On the drive in to have major surgery, fAe Gibson cracks jokes and shoots the goofy ironic finger-guns at his companions. In a post-anesthesia haze, he somewhat deliriously asks for "rough sex and beer." After his brother tries hard to explain what's different about Gibson and makes an unfortunate comparison to a boy born with flippers, he can't help giggling. "It was like I was born with flippers," he says. "This is the category my brother puts me in!"
Gibson, a Butler County native, is the kind of man that puts people at ease almost immediately – his broad smile and quick laugh are so relatable, you feel like you've known him forever after five minutes.
He's also the kind of man who used to be a woman, and his transition is the subject of a documentary film, Gender Redesigner. After making the film-festival rounds, the movie makes its television debut Aug. 23 at 8 p.m., on Logo, MTV's national LGBT cable channel.
"The trans story has been untold," says director Johnny Bergmann. "Seeing somebody like fAe who is so approachable will give more people a greater understanding of the trans story. It seemed easy for an everyday person to relate."
Transmen like Gibson – who describes being 5 years old and posing before a mirror with a pretend penis in his pants – are relatively rare. While exact statistics don't exist, the American Psychological Association estimates that 1 in 10,000 biological females are transsexual, and 1 in 30,000 biological males are.
Gibson, in flip-flops, a trucker cap, goatee and a T-shirt with cartoon pandas doing t'ai chi, is at Donny and Weezie's, an LGBT bar in Polish Hill, to reconnect with a dear friend from North Carolina, a transman and rapper, who's performing tonight. Gibson himself will turn in a blistering rendition of his song "Acid Pussy Face" a little later.
"How long have you known fAe?" asks one of the dozens of people who rush up to say hello to Gibson. It's been about an hour. "Don't you totally love him already?"
That was part of the reason his friend Bergmann turned his cameras on Gibson in 2002. The pair, friends since their days at New York University, had been traveling the country documenting the experiences of queer people in different environments, and Gibson was a natural on camera and talking to people.
Another reason is that Gibson, now 29, was beginning his transition from female to male as they were filming, and undergoing some of the most drastic aspects of that transition in "the middle of nowhere," his parents' farm in rural Western Pennsylvania, outside Butler.
"Transitioning in Western Pennsylvania, not in New York City ... who does that?" Gibson wonders. (The answer, as it turns out, is someone who grew up there and needs the support of his family, not to mention a free place to live.)
"fAe is someone so many people can relate to," Bergmann says by phone from New York, where he's based. "He's so approachable. We were traveling around and fAe started to explore his gender identity. It was kind of a big deal to really focus the camera on him."
The film follows Gibson from being a pigtailed lesbian at Dyke March to drag kinging – performing as a male, complete with glued-on facial hair, bound breasts and packed underpants – to taking testosterone and having a double mastectomy.
Seeing him do all this in a location that didn't seem like it would be the most accepting could further illuminate the difficulties trans people face everywhere.
"Pittsburgh is not the best climate for people who are different," explains Cole Lea in the film. Lea is a Pittsburgh lesbian activist and spoken-word artist, and friend of Gibson's.
"It seems like the mentality around here isn't very open to new things," Gibson's younger brother Steve says on camera. "And as far as trans is concerned, it's a very radical step."
At the bar, Gibson waffles back and forth on having a drink and finally orders a Straub and lights up a cigarette. In between greeting heaps of friends, he discusses the movie.
The film, he says, is "a snapshot moment of time – I was evolving. I was definitely a different type of person during my transition. After my double mastectomy, how I acclimated to being me ... it was interesting to see how I act with different people."
Gibson is surely a ham, which really helps keep the film watchable. There's a hilarious scene where Gibson is performing the song "Sweet Transvestite" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the gender-bending male transvestite scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Where there were once real breasts, Gibson has stuffed his bra for the role.
"What a genderfuck!" a friend says afterward backstage to an elated Gibson.
Gibson's parents declined to be in the film, which troubled Bergmann a lot: "They're so strong and supportive and I wanted to get that across. I struggled."
Gibson's mother can occasionally be heard off-camera, and in a few scenes she appears with her face pixilated. When Gibson is embarking on his long recovery from the mastectomy, we see his mother's hands, clad in silver bracelets, gently cleaning Gibson's wounds.
Gibson says that his decision to transition was extremely tough for his mother, who, he says, may have felt betrayed by his discomfort with his female body. But the pair have always been, and remain, quite close.
"She's a feminist," says younger brother Steve of their mother. "She thinks women are powerful."
"She felt like I was switching teams," Gibson says. "She eased into it. She saw it was something I needed to do."
The day before Gibson travels to Cleveland to have his "tits chopped off," there's footage of him sitting on the diving board of the family pool. Eventually he takes his shirt off to explain in detail how the surgery will go.
He touches his breasts like they aren't his – like they aren't part of his body at all. Seeing him put his bra back on feels like watching him admit defeat – a little bit of light goes out of his face as he's re-encumbered.
While Gibson and Bergmann both say it's great to get some major exposure for trans issues, don't call Gibson a poster child.
"There are so many gender identities," Gibson says. "No one has said to me, 'Oh, that's what being trans is like.' I can't vouch for everyone else." He's also cognizant that his experience is informed by a degree of privilege – not everyone would be able to secure a loan for a mastectomy, for instance, or have a loving and supportive family behind him.
When Gibson successfully petitioned the court of Butler County for a name change – resulting in a new birth certificate that also lists him as male, thanks to letters from doctors and therapists – he opted to keep his first name, making official the non-traditional capitalization he'd adopted as a teen-ager and changing his middle name from Elizabeth to Eli. It's challenging, he says, being a man with a feminine name, but it honors who he has always been.
Transitioning in small-town America was a tough decision, but Gibson has mostly been met with support and understanding, he says: "I'm only gender-variant when someone from my past says 'she.'"