“Not every patient wants to have a surgical transition. Transition can take many forms,” says Dr. Jess Ting in an early interview in “Born to Be,” a poignant and finely tuned documentary about his work as head surgeon at Mt. Sinai’s Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery. Ting’s thoughtful, measured, and sensitive approach to the transgender population are just part of what make him such a satisfying documentary subject. (His sense of humor and background as a Juilliard-trained classical musician does the rest.) Dr. Ting brings a level of care and humanity to his work that is, unfortunately, not always the norm for the community he serves. Taking a page out of his book, filmmaker Tania Cypriano treats her tireless subject with utmost sensitivity, which is apparent throughout the 92 minutes of her intimate and highly compelling film.
“Born to Be” follows Dr. Ting as he makes his daily rounds, consulting patients on everything from top surgery and facial feminization to vaginoplasty and phalloplasty. While trans audiences may — and rightly so — be wary of a film that zeroes in so definitively on transitional surgery, it is precisely that laser focus that helps “Born to Be” avoid the many pitfalls for which trans films have been criticized. (Many trans films have irked the trans community by dwelling on the particulars of medical transition, continuing the long and painful history of the fascination with and objectification of the trans body.)
“You don’t have to have surgery,” continues Dr. Ting, allaying any fears that “Born to Be” sees medical transition as the end-all and be-all of trans identity. “I see a subset of the transgender population. Only those patients who desire transitional surgery.”
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For those who do wish to medically transition, Dr. Ting has his work cut out for him. Despite the rise in trans visibility, there are still too few doctors trained in surgical transition. There is currently a two-year waiting list just for a consultation with him.
“Essentially they just asked everyone and everyone else said ‘no,’ except for me,” Dr. Ting, who is cisgender, says of how he got into the field. “Everyone thought I was nuts. But whatever.” Learning the disproportionately high suicide rates in the transgender population changed his understanding of what his patients go through, and quickly became his raison dêtre.
Though Dr. Ting is the film’s central figure, “Born to Be” uses an eclectic range of patients to highlight the significance of the care he provides. There’s Devin (who now goes by Garnet), a 21-year-old woman who could have a career as a model; Cashmere, an old timer who was friends with transgender pioneer Marsha P. Johnson; and Jordan, the good-humored recipient of Dr. Ting’s very first phalloplasty — the most complicated of the transitional surgeries. Together, they represent a balanced spectrum of the trans community, infusing the clinical setting with wit, warmth, and humanity to spare.
Cashmere’s presence in particular carries a lot of weight — as a black trans woman of a certain age, she is a vital reminder that the relative acceptance trans people enjoy today was hard-won. “Believe me, there’s not too many older queens like me around to talk,” she says, gingerly thumbing a photo of her late friend Marsha. “They’re all dead.”
One entertaining scene shows Cashmere revisiting her old haunts in New York’s meatpacking district. “This is my favorite corner,” she says of 14th Street and 9th Avenue, leaning against the glass doors of the Apple Store that now resides there. “This is where we used to stand. Thats how I got the Johns.”
Devin’s story adds another disheartening but crucial perspective to the film — the reality that medical transition isn’t always a magical cure to years of body and gender dysphoria. When she attempts suicide after recovering from multiple surgeries, Dr. Ting is clearly shaken; perhaps his life-saving justification for all the long hours and shunning from colleagues is not as solid a foundation as he thought. When another patient tells him he never thought he’d make it to 30, and Dr. Ting is the reason he is alive, the relief radiates from his kind eyes.
Cypriano expertly arranges these key scenes to land the biggest emotional impact. Exactly one hour into the film, the shit hits the fan, and we see the toll that running a groundbreaking medical practice can take. The camera follows Dr. Ting on a ceaseless churn of making the rounds as he knocks on doors, gets lost in hallways, and pounds gummy bears for energy. Insurance companies are denying claims, the waiting list keeps growing, and a frustrated patient posts a viral rant online. These patients don’t see the kind-hearted single father who left Juilliard for medical school and risked it all on this work — they’re just trying to survive.
“Born to Be” follows on the heels of the recent swell of quality trans documentaries that includes “Man Made,” “Changing the Game,” “Transmilitary,” and “Growing Up Coy.” Like television, non-fiction film is quickly surpassing narrative film at crafting a robust trans cinema. With its cinematic eye, compelling subjects, and elegant awareness of the issues, “Born to Be” was conceived just in time.
“Born to Be” world premiered at the 2019 New York Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.