Shepherd Express

Body Language

-by Tam Nguyen
May. 6, 2009

shoot 'em up
photo by Joe Kirschling

For most people, gender identity is not a question. We have the parts that fit. But what does it mean to have a penis or a vagina? Ashley Altadonna, a Milwaukee transsexual filmmaker, has been exploring gender identity through films like Whatever Suits You, which has screened at LGBT film festivals such as San Francisco’s world-renowned Frameline Festival. She is currently working on her new film, Making the Cut, a documentary that looks at transsexuality and transgenderism in a new way.

What’s the distinction between the terms “transsexual” and “transgender”?

“Transgender” is an umbrella term to cover a range of gender-variant identities, including cross-dressers, drag performers, etc. People who are “transsexual,” which is what I identify as, are people who are born, given a gender identity-one thing at birth-and usually transition, usually through hormones or surgery, to varying degrees to live as the opposite sex.

What’s the story behind your current film in progress?

It’s a film that I’ve wanted to do for a while, but it was more a matter of having the time and resources to do it. The basic premise is that I’m going around trying to do different fund-raising projects to raise enough money for my surgery… Before you can get approved for sex reassignment surgery by a therapist or a doctor, there is what’s called the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care. Basically what that says is that you have to go through psychological testing to prove that you’re not crazy and then you have to live for up to a year or more in your intended gender before being approved for surgery. Obviously, I’ve [been living in my intended gender] for four years now and the only issue is money that’s holding me back from the surgery at this point. I wanted to see if I could use filmmaking as a way to help me get the surgery.

Apart from documenting your fund-raising efforts, what other areas will the documentary explore?

The issues that transgender people face, whether it’s job discrimination or discrimination in specific places. The film is maybe not specifically about transwomen, but since it’s my journey, I’ll be looking at transwomen closer. I’ll be looking at health care, especially the restrictions and requirements in place to get sex reassignment surgery. Right now, transsexuality and transgenderism are classified as mental disorders. Therefore, health care and treatment for them should be covered as such, but medical doctors, surgeons and health insurance officials deem sex reassignment surgery to be experimental or cosmetic or elective. But people have been having sex change surgery since the 1930s. So, these procedures have been done hundreds and thousands of times at this point, so either they should be covered by health insurance or removed from the DSM IV to not give transgendered people that stigma of [being] mentally ill.

The first fund-raiser for Making the Cut is at the River Horse on Friday, May 8. What’s in store for that?

There will be three DJs, Lady Blackheart, Dixie and Dori Zori from WMSE. The Tool Shed will be on hand to sell various vaginal-care-related items. We are also going to have performances from the Alley Cat Revue, Milwaukee’s burlesque show. The event starts at 8 p.m. There is no cover, but we are asking for a $5 donation or more… whatever people can donate. We are having raffle prizes, for example Rush-Mor Records is donating gift certificates and T-shirts. There will be bar tabs and free admittance to a show from the Cactus Club, and $100 gift cards from Detour. A portion of the proceeds from the Tool Shed sales that night will help fund the film. We will also be collecting for the surgery if people want to donate directly to that, and we will be filming, so you can actually end up in the movie if you come… if you want your big-screen debut!