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TELEVISION Series continues to examine transgender people's lives
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times
2018-05-22

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In 2004, Dr. Bruce Hensel hosted and co-directed The Opposite Sex: Rene's Story and The Opposite Sex: Jamie's Story—two series that looked at two trransgender individuals' quests to undergo their long-awaited gender-confirmation surgeries. 

Fast-forward to 2018, and Hensel is back with Showtime's Beyond the Opposite Sex, which look at Rene Pena's and Jamie Alter's continuing journeys.

Windy City Times: How did you initially become involved in this documentary series?

Dr. Bruce Hensel: Well, I've got many lives, [including] chief medical correspondent for many years, so I've ran across many stories. I'm always thinking about what's important to the public and what's not understood. 

In the middle of 2003, my partner Stu Krasnow—a well-known reality-TV producer—were talking about possibilities. It struck us that no one had followed someone who wanted to get what is now called gender-affirmation surgery. I wanted to show that part of the journey.

I wrote to every surgeon around the world who I knew who had done these surgeries, and I told them that I wanted to follow people who had just begun hormone treatments, and we wanted to go deeply into their lives and make a difference in other lives. I got about a hundred candidates. We chose Jamie and Rene because of how open and brave they were, and we did those movies.

Then, I stayed in touch with them over the years. And then, I thought no one had really showed what happened after. Of course, you have Caitlyn Jenner and the Wachowski sisters; a lot of people report on the transition, but how does it turn out? So I pitched Showtime again and I said, "Look: There are four [aspects of] this: Jamie and Rene, middle America and the change between then and now."

WCT: I found it very interesting that they're both from the South. Did that factor into your initial decision to choose them, in that things might be tougher there?

BH: I wish I could answer "yes," but the answer's actually "no." What played the major role was, "Who are these people?" A lot of people do issue-related movies, but in this case it was about Jamie and Rene—who they are. The location never played a role.

WCT: Will there be another movie 14 years down the line?

BH: People have asked me that and, I'll tell you, if you had asked me in 2003 if I would do a follow-up on Jamie and Rene, I would've said, "No way." But staying in touch with them changed my mind, so maybe it'll happen again. Rene is a person who sees himself as an alpha male who wants to be with women; Jamie sees herself as a woman who doesn't care who she's with, sexually. [Alter is currently with another woman.] Arin, a transgender male in his 20s, talks with Rene in the movie and says, "Sex is about you want to have sex with; gender is about who you want to have sex as." 

So, the short answer is, "No, I don't anticipate another movie about them—but I didn't anticipate one in 2003." But you never know. Surgery is not the end but the beginning for many people.

WCT: The movie also includes perspectives from others, such as family members and exes.

BH: Yes. One of the things I said to the chiefs at Showtime was about those four [aspects]. Many of the people who had violent and fearful reactions to Jamie's and Rene's decisions have changed, and much of America has changed its opinion in terms of knowledge. Many people didn't know about [transgender people], and now they do, although they still have a way to go.

There's a big scene at the beginning of the movie with a group of transgender parents, adolescents and teens—and I thought that part was crucial. Also, I wanted to put Jamie's and Rene's journeys together.

WCT: I thought it was interesting that Jamie said she simply wanted to be referred to as a woman instead of a trans woman.

BH: Right. And within the LGBTQ community, this is a debate. When she was asked if she wanted to be an advocate and an activist, Jamie said, "No; I came out at a different time. I care about me." The debate is that many transgender people feel that they have to fight, while many others feel that once they've gone through gender-affirmation surgery, they just want to be seen as women and men.

WCT: Have Rene and Jamie met—and, if they have, have they kept in touch?

BH: No, they haven't. Part of the reason is circumstance, and another part is that I'm not sure how they'd get along. Rene is a very intense man who believes in spouting his philosophy; Jamie is calmer and more settled within herself. We do have festivals coming up, and we've invited them so maybe they will meet—but they're very different people.

WCT: What was the most surprising thing for you while making this documentary?

BH: As a producer, nothing is surprising. But it was a little surprising to see who open and accepting a lot of people [in the movie] are—as well as how normal Rene and Jamie are.  

WCT: You mean regarding them leading everyday lives?

BH: Well, yes. Many transgender people have economic difficulties, and their lives are relatively normal. Simply wanting to go through gender-affirmation surgery doesn't mean that something is wrong with you; there's nothing aberrant about Rene and Jamie. I mean, we all have issues—but they're like anyone else. That's a better way to put it. 

WCT: There are so many lessons in this documentary. Is being what you just said about Rene and Jamie living like anyone else one of those lessons you want people to take away from it? 

BH: Absolutely. I would hope that people realize that there's a spectrum within every group of people. People shouldn't judge; the way we are isn't necessarily the way others are. That's one thing.

People ask me why I do what I do: It's about getting to the truth. My desire is to produce documentaries, movies and scripted series that have a social impact and tell stories. Having been a medical correspondent for so many years, I want to explore what else there is to share. Every journey is different.

Beyond the Opposite Sex is on Showtime. Visit http://www.sho.com/titles/3447755/beyond-the-opposite-sex.


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