One of the first times I could distinctly recall seeing a version of myself was in the documentary The Aggressives. I was only a child, but I immediately understood that the subjects who poured out the intimacies of their lives in this film were future renditions of me. They were gender non-conforming Black people who at the time thought of themselves as women and outwardly presented themselves as masculine.
Throughout the film, the legitimacy of their masculinity was called into question because of how they carried themselves, or because of the types of women they were attracted to. Many of them were trans, and that was readily accepted despite their lack of access or use of hormones. A few of them conveyed their disdain for being regarded as similar to cis men, but they also didn’t view their womanhood as rigid or non-malleable.
At the time, this documentary was one of the only real life depictions of Black trans masc people that a child like me could grasp onto. I had never really come across representations of myself in mainstream media. The very few available depictions of trans masculine narratives were laden with trauma and violence, like Boys Don’t Cry, or they were exploitative. But for many like myself, The Aggressives was the first relatable illustration of gender disruptors that were painted in a more complex, nuanced, and humane fashion.
We are reintroduced to many of the main cast from the original film in Beyond the Aggressives. In an almost “where are they now” fashion, we catch up with Kisha, Trevon, Octavio, and Chin as they traverse hardships related to racism, starting families, and growing older. Some of the original film’s subjects, including Marquise Vilson who does not make an appearance in the follow-up, have gone into modeling, or have budding TV and movie careers. But there remains a dearth of trans masc representation in media, whether it be in our books or on our screens. While there have been radical changes since the likes of Paris is Burning, transgender people have remained underrepresented and misrepresented across media overall, and trans masc representation is minimal.
The 90s are long gone; we have since had Sense 8, Pose, Orange is the New Black, Transparent, and a range of shows that are trans inclusive. But having more representation is not enough for those being portrayed. This visibility has not shifted or improved most trans lives, as many portrayals make spectacles of the trans community, specifically of trans women.
There’s no competition between trans feminine and trans masculine people. The systematic designs that sensationalize trans women are the very same structures that erase trans masc people. Within our toxic and sexist culture, we are quick to condemn the (outwardly) feminine. There’s this element of shock and condescension with trans women; why would anyone want to give up their manhood? All the while, trans men are impacted by this same misogyny, and find their identities as well as their experiences erased. We are reduced to our genitals, thus, according to cisheteronormative society, our identities are not considered real or legitimate masculinity. If we can never be “real,” we don’t exist, and the menacing violence enacted upon us and our bodies therefore also does not exist.
These prejudices are reflected in our media. While trans feminine characters were often reduced to villains, there was a visible absence of trans masc main characters, especially of Black and brown trans masculine characters. But like our sisters, the little representation we had did not fare well for trans masculine people. Trans masculine people who were visible were sensationalized in exploitative talk show appearances, like Reno, the Black trans man who appeared on Jerry Springer. For a long time, talk shows like this were our only representation.
And yet, as trans masc representation has increased in recent years, it’s important to remember the limits of that success. If there is any testament that visibility has not always equated to positivity, look no further than The Aggressives and its follow up.
The subjects of the original documentary were all given a platform to raise their notability, but as they explaine in Beyond the Aggressives, their new celebrity didn’t shield them from the injustices they experienced due to their gender identities or race. After The Aggressives, Trevon’s celebrity helped him land modeling gigs, like Barney’s 2014 campaign. And yet, by the time of filming Beyond the Aggressives, Trevon conveyed the difficulty he experienced while attempting to find an OBGYN office that did not misgender him. Also by the time of filming of the follow up, Chin’s race and gender were both villainized and victimized. Due to a racist error made on the part of the government, Chin was detained at an I.C.E. Detention center for almost two years, where he was subjected to solitary confinement because he was trans.
Beyond the Aggressives shows us how far we have come in terms of portraying trans masc people, but we still have such a long way to go. We can now find ourselves in TV and movies other than documentaries, but at what cost? Many trans masc people have a difficulty relating to trans characters on-screen because those characters are so frequently objectified for their bodies. Trans masc characters are usually only semi-regular characters or have secondary storylines. And even when they are the lead – like Elliot Page in The Umbrella Academy or Brian Michael Smith in Lonestar 911 – they are tasked with representing us alone. When was the last time you’ve seen more than two or three trans men on the screen at one time? And all as main characters? Or characters that evolve beyond medical narrative or two-dimensional standards we’ve witnessed thus far?
According to GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report, there were only a little over 11 trans masc characters on TV during the 2022-23 year. That is less than the 14+ characters of the previous year.
How do we change this? And how can we make sure this change includes an increase in quality as well as quantity?
The best kind of change comes from within. And from what I can ascertain, change is ahead of us. It begins by diversifying our writing rooms, placing the pen in the hands of trans masc people who are longing for the opportunity to give power to our stories from an authentic lens. It includes hiring trans masculine actors to play explicitly trans masculine roles and roles that were initially written for cis men. There are an abundance of budding trans actors, including myself, who didn’t believe that certain careers, like acting, were possibilities, due to our consistent absence on TV screens. Let’s continue to change that.
When it comes to positively amplifying our visibility, Beyond the Aggressives is just on time. And while the original film didn’t grant the subjects access to any special treatment, or indefinite resources, in hindsight, Chin’s legacy and his connection to the filmmakers helped to expedite his unfortunate and untimely legal case. Daniel Peddle and his team were able to find appropriate legal representation that eventually helped Chin to have his past charges dropped. And yet, even after his case’s media exposure, he spent many months devoid of the agency to take care of himself while he waited for his new IDs to be issued by the government.
As we can see, visibility is a two-sided coin, but if we put the mic, the pen, or even the camera in the hands of those sharing their stories, we get a more authentic narrative, more diverse characters, and more nuanced storytelling. Trans awareness has ballooned following many years of anti-trans bills, leaving a negative impression upon those who don’t know a trans person personally. We need more trans masculine produced stories that are relatable and are tools in combating the falsehoods brought about from said bills.
Kisha, Trevon, Octavio and Chin are all more than just their gender expressions or their sexualities. Having witnessed their plights as teenagers, now we bear witness to their more mature versions as they navigate aging, healthcare (or lack thereof), parenthood, incarceration, and of course, gender challenges that are not just relatable to us, but that are parallel to various lives across the country.
The tribulations we witness in Beyond the Aggressives show why our stories deserve more airtime: to validate our existence and to humanize our experiences.
Beyond the Aggressives has just concluded a brief theatrical run and will stream on Paramount+ sometime next year.