Tuesday, October 11, 2016

From This Day Forward (Sharon Shattuck Productions/PBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I turned the TV back on and watched From This Day Forward, a quite compelling and unusual documentary from filmmaker Sharon Shattuck about her Transgender father Trisha Marie, nèe Michael, and the effect his/her “coming out” had on his wife Martha and their two daughters, Sharon and her younger sister Laura. Michael and Martha Shattuck met in Chicago and got married there, but when the kids were still in grade school they decided to relocate to rural Michigan. What made this unusual was that Trisha Shattuck has not done a definitive gender transition, largely out of respect for the feelings of his wife and his desire to stay in a relationship with her even though she’s cisgender and heterosexual. Instead she appears as a woman in some scenes and as a man in others, and though she’s shown taking hormone treatments (we get an odd close-up showing just how big and thick the needle and syringe needed to administer them is) it’s not at all clear how consistently she takes them. Trisha — Michael, as he was then — was up-front with his girlfriend and wife-to-be from their second or third date on, when he took her to his closet and showed her his collection of women’s clothes.

But it would take years before he was comfortable with appearing publicly as a woman and being honest with the children — and while Sharon was old enough by the time her dad came out as Transgender to handle it relatively well, Laura was in middle school and was absolutely devastated that her dad was doing this to her and setting her up for the relentless and remorseless teasing and bullying she was going to get from the other students. I thought I knew a lot about Transgender people from the previous books I’ve read, films I’ve seen and, most importantly, the interviews I’ve done with them, but this film taught me a few things — in some ways it’s a feast day for anyone who thinks “gender” is a socially constructed concept, because Trisha is neither the male her genetics made her nor a totally “transitioned” Transwoman. The film is quite beautiful not only in showing us the range of options through which we can present ourselves — the continuum between total cis-male and total cis-female — but in being honest about the hurt people seeking their own path to happiness can sometimes wreak on those who love them and those they’re responsible for. It’s also the sort of film that couldn’t have been made before the modern age of cheap smartphone video and its democratization of filmmaking; though Sharon Shattuck is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker whose previous productions have been animated films for television (From This Day Forward appears to be her first foray into live action), she frequently yields the camera to both her parents and many of the most astonishing moments in the movie are told from dad’s point of view, as she talks about her dual life, shows off her paintings (she’s an accomplished artist who works as a landscape gardener, while her wife is a doctor — and when the kids were young Martha was the family’s principal breadwinner and Michael mostly a stay-at-home dad, a role he found fulfilling because it was as close as he could ever come to be a mother) and explains how their contents reveal where s/he was psychologically in the various stages of his/her transition.

The events of the last two years, particularly the celebrity comings-out of Chas Bono and Caitlyn Jenner, have definitely improved the average person’s awareness that Transgender people exist and at least some of what they go through, but most folks who think about Transgender people at all still think of them in terms of the gender binary — they identify as XX but were born in an XY body, or vice versa — whereas films like From This Day Forward showcase the myriad of possibilities in between the two gender extremes. From This Day Forward also shows the traumas the Transgender person can put the people in their families through and how one person’s self-discovery can be another person’s deep-rooted pain. Trisha Shattuck went through quite a lot to modify her physical appearance to be more female — first electrolysis (the acutely painful and time-consuming process of burning out every follicle of facial hair so they don’t have to worry about a three o’clock shadow “outing” them as genetically male), then cosmetic surgery to smooth down the eyebrows (a particularly painful part of the process — Trisha recalls that the wounds bled profusely and out of all the nurses in the hospital the only one who would tend to her was a Gay one) and minimize the Adam’s apple, then hormone treatments — along with a name change, which under Michigan law had to be publicized with a legal notice in the local newspaper, and that was a trauma for Trisha because she was sure people would notice her ad to change her name from Michael to Trisha and that would “out” her — but she grew back from the final gender-reassignment operation, obviously because she still wanted to be able to make love to her wife and she couldn’t do that unless, at least in bed with the lights out and no one there but the two of them, she presented as fully anatomically male. (This may also be why Trisha made her hormone treatments intermittent; Trans people I’ve known have told me that if you’re on estrogen, even if you still have a penis, it loses the ability to get an erection.)

The suspense the film is built around concerns daughter Sharon meeting, falling in love with and agreeing to marry a man, Jonathan Eaves, and what will her dad wear to the wedding — a suit or a dress? At first Trisha seems fully determined to wear the dress, and even has one picked out: a nice black number that looks decidedly retro, like something Ginger Rogers would have danced in with Fred Astaire (a comparison actually made in the dialogue) — but eventually she settles for a suit, and about the only concession to femininity is that she wears it with an elaborately colored silk scarf instead of a tie. From This Day Forward is quite a moving story, and while I wouldn’t go as far as the person at a screening quoted by an imdb.com reviewer as saying, “I want to live in that world” — even with people as incredibly supportive as her daughters and especially her wife, Trisha Shattuck still has a lot of hardships (and quite frankly, at least in part because she started her transition so late, she doesn’t look all that convincing as a woman — I was frankly reminded of Boris Karloff in his drag role as “Miss Muffin” in the 1960’s TV show The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.), and it’s difficult for anyone who isn’t Transgender to understand the sheer wretchedness and hopelessness of realizing you’ve been born into the wrong body for your psychological sense of gender, and the amount of work you need to do to win your way to acceptance, self-love and then the love of others — but if a movie like this (or even my friendships with Trans people) can’t make me feel what it would be like to be Transgender, at least it can do the next best thing: engender, not “sympathy” (with all its patronizing connotations) but empathy with Trans people, what they’ve gone through and how powerful they’ve had to be to survive, accept themselves and present to the world as who they are with no apologies or ill feelings.