A new documentary explores the pain of living with the wrong gender felt by female-to-male transsexual Buck Angel. But as the trans community role model tells DONALD CLARKE, he has also been fortunate enough to live as the person he wanted to be
AT FIRST I just hear the voice. Through the wonders of Skype, I have made audio contact with Buck Angel, transsexual role model, but the pictures have yet to appear. A friendly, mildly camp voice fusses at the other end. “Just getting it ready. Here we are.” And suddenly it seems as if, from the neck up, anyway, I am looking at a version of myself. A balding gentleman with spectacles and reddish stubble, Angel has a very Irish head on his mighty shoulders. If it weren’t for the tendons swelling beneath his trunk of a neck, I could just about imagine I was looking into a mirror.
“Yes, people think that all white guys of an age look alike. Don’t they?” he acknowledges.
He does himself a disservice. The archipelago of muscles dotted neatly about his wedge of a body sets him apart from the average, weedy Irish journalist.
It is, however, what happens (or doesn’t happen) below the torso that defines the cult of Buck Angel. A star of adult cinema and an engaging public speaker, Angel is happy to describe himself as a “man with a pussy”.
Born as a girl, raised in blue-collar southern California, he made the transition some 20 years ago and has spent the interim enjoying hitherto unimaginable peace of mind.
The transman community has relatively few high-profile role models. But Angel is a big enough personality to take up the slack all on his own. This weekend he flies to Ireland for the Gaze Dublin International LGBT Film Festival. After a screening of Sexing the Transman, a documentary on female-to-male gender reassignment, he will talk with the audience about his eventful life.
“Am I a role model? That’s a tough question. I know I’ve become that. I can’t deny that. But it was certainly never my intention to become a role model. I do want people to believe they can become what they want to become. That’s why I became a motivational speaker. I don’t think I am a bad role model. But I’m not for everybody because of what I choose to do around sex. Not everybody would think that’s a great thing to do.”
He has a point. The politics of pornography remain brain-numbingly entangled. For every persuasive libertarian argument there is another equally forceful case about exploitation by proxy. The industry briefly gained intellectual respectability in the early 1970s – that bizarre Deep Throat boom – then, after revelations about exploitation and abuse, rapidly sank underground again.
Buck is, however, convinced that adult cinema need not feel ashamed of itself. His films blur all defining boundaries. In the colourfully titled Allanah Starr’s Big Boob Adventures, he is alleged to have participated in the first filmed sex scene between a male-to-female transsexual and a female-to-male transsexual. Is this still “LGBT” porn? Who knows? Who cares?
“I am interested in more intimate sex,” he says. “You get to see the actors interact with each other on an more intimate level. Look, it happens that the porn industry gets a bad rap. There are a lot of people in the porn industry who perhaps shouldn’t be making porn. For me it’s important to make pornography not a dirty word. I do want to bring an educational approach to the industry.”
He touches on an important point. Theoretical arguments about the ethics of representing explicit sexual activity for the purposes of arousal will spiral endlessly before (appropriately enough) disappearing up the combatants’ lower orifices. But it can’t be denied that, over the years, some shady characters have controlled the pornography business. With the heavy use of drugs, definitions of consent have become worryingly foggy.
“I hate to say it, because it’s my industry, but of course it has that element still. That’s what I am hoping to change, as are a lot of other people in my line. It’s still sex. It’s still pornography. And it’s still not for everybody. I don’t want it to look like people are out of their minds on drugs. I want it to be a bit more legitimised.” I believe him. Buck comes across as an extraordinarily genial fellow. He seems eager to please and unembarrassed about addressing any aspect of his story.
Of largely Irish heritage, Buck grew up amid the heat and the conformity of the San Fernando Valley. He explains that he looked like a “tomboy” and was treated as such by his parents. Childhood was, in fact, largely idyllic. The confusion and torment only properly set in with puberty. As a young woman, he managed to secure some modelling jobs, but the pressures of living with the wrong gender proved close to unendurable.
“I had a sex change 20 years ago. But I had to figure that out myself. From my mid-teens until 28, I suffered. I was on drugs. I was homeless. It wasn’t me. I shouldn’t be sitting here talking to you. It was crazy I survived.”
Buck goes on to explain that, 20 years ago, few medical professionals had any idea how to proceed with a female-to-male sex change. “I was told I was a lesbian. I knew I wasn’t. It was the same as being told you aren’t gay when you are. Look, I know what I am!” he says. “I found the doctor who dealt with transsexual women. He was the most amazing doctor. He said: ‘I have never worked on a guy before. You’re going to be my guinea pig. Are you willing to do that?’ He changed my life. I was a living experiment.”
Buck had surgery to remove his breasts – the only surgery he underwent – and began “shooting” quantities of testosterone. He explains that, more than the physical transformation, it was the psychological metamorphosis that made life bearable. “I became the person I wanted to become,” Buck says.
How did it all go down with his parents? He has already mentioned that mom and dad were fairly conventional blue-collar folk. “My parents are awesome,” he says. “They sort of disowned me when I was a drug addict. I can understand that. I was a mess. I was using them. For three years they lost contact with me. They refused to deal with my crap. But, after the transition, they came to terms. My dad has some problems. He’s very macho. That’s where I get it. Ha ha! I am their son and they are very proud of me because they once expected me to be dead.”
He jokes that he inherited his macho look from his dad. It is interesting that, after making the transition, he elected to take on a muscular, cigar-chomping persona. As Sexing the Transman makes clear (not that we should be surprised), female-to-male transsexuals adopt all classes of manhood after crossing the divide.
“Yes, I always wanted to be a macho man, even when I was a girl,” he says. “I achieved what I wanted to achieve: to be a hypermasculine male. I wanted to have muscles. I wanted to be able to take my shirt off. I wanted for people to look at me and say: ‘That’s a man! That’s a man!’ I was always attracted to that sort of masculinity.”
Buck Angel has had a tough life. But he has also been fortunate. Twenty years ago he happened on the opportunity to make himself the person he always wanted to be. The world is full of people who, either mildly uncomfortable or seriously dysmorphic, believe themselves to be living in the wrong body. Buck was not only able to become a man; he was able to become a particular type of man.
Now married to the esteemed body piercer Elayne Angel, Angel recognises his good fortune and, when not making exotic films, spends his days spreading his life-enhancing philosophy throughout the universe.
“I never was an extrovert before,” he says. “But I then became a public speaker. My parents were amazed. I was so shy when I was young. It was never my intention to be so extroverted. I never intended to be so open. I don’t hold back. I talk about anything.”
The frantic chatter stills for a moment while he considers his journey. “If I can connect with one 15-year-old who is thinking of killing himself, it’s worthwhile. I really do feel that I am saving people’s lives.”
Sexing the Transman plays at the Light House Cinema, Dublin, tomorrow at 2.30pm. The Buck Angel Effect – a conversation and workshop – follows at 4.30pm
Tara Brady's 10 to watch out for at Gaze 2012
LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR
We heart Sheldon Larry’s African-American musical , a low-budget extravaganza about a gay teen who loses a disapproving family and gains a flutter of LA drag queens. Can you really afford to miss out on such glitzy, infectious musical numbers as Justin’s Gonna Call, an ode to Mr Timberlake?
CAROL CHANNING: LARGER THAN LIFE
At 91 Carole Channing is still a bodacious Broadway babe. Director Dori Berinstein listens as the Hello Dolly star outlines her career as a singer, actor and comedian and recalls her romance with Harry Kullijian, the Modesto businessman who became Channing’s fourth husband 70 years after they were high-school sweethearts.
He was hailed as the “American Bowie” and the “true fairy of rock” but Jobriath’s debut 1974 album was an epic fail, leaving the overtly gay rock star to forge a career in cabaret and a residency in the Chelsea Hotel. He died from Aids in 1983. Marc Almond and Joe Elliott recall Jobriath’s influence on the proto-glam scene.
SEXING THE TRANSMAN
Buck Angel’s award-winning porn-doc claims to be the “most progressive sex education film ever made”. Sure enough, transgendered hero Buck visits with trans guys and gals and their partners (including comedian Margaret Cho) to figure out what goes where for the FTM/MTF scene.
In 2007 retired NYPD officer Kathy Gilleran travelled to Vienna to assist in the search for her missing gay son, Aeryn. Using interviews, co-directors John and Gretchen Morning outline Kathy’s compelling struggle against homophobic Austrian authorities, lies and a possible conspiracy.
ALL THE WAY THROUGH EVENING
Rohan Spong’s documentary starts out as a profile of East Village pianist Mimi Stern-Wolfe but expands into a history of how a musical subculture became ravaged by Aids. In response to the deaths of far too many friends, Stern-Wolfe founded the Benson Aids Series, an annual concert of works by composers lost to the epidemic. Director Spong and heldentenor Gilles Denizot will attend GAZE’s closing gala.
Andrew Haigh’s delightful, dreamy British romance became a crossover hit last year as audiences flocked to see out and proud Glen hook up with shy Russell for an unforgettable weekend. Tomorrow’s screening is free and an exhibition of still images from the film by Irish photographers Quinnford + Scout will adorn the Light House Cinema’s walls for the duration of this year’s GAZE festival.
Vito Russo’s seminal text The Celluloid Closet reclaimed the unheralded but obvious LGBT subtexts from the Golden Age of Hollywood and changed film criticism forever. The preeminent gay film critic’s life and achievements are recounted in Jeffrey Schwarz’s fascinating documentary.
REVEALING MR MAUGHAM
Playwright and novelist W Somerset Maugham was a spy during the first World War and an enemy of Aleister Crowley before he became the highest-paid writer of the 1930s. Armistead Maupin and Alexander McCall Smith contribute to Michael House’s portrait of one of history’s most prominent homosexuals, noting his ever-colourful domestic arrangements.
KEEP THE LIGHTS ON
Erik is a New York documentarian; Paul is a closeted lawyer with a drug problem. Can they overcome and make it as a couple? Arthur Russell features heavily and welcomely on the soundtrack of Ira Sachs’ Teddy-winning feature film.
GAZE 2012 is at the Light House Cinema, Dublin 7, until Monday gaze.ie