“Gender for some people is a destination. For me it’s a journey,” proclaims Brian Belovitch, the subject of Karen Bernstein’s 2019 documentary I’m Gonna Make You Love Me. Weaving archival footage, old photos, classic movie clips, and present-day interviews (using Caouette’s 2003 film Tarnation as reference), Bernstein and her co-producer/editor Nevie Owens trace Brian’s life from “boy to girl to woman to man”, as states the subtitle of his memoir Trans Figured. Preferring a non-linear narrative to reflect the erratic nature of memory, the documentary pieces together its subject’s childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, his move to New York City and transition into the voluptuous Sophia Loren-esque Natalia Gervais, her stint in Germany as an army wife, return to the NYC drag scene as the nightlife diva Tish, and the eventual detransition back into Brian Belovitch, the present-day married man in his sixties.
While the trans experience has been gaining more mainstream visibility in recent years through shows like Amazon Studios’ Transparent, the Wachowskis’ Sense8, and HBO’s Euphoria, detransitioning is a subject rarely touched upon, as it requires an open, complex understanding of gender fluidity and risks being misconstrued. But Bernstein, who first met and befriended Brian in 1993, considered it important to focus on his singular narrative without trying to represent the trans community as a whole; she cites admiration for Lisa Cholodenko’s 1998 High Art for its same approach in portraying an LGBTQ story. Despite some heavy subject matter, I’m Gonna Make You Love Me is suffused with nostalgia and intimacy, full of affection not only for Brian, but for the New York City of the 1980s: the underground fringe scene immortalized in Paris is Burning (1990) and recently revisited in Ryan Murphy’s series Pose. Brian’s story is unique, full of glamorous highs and terrifying lows, but the themes are universal: survival, and the search for love and acceptance.