It’s rare when a documentary comes along that truly shines a light on a virtually unexplored issue, and Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshaghian’s Be Like Others is gripping drama because it does exactly that. Sure, taking a camera to Tehran to follow the lives of several young men awaiting sex change operations in a country which punishes homosexuality by death would be intriguing in and of itself. But that the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa two decades ago allowing for these “diagnosed transsexuals” to legally undergo gender reassignment is nothing short of astonishing.
The film opens at the medical clinic run by renowned sex-change surgeon Dr. Bahram Mir-Jalali, who claims he can weed out the gays from the true transsexuals by emphasizing the torturous nature of the procedure. The homosexuals, he says, always flee while the trans people are willing to undergo any amount of pain in order to switch genders. And yet right from the start the sticky nature of gender and sexuality as social constructs is apparent: A headscarf-covered woman seeking to become male presents as transsexual evidence the fact that from childhood she loathed skirts, rode motorcycles, and attracted women; Anoosh, a cherubic young man, has a hot, hipster hairdresser boyfriend pressuring him to undergo surgery so they can avert society’s stares—i.e., avoid being labeled queer. There’s a through-the-looking-glass aspect to the fact that Vida—a 26-year-old, post-op transsexual who acts as godmother to the other T-girls—is adamant about her disapproval of gays, cautions her acolytes against wearing too much makeup, and has no patience for immodesty. She’s every bit as conservative as the cleric expert on transsexuals who insists the issue is totally separate from homosexuality.
“The freedoms I had as a boy, I’ll never have as a girl,” one pre-op person admits at the courthouse where she seeks a permit to wear women’s clothing. At a transsexual support conference, another T-girl asks the cleric why she can’t just wear women’s clothes instead of having surgery. His reply, that it “disrupts the social order” to pass oneself off as the opposite sex, gets to the heart of fundamentalist fears. These in-between people, though, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The very notion that a segment of Iranian society must choose between giving up male privilege and their biological bodies and most likely being disowned by their families, or remaining in the male form into which they were born and bringing shame upon themselves and their loved ones, is heart-wrenching. Though the doctors and clerics encourage the struggling families to be supportive of their transgender children, this is not only a hard sell, but a disingenuous one, highlighted in Dr. Mir-Jalali’s ludicrous claim that T-girls make better wives than biological females since they’re much better at cooking, cleaning, and keeping house.
Perhaps the most thrilling scene in this revelatory documentary occurs during a showdown between one pre-op woman and a female journalist from a state-run institution: “That I have to do this takes away my right to any sort of choice,” she says, adding that “society is forcing” her to get a sex change. “Listen, it’s my duty to know if someone is a man or a woman,” the journalist snaps back. Like in all black-and-white cultures, it’s the immorality of non-binary thinking that seems to be the cardinal sin. Indeed, even after undergoing surgery, Anoosh, whose hairdresser boyfriend still isn’t ready to settle down quite yet, has to remind him that they “can’t go against the grain.” They must get married since they live in the Islamic Republic of Iran and not the more liberal Afghanistan.
While many of the T-girls go on to live happy, productive lives, that number is a far cry from Dr. Mir-Jalali’s straight-faced assertion that not one patient has regretted the operation. One of those miserable souls is Ali-Askar, who said that, if given the choice, she wouldn’t get the operation, and whose friend, Farhad, had challenged the journalist. Disowned by her family, Ali-Askar now legally works as a prostitute because “temporary marriage contracts” are also conveniently sanctioned in Iran. “We can get ‘married’ once an hour or so,” she blithely notes, highlighting a subject that would make for another fascinating film. “I am laughing. It’s a laughter sadder than crying,” Farhad had said during her friend’s operation, knowing she herself would have to choose between undergoing surgery and being true to society or remaining true to herself. “This is just the beginning of hell,” she added. And still there were no tears left to cry.