TO SAY BUCK ANGEL, subject of Dan Hunt's new documentary Mr. Angel, is "just a regular dude" is both 100 percent true and demonstrably false, which is part of his allure. As seen in Mr. Angel—one of the highlights of this year's QDoc: Portland's Queer Documentary Film Festival—Buck is a muscular guy with facial hair and tattoos, as well as female genitalia that he's not shy about being photographed with. "I love my vagina, don't you love your vagina?" he famously asked Tyra Banks on an appearance on her show depicted in Mr. Angel. ("I dunno, it's aiiight, I guess" was her response.)
It's hard to say whether it's more compelling that Angel's gone from tomboyish child to drug-addled fashion model to transgender porn star to public speaker, or that he's done all those things AND still feels so casual to be around. He doesn't evoke any of his labels—porn star, man with a pussy, transgender activist; he feels like "one of the guys," for lack of a better phrase, and in so doing, makes you reexamine your preconceived notions of those labels. In person and onscreen, he puts people at ease. It's easy to see why people look at him as an oddity, but just by being who he is, he tends to diffuse people's fear of "oddity." And it should probably go without saying, but holy shit is that an important thing.
"When I get asked to do appearances or be on shows like Tyra, I'm not that worried about being sensationalized," Angel tells me. "I am gonna be sensationalized, or an oddity. I am. But for myself, I know I'm going to go on there and flip it. Because I'm really good at doing that. I know who I am, I know what I'm doing, and that changes the way people think about me. Because what does that mean, to be an oddity? They don't even know what that means anymore."
One thing Buck seems to understand is that at the heart of any kind of understanding or acceptance is empathy, and empathy is a two-way street. He doesn't come at you screaming, "Here I am, this is normal!" Not that you can blame anyone for doing that, but Buck has learned to be more clever. He simply presents himself as he is, and, because he's so charismatic, 90 percent of the time people come away thinking, "You know what? That guy seemed pretty normal." He tricks people into thinking it was their idea. Which works just as well in real life as it did in Bugs Bunny cartoons, though it's a little harder to achieve.
These days, it can feel like the path to acceptance is paved with dense acronyms coined the week before, and trying to memorize the myriad different types of gender identity and sexuality—genderqueer, transgender, cisgender, heteronormative, blah blah blah.
"We're programmed to do that. Everything needs a label. What is your sexuality? What is your gender? And even the LGBTQ... I... A.... They keep adding labels!" Angel says. "And no disrespect to that community, but... they're messing it up. Forget the labels. People hear that stuff and... it's not real. I think when people see me, and I get to talk to these kids, I get to explain to them, what does make a man and a woman? I get to deprogram them."
What comes through from talking to Buck, and from watching Mr. Angel (two things that often go hand in hand these days, with Angel speaking to film festival audiences as often as he can, including this Saturday in Portland), is that a more open society isn't necessarily achieved by creating the most inclusive pronouns, or successively traversing the minefield of potential offense when you talk about sexuality and gender. It's about respecting individuals. And the best way to do that is just to meet them.
"I just think by being who you are and not worrying what people think, that helps the world to open up,” he says. “It's a hard thing for people to understand that they can be themselves."