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Mala Mala still
April Carrión in “Mala Mala”Photo by Adam Uhl

How one film pries open the trans experience

Mala Mala unveils a side of the trans community rarely seen – an intimate journey through sex work, activism and self-acceptance

Caitlyn, Laverne, Andreja, Hari – this year has already seen a number of high-profile trans people bust through one momentous glass ceiling after the other. But lest we forget that life as transgender still throws up a significantly larger portion of bullshit than the average cis person will ever have to deal with. New documentary Mala Mala proves a timely reminder that LGBT equality is still many miles off. The film follows nine very different trans people in Puerto Rico as they journey through sex work, activism and joyous self-acceptance. It’s an indelible watch that hones in not just on the persistent challenges underscoring the trans experience, but also the wide spectrum of dreams and realities it entails. Here, Sophia – one of the stars of Mala Mala – talks about three standout moments and what her transition has taught her about identity.

CHOOSING YOUR PATH AND PUTTING IN THE WORK

“When you first start transitioning, you can decide to be a daytime person or a night person. There comes a point in many people’s transition where somebody from the porn industry approaches you, or some guy wants to pay you to have sex, and it’s a conscious choice not to do that. For me, I always just wanted to be a regular, daytime working person. I worked very hard and said yes to every opportunity, and I was able to climb the corporate ladder that way. It’s hard, but I’m trying to show that there is a choice. There are a lot of girls in the film who only live at night, and it’s not the only way.

Transitioning is a lot of work. I spent at least ten years, sometimes up to an hour and a half twice a week, getting electrolysis. That takes real commitment, and it’s easy to get stuck in that thing where you just want throw on a lot of make-up and copy some ultra-glamorous woman. But it’s fine to want to just blend in and not be a spectacle. The transgender experience is different for everyone – it’s not black and white.”

“I felt like I had to just get in the mirror and sing to myself! Then I bought a dildo because it just cracked me up, and I’ve been singing into it ever since” – Sophia

EVERYONE NEEDS THE OCCASIONAL DRAG ATTACK

“I never wanted to be a performer, but I have been a ridiculous Barbra Streisand fanatic since I was about four years old. My mother gave me one of her cassettes and I used to sing along to it in the mirror all the time. It became a thing when I started giving myself hormone shots, because the shots would give me this strong feeling of desolation. I felt like I had to just get in the mirror and sing to myself! Then I bought a dildo because it just cracked me up, and I’ve been singing into it ever since. I call it a ‘drag attack’! When I told the directors about it they were like, ‘You have to show us the drag attack!’”

CAITLYN’S SPARKING CONVERSATION, BUT REAL PROGRESS MEANS REAL RIGHTS

“This is a great moment where transgender people are becoming much more visible, and that’s definitely the first step to more acceptance and tolerance. Having people like Caitlyn Jenner come out is really helpful in terms of allowing other people to stop hiding. I always wanted to be super stealth, but when I started making this film, I realized that I could do much more for people if I just got over myself and told people exactly what my deal is. One out of seven people know someone who is transgender. We need to start telling those people they’re the lucky ones!

That said, real progress means real civil rights and transgender people definitely don’t have that yet. Until I don’t have to pay for my hormones, until I won’t be turned down for a job or an apartment because I’m transgender, I will still feel like a second-class citizen.”

Mala Mala is out in US cinemas now