Ricardo was once "Sara," a homeless HIV-positive transvestite prostitute living in the underbelly of Manhattan. Today, he's a churchgoing, married man "saved" by a Dallas ministry. He has renounced his homosexuality, but is his conversion complete? The Transformation, a film by Susana Aikin and Carlos Aparicio, features astonishingly candid interviews with Ricardo, his friends, and members of his church, and raises provocative questions about sexual identity and self-determination. Part of POV, broadcast television's only continuing forum for independent non-fiction film, The Transformation will air nationally Tuesday, July 9 at 10 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).
On his wedding day, Ricardo looks dapper in his tuxedo — and radiantly happy. Just like any other newlyweds, he and his wife, Betty, are enthusiastic about building a life together. But theirs is no ordinary marriage. The Transformation incorporates haunting footage from the filmmakers' previous film, The Salt Mines, in which Ricardo appears as Sara, a bleached blonde with a shy, flirtatious smile, who speaks wistfully of her dreams. He lives with a group of young drag queens in a Manhattan lot where the sanitation department stores broken-down equipment and salt for de-icing slippery winter roads. The Transformation opens with Terry, who works for a Dallas ministry, showing contrasting pictures of Ricardo and Sara, and speaking proudly of Ricardo's transformation. Terry has devoted his life to "saving" drag queens. He patrols Manhattan's West Side, resolutely searching for transvestites, offering them a place to stay, financial assistance, and the support of the Dallas congregation. In return, they must renounce their homosexuality and agree to participate in the church's fundraising efforts, serving as examples of homosexuals "cured" by their newfound faith. When Terry met Ricardo (then Sara), he recalls, "There was something missing. He never knew what it was to be a man."
Initially resistant to Terry's offer of "salvation," when Ricardo/Sara learned he was HIV positive, scared and weary of life on the street, he accepted. Ricardo moved to Dallas and stayed with Jim and his wife Robby, two church members eager to help. "He had a heavy desire that no one would look at him and see any kind of female mannerisms or traits. He worked at it very hard," says Robby in The Transformation . "I started showing him how to do things that were manly," Jim recalls. "If something needs fixing, it's generally fixed by the man.... So I started showing him how to do things, showing him how to do a little yard work, things he had never done before." To Jim and Robby, Ricardo is a needy person the Lord has saved from the devil and placed in their home for guidance.
Shortly after moving to Dallas, Ricardo met his future wife Betty, another member of the congregation. She was charmed by the new man in town. "I told her there could be nothing between us," Ricardo recalls. "Because...I lived as a woman for many years...I still have breasts...and I am also HIV positive. She said, "I know everything and I don't care,' and I said 'What?!'" To Betty, Ricardo is simply the man she loves. Ricardo speaks frankly about his new lifestyle with Hugo, one of his friends from his days on the street, who is also living in Dallas. Hugo used to be Gina, a beautiful post-op transsexual, but Terry persuaded her to join his church, and now Hugo is living as a man again. According to Terry's biblical interpretation, Hugo is neither man nor woman. He's a eunuch, a sexless person who will be rewarded in heaven.
In The Transformation , when Ricardo and Hugo make a recruiting trip back to New York with Terry, they find another old friend from the salt mines, Gigi, who insists that living as a man is too steep a price to pay for financial security. To Gigi, Ricardo and Hugo are kidding themselves. "How could you suppress something so strong?" he asks incredulously. The group also finds their long-lost friend Giovana, a young transvestite who now lives with his mother and sister. A former drug abuser, Giovana was living on the street until he called his sister for help. She rushed to his side, and brought him home. Accepted for who he is by his family, Giovana lives openly as a transvestite. He, too, thinks Ricardo and Hugo are repressing their true sexual orientation. "I think they just had an opportunity to better themselves," he says.
Has Terry's ministry rescued Ricardo — or, in the face of death, forced him to make a great sacrifice? Near the end of the film, Ricardo reflects on his life and ruefully admits that if he had to do it all over again, he would choose to live as a woman. "I think there are many layers in what happened to Ricardo," says filmmaker Susana Aikin. "There was a material layer where he basically transformed from a very marginal social person to an integrated social being into our mainstream society. I think also that he went through a spiritual change in the sense that he learned to appreciate himself better as a human being... But in terms of whether he became a straight man, I think we're talking about very shifty things here, and I think the film speaks for itself." Ultimately, The Transformation allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about this multi-faceted, complex question.