After several missed connections making for a 12 hour travel day last Fall, this determined New Yorker arrived in a place I’d never imagined I’d be - Kansas. After several high profile and celebratory film festival screenings in New York, San Francisco, and Vancouver, I was fired up to show my new transgender youth rights documentary “Growing Up Coy” at Wichita’s “Stubbornly Independent” Tallgrass Film Festival where we would try to make an impact at the grassroots level and connect with the transgender community in this conservative state.
My film centers around two young parents fighting for the rights of their 6-year-old transgender daughter to use the girls bathroom at her public elementary school in Colorado. The highly publicized 2013 landmark case rippled across the country after it set the first legal precedent of it’s kind in favor of gender identity determining which bathroom people use. Now of course, many other states and the federal government find themselves weighing in with their own laws, policies, and guidelines around this issue. Kansas had it’s own bathroom bills considered last year and the conservative state continues to to be a hotbed for anti-LGBT legislation along with North Carolina, Texas, and many others.
Outside the venue before the film began, I met Brenda - a local transgender activist who was scheduled to help introduce the film. I asked how life was for her was in Wichita. She recounted matter-of-factly that a few years prior, she came out as transgender to her wife who who promptly kicked her out of their home. Shortly thereafter she was fired from her job, penniless, and had no alternative but to live under a bridge for six months. Her story of hardship, courage, and perseverance was both moving and heartbreaking.
Brenda has since improved her life and together with her new partner Elle (who is also transgender), started Wichita’s first transgender support system WitCon (Wichita Transgender Community Network) last year, a group that has grown to over 50 members. Between WitCon and Kids Connect, a brand new Wichita support group for families with gender non-conforming kids - I was really looking forward to meeting others from the local transgender community as we walked into the screening together, but Brenda shrugged at the low attendance from her group saying that I had to understand that living in a place like Kansas, the mere act of attending a pro-transgender event (like a film festival screening) in a public place can be very intimidating for transgender people and their allies. In Kansas, many transgender people are afraid to go out in public for fear of harassment and discrimination for just being themselves.
When I started filming in early 2013 with my husband (who was producing and editing the film), we knew very little about the transgender experience, and certainly had never met a transgender child. At the time, we wanted to learn first hand about the issues transgender people face and also to bring exposure to a marginalized community that had seemingly been left out of the fight for LGBT rights on the heels of marriage equality.
When we finished the film three years later in 2016, we were in a completely different cultural landscape where transgender issues, celebrities, and television shows had all been pushed to the forefront in the mainstream media. But it seemed that this transgender wave had eluded Kansas, and may now slowly roll back out to sea for all of us. As we enter 2017, there is a backlash from some Democrats who say transgender rights were a boutique issue that contributed to their loss in the last presidential election and we are bracing for the Donald Trump and Mike Pence White House to rescind the Obama administration’s national guidelines protecting transgender students from discrimination.
About ten minutes into my screening in Wichita, I walked out for some air. Brenda was out for a smoke. I asked her, “Have you ever thought about moving to a more accepting place like New York or the Los Angeles”? I realized mid-question that I had just signaled my male cisgender privilege, and might get an earful back.
But Brenda’s response was thoughtful, and has stuck with me since: “I could never leave my transgender brothers and sisters behind. They are truly my family now and rely on me and WitCon. When your town discriminates against you, you don’t run away from the town. You stay and change it.”
Her words were powerful...and a bit painful to hear. I couldn’t help but feel guilt for moving to gay-friendly New York City when it came time for college from my homogenous Boston suburb where I often felt like an outsider, defined by my sexuality, trying to fit in. In New York, I felt free to surround myself with friends who were also gay or allies and explore my sexuality unhindered. Over time, I stopped thinking of myself as different or “other” altogether.
Sociologists have confirmed I certainly wasn’t the only one who made such a move, but I considered - maybe this LGBT migratory behavior towards more liberal and tolerant states and cities has contributed to the growing political divide in our country. We are all on the other side of the fence from each other. How can we expect change in Kansas if all LGBT Kansans move out?
After the screening, two Kansas mothers came up to tell us their thoughts on the film. One shared, “We weren’t sure if we were going to like the film, because we didn’t know what to think about a transgender child. But you can see they are good parents. At least it has planted a seed for me to look at this issue differently.”
The encounter restored some faith in me that if we continue to share our stories, we in the LGBT community and our allies can foster dialogue and understanding with our red-state neighbors, who may have never really considered the issues we face before. “Growing Up Coy” does not tell the audience what to think or shy away from showing difficult and controversial situations. This non-judgement hopefully gives audiences space to put themselves in the Mathis family’s shoes to consider deeply, “What would I do if this were my child?” and answer the question for themselves.
I have read over the last months that many people both inside and outside the LGBT community are frustrated by the bathroom debate, citing more important priorities. But if we can look past the “issue” and dig down to look at the hopes and fears we have for all of our children - what is more important than our children’s sense of security and confidence in being able to participate in the world? We know that transgender students are dropping out of school at higher rates than non-transgender students and also have higher incidents of bullying, harassment, and suicide. Surely equal access to facilities plays a part in a school culture that allows for these statistics.
I knew living in my New York bubble would never feel quite the same having met Brenda and Elle, and the Kansas women who had all snuck into into my heart and my worldview. And so I continued on to film festivals in Louisville, Kentucky, and then to São Paulo, Brazil, and other diverse cities seeking to make connections like the ones I’d made in Kansas. In the meantime, I’m thrilled that the film just released worldwide on Netflix where where it can be streamed online in over 190 countries. Although we will miss hearing reactions in person, it is gratifying to know that those who wouldn’t feel safe or comfortable coming out to a public screening can discover the film for themselves in their own living rooms.
With bathroom bills in states around the country this year - both enacted and pending, we also want to use the film as a rallying call to action and are planning a community impact tour where we can engage school administrators and lawmakers in dialogue after each screening. If we’re lucky, it will add a little momentum for the transgender wave to sweep beyond our liberal states and empower us all to fight compassionately in 2017 where new battles and roadblocks await us around the world.