It is obviously not manhood or masculinity per se that is the problem for Lotte, but rather the role it ascribes to her when the relation is read as heterosexual. I cannot help thinking of a quote by the French feminist Monique Wittig:
“The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not. For a lesbian this goes further than the refusal of the role “woman.” It is the refusal of the economic, ideological, and political power of man”.
What Wittig is proposing is that the category “woman” only exists through its relation to the category “man”, and that “woman” without relation to “man” would cease to exist. For Wittig the category lesbian represents the possibility to escape the category of “woman”. This understanding is echoed in some ways in Lotte’s wish to hold on to the category lesbian: “if anybody asked me if I was a lesbian I would without the slightest doubt say that I am”. Lotte seems to subscribe more to lesbian as an identity category than as a sexual orientation. And yet the discussion points towards the sexual categories’ incapability of accounting for the identity of and the practice between two people in a relationship. Sexual orientation and sex/gender identity are complex constructions and they are not easily reducible to homo/hetero/bi or man/woman.
One might argue that trans people in particular makes clear how inadequate it is to assume or derive a person’s sexual orientation from the sex of that person’s desired partner. For many people erotic desire does not automatically fit preconceived binaries of either gender (man/woman) or sexuality (homo/hetero/bi). However, moving across or beyond the preconceived gender binary one may risk being put on the borders of the human and be seen as an alien, a freak. As Judith Butler states:
The mark of gender appears to “qualify” bodies as human bodies; the moment in which an infant becomes humanized is when the question, “is it a boy or a girl?” is answered. Those bodily figures who do not fit into either gender fall outside the human, indeed, constitute the domain of the dehumanized and the abject against which the human itself is constituted.
Language also has an inability to name that which is not man or woman, as well as to represent the transgendered subject’s movement over time between gendered positions.
Nobody Passes Perfectly challenges in various ways a binary conception of gender. It shows different ways of thinking and doing masculinity, with a preference for a more soft and gender-bending masculinity. In this way the documentary highlights that bio-men do not own masculinity or maleness. Masculine women have, according to Judith Halberstam, played a large part in the construction of modern masculinity, but still there is a presumed essential relation between masculinity and men as well as a general disbelief in female masculinity. On a bodily scale, the trans men in the film do not aspire to unequivocal maleness, but embrace in various ways the modified and specified trans body. This queering of masculinity exemplifies Halberstam’s argument that even though “not all transsexualities, obviously, present a challenge (or a want to) to hegemonic masculinity, ... not all butch masculinities produce subversion. However, transsexuality and transgenderism do afford unique opportunities to track explicit performances of nondominant masculinity”.
Halberstam’s positive perception of trans masculinity has however not been prevalent in feminist theories. Janice Raymond has been one of the most critical voices, theorising trans men as treacherous women. In The Transsexual Empire from 1979 she writes, “Female-to-constructed-male transsexuals divest themselves of the last traces of female identification. Their collusion crosses a critical boundary, from which there is little hope of return. They are truly ‘the lost women to other women’”. Even in the new edition of the book, published sixteen years later, Raymond maintains her standpoint. Sheila Jeffreys has supported Raymond’s denouncements, claiming that trans men are a “modern invention”, nothing but a product of a “woman hating culture” where lesbians are portrayed as freaks. Transgenderism is according to Jeffreys “a damaging practice amongst lesbians” and she argues for the need to “save” the butches from becoming trans men. In her argument, positive stories and representations of FtMs actually work to encourage male trans practices.
Nobody Passes Perfectly shows a connection between trans masculinity and identities and practices from lesbian and queer subcultures. There is especially one scene in the film where these overlaps and connections are explicitly discussed. Filmed in a bar in Germany, Tomka talks with a group of friends. He reflects upon how he was against taking hormones only two years ago, thinking that “one should put up with having an ambiguous appearance”. But, as Tomka makes clear, he “just can’t stand it anymore”. Reconfiguring his body and his voice with the use of hormones makes him more comfortable about himself and more comfortable around others. It keeps him out of trouble. Before taking hormones the voice gave him away which caused bullying, and as he says, “I’m sick of getting into trouble”.
Performing masculinity, but not being read as a man, can be dangerous. And yet, as Tomka’s friend points out in the film, “there is always a new problem”: as a trans man you will always risk failing as a man. Either because you do not take testosterone, have not got a top surgery, have not had a phalloplasty, or because of your history. This makes several forms of everyday social activities difficult for trans men, especially sports where you have to participate on gender specific teams and undress/shower in front of others. Another friend adds, “You won’t fit the norm as a man, but it has changed a lot for me”. He continues, “For me it wasn’t the ambiguity that I couldn’t handle. It was being pressed into the female mould. Testosterone has helped me get out of it. It’s a relief not being a woman no matter how people perceive me”. The binary gender system prevails and makes it almost impossible to occupy a position in between the categories. No matter what your gender presentation is, you will always be categorised according to your perceived bodily signifier. After taking testosterone and having a top surgery, the friend passes as male at work, but as he states, “there is still a very big part of me that isn’t seen. Then I either choose to talk about it or not. But lots of people do not understand what it means to be transgender. But in a way it’s easier, and it makes everyday life easier. But still...” Even after transitioning, the binary gender system feels inadequate, silencing trans as a legitimate position. You may want to pass as a man in order to disassociate yourself from a female assignment and in order to gain access to masculinity, but you may not want compulsory assimilation.