People are messy. The simple fact of the matter is that as we grow older and our minds and bodies change along with the notions of what is or isn’t culturally permitted, there will always be growing pains as we come to know ourselves better and show that innermost self to the world at large. This is particularly true of transgender folks. More and more transgender people come out and transition at younger ages because our society is at the cusp of a movement toward true acceptance, but older generations had struggles of their own in showing the world their authentic selves. That’s the story at the core of Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride!, which encapsulates the life journey of one transgender woman in all its messy detail.
Gloria Stein started life as Bernard “Butch” Rosichan, living and working well into middle age as the owner and operator of an auto salvage yard. As the model of masculinity their nickname might imply, “Butch” came to recognize a change in their way of thinking after a costume party in the 1990s wherein they dressed as a woman. Following that experience, “Butch” started to experiment with crossdressing and, ultimately, came to the realization that they were a woman. And thus, Gloria Stein was born.
Gloria is a complicated person in that she doesn’t fit the mold of what is commonly perceived as the default transgender narrative. She never hated presenting as a man, and she didn’t even have an inkling of her transgender identity until later in life. However, what Uncle Gloria succeeds at is in demonstrating that this doesn’t invalidate her identity. Her experiences are unique and her own, just ours all are. She commonly refers to how she built herself into the woman she would have one day liked to marry, then ends up partnering with a transgender man. She plays with labels and distinctions of what is straight and what is gay because she doesn’t think those distinctions matter, which is a fascinating perspective if not always one that isn’t problematic.
It’s here that Uncle Gloria comes short as a piece of transgender representation. Because transgender identity is still very commonly misunderstood in our society, much of Gloria’s outspoken opinions on crossdressers and the rigidity of gender roles come across as insensitive and tone deaf, and documentarian Robyn Symon doesn’t do much to place Gloria’s comments in a wider context of the transgender rights movement. We are treated to Gloria’s role as a public speaker and activist, and we are given brief snippets of insight as to how some transgender colleagues disagree with her choices of language, but it wouldn’t be hard to picture Gloria as a bigot’s definition of an “acceptable” transgender person based on how her experiences inform her discussion of the issues.
Even so, Uncle Gloria: One Helluva Ride! is a touching glimpse at the ways in which a woman’s transition helped her to reconnect with loved ones and shaped her into a better person than she was. Gloria Stein is by no means perfect, but she bears her attitudes proudly and without apology, which is admirable in its own way. The film seeks to exemplify and applaud that, and it does so, even if it leaves some larger social context unspoken in the process.