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What makes the man a woman?

by The Concordian March 6, 2012
What makes the man a woman?

Concordia has, over the past couple of years, been slowly adapting their policies to the needs of the transgender community. While the university has misunderstood the problems transgender students face at Concordia and has occasionally appeared insensitive, effort is, by and large, present. Confusion about pronouns and salutations is common for those without a trans friend or colleague. Even the most cautious of inquirers can be apprehensive about asking questions, lest they be inane or offensive. While the basics aren’t difficult to explain, it’s often a mystery to those without the fortune of knowing a trans person. If you’re curious, the two films at Cinema Politica next week will answer your questions.
You could call Monday’s offering a diptych: the two films—Switch: A Community in Transition and Orchids: My Intersex Adventure—both present tensions between sex and gender. The autobiographical documentaries deal with the same broad issue, but the source of tension comes from fundamentally different places. In Switch, Brooks Nelson—the film’s director, who also serves as its protagonist—is undergoing a transition from female to male. The film’s opening scene is perhaps its most poignant. Brooks’ girlfriend asks her four-year-old nephew whether Brooks is a man or a woman, and the child’s response illuminates the contrived nature of gender better than any textbook could: Brooks is a man “because he has short hair and wears boy clothes.” Obviously there’s more to gender than this, but when a child is ignorant of socially constructed gender, he or she assumes it is based on choice. Switch looks at the community in which Nelson lives, and how its members handle Brooks’ transition. It’s a hopeful film, as we see a wide spectrum of people understand, at different rates, the importance of a person being comfortable with their identity. Perhaps most encouraging is the church congregation that seems almost uninterested in the transition; as far as they are concerned, the clothes Nelson wears or the shape of his body have nothing to do with his character. While this may miss the deeper lessons of how society treats genders and the LGBTQ community, it shows the willingness of regular people to ignore appearances. If nothing else, it’s a strong foundation to teach on. But those closest to Nelson have their own issues they need to work through about his transition, and these may not be so obvious. For a friend who takes great comfort in having a fellow butch lesbian to identify with, Brooks’ transition feels somewhat like a betrayal. For Nelson’s mother-in-law, the doubling back of her daughter from having a girlfriend to having a boyfriend is confusing. But neither takes long to clarify that their issues are short-term and paltry.
Orchids presents a similar issue, but somewhat more complicated. Phoebe Hart, the subject and filmmaker, tells us about the rare condition she has called androgen insensitivity syndrome, which makes her intersex; she has both male and female reproductive tissue. She developed testes in the womb—and was born with them—but her body was resistant to androgen and so it never developed into the male form. She has no uterus, but otherwise is physically a woman.
Hart’s issues focus largely on how her parents have treated the issue, which was to hide it and encourage their daughters—Hart’s younger sister also has the condition—to do the same. They don’t seem embarrassed by their daughters, but they do seem sheepish about their condition. This is understandably painful for the younger Harts, and they set off on a road trip to reconcile their doubts and reaffirm their identities.
When it is boiled down, the subjects in both films face the same marginalization: name-calling and insensitive confusion about their sexual orientation. While Hart doesn’t get the sideways looks Brooks does, the reaction to her condition, when explained, tends to be stronger.
In the end, both subjects come to the same conclusion: their identity pushes people to a choice, and those who abandon ship weren’t worth it in the first place. In a lot of ways, “transitioning” describes their friends and families as well as it describes them, or perhaps more so: Brooks and Phoebe know who they are, despite what their bodies look like and now its up to those around them to prove who they are in their actions and reactions to their transgender peers.

Switch: A Community in Transition and Orchids: My Intersex Adventure are showing on March 12 at 7 p.m. in H-110. For more information, check out www.cinemapolitica.org/concordia.

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