In 2016, a 40-year-old man named Mason Caminiti competed in two divisions of the 2016 NPC Ohio State Bodybuilding, Bikini, Fitness, Figure and Physique Championship: the bantamweight division for men under 143.25 pounds and the masters division for men over age 40. He had competed as a bodybuilder in other competitions before, but he had a secret — none of the judges or other competitors knew he was transgender. His story is one of several told in Man Made, a new documentary that follows five trans men leading up to a trans bodybuilding competition.
Caminiti had actually been barred from a 2015 Cleveland bodybuilding competition for being trans. After a lifetime of feeling suicidal and struggling with bipolar disorder and being mistreated and estranged from his own family for his gender identity, he just wanted some respect and recognition for his hard work in a sport he loves.
After getting spray-tanned before the competition, Caminiti dries off with his fellow contestants in a hotel room filled with fans. The others hid their penises in knitted cock socks. Caminiti wore a G-string, smooth in the front. No one seemed to notice.
He won third place in the bantamweight division and fifth in masters.
Even though he regularly poses shirtless and oiled up in bikini briefs for audiences at bodybuilding competitions, Caminiti has never let his wife see him naked.
“He’s just so touchy about it that it’s just not worth pushing anymore, and trust me, I have,” his wife Anne. “It’s like, ‘You’re married, y’know. You shouldn’t wear underwear around your wife.’ It’s just … it’s sad. It’s one of those things where it’s not perfect, but that’s the way it is. And I still choose him.”
Caminiti is just one of five trans men profiled in director T. Cooper’s new documentary Man Made. Cooper started work on the documentary four years ago after hearing about Trans Fitcon, the world’s only trans bodybuilding competition. It’s held in Atlanta, Georgia, and is now entering its fifth year.
Cooper grew up just a few miles from Venice “Muscle” Beach, California, where he’d watch male bodybuilders working out at the outdoor oceanside gym.
“I’d hang on the fence and wonder at the (mostly) men flexing and preening for the crowds,” Cooper says. “The specimens of complete self-transformation thrilled me on a variety of levels — namely the way masculinity was performed in pursuit of the so-called ‘perfect’ male physique.”
As a trans man himself, Cooper knew the feeling of working hard to build the body and life that he wanted for himself. And when he heard about Trans Fitcon, “It just blew my mind,” he says.
With a background as a writer and a journalist, Cooper began researching the competition and its competitors. He soon decided that he needed to make a film about the competition to really let people see it for themselves.
“For me,” Cooper tells Hornet, “just seeing these different expressions of hyper-masculinity, but then also hyper-femininity — all that stuff is just really interesting to me.”
For instance, he says, bodybuilding is supposed to represent a pinnacle of masculinity, “Yet these guys are literally wearing ladies’ bikinis that are bejeweled, velour and flashy. Then there’s the so-called female masculinity with the women — the more fit they are, the more masculine they look, and yet they’re also performing femininity with the heels and the makeup and the boob jobs and G-strings and whatnot. They get criticized for being ‘too masculine’ if they get too muscular, and yet being too muscular is what gets them to win. So all that interplay on an intellectual level is super interesting to me, just culturally what it says about gender.”
Cooper’s Man Made is one of the few documentaries about trans men. He says that’s because there’s a cultural fascination in general with the giving up of masculinity as opposed to the attaining of it.
Here is the trailer for trans bodybuilding documentary Man Made:
“I think it upsets the order of things in general to think that a woman, or somebody who is designated female, can actually just become a man and have that power,” Cooper says. “There’s a resistance to embracing those stories.”
And while the trans bodybuilding competition is interesting, Man Made proves all the more worthwhile because it shows so many seldom heard stories of transitioning.
One bodybuilder named Reese had to purchase testosterone injections from a street dealer because he didn’t have a prescription for them. He’s now father to a 5-year-old son who calls him “mommy.” He was also homeless for a while, constantly rejected by shelters because of his trans identity.
In another scene we see Dominic, a man who has just completed top surgery (a bilateral mastectomy), drowsy on painkillers, his torso in bandages, a tube draining fluid from his chest into a balloon-sized receptacle.
Then there’s Kennie, a trans man who isn’t out at his college job in Arkansas. He has a girlfriend named D.J. who loves him, but D.J. is a lesbian, and the closer Kennie gets to achieving his ideal male body, the less physically attracted D.J. feels towards him.
“I’ve heard the argument from many people for many years, like, ‘Oh, you can’t just wake up one morning and decide you’re Superman or Marie Antoinette,'” Cooper says. “So this isn’t a whim, this isn’t a ‘Oh, I think I’ll try this and maybe I’ll go back.’ Which I think is a pretty standard transphobic thing that’s thrown at trans people to take away from their right to self-determination.”
If anything, Cooper’s film shows that transitioning is a serious decision — one of self-actualization that can have painful consequences. And yet Man Made differs from other trans stories in that it isn’t just tragedy porn showing trans men “going through some sort of horrible shit to make people care,” as Cooper says.
When the trans male bodybuilders get onstage at Trans Fitcon, finally able to compete as themselves without having to hide the scars or bodies that have kept them from being accepted into other bodybuilding competitions or even society in general, it’s a victory and a transcendent moment whether they win a trophy or not.
“Protections for transgender people and so many others are being attacked and rolled back at
alarming rates,” Cooper says. “Violence against trans people — and all people of ‘difference’ — is surging, while a vociferous segment of the population, not to mention an entire new administration, is challenging our very right to exist as humans, [to] use a toilet, have access to safe health care or possess legal ID. For these reasons I believe that this project and ones like it are more vital than ever.”