In 2015 New York became the ninth US state to require all health insurance plans to cover gender-affirming surgery. The following year New York City’s Mount Sinai hospital opened its Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery, with a medical team headed up by the cisgender Dr. Jess Ting. Tania Cypriano’s compelling and moving feature documentary Born to Be offers a sensitive fly-on-the-wall insight into Dr. Ting’s work as we meet several of his patients from their early consultations through to surgery.
As Dr. Ting recalls, it was a job that none of his colleagues wanted and they thought that he was making a mistake by taking it on. A renowned plastic surgeon, over the last four years Ting has continually striven to make improvements to the gender-affirming procedures he performs, such as phalloplasty and vaginoplasty. Although he’s strikingly humble, he’s clearly ambitious and relishes the challenge of making these innovations. Ting readily admits that he’s out of his comfort zone and “terrified” by the work, which he says is far more complex than what he was doing before. As we see him being told by patients that just meeting with him to discuss their future surgeries is the best day of their lives, Ting clearly finds the job extremely rewarding and is mindful of the potentially huge impact that his work has on his patients’ lives, recognising the responsibility that falls on him given that in many cases it is life-saving surgery.
Before his medical training, Ting studied music at Juilliard, and we hear him playing beautifully on his double bass in the opening few minutes of the film over a montage of his patients travelling from all over the city to see him. Despite his passion and talent for music though Ting’s parents had other ideas for their son, so he dropped out of Juilliard and eventually rose to become one of the city’s top plastic surgeons. As well as now running a successful and groundbreaking medical center, which includes trans staff members, he’s also launched the nation’s first transgender surgery fellowship training programme. Dedicated to his work, fuelled by his Gummy Bear habit, we frequently see Ting hugged by both his patients and their loved ones, and he’s often behind on his appointments because he spends so much time caring for each patient. The admiration his patients feel for him is mutual, with him in turn admiring what they have had to get through in life just to make it to see him in a transphobic world.
Although the details of the gender-affirming surgery carried out by Ting and the advancements he’s making are fascinating, what is even more engaging are the human stories that emerge; the joy that getting these surgeries brings to his patients who’ve often waited years, even decades, to receive them, and what it means to Ting’s life to be doing such meaningful work. Crucially in getting to know them more fully, we spend time with both Ting and his patients outside of the hospital environment. Cypriano clearly gained the trust of Dr. Ting, his medical team and their patients, as our presence as viewers through her lens never feels intrusive. While cinematographer Jeffrey Johnson’s vérité approach allows Ting’s patients to frame their own narratives, aided by delicate editing by Scott Foley and Christopher White.
Among Ting’s patients, we meet the proudly sober Cashmere (who recently changed her name to Naomi) who takes us on a tour of the Meatpacking District as she talks about her years of survival in the city. Jordan, who is non-binary, is touchingly supported by their loving partner Alister who is by their side throughout. We briefly meet ballroom icon and Legendary judge Leiomy Maldonado as she talks about what getting gender-affirming surgery means to her, while Mahogany shows us her archive of images from a successful career in South Africa as a male model and discusses the gender dysphoria she experienced. Garnet Rubio, whose surgery and aftercare story we follow closely in the film, has the loving support of her mother, grandmother and sister but is still reckoning with a difficult childhood of being bullied and not accepted by others around her. Through the diverse range of patients we meet, Cypriano explores questions of gender identity, how personal it is, and Dr. Ting makes explicit that surgery is only part of some people’s transition stories, and that transition can of course take as many forms as their are people.
When it comes to the surgical procedures, we are not shown any graphic images, though there are some detailed descriptions. There is one upsetting sequences in the film covering a suicide attempt following surgery, dealing with one patient’s story which she wished to be told. The overall tone of the film though is hopeful and focused on the progress being made at Mount Sinai, acknowledging some past and present challenges to trans health care, while looking to the future. There are some light-hearted moments in the film too, like the beautiful sequence where the center’s staff let off steam by dancing to 100% Pure Love by Crystal Waters. While acknowledging the issues of depression and high suicide rates within the trans community, Cypriano fills Born to Be with scenes of trans and non-binary joy, and poignantly Dr. Ting reminds those in the cis community who might reject, fear or misunderstand trans folks that “maybe it’s time for the rest of us to change”.
By James Kleinmann
Born to Be opens virtually nationwide Wednesday Nov 18th, including New York (Film Forum), Los Angeles (Laemmle), Philadelphia and San Francisco. Additional cities Friday Nov 20th: Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Tucson, and more.
Thursday Nov 19th – director Tania Cypriano (she/her) and subjects Dr. Jess Ting (he/him), Mahogany (she/her), and Jordan (they/them) will participate in a virtual panel discussion moderated by Indiewire critic Jude Dry (they/them) hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. RSVP here / Watch panel on YouTube here.