Transexual Family Values

I love a movie that makes my family look boring and normal. And so it was that I fell in love with “Transamerica,” the story of Stanley, a man just about to undergo a sex-change operation who discovers he has a son. The boy thinks the woman who bails him out of a New York jail is a church worker until the truth eventually unfolds during their poignant and often hilarious drive to California. Stanley, who has changed his name to Bree, is forced to visit his parents in Arizona for financial help after a robbery leaves him and the boy destitute. The parents are over-the-top mortified by their son’s refusal to be a man, but they are also ecstatic to discover that they have a grandson. And so on. A movie with such a challenging topic would normally have less than zero chance at general distribution. But first-time feature director and screenwriter Duncan Tucker, who spoke after the screening, has done an incredible job. The movie received a big boost when it won Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival. I thought the lead actor was a man until nearly the end of the film. Instead, it was Felicity Huffman, who at the time of filming was preparing for a television pilot which went on to become the smash hit “Desperate Housewives.”

Ten years or so ago, trying to accelerate my transition from a corporate career to the life of a poet, I had my left ear pierced in Casper, Wyoming, and visited my parents in Cambridge with considerable apprehension. They reacted way better than Stanley’s parents reacted to his sex-change operation, but the difference in tension was a difference of degree rather than kind. At the time I used to take the earring out before having lunch in a restaurant with my father, wanting to spare him the trauma of a business buddy seeing the diamond stud. Then I heard that Dad had calmly told his secretary one day, “Yes, Len has an earring but he takes it out whenever he comes here for lunch.” After that, I wore it all the time around my parents, until I decided I was well-enough established as a writer not to need props.

I doubt that my folks and large segments of America would see “Transamerica” as a movie that celebrates family values. But for me, it was a moving tribute to how much love can overcome.

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