A.V. Club Milwaukee

When a Man Becomes a Woman

-by DJ Hostettler
May. 7, 2009

photo by Joe Kirschling

A few years ago, local musician and experimental filmmaker Kyle Altadonna surprised his friends with the news that he was transgender. Since then, Ashley Altadonna has been undergoing treatments and therapy that have helped transition her into a female. In the process, Altadonna found her voice as a filmmaker, shooting a pair of short films focusing on her transition (“Whatever Suits You”) and transgender identity issues in general (“Playing With Gender”). Both films have traveled the world, playing at LGBT film festivals across the United States and as far away as Melbourne, London, and Berlin.

Today, Altadonna lives as a female, but there’s one last step-her gender-reassignment surgery, an expensive procedure that’s not covered under some health-care programs in the U.S. Altadonna is currently raising money for the surgery and a new film, Making The Cut, which documents her “final cut.” She sat down with Decider to discuss her transition, the filming of Making The Cut, and Friday’s fundraiser for the movie at the River Horse.

Decider: It seems a little funny that you’re raising money for a film about raising money for your transition. Why spend the extra money on a film?

Ashley Altadonna: There was a lot of debate about whether or not I should just go around and ask people for money for the surgery. A lot of people out there seem to feel that this is an elective surgery-cosmetic-and therefore, there are more worthwhile causes out there to contribute to. And while I’ll agree that it’s not maybe life-threatening, it is an important issue, and that’s part of what the film is about-how we make these distinctions of what is worthy of charitable donation and what isn’t. There will be a collection at the fundraiser specifically for the surgery, and the fundraiser will actually be in the film because we’ll be collecting money for the surgery itself.

D: So you wouldn’t necessarily equate it to some life-threatening surgery, but it’s surgery to improve your well-being, right?

AA: Yes. It’s funny because gender identity disorder, which is what it’s technically called, is actually classified as a mental disorder in the DSM IV. So, therefore, treatment of it should be covered under health care. But health-care professionals don’t cover it. So, therefore, it creates this sort of Catch-22 where it should be covered but it’s not. And if it’s not going to be covered, perhaps it should be taken out of the DSM IV and lose the stigma of transgender people being mentally ill.

D: Do you feel like when you made the decision to come out and start going through the transition that it gave you a coherent voice for your filmmaking?

AA: It definitely gave my filmmaking a direction. Before I transitioned, I feel like I really struggled for ideas of what I wanted to do, and the act of transitioning is such a unique experience, and it touches every area of your life to some degree. So it really did give my filmmaking a drive that I didn’t have before. Every movie I’ve made, except for one, has been about me being transgendered. And I think it’s just a really great topic because there are lots of aspects of it to explore.

D: Was the decision to transition in such a public fashion hard to make?

AA: I definitely agonized about it for somewhere around five years. [Laughs.] I mean, it was something I was dealing with since the time I was 13, but part of that time I wasn’t even sure what was going on. At the same time, it got to a point where before I transitioned, I was going to be so completely miserable if I didn’t do anything about it. And in that way it almost was like there wasn’t a choice; that it had to be done. But with the rise of the Internet and public opinion changing about transgendered topics with movies like Boys Don’t Cry, The Crying Game, or whatever, I think it’s made being transgendered somewhat more acceptable, so I think it’s easier. At the same time, there’s always that little voice in the back of my head asking, “Am I gonna get the crap beat out of me for this someday?”

D: It seemed like it was a big deal for you initially to make sure you were passing properly, so when someone first meets you, they see you as a female right away. But this sort of thing, if it makes you a recognizable figure in the community, almost defeats the purpose of that.

AA: I think a lot of transgendered people, especially the older generation, once they transitioned, the goal was that they did want to be seen as a “real woman,” or a “real man,” but I think it’s important that transgendered people are also able to accept, embrace, and declare that they are transgendered because there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s an aspect to who we are, but it’s not the only thing. There needs to be transgendered doctors and lawyers and politicians, and there needs to be transgendered filmmakers.

This article originally appeared at decider.com.