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Why Can't I Be Me? Around You

by Kilian Melloy
Sunday Jul 21, 2019
'Why Can't I Be Me? Around You'
'Why Can't I Be Me? Around You'  

There are plenty of questions raised in Harrod Blank and Sjoerd Djik's documentary "Why Can't I Be Me? Around You," not least of which is what pronouns the film's main subject, Rusty Tidenberg, might prefer. (We'll stick with "they," "them," and "their" for this review.)

Rusty is, to some extent, a professional drag racer - no, really; they compete in contests involving muscle cars tearing around in the desert. Rusty boasts about this, saying that they have a bet with their father about who makes more money: Rusty, or their dad, who hunts turkeys for the feathers he then sells to Native Americans in the area. (The feathers are used in the creation of kachina dolls.)

Rusty lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, more or less under their father's thumb. The old man is a figure who becomes mythic in the telling; though Rusty is in their fifties, dear old dad still has the power to make them miserable: Emotionally, financially, and in just about every other way. Rusty, in turn, speaks of the paterfamilias in affectionate terms, though also with a certain bitterness. Overall, there's a depth of compassion on Rusty's part - "He's mourning his son" is the gist of Rusty's defense - that their father might yet be working toward but, perhaps, hasn't quite arrived at.

Filmmaker Harrod Blank met Rusty by chance when his art vehicle - a van customized with what must be dozens, if not hundreds, of cameras attached to its body - needed an overhaul. Rusty, as it happens, is not only something of a mechanical genius but also builds art vehicles of their own, such as a motorcycle made of copper. Their mutual love of unusual vehicles opens a door into the filmmaker's interest in Rusty's story: Is Rusty transgender? Are they - as their clinical diagnosis has it - living with "autogynephilia" and "fetishism?" Rusty seems comfortable with that diagnosis, explaining how from a young age they wished to have a beautiful pair of breasts. Not to attract men, mind you; quite the opposite. As a psychologist with whom Rusty consulted tells the camera, Rusty not only is still sexually interested in women, they also believe that their breasts will help attract women to them. (In this, the psychologist argues, Rusty is sorely mistaken.)

Gender affirmation surgeon Dr. Marci Bowers sheds a little light but also makes things even hazier, when she suggests that Rusty might be, to some slight extent, intersex. Dr. Bowers concisely summarizes the differences between intersex and trans people, saying that the former are defined by their plumbing, whereas it's a matter of brain development that determines the latter. Rusty may well dwell somewhere in the intersection of both, but, Bowers notes, they are going to have to sort out how to navigate the complicated business of how they wish to be seen and thought of. The binary model may not be fair or even complete - certainly, it cannot be successfully applied with complete universality - but for those who don't fit neatly into one box or the other the challenges are going to be considerable.

As many trans people know, coming out of the closet is costly. Such is the case for Rusty; money is an ongoing problem, thanks in large part - or so Rusty has it - to their father's chokehold on their finances, and getting a job isn't an easy prospect. There's also the social aspect to deal with. Rusty has close female friends, at least one of whom talks about the awkwardness of Rusty letting her know that they are sexually interested in her. She, however, isn't certain what to do in that arena.

Nor is romance the only social challenge in Rusty's life. Close friends abandoned them when they came out. Two friends who stuck by Rusty describe what it took to decide not to jump ship: One friend recalls the times he was in tough spots and Rusty didn't hesitate to help out; the other outlines the process by which he accepted Rusty after they had facial surgery and hormone therapy: "I got past that by staring at his boobs... just staring at his boobs... staring at his boobs until it's like, okay, those are his boobs."

It's not a process all of Rusty's old friends are capable of completing. One high school buddy admits that he "can understand" the part about dressing in woman's clothing - really? Tell us more, please - but he remains baffled by Rusty's physical transformation, which includes presenting as a woman in terms of look and clothing... and which also includes keeping their male genitalia and entertaining the hope of attaining fatherhood someday.

Blank looks past Rusty in order to explore non-binary and trans aficionados of the art car world, venturing to Burning Man in the Nevada desert and to Artocade Art Car Festival in Trinidad, Colorado. At the former, he interviews Lucy Hosking, the trans creator of a fire-breathing dragon-themed RV; in the latter, he talks with Brandi Bossier, who rides in a glamorous car called "Trophy Wife," and promises - joking, she says, though you sense she's not entirely in jest - that she'll knock anyone cold who refuses to respect her pronouns. Blank also hears from a Goth-art-car-driving person named Plymouth Harmouth Ansbergs, who explains that they are without gender - though, they add, they will sometimes define their gender as "goth."

For viewers who have seldom, if ever, had occasion to reflect upon the binary gender model that our laws and society tend to regard as the default, this is an illuminating - though not necessarily clarifying - film. People are complicated - in more ways, it would seem, than we are typically prepared to acknowledge. Some of the answers we might naturally crave do arrive, but not before we hear heartbreaking reflections from Rusty about their dilemma; eventually, a suicide attempt enters into the story. But there's light, and life, awaiting Rusty. Those who understand Rusty's journey and see their own paralleled in it will take heart; those who do not understand in a visceral sense will gain some measure of insight, not the least of which is this: It's not always necessary to understand someone or share their inmost feelings in order to accept them. In fact, that's what makes the world an interesting place. That's a cliché, of course... until you actually have to grapple with it.

In that sense, the time this doc spends with Rusty is an adventure. There might not be answers for everything, but sometimes the questions are the point.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. 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.


OUTfest 2019

This story is part of our special report titled "OUTfest 2019." Want to read more? Here's the full list.


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