Let Me Die a Woman (1977)

Let Me Die a Woman
Director: Doris Wishman
Writer: Doris Wishman
Part of: SLASH Filmfestival
Seen on: 25.9.2022

In this documentary, Dr Leo Wollman explains how gender-adaptive surgery works, and what kind of problems trans people face in society today.

Let Me Die a Woman is mostly of interest as an historic document that shows how little has changed in the circumstances for trans people, although a lot has changed in how we talk about transgender realities. From today’s perspective, the more exploitative elements of the documentary are certainly difficult.

The film poster showing the drawing of a woman being cut out of a male body.

It is often frustrating to see how little has changed in the almost 50 years since this documentary was made. Trans people still have to face a discriminatory medical profession, still have to struggle with prejudices in their lives, are still doubted about their own identity – and are still fetishized a lot. It is also definitely fascinating to see how much things have evolved, though, in the way being trans is talked and thought about, at least within the community and its allies. More than once I had to remind myself about how old this film is because certain phrases and concepts are severely outdated – for example, that you can only be a “real woman” or a “real man” if you have had all the necessary surgeries to fit into binary categories again.

The film is firmly on the side of trans people, and it gets to some truly emotional moments – for example, right at the beginning of the film, when one trans woman talks about her experience, she says, “When I wake up in the morning, I’m always a little surprised – this is my life and I am happy.” That her own happiness is something so surprising, is quite sad, but also beautiful that she got there.

A group meeting of transgender people.

But most of the film’s time is devoted to either medical aspects – with Dr Wollman getting most of the lines as he explains his perspective as a (cis) doctor, and how surgeries work. This includes undressing trans people on screen and pointing out their genitalia. And the second-biggest chunk are staged sex scenes where we see how trans people have (hetero) sex. And while it is nice to get such a frank discussion of genitalia and sex, both of these things feel very exploitative.

It certainly made me question how much of this was and is necessary to be “allowed” to talk about trans people and to acknowledge their existence. Trans people often talk about how complete strangers feel the right to inquire about their genitalia because apparently they lose all right to privacy in society’s eye. And this film certainly reinforces that. At the same time, I am sure that it was an important source of information, especially at the time it was made, both for trans and cis people.

In any case, it’s interesting to watch this documentary from today’s perspective and think about these questions, if nothing else.

Dr Leo Wollman showing off a trans man.

Summarizing: still worth watching.

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