Monday, July 28, 2008

To Thine Own Self Be True

Learning about yourself is a curious process. For much of a person's adolescence one definition after another is crammed down a youngster's throat. With the onset of puberty, raging hormones take the questioning process far beyond a tot's annoying way of asking "Why?" ad infinitum.

When one's emerging identity starts to stray from the images and ideas that have been spoon fed to someone since birth, rebellion is sure to ensue. But what happens when there are no easy answers?

I remember all too well how, when I first started coming out, I was relieved just to discover that a word actually existed for what I was. I had received no information from my family or my school about what it meant to be gay. Indeed, after moving to San Francisco a friend told me about a family reunion where his father had started to ask all of their relatives where he had gone wrong, what he had done that could have resulted in his son turning gay. My friend's sister replied "Don't try to take credit for something you didn't do. Everything Michael did he had to learn all by himself."

Self knowledge is very different from self love. It requires patience, introspection, and a willingness to discover, process, and work with uncomfortable truths. Some people spend many years in analysis. Others wander the streets trying to learn life's lessons without professional guidance. But Oscar Hammerstein's lyric from The King And I has aways been "Getting To Know You" -- not "Getting To Know ME!"

An offhanded remark from a total stranger can precipitate a maelstrom of self doubt. Comments like "Does this dress make me look fat?" or "I thought you said you were a top...." can open up an emotional can of worms that was supposed to stay tightly sealed shut. Bay area radio personality Brian Copeland was flipping through some fan mail one day when he read a letter that stated "You don't sound like a genuine black man." That one startling statement led Copeland on a quest to discover (a) what constitutes a genuine black man, (b) what parts of him could be construed as not "genuinely black" and (c) what other prejudices exist against black men which insist on defining them in ways that have no relation whatsoever to the reality of their lives.

I finally got to see Copeland's highly-acclaimed Not A Genuine Black Man when he returned to The Marsh for a series of benefit performances. The longest-running one-man show in San Francisco theater history, Not A Genuine Black Man, packs quite a hefty punch as Copeland takes turns impersonating himself as an impressionable eight-year-old, his feisty, no-nonsense grandmother, his abusive stepfather, his mother (who struggled to raise her children in an almost all-white Bay area suburb in the 1970s), and a host of other memorable characters.

Copeland's story is currently in development for a future television series. All of the material in the play and much, much more, is now available in print with his new book, Not A Genuine Black Man, which is now required reading in many high schools and colleges around the nation. Copeland's book was also recently chosen as a 2009 pick for Silicon Valley Reads (an exciting community reading program co-sponsored by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the Santa Clara County Library, and the San Jose Public Library Foundation).

Buy it. Read it.

If Copeland is obsessed with probing what it means not to be a genuine black man, Oded Lotan is focused on what it means not to be an anatomically complete man. Most men go through life with one favorite playtoy -- their penis. "To cut or not to cut" is the question at the heart of Lotan's provocative new documentary The Quest for the Missing Piece.

With a great sense of humor and compassion, Lotan explores the delicate topic of circumcision, touching on all the religious, social and medical issues surrounding the ancient practice. Noting that circumcision is the most widely performed surgical procedure in the world, he films a Jewish infant being circumcised, a seven year old Arab boy undergoing circumcision, and a young Israeli soldier who goes under the knife so that he will no longer be teased for having a foreskin.

Lotan's inspiration for the film came when he met the man of his dreams and discovered that his partner was uncircumcised. Questions about the fate of his own foreskin quickly arose and took on a life of their own. Lotan interviews family members, rabbis, and mohels as well as young Jewish parents who are willing to buck the norm and refrain from having their children circumcised. It's a fascinating film, beautifully rendered, with lots of humor and pathos. Highly educational and well worth one's time. You can watch the delightful trailer here.

Shortly before news hit the wires that a school in Thailand is offering its students a transexual toilet, I had a chance to watch another controversial documentary on transgenderism being shown at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. One of the striking similarities between The Question for the Missing Piece and Orna Ben Dor's Mom, I Didn't Kill Your Daughter is the level of involvement and support from the protagonists' families.

It doesn't take long for an audience to understand what makes Lior and Yuval such an exceptional couple. Although bearded, balding, and hairy, Yuval was born as a woman and underwent gender reassignment surgery nearly 17 years ago. Currently involved in a legal struggle to have his gender changed on his passport and other legal documents, Yuval is also in love with Lior, a younger, larger and much more opinionated Israeli who was born on a kibbutz as a girl but has always identified as a male.

Lior, who has starting taking hormones in anticipation of her own gender reassignment surgery, has also recorded a series of video diaries which form a critical part of the documentary. Ben Dor's film follows the two FTMs as they trudge through the legal and physical challenges of becoming the boy/man they always identified as.

Yuval's tenderness in supporting Lior as she transitions from female to male is quite touching to watch, especially since he has first-hand knowledge of what the surgery entails. Lior, however, inhabits a much larger body than Yuval ever did and must face certain surgical considerations that Yuval was spared. As Yuval and Lior's mother await Lior's return from the operating room, the concerned mother's confession of how grateful she is to have Yuval by her side at such an emotional moment is deeply touching.

This is a remarkably brave film, which showcases a lot of personal and political issues that the general public rarely gets to explore in an honest and intelligent format. By the end of the film, as Yuval, Lior and their dog work at growing a family that is "under construction," one can't help but admire their courage in trying to define themselves as they see fit, rather than as a hostile society might choose to pigeonhole them.

That leads, of course, to a critical question for any person with half a brain. How do you want to define your life? Like this?

Or like this.....

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