Inspired by educator and porn pioneer Buck Angel, Julie Gillis ponders what it is that makes a man.
I was lucky enough to be a panelist at this year’s SXSW Interactive and was able to see a number of amazing films and speakers. One such film was Mr. Angel a documentary directed by Dan Hunt, and it was raw, vulnerable, and honest.
“Shot over six years, Mr. Angel chronicles the extraordinary life of transgender advocate, educator and porn pioneer, Buck Angel. His in-your-face style of activism has audiences outraged by his insistence that he is ‘a man who happens to have a vagina.’
Buck has survived addiction, homelessness, suicide and relentless opposition to his gender expression. Still, he lives his truth without compromise or apology.
This feature length documentary explores Buck’s moving story to understand the complexities of someone who overcame incredible obstacles, then shamelessly sought the spotlight and its backlash, to share his message of empowerment. This is an inspirational story of rare perseverance and an unlikely hero.”
I will not state that I am an expert in terms of gender, gender binaries which hold sway in our current sexual discourse, transgender issues and politics, or why America is so damnably closed-minded about all of it. But I will say that I believe in the right to live comfortably in one’s own body, the right to love (consensually) the person(s) they love, and the right to live a life with health, education, and pleasure.
As such, this movie was right up my alley.
Buck Angel was born female but never felt female. Buck felt male inside and the inside did not match the outside and over the course of many years, began living life as a man, after deep strain with his family in and his personal life. The documentary follows personal interviews with Buck, his wife Elayne, Buck’s sister and parents, as well as friends and peers who have supported Buck through his transitions and growing career. The film captures that painful difficulty well, but also shows the amazing life Buck and Elayne have built, filled with love and reconciliation, fierce advocacy and intense hard work, focus and a passion for helping others.
It can be extremely hard to move through transition, and many people who move from a one gender into another do a complete physical transformation including genitals but what’s really thrown people for a loop, has been Buck’s resistance to that. He’s kept his vulva and vagina.
This really seems to rattle people, to put it mildly.
Of all the things in the film that struck me, it was that while people may (MAY) be beginning to understand that a person might have the wrong external gender to match their internal experience and that a full transition is needed, even medically, to help that person, keeping parts of both really just makes people lose it.
This full integration of Buck’s, of being a man who also has female genitals has led to people sending Buck hate mail, angry looks, deep stigmatization by various members of the LGBT communities, and even push-back from the adult movie industry, though that’s shifted more recently. The documentary itself took 6 years to film because it was nearly unfundable.
The resistance to Buck, to trans, to gender expression brings up such questions and feelings for me. What defines us? Our bodies? How our minds sit within our bodies? Are our minds actually part of our limbs, our cells in our core, our blood, and not just this division (another binary isn’t it mind and body) that we’ve decided on, that we have any control at all over how our inner experience needs to be expressed.
Why can’t a man have a vagina? Why can’t a woman have a penis? Why are we so hell-bent on believing that all the stuff that makes up our genitals is so different? It all starts out the same, the nerves work similarly. Our bodies are just not that different compared to how they could be.
And even less physically, what do any of us do when we meet someone that doesn’t “fit?” When a child, our own flesh and blood, doesn’t “fit” some preconceived and deeply culturally embedded idea of what “boy” or “girl” should be. Or women who feel masculine and aggressive but like their female bodies. Or men who feel feminine and shy and like their male bodies. Or any combination therein.
Even more, I think about how we treat people who risk everything just to find alignment with who they are, how that says everything about us as a people, and as a culture.
And right now we are failing, so hard.
We are so filled with fear and anger about sex, we are coated with shame and guilt and a desire to just tamp it all down into shiny easy to figure out boxes, when life just won’t be contained. It harms us all to live this way.
And it seems as simple as that, yes? Accepting people for who they are, for how they are, realizing that just as we may make inner transitions in our lives-marriage, jobs, getting sober, or not, going to school, moving…we may also have physical transitions.
But even the first are not easy are they? Change can mean death, fear, loss, across the boards. We are visual creatures, political creatures, group creatures, and perhaps we just can’t evolve ourselves (all together at least) fast enough to accept that others aren’t like “us.”
But WE aren’t even like “us,” that’s the thing! Who gets to define “normal?”
I wear pants, have had short hair. Feel at times quite masculine inside myself. Does that make me more or less of a woman? My clothes? Or style? I’m damn sure that nearly all of us have something that doesn’t feel like it “fits.” So why not embrace each other more? Help each other fit, rather than hide so fearfully, shutting people out. Take some steps like by supporting non profits like Trans Youth Family Allies, an amazing non-profit which supports families whose children are, or show signs of being, trans.
(FYI, Children often do their best to let parents know something is up, whether through clothing choices or other actions. The earlier parents can recognize and support their children, the more emotional and physical health and safety, not to mention love, those children will experience, just as they should.)
I want it to be easy, but it’s not easy, not at all. There are cultural and societal dynamics in the US that make it damn near impossible to even talk about sex, let alone live a fully integrated life if one doesn’t “fit” the norm, but that’s I write, that’s why so many of us, like Mr. Angel himself, advocate for education, acceptance, understanding.
We have to keep moving into the light of life and change, of play and hope, of possibility rather than limits, because change is gonna happen whether any of us like it or not.
The least we can do is try harder to be kinder to each other when it happens. If we can’t do that we are truly lost.
After seeing the film and meeting Mr. Angel himself, I can say this for certain; Buck Angel is an amazing man, as much because HE knows he is, never mind what we all worry about. That’s powerful, right there, that ownership of self and I respect him and his passion for honesty, presence, and being an advocate.
These are the things I think about, what Buck’s movie made me think about and that? That’s why I highly recommend this film. So that you’ll think about it, too.