By Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Despite the advances of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality movement, I’ve found that the valuation of transgendered lives still has a long way to go.
A transgender activist in the documentary film, Trans, noted that in many cases transgender people aren’t just murdered, they are mutilated, stabbed a 1,000 times, and set on fire, not necessarily in that order.
Filmmaker Chris Arnold has been traveling the country, screening his documentary, Trans, with the hope of drawing attention to film that aims to demystify what it means to be transgender.
Trans follows several story arcs that include 7-year-old Danaan Tyler, a male-to-female transgender child who knew who she was at 2 years of age; Cris, a transgender male who broke the news to his lesbian girlfriend that he was not a lesbian; Pam and Erica, two transgender women in their mid 50s undergoing reassignment surgery; and of course, the story of Navy Flight Surgeon Dr. Christine McGinn, a transgender woman and her lesbian wife who struggled to conceive and deliver a baby together.
Arnold explained that he and his team shot footage for more than two years. He noted that a number of the interviews they conducted wound up on the cutting room floor. The first six months of shooting was spent following McGinn and her career.
“She’s somebody who has dedicated her entire life to the transgender community,” Arnold explained. “[She] understands better than anybody what the issues are in the transgender world. So we got a real first-hand education from her about exactly where the problems and how the transgender community is perceived by society in general.”
In fact, it was McGinn who invited Arnold and his producer partner, Dr. Mark Schoen, to make this film. McGinn’s profile as a transgender activist took off after she told her story on Oprah in 2009. Network television executives started pitching her to do a documentary on her life.
“What we were able to do in this film is correct a lot of misinformation that is out there,” Arnold explained. “Simply because of the way trans people have generally been perceived through shows like Jerry Springer and what I call circus acts out in the media….That is why the transgender community has been so vilified and attacked.”
In the Danaan Tyler story arc, Trans tackles difficult questions at the outset, such as exploring at what age do humans fully realize a gender identity. As a parent, what do you do when a child before they’re even old enough to go to school begins identifying with the gender anatomically opposite of which they were born?
Tyler and her family recounted the days where she was so unhappy with suppressing her gender identity that she would violently act out and intentionally harm herself. The film zeroes in on an unhappy-looking Tyler dressed as a boy in group photos with her classmates as her mom, father and brother spoke on how they grappled with the situation.
“I felt that what this story was about, was not only about the courage of Dannan, this little child, her wisdom of being able to understand before anyone else what her real condition was,” Arnold explained. “But I also thought that the most important story was that of her parents.
“There are so many parents out there in similar circumstances and really have no idea what to do about it. If it were to happen to you, it’s kind of the last thing you would think about.”
Most parents with gender-conforming children would probably view the Tyler story arc as an instance of parents capitulating to the child in the parent-child relationship. They would be outraged particularly because Tyler’s parents planned on preparing Danaan for gender reassignment surgery when she became of age and still wanted it.
“The youngest age that trans surgery has been performed is 16,” Arnold explained to correct a potential misunderstanding. “They’ll move in that direction if she still feels the same way when she’s 16, which I’m sure she will. When she turns 11, they will start with hormone blockers so that her testosterone levels don’t start taking her down the wrong road before she’s able to start on her transitioning.”
Arnold noted that his film, and the Tyler segment in particular, has drawn more than one parent to stand up and tell him that their lives and the lives of their children had been changed.
What many viewers outside of the transgender community may miss when first watching of the film is that Tyler was treated by a number of psychologists and therapists. Initially, she was treated simply as a discipline problem.
Arnold explained that he went to a number of counselors who did not understand from the start that the patient was transgender. Arnold said he intentionally chose not to go further down that road of inquiry in the film because he didn’t think it was his job to pillory these health professionals.
Trans addresses the faith community with the inclusion of Rev. Dr. Michael Holland, who forcefully pushes back against those that say, “God makes no mistakes,” and articulated the perspective that gender reassignment surgery as being no different from separating Siamese twins or repairing a cleft palate.
Arnold believes that Rev. Holland, as pastor of the progressive, gay-friendly Church of the Foothills in Orange County, gave the film faith-driven credibility.
“When we had the opportunity to get Rev. Mike out in Orange County on board, I jumped at that opportunity,” Arnold explained. “I constantly heard this phrase, ‘God does not make mistakes.’ That is really a club which the religious right [beat]… in fact, many religious people who think that transgender people are making a decision about lifestyle based on their sexual needs. That’s the kind of disinformation that is out there.”
The story arc of Chloe drives a class analysis to gender reassignment surgery, though after speaking with Arnold, I couldn’t shake the impression that it was unintentional.
“Chloe was so intimidated with coming out of the closet that it literally scared her to death,” Arnold explained in response to my suggestion that her suicide was in part due to not having the resources to live where she wanted and how she wanted.
“The prospect of coming out as trans is a lot scarier than coming out as gay, as you well understand,” Arnold noted.
Arnold ventured to say that most trans people don’t have the money for surgery, but still live perfectly fine lives without surgery.
“Many trans men, for example, would have top surgery but would not have bottom surgery, because bottom surgery for trans men is not where bottom surgery for women is. It’s just a cosmetic sort of thing and it cost five times as much as what surgery for trans women is. There are a lot of choices once you’re out of the closet. There’s nobody that’s going to tell you, ‘you need surgery.’ That’s a very personal decision that you may or may not want to make,” Arnold explained.
I wasn’t fully satisfied with the answer, but Trans was not intended to deal with every problem. After watching Trans and speaking with Arnold, there is still much ground to cover.
The film is going to be screened at the Pacific Unitarian Church on Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. A panel discussion will follow. Parking is free. Admission is free, but donations to go toward Pacific Unitarian Church’s Social Justice Ministry and the Center of Long Beach teen transgender program would be accepted.
Details: www.transthemovie.com; (323) 638-9328
Venue: Pacific Unitarian Church,
Location: 5621 Montemalaga Dr., Rancho Palos Verdes,