Life Lessons Learned from a ‘Real Boy’

June is unofficially Pride Month in the U.S., a celebration of the LGBTQ community. General acceptance of the community has increased in recent years, but not for everyone. Several states have written and/or passed laws banning transgender people from going to the bathroom that matches their gender identity, and advocates have seen an increase in the number of transgender people being killed in recent years.

Despite this, many people have strived to become better allies to the transgender community, and more transgender people are making their presence known in media. A recent example of this is 19-year-old Bennett Wallace, the star of the Independent Lens documentary “Real Boy.”

Bennett’s story is that of sadness, love, hope, and acceptance. The doc starts with excerpts from two videos – a home video from a six-year-old Bennett (who’s birth name is Rachael), and a YouTube video from 19-year-old Ben. In it, he talks about how he’s been on testosterone (or T for short) for just over two months. The excerpt ends with an introduction. “And my name is Ben,” he says, “Because I changed it.”

Even though “Real Boy” is about a transgender boy and his family, I believe anyone – regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity – can find something to take from it, both to become a better ally and a better person.

Here are some examples:

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An old family photo of Bennett with his mom, Suzy.
Credit: Courtesy of Shaleece Haas

Acceptance is a process

One of the most emotional scenes of “Real Boy” happens in the early parts of the documentary, when Bennett tries to come out to his mother, Suzy. She says “we are who we are,” but he responds asking why she gets things like plastic surgery and hair dye if that’s really the case. Later on, Suzy is in her car talking about how accepting her son as transgender is hard because she still sees her daughter in him.

Thankfully for Bennett, she eventually surprises him by joining him at his top surgery in Florida and becoming a big part of his life. “Real Boy” was filmed over the course of four years. Sometimes it takes that long for someone to accept a change in their life, and that’s okay.

Bennett goes through his own acceptance process as well. He talks about how he had a fine childhood until he hit middle school – and puberty. He dealt with his feelings by cutting himself, stealing, and getting into drugs. He is now clean. Bennett later found acceptance online while watching fellow transgender people discuss their experiences on YouTube.

“The greatest gifts I received while browsing was that I knew I wasn’t alone.”

No two people are alike, but they should all be treated fairly

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Suzy with her son Bennett in the hospital after his top surgery. Credit: Courtesy of Shaleece Haas

One of the most common myths in the LGBTQ community – especially for transgender people – is that everyone has the same story and background. Nothing could be further from the truth, specifically for the three transgender men featured in “Real Boy.”

Bennett’s best friend Dylan and his mentor, singer Joe Stevens, have both had different upbringings, even though they all deal with similar issues. The men’s mothers eventually help Suzy learn how to accept her son for who he is.

We learn that Bennett also deals with mental and emotional issues, discussing how “hormones are really changing” to his body and his brain. Even though nearly all transgender people take hormones, it does not necessarily mean that they will deal with anxiety the way Bennett does. Joe deals with a setback of his own after he bonds with Bennett; he falls out of sobriety. Despite that, Bennett still looks up to him as he did beforehand.

No two cisgender heterosexual people are alike, and neither are members of the LGBTQ community.

Family is everything

Family takes on a few different definitions in “Real Boy.” It looks like Bennett has a stable family life from the peeks of his childhood that we get, but the same can’t be said during his transition process. He and Dylan create a family of their own; they even have Thanksgiving together (with their dog of course). Bennett also has a brother-type relationship with Joe. He then re-develops a relationship with his mother after she surprises him before his top surgery. Family can take on a lot of different meanings for anyone, and Bennett is no exception.

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Bennett, a trans teen, and the subject of Real Boy. Credit: Courtesy of Shaleece Haas

While many people in the LGBTQ community have found acceptance in their birth families, many others have not. For example, even though marriage equality is the law of the land, some LGBTQ children are still kicked out of their homes just because of who they are. So like Bennett, many turn to the internet or their friends to find that sense of family.

Other interesting pieces of information about being transgender in “Real Boy,” include Bennett using a binder for his chest and he taking his testosterone shot with Dylan. But the biggest eye-opener for me happened when the two were at the doctor’s office before their top surgeries, and they talk about the date of their last menstrual period on the paperwork. This is a small but important look into their lives as transgender men.

It may not be a festive parade, sporting event, or brunch, but make “Real Boy” a part of your Pride Month activities—you’ll be glad you did.

“Real Boy” premieres June 19 on PBS and on PBS.org following the broadcast. 

Author

Caissa Casarez

Caissa Casarez helps produce, direct, edit, publish web clips, and run social media for the public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. She grew up and went to school in Wisconsin, where she worked in local news before moving across the Mississippi. Caissa likes to read, write, and play music and video games in her spare time. She lives with her partner – a trans woman – and their rambunctious cat. Follow her adventures on Twitter at @cmcasarez.

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