Few things are solely what they appear to be on initial study. When we realize this, we learn to dig deeper. All successful people see the variants as well as the commonalities, whether in business, artistic endeavors, or interpersonally. The ability to see humanity as something not just innately beautiful but complex and ever evolving is a skillset honed on the roadway toward empathy.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably don’t have empathy yet, but you’ll get there. Don’t worry about it. I have faith in you, because I have empathy. I feel your pain because I used to be you, even though now I’m me. I’m being facetious, but aren’t we, at least metaphorically, somebody we were, yet having become who we are—our better selves, in hopeful cases?
This is a story about the person you grew up imagining yourself evolving into. You stayed awake at night, strategizing about this better self. You wanted it badly, enough to change a few things, maybe enough to change everything.
At the end of the day, this is your life. You knew deeply that you would not be stuck with only what was given to you.
I talked about this with T Cooper, the filmmaker of “Man Made,” a feature documentary following four transgender bodybuilders as they prepare for the 2018 Trans Fit Con competition in Atlanta, Georgia. We discussed the universality of wanting to be one’s true self, and building the body and life that we want along the way.
In addition to your film challenging a viewer to invest in it emotionally, for many people it might be a challenge ideologically, or a challenge to their religious beliefs, or even a challenge to the millions of things they attach to personally that allow them to define their gender. Do you see the film as a challenge to viewers in that way?
Yeah, definitely. As a member of the community that I’m portraying and telling the stories about, my kind of inside-out perspective is very different from any viewer, except perhaps from someone else in the same community. So, when I set out to tell these stories, my first and foremost concern has always been about compelling narratives, not necessarily about transitions.
I think the stories that folks are used to seeing about the transgender community are stories that are about the otherness of trans people, and thus focus on transition and on the peculiarities. Mainly, how horrible life is for trans people or those that love trans people or who are in their communities. You see a lot of trans stories that are about, for instance, people who are murdered or injured or some horrible thing befalls them. They end up raped or killed as a result of being trans. So, it heightens this mantra of “You should care about these people because look what’s happening to them.” That’s good, in a way, and every kind of civil rights movement has that moment, but I’d like to think we’re moving past that moment and, with this film, I would like to take us there.
The stories of these guys’ lives are just so much bigger than either their transition or bodybuilding. Their lives are 360-degree lives that are incredibly relatable in universal ways.
From the minute we’re born to the minute we die, we’re all changing and adapting and, I would even say, transitioning to different stages. Ultimately, that’s about growing empathy. Pretty soon into watching this film, the “transness” of the film falls away, the bodybuilding of it falls away. I hope that the universality of it bubbles to the top.
In your book, “The Real Man Adventures,” you write about waiting for the day when you’re considered just a man instead of a “transgender man.” So, I want to be careful with labeling when I talk about you or the film, but I also want to be true to your creative impulse to make this film and explore those identities, and to the actuality of you as a member of the transgender community. I mean to say that I want to talk about transgender transformations without rooting the story in the past, which is some identity you used to have.
It’s an unfortunate complication. We’re at a cultural place where it’s important for the transgender community to tell our own story because for so long we have not been allowed to tell our own stories in large ways. I would love to be able to make this film and make all my work trans related or not and just be me, a dude who is a writer and a professor and a filmmaker and a TV writer. I would like that, but I just don’t think we’re at that moment culturally yet because there can still only be one trans story at this film festival, there could only be one at that film festival, at this network, “Oh, we already have our trans story for the year,” and so on. I’m on the ground right now in a variety of mediums, and I’m seeing that and hearing that. So, until we’re at a point where it’s just a good story, I unfortunately need to be identified and labeled.
And listen, we’re not even there with women’s stories yet. The networks are like, “Oh, we already have a women’s show.” Women are more than half the population and their stories are still not. It’s crazy that women’s stories are thought of as “other” stories due to the epic male journey being prioritized.
You read in the New York Times, “This is a female coming of age, chick lit, or whatever it is… Here’s the one Asian-American story, here’s the one gay story, here’s the one black story…”
I’m just saying, unfortunately, the otherness of it is still a tag, so I think you’re right, but for me, again, it’s about building empathy and not in a “trans people are just like us” kind of a way. I want people to relate to one or two things in this person’s life that they literally thought they had nothing in common with. To me, that’s a win.
At one point in the movie, Mason, a finely crafted bodybuilder, enters a so-called regular bodybuilding competition, meaning non-trans. In a scene in a spray tan area prior to the competition, Mason is wearing a thong as his tan dries. Although he’s covered, he obviously has some version of female anatomy below the waist, or something that’s at least not traditional male anatomy. He’s clearly uncomfortable being surrounded by other competitors in various stages of undress. What is Mason dealing with in that moment?
That scene was in a hotel, and there was one room for tanning, and the other was just a bunch of naked guys drying themselves in the fan while NFL football played in the background. I think what he’s willing to do, expose himself like that in front of other men, represents how much he loves the sport of bodybuilding.
You can’t put a finer point on it than to say the sport literally saved his life, and that’s not being dramatic. And, like he says in the film, he’s never even been naked in front of his wife, but he’s been naked in front of these men. That’s what people don’t understand about all the bathroom rules, all the laws, and all the stereotypes for bathrooms. I mean, obviously in the men’s room nobody gives a fuck what anyone’s doing, right? Nobody is looking at each other. Whether you’re in a stall or at a urinal and you’re pissing—no one gives a shit. So, there was an aspect of that going on in that room. I don’t think anyone was looking at each other’s junk, and that’s the point.
But I think, in that moment, it was a different tanning set-up than he’s used to, which is being with just the tanning person. I don’t think he realized that, in this situation, he was going to be on such display with all the guys.
What do you say to those who believe a transgender bodybuilder who competes is cheating because he needs to take male hormones?
I personally believe that there’s no difference between him or you training to become a competitor. When people know about him being transgender, he sometimes isn’t allowed to compete because, in their minds, him taking testosterone to get his levels up to that of a cisgender male (someone who identifies as male based on their birth sex) is doping, or not clean. But a guy like Mason, who is competing in national contests like those held by the National Physique Committee, is only taking what any trans man would be taking, which is literally just enough testosterone to get his level to be that of what an average cisgender man’s testosterone levels are. He has no advantage. If anything, he has a disadvantage because he’s been on testosterone for less time than any cisgender male who started being on testosterone when they started puberty.
What you’re saying is that he only takes the amount of testosterone that gets him up to par for the baseline male who is not using it as a performance-enhancing drug?
Yeah, it’s just getting testosterone levels to the normal range for any cisgender male, which is not the same as bodybuilders who start at that baseline then take extra amounts, which is what is considered “doping.” The NCAA and the United States Olympic Committee understand that, and they have handled transgender athletes very well.
You follow a handful of others in the film, besides Mason, on their path to the Trans Fit Con bodybuilding competition. What parts of their stories spoke to you and distinguished them as people you should follow?
For me, it’s not about bodybuilding—or I should say, to me, we’re all bodybuilders. We all shape, and change, and form our lives and our bodies. So, the metaphor of it applied to everyone in the film, even though a lot of them don’t look like traditional bodybuilders. At Trans Fit Con, there was a place for everybody to be met where they were. Whatever their hard work meant for them, there was the space for them to show that off.
You know, none of us transition the same way. None of our lives are the same. It’s not one trans story for every transgender person. Some guys are so different in so many ways, and they just share that one thing, which is a love of working out, and fitness, and, for some of them, bodybuilding. They’re different in age, race, familial acceptance, relationship status, and geography. There are all these different ways that these guys are diverse.
But there’s a lot of media that you see about trans lives that makes it seem like there’s just one thing. Like: “I’m a sad man. And I sit here, and I cry, and then I transition, and it ruins everyone’s life around me, but then I’m happy.” There’s this traditional transition-based trans narrative and that’s not what these guys’ stories were.
We do a lot of transformation stories on Bodybuilding.com. Maybe the subjects were overweight, or skinny, or they had an injury that they’re recovering from, or they’re going through emotional things. Regardless, these individuals all see fitness as saving their life in so many ways. But, that metaphor of the transition is so much bigger, too, because almost all of us are always at odds with the person we were born as, versus the person we’re trying to become.
That’s how I see it. We all go out into the world, we’re pushed out there as whatever we are, whatever we’re given, and then it’s all up to us. We all build our bodies and build our lives, and even though this is just a little bit more explicit in some ways, the life-building that’s going on is way more important than what was before it. So, bodybuilding to me is just a lovely metaphor for my story, and for a lot of compelling stories.
“Man Made” is screening on June 16 and June 21, 2018, as part of the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, and also on July 21, 2018, as part of Outfest Los Angeles.