In a locker room in Atlanta, a group of men – black, brown and spray-tanned, some carved like Hercules, others softer – flex their muscles. The camera lingers on their bodies, each hinting at larger stories – there are top surgery scars and bandages, chests with breast tissue. The gaze is direct and uncompromising, but not ogling – a scene of different presentations of masculinity literally presenting to judges, an audience and the camera of film-maker T Cooper.
Cooper’s film, Man Made, centers on the 2016 Trans FitCon Bodybuilding Competition in Atlanta, the only all-transgender bodybuilding competition in the world, open to any trans person who self-identifies as male regardless of physical presentation. It follows four of these competitors in the year leading up to the event, as they navigate the vagaries of everyday life and the path back to the Trans FitCon stage. Cooper, a trans film-maker, novelist and TV writer (his credits include The Get Down and The Blacklist), first filmed the 2015 Trans FitCon after hearing about it “through the trans grapevine” in his adopted home of Atlanta. At the time, it was a small affair, around five guys, but Cooper saw a potential window in a particular slice of trans experience. “As a trans person, especially as a trans guy, I just don’t feel like our stories are out there,” Cooper told the Guardian. “I don’t see my story. It’s a tiny corner of a tiny corner of the trans population and it just felt like, hey, this is a perfect opportunity … the metaphor of bodybuilding is so rich to tell these stories against.”
The sport of bodybuilding – the disciplined pursuit of a muscular aesthetic – offers an especially poignant lens into an experience grounded in physical transformation, and Cooper’s cast intentionally represents different perspectives on race, geography, financial stability, body shapes and gender expressions. “It was important for me to spread that out so that it felt like a cross-section of trans male life in our country at this moment,” said Cooper.
There’s Dominic Chilko, a swaggering 26-year-old aspiring rapper from Minnesota who, early in the film, undergoes long-awaited top surgery (in one of Man Made’s best and most moving moments, his partner Thea reveals pictures of his un-bandaged chest for the first time; Chilko breaks down, disbelieving. “That’s me?!” he cries). Mason Caminiti, a wizened fortysomething from Cleveland, is a veteran of mainstream bodybuilding competitions and speaks directly to the insecurity of being the only trans competitor in the room. Rese Weaver, a Black Lives Matter activist and single parent to a young son who still calls him “Mommy”, struggles with homelessness and acceptance in his hometown of Atlanta. Kennie Story, a trainer in small-town Arkansas, continues his transition and bodybuilding training even as it poses challenges to his relationship with his partner, a self-identified lesbian.
Man Made thrives in intimate and casual moments, in locker rooms and family kitchens, moments of trust Cooper attributes to his sensibility as a fellow trans man. The film-maker-subject relationship is “this sacred space”, said Cooper, “and I really do think that that sacred space was allowed to exist and flourish and be so trusting because I’m trans”.
Caminiti agreed: “I don’t want to appear to seem ungrateful that trans stories are being told by non-trans storytellers – I think that’s really important,” he told the Guardian. “But I think it’s so rare to have it told by trans people.” Both Caminiti and Cooper acknowledged coverage of trans stories often make pain and struggle the defining storyline instead of just one of many. “Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of trans storytelling focuses on,” Cooper said. “I just wanted to make sure that, yes, there’s some shitty stuff that happens … but to me, ultimately it’s a triumphant, hopeful story.”
Not that Man Made doesn’t address struggle head-on; Cooper catches Weaver coolly reflecting on rejection from Atlanta shelters; no longer accepted at his mother’s house, Weaver floats in and out of homelessness. “There is no housing for trans people,” he said. So what do they tell you? Cooper asks. Weaver shrugs: “Here’s a granola bar, here’s an orange, best of luck.”
But Man Made weaves these difficult moments in with the easy-going, less self-conscious ones – Caminiti making hand shadows on the wall with his mother-in-law, or Weaver teaching his son to flex before a McDonald’s trip. And there are the moments of wonderment, too, ones outside the journey to Trans FitCon. In the middle of the film, Chilko, adopted by a white Minnesotan family as an infant, finally meets his birth mother. Buzzing with adrenaline as he pulls up, he invokes the rush and control of the gym, “I’ve gotta pump, pump, pump it up,” he reassures himself. The first hug with his mother “beats, like, every fuckin’ moment I’ve ever had, like, including my top surgery”, he says. “And everybody knows my top surgery was my shit.”
Telling those stories was in and of itself a journey, and Cooper is frank about the difficulty of bringing his film to the finish line. The four-year process snowballed slowly, made possible by grants, backing from producers such as the actor and executive producer Tea Leoni, and a critical Sundance Institute documentary film program grant. Still, “the indifference you encounter is heartbreaking”, said Cooper of the process. “I’m not trying to be bitter, just realistic – nobody gives a shit about these guys’ lives. And that’s why I’m insisting on telling their stories.”
The fight for visibility continues; first released in festivals in 2018, Man Made reaches its widest audience yet ahead of Trans Awareness Week, traditionally the second week of November, and pegged to Trans Day of Remembrance in honor of those lost to violence, which continues to disproportionately effect trans people, particularly trans women of color. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 22 trans or gender non-conforming people have died violently in 2019; Man Made includes a social media call for peace from Weaver in the wake of his friend Crystal Edmond’s murder in Baltimore in 2016. Trans Remembrance Day recognizes “a hostile world that’s literally trying to extinguish us and our lives, as far as the rates of violence of trans folk [go], especially trans women of color”, said Cooper. “So for me that’s why it’s so important that these stories get out there.”
The film ends where it started, on stage at the Trans FitCon, this time with more participants, more varieties of bodies, camaraderie and cheers from loved ones in the audience. There are trophies for lightweight and heavyweight, and one winner to be named overall, but Caminiti tells the competitors that they’ve already beaten the odds by getting to the stage.
Cooper’s camera finds Caminiti’s wife and mother-in-law in the crowd, Chilko’s top surgery scars, Story’s unslumped shoulders – details in this competition that trace the long arc to the stage. They’re competitors, but also “fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, boyfriends”, said Cooper. “There’s just so much more to us than the shitty things that happen to us because of being trans that we mostly see in portrayals, and so much more to us than our transitions.”
The film’s kaleidoscope of experience is, at its core, a project of empathy and compassion – and a statement. “We’re here, we’re not going away, we exist, we’re beautiful,” said Cooper. “Our lives are as intricate and complex as anybody else and being trans is just one of those complexities.”