Beyond the Opposite Sex, Gay Essential Talks To Dr. Bruce Hensel

“Sex is about who you want to sleep with; gender is about who you want to sleep as,” says Dr. Bruce Hensel, co-director and executive producer of a new documentary, Beyond the Opposite Sex, which premiered on Showtime on March 16. The protagonists of the documentary, Rene and Jamie, are two very different people who went through very different journeys since their long-awaited gender affirmation surgeries. Rene was biologically born a female and feels very strongly about wanting to be a heterosexual male who wants to be with women. Jamie was biologically born a male, was married with a woman and had a daughter as a male, left and was with men as a woman, and eventually settled into a relationship with another woman – becoming an established songwriter in Nashville along the way. Despite their different journeys, Hensel believes that there is one fundamental thing that unifies their stories: “they’re about who these people feel they are on the inside and not about who they want to sleep with.”

Beyond the Opposite Sex

Rene and Jamie were first introduced to viewers in Hensel’s 2004 documentary, The Opposite Sex. When he first thought of the idea with his then producing partner Stuart Krasnow, he realised that no documentary had ever followed a transgender person from the moment of making the decision through the surgery before. “This interested me as a journalist, as a producer, and as a director,” he recalls. He set about finding the right protagonists of his film by reaching out to all the surgeons in the world who did gender affirmation surgeries. “I told them I was looking for people who were just starting, people who would allow us to really go deeply into their lives and allow us to film the surgery.” After going through around 100 five-minute homemade tapes of possible candidates, Hensel and his team eventually chose Rene and Jamie. “We felt that they would be open and brave, and that we would be able to go deeply into their stories. They were also interesting and somewhat charismatic.”

After completing The Opposite Sex, Hensel and his team kept in touch with Rene and Jamie. Beyond the Opposite Sex picks up their stories fourteen years later to find that their surgeries were far from the end of their journeys. “I wanted to see what really happens after the surgery. Do they regret it? What are the struggles afterwards? How does it compare with how other people feel? Again, we felt nobody had ever shown this part of the journey and that’s why we decided to do it.”

Over the past fourteen years, the world has changed. When Hensel first pitched The Opposite Sex for Showtime, very few people were aware of gender affirmation surgeries. This time, “I pitched it and everybody had a teenager in school who had a number of friends who were going through it.” Despite this, the prejudice is still there. Furthermore, within various groups there are different attitudes. “There are some transgenders who don’t want all the surgeries; there are some who do. Also, Jamie and Rene feel very strongly that once they completed their surgery, they were not transgender – they are now a man and a woman. There are people who challenge that, and we see that in the movie. There are also people who feel that they have to be militant about it, while others feel like they just want to live their lives.”

Medical advancements have continued over the years, but surgeries remain strenuous. For example, in the film, we see that Rene has been through nine of them. “The physical transition from female to male is much more difficult. We still cannot create a completely natural penis. It’s much more difficult than the transition from male to female,” Hensel explains. “While there’s no question about the fact that there will continue to be advances, many transgenders are not choosing to go through with the final surgery for that reason.”

Beyond the Opposite Sex humanizes a subject that remains unfamiliar to many people to this day. “Any good movie is not about an issue,” Hensel maintains. “It is about the people; it is about the subject. And if the subjects help illuminate an issue, have a social impact and can help change the path – that’s even better! Rene has seen the film and loves it. I don’t believe Jamie has seen it, I’m not sure why. Jamie, of course, is concerned that people might have the wrong attitude because of certain prejudices. But they both want to help and effect change or they would not have done this.”

A desire to help and effect change is also what attracts Hensel, who is a three-time Emmy winning journalist, a doctor, and a broadcasting personality, to the art of filmmaking. “I think documentaries are the purest form of filmmaking,” he says, “because there you can seek the truth that exists before you develop the film. But the people who say that there’s no agenda in documenary… that’s hard to believe, because even people being interviewed have a certain agenda in agreeing to do it.” Hensel also says he would like to do scripted films in the future, as well as shows and documentaries. “One thing that remains true for me is that I want my films to be about things that can help affect people’s opinions and feelings and, hopefully, also effect change. That’s why I consider the cinematic art to be among the most challenging and incredible forms of art.”

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of Showtime

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Matt Micucci

Matt Micucci

Filmmaker
Matt is a cinephile with a keen interest in the proliferation of film culture. He is a writer, programmer, filmmaker, and long-time contributor to FRED Film Radio and JAZZIZ Magazine. Has interviewed hundreds of people at international film festivals. Collaborated with Mark Cousins on a short inspired by Pasolini. Holds a BA in filmmaking and is currently pursuing an MA in Film Theory and Practice in Galway, Ireland, where he lives.
Matt Micucci