On a Friday evening in October, before the New York première of “Man Made”—a documentary about the world’s only all-transgender bodybuilding competition—the film’s creators gathered at a tin-ceilinged bar in Chelsea called Underballs. (The bar is situated beneath a meatball shop.) T Cooper, the film’s forty-six-year-old director and co-writer, in a blue-velvet blazer and a neat beard, cast around for the small plates of meatballs that were arriving from upstairs. “I went with the chicken,” he said, before conversation turned to vegetarianism. The party grew noisy as film types and activists arrived, though there was also an undercurrent of tension. Five days earlier, the Trump Administration had released a memo announcing its intention to revoke federal recognition of trans and intersex people. Guests alluded darkly to “the news” and “this week.” Andrea Jenkins, a Minneapolis city councilwoman and the first trans person elected to public office in America, wore a shirt bearing the word “HUMAN.” Taj Smith, an activist who had been campaigning to uphold an anti-discrimination law in Massachusetts, in the midterms, said, “It takes about seven conversations for people to actually be able to identify that this is about something that’s bigger than bathrooms.”
Cooper had arrived in New York from a film festival in Tennessee, but the journey to Underballs began four years earlier, when he moved with his wife and co-writer, Allison, to Atlanta. A friend posted a photograph online from a nascent bodybuilding competition, which was open to anyone who identifies as a trans man. The image showed five participants posing at a bar in the city—the inaugural venue. “I hate the word bravery, ’cause when people tell me I’m brave I want to give them the finger,” Cooper said. But he was awed by the participants’ bravery, and by “how many versions of masculinity, and trans masculinity, were celebrated and welcomed.” Cooper is a novelist, TV writer, and a journalist, and he initially considered writing about the competition. But he eventually concluded that it should be filmed, even though he had never made a feature-length documentary before. His friend Téa Leoni, an actress and an executive producer of the film, recalled that, after speaking with him for about twenty minutes, “I thought, Somebody’s got to do this. And T knew—and I knew—that it should be T.”
“Man Made” begins where it ends: at the 2016 Trans FitCon competition. It opens in the “pump-up room”—a storage area at a hotel in Atlanta—where the men wear tight briefs and lift weights, waiting to be called onstage. The film then flashes back, and follows four contestants as they prepare for the contest. It is ostensibly a competition documentary, but its real attention is on the subjects’ personal lives. Early in the film, Dominic Chilko, a twenty-six-year-old Minnesotan with a roguish smile, undergoes a long-awaited top surgery. Afterward, groggy from the anesthesia, he tells his mother that it feels strange not to have breasts anymore. His mother, with Midwestern pragmatism, replies, “But you didn’t want ’em. So . . . there you go.” Later, Chilko, who is adopted, drives to meet his birth mother, psyching himself up in the car the way he would at the gym. They share a microphone-crushing hug, their expressions identical. “This beats, like, every fuckin’ moment I’ve ever had, like, including my top surgery,” he says. “And everybody knows my top surgery was my shit.”
Mason Caminiti, a wry fortysomething who lives in Ohio, is the most serious bodybuilder of the main subjects. In 2014, he took on two jobs in order to pay for a trainer and begin participating in mainstream (i.e., cisgender) competitions; he is currently competing to get his pro card. During bulking season, he eats five protein- and complex-carb-loaded meals a day, weighed out on gram scales. Bulking gives way to cutting, with fewer carbs and three daily workouts (two are “just cardio”), and then to peak week, in the lead-up to competition. (No carbs, two and a half gallons of water a day.) Several hours before weigh-in, he cuts the water out completely to get “as dry as possible.” In the minutes before taking the stage, Caminiti eats Raisinets—a sugar rush adds definition and opens the veins for increased vascularity.
Most contestants at Trans FitCon are not at four per cent body fat, as Caminiti is, but some conventions of cis bodybuilding hold. The men are shaved from chin to shin. A judge, who won the 2014 and 2015 contests, explains, “You should be a walking anatomy chart—definition, symmetry, mass, stage presence.” Still, there are departures. Competitors shave each other’s backs. A vender sits behind a table laid out with packers, prosthetic genitals worn beneath pants or underwear. Cooper depicts each contestant’s relationship to packing with knowing amusement, and without sensationalism. Sabastian Noriega, a contestant from the Bronx, decides to go with the smaller of two that he owns, because, he says, he doesn’t want people to get distracted. Some contestants fear that theirs might fall out onstage; to be on the safe side, Caminiti uses a rolled-up sock.
After the party at Underballs, Cooper steered the group to a theatre around the corner, and fell into place on a thin strip of red carpet. The film was screening as part of NewFest, New York’s L.G.B.T. film festival, and is currently travelling the late-season circuit, looking to be picked up for distribution. In the theatre lobby, paper signs labelled “All-Gender Restroom” were taped over the usual bathroom placards. In the screening room, Cooper welcomed the audience, jocular and expansive. “Thank you for supporting transgender-made transgender stories,” he said, over applause. “Which means I just came out to all of you.”
Cooper made the film on a fitful budget; after each shoot, he had to raise money for the next. Still, he was aware that he had a rare opportunity to document experiences close to his own. He wanted to avoid the tropes of conventional representations of trans people, which he says tend to focus on physical transition and end in tragedy—he also wanted to include trans guys who were not white, married, stably housed, and living in a coastal city. “There is an incredible amount of pressure to ‘get it right’ and represent everybody and do everything with this ninety minutes of film. That’s near impossible,” Cooper told me. “But I don’t mind—I’ll take that challenge.” He feels he got lucky in the subjects he was able to follow, who were from a wide range of backgrounds, and at various stages of transition and of life.
The presence of a trans man behind the camera is probably what made “Man Made” possible—Caminiti doubts that he would have participated if Cooper hadn’t been the one to ask—and it informs the film’s bracing immediacy. At one point, Caminiti is jammed in a room with several muscle-bound cis bodybuilders in cock socks, waiting for their spray tans to dry. No one knows that he’s trans, and he looks wide-eyed at the camera, whose operator is in the same position; the audience suddenly finds itself between their in-joke. “Often, when I see films about ‘others’ made by ‘not others,’ ” Cooper said, “I’m not saying it’s like you’re at the zoo—but sometimes it’s a little like you’re at the zoo.” Where another filmmaker might have simply documented experiences of isolation, “I was in the middle of the huddle with these guys, and we were all looking out.” Later in the film, Kennie Story hosts a “T party” to celebrate his first shot of testosterone; Cooper advises from offscreen on how to safely fill the syringe. Before Chilko has top surgery, he struggles to put on a binder—a compression top to flatten his chest—which becomes twisted high on his back. That day, the team happened to have the funds to hire a second shooter; Cooper, like a parent in a home video, emerges from behind the camera for a rare appearance. “One, two, three, pull,” Chilko says, and Cooper tugs the tangle loose.
When the day of the competition arrives, the film returns to the pump-up room in the hotel. A contestant hoists an industrial dish rack; Caminiti, tugging on resistance bands, asks how his sock looks. One by one, the competitors line up onstage, pecs and traps gleaming. Binding tape covers breast tissue; tattoos top chest scars and trace shoulders. The judge calls out “front double bicep,” and the contestants pose in unison. Then they appear onstage alone, intercut with interviews, as a score of strings swells with decadent emotionalism. Each of their expressions is stage-lit and unmistakably joyful. “Part of me will always see myself as a scared little girl,” Caminiti told me. The discipline that it takes to compete forces him, over and over, to reassert his own narrative. “You’re not that scared little girl—you never were,” he tells himself. “Embrace yourself and be proud of who you are, because, first of all, you should, because it’s important, and, second of all, you have to, because it’s required.”
As the lights came up in the theatre, Cooper stepped onto the platform, followed by Leoni and Caminiti, and the audience rose to applaud. A few people in the front row slung their arms around each other. Cooper addressed a couple attempting to make a subtle exit, exhorting them to vote for the film for the festival’s audience-choice award. “We’ve had ten wins at festivals,” he said. “Maybe if we win eleven someone will buy it.” (“Man Made” did win; the film will return to New York on December 12th, for an encore screening.) Caminiti hovered at the back of the stage, his fists shoved into the pockets of his jeans. In the film, he recounts with clipped precision how, after coming out to his parents in the early nineties, he attempted suicide; his mother found him, beat him to the ground, and then continued kicking him, as his father tried to restrain her. Onstage, he told the audience that, recently, he had received a call from his father—a Catholic, a cop for thirty years, a hard-core conservative. His father had seen the film: he told Caminiti, for the first time, that he and Caminiti’s mother were proud of him. “If that can change him—and he’s almost eighty, and my dad—I really think that there’s a lot of room for this film to impact a lot of people.”
Bodybuilding offers a ready metaphor for personal transformation, and the film embraces it, showing how exhibiting one’s strength, after years of privately embodied pain, can be freeing—even euphoric. “You’re like soft clay,” Tommy Murrell, a booming-voiced heavyweight, says. “The only way you’re gonna get tough: you gotta go to the fire, you gotta stay in that fire, uncomfortable for a little bit.” Yet, Cooper believes that this process of molding is never complete. “From the minute we’re born, we start changing,” he said. “To the moment we leave. As much as many people don’t want to accept or believe that, which is what this Administration’s b.s. is about.” “Man Made” resists the urge to turn the bodybuilders’ stories into narratives of simple, complete self-actualization; instead, it offers a testament to individual moments of joy—transformative in themselves. “When I’m on that stage, it’s surreal—I’m, like, ‘I’m living my dream,’ ” Caminiti told me, “ ‘I made it. I’m here. I did another year.’ ”