November 18, 2019
by Carla Hay
“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”
Directed by Karen Bernstein
World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 7, 2019.
Brian Belovitch is the embodiment of “gender fluid.” He lived as a male in his childhood and teen years, transitioned into a transgender woman in his 20s, and then decided to go back to living as a gay man when he was in his 30s. Why did he want to be a woman in the first place? Belovitch explains in this documentary: “I loved the idea of being something other than myself. Let’s forget about Brian, and become some other creation.” How did that work out for him? “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” tells that fascinating story in a way that is entertaining and informative without being exploitative.
Karen Bernstein, who directed “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” is a close friend of Belovitch, and that kinship shows in how the film was made, as he’s allowed to share his life story with dignity and respect. The movie’s main flaw (which is a minor one that doesn’t take away from the movie’s overall message of self-acceptance) is the editing, which jumps back and forth in the story timeline. This zig-zag narrative might be off-putting to people who like biographical stories told in chronological order.
So, who is Brian Belovitch? Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1963, Belovitch was raised primarily in Providence, Rhode Island, in a family of two daughters and five sons. (Some of his siblings are interviewed in the movie.) His father was a Russian Jew, his mother was Portuguese, and he grew up in a culture of homophobia, which was very common in families of that era. As a child, Belovitch was shamed and bullied by his family members and other people for being effeminate, and his father often physically abused him. When strangers mistook him for a girl, his mother would get very angry and offended. In the documentary, Belovitch looks back on this traumatic period in his life and says, “By today’s standards, I would be considered a trans kid.”
A turning point in his life was his teenage relationship with his first boyfriend, Paul Bricker (Belovitch calls him a “soul mate”), whom he met at a gay bar in Providence. Unlike his unhappy home life where his parents had trouble accepting his sexuality, Belovitch found complete acceptance in his relationship with Bricker, whose mother, Gloria, treated Belovitch like a family member. Gloria, who is interviewed in the documentary, says of Belovitch: “He was worth putting in my time and love.”
While living in the Lola Apartments (what Belovitch calls a “trans ghetto”) in Providence, he began dressing as a woman. He says, “I was addicted to the reaction and attention I got from folks.” Throughout his younger life, as a man and as a woman, Belovitch says he would often be a sex worker, out of desperation to help pay the bills. He says in the documentary that his biggest decisions were “made for love,” but “most of my decisions were made for survival.”
At 18 years old, he moved to New York City and tried to live as a gay man for about nine months. His relationship with Paul Bricker ended, and then Belovitch decided to commit to being a transgender woman, and changed his name to Natalie Belo. Belovitch says there was another reason why he wanted to live as a woman, besides preferring the attention that he got as a female: He didn’t want to be a gay, and he didn’t want to be a man, because being a man reminded him of the homophobic men from his childhood. Even though Belovitch tells his life story with amusing wit, there’s a lot of deep-seated trauma that’s brought up in this documentary (including childhood sexual abuse), so people who are easily triggered by similar issues should be warned that this is not always an easy film to watch.
While living as Natalie Belo, Belovitch said he spent “thousands” on his physical transformation, including electrolysis, breast augmentation, butt implants (he still has silicone-related health issues) and female hormones. As Natalie, she met her first husband, David (a bartender at the time), in 1979, and they married in 1980. David joined the Army, and the couple moved to Germany, where David was stationed. While in Germany, Natalie became a “Tupperware lady,” but being an Army wife didn’t suit her, and she was still going through some confusion about her gender identity. She and David broke up after they moved back to New York City.
Natalie’s life then took an exciting but dark turn, as she reinvented herself as aspiring actress/singer Natalia “Tish” Gervais (this became her legal name for a while), and she plunged into the downtown Manhattan nightlife scene of the ’80s. She found a small level of fame as a cabaret singer/celebutante, including as a member of the “It’s My Party” revue. Her close friends included other nightlife scenesters, such as entertainment journalist Michael Musto (who’s interviewed in the documentary) and drag queen Nelson Sullivan. However, Tish became an alcoholic and drug addict, and spent years as a slave to her addictions. She got sober in 1986, after a rock-bottom incident when she stole money from the box office of a theater owned by her friend Edith O’Hara, who gave Tish an ultimatum to go to rehab and stay off of drugs.
It was around this time that Belovitch decided to go back to living as a man. He’s now an addiction counselor who’s happily married to second husband Jim (a botanist), who’s also interviewed in the movie, which has a scene of them attending a Pride parade in Providence. (This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s shown in the beginning of the film.) To understand Belovitch’s difficult journey to self-acceptance, he says it partly comes from his “fear of being average,” but he admits: “Having lived the life that I’ve lived is hardly boring dinner conversation.” As for coming to terms with what his true identity is, he sums it up this way: “All I ever wanted to be was comfortable.”