It’s rare to see transgender stories told by transgender people—and rarer still to see thoughtful portrayals of transgender men in the media, because creators seem to more interested in stories about the abdication of masculinity than the embrace of it.
But Man Made, a forthcoming documentary about the only all-transgender bodybuilding competition in the world made by novelist T Cooper, himself a transgender man, promises to be a rare sort of film.
“Getting to tell that story from the inside out, and getting to be a trans person telling trans stories making a trans-made film about trans people, that was the best part,” Cooper tells The Daily Beast.
Man Made is about four transgender men of varying ages, races, economic situations, and transitional stages who are all preparing to compete in the annual Trans FitCon bodybuilding competition in Atlanta, Georgia.
The inclusive contest is open to anyone who identifies as a transgender man—and, indeed, the website promises that “whether you’re on hormone replacement therapy or not, or pre-op or not, all weight classes will be judged equally.”
Some of the transgender male bodybuilders have had “top surgery” to remove their breasts; others have not. Some have been on testosterone for years; others haven’t started. Some compete in mainstream bodybuilding competitions; others only feel comfortable participating in this transgender-only contest.
“The reason that the event is so interesting to me is because all expressions of masculinity are welcome and are celebrated,” Cooper tells The Daily Beast. “People are just met where they are, and celebrated for where and what they are.”
The teaser for Man Made was released exclusively to Entertainment Weekly this week, and the film itself premieres on Sunday, April 22 at the Atlanta Film Festival—a fitting location for a debut because Atlanta is where Cooper first caught wind of the local bodybuilding competition, after moving to the Southern capital about four years ago.
Cooper originally envisioned producing a written story about the Trans FitCon bodybuilding competition but he quickly realized that the full depth of it wouldn’t translate to the page. As EW reported, Cooper’s friend Téa Leoni of Madam Secretary fame helped bring the documentary to the screen, stepping in to executive produce.
“I knew the film had to be made and I knew he had to make it,” the actress told EW.
While not a bodybuilder himself, Cooper tells The Daily Beast he was instantly captivated by the moment that the contestants first walk out on stage in nothing but their underwear, many of them spray-tanned to perfection, and flex their toned muscles.
“From the minute I went to the first competition, I was blown away by how beautiful that one moment of stepping on stage was,” the director says. “It’s the most vulnerable thing in the world but it’s the most powerful thing in the world—that they’re just seen as what they are, and where they’re at in their lives, for that one moment in the spotlight.”
Indeed, whereas many cisgender, or non-transgender, documentarians end up focusing inordinately on the physical details of a gender transition like hormones and surgeries in an exoticizing or “othering” way, Cooper says he’s after something more universal: bodybuilding as a metaphor for the “constant evolution that we, as humans, take part in—not only as a race, but on the individual level, and even on the cellular level.”
“It puts a pretty fine point on [the fact] that we all transform from the minute we come out into this world to the minute we leave it,” Cooper adds.
He hopes that viewers can see themselves in the stories—that they can find the general truths in the very specific context of an all-transgender bodybuilding contest.
“We all put on our armor and go out into the world,” he says. “These just happen to be muscles.”
The individual stories themselves are diverse: Minnesotan rapper Dominic trains for the contest shortly after recovering from top surgery. Arkansas fitness instructor Kennie starts taking testosterone as he deals with conflict within his relationship and his nuclear family.
Rese, an activist living in Atlanta at the time of filming, is struggling to find housing in the city’s homeless shelters as he prepares for competition. And married Mason from Cleveland is one of a few transgender bodybuilders who participates in mainstream competitions, having been banned from one when they discovered his transgender status.
Given the differences between these men, it’s no surprise that bodybuilding means different things to each of them.
“For some of these guys, I think bodybuilding literally saved their lives,” says Cooper. “For some of them, it was a way of getting to have some dominion over their bodies before they could transition and start taking steps toward physically and medically transitioning.”
Cooper says that the fact that he was a transgender man working with transgender male subjects only enhanced the filmmaking process—and that he feels “honored” to have been able to track their lives so closely as they bulked up for Trans FitCon.
“I think that they knew my perspective was going to be very different from someone who wasn’t trans, and especially [from someone] who wasn’t trans male,” Cooper says, “But it was just constantly surprising how much on the inside I was lucky enough to be.”
“I don’t see my story on screen very often,” he adds, “and certainly not made by trans people.”