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Review: 'Born To Be' Sheds Light, Gives Hope

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Nov 18, 2020
'Born to Be'
'Born to Be'  

The center of this film is Dr. Jess Ting, a plastic surgeon working at the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery — a new and different medical institution that provides top-flight, innovative care — and, more importantly, respect and compassion — for the patients who receive treatment there.

Dr. Ting is passionate about music. A self-taught bass cello player, he attended Julliard for his undergraduate degree and then returned to begin his graduate studies there, as well. But pressure form his family led Ting to switch to medicine, and he entered the field of plastic surgery. When Mount Sinai created the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, Ting tells filmmaker Tania Cypriano, he ended up running the show because, he recalls, "they just asked everyone, and everyone else said no, except for me." His decision was not universally respected; Dr. Ting recalls, "My chairman was pissed. He was, like, 'What are you doing, Ting? Are you trans?'"

That being the level of ignorance that permeates even the highest levels of the American health care system, Dr. Ting — as well intentioned as he was to start with — had a lot to learn about his new clientele. It wasn't until a patient committed suicide, he shares, that he truly began to understand that gender affirmation surgery is literally life saving for some transgender people. Indeed, we learn that nearly half — 44% — of transgender people attempt suicide. Though not asked directly, the question suffuses the documentary: How would any cis person handle being in the wrong type of body? How would any of us who are not trans deal with being told that we're "wrong" in some social or moral sense, if we already knew that our physiology and our essential identity were fundamentally mismatched?

It's into that breach between body and soul that Dr. Ting treads, his surgical tools ready and his surgical skills always being sharpened. Realizing there must be a better way to construct a penis for trans men, Ting conjures up a revolutionary new approach. Realizing that the way vaginas have been created for trans women is sometimes less than satisfactory, he devises an ingenious alternative. These innovations mean that he's not just setting a new standard of care — he's inventing new techniques, and new standards of excellence for gender affirmation while he's at it.

Though Dr. Ting is at the center of the film, it's his patients who are its focus, and this is what allows the viewer — like Dr. Ting — to come to appreciate and sympathize with the patients under Ting's care. Mahogany, whom we meet when she comes in for facial feminization surgery, had a burgeoning career as a male model — until the thought of having to "present as a man" when he knew he wasn't one became too much for her. Abandoning a lucrative career, Mahogany braved financial hardship — and that of discrimination — to pursue authenticity.

Cashmere is a former sex worker who has lived with, and endured, prejudice her entire life. Like other trans people who have had to resort to medical care of a lesser quality, Cashmere has had procedures from providers of questionable skill, using questionable techniques and equipment. Now, in Dr. Ting's care, she allows herself to dream about what a vaginoplasty will mean. For Cashmere, it signifies the first true chance for real love.

What becomes all too obvious as the Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery draws new patients is how badly needed the services of Dr. Ting and his staff are. The center's personnel are run ragged trying to keep up with demand — and Dr. Ting bears the brunt more than anyone else. When he's overworked to the point of becoming ill, Ting's patients suffer; the center is booked for six months or even a year in advance, and having to cancel a procedure means asking a person to wait even though he or she might literally not be able to stand living in their own skin for that much longer. As thrilling as Ting's new approach to surgical techniques and patient care might be, what's just as needed — and harder for one surgeon, no matter how gifted, to provide — is more skill in the field as a whole. Still, Ting and his people do their best, creating a first-of-its-kind surgical fellowship in hopes of one day closing that gap.

With the current administration doing everything in its power to deprive Americans in general of health care — and trans people specifically of their rights to live and identify as they need to — it's an open question as to what the future might bring for Dr. Ting, the center, and the patients who turn to Ting for respectful, competent care. This film is a record of a moment in time — a moment of hope and hardship. Whether it will be viewed in years to come as an account of great beginnings or a doomed, if noble, initiative remains to be seen. Dr. Ting's patients are still human beings, and gender affirmation may not resolve all of their issues (one patient struggles with PTSD, the result of early life traumas around bigotry and bullying), but for many of his patients Dr. Ting and his staff literally make all the difference in an often uninformed and hostile world.

"Born to Be" launches on virtual cinemas starting Nov. 18.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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