From The Advocate, May 11, 2004
The Opposite Sex, a two-part Showtime documentary, begins with the gripping journey of trans man Rene Pena, a God-fearing, married truck driver
By Christopher Lisotta
The Opposite Sex: Rene’s Story opens with documentary subject Rene Pena jogging through the countryside. Handsome, muscled, and driven, he’s a prime example of masculinity. That only grows more obvious when the traditional, God-fearing Pena, a truck driver, interacts with his pretty wife of 11 years, Wona, and their two young sons. But appearances can be deceptive – although everything about Pena’s mind and heart shows he is a man, his body still forces him to face the fact that, at least biologically, he is a woman.
Films and documentaries exploring the transgender experience have become all the rage thanks to the success of Boys Don’t Cry, Southern Comfort, and Soldier’s Girl. But Bruce Hensel, MD, a heterosexual practicing physician and emergency room director who has been a medical reporter on Los Angeles’s KNBC-TV for more than 15 years, wanted to make a powerful film that presents the process of transition from start to finish.
The result is The Opposite Sex, a documentary in two parts, with each part telling the story of a different individual. The first part, Rene’s Story, airs May 3 at 9 p.m. Eastern and Pacific on Showtime. Jamie’s Story, which follows a male-to-female transition, will debut in June. After each segment, Hensel moderates a panel in which trans men and women talk about their own experiences.
“I was so fascinated that so many people are so prejudiced about what they don’t understand,” Hensel explains. “I also knew that I could show the medical side. No movie has ever shown the full journey.” Pena wasn’t Hensel’s ideal choice for the female-to-male segment. Since the now-33-year-old was so masculine, Hensel feared that the audience wouldn’t believe Pena was a biological woman, and he felt the medical journey he was hoping to capture on film would be too short. But after a meeting with the couple – and with prodding from his business partner, out reality TV producer Stuart Krasnow – Hensel changed his mind.
“When we interviewed Rene and Wona, [the decision] was a no-brainer,” he explains. What was initially a liability became an asset once Hensel heard Pena’s personal story. Pena tells The Advocate, “I told my mom when I was 3 years old that God was going to make me a boy, and I never turned back from that statement, not one day of my life.” He refused to wear dresses and fought attempts by his family to make him act or appear feminine. At 11, Pena decided to live his life as a boy. “I just happened to have the strength to be what I wanted to be,” he says, noting that other transgendered people often wait decades before taking that step. “I may be different, but I’m not special.”
Pena’s reason for doing the project was clear: He wanted to get his lower surgery paid for and performed by a world-class doctor. In his early 20s Pena had a double mastectomy, but he’d never had a medical procedure to alter his vagina. Although the film’s producers refused to pay for any surgery, Pete Raphael, MD, a Texas surgeon who performs an innovative procedure that transforms a clitoris into a penis, did the work for free. One of the distinctive elements of the film is its graphic medical footage, which shows exactly what Pena went through to become a man.
Aside from Pena’s unswerving determination, Hensel was fascinated by his relationship with Wona (the couple are in the process of adopting the two boys who live with them). Intensely loyal to one another, the former high school sweethearts were reeling from being shunned by their church after Pena’s transgender status was revealed. “They have so many layers,” Hensel says. “They really love each other in the deepest way possible.” The Penas gave Hensel complete access to their lives, which play out with intense emotion on the screen as one revelation after another comes out into the open.
Both Pena and Hensel insist that the film does not exaggerate. “The pain you see is the pain that’s really there,” Hensel explains. “And triumph, the triumph is really there.”