Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

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November 2019

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Markie in Milwaukee Is a Powerful, Often Unsettling Transgender Narrative

Written by , Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Pop Culture

Transitioning is an incredibly difficult journey even under the best of circumstances. The highs of living out of the closet often contrast with the struggle for acceptance that far too many transgender people experience. Markie in Milwaukee documents ten years of turmoil that one transgender woman faced, coming to grips with her identity against a backdrop of an incredibly unsupportive community.

Markie Wenzel is a woman stuck between two worlds, facing a choice few ever have to consider. She’s an upbeat, soft-spoken person with a pleasant demeanor, if not a little socially awkward. Her height, close to seven feet, led to bullying at an early age, something that hardly let up as she began her transition in the mid 2000s.

As a minister in a fundamentalist Christian church, Markie encountered quite a lot of pushback from her community as she began to present as female. Her family all but abandoned her, refusing to accept a hiccup in an otherwise happy life.

The film offers a broad lens to examine Markie’s life at the various stages of transition, including the point where she decided to stop and return to life as Mark, a decision that was rewarded in the form of family visits, including a new granddaughter. Markie’s church took her back, basking in the glory of a sinner come to repent for the crime of being born different.

Markie in Milwaukee operates on an entirely different narrative wavelength than its subject, a moving narrative that highlights the many conflicts that transition brings out. Director Matt Kliegman largely lets Markie speak for herself, but the framing of the documentary often suggests that he’s at odds with the statements coming from Markie. The film carries the feel of belonging to Markie, but the audience is given plenty of leeway to suggest that there’s more beneath the surface that she’s not quite ready to tackle.

Kliegman puts the audience in a challenging position with regard to how to process Markie’s choices. Generally speaking, it’s considered inappropriate to second-guess the way a transgender person explains their identity. It is impossible to watch Markie in Milwaukee and not do just that.

This dynamic is most on display in scenes highlighting Markie’s church and her family. Despite a few efforts by Markie to suggest her detransition was not fueled by religious pressure, she contradicts herself on a few occasions. The footage from her church and children’s home demonstrates the intrinsic link between the two.

In all her years of transition, Markie found acceptance in the form of support groups and friendly strangers out in public. She didn’t appear to develop any meaningful connections beyond those surface level relationships. That kind of isolation is bound to be tough on anyone.

The saddest aspect of the film is the way in which Markie lives her life believing that she’s caused all this damage to her family. To say that that’s their problem, not hers, is an accurate reflection of the situation, yet Markie’s life is not improved by the notion that her identity shouldn’t be a burden on anyone else. For too many transgender people, the idea that our lives are an abomination is allowed to fester, tearing away at one’s psyche.

As a transition narrative, Markie in Milwaukee would have been improved by a stronger focus on the decision to embrace her old identity again. Kliegman touches on the subject a few times, most notably in a conversation between Markie and her therapist. One can certainly understand the sensitive nature of the subject matter, but the resolution to Markie’s story leaves more questions than it probably needed to.

Markie in Milwaukee is a flawed narrative, but a vitally important one in today’s climate. In many ways, Kliegman’s film is most valuable to the family members of transgender people, serving as a cautionary tale for the road that too many loved ones have to face alone. Markie Wenzel has been dealt a raw hand in life, but her story can help future generations to avoid the same hardships.

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Monday

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November 2017

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Good Riddance, Transparent

Written by , Posted in Blog, Pop Culture

Criticizing Transparent has always been weird for me as a transgender woman, knowing that the very existence of the show was a step in the right direction for a marginalized and underrepresented community. The show has served as a great source of employment for the transgender community. The recent sexual misconduct allegations made against Jeffrey Tambor by two of the show’s transgender staff, which lead to his departure from the series, is upsetting for many reasons. The fact that Transparent is likely finished as a series is not one of them.

Transparent is not a show about transgender people. There is a transgender character in the lead role, played by the decidedly non-transgender Tambor, but the show is mostly about Maura’s angst riddled family, the upperclass Pfeffermans from Los Angeles. Stylistically, the show has strong roots with the mumblecore genre, seen in Girls, Togetherness, and Looking,  complete with the presence of mumblecore legend Jay Duplass (also non-transgender) in the main cast. For those unfamiliar with the mumblecore movement, it is a genre defined by seemingly aimless narratives and characters who are often derided as “adult children,” usually quite accurately.

Transparent was always about that, the melancholy trials and tribulations of being wealthy and sad in 21st Century America. As a fan of mumblecore, I’ve always been apprehensive about disliking the show for being a part of that movement, but the experiences that mumblecore often depicts are far removed from the issues that affect transgender people in every day life. Transgender people face immense discrimination at work, which is fundamentally linked to our ability to afford medical treatments as simple as HRT, where the difference between $10 prescription and one costing $300 is mostly a matter of employment (due to our healthcare system), at a time when elected politicians fight to allow companies the ability to fire us at will. It would have been nice if Transparent could have focused more on those issues and less on all the orchestra of whining done by the adult Pfefferman children. The show hasn’t been cancelled yet, but it wouldn’t lose much of a beat if it kept going. The lack of a transgender lead hardly changes the show, which has been its problem all along.

The mumblecore comparisons do help in one key regard. Transparent represents the transgender community about as well as Girls accurately depicts Brooklyn millennials. To be fair, It is hard to say what kind of television show could ever represent such a diverse group as the transgender community, but a whiny affluent family from Los Angeles does not immediately come to mind as the model I would use. HBO’s Looking serves a great contrast as a mumblecore style show that depicted San Francisco’s gay community. It wasn’t necessarily a show strictly about being gay, but its use of a predominantly gay cast & crew gave the aura of authenticity that eluded Transparent. Being trans was never firmly rooted in Transparent’s zeitgeist. How could it have been?

In The Transgender Manifesto, I make the fairly simple observation that transgender people are fully capable of playing any character, cisgender or otherwise. Fictional narratives rarely dive into the subject of transgender identity, and the presence of a transgender character does not require one to do so. We are in fact, people. Representation in film and television is still to this day a huge issue for people who are not white and male. The idea of a black Othello was once seen as an outrage, despite the character’s own background. We’ve come a long way since then, but we couldn’t have a transgender lead in a show that traded off transgender people to diversify itself in a crowded field.

And yet, we had Transparent, the transgender show that wasn’t about transgender people. Yes, it increased our visibility (what that actually means, I’m not quite sure) and it certainly employed transgender people. I guess that counts for something. It is a poor depiction of transgender life. It didn’t need to be. The transgender community deserves better.

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