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Courtesy of Journeyman Pictures

Kai-Isaiah Jamal & T Cooper discuss trans masculinity in new film Man Made

The poet interviews the documentary’s director about the importance of representation, identity politics and moving the trans narrative away from suffering

Without realising, I’ve spent my whole life looking and hoping someone like me would look back. As a black trans man, I would wait for the moments another black masc person would pass me on the underground. I’d hold on to all the butches and dykes I know from the generation before mine. I’d fixate on anyone anywhere that allowed a comforting smile to stretch their face in a way only a sibling could. It’s taken 23 years to sit down and watch a documentary that feels like it’s speaking to me. It’s taken 23 years to know what it is I needed to hear. 

That is one of the magic things about the new beautiful feature-length documentary Man Made – directed by novelist and filmmaker T Cooper – it’s maybe the first time in which I have sat and watched something that centres around trans men from every walk of life. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the film follows the lives of a group of trans men in their preparation for the moment they step on stage at Trans FitCon – the first and only all-transgender bodybuilding competition, held annually in Atlanta. 

Watching the documentary gives us the opportunity to celebrate the euphoric moments of these incredible men, bravely baring parts of their self that they have battled and continue to battle with; here, we see them proudly standing tall – and rightly so. We see the four boys vulnerable too, and the film itself did bring a small tear to my eye – my T boys will know that’s not easy after hormones! 

We also get an insight into the day-to-day life of a trans person, revealing important narratives in a climate where trans identities are constantly being attacked. What comes to light, is that we are deserving of love, life, and the right to live inside a body that feels like it belongs to us. 

I was lucky enough to transcend time zones, borders and seas to grab T Cooper on the phone while he was in Atlanta. After conducting the interview I felt seen, heard, and energised. I ran upstairs to tell my girlfriend how much I loved T and talking to him. Speaking to him was affirming, a conversation between two trans men about a film about trans men. It was birthday and Christmas all at once. 

I urge everyone to watch the film, whoever you are. If only to watch someone becoming the best version of themselves – something we all crave. To all the trans boys that are here or still arriving, we promise you will see yourself; may our visibility mean you’re never alone. Here, I ask T about capturing the stories of Rese, Mason, Kennie, and Dominic.

I want to open this interview with a thank you, for creating the visibility that many of us weren’t afforded. Even as a 23-year-old, there are very few times in which I remember seeing one let alone five visibly unapologetic trans men. I have waited my entire life to see something like that. I wanted to talk to you about the casting of the documentary. When I first started seeking out other trans men online, I struggled to find trans boys and men who weren’t post-op, white, normative etc. Was it a conscious choice to involve a variety of narratives in the documentary?

T Cooper: I felt really similar to you, I didn’t feel like my story was represented out there. Sure, there are trans narratives that are getting a lot of attention, usually, however, they are trans feminine stories and as you know, they are often focused on violence and how the ripples of our lives affect others in bad ways. I read that as cis storytellers asking: ‘OK, how do I find a way to make people care about this?’ And the result is often to show deceptions of suffering. I get the impulse to show that suffering, but at a certain point, we have to get past that. We need to really recognise that our lives are a pie. Being trans is a part of it, but only one of twelve pieces. 

When I started working on the film, that was of the utmost importance. I wanted to find a sample of guys who could speak, not only to guys like us who need to see their story told but also those who had never considered our lives or that we even exist. In doing so, you have to be very mindful, you can’t have one guy being the spokesperson, so I was very picky in picking a selection of bodies and lives that weren’t from cities, were different races, religions, stages of transitions, etc. That’s what attracted me to the competition in the first place, everyone is seen for who they are and who they say they are. That’s what is beautiful about it for me and why I wanted to use it as the vehicle to document trans men’s lives at this cultural point in history. 

You really get that watching it. Throughout the documentary, there are moments in which we see how medically transitioning is vital and key in building the confidence of many of these trans men. However, the competition itself has no requirements for hormones or surgery, why do you think this is important?

T Cooper: As a trans creator and storyteller, I am careful to not front and centre surgery and medical transitioning, but at the same time it’s an aspect of the guys’ lives that I wanted to show. We see Dom on-stage pre-surgery and post-surgery and that to me is a huge part of his journey, so I was responding to that. But I also want to complement that with aspects of identity and human life that have nothing to do with the trans element of their lives. For example, Dom finding his biological mother online is as much about him becoming who he is as the surgery. 

Similarly to Kennie, who for the first time is openly saying he’s trans to his mum, partner, and friends. Yes, that is about transness but it’s also about him taking steps to become his own person for the first time. Being able to capture those things, you gather a full 360-degree view of our lives and our evolution as people and not only as trans people.

“For me, if you have heard one transition story, you have only heard one singular transition story. People don’t allow us the dignity to have our life paths go in the millions of different ways, like any other humans” – T Cooper 

People often forget about the moments of parallels between our trans experiences and cisgender experiences. Recently, a friend and I were both going through the process of changing our names, for different reasons but it was an important moment for her to realise the human general moments of my transition, as opposed to the idea or theory that she had gathered via media representation of who we are and what we go through.

T Cooper: Yeah! What else would folks think when the only story presented to them is around our hardship? The cis lens is always going to be ‘tell me about your suffering’. For me, if you have heard one transition story, you have only heard one singular transition story. People don’t allow us the dignity to have our life paths go in the millions of different ways, like any other humans. That is what we do as humans, we change but everyone is so scared of that big change that it erases any other human evolution.

I want to talk to you about Kennie’s story. His was one that hit home for me, as I have often worried about relationships with sexual or romantic partners changing throughout my transition. The idea of becoming a passable man is something I equally crave and resist, my proximity or allowance to identify as a dyke was something I’m only just finding a way to get back to. The moment in which Kennie’s partner, DJ openly speaks about the fear of not being sexually attracted to him while hormones/surgery take shape of his body is really difficult to watch. Do you think inside the community there is a true understanding of the intersections of trans identities in a time in which lesbian culture is being painted as on the verge of being erased, due to the inclusion of trans men identifying as lesbians, dykes etc?

T Cooper: I’ve been in activist communities since the 90s and a lot of the conversations we were having (granted there was not a lot of us) were around starting to learn about the possibilities. There was no YouTube or movies then, there was nothing for me to look at and think, that’s a possibility for my life. So, these intersectional conversations I have been part of for a long time, but this feels like a new version of it. 

For me, it all boils down to a fundamental breakdown in boundaries and what healthy boundaries are. This means however you identify, be that sexually, gender, etc literally has nothing to do with my identification. With lesbian identity, because it’s female-based and we live in a fundamentally sexist culture, I understand the unfortunate suspicion of ‘former lesbians’ (which are not what we are but what we are seen as) becoming men and giving over to the patriarchy, I get it. 

In terms of the movie and Kennie and DJ’s relationship, we see this via the honesty she gave. I felt extremely lucky that she opened up that way. Her identity and what she gave up to be a lesbian is no less or more important than Kennie as a trans man and if that isn’t compatible anymore, that is life. That too happens in cishet relationships! How do other people’s identities change us or not? To me, all relationships, with friends, lovers, or family change and evolve.

That was something I thought about after, this moment was shown with tenderness and care, not with animosity. It was her saying in some senses, I love you, but I love myself that bit more. Which in essence was a huge part of my mantra throughout transition. 

T Cooper: Obviously I toured with the film, from all-trans indie festivals to super mainstream and everywhere in between. It was really interesting to see the response, people were like booing and hissing. She was simply speaking her truth. I guess though it does evoke emotions around being unlovable and doing something to ourselves that could create that. On the mainstream side, people did also speak about the level of change that can be found in most relationships. I think it did bring up emotions in most of the audience’s lives.

For a lot of us, that moment was hard to digest due to the rawness and authenticity of it. Fetishisation and sensationalism are two things that usually crop up when I’m watching queer-centred films or documentaries, usually because of the cishet gaze it’s wrapped in with a non-queer cast or cishet directors. For you, how important was it for you to tell this story? What is it to be a trans guy documenting other trans guys experiences, I wonder did it take you back to any moments in your own journey?

T Cooper: Yes, we are usually a side-joke, if at all. More often we are totally invisible. Usually, we are dropping a dick on a floor as if we can’t use it. I have to be honest, there are a lot of films about trans people that were made by cis people that were in and around my ear. It’s so familiar to see the cis gazes of ‘difference’ at every point and every picture is about struggling with being trans because they are the images that are familiar to those in power, that is what gets bought up! 

I found that part of the success with Man Made is because I’m a trans person giving an all-round picture of lives that you’ve never seen before. The fact that that film didn’t get bought, but others created by white, cis usually straight guys are isn’t me feeling bitter, it’s a fact. We have had incredible press coverage, but we’re still at a point in which we aren’t trusted to tell our own stories. So, the very act of making this film was a political statement for me.

Who was your most surprising audience?

T Cooper: Every day in the edit I was stressed and conscious of wanting guys like me to resonate and feel seen but also a random person who might come across it on Amazon. I felt so much pressure to do that, so I didn’t keep my audience in mind. Though it’s impossible, I did want it to be everything to everyone and I am not saying I did that, but I did hit a lot of marks. The most surprising one was the straight cis guys who said they felt or thought differently about their masculinity after watching this film.

That must have been one of the best successes, to be able to know people are reevaluating something they have been conditioned to know for such a long time, merely by seeing someone else’s existence. There is something to be said in that.

T Cooper: Yeah and that’s what storytelling is all about!

I didn’t want to get dark because one of the main things echoed in this documentary for me was a trans story outside of the portrayal of solely pain, struggle, and hardship. But, there is a scene in which Rese and Tia’s friend Crystal is shot, he repeats over and over: ‘Stop killing us, stop killing my friends’. Right now we are in what can only be called an epidemic of violence towards the trans community globally. What do you think we need to ensure our safety as trans and non-binary people from friends and allies?

T Cooper: On the human level, I would say when you have moments of interactions with trans people whether friends, family, or strangers. From the smallest act of a co-worker using correct pronouns and reaching out after hearing somebody use incorrect ones. Just personal things that you can do on the daily. 

When I was out there begging for money to put towards this project, people would give 25 or 100 dollars to help bring this film come to life. Most of the world doesn’t give a fuck and they want people like myself to quit. But to those that can give to projects like this, give! It literally meant I could jump on a plane and follow Rese and now there’s a document of him walking through the world being so vulnerable, with no place in the men’s shelter or in the women’s. 

So, if you can, help even in small ways. Literally our right to have a job is being debated right now! I volunteer for a hotline, in which you can call an actual trans person and our reaction to how you’re feeling will be understood. Whatever you can do to contribute where you think it matters, please do, because it goes a long way.

So T, tell me what’s next? What has 2020 got in store?

T Cooper: I do stuff from very small indie, self-started projects that are from to heart, all the way to super mainstream. Currently, I’m working on a series in the US called The Blacklist, which is a spy thriller and this is my second year writing and producing for them. I co-write with my wife and the episode is being shot in New York. I was able to cast one of my all-time stars, who is all of our mothers. It was a really meaningful moment being able to bring a diverse cast to even the corporate mainstream projects I work on and I want to try to do that wherever I am. 

I also shot a music video in which I cast 25 trans people. So everyone you see, even those just walking past, are trans. Even if there’s a dog – it’s a trans dog (laughs). That’s coming out in March. I teach writing in Atlanta and have another book that’s in me and I’m working on. I’m a firm believer that whatever the subject matter is, that should dictate the genre or medium that it comes out in.