more progressive. Plus, everything is covered under their insurance. They can get facial surgery; they can get genital surgery. There are more people doing it there, because there are more people able to afford it. If you want to do it and have the money, you’re more empowered to go out and do it. Surgeons that are doing it are just kind of spread out everywhere, as well as the people who are seeking out the training. And that’s an issue we’re working on, too: getting more surgeons trained in the programs so that more surgeons come out that are able to do it.
On the topic of the cost, a lot of the issue is that it costs so much money to have these surgeries performed. Which can be a hindrance – especially to younger people coming out of college and getting on their feet. Do you think a reform in health insurance could help people be able to afford to be who they are?
I mean, I think we were definitely going in that direction. But I think there’s a lot of uncertainty right now about the direction healthcare is going in.
(Laughs) To say the least.
(Laughs) Yeah, to say the least. But I think healthcare was going in a really good direction, and hopefully it will continue to go in that direction. I know in Texas it’s always slower. But there are more and more states that are getting things covered. And I think as we’re able to show more science and say, “We’re doing these studies. And this is what we’re seeing …” because there’s a ton of research being done now that wasn’t done before that says certain things are medically necessary, and they can’t be denied if they’re medically necessary. We’re getting there. It’s just a matter of collecting all the data and, like you said, fighting the insurance.
Science is constantly evolving, but we’re sitting in an administration that doesn’t seem to value science.
That’s the truth.
It’s clear that you’re an advocate for the trans community. So, what brought you to want to do this with your career?
It all started with talking to people when I was coming out of training about what’s going on in our city and in our country. And it was just being here. I trained here, too, in the largest medical center in the world. And I realized that there was just this huge need, and that it’s such an underserved community right next door that we’re not taking care of. It’s ridiculous to me that trans people are having to travel and go over all these hurdles. So, it was looking at what I do and what the needs are. So, I went and got some extra training in doing the facial feminization and being able to do it to a high level and provide that care, because that’s what everyone deserves. The whole thing was crazy to me that this was a need here in our backyard, if you will. It also kind of spoke to the feminist part of me that was like, “Yeah! Don’t tell me what to do because of my gender! Be yourself. I’m fighting this fight for you, too.”
“Don’t feel like you have to get stuck in one box and be comfortable with it, because there aren’t any boxes!”
There’s the term passing privilege in the trans community, which is something someone has when they’re able to pass as cisgender on the streets when they’re, in fact, trans. And I think that’s what makes the line of work you do so important, because it affords people the opportunity to feel more comfortable in their skin, even if they can’t put forth the cost of a full transition.
To that point, you know it’s letting them feel comfortable, but it’s also their safety. Because the number of trans people that have been assaulted for simply walking down the street is outrageous. It’s that ability to walk out of your house and not worry as much – I don’t know that you’re ever not going to worry. It’s a horrible place to be when you don’t know what’s going to happen when you leave your house.
Exactly. And you know, in the queer community, we’ve gotten to a point where gay and bisexual, cisgender men and women have the luxury of not facing that fear quite as much, but the trans community hasn’t gotten to that point yet. And ignorance really perpetuates itself to the point where people end up losing their lives. Does it give you a little peace of mind to know that you’re making a difference this way?
That’s part of what makes it rewarding. I love what I do and helping them gain confidence and feel good in their skin. But knowing that it’s affecting their life that intimately, it’s an honor for me to be a part of that process.
I know that this isn’t your speciality, but there are a lot of misconceptions about what gender-affirming genital surgeries look like. Do you know enough about it to give a brief description to maybe clear up some of those fallacies?
Probably very generally. (Laughs). Typically it’s much easier to go from male-to-female than it is female-to-male. So, male-to-female involves taking out a large portion of the penis, but you keep a part of the … well, the head, basically, and make that into the clitoris. And then you’re using the testicle skin to make the labia. It depends on the surgeon and how they perform it and what skin they’ll use to make the lining of the vagina. Some people use a skin graft. Some may have enough skin in that area to be able to invert it. It depends on the person’s anatomy, and also the surgeon and what their preferences are. Then they reroute the urethra, so you’re able to have sensation and you’re able to go to the bathroom. There’s a little bit of maintenance, because you have to keep the vagina open. So what a lot of people don’t realize is that you have to dilate it with time. And as time passes, you don’t have to do it as much. But there’s quite a bit of homework on the patient’s end. Things can happen, where you have to go back to surgery. And sometimes it’s more than a one-stage process in order to get things to look and function the way you want.
With the opposite, is the penis able to become as functional as the vagina?
Kind of. It all sort of depends on the doctor, how they’re doing it, and what the patient’s desires are because there is a wide variety of what you can do with it. There’s a surgery called a metoidioplasty, which basically just allows you to be able to stand and go to the bathroom. So, basically, you’re just lengthening the urethra and keeping what you had, but releasing things so you’re able to do that. Then you have the actual phalloplasty, which is where you are creating the penis. So, what they’ll do is actually take tissue from somewhere else – either the leg or the arm – and kind of create it. It’s a very complex surgery. And then you have to hook up all the “plumbing” and all that stuff. So, the people who do that usually have very extensive training in urology and plastic surgery, or they have a team that has that training. A lot goes into it. So, as far as function, there are ways you can make it sort of semi-erect so that you can use it and so that it’s not erect all the time. Or you can have a pump put in it, and some people do it that way. Because it’s so complicated, you make a big decision. Some people will do the metoidioplasty, but it’s not nearly as involved as the entire phalloplasty.
Tell me a bit about your practice.
I am a part of a private practice with another physician, Dr. Russell Kridel. I have clinical appointments at UT Houston and UTMB, so I get to teach and have a foot in academics. But I have the private practice, so I really get to have control over who my staff are and how educated they are on all these things.
When you teach, what are you teaching?
I touch on all of facial plastics, but I do end up spending a fair amount of my time talking about trans and gender-affirming surgeries, because they’re not getting it from other places usually.
With the private practice, is it important for you to have a staff that understands the importance of what you’re doing with the trans community?
Absolutely. It’s always important that your staff understands your patients and the patient experience. But here’s it’s really important.
Do you think it’s important to build a strong doctor-patient relationship?
I mean, I think so. The feedback I get from my patients is positive.
Based on your Vitals.com reviews, people really seem to like you.
I love people and getting to know them. I love to see them at different points in their lives. I have the luxury within medicine to have a practice where I can spend the time to get to know somebody and where they’re coming from. And I love it especially because I’ll get messages from my patients who live in other places who are like, “I’m getting my bottom surgery today!” They let me know where they’re at and how they’re doing. It’s a very cool thing to be a part of all of that. I’d really miss out if I didn’t get to know them so well. You get to get excited with people, and that’s one of the things I love about plastic surgery. I get to be a part of that!
Last question: if you could say something to trans people about medical treatment and surgery, what advice would you give them to help them decide what’s best for them?
These are things that we think about very deeply. And there are a lot of great people, especially in the city, therapists and social workers and such, that are available to talk about all the facets of it. It’s this great self-discovery process, and being able to have someone to talk to is very important. And many of those people who can help are trans themselves. So they’re able to see it differently than you or I can. Gender is three different spectrums. It’s gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex. So, figuring out where you are on those is a big deal. Don’t feel like you have to get stuck in one box and be comfortable with it, because there aren’t any boxes! Being able to figure that out and be comfortable with it is most important. It’s frustrating and amazing trying to find yourself, but you want to be able to have those thoughts and think it through and talk with someone before you have surgery, because it’s a big deal. And with talking to someone, you can sit down and say, “Okay, here’s the plan …”
You can learn more about the amazing Dr. Angela Sturm on her website.
Trans About Town: Adriana LaRue
Adriana LaRue is a local celebrity in the drag community of Houston. A regularly-featured performer at Hamburger Mary’s and JR’s, winner of the thirteenth season of Dessie’s Drag Race, and current reigning Miss So You Think You Can Drag, she is a force to be reckoned with and has made a name for herself with her high energy performances, amazing dancing abilities, and a personality that can only be described as infectious. For the latest edition of our column Trans About Town, we sat down and talked to the queen herself.
Ian Townsley: How long have you been performing.
Adriana LaRue: September 9th was my three year anniversary — so three years and counting.
What has been your favorite performance thus far?
My second performance ever, which was at Meteor, when I did “Break Free” by Ariana Grande. That was the night I actually realized that this is what I wanted to do. Three years later, I’m still doing it and I’ve never looked back. Every time I perform that song, that same feeling I had that night is with me. In my finale performance for season 13 of Dessie’s Drag Race, I left my heart on that stage with the same song. It paid off, too, and I was chosen as the winner.
I don’t care for a label to be honest, because a label should not identify us. I’m simply an entertainer. But, in this community, people care so much about labels. They can classify me however they want!
Do you think being a trans female drag queen is easier/harder and why?
For myself in particular, I think it’s an in-between. I can get away with just looking pretty and not having to wear so much, such as pads and all those pantyhose, because my body is naturally curvy. In another way, it’s hard being that I am plus-sized. Lots of people have that mentality of, “Oh, she’s big so she can’t dance,” or “She can’t do anything but walk around and be boring.” I have to set the bar high for myself to exceed people’s expectations of what a big girl like myself can do!
What made you choose to be “out”?
The LGBTQ+ community, my friends, the encouragement I’ve received, and honestly self-love! A couple of years before I started performing, I actually wouldn’t tell people that I was trans because I was scared of not being accepted in the “straight world”. But coming into the community, it was a whole different situation. I would tell people that I was trans and they would be like, “Oh my god! I’m so happy for you! That’s amazing that you’re living out your truth and you’re being your true self!”
What advice would you have for new or up-and-coming trans female entertainers?
My advice to up-and-coming trans female entertainers is: Sister, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do what these queens have been doing for years! You are just as equal as any of us! If no one is giving you an opportunity, make opportunities for yourself. Be heard! Be an active member of the community; spread love; be positive’ and don’t give words powers that they don’t have!
Follow Adriana LaRue:
To be featured or to nominate someone to be featured in a “Trans About Town” interview, please send a suggestion to email@example.com.
Our Truth Isn’t Your Trend
Highlighting non-binary people in the media is important and is slowly happening more-and more; but what’s also important is realizing that being non-binary isn’t a fun fashion trend.
Recently, there has been a huge rise in non-binary representation in the media. Models, musicians, and actors who identify as non-binary/agender/genderfluid/non-conforming are getting the buzz they deserve after not having been represented in mainstream media for such a long time. It’s refreshing to see non-binary folks presented to the public on a larger scale; but something that needs to be said is this: non-binary existence is not a temporary statement, and our truth isn’t your trend. Thinking positively, this rise of representation should continue to skyrocket in months and years to come.
What prompted this piece was the backlash aimed at the August 2017 issue of Vogue which featured Zayn Malik and Gigi Hadid on the cover with the tagline, “Shop Each Other’s Closets”. Styling cis people in a gynandrous way is nothing new — this is fashion, sweetie — but the choice of the models that was made by Vogue made being gender-fluid or non-binary seem as though it were the newest, late-summer/early-fall trend. The August cover would have been more refreshing to see celebrities or models who actually identify as non-conforming grace the cover of Vogue (*cough*,Anna Wintour … girl. You approved this?). A simple Google search of genderfluid/non-binary celebrities could have steered the Vogue editorial staff in the direction of hiring actual non-binary people to grace the cover. Nevertheless, it is exciting to see non-binary individuals gain tons of positive attention in different areas of the art world; and in the images below, I’d like to showcase a few.
Ruby Rose — an Australian, genderfluid actor, model, and DJ that presently prefers to use feminine pronouns — has most recently been cast as the leading role of Batwoman in the the CW Network’s forthcoming series of the same name. (Fingers crossed that the show does not flop and is actually a success!) Rose landed some of her largest fame when she appeared in seasons 3 and 4 of Netflix’s original series, Orange Is The New Black. Mind you, Rose appeared in only 9 episodes:
Alok Vaid-Menon from College Station, Texas rose to fame as one half of the poetry duo, DarkMatter with Janani Balasubramanian. Alok has been a vocal social and political activist for feminists and the LGBTQ+ community for many years. Alok now has a book of poems entitled, “Femme In Public”, which was released in 2017 and has been featured on LogoTV, in Out Magazine, as well as in Vogue. (Hello, Anna? It’s me again … Put Alok on the cover. *wink*).
Rose McGowan recently came out as non-binary identifying. Rose has been a vocal proponent for the #MeToo movement (founded by Tarana Burke in 2006) and shattering what was left of the glass ceiling in Hollywood by speaking out against sexual assault and harassment towards women, men, and the trans community. Rose’s book Brave was published in January 2018 from Harper Collins imprint HarperOne., The memoir focuses on the experiences McGowan had in Hollywood both professionally and with sexual assault. Rose recently won GQ’s Man Of The Year Award for her activism — a kind affirmation of non-binary identity from a publication that largely panders to cis, straight audiences.
Angel Haze is a rapper from Detroit who identifies as agender. Angel has become a huge name in hip-hop and has been nominated for a GLAAD Media Award as well as an MTV Video Music Award. Angel is currently working on their sophomore album. Angel Haze recently changed their name to ROES, but still remains on social media under their original stage name.
These are just few names of many non-binary/non-conforming/agender/genderfluid people that are making big waves presenting themselves to the public loudly so that they are being seen. No one will soon be forgetting a single one of them anytime soon, because, again, our truth isn’t your trend. These non-binary/agender people are beacons of light, giving people within our community hope that they can achieve the same level of exposure, fame, and greatness that these folk have. Their presence just affirms that we can change the way we are displayed in the media. We are here to be seen, to grace magazine covers, lend our voices and our images to the masses.
Many non-conforming individuals have been subject to bullying and prejudice throughout their childhoods; and most still experience it in adulthood. It all comes from people with a lack of exposure to, as well as a lack of education on the subject of, people who neither label themselves to meet a certain gender-specific criteria that is the summation of eons of destructive societal constructs. Because in spite of what the LGBTQ+ community’s flag may boast, the lives of non-binary people are not all rainbows and glitter for most of us. That being said, however, increasing the visibility of our community by seeing people from it become big-name stars is an important thing as it not only inspires us to make sure ourselves are being represented, but also exposes cis people/straight people who do not identify the same way as non-conforming folks to the lush diversity of this community. They can see that we are all human and that we are all going through life just as they are with very similar difficulties, trials, and tribulations. It also aids in educating them by increasing visibility of the way we present ourselves to the world by showing them that this is not a scary thing. It’s not terrifying at all. It’s our truth and it isn’t their trend. The point begins and ends here: we nonbinary, agender, non-conforming, and genderfluid people are here, we exist, we are making change, and we aren’t afraid to take charge. We are carving out our space in pop culture and the media, and we aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Transgender 101: Names & Pronouns
About Trans editor, Ian Townsley, schools us on the importance of pronouns and names for transgender and non-binary folks.
I know; you’ve heard this one a hundred times. “Use the pronoun and name a person uses for themselves!” At some point, we all get tired of hearing it. Trust me, as a trans person, I get tired of saying it, if I’m being honest.However, most people don’t understand why we need to refer to people using the gender identification that they use. So, why is this so important?
When a person is misgendered — whether trans, nonbinary, genderfluid, or cis (though less so with cis people) — they are being told that their identity does not matter. By choosing to use the wrong words to identify another person, an invalidation of their identity is created in a fundamental way. Trust me, as a trans man, I can attest to how much it hurts when someone calls you by a pronoun that does not align with your gender. To put it into perspective for yourself, think about any bully from high school that made a joke out of your name or teased something about you that you identified closely with — whether it have been the clothes you wore, your culture, or where you lived. And while it can be hard to keep up with the way things are changing, by making an effort to correct this behavior just a little bit each day, it can ultimately help unlearn bad, predisposed habits and create better, more open-minded ones.
Let’s break it down.
Let’s start with the basics of pronouns and their rules. If you aren’t entirely familiar with all the words we learned in English class back in school to identify parts of speech, you may be asking, “What on earth does Ian mean by ‘pronouns’?” That one is easy to explain. By definition, pronouns are “any of a small set of words in a language that are used as substitutes for nouns or noun phrases and whose referents are named or understood in the context.” These pronouns for people who identify as female are she, hers, and her. For people who identify as male, these pronouns are he, his, and him. Lastly, and maybe the more difficult to relearn and understand, are the pronouns who identify as gender nonbinary/nonconforming, or as neither male or female. These pronouns often also can apply to any person who identifies as gender fluid (sometimes male, sometimes female), and are they, them, their, or something different entirely. The reason I say that this may be “more difficult” to wrap your head around is because, at least for most of us, K-12 schooling always categorized they/them/their as pronouns used to describe a group of two or more person or things. And even if it isn’t that way for us, we all know that one person who’s like:
That’s right. Some people argue this point that they/them/their are strictly plural versions, but the definition of these pronouns is not limited to a plural sense, and dictionaries do not state that they must be strictly plural. And if you stop to think about it, you actually use it in its non-plural form all the time. Think about when you spoke to a friend who was getting into a new relationship, but weren’t sure of the sex of the person your friend had begun dating. You may have asked, “What’s their name?”. Or when you meet a new person who tells you they have one younger sibling. You might ask, “What are they like?” See? This is because the dictionary actually also defines they/them/their as pronouns for a person whose gender is unknown or not expressly male or female. So if a person tells you that they use they/them pronouns, just go with the flow. It may take some practice, but I believe in you!
Let us say that your neighbor recently got a puppy. When you first meet the dog, you refer to it as ‘he’. The neighbor then corrects you, saying that the dog is actually a girl. So, you make a point of switching the pronouns you’re using when referring to the puppy. See what I’m getting at here? When a person tells you that they are, in fact, not the gender you assumed, trust that they know themselves better than you do. I promise, the world will not end because you call someone by a new pronoun. Besides, it’s probably only new to you.
What to do when you misgender.
Now let’s say that you accidentally do misgender someone. It can be embarrassing, and you may feel the need to apologize so that they know it was unintentional. Repeatedly, even. It is important that I stress here that when this happens, don’t call overzealous attention to the mistake, as you risk making the slip-up so much worse. If you use the wrong pronouns for someone (or even accidentally deadname them) the best course of action is to quickly correct yourself, then keep the conversation flowing as if nothing has happened. It isn’t necessary to draw superfluous attention to the mistake at all, and I promise that the person you misgendered or deadnamed will thank you for it — internally, of course.
In the English language — although less so than in Latin based languages — there are many words that are gender-specific that are not pronouns, such as titles. Brother or sister, aunt or uncle, feminine or masculine, actor or actress, hero or heroine — the list goes on! Keep in mind that when a person comes out to you, it is important to not only change the pronouns you are using, but to also change the ways you refer to them in these many other aspects. Not all words are gender-neutral like ‘doctor’ or ‘writer’. And while it may take some time to get used to doing this and to make a habit of it, most of us that are trans or nonbinary are willing to overlook mistakes as long as we’re treated with respect. We see that you’re trying; and it means more to us than you know. You’re unlearning a lifetime of ingrained habits and sometimes a relationship’s-length of what you believed to be true before a person has come out to you.
What is a rose by any other name?
Let’s take a moment to talk about names. Tell me, how many of you use the full name you were given at birth? First, middle, and last exactly as they are spelled out on your birth certificate at the time of your grand entrance into the world? How about famous artists or actors? How many of us call them by their full names — Adele, Madonna, Cher — or even the names they were assigned at birth — Lil Wayne was born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. and Mindy Kaling was born Vera Mindy Chokalingam. We don’t insist on having the name Adele Laurie Blue Adkins printed on the cover of every copy of 25 at Walmart. The point I’m trying to make here is that you should anyone else that same respect and just use the name someone tells you belongs to them, even if they change it later or have had it changed. You might mess up, and that’s ok; but making the switch to a new name isn’t too hard if you really try.
In the event of uncertainty …
The last, and maybe the most important, thing to know is about handling confusion. When you meet someone, you may make assumptions about their gender based on centuries-old societal constructions that attribute certain physical attributes and behaviors to be inherently feminine or masculine, and in turn assign femininity and masculinity to a particular gender. Most of the time, you’d probably be correct in these assumptions as trans and nonbinary people are not the majority. After all, we are only approximately 1.4 percent of the world population.
Every now and then, you may not be sure which pronouns to use. There may be a lot of questions you can’t ask that person as they may be too personal or seem intrusive, but there is one you always can. If you aren’t sure about a person’s gender, just ask them! Please don’t ask what pronouns we “prefer”, but what pronouns we use. They aren’t preferred; they’re ours. Our pronouns, just like yours, are a fundamental part of our identity and we know ourselves better than anyone else. Most transgender people have gone through a lot to get to where we are, and verifying our identity is a way to show you are an ally and someone we can trust to show us respect and kindness.
But these very few, very simple points are the basics; and hopefully this has helped you to understand why you should always do your best to afford transgender people the same dignity you would show anyone else. In the end, we’re all people and we all deserve the same courtesies, regardless of who or what gender we are.
For questions about names, pronouns, or any transgender topics, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An A-Z Guide to Sexual Orientation + Gender Identity
A Comprehensive A-Z Guide to Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity, brought to you by Carvaka Adult Toys.
If you ever find yourself uncertain of the exact definition of someone’s sexual orientation or gender identification, don’t fret. It happens to everyone. The wonderful thing about being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum is that there’s always more to learn; and more often than not, other LGBTQ+ people are happy to help you learn. That’s why the UK’s Carvaka Adult Toys created this fun and handy infographic for people to stay informed and have better understanding of the various branches of the gender identity and sexual orientation trees. And even if you’ve already got this all or mostly figured out, the infographic below could prove to be a great resource for your academic or professional needs, or just for when you’re trying to help someone out of the LGBTQ+ spectrum understand something they haven’t quite grasped.
Check it out! And if you feel like something is missing or hasn’t been properly translated, feel free to drop a comment and we’ll make sure that Carvaka hears back from you.
BOOK REVIEW: Tomorrow Will Be Different by Sarah McBride is a Trans Triumph
Tomorrow Will be Different by Sarah McBride will set your heart on fire for the trans community – 5/5
“Tomorrow Will Be Different” by Sarah McBride it a touching (and at the same time, devastating) memoir about Sarah’s life from the moment she first came out as trans and into the present. In that span of time, she accomplished many things, including getting transgender people access to health care and prohibiting discrimination. But before Sarah came out to the world, she was the student body president at American University. Sarah had always been interested in politics, and her story starts pre-transition where we get to know her as a fearless and compassionate leader at university. We even learn that Sarah had been working on campaigns and giving speeches since she was very young. It was her early interest in politics that lead her to AU. And it was that very same interest that was also one that stood in the way of her being able to fully be herself. Sarah was worried — understandably so — that coming out as transgender would interfere with her future career as a politician.
“Fear of the unknown no longer stood in the way of completeness.”
This memoir was inspiring from start to finish. Throughout it, I cheered Sarah on her entire journey and as we learned more and more about the girl. She delved further into her career as a trans advocate readers get to see when as Sarah stands up and fights for the trans people of Delaware, pushing a bill to the senate that would protect trans people from being discriminated against at work. Sarah McBride was the trans leader people needed, she spoke for everyone in the community and did a great job doing it.
While Sarah is a wonderful activist and advocate, she is also a terrific writer. Each part of this memoir felt so real and true that it was almost as if I was living through the stories in its pages with her. I have to imagine that it was hard to write, as she put all her true feelings onto the page. As I read it, I felt that I really got to know Sarah as a person.
“We are fighting to be seen in our personhood, in our worth, in our love, and as ourselves.”
Sarah’s story had me captivated from the very beginning. Reading it was like watching someone I knew grow up and become successful. I felt pride for her in each turn of the page. And just as I was captivated by her stories of activism and advocacy, I was just as compelled by her love story. Sarah’s story with another player in the memoir named Andy — one that I wish would be included in more popular culture — is one of true love. Their story had to be the purest love story I had ever read. This only made it more heartbreaking when Andy began to get sick.
Like all other parts of the book, when Sarah began to speak about her experience losing Andy, it felt like I was right there beside her. I could easily place myself in the hospital room, surrounded by her friends and family. The loss of Andy affected me in a way I never thought a memoir death could. Sarah shares her honest feelings, and in doing that effectively captures her audience and makes us feel like we’re a part of something bigger. Sarah’s story inspires and compels its readers. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to read it and believe that reading her story truly bettered my own life.
Short Story: After He’s Gone
Father’s Day is always a strange time for me, I still struggle to find it a time of celebration. It’s more a time of grief and sorrow. How do I exist in a world that my father doesn’t? My anchor to this world erased, forgotten and displaced. The man that cradled me, that held me fresh from the womb, who, with knuckles the size of walnuts and chipolata-size fingers, used to cradle my small fragile head. The man taught me many things after my mother’s passing: how to ride a bike, how to paint my nails, how to get in a fight, and how to get out of one too. He was a great dad; but his lasting legacy was the way he taught me to respect people no matter what; he taught me manners so no one would ever tell me to mind them.
It’s a strange feeling reminiscing over my loss of him, because he’s still here in some strange way. He’s still a part of me, no matter how much he may have changed since his passing, or how different he may now be. It comes every year like the sudden discovery of a melanoma, no matter how careful I am it seems to always find a way through, a way to contaminate my way of being. It still doesn’t get easier, I still sometimes slip. I thought having my own son would lessen this bereavement; developing into a father myself should somehow lessen the pain … shouldn’t it? The problem is that I long for that special time back, to be as bold as he was, as strong and determined. A dream chaser who didn’t care for the strife of this world. Not to give two hoots of what the world thinks. I wish I could be half the man he is … was … it’s complicated. The problem is that by the time I realised my dad was right, I already had a son who thought I was wrong.
I do mourn the loss, that breakdown of relationship, the constant pulling to have him back. But he’s gone. He used to be my rock, someone I could talk to about my feelings. When I was young, I used to think my dad was Superman. Who doesn’t? But as I grew up I began to see him for who he was, and I realised he was just a regular guy who liked to wear tights, high heels and a cape.
I guess I now have to learn to love him all over again.
I thought I lost him, but instead I gained a mother. I guess life is beautiful in all its complexities and varied guises, and my father was fed up living a lie. Living his life as a modern day vampire. It’s a flexible allegory as he knew death, sexual desire, underwent a metamorphosis, from the stagnation and loss of his true self, having to keep his real self a secret from the world. For fear of a hate mob, carrying their pitchforks and flaming torches, coming to rid their neighbourhood of this evil force lurking within its walls. People are scared of what they don’t understand. It’s natural, but to force their fear and hatred onto others is abhorrent and corrupt. But he was stronger than I ever could imagine. He was bolder than the mightiest hero. He chose to live his life the way he chose and was not dictated by society and bigots. He weighed up the cost to himself, to me, to my children and decided that it was either a lifetime of guilt and sufferance or a lifetime of freedom.
I went through the stages of grief — after all, I did lose a father. Some of these stages lasted longer than others and some were fleeting, but I worked through them nevertheless. I had to. So did my father. He was dying. Dying to a life he’d been obliged to live, the expectance of societal norms. A lie that was forced on him from an overly paranoid and overly masculine father who cleaved himself to the unyielding and outdated facts that a man must marry a woman and have children. My dad had to work through his own issues, a code that was working slowly behind the scenes. He worked hard to re-write it, to become the new person he longed for, and in re-wiring his system, beliefs and what was forced upon him, he was then free to become the person he was born to be. Free from stigma, free from the shackles of what life informs us we should be, free to be loved for the very first time as the person he longed to be all along. The final stages of grief are acceptance. I now accept that my dad is my mother, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
More Than Meets the Eye: Janae Kroc
An Interview with Transgender ‘Transformer’ Janae Kroc
Born Matthew Raymond Kroczaleski, Janae – the transgender subject of the award-winning documentary Transformer – is a former Marine who made a name for herself (as Matt) as a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder. In 2009, she set the male world record in the 220-pound weight class with 2,551 pounds. And while she’s not as powerful as she used to be (in the physical sense at least), she can still squash you like a bug: Last year, 18 months into her estrogen therapy, Janae lifted 210 pounds for 10 reps and deadlifted 605 pounds.
Recently, she has accelerated her transition from male to female, an evolution a decade-plus in the making, which has come with its own set of challenges.
In this new interview, Janae opens up about the discrimination she’s faced since coming out; how the bodybuilding community has both shunned and embraced her; raising three well-adjusted, supportive sons (she and their mother divorced as a result of her coming out); the long, costly road to gender-reassignment surgery; and how some burdens weigh more than any barbell she’s ever touched.
Mikey Rox: Janae – as Matt, you were a world champion powerlifter, badass bodybuilder, and a spokesperson for dietary supplement brand MuscleTech. You revealed in your new documentary Transformer, which screened at Miami’s OUTshine Film Festival recently, that you lost the latter gig after coming out as transgender. How did that happen?
Janae Kroc: MuscleTech actually found out that I was transgender several months before I was outted publicly. They had been sent some old pictures from my Facebook page, which was private at the time, and called me to ask if it was true. I immediately confirmed that it was and that, yes, I was in fact transgender and had been very open about it for years. They told me they were having a board meeting concerning this and would let me know their decision in a few days. When they contacted me again they were very clear that the reason they were letting me go was because of me being transgender. They immediately pulled all of my content from their websites and media advertising, cancelled all of my scheduled appearances for the remainder of the year, and informed me they would not be renewing my contract. They stated that while they were very happy with the job I had done for them over the previous eight years and really liked me as a person they felt that it would be very bad PR for them and it would hurt sales, especially overseas in the more conservative cultures.
MR: What’s your take on this, and is there any recourse for what amounts to blatant discrimination?
While this was clearly discrimination and I would have been protected under Canadian law had I chosen to pursue legal action (MuscleTech is based in Toronto), the job I was hired to do for them was very different than most. They had hired me solely to represent their products and to be one of the faces of their company. That was my job for them and what they were paying me to do. Even though I was shocked and I felt they made a very poor decision, the way I saw this was that if they didn’t want their company represented by a transgender person then that was their prerogative. I do feel that they missed a huge opportunity to do the right thing and that this will come back to haunt them in the future, but I chose not to pursue legal action against them.
MR: You’re in a similar position as Caitlyn Jenner being a world champion record and medal holder. When she was transitioning, there was a petition to revoke her Olympic medals because “Bruce” had won them and not Caitlyn. Ultimately the IOC took no action in that regard, but how do you feel about that personally?
JK: I feel that entire premise is absurd and merely a veil for extreme bigotry. Of course Caitlyn should be allowed to keep her medals, and anything I had accomplished in my life prior to transition was still achieved by me and I still deserve whatever accolades go along with those accomplishments.
JK: I see Matt as simply a part of who I am. All of the traits I possessed as Matt that allowed me to achieve the things I did are still within me. Matt was simply a limited version of who I am; he was just a portion of who I am today. I will say that there are certainly differences between Matt and Janae, and my reactions to certain situations are markedly different now than they would have been in the past, but I still don’t view him as a separate person. I still lived through all of those experiences and they helped shape me into the person I am today. I see my current self as the evolution of who I am, and I am still evolving all the time.
MR: You came out to your three boys 13 years ago when they were young, and they’re each very well adjusted to your transition. That, for me, was probably the best part of Transformer – seeing how they interact with and accept you as you are. But have they always been so accepting? Were there any times when they pushed back, and how did you overcome that?
JK: Everyone is always shocked to hear this but it is the absolute truth: They have always been 100% supportive and accepting of who I am. Since I told them at such a young age, they had not yet been conditioned by society to view being transgender as a bad thing, so to them it was just another aspect of who I am. And since I never demonstrated any shame or gave them any reason to view it negatively, they have never had any reason to see it as something bad.
MR: Have they encountered any bullying as a result of the film? How have they dealt with that?
JK: Before I was outted publicly, we had discussed for many years the potential of me being outted and how they might be affected by that and how we should handle it. It was my biggest concern and why I had not come fully out publicly sooner. Fortunately, nothing has really changed for them. Some of their friends have asked questions or joked about it and we have heard rumors about other parents saying nasty things about me, but no one has ever said anything to our faces and they have not faced any discrimination as a result. I am also fortunate that all three of my boys are very secure in who they are, and any teasing from other kids does not have much of an effect on them. I think they have seen how I have handled all of the hate directed toward me and that has helped them to develop a similar attitude toward what other people might say or do. We recognize that when people say horrible things about me, it really says a lot more about them as a person than it does me.
MR: You revealed yourself as Janae to your mom for the first time in the documentary, and naturally she was anxious about it. I read on your Instagram, though, that she actually decided on your female name. I’m guessing you asked her to do that. Did that help her along her path to acceptance?
JK: The truth is my mom didn’t actually pick my name per se, but she did have a hand in helping me to decide on Janae. Janae was the name my mom had picked for me had I been born female. She told me that when I was a child and it always stuck with me. I thought it was a pretty name and unique, so when the time came to decide on a new name, Janae was the obvious choice for me.
JK: Unfortunately not much has changed. She has still only seen me as Janae the one time you see in the film. I have not gone to the family Christmas or other holiday celebrations in years as it’s clear that she’s concerned that my presence will make other people uncomfortable. I know this has been very difficult for my mom, and I try to keep in mind what kind of person she is. She does not handle any type of change well, and her primary coping mechanism is avoidance so this behavior is to be expected of her. I also feel bad because I know that still living in the small town where I grew up, she has had to endure a lot because of me coming out. People will walk up to her and say nasty things about me, and even her own mother – my grandma – has told my mom that it’s her fault for not instilling more religion in me. I try to keep those things in mind, but I also know that deep down she loves me – and that will never change. I think she will eventually come around, but it’s going to take me pushing her a bit to get her there.
MR: In the documentary, your dad, who you admitted was rather absent during your upbringing, said some pretty offensive but fairly typical things about your situation, specifically that he would “freak” if he saw you as Janae. Has that happened?
JK: My dad still hasn’t seen me as Janae yet, although that may change soon. Like my relationship with my mom, not much has really changed since the footage in the film was shot. He still hopes I’ll change my mind and thinks this is a mistake. However, he has said that no matter what happens he still wants me to be a part of his life, so that feels really good to know. I think, like my mom, he’ll eventually come around, but it will take some pushing from my end. We’ll see if he actually does “freak” when he meets Janae for the first time. [Laughs]
MR: You touched briefly on your sexual orientation in the film, expressing that you’re still attracted to women but open to dating a man. Can you explain that?
JK: Like my gender identity, my sexual orientation is somewhat blurry. I have always been very attracted to women and still am. I have never really found men attractive, but as a woman it does feel very natural to be in the feminine role with a man. I am open to dating whomever I feel a strong connection to, and it really has more to do with who they are as a person than their gender or genitals.
MR: Are you dating?
JK: Currently I am not dating, but I have recently met someone that I am very interested in. We actually met at the film festival in Toronto. We are still getting to know each other so who knows what will happen, but I will say that I could see this having long-term potential. I guess time will tell.
JK: They did not have any effect on who I am attracted to, although my body and self-perception have changed; the idea of dating men has become a more realistic possibility. As a male I had no interest in men whatsoever but as a woman I am at least open to the idea.
MR: You attended a local powerlifting competition in the film where a young straight male fan that idolized you praised you for your courage in coming out as transgender. I was blown away, frankly. That seems rather atypical given the often-toxic masculinity associated with this sport, so how did that encounter feel? Does that sort of thing happen often?
JK: Actually, there has been a lot more support from the powerlifting world than most people would expect given the sport’s reputation for an overabundance of testosterone, and I deeply appreciate every single person that has stood by me. Overall I would say the reaction to my coming out has been 50-50. About half of the community has been extremely supportive just like the guy you see in the film, and the other half has been more or less like most people would expect. I have had people message me privately to tell me they have burned the posters that I signed for them previously and other crazy things like that. The responses on public forums when I came out were even worse, but it was also mixed with a lot of people supporting me against the transphobic bigots. The women of the strength-training community have actually been my biggest allies, and I can’t thank them enough for welcoming me into their sisterhood and supporting me the way they do.
MR: You have really amazing bodybuilding friends – big, macho dudes – who have not only accepted you but seem to be incredibly compassionate and open with you. Did you expect that?
JK: When I first started coming out to my friends a little over 10 years ago, the process was extremely difficult and I was very unsure of what to expect. I was afraid they wouldn’t understand and that I would lose a lot of friends, but as I told them one by one, every single one of them has stuck by me and supported me 100%. I am very fortunate to have such good friends and so many close relationships. I think it helped that I was very open and honest and allowed myself to be vulnerable with them. They could see I was being sincere and how difficult it was for me. I think it speaks volumes about the quality of friends I have, and for that I will be forever thankful.
MR: In the film, you talked about how cost-prohibitive gender reassignment surgery is. Where are you at in the transition process?
JK: For the average adult trans woman to fully transition, it can often cost up to $100,000, and for trans men, even more. Personally, I have already spent $70,000 to $80,000, and I am still not finished. I am in the process of scheduling my bottom surgery right now and hope to get that done as soon as possible, but realistically it will probably be at least late this year or early next year before I am able to make that happen. Fortunately, more and more insurances in the United States are covering transgender surgeries and I really hope that trend continues.
As far as other procedures go, I am definitely going to look more into hair transplant surgery as not having to wear a wig would be huge for me. With my active lifestyle and love for the water, wigs just aren’t practical, and without one on it becomes very difficult for me to present as female with my very short and very thin hair. I am still very interested in breast augmentation surgery, but as long as I remain very muscular it is difficult to achieve a natural look so for now I am holding off on that. I also may revisit vocal feminization surgery at some point as the results from my first surgery aren’t as good as I was hoping. While my voice has definitely improved, I still view it as being more masculine than feminine and typically get read as male over the phone. The only other thing I would like to add in regard to my transition is that I also still identify as gender fluid and non-binary and my gender presentation varies from day to day. Some days I present completely feminine, but at other times more masculine. I continue to move in a more feminine direction, but it’s difficult to say where exactly I will end up and whether or not I will complete what most people would view as a full transition.
MR: Post-bodybuilding career, what are you goals now?
JK: As far as my training is concerned I still want to remain muscular and strong but lean and not quite as big as I was previously. I still waffle somewhat about whether or not to drop a significant amount of weight and transition into a more “athletic look” but for now that is on hold.
In regard to my overall life, I hope to continue speaking publicly about transgender and gender non-conforming people and the issues we face. I also hope to continue empowering women, especially those that are interested in pursuing strength sports, and do my best to promote equality as an intersectional feminist. Professionally, I hope to achieve enough financial independence to allow me to pursue those goals full time.
Trans About Town: Fabian Washington
Fabian Washington, also known as Graffitti Notez SP, is an entrepreneur that has great attributes to present to the LGBTQIA community, as well as the world. Fabian is a business owner and activist of many sorts to the community and its youth. He is the proud founder of the multimedia company IMAN MARC LIVE and an active affiliate of Freedom Overground & Transcending Barriers. He not only believes that equality is vital, but that to achieve this state, we have to knock down the barriers of categorizing ourselves aside from our allies. A part of the reason that IML was created was to bring an entertainment label to the forefront that is all-inclusive to the world, and in one step at a time breaking down the walls of segregation.
What made you decide to transition medically?
As a child, at the age of 6, is when I found out that I was not [anatomically] a boy. I had been a tomboy my whole childhood, and in my freshman year of college I had come out identifying as lesbian. It never really sat well with me, I knew that I was attracted to women, but it still was a very confusing and depressing time in my life. I knew that there was something missing and that I had to find myself. I had been asked quite often, respectfully, if I were male or female as I matured more into myself, even before I started transitioning medically. One day in 2008, my girlfriend at the time and I were in the store and an older woman stopped us and said, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to be rude. Can I ask you a question?” I responded and told her that that was fine and she then asked,”Are you a man or a woman?” I responded,”I am a woman.” After my response she said,”Well, you are very handsome, I just wanted to let you know that.” My heart was so touched, and that was when I realized who I was actually was—who I was to become. I didn’t medically transition until 2014. I had my first T-shot in June of that year. A couple of years later, I had top surgery with Dr. Pranay M. Parikh, MD at Baystate Hospital in Springfield, Ma. I just had been working to become the man I was inside, and now I see what everyone else saw in me. Through everything good and bad, I am the happiest that I have ever been in my life.
… When it comes to my craft, I don’t want to be recognized as a hip hop artist or music producer because I am transgender. I want to be recognized as an artist that is a transgender person.
What has been the most difficult and the most rewarding aspects of your transition?
In the process of transitioning, I faced some prejudice in the workplace. It was especially hard when the name and gender marker on my ID did not match my appearance and I dealt with discrimination. Not only in that but being a black man, there is a huge difference in how my interaction with people was pre- and post-transitioning. I remember I had a knee injury and I had to see the orthopedic surgeon. The pain was immense and I was on crutches barely able to stand. After my appointment I made my way to the elevator. There was a white woman getting on the elevator after me. She stopped and looked, grasping her purse and then stepped back to take the stairs. Prior to that, I could sit down as a complete stranger and talk for long periods of time with anyone. From there I knew that I needed to be more cautious. I felt she looked at me as a predator, but I would never harm a soul in my life. I love people, and I enjoy fellowship with folks from all different walks of life. That is the only way that we can understand the world in broader aspects is to be more receptive to one another for our differences; and there we will find our similarities and common ground. The willingness of understanding, communication, and overall knowing one another. So in the midst of the trials the greatest lessons I learn are through the obstacles that I have faced. To find understanding is a reward in itself.
Coming from the Bay Area, it is very down south as well as north east. Not just being a black man that has to watch his step in the streets of the South, but as a black man in a very segregated community, and as a black trans man that is frowned upon by other black people. Being a public figure and appearing on national television on Jerry Springer, I had made a sacrifice. Under the circumstances on participating in the production I feel I still was able to show a positive example for members of our community as well as those that do not understand the reality of trans identifying individuals such as myself. I have been disrespected in public and have heard another ‘correct that’ person. People always look for something wrong with the next person regardless. There is always going to be someone that will have a problem with you based on the silliest assessments. The prejudice within the POC community and the racism that exists outwardly is a real tragedy considering that racism is taught. Back home, it is so much more diverse and so much more accepting that I miss it quite often, but I know there is something that I am here to do and I do it wholeheartedly! I am a part of an awesome non-profit organization called Freedom Overground, which was founded by Ky Peterson and Pinky Shear and is also affiliated with Transcending Barriers, founded by Zahara Green. These non-profit organizations focus on assisting trans people during and post-incarceration giving them the help they need to get on their feet. Especially with assisting trans men; and that is a big deal simply because there aren’t many organizations that help trans-masculine identifying people. One day at a time we can make a difference. The world is crazy in this time and age and it is the most importantly time for us all to be vocal and to influence and practice unity, awareness, and love.
What challenges have you had as a trans man in the hip hop industry and how has this impacted your career?
As an artist I am known as Graffitti Notez SP. I have been well-rooted in the industry since I was a young child. I was a prodigy saxophonist. [I] played professionally and even had my own quartet in high school. We performed a lot when I was a kid. As I got older I got into music production and my network grew. When I began my transition I took a seat back from everyone because somehow I just knew that they wouldn’t accept me. So I thought! Since I have gotten back into music, my network has been completely supportive and this has helped me to regain my confidence and continue my work as an entrepreneur. I have been working on building my company I M Live for some time and now all the hard work is paying off. Must say, I have some amazing affiliates and individuals on my team. We are currently organizing a tour for the summer. Details will be released soon and we will begin moving forward. Through all adversity, I cannot wait to rock the stage again, vibe out with my fans, and enlighten the hearts of many. Through The Trees [an EP] has been released and available for stream on SoundCloud!
I can’t speak for everyone when I say this, but when it comes to my craft, I don’t want to be recognized as a hip hop artist or music producer because I am transgender. I want to be recognized as an artist that is a transgender person. One thing that I have noticed is that people in the community take advantage of their identity for publicity. My transition is not to exploit myself to create opportunity. What I do hope to accomplish through my visibility is to reach our LGBTQ youth and inspire them to go after their dreams and know that they can do whatever they set their minds to. The music and film industry is tough to get into as is, and though there is more acceptance in some aspects there is also still a lot of discrimination. It’s all about how you present yourself to the world. Put your best foot forward, first impressions really are everything.
Let’s talk surgery …
When it comes to surgery, I know that personally it has helped my dysphoria a lot. I have had top and look forward to bottom surgery sometime this year. The thought of surgery can be scary for anyone, and for others its the complete opposite. Medical transition is vital for me, and it is a part of my journey in who I have become and the man that I am being visible as to the world, not just in my head or on a piece of paper. I feel as though I have been set free. I would like to thank Dr. Pranay M. Parikh, MD, for an amazing job on my top surgery. I give him 5 stars and would not change a thing about it!
I have been told you came to Houston to assist with clean-up post-Harvey. What made you want to help all the way from Atlanta and what part of Houston did you assist?
I am a compassionate individual and I love helping people. When I found out about the devastation that Houston had faced, no questions asked, I was there. Though I struggled with some things while I was there I would not change a thing that happened for the simple fact that the things we go through in life mold and shape us into the people that we become. Seeing the wreckage alongside the streets and people’s homes was tough. My empathy goes out to all the people affected and the people who lost their homes. In my time there, I aided Woodbridge Apartments in maintenance for rapid repair of about 340 units. Some units weren’t affected while others were completely destroyed. People were in their homes with huge holes in their ceilings and no shelter from the rain droughts that continued after sporadically.I have to give it up for the Houston community for standing together to get through this hardship and coming together to make amends to there streets.There is still a road ahead, but the progress and the hard work that has been put into making Houston home again has been phenomenal thus far.
I would like to thank Dylan Wilde Forbes and the rest of the team at About Magazine for having me. And I would just like to close out with this: for our youth, if we don’t guide them, they will have no direction. Our youth will be our leaders one day, and it is up to us to set the example and show by action in which way they should go. To inspire their hearts to follow their wildest dreams and strive for nothing but EXCELLENCE. I love you, Houston.
REVIEW: Oscar-Winning Film “A Fantastic Woman”
The Chilean film took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the 90th Annual Academy Awards tonight, making it the first trans-led film to ever win an Oscar
I recently had the opportunity to go with some friends to a screening of a new, Chilean film entitled Una Mujer Fantastica (A Fantastic Woman). I was excited to see this film because it is the first Oscar-nominated (and as of tonight, Oscar-winning) film starring a trans woman, and representation like that is hard to come by. When the film began, I was surprised at how good it felt to see a woman like me on the big screen.
The film opens with Marina (Chilean actress Daniela Vega) singing in a bar as a man comes in and watches her. She smiles at him, and they go to dinner for Marina’s birthday. The man is Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a business owner and Marina’s much older cis boyfriend. That night, they go home and make love; but later, Marina wakes in the middle of the night to find Orlando sitting up, gasping for breath, and speaking incoherently. She rushes him to the hospital, where he dies of an aneurysm. What follows is the story of Marina trying to pick up the pieces of her life and say goodbye to the man she loved. All the while she is harassed and insulted by Orlando’s family, friends, and the police.
Marina’s life was easy and happy while she had Orlando—a nice apartment and car that belonged to him and which they shared. After his death, all that is taken from her as Orlando’s ex-wife demands the car and his son orders her to move out of the apartment immediately. As soon as she loses the protection afforded by her relationship, the world rushes in to attack. The police repeatedly question Marina under the suspicion that she had hurt Orlando, misgendering her, and suggesting that Orlando had been paying for her company. Apparently, cis people cannot actually love trans people. Orlando’s ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim), deadnames Marina repeatedly, an insulting and delegitimizing act that suggests a trans person’s identity is a playact that can be observed or ignored as is convenient.
Interspersed with the story are dreamlike sequences—Marina walking along a sidewalk suddenly hit with a wind so strong she has to fight to not be blown away; Marina alone in a nightclub transformed from rain-drenched to glam makeup and silver-and-gold dance costumes dancing with an army of likewise beautiful LGBTQ people. These moments both highlight and give respite from the trials she faces every day.
The greatest triumph of A Fantastic Woman is perhaps showing cis audiences the struggles that trans people face daily as we are deadnamed, misgendered, and asked ignorant and invasive questions by law enforcement, healthcare professionals, and total strangers (why is it okay to ask a trans person about their genitals? I honestly don’t get it, and I never see or hear cis people ask each other such questions). Sitting in a dark room hearing a theater full of cis folks gasp in shock and disgust at moments trans people experience daily, I thought maybe that cis people don’t listen, understand, or believe trans people when we talk about our experiences; but seeing it happen themselves, to a character with whom they can’t help but identify after nearly two hours in the dark, drives it home.
A Fantastic Woman invites audiences into the world of trans women, creating understanding and compassion. By the end of the film, Marina gets a chance to say goodbye to Orlando, and has found the strength to fight back against the people who attacked her.
A Fantastic Woman is rated R and has a run-time of 1 hour 44 minutes. Spanish with English subtitles. Content-warning for deadnaming, misgendering, assault, kidnapping.