By Joanna Wagner
LGBT Perspectives TV & Film Critic
SAN FRANCISCO — “It was a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams.” – The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Different for Girls is a British film (1996) from another time and another place. I know that today’s transgender people face tremendous discrimination and consequences for their decisions to live their lives as their true selves, but take a moment and imagine what it was like 20 years ago.
Kim (Steven Mackintosh) is a post-op transgender woman living in London. She is 33 years old and started transition three year earlier. This was relatively young for trans people at the time. Early childhood transformations would not be heard of for more than a decade; doctors were extremely skeptical and surgeons were few. Still, Kim had negotiated these hurdles and Carl became Kim, a composer of greeting card messages for all occasions.
Before transitioning, Carl had felt that something was wrong for a long time, but in the 1980s the Internet didn’t exist. You couldn’t just google information on gender dysphoria. At first Carl thought he was gay, but relationships with gay men weren’t satisfying and he finally figured out he was transsexual (the word at the time).
Prentice (Rupert Graves) had been more than a friend, not in a sexual way, but the guy who stood up for Carl and protected him from the bullies who came after him at school. When secondary school ended, Prentice went off to work and Carl went on to study for A levels. They lost touch for 17 years. When they finally reconnect, Carl has become Kim.
Kim’s life is empty but for her sister Jean (Saskia Reeves); her parents disowned her when she came out. Kim is somewhat prosperous; she lives in a gated apartment community outside London where she spends her nights alone. The routine works for her until one day, the cab in which she is riding hits a motorcycle courier. The courier turns out to be her best friend from school, Prentice.
The reunion of Kim and Prentice gets off to a rocky start. Prentice isn’t hurt after the accident. When he removes his helmet, there is a moment of recognition; a moment of ‘don’t I know you?’ on both their parts. Kim flees while Prentice figures it out. He waits outside Kim’s building and confronts her. An uncomfortable reunion leads to an agreement to meet for a drink. Where can this lead? What happens when two bros from school reunite under vastly different circumstances?
This movie will give the answers. Kim will learn to face a hostile world outside the safe cocoon she has built for herself. Prentice will struggle with his sexual orientation when he starts to feel for his good friend who is now a woman. How can they deal with their feelings? The answers to these questions were far more ambiguous than they are today; the story is about their struggle to figure it all out.
The current prominence of transgender people in the media took many years to come about. We were the madwomen (and men) in the attic. Everyone knew we were there but chose to exclude us from the struggle for LGBT rights. A look at the world 20 years ago helped me to appreciate just how far we’ve come.
The film was well received by critics, even winning an award at the Montreal Film Festival, but was in U.S. theatres for less than a heartbeat. Today you can see Different for Girls on Youtube and it’s absolutely free!