“What’s the ‘T’?”: All Problematic, All the Time

By Leela Ginelle & Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly

We recently sat down to watch the new documentary “What’s the ‘T’?” – a seemingly well-intentioned, would be Trans 101 film gone very wrong, which is now streaming on Hulu. What follows are our takes on why this is an LGBTQ movie you might want to avoid.

Nick Mattos: A buxom blonde woman sashays around an immense San Francisco apartment with a lap dog under her arm, looking every bit the playboy bunny-turned-housewife-of-leisure. She turns toward the camera, gesticulating across her space, and exclaims joyously into the camera “This is where a tr-nny lives, America!”

No, really.

So begins What’s the T?, the 2013 film by first-time documentarian Cecilio Asuncion. Purporting to be a sort of “trans 101” introduction, the film — which follows five transwomen living in San Francisco and New York as they go through some extraordinarily banal experiences — instead seems to be an attempt to illustrate the ways in which the filmmaker views trans women’s lives as identical to those of urban gay men. As such, in certain ways it serves more as a meditation upon the modern gay male psyche than any sort of functional introduction to the realities of trans women’s lives.

Leela Ginelle: Any attempt to make a “Trans 101” documentary, which this film seems to aspire to be, would face trouble, since the trans community is so diverse, faces multitudinous problems along so many different intersections involving race and class, and is, after millennia of unrelentingly negative cultural representations, notoriously and justifiably, touchy.

“What’s the ‘T’?,” however, fails as an introduction on so many levels, that it can’t even be considered a good try. Director Asuncion interviews no experts, cites no statistics, and does nothing to ground his film’s subjects in their larger legal, medical, or historical settings. Conversely, he includes their own sometimes problematic definitions of seemingly “Trans 101” terms, and, bizarrely, offers his printed definitions of slang words like “Fish,” and locations, such as “The Castro” on the screen, leading one to wonder who the movie’s intended audience is.

Nick Mattos: According to the What’s the T? website, the documentary’s subjects “were carefully handpicked to become a part of this documentary because of their fascinating, intriguing stories that speak volumes on how transwomen are going to take over the world.” If so, the filmmakers’ concept of how to illustrate “taking over the world” is extremely bizarre and primarily involves putting on makeup, participating in the drag and piano bar scenes of cities with gay ghettoes, and exchanging catty comments and hookup anecdotes with sassy gay friends. Some of the women are obviously highly intelligent and articulate — Vi Le, for example, is completing a degree in cell biology with the intent to go on to med school, and Mia Tu Much is an accomplished community organizer and city youth commissioner. However, these tantalizing and fascinating accomplishments — and the subsequent questions they raise about how these women navigate in realms like academia, medicine, government, and politics with very little trans representation — are overlooked in lieu of focusing upon some at-times banal details. Instead, the filmmakers seemed to believe that Le’s failed audition for the X Factor and her taste for gay piano bars to be the most saliently interesting element of her character. As a result, the film often seems quite hollow, looking at these women in primarily shallow ways that simply don’t serve the subjects their due interest and attention.

Leela Ginelle: Vi Le is a great example of the odd priorities exhibited in the editing and story telling. I was curious to know whether she was out at her school, if becoming a trans competent health care provider was important to her, and what role her family, with whom she had had difficulties owing to her gender identity, played in her career choice. I was not so interested in watching her perform karaoke with her bewigged gay friends, or hearing their single entendre sex jokes.

The most interesting person profiled in the film, for me, was Rakesh Singh, a biracial nurse, who’d grown up in rural Maryland, and who now lives in New York City. While guarded and angry, Singh displayed real candor and a clear emotional depth. A different filmmaker using Singh as their subject could create a portrait of a woman whose transness was one part of their complex humanity. Here, her authenticity felt almost incongruous.

Nick Mattos: Singh really was a fascinating character, and you make a great point when you say that it was a lack of adroitness on the filmmaker’s part that prevented her from really shining in this documentary.

Ascuncion — whose background consists primarily of advertising and promotional work — displays a real and unmistakable talent when it comes to editing, filming, and stylizing what I assume to be the “product” that he was aiming for, which was a presentation of trans women’s lives that fit into a sort of Sex and the City mould and would convey to cis gay men that trans women should be included as part of a larger gay society. However, the problem is that this “product” and premise was simply flawed from the start. Yes, trans people are a vital part of modern queer culture, and they are a demographic that is often brutally misunderstood by others in the community, in part because, as you point out, the trans community is just so complex and the issues they face so nuanced. The solution for inclusion simply isn’t to gloss over the difficult aspects of understanding and including trans culture, though, or forcing it to fit into an established rubric of what constitutes “gay culture.” Overall, I hope that the process of making and distributing this film helped the subjects and filmmakers to be proud of themselves and their work; I also hope that young LGBTQ people do not view this film and think that this is the only option, or even a desirable option, for how a trans person’s life can look.

Leela Ginelle: Discovering books like Julia Serano’s “Whipping Girl” and Riki Wilchins’ “Queer Theory Gender Theory” as I began transitioning, written by a trans woman and a genderqueer author that explained in powerful, academic voices the experiences of their communities, was, for me, like encountering an oasis in a cultural desert. It would be great to have a documentary like that, by a trans* filmmaker that sought to, and achieved in, illuminating trans life. This film is so not that.

The rare instances in “What’s the ‘T’?” when a participant voices a real concern facing trans women’s lives, such as when Nya Ampon’s friend describes her frustration at encountering medical professionals unequipped to provide her with the care she needs, feel accidental, while moments like those when Cassandra Cass (the buxom blonde you described above) throws and receives shade with drag queens backstage before her performances strike one as the movie’s raison d’etre. Had I encountered this movie at the beginning of my transition, I’m afraid I would have come away very thirsty. I wouldn’t have presumed to make a film called “What’s the ‘G’?” or “What’s the ‘B’?” because I’m not gay or bi. It’s a shame, in my view, that Asuncion did not practice the same discretion. He clearly had affection for the women he profiled here, but he did not succeed, on any level, at answering the question he posed.