Overcoming an `accident'

TV Preview

May 03, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

With so many series - from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to Changing Rooms - finding big audiences with their formula of cosmetic makeover, it is easy to forget that there is more to true transformation than the instant gratification of a great haircut or a shiny coat of designer paint. The Opposite Sex: Rene's Story, a Showtime documentary that chronicles an all-important life passage for a transgendered male, is a wise and welcome reminder of how perilous and long the journey can be from before to after.

Directed by Oscar nominee Josh Aronson (Sound and Fury), the film tells the story of Rene, who was born female. By age 8, Rene was insisting to his mother that he was a boy, because that's the way he "felt inside," and, so, he lived his life accordingly.

Viewers meet Rene at age 31. He's a slim but muscular California truck driver married for 12 years to Wona, a 28-year-old heterosexual woman. They have two small children who came to live with them in the last year. The biological parents of the children are related to Rene, but it is he and Wona that the kids call dad and mom, even though they are not formally adopted.

If all of that sounds a bit unconventional, that's the point. It is also the triumph of this film as Aronson takes viewers inside the psyche and soul of Rene until it is all but impossible to not to feel his anguish, determination and hope of overcoming what he sees as an "accident made by nature."

Rene's Story is the most eloquent and empathetic chronicle of the transgendered experience that television has offered. It has the emotional punch of the feature film Boys Don't Cry, but it explains so much more about the transgendered psyche as viewers follow Rene on his journey to what he sees as masculine fulfillment.

The journey involves Rene visiting people in his life who matter to him so that he can try to explain his gender history and hopes. Because many have known him only as a man, the results are often emotionally complicated.

One of the most painful encounters involves Rene sharing his secret with his pastor. The man, who is interviewed in the film, promptly takes the information to his council of elders, members of which come the home of Rene and Wona to tell them Rene is an "abomination." Without telling Rene and Wona in advance, the pastor also takes it upon himself the next Sunday to tell the entire congregation. When Rene and Wona arrive for services, they are turned away.

Wona, who had never been with another man, sees Rene for the first time through the eyes of others - the pastor and church elders - and the marriage starts to unravel, though she truly seems to love Rene. But even as his marriage falls apart, Rene charges toward his lifelong dream of surgery to change his gender identity.

"Inside my soul," he tells his older brother, "I am a man. And now, I have the chance to make the inside and outside match. For the first time in my life, my body and soul will match."

Aronson shows viewers the operation, with much of it offered in a slow-motion montage as Rene is heard in voiceover repeating the prayer he said with Wona and his mother before going into the operating room. It's moving - but be warned, it is also graphic.

Showtime deserves credit for handling this story in such a responsible and sensitive manner. The film is followed by a half-hour panel discussion tonight, and next month Showtime will offer a companion piece, The Opposite Sex: Jamie's Story, about a transgendered woman.

"People should know how fortunate they are that their gender and sex match," Rene says in the film.

Rene's Story is a study in gender, masculinity, love, ignorance, courage and knowledge. It's the story of a man willing to pay a steep price for something most of us get for free at birth.

Rene's Story

Where: Showtime

When: Tonight at 9

In brief: An eloquent chronicle of a transgendered journey.

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