May 30, 2023.
The pronouns used for the interviewees have been taken from this film release page. If you are located in America, or have an American VPN, you can watch The Aggressives here. Please note that this review discusses potentially dysphoria-inducing topics, such as menstruation. There is also discussion of lesbophobia, and slurs.
Marquise Vilsón Balenciaga in The Aggressives (2005), and Marquise in the modern-day.
I have long been fascinated by the crossover between lesbian and trans communities, and the complexity which has always existed in LGBT+ spaces. The Aggressives explores that complexity, making it fascinating and worthwhile in its own right. It was also an intriguing watch for me personally because Marquise Vilsón, now a spokesperson for trans men and transmasculine people, spoke very differently about his identity and life in this documentary.
Marquise with his then-girlfriend, Aniche.
"I'm comfortable being a woman who likes women," he says at the beginning of the film, "I live my life as a man, yes, but the reality does not change." He also identifies himself as being "transgendered" but specifies that he is not a man, and doesn't want to be one. He goes on, throughout the interviews, to say that he isn't "one of those dykes who has a complex and feels that I'm a straight man, or whatever like that, and I live my life as a straight man and I only date straight women. No. I'm a lesbian. I'm just very Aggressive."
It seems that a young Vilsón was referring to straight trans men as "dykes" with a "complex" which, I won't lie, was pretty shocking. Having known some straight trans men in my life, a huge issue for them is people disbelieving their identities and instead labelling them as confused or deluded lesbians, their male identities therefore being complexes. I didn't expect that kind of rhetoric in this documentary, but equally, it's apparent that Vilsón was much younger and in a very different stage of life when he made those statements. I do know that some straight trans viewers might be made uncomfortable regardless of intent, so my straight FTM brothers should proceed with caution.
Vilsón being bound in duct tape.
During the documentary, Vilsón discusses chest binding. He says that he wears a sports bra in daily life, but during ball performances (where Aggressives dress up in masculine attire) he is strapped down with an ACE bandage. Footage is shown of him being wrapped in duct tape, in order to flatten his chest. The documentary's cover art, and main promotional image, features him bound down in such a way.
Vilsón lifting his shirts to show a chest bound by duct tape.
Please know that this is extremely unsafe.
There are ways to flatten your chest without risking broken/bruised ribs and other health impacts. Please see the Chest Binding page for more information. Many trans and gender-diverse communities have come a long way since the early 2000s, and it's now more widely known how unsafe duct tape and bandage binding is. There are options which are far less likely to put you in the hospital.
I want to be clear; the unsafe chest binding shown in this documentary does not disqualify The Aggressives from being a recommended watch, and a treasured part of both FTM and AG (Aggressive) history. This documentary isn't just a film about gender roles and sexuality, it's also about poverty. I'm aware that, as a modern-day man who had access to binding information relatively soon after coming out, I have a leg up over trans men and MoC (masculine-of-centre) people who didn't have access to the same resources. I also recognise that many modern-day trans and gender-diverse people may struggle to access safer binders, meaning they might be tempted to follow Vilsón's example and bind with duct tape, so the consequences of unsafe binding do still need to be discussed. These dangers are not discussed in The Aggressives.
Flo and Vilsón.
The complexities of identity go beyond sexuality and gender in The Aggressives. Racial identities and experiences are also explored.
"I'm talking about Flo," raps a Tiffany, a Black AG, "I'm talking about realness. I'm talking about acting Black. I'm talking about Flo." Flo is the only Asian interviewee, and describes himself as "the only Asian person on the Black scene". He also refers to himself as "just like a n*gga", despite not being Black.
This is a documentary where slurs are reclaimed by those who have been targeted with such words, and are also claimed by others with differing backgrounds. One of the AGs, who is masculine-presenting and dates a range of people including trans women, identifies as a "faggot". I've seen similar community attitudes before, in documentaries including BloodSisters: Leather, Dykes and Sadomasochism (1995), as below.
Robin Sweeney in the documentary Bloodsisters.
To me, this is a fascinating thing to witness in non-fiction films from a social perspective, but I know some people are very sensitive to slurs... understandably. So, it seems worth mentioning.
Kisha, a Latina AG.
The documentary was filmed over five years, meaning viewers get to witness immense changes in the interviewees. Kisha, an AG who works as a model and a messenger, speaks at the beginning of the documentary about how she experiences her identity; “Aggressive is your strength, your courage, your whole aura.” However, at the end of the film she says, “Aggressive. I know I used to get excited about that word. But now it’s just a little bit different. I guess, maybe because I was categorised so much all my life… Just call me Kisha, man. Just call me Kisha.”
The documentary doesn't put strict definitions on any labels, as a matter of fact. It's constantly emphasised that all the interviewees want to do is be themselves. What distinguishes one label from another (for example, an Aggressive versus a Butch versus a Stud) isn't really pinned down. The film feels as fluid, diverse, and complicated as real-life LGBT+ communities do, which is quite refreshing. I've watched LGBT-focussed documentaries which have been far more limited in their scope. The Aggressives allows for unrestricted, spontaneous expression, and shows that labels can mean different things to different people.
But what we see goes beyond introspective commentary and positivity; incarceration, bullying, drug dealing, financial hardship, immigration, insecure housing, AIDS, lesbophobia, and isolation are all tackled.
Flo as a child.
Flo talks about his background, saying, "My father, my mother, my youngest sister, and my younger brother, we came to this country in June of 1980. My mother left me when I was, like, nine years old. She just left us. So, me and my sister and my brother, we raised each other. Y'know, my father was too busy working. I got into a lot of criminal stuff. Right now I'm on probation for three years." Other difficulties he's faced include being chased out of the women's bathroom, and having the police called on him for trying to use female facilities. After that experience, he "never went back to the women's bathroom".
"Being a butch is like, you that special kind of man. You just don't have what's between your legs," Flo explains, later adding,"Sometimes I wish I'm a man. But I'm happy [with] what I am right now. I won't forget what I am. I know that I'm a woman, and I know that I'm a lesbian... But, when I'm walking in the street, everybody looks at me as a guy, and I'm not gonna be like, hey I'm a woman! Y'know?"
These complex experiences, given so little attention and understanding by mainstream LGBT+ media, matter hugely. As a female-to-male transsexual who lives entirely as a man and has finished transitioning, I'm grateful to have watched this documentary and gained a better understanding of the AG and MoC community. I personally inhabit a very binary headspace, from my gender to my presentation to my innermost feelings, and I haven't questioned my gender identity or presentation since my earliest days of transitioning, but I love learning about people who experience life differently to me.
Crystal, interviewed as part of the film.
Several of the interviewees have had negative experiences with homophobic and hostile women, including Flo and Octavia, who both had their identities questioned or mocked by their mothers.
Crystal, Octavia's mother, recalls her reaction to Octavia's coming-out; "I said I was gonna find a boyfriend to take her out... I was upset. I said, you're not gay. That's a phase. You're gonna snap out of it, sooner or later. [She said] no it's not, no it's not. But I believe it is... I know that's not her. She had a lot of boyfriends, coming up. I don't think that's my daughter at all. I didn't approve of it. I still don't, because that's not how I raised her. But I accept her. She's gotta be her own person... But I still think she's gonna snap out of it, pretty soon. Hopefully."
Rjai after his surgery.
One of the most distressing moments in this documentary, for me personally, was when Rjai talked about undergoing surgery.
"I'm having a problem where I'm clotting," he explained while in hospital, "You know how you sit on a toilet and just pee? Just imagine that being blood, and like, blood clots coming out of you. I'm becoming anaemic. And I thought it was just girlie problems, or whatever. But then I noticed that it was like that for a whole year. The first doctor I went to said it was hormonal, and that I had more male hormones than female hormones. And I'm like, what? He was like, all you need is birth control... And I'm like, no, there's something wrong. I'm bleeding ridiculously, like for months at a time. I got a new doctor, and he goes, you know what? You should just get a hysterectomy. So, I don't know what the hell that is. You would think I should know, because I'm a woman, but I just don't. So, we did it yesterday. No more period, hallelujah. Never again."
This was utterly terrifying to hear. I really hope that I'm misinterpreting this moment, and Rjai's doctor actually told him what the surgery entailed before he went through it. This is one of the heavier interviews, as is an interview with Octavia, conducted while she is in prison on a charge of drug-dealing. She discusses the emotional hardship of being separated from her son.
Octavia at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
This documentary highlights the vulnerability of female-born people who are diverse in gender, expression, and sexuality. And, especially, the intersection of disadvantage experienced by trans men and AGs who are people of colour. From doctors dismissing serious health concerns to early-life trauma to all manner of other struggles, these interviewees had the deck stacked against them. And yet they flourish, with Tiffany receiving her GED and enrolling in college, Octavia working as a security guard, and Kisha pursuing acting while continuing to work her other two jobs.
The conclusion of Vilsón's story in The Aggressives.
As for Vilsón, the documentary ends on a mysterious note. "During the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Marquise abruptly left the Army," reads the post-film update, "Her current whereabouts are unknown."
We now know that (according to public appearances) Vilsón eventually accepted his trans male identity. From what I have read and watched, he refers to himself as both a trans man and a person of transmasculine experience. He has become an activist and community spokesman. It's a gift to see the complexity which preceded that life situation, and to know how far Vilsón has come. Vilsón talked about wanting to begin hormone replacement therapy in the documentary, but his then-partner discouraged this, speaking negatively about how his appearance would change and how "wrong" it would be.
Transitioning is rarely simple, straightforward, or without ups and downs. Not only is this documentary a precious snapshot of AG diversity and perseverance, it also shows the struggles of people who ultimately come to identify as trans men or transmasculine. It is a complex, sometimes confronting, and beautiful film. I highly recommend watching it... as long as you don't expect the interviewees to use the same language, or have the same perspectives, as many modern-day LGBT+ people. Particularly when it comes to sex, gender, and sexual orientations.
Tiffany with Kelly.
Tiffany, an AG who frequently dates trans women, doesn't identify as a lesbian on the basis that, in Tiffany's words, "I'm not a lesbian if I date transgenders and I have heterosexual sex with them". Although this is just one individual sharing a personal opinion and sexual identity, I know that many modern-day people, including trans women and the lesbians who date them, may understandably find this invalidating, and potentially very upsetting.
I can confirm that there are many, many modern-day lesbians who have sex with trans women, just like there are many gay men who have sex with trans men, at all stages of medical affirmation. The views expressed in The Aggressives might be contrary to your own understanding of sexuality and gender. For that reason, you should proceed with caution, but this documentary is still an important reflection of female-born gender variance, and is a part of masculine history.
Lastly, please know that The Aggressives includes hard drugs, and sexual nudity in the form of a striptease performance.