‘Monica’ speaks to a rarely shown part of the trans experience

The Trace Lysette drama beautifully explores the ambiguities of life after transition

In my 30s, when I made the decision to begin hormone replacement therapy and live the remainder of my life as a woman, I felt a powerful need to talk about my identity. I don’t think I’ll ever forget just how much I needed to talk about being trans during that time: the overwhelming, seemingly endless need to process the enormous hopes, questions and anxieties that came with transitioning. The decision to come out and start to transition is as life-changing as it gets, and we need space for that. Commonly, our need to centre our trans identity and talk through the changes and questions of transition fades away as we move past this process and finally get to just live our lives as our proper gender.

This is why I find the new movie Monica so rewarding. This movie about a trans woman post-transition has arrived at a moment when I have been feeling a lot of gratitude for my own post-transition life. Starring Trace Lysette in the title role, it tells the story of Monica, who finished her transition decades ago, and is now returning home to be with her long-estranged, dying mother.

This slow fade toward a less euphoric, more mundane existence may be a relieving end to the wild ups and downs of transition, but it lacks the drama and energy that tends to characterize those tumultuous years when seemingly everything about our life is changing. Perhaps that’s why most storytelling about trans lives avoids the post-transition life in favour of focusing on these major transformations. If you look at books, movies, TV and podcasts about trans people, you will find plenty of wonderful stories talking about transition—things like the realization that one is trans, the act of coming out to family and other loved ones, the big leap of faith that is medical transition, and learning to live anew as your correct gender—but you will find very few stories about trans people who have long since left behind such questions.

Before I continue: I don’t think I’ve written any big spoilers, but what follows may lessen the joy of watching this intelligently written film. One of the things that Monica does differently than most “trans films” is that it never shows the audience a coming-out moment. Although much of the film revolves around the fact that Monica’s mother doesn’t realize that Monica is her child, Monica repeatedly defies our expectations to see a moment that has become perhaps the ultimate mainstay of trans cinema. The film never actually lets us see when and if Monica does come out to her mother.

I love this choice, and what this movie does instead: it gives us subtle clues that let us know Monica’s mother has figured things out and has accepted her child for who she is. For instance, late in the movie there is a family gathering, and photos are being taken of the family and their friends together. After several photos have been snapped, the photographer says, “Now, just the family,” and non-family steps aside. I found it so incredibly touching—and a little surprising—when Monica does not step aside, but rather holds her rightful place in the family photos. I felt a tingling down my spine as I slowly realized that Monica is being treated as family.

 

It is this gentleness and ambiguity that makes Monica stand out from so many other trans stories, and that lets it show an aspect of trans existence that moves beyond the simple binaries that tend to dominate trans storytelling: out/closeted, passing/not. For very good reasons, these binaries tend to be at the forefront of our minds during the early stages of a trans person’s gender journey, when we are figuring out our identity and taking the necessary steps to embody it in the world. I well remember those days when I thought so much about how and when to come out to others, and when I agonized over whether or not the world regarded me as a woman.

It has been my experience—and that of many other trans people who I have been in community with—that as our transitions fade and our lives as trans people lengthen, those either/ors are replaced by layers of ambiguity that more correctly characterize our lives. And this is what I think Monica gets right better than any other trans movie I’ve seen: those enormous expanses of grey that replace the black-and-white as one moves beyond transition and enters a different phase of trans life.

A perfect example of this ambiguity is Monica’s opening scene, where Monica sits in her convertible trying to find the perfect wording for a voice mail for her ex-boyfriend. As Monica worries over nailing the exact mix of vulnerability and assertiveness, a man approaches her and begins blithely coming on to her. Monica makes it clear that she is not interested in him, and the confrontation escalates until the scene is finally cut short when she instructs the man to move aside, or else he will get hit when she backs out her vehicle.

In this scene, Monica is both a woman dealing with a degrading experience common to all women, and a trans woman who knows that this entire moment could blow up if the man realizes she’s trans. At this point in the film, it is likely that much of the audience probably doesn’t even realize that Monica is trans, as the film has not yet given us any overt clues that she is. There are only exceedingly subtle signs that perhaps this encounter is tinged with aspects of danger and confusion that set it apart. This encounter sits in a state of ambiguity where it is unclear how exactly Monica is reacting to this man—as an annoyed and frightened woman, or as an annoyed and frightened trans woman. Monica’s boldness comes from the confidence of having lived so many years as a woman, yet it is inflected with the vulnerability of a woman who never forgets she’s trans. I love this scene because it feels so absolutely true to how I feel when I am catcalled.

As I watched Monica, this scene and so many others like it resonated with this in-between, here-and-there experience of the world as a post-transition woman. At this point in my life, I rarely disclose that I am trans to others, and even among those whom I am out to it’s uncommon for me to have some reason to reference the fact that I’m trans. Of course, it’s still possible that someone might realize I’m trans—perhaps a coworker googles me and figures it out, or someone I’m talking to wonders why I specialize in working with trans people as a therapist. But even then, what would that information really mean to them if I never share that part of my identity? Would I be “out” to such individuals or still “closeted”? I would argue that the answer is neither, that such yes-or-no questions lose their relevance in the face of the ambiguities that now pervade my life.

This is what I mean when I say that these days the binary questions that tend to dominate trans narratives feel less relevant to my life than layers of ambiguity. It was not always this way. I remember how I used to torture myself by spending hours scrutinizing my mirror reflection, trying to figure out if I looked like a “real” woman or not. I wanted so badly to get over that threshold that would let me be a part of womanhood. I ached for every last part of me to fit within female norms. With many years of work on self- and body-acceptance—as well as countless encounters in the world where other people just treated me as a woman—I gradually let go of that rigidity and accepted that nobody really cared if some parts of my body were a little ambiguous. Instead of needing the certainty of the either/or, I became comfortable with the in-between.

It is this journey that I see Monica make throughout the movie. When she first comes home and sees her mother, she is shy and rigid—perhaps overcome by the anxiety at the thought of coming out to her mother, or gripped by the fear that her mother is suddenly going to realize who she is. She is likewise fearful of her brother and sister-in-law (who know she’s trans), and awkward around their young children. I imagine she is trying to figure out just how to be around these new people.

As the movie progresses, Monica loosens up considerably. She becomes much more familiar, loving and physically affectionate with her mother; her conversations with her brother flow more easily and she has fun playing games with her niece and nephew. In my reading of the film, she is letting go of the question of being trans or not, instead just giving in to the flow of interacting with family.

This question of ambiguity is implicated in another key scene in Monica. Needing a little break from the gravity of her family drama, Monica meets a man on a dating app and arranges to meet up with him at a bar some miles down the highway. As they talk on the phone before the date, we understand that Monica has come out to him, even though the film never actually shows us that moment. But then, as the night wears on, it becomes sadly clear that the man is not showing up for the date, and we see that Monica is crushed by the rejection. Perhaps trying to massage her bruised ego, she gives into the advances of another man in the bar and has sex with him in his truck.

In this part of the movie, we see Monica first trying to uphold the closeted/out binary that trans women are taught to always attend to, lest we end up in bed with a man who feels betrayed and chooses violence. It is perhaps Monica’s sense of safety, as well as maybe also her sense of honesty, that leads her to come out to the first man before the date. But then, after drinking a little alcohol and feeling the frustration of being othered by a man who fears her body, she throws caution to the wind and simply accepts the ambiguity that comes with hooking up with a stranger who thinks she’s cisgender.

I understand Monica’s frustration. I’ve often felt that the black-and-white rules about my body and my identity—that for instance tell me I must out myself in certain situations for my own safety—are more for the benefit of a cisgender person who wants to control me than anything about my own community or experience. Letting go of those either/ors, I’ve found a much more gentle existence, no longer so caught up in maintaining those borders and boundaries. It has allowed me to let go of so much of the baggage I gathered as I made my way through my transition. Yes, being trans is still an important part of my identity—and it’s not something that I ever really forget, even for a moment—but it’s something that I can be so much more loose about.

From what I understand of the post-transition community, this place that I have landed is a significant, if undersung, part of the trans experience. I appreciate Monica for giving filmgoers a vantage point from which to observe this part of our life—for showing us that Monica’s life is more about her humanity than her transness, more about her womanhood than how she got there. It is, to paraphrase author Casey Plett, a kind of absolution for the guilt of being born trans. As Monica proves, what this part of the trans experience lacks in dramatic force it more than makes up for in emotional richness, nuance and grace. I am very, very happy to have arrived here. 

Veronica Esposito (she/her) is a writer and therapist based in Oakland, CA. She reports regularly for The Guardian and KQED, the NPR member station for Northern California, and has written for dozens of magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. She speaks English and some Spanish.

Read More About:
TV & Film, Culture, Personal Essay, Trans

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