We open with two people walking on a beach, almost literally talking about Life, the Universe and Everything. They seem to disagree on the existence of God, but are united that change comes through evolution not divine intervention. And that this evolution is about much more than monkeys and turtles but on how we live, and what we do with our bodies.
Trans – I Got Life introduces us to 7 trans men and women. Some are still in transition, others had the Op years ago. Their ages and life stories are quite varied, but most of them are from conservative, Catholic Bavaria (one seems to be from conservative, Catholic Austria). And all are happy – or at the very least, they were unhappy before they decided to transition, but feel much better about themselves now.
One by one, we meet them. There’s Frau Oberst Landsteiner, who runs equal opportunities courses for the army. Mik, also known as Panci, former female ice hockey champion, who feels even stronger with his extra testosterone. Julius, a bus driver and some time singer, and Verena a former lorry driver.
We first meet Verena teetering on the edge of a cemetery. In an almost impenetrable Bavarian accent, she explains that her colleagues in Munich know her as a women, but in her home village things are much more difficult. In their presence, she tends to hide behind a man’s greatcoat. Here she wants to visit her grandmother’s grave, but people are there, and if she went in a dress there would be no going back.
Jana is the youngest of the group, and seems to spend most of her time posting photographs of herself on social media. When talking about how her life has changed, she says that she’s now beautiful, and immediately apologizes for her vanity. But she really is beautiful – a world away from transphobic clichés of women looking like men in a dress.
Then there’s Conny, who in her previous life was an aspiring rally driver. One day while racing she had an epiphany. There was a he, who had his foot down on the accelerator and was headed to either great success or a nasty accident. And there was a she who was scared of the speed and just wanted to get out of the car. This was when Harald put his old ways behind him and became Conny.
Many of the interviewees do indeed talk of a previous life, but their relationship with their former selves is complicated. Julius explains that his past enables him to understand women better. Others do not miss the old life as such, but are conscious that they have evolved and feel better for it. All acknowledge that however much fun they had in their past, they could not feel comfortable in their old bodies.
Linking all of them is the affable Doctor Jürgen Schaff, a plastic surgeon who has performed over 9,000 operations on and for trans people. Of course, you’re never sure how much an appearance in a documentary corresponds with reality, but Schaff does come across as motivated by a sense of public service, not the money. He talks eloquently and movingly of the lives ruined of people who are not allowed by society to transition.
Although everyone seems to be very happy now, many talk of sacrifices – of friends and family lost. On the day before she outed herself, Oberst Landsteiner went out drinking with fellow soldiers and they all shook hands at the end. After she presented herself as a woman, all were still friendly but many were unwilling to offer their hand.
Jana was blessed with both an intolerant father and a Saintly mother. While her father refused to acknowledge her sexuality, her mother (who kicked the father into touch early on) has accompanied her at every step through her transition. In a memorable scene, the mother explains in detail how they selected the exact date before Jana’s voice dropped and she hit puberty too hard, while Jana squirms in the background In embarrassment.
It would have been possible, and even legitimate, to show more pain. Although we do hear tales of individual rejection, there’s little hardcore transphobia reported here. The one exception is one of Dr. Schaff’s Russian patients who says that walking down the street in women’s clothing before you look female could and does result in a serious beating. And that even after transition, the prejudice of employers means that most trans people in Russia are forced into prostitution.
Yet while there are certainly trans people who have been the victims of extreme prejudice, I find the joy in this film to be thoroughly justified. We read so many hateful articles about trans people nowadays that it simply needs saying that transitioning is not just permissible – for some people it means the difference between a miserable and fulfilled life. In its contribution to showing this, Trans – I Got Life is a film which must be celebrated. Go see.