Review: ‘The Opposite Sex: Rene’s Story’

One of two excellent documentaries on gender transition by "Sound and the Fury" director Josh Aronson, "The Opposite Sex: Rene's Story" offers a thoroughly engrossing verite look at titular California trucker's singleminded quest to become the fully-equipped male that s/he has always felt like psychologically.

One of two excellent documentaries on gender transition by “Sound and the Fury” director Josh Aronson, “The Opposite Sex: Rene’s Story” offers a thoroughly engrossing verite look at titular California trucker’s singleminded quest to become the fully-equipped male that s/he has always felt like psychologically. Turbulent, warts-and-all chronicle finds complexity and dignity in the subject and personalities. Slotted for airing on Showtime next year, both features could attract broadcast awards; meanwhile, they rep a fine programming choice for fests, gay and otherwise.

Thirty-one-year-old Anaheim, Calif., resident Rene Pena is a diminutive barrel of machismo in a working-class profession, with body-building athleticism, and a relationship with demure wife Wona, whom Rene met as a teen and married when she turned 18. From as early as age 3, the child began assertively identifying as male, dressing the part and taping down breasts once adolescent growth hit. Despite rumors, fights, etc., the deception was complete enough that through extreme clothing modesty and discreet use of plastic genital replicas the naive Wona incredibly didn’t know her husband lacked a penis until 12 years into their coupledom. At this point they have a comfortable suburban home, temporary adoptive custody of two young boys, and all other outward signs of stable conventionality.

After a decade of taking testosterone, Rene is now weighing surgical options, convinced — with somewhat unrealistic expectations, anatomically speaking — that, “When I have my phallus attached, I will be whole, because my body and soul will match.”

Rene is not especially sensitive to the extreme distress this and other changes are causing for Wona, who until recently had no idea (or perhaps denied) her husband was “different.” Now she’s facing the possibility that their marriage was never legal, as well as the embarrassment of her spouse’s new public profile as a transgender spokesperson. (Ironically, Rene had previously been macho to the point of mild homophobia.) Worst of all, from Wona’s p.o.v., the church they were devoutly involved with has now tossed them out.

Focus stays on their increasingly fragile relationship as Rene investigates surgical options before finally going under the knife (in brief operating-room footage). His doctor describes Rene’s lifelong sense of gender misassignment by calling Rene “a man with a really bad birth defect.”

Sympathetically framed as the plight is, however, the strongest drama comes from the intolerable stress the pair’s newly “unmasked” relationship puts on Wona — and despite a deep bond, it looks unlikely they’ll survive this transition as a couple.

Astute editing packs a great deal into short run time without seeming rushed or sensational. Tech aspects are sharp.

The Opposite Sex: Rene's Story

Docu

Production

A Showtime presentation of a Hensel/Krasnow production. Produced by Josh Aronson, Linda York, Francine Bergman. Executive producers, Bruce Hensel, Stuart Krasnow. Directed by Josh Aronson.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Brett Wiley; editor, Kate Hirson; music, Michael Rohaytn. Reviewed at San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Festival, June 22, 2003. Running time: 73 MIN.

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  1. Nan says:

    Just for clarity – Rene and Wona were not kicked out of their church because Rene was trans! It was about Rene’s constant lying. Rene had worked his way up to being an assistant pastor despite a false marriage, abusive behavior, and deception. The pastor and congregation reached out to them in loving support but Rene’s anger rejected everyone who didn’t take his side over Wona’s. So sad. Wona was depressed, a shell of the girl she once was; one of the main issues they had with Rene was his domination and abuse of his wife. Wona had no voice. Scripturally, men are called to love their wives sacrificially, but it was Wona who was sacrificed. Rene has a very skewed idea of ideal manhood. Being a man is not about having a large phallus, dominating women or being homophobic or violent. A real man, and an associate pastor, is called to be gentle, honest, and a caring husband and father. Rene was none of those things.

  2. Kate says:

    I just watched this and was outraged that Rene lied to his 16 year old girlfriend for two years. He used a sex toy to mislead her. She was a virgin. It took two years for him to tell her. She was still loving and kind to him until she realized it was all about him and he
    said multiple times that he did not care what she thought. He wanted his feelings heard but didn’t care about hers. This woman was a saint to him. He was so selfish it was awful. Constantly talking about his feelings. Completely disregarding that he lied to this woman and wasted 12 years of her life, involving adopted children. Sick of people wanting respect and understanding, but not giving it. Sick of transgender people lying and expecting people to be ok with that. Sadly that is how violence happens. If a man finds out he has kissed a man, .hes gonna likely snap. What an egotistical, selfish person. Tell people upfront and understand that not everyone will want to be a part of your life. That’s ok. We all have the right to disagree

  3. Bufflehead3 says:

    100% in agreement with Jewelz’s comment. Your anger & selfishness & overt machismo represents everything real women do NOT measure a man by. It’s repulsive, it’s sad. Selfishness, NO compassion for your wife, no tender touches – only anger, cruelty and disrespect. As a woman who was on the receiving end of that kind of torture for 10 years, shame on you. Also, a huge phallus is NOT what makes a real man. I’m sorry that you think so. If you identify as a christian, be forgiving, be kind, be patient because you are far from any of those things. Grow up & ask her for forgiveness.

  4. Jewelz says:

    I really, really struggled watching this video…Rene, I have watched a handful of people walk thru this journey…I understand the angst, the upset…the anger many experience…however I was not at all prepared for the way you treated your wife….wow :( to direct so much of your life’s accumulation of anger towards her and take it out on her…seemed immensely emotionally abusive :((( Also I was extremely disturbed by the insensitivity to her feelings ….(?) after she was completely lied to for years…(?) please explain this to me…(?) Am I correct in understanding you ‘tricked’ -essentially lied to her about your sex for years? Wow…?! And then were angry at ‘her’ for having a reaction to this? :( and the scene where you were trying out to become a stripper? This seems to be completely without a single thought of her feelings….(?) and completely ego driven
    :( and the anger in which you expressed ‘I don’t care how she feels’ or something to that effect…”I am going to do this no what”… Wow. Just wow. My heart goes out to anyone who lives this struggle~ but emotionally abusing those around them and also expressing this sort of uncontrolled anger treating your spouse verbally and emotionally abusively….and in the presence of children (as I saw in one scene) which is extremely damaging to them as well as you spouse….I’m sorry, but there’s just no excuse.

    I am absolutely amazed at how your spouse ~ stood by you through this process and all the abuse. And for the record~ when you lie to someone for years, misrepresent yourself and then all of the sudden tell the truth – this does -understandably -create many feelings of upset to those around you that have been lied to, deceived and essentially disregarded. We all have struggles in life…displacing anger and abusing those around us because of our personal struggles is never okay. I pray you will find peace and find better ways to deal with you anger and develop compassion and kindness for those around you. I pray your wife will learn that she does not not never has deserved to be lied to, emotionally abused…or treated with such lack of compassion and consideration. Peace to you. Amen

  5. suzanne says:

    This showtime documentation. Surprise me,i am a mother with a daughter eho said she wants to be a boy at 14yrs young ,now 16 is trying everything to hide her feminine. Parts,voice clothes .i can’t. Believe. That kids at school think she is a boy,not to mention. She doesn’t. Want to be called a she and will not use girls bathroom at school etc,…. i have had councelig and my child to me never showed signs of being a macho kid,did get molesrd,not penetrated at 11,but says that has nothing to do with her desition.is a vergin and never has had a female. Relationship.with another female also had crushes on boys,some who are gay,like men,.im confused and sad ,my child is hidding everyday and is deeply deeprest.please help

    • Rene says:

      Suzanne, this is the Rene of the documentary. As I have learned in the last 12 years every gender case is different to some degree as not all people are the same (characteristically speaking anyways); however if your son has identified as a male from a very early age, it is most probable he is actually who he is telling you he is.
      The gender identity crisis (sorry don’t know how else to say it) is something that occurs in a person’s mind at birth, it seems apparent that it takes place in the womb and new research suggests may have something to do with hormone transference in the womb. I don’t know if we will ever truly know, however what we are sure of today is that it happens to many people all over the world.
      As for his sexual preference you speak of, that is a whole separate matter for everyone in life, not just your son, there are transsexual (or dual gender-ed) men and women who are gay, straight, and bi, just like with single gender-ed individuals.
      He is not alone, tell him he can contact me anytime for anything he needs help with. You must understand this is not a choice, anymore than you being the woman you were born was ever a choice; but rather is just one of many dilemmas that will hopefully come his way in life. Stay strong young friend, there is hope, and light at the end of the tunnel.
      You can email me anytime or hit me up on Face Book, Rene Pena in Texas.
      My heart goes out to you guys, there is hope, I promise, keep your heads up, God bless!

      • Sister Mary Bonster says:

        Great documentary. I’d like to know how you’re doing today, Rene? I tried looking you up on Facebook but can’t find you. I’m more curious now after you’ve had surgery, about your life. I am a Lesbian. This film brought up questions in my relationship about me possibly becoming a man. Thank you for your open and candid sharing. If you can contact me that would be amazing!! Peace!

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