Lee Grant’s documentary, including footage with Christine Jorgensen – the first person to undergo gender reassignment surgery – is shamefully important over thirty years after its release.
Were it not for their gender, most of the people interviewed in What Sex Am I? would make pretty boring subjects. A former PE teacher and a computer mechanics worker are just some of those who feature in Lee Grant’s hour-long documentary. Dissecting the lives of ordinary people, their relationships with sex and gender are deemed complex by American society – both in the 1980s, when the film is set – and maybe even more so today.
Grant’s style is forthright, and sometimes a little too prying, but effective. The views of experts, mostly doctors, are peppered in to provide genuine insight on gender which backbench politicians and columnists are shamefully regarded to possess today. Although Grant’s cold objectivity risks creating a slight dehumanisation of her subjects (at one point the process of sex reassignment process is described bluntly and literally), the hysteria that dominates discourse on trans issues today seems more degrading than an assessment rooted in fact, back to basics. Furthermore, the cross-section of lives and social classes explored – from street sex workers to comfortably middle class divorced fathers – is a powerful rebuttal of the homogenous bathroom-hogging blob which trans people are wrongfully described as today.
Presently, discourse focuses heavily on trans women, but What Sex Am I? covers everyone who could foreseeably ask that question: trans men, cross dressers, as well as the small but important minority who regret transitioning. Facts prevail again, as Grant emphasises that detransitioners, though they should be listened to, are small in number, while 9/10 people who end up in a gender clinic choose not to go through with surgery. Behind each story depicted is a human being, whose psychology is analysed carefully. Transgender woman Jodie’s plea, that she isn’t “wanting to be a woman, I am a woman”, is easily the most powerful line of the film.
With the film being well over thirty years old, its most interesting segment now is its deconstruction of the relationship between homosexuality and transgenderism. One person described the challenge of legally being recognised as a woman post-surgery annulling her (then illegal) marriage to another woman.
A doctor also suggested that since homosexuality was considered a moral issue, whereas transgenderism was considered a medical or psychiatric issue, being transgender was more socially acceptable than being gay at the time of filming. This relates strongly to the arguments of many anti-trans activists today – that young gay and lesbian people are being indoctrinated into changing their gender because of institutional homophobia. But this does not vindicate their arguments, only that they are stuck using the talking points of 40 years ago. It’s a damning indictment of the lack of progress on gender – especially in comparison to sexual liberation – that this screening of What Sex Am I? at the Glasgow Film Festival is so relevant and necessary today.