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Be Like Others: An Issue Transcending Borders

meowwalex's picture


Of the many riveting cultural situations that we have only begun to explore in class so far, one of the most striking were those of men and women born in the body of a sex that they do not identify with and how society responds to them as transgendered individuals. As I approach the question of feminism and how it differs geographically, I want to take a look into the transsexual community in America and compare it to that in Iran, specifically after having watched the film “Be Like Others”.

In the United States, transgender issues are rising to the forefront – in films such as “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Transamerica” and in news stories about transgendered children and the increase in support for these individuals and their families. Coming across the color photography project My Right Self was an experience that provided me with a more personal and moving account of what it is like to be transgendered and hopes to do the same for the public.

The website is an informative project while the photographs are intended to be a traveling show and part of advocacy to benefit the healthcare community, those who are transgendered and their loved ones. The website’s eager invitation to use photography as a vehicle to initiate conversation shows that part of America, even if a slim one; is becoming more accepting and actually attempting to understand this point of view on some level.

My Right Self brings us the stories of five couples or individuals. The main story revolves around one person within each couple who identifies as gender-variant or trans, creating a very diverse picture. The pictures clearly show the beauty and love that fills all healthy relationships, regardless of the gender identification or sexuality within each.

The participants were asked to reflect upon their sense of selves and how this related to their bodies, sexuality, relationships and the recognition society gives them for each. An important part of this is the responses from the healthcare system. As one of the participants, Dane, who is now Dana, explains:

“Yes, my health insurance company has control over my body. In a way that scares the shit out of me. If I change my health insurance to reflect all my legal documents- I am not covered for ANY care I may need of body parts they do not attribute to a male. If I DO not change it, It is fraud. Either way, they can be responsible for tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt I could someday be responsible for.”

Although the air of acceptance towards the transgendered community in America is much different and progressive than what is seen in Iran, there are still serious implications with this decision and many misunderstandings held within the public.

“Be Like Others” is another example of a medium used to uncover this issue and bring a different perspective into the light. This film premiered at Sundance in 2008 and is directed by Tanaz Eshaghian, an Iranian-American filmmaker. Eshaghian follows various patients of Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali at the Mirdamad Surgical Center, based in Tehran. The conclusion of the piece is that some individuals who decide to undergo a sex change operation are doing so in order to live a life that is free from the shame that is placed upon them. Homosexual relationships are outlawed in Iran and punishable by death but a fatwa (a legal pronouncement in Islam) was passed in 1983 allowing sex-change operations as a cure for “diagnosed trans-sexuality”. The doctors and psychiatrists in Iran continuously say that the issues of trans-sexuality and homosexuality have nothing to do with one another. “Your abnormality exists throughout the world,” Dr. Bahram tells one of the patients. Bahram provides a path for individuals to feel that what they are feeling is not immoral, but only if they consider themselves transgendered, not homosexual. This operation, he preaches to each patient and their families, will allow them to finally live a life that is not based around the fear of society’s harassment.

Ali Askar, a 24 year-old man was continually harassed as he grew up because of his feminine appearance, ultimately had to drop out of school because of sexual harassment. Although he does not want to become a woman, he feels there is no other choice as an individual living in Iran. This decision was much to the dismay of his family; his father threatened death upon him. He references that he knows there are some Westernized places in which a man can marry a man and that this is something he cannot imagine, “It is a sin to do it from behind.” Though he knows of this possibility offered in other countries, he says that he wants to live in his homeland – though goes on to mention that if Iran gave him another choice, he would not change his body, as who he is has been a product of God’s will.

Vida, a post-operative transsexual who tries to be a figure of support for the other people struggling within themselves, helps Ali by attempting to get his family to support him, though no one will pick up the phone to hear from him once the operation is complete and Ali is now a woman, Negar. Negar has turned to prostitution because of the safety net that pregnancy is not an issue of concern, and faces a life that is void of any contact with her family.

Anoosh, only twenty years old, is another young man who has been taunted throughout his life because of his looks. His boyfriend of a year feels more comfortable when Anoosh dresses as a woman. “It’ll be easier after he has the operation,” the boyfriend says, looking more and more distant, slumped on the couch, as the operation day becomes closer. “I was kind of mean to him when he was in men’s clothes, because of the people around us.”

 The end of the film shows Anoosh — now Anahita — engaged and happy with her new life, in sharp contrast to the reading of her boyfriend’s expression.

Through all of these heartbreaking stories, I found that the problem of women’s inequality to men in Iran is still an issue that can be traced back to. Vida’s friend asks, “Why do you want to become a woman? It is easier to be a man in this society”.

It is interesting to see the parallels and contrasts within our community’s reaction to the transgendered community and that of Iran, which we would consider more oppressed and undoubtedly vacant of feminist movements. Iran’s issues with this subject clearly stem from the unwillingness to accept homosexuality and the necessity that every aspect of life should have strong ties to religion. Though as shown in the film, even in a country like Iran, a place wrought with limitations, there are people willing to question the authority and fight for change. The people creating films and exhibits such as these are trying to do this as well, above all attempting to illustrate that we are all humans striving for happiness, acceptance, romance and the freedom to exist as the people we truly are.





Anne Dalke's picture


Last month, you explored the troubling "oxymoron" of pro-life feminism; this month you are considering another oxymoron, the use of transsexual surgery to address Iranian homophobia. You certainly don't blink in the face of complicated questions!

This time, you are looking @ "the parallels and contrasts" between the treatment of transgenders in the U.S. and Iran. Juxtaposing My Right Self with Be Like Others offers you a focused location for comparison: two contemporary visual representations that can offer some insight into cultural differences.

You spend most of this web event describing the photographic web exhibit and the film; this is probably necessary, since both are new to your audience (though providing active links, as I do here, would enable your readers to view the material themselves, rather than rely on your report). What still needs to happen--and you only arrive @ this @ the very end of the project--is a comparative analysis of the material. What are the presumptions of trangenderism embedded in both? What to make of the use of the "gaze," or the "stare" in both visual texts?

How helpful here might be any of the rich trove of contemporary theorizing about transgenderism? (The Transgender Studies Reader, edited Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, would probably be one good place to start; another might be Jack Halberstam's upcoming talk on "Sex, Gender and the End of Normal.") It would be of particular interest to me to learn whether the work of well-known theorists, like Halberstam and Stryker-- but also Judith Butler, Kate Bornstein, Patrick Califia, etc.--usefully address the issues and concerns showcased in Be Like Others. How U.S.-centric, in other words, and how globally transmittable, is most current transgender theorizing?

Are these questions you'd like to pursue for your next webevent?