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Transsexuality in Film  
 
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Most of the whodunits and comedies that exploit transsexuality for its shock value also provide sober, if uninformed, "informational" segments delivered by a designated expert. A doctor solemnly recounts how his patient was "cured" by sex-change surgery in Glen or Glenda.

In Dressed to Kill a detective fields questions about the homicidal psychiatrist, explaining that Dr. Elliot was "a transsexual, about to take the final step, but his male side couldn't let him do it. . . . All they want to do is get their sex changed."

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"How do they do that?"
"Penectomy."
"What's that?"
"Well, you know, when they take your penis and slice it down the middle."

True Stories of Transsexuals

Not until the late 1990s, with small budget films such as Richard Spence's Different for Girls (1996), do we get reliable information about transsexuality delivered by insiders in drama. But almost a decade earlier, first-person accounts had already begun to appear in a number of documentaries that tell of the heavy price paid by transsexuals: the physical pain and financial drain of surgery, the loss of jobs, the incomprehension and rejection by family and friends.

For example, Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1990), a documentary about the elaborate drag and voguing balls of gay Harlem, includes extensive interviews with a transsexual prostitute who was murdered shortly after the filming.

John Paul Davidson's Boys from Brazil (1993) captures the bittersweet lives of Rio de Janeiro's "travesti," prostitutes who live their lives as women, taking hormones and injecting silicone into their breasts, buttocks, and hips.

Kate Davis's Southern Comfort (2001) follows the final year in the life of Robert Eads, a 52-year-old transsexual from the back hills of Georgia, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer after having lived as a man for many years.

True stories of transsexuals have also been dramatized, including Irving Rapper's The Christine Jorgensen Story (1970) and a made-for television biography, Anthony Page's Second Serve (1986), the life of male-surgeon-turned-women's-pro-tennis player Renee Richards.

Kimberly Peirce's acclaimed Boys Don't Cry (2000) is based on the life of Brandon Teena, formerly Teena Brandon, who moved to a small Nebraska town to live as a man. Perhaps it is telling that, in this rare depiction of a female-to-male transsexual, Brandon meets one of the most brutal ends in cinematic memory. He is brutally raped and murdered when revelations of his biological sex threaten the masculinity of his young male acquaintances.

Original Dramas

A few low-budget original dramas explore transsexuality with something other than the freakish curiosity of the thrillers and farces. John Dexter's I Want What I Want (1971), released the year after Christine Jorgensen's autobiography appeared, is a transsexual coming-of-age story. The film portrays a young person's painful development from a secret cross-dresser named Roy to a transsexual woman named Wendy, who falls in love with an abusive man.

The celluloid heir to Roy/Wendy's journey is Karl/Kim in Different for Girls, but Kim's story has a happier ending as she refuses to be rejected or abused. Kim began life as Karl, an effeminate man whose only defender from schoolyard taunts was Prentice.

When the two friends run into each other as adults, four years after Kim's sex-change, Kim is a prim, defensive greeting card writer who hides from the world, while Prentice is a volatile, immature bike messenger. As their relationship blossoms, Kim learns to enjoy life, and Prentice's acceptance of Kim as a woman prompts his own growing up.

Additional films in which transsexuals are depicted as touchstones for other people's journeys toward tolerance and maturity include Tod Williams' The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (1998), in which a young man moves to New York to live with his stepfather Hank, now Henrietta, and the two develop a positive relationship.

Armistead Maupin's two-part Tales of the City (1994, 1997), based on his series of novels and directed by Pierre Gang, depicts a group of San Francisco bohemians presided over by Olympia Dukakis' Mrs. Madrigal, a pot-smoking, transsexual landlady who serves as an unlikely mentor to her young tenants.

Robert Altman's Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) portrays the reunion of a group of friends in a small Texas town that leads to a sharing of their most painful secrets, including transsexualism.

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