A Changing Lens
A Transgender Woman explores and inspires through film
– By Amiee Katz (Dec. 2012)
The large silver scissors move purposefully through black suit fabric as a yellow measuring tape lies nearby. As each frame of the film moves past and the suit is transformed to a dress, filmmaker Ashley Altadonna measures not just the proportions of a new outfit, but also the dimensions of a new life.
“My basic personality hasn’t changed. But the things that I’m into and how I view the world have a more feminine perspective.”
Though the film, “Whatever Suits You,” lasts just seven minutes, it reflects more than a decade of struggle. In depicting the metamorphosis of clothing, from suit to dress, Altadonna is revealing her own transition from male to female.
Struggling with Gender
As one of just 700,000 people in the United States who identify as transgendered, a term for those whose gender identity and expression differ from the sex they were assigned at birth, Altadonna has grappled with her identity since her early teens. Currently seeking funding for both a new film and gender reassignment surgery, she is using the art of film to illuminate the struggles of a misunderstood and marginalized minority.
Today, Altadonna is a tall, slender woman. Her light brown hair rests lightly on her shoulders as she clutches a colorful purse with a diamond ring on her finger. She has a soft voice, and looking at her deep-set eyes, she begins to tell her story: the journey from Kyle to the compelling role model Ashley, a woman inspiring confidence in those around her.
Altadonna started secretly cross-dressing at age 13. “I can’t even explain what it was that made me want to do it,” she says. “I don’t think it occurred to me that oh, I’m trans. It’s just something I did.”
Not being able to dress a certain way inhibited Altadonna’s ability to feel a certain way. She wanted to look the way she felt. Since then, Altadonna has overcome the shame she so deeply felt in the past. She has grown to show strength and raise awareness of the transgendered community through her determination, resourcefulness and perseverance.
“A lot of the time people hear the term LGBT, and they just think it means lesbian or gay, and the transgender kind of gets left off,” Altadonna says. “I hear people confuse it a lot: who you are versus who you are attracted to.”
After coming out as transgendered to a girlfriend at age 18, Altadonna wasn’t entirely sure how to cope with her changing identity. Originally from Texas, she moved north to Chicago to attend art school and slowly came out to more friends. Altadonna discovered film by accident, after not being able to enroll in the sound engineering classes she originally wanted to pursue. She fell in love with film as she explored the themes of avant-garde filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Jennifer Reeves.
“Brakhage was this filmmaker in the 1950s and 60s, and this one film we watched was him taping little pieces of grass, moth wings and insect parts to filmstrip and making a movie that way,” she explains. “It blew my mind.” However, the film that really moved her was “Chronic,” by Jennifer Reeves. Dealing with sexual abuse and homosexuality, the film explored psychology and how mental health affects young people. Altadonna decided to make a move farther north to Milwaukee, where she had a strong group of friends and began to get a firm handle on the feelings surrounding her identity. There, in Wisconsin’s Brew City, her expression through film truly began.
Altadonna struggled in film school to find a clear vision of what she wanted to explore through her art. “I actually started dealing with coming out to my friends when I got to Milwaukee,” she says. Having film as a medium helped, yet she still sought out counseling to guide her.
Her initial involvement with the transgendered community was through a support group. Though she did hear the stories of others, she found few connections. Being the youngest person there, it felt difficult to relate to others who had to care for children and spouses. Counseling was expensive, and Altadonna had to save money to see a specialist when she could afford it.
“When I first met with a therapist individually, she told me that gender was like a train, and you could get on and get off whenever you wanted to,” Altadonna says. “I didn’t see her again until four years later. All these things were building up, and I started to delve into transition more.”
The decision to alter one’s body is an individual choice for every transgendered person, but Altadonna strives to be a woman inside and out. “My decision to have gender reassignment surgery is a personal decision,” she says. “I need to feel better about myself and my body.”
Wanting to Transition
Dennis Christoffersen, a counselor at University Health Services at UW-Madison is impressed by the uniqueness of the transition stories he hears. “One thing for these people is figuring out what is normal for them,” he says. “They are really in search of a healthy model and finding others so they don’t feel so isolated.” A leader of an LGBT support group, Christoffersen looks out for the safety of transgendered people.
“This is a highly politicized time…some people feeling alone and not solid in their identity can overhear very strong anti-trans statements and feel more unaccepted than ever,” he says.
It’s this desire for change, to bring hope and understanding to the marginalized transgendered population, that Altadonna wants to expose through her films. With the lens of her camera, she is bringing gender into focus and creating conversations, while making a name for herself as a filmmaker.
As an artist, Altadonna feels comfortable labeling herself as a transgendered filmmaker, believing it helps her become known for her art. “If that label is going to allow me to show my films more and get my work out there, I don’t mind it.”
A New Project
Altadonna’s films, including “Whatever Suits You,” have appeared at film festivals around the United States and across Europe and Australia. But in 2008, Altadonna started Tall Lady Pictures, a film company, to fulfill her goal of having gender reassignment surgery to become fully female biologically.
“I was trying to figure out if there was a way that I could use filmmaking and art to fund my surgery,” she says. “An expense always came along, and I couldn’t save enough money. Yet I came up with this idea at a bar with a filmmaker friend. We got caught up in crazy fundraisers and a documentary as a way to explore issues that transgender people face.”
With a network of caring friends and talented colleagues, Altadonna is currently in the process of putting together “Making the Cut,” a film exploring her personal journey, transition from one gender to another, and the societal challenges transgendered people face. “Making the Cut” is a pure documentary. Speaking to doctors, activists and transgendered people across the country, Altadonna conveys an internal perspective of resilience and personal achievement. She seeks to educate people about being transgendered and celebrate the spirit of transgendered people.
Altadonna’s films, however, differentiate from mainstream portrayals of the challenges of transgendered people in society. “You’re getting quite oftentimes one view of gender and transgenderism,” Altadonna says of the mainstream media. “When you go to independent sources, you have more of a variety…I’ve seen a lot of transgendered documentaries, and they’re not made by transgendered filmmakers. It’s kind of formulaic, like I went through this big struggle, and now I’m happy. But I don’t try and drill that formula in my films.”
Transition is a personal and emotional process. She says surgery “ultimately is about what I need to make me happy. I don’t think that surgery will ‘fix everything’ for me or that I will ever feel like my transition is complete, but it will be a big step forward personally.”
Altadonna held her last fundraiser for “Making the Cut” in November 2012. A celebration of identity and acceptance, she held it in Milwaukee at the Down and Over Pub with a catered dinner and karaoke contest. “There’s still a bunch of interviews to do, and then there will be the whole process of me going and getting the surgery,” says Altadonna. “I’m assuming it will be another year, year-and-a-half until the film comes out.”
Though Altadonna identifies as female today and is closer than ever to reaching her final goal of gender reassignment strategy, her development as a filmmaker grows every day. “I’d like to do a biopic film about this transitional model named April Altadonna,” the person from whom Altadonna got her name, she says. “She was the first sort of high-profile transsexual, from Britain.”
While her talent is ever unfolding, “Whatever Suits You” served as Altadonna’s catalyst for her future. The film is a metaphor for Altadonna’s identity as a woman, the process of finding herself as she mends the shielding suit to create a beautiful black dress. In the end, she looks up, revealing a soft smile. The powerful seven-minute film continues to help build momentum for Altadonna’s campaign to create “Making the Cut” and fund gender reassignment surgery.
It began with a suit and continues with a cut. Not of fabric this time, but an outer shell unfitting for the person within. Altadonna looks through a lens to expose the trite and show truth—what it feels like to live as a transgendered person. Ultimately, it is a journey, a personal and emotional process, for the ability, as Altadonna says, to be the person she is.
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