The Queerty Interview

Karen Bernstein made a movie about a trans woman who “untransitions.” But is it transphobic?

Director Karen Bernstein (left) on set

Movies have a way of showing an audience things its never seen before, often with wondrous or terrifying effects. Sometimes both.

We weren’t expecting the shock of I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, the new documentary by director Karen Bernstein. For one thing, Bernstein has a career that has shied from the sensationalistic. As a longtime producer on shows like PBS’ American Masters, she has often gravitated toward the historical, picking up an Emmy in 2000 for the documentary Hitchock, Selznick and the End of Hollywood. As a director, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me marks her debut feature as a solo director, and the subject matter for the film is a doozie.

The documentary follows the story of Brian Belovitch, a gay man who began to transition to womanhood in the 1970s. Under the stage name Natalia/Tish, Belovitch began a successful career as a model, actress and singer, and began her rise to fame as a fixture in the underground club scene, often spotted out with her good friend Michael Musto. Then Belovitch’s story takes a strange turn: in the late 1990s, he began to “untransition” from womanhood back into being a cisgender man. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me explores the reasons behind his transition and untransition; a wild and strange story of abuse, confusion, addiction and the oppressiveness of strict gender and sexual roles.

Maybe it goes without saying, but I’m Gonna Make You Love Me has already been attacked as a transphobic film by some critics. Frankly, we’re still not sure what to think, even after watching it.

Queerty managed to secure some time to discuss the film and Brian’s story with Karen Bernstein, as well as the criticisms the film continues to endure. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me next plays at the IFC Film Center in New York November 14. The film continues to seek distribution.

Well congratulations, because I’ve never seen anything like this…

It is jaw-dropping, isn’t it?

It’s amazing. So this is your first feature documentary as solo director. How do you go from Richard Linklater to Brian? How did you discover his story?

Good question. Obviously, because of the work I did at PBS on American Masters, I had an arts & culture biography. But that has nothing to do with Brian at all. I met Brian because of a woman I was dating at the time in 1993 introduced the two of us. He came to my birthday party. So we developed a friendship first. Just as your jaw was dropping as you watched the film, my jaw dropped. Brian and I were driving around Brooklyn looking for a DMV test site.

OK…

We got incredibly lost. It was really rainy and awful. He just entertained me this entire drive. He was like I used to work that corner.

Belovich on set

Oh my goodness.

He was telling me about the Hasidim—how he was the girl with a little something extra. And I probably got us even further lost because of this incredible story. I never knew him as Tish/Natalia. I knew him as Brian. But he was just getting used to being Brian. We quickly developed a sort of familial relationship. He had, at that time, already been diagnosed as HIV+. He had Hep C.

Dear lord.

There was a point at which he asked me if I could help with all the paperwork should he become completely disabled. It seemed like a real possibility. His T-cell count was low. It didn’t look good. But as they say about Brian: he’s the cat with many lives. Just as I was involved in worry for him—I thought one way or another, something was going to kill him. The virus, the Hep C, having his silicone implants removed. But he just kept coming back stronger and stronger. So now I just don’t worry about him.

[Laughter]

It’s a waste of time. He’s fine.

That’s ridiculous. Just the image of the two of you riding around in a downpour and Brian telling you “Oh, by the way…” That’s a movie scene if ever I heard one.

Oh yeah. Just the thought—the thing that most amazed me, because I’m Jewish, was the Hasidim. And I’m like, you’re not supposed to do that! And he was like, oh no, I was a big fan. I’ve talked about this before, but Brian and I are almost the same age. We’re from a generation that had to live out our lives being queer. His life was so much different than mine. There’s really no reason we should be so close, we come from different ends of the spectrum. But I was fascinated. So, in answer to your original question, how do I go from Richard Linklater to doing a biographical portrait of Brian & Tish? In my slightly warped, naive mind, it makes no difference. I’ve never been wowed by celebrities. I’m interested in human beings and what makes them tick. I’m interested in people who live out their art through life. In many ways, that’s what Brian was doing with Tish. He was inventing this being that would be loved and ravished and adored. It was basically performance art.

Belovich, as Natalia, with friend Michael Musto

Living art. That’s fascinating to think about. So was Brian amenable to doing the film right away? That’s a lot.

Oh yeah. Brian is fascinating in that he is, by his own admission, impulsive. He’ll say yes, and he did, almost from the get-go. He said “It sounds like a great idea.” And he would just send me one link to a piece of footage, then another. He made it really easy for me to make this film. But then, you know, like any of us, he’d have 2 am panic attacks.

Oh no…

“Wait a minute! Did you interview my brother? What did he say?”

[Laughter]

He had these moments of doubt for sure. But for the most part, because he’s been through so much therapy and through 12-step programs, he’s gotten used to talking about himself. There’s a saying in 12-step programs: you’re only as sick as your secrets. He really epitomizes that. He doesn’t have that many secrets because he’s grown to truly accept himself. It’s pretty remarkable. I know so few people who I can say that about, including myself.

Fascinating. Now, you’re a queer person. Brian’s queer. We need to discuss the obvious danger here. This is a man who once identified as a transgender woman. He even refers to himself as that at several points in the film. He now says that was, more or less, a phase. Obviously, scores of transgender people would take issue with that, big time.

Right.

What made you confident that you could direct the film with the appropriate sensitivity, so as not to inadvertently take a dig at transgender people or their rights?

To be honest, it didn’t even really occur to me that it might offend people. Maybe that’s a generational thing on my end. I’m 58 years old. I came up at a different time. The people who were trans, or whatever you called it at the time, it just didn’t have the same kind of political portend that it has now. I’m probably going to get slammed for saying that, but it’s true. I had a good many trans friends, but it was almost more fluid then than it is now.

How so?

Well because there was an air, certainly in the 70s and 80s, there was an air of experimentation about things. I went through a phase where I wanted to be very butch. I’m not really a butch person, though I probably could be interpreted as such. Then I changed. It never occurred to me that anyone would say “But hey, you’re butch and you’re wearing a dress.” It was all part of finding ourselves.

Alright.

So when Brian told me about his life, I just saw it as part of a process. Even so, when I started making the film, I saw it as part of a process. Everything he’s been doing his whole life—becoming a counselor, pursuing acting, and whatever else—has been part of a process. He’s not one to get pigeonholed anyway. But it wasn’t until I sent the film out in its rough-cut film for feedback; I sent it to two colleagues of mine who are very involved in the queer community. They’re both scions to the Texas community both as academics and filmmakers. They were the first to bring it up to me.

Ok.

And I think my hairdresser said something. They were like, you realize you’re going to get slammed for this, that there will be a lot of pushback. And to be honest, I hadn’t considered that. Maybe that’s naive on my part. So we talked about it, and all three of them were really pushing me to bring an interview of someone who has made the transition and is very happy about it. It was a very good point. And we were at the point where we could have, so I spoke to my editor about it. We had to sit with it for a weekend and think about it. In the end, we agreed that it was a valid point, but this was not the film to do it with.

Alright.

We always wanted it to be about this one person’s life and the community and the backdrop of New York. I had no problem doing it on a different kind of film, but it wasn’t this film. I didn’t want to go down a political path. So that was the decision I made, right or wrong. It feels good now. I think the feedback has been pointing out things I hadn’t really even noticed in making the film. People have been centering on totally other aspects of it. Nevie [Owens], my editor and co-producer, points out that really, Brian was never a transperson.

No.

He did it for completely other reasons that had nothing to do with gender realignment. He’s very fluid, and when you see him now, you see why. He’s very much incorporated the female and male sides of his personality.

That’s fascinating. Let it also be said, my interpretation of the film is that he is definitely not a transperson, and never was. Tish was a persona he created as a result of being told that because he was feminine-acting and gay, he couldn’t not be a man as he understood the gender.

Oh yeah. And I don’t think that was uncommon in the period. It’s very different now. I live in Texas and there are a great many towns where it’s still not accepted at all. But in the 70s, certainly, in the working-class environment that he grew up in, there wasn’t a chance. It was much easier for him to say “God made a mistake, I’m a woman.” It was much easier to say that than “I’m gay.” That would not have gone over for a minute in that family.

Belovitch, right

There’s an irony to that, given that now it’s become so much easier for kids to come out as gay, but there’s still a stigma around coming out as transgender to some extent. It’s a taboo, it’s egregious.

Related: These airlines make travel easier for trans and non-binary passengers

So being Tish, then was a way of coping with his own identity. But she also had a very different personality than his own. So what was the allure to being Tish? Several people in the film mention attention. And he also had career opportunities as a singer and actress.

It was part of the performance art. He will tell you that the kind of transphobia he experienced, and as he points out in the film, the mahogany was eye-opening for him. I was just talking to a possible distributor a few minutes ago about this: he did make the decision to transition back to being a man. You know, I think he’s pretty honest about it, but he did it because being an older woman would be even harder.

It’s such a wild story.

He’s had a lot of physical complications for other reasons, but I think it’s a bit of a cautionary tale to be honest. I do hope people take stock of what their plans are before they jump into that pool. It’s tremendous, and as we get older, our bodies don’t react as well. Brian’s in great shape. I don’t worry about him anymore, but I do worry about people taking things on without giving it a lot of thought.

So did exploring Brian’s story and his transitions make you reexamine your own queer and gender identity?

Well, not much to be honest. I was always a very intense tomboy, and as I said, went through a period in my life where I was pretty butch. But I think you just get to a point, like at my age, if you can have any kind of sex it’s a mitzvah.

[Laughter]

I’m 58. I am who I am. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking am I being masculine? Am I being feminine? I guess that’s a blessing that it’s all sort of mushed together. It does get me thinking a lot about my own son, for instance. I, very late in life, adopted a child.

Wonderful.

He’s a great guy, and he loves Brian. It’s fascinating spending time with him through this whole process. But he has absolutely no problem with gender identity or sexuality. It’s really fascinating to watch. We were hanging out with someone who just started the transitioning process. And so I said something [to my son] about it, but didn’t make a big deal out of it. He came away from it and said “Well, you know, she’s got to shave a little bit more.” There was no weirdness or discomfort. So I guess I’ve been transferring a lot of my fascination in gender to him. He’s a grand experiment—how he’ll turn out and think about it.

What is the state of Brian’s life today?

He’s doing really well. He’s been married to Jim since 2012, I think. They’re firmly together. If anything, they’re an old nagging couple. They live in Brooklyn and Long Island. Brian’s in school getting his masters. He’s going to be a counselor, and getting certified as such. And Jim’s a landscaper. They’re just as you see them in the film. It’s great.

So what has the reception for the film been? Have you been criticized by the transgender community or from people sensitive to the content of the film?

To be honest, I don’t read my own reviews. I know that sounds pretentious, but I really don’t. I have eyeballed a couple, and they all seem pretty good. I saw Brian for dinner last night and he was feeling sensitive about one that called it “the most transphobic film in the festival” or something like that. And it upsets him on a personal level. He says “When I was Tish, all the gay men and lesbians would look at me and say that’s so weird.” Now that he’s embracing himself as a gay man, he’s getting slightly negative feedback about that. He can’t win by losing, so I think he’s a bit depressed about that. I said “You’ve gotta let it slide off your back.” You’ve gotta be authentic. And he is.

What’s next for you?

Well a producer always has four balls in the years. I have two things that are great pitches to American Masters. One is a treatment to pass on to Meryl Streep to do American Masters: Meryl Streep.

Oooh.

That would just be great, and it would be more than just doing something on her. It’s more looking at her as representational of all these different sides to the female experience. And the second is a history of political satire using Saturday Night Live as the peg for that. But for now, I’m just looking for distribution for this film.

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me will play at the IFC Film Center in New York City November 14. The film continues to look for distribution.