FTM Representation in Taiwan Takes One Step Forward and Two Steps Back with Chang Yi-ching’s “Be Myself”

by Daniel Yo-Ling

Photo courtesy of TAPCPR

DIRECTOR CHANG YI-CHING’S (張伊青) new documentary, 《做自己的條件》Be Myself, made its world premiere on June 30th at the 25th annual Taipei Film Festival. Be Myself documents video editor Hsin-yu’s (欣嶼) journey through gender affirming surgeries and changing his legal gender from female to male. Chang’s new full-length documentary, running at 138 minutes, is the first of its kind, providing viewers with a detailed portrayal of female-to-male (FTM) transition and achieving new heights in FTM transgender representation in Taiwan. However, Be Myself suffers from a severe lack of sensitivity and accountability on the part of the director, as well as a narrative arc that ultimately centers Hsin-yu’s family members rather than himself and inadvertently perpetuates subtle forms of transphobia.

Be Myself opens with Hsin-yu attempting to make changes to a jointly-owned bank account between himself and his mother. Hsin-yu was already on testosterone at that point and had facial hair, but he had not undergone any surgeries and hence had not changed his legal gender marker. Currently in Taiwan, in order for trans men to change their legal gender, they must provide two psychiatric evaluation letters and proof of surgical removal of breast tissue, uterus, and ovaries. Bank personnel discussed amongst each other whether or not Hsin-yu was the person shown on his national identification card. They politely told him that he would need to go to the original bank where the account was opened and provide additional identification verification documents, such as signature comparisons, in order for any changes to be made. This opening scene effectively draws attention to the plight of transgender people in Taiwan who navigate their everyday lives with a legal gender that does not match their gender identity and presentation. According to the Taiwan Alliance for Civil Partnership Rights’ 2020 Transgender Human Rights Survey (n=576), 88% of transgender respondents had not updated their legal gender. A later scene shows nurses misgendering Hsin-yu as “Miss” (小姐) when calling on him to see a doctor.

After the opening bank scene, director Chang explains that Hsin-yu, her co-worker at the time, came out to her as transgender and asked her to document his medical and legal transition for him. As a result, Be Myself follows Hsin-yu as he navigates getting periareolar top surgery, a hysterectomy, salpingectomy, ovariectomy, and vaginectomy. Hsin-yu also requested that Chang document his family’s reactions to his transition and to include them in the documentary. In addition to portraying in detail multiple FTM surgeries for the first time in Taiwanese cinematic history, Be Myself shines in its documentation of Hsin-yu’s working-class family’s experiences of Hsin-yu’s transition, especially those of his mother (a devout Buddhist and former vegetarian food stall owner) and father (a metal worker). However, the documentary also errs in centering their experiences too much without adequate commentary by Hsin-yu himself, which leaves an overall ambiguity about whether Hsin-yu’s mother in particular is actually the main subject of this documentary and not Hsin-yu.

In the first part of the documentary, Hsin-yu shares that his parents were both strongly against his decision to pursue top surgery. Li Chen-chen, one of Hsin-yu’s friends, is also featured towards the beginning of the documentary consoling Hsin-yu over his parent’s initial inability to support his decision to undergo top surgery. Li shared that Hsin-yu’s parents did not sever relations with him or expel him from the family, so he is lucky and should be more patient with them as they slowly come to accept his decision. Hsin-yu’s mother eventually decides to accompany him to see a psychiatrist, and it is only then that she begins to reluctantly accept and support her son’s transition. She states that this is Hsin-yu’s body, and even though she doesn’t understand why he needs to medically and legally transition, she supports him. She later explains that her perspective on her son’s transition is that it is either collecting on or returning a debt from a previous life, and so she can only accept this fate.

Hsin-yu’s father is less accepting and vocally expresses that he does not support him, though he too eventually comes to a reluctant acceptance, further commenting that he has no choice but to accept Hsin-yu’s decision since he is an adult and there is no need for parents to sign a surgical consent form. Hsin-yu undergoes top surgery and then goes to stay with his mother and father for a month of recovery. This part of the documentary is tense, given that both parents’ reluctant acceptance is palpable, but mostly heartwarming since it is full of scenes of Hsin-yu’s mother cooking for him and his parents helping him with his drains.

Hsin-yu told his oldest sister about his top surgery plans prior to surgery, to which she was vocally against. Hsin-yu’s older brother also shares that he is against Hsin-yu’s decision, accusing Hsin-yu of being “selfish” and overlooking his parents’ suffering. Hsin-yu’s second sister also says via text message that Hsin-yu is very selfish for getting top surgery and that he shouldn’t “take advantage of their parents’ love for him.” Hsin-yu’s siblings remain resigned at best towards his transition and express their disapproval again when Hsin-yu goes in for bottom surgery.

Be Myself also features other characters that help to provide some balance to Hsin-yu’s family’s disapproval. For instance, Hsin-yu’s Presbyterian Church of Taiwan pastor and vocal LGBTQ+ supporter, Lazarus Chen (陳思豪), visits him in the hospital during bottom surgery recovery and gives a passionate commentary about how Jesus teaching unconditional acceptance. Hsin-yu’s friend, Eddie, too, is briefly featured sharing about his own transition experiences as a trans man and his family’s supportive posture. However, these moments of vocal support are overshadowed by the sheer frequency of explicit disapproval and/or reluctant acceptance of FTM transition shown throughout the documentary. For instance, the documentary includes a brief scene of Hsin-yu’s hospital roommate’s mother during bottom surgery. This person’s mother shares that she was very against her son’s surgery because “transexuals all have shorter lifespans” and she doesn’t understand why he is “hurting himself,” but eventually came to accept her son’s decision.

Curiously, while Hsin-yu himself provides plenty of first-person commentary about his transition experiences during the first half of the documentary, such as explaining how he first discovered the term “transgender” in 2014 and how uncomfortable he felt when he was outed to a stranger and misgendered by his sister, the second half of the documentary fails to maintain coherent emotional focus on Hsin-yu’s experience of his transition. For instance, towards the end of the documentary, Hsin-yu’s character arc suddenly swerves into his decision to adopt a cat and he is shown crying about his fear of being abandoned, but without any clear tie-in to the rest of the documentary and/or Hsin-yu’s transition. And while Hsin-yu is shown successfully changing his legal gender, Be Myself does not include further first-person commentary about how he feels about his legal transition. Instead, the emotional focus of the documentary lands squarely on Hsin-yu’s family members, such as when Hsin-yu shares about how ten months after his bottom surgery, his brother seems to have come to a place of reluctant acceptance.

Trailer for Be Myself

Indeed, the most dynamic character throughout the documentary is Hsin-yu’s mother, who goes from being against Hsin-yu’s top surgery at the beginning of the documentary to correcting Hsin-yu’s father when he misgenders Hsin-yu at the end of the documentary. Many of Be Myself’s most sympathetic and heartwarming scenes center on Hsin-yu’s mother, such as when she slept in Hsin-yu’s hospital room next to him the first night after his bottom surgery; however, this creative decision sometimes comes at the expense of decentering Hsin-yu himself from the documentary. For instance, during Hsin-yu’s bottom surgery sequence, instead of asking him directly to speak about his experiences, director Chang decided to graphically feature a scene of a doctor showing Hsin-yu’s mother Hsin-yu’s surgically removed uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and vagina, which was then immediately followed by Hsin-yu’s mother crying over seeing the bright red horror of her son’s reproductive organs neatly laid out on a surgical tray. This sequence invites the viewer to sympathize with the emotional distress that Hsin-yu’s mother feels over her son’s transition, a tension that ultimately finds some catharsis in her support for her son. It is clear by the end of the documentary that Chang herself is most sympathetic to Hsin-yu’s mother and sought to highlight her heroic journey from disapproval to reluctant acceptance to support as the main storyline of this documentary.

While Be Myself provides a very true-to-reality portrayal of one trans man’s transition journey in Taiwan and the way his family members navigate this transition, the final product leaves a lot of questions for viewers about the ethics of representation. Chang shared during the Q&A after the premiere that Hsin-yu was not consulted at all during the video editing process and the creative decision-making of the final documentary was solely the result of her own choosing. Chang stated that Hsin-yu trusted her completely with taking creative leadership over the documentary, but also mentioned that he felt that there were a few hard to swallow areas upon seeing the final product. Hsin-yu himself, as well as his family, also attended the premiere, yet curiously, Hsin-yu was not invited to speak for himself during the Q&A. Instead, the microphone was given to Hsin-yu’s mother, who thanked everyone for their support and for coming to watch the documentary. Chang also proudly shared that Hsin-yu told her that, after watching the documentary, he was able to see his parents’ suffering and tears as a result of his transition in a new way, as if the goal of the documentary was to provide representation for parents and siblings struggling with their family member’s transition rather than the transition experiences of transgender people themselves.

Perhaps one of the most outrageous creative decisions made in the documentary was that director Chang deliberately misgenders Hsin-yu towards the beginning of the film by using the feminine Chinese pronoun “她” and the feminine English pronoun “she” in the captioning. When asked about this decision during the Q&A, Chang shared that she wanted to make sure that the audience unambiguously knew that Hsin-yu’s biological sex was female, as if the entire premise of the documentary was not already clear. It is unclear how Hsin-yu felt about being misgendered in the beginning of the documentary, as he was not given the opportunity to speak during the premiere. Likewise, it is unclear how he feels about other questionable portions of the documentary, such as when a full frontal shot of his pre-operative chest is shown. These moments of creative license reveal Chang’s lack of sensitivity towards transgender representation and raise serious questions about the extent to which Hsin-yu himself was able to have a say in how his life story was told, or whether Be Myself is just another example of a non-transgender director parachuting into transgender issues for a single project and making creative decisions without any accountability to the oppressed community she is representing.

This lack of sensitivity and accountability is especially concerning given the alarming rise of gender critical feminist and anti-trans discourse in Taiwan since September 2021. Be Myself unwittingly reproduces subtly transphobic narratives that can be easily co-opted by anti-trans forces, namely, that the main focus of a transgender person’s transition should be the emotional response of family members and that transgender people are selfish for choosing to transition (a narrative that Be Myself presents but does not refute). Furthermore, Chang self-satisfyingly sets reluctant acceptance as a “good enough” outcome that transgender people are “lucky” to have. Be Myself suggests that anything beyond reluctant acceptance is too much to ask from parents and siblings who are already emotionally distraught and burdened by their family member’s transition. It is such a shame that the first full-length documentary in Taiwan about the transition experiences of a transgender man sets the bar this low.

Be Myself has been nominated for the Taipei Film Festival’s Best Documentary award and will have a second showing next Tuesday on July 4th starting at 8PM at SPOT-Huashan.