Film review: Diagnosing Difference

This review also appears on Bitch Magazine’s latest issue No. 45, codenamed Art/See.

As an undergraduate in genetics, I learned about “abnormal gender” from medical texts, which taught me that the line between what was female and what was male was clear; anything in between was a chromosomal disorder and an aberration in nature. The message in such books–still used as reference material, however arcane–encourages stereotypes about and elides the complex reality of the transgender experience.

In Diagnosing Difference, director Annalise Ophelian has made what is generally an excellent 101 guide to transgender issues told through a number of interviews with activists, performing artists, and academics who all identify as transgender or queer and express their gender in ways that has been medically defined as pathological. (Even today, a trans person in the US is allowed access to hormones and sex reassignment surgery only after seeking therapy for what is known as Gender Identity Disorder.)

Without the device of voice-over narration, Diagnosing Difference lets the subject matter take the limelight and tell its own story. The documentary tears apart some common misconceptions : that transgender identity is about sexual preference, for instance, and that trans people need sex-reassignment operations to complete the experience. The concerns of the interviewees are the stuff many take for granted: going to public toilets, access to medications to look physically male/female, and finding health care providers interested in more than one’s gender performance.

This documentary should be required viewing for people who have either no clue about what being transgender entails, or know only a little bit. And the timing seems perfect: The recent media spotlight on South African athlete Caster Semenya reveals a society still obsessed with the rigid notions of the gender binary and, like the medical textbooks that delineate normal from “abnormal” gender, not sure what to do with those of us who fall somewhere in between.

File under: transgender, healthcare, United States. Other films worth checking out include Southern Comfort (2001), Transparent (2005), and the recent Iranian documentary, Be Like Others (2008).

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


  1. I think this is such an important topic to be discussed. So many people, including myself, do not fully, if at all, understand the idea of differing genders. People believe it is just female and male. Which is not the case. Sadly, it is hard to be accepted if you do not fall into these “norms.” In this documentary, which I watched in my Sociology of Gender course, they talk about the humiliating extents they must go through just to change their body to match how they identify. Having to go to therapy because you want to change the way your body appears and acts (hormonally) seems ridiculous to me. It is not fair that people are treated as though something is wrong with them just by wanting to identify as someone “different” from their biological gender. Not enough people are aware, nor do they accept, that non-binary is also a way people choose to identify. If changing someones biological characteristics can give them a better sense of belonging then why not do it? People shouldn’t have to fear going to the bathroom or going to the public swimming pool. It should be accepted that people do not always connect with the gender they were born with. All the gender “norms” have been created on a binary scale. Pink and blue. Cars and barbies. And the list goes on. It shouldn’t concern people when their child, friend, sibling, or even a complete stranger, chooses not to act in the ways a stereotypical male/ female acts. Like stated in this article, everyone should be required to watch this documentary.

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