When we started our documentary film project about the plight of two, rural, transgender youth in an economically depressed mountain town in 2012, there was not too much media attention on transgender issues nor did we expect any to come. We just were lucky enough to come upon two really powerful life stories that needed to be told. Days led to months and months led to years. From our early shooting days, people would stop and give us a thumbs up and our Kickstarter campaign far exceeded our expectations; we received positive reactions at almost every turn. Our film went on to premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival and was written about in local media outlets and this publication as well. This was an atypical response for a relatively small documentary short film. The feedback and support we received propelled us forward and made our film a reality, so we could tell the story of James and Ashlee and what it is like to be trans in rural America. When we were interviewed by Huff Po writer James Nichols for an article about our project, we were happily surprised at how receptive people were to our work and bringing to light a story rarely seen in America. A few years after our short film traveled the film festival circuit, we started seeing more positive transgender media – Laverne Cox on the cover of time magazine, the TV shows “I am Jazz” and “I am Cait” became popular. America was getting to know transgender people and acceptance of transgender and gender non-confirming people was becoming more mainstream.
Importantly to note, it was around this time in May 2013 that the American Psychiatric Association’s manual for psychiatric care (DSM 5) officially changed the language for transgender health from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” in an attempt to stop pathologizing gender variance. And although it is widely accepted in the medical community that gender affirmation surgery is mentally and medically necessary, we saw that that there was still an uphill battle to raise awareness of these issues. Access to healthcare professionals with experience working with transgender people in rural and/or impoverished areas remains very hard to come by. We have witnessed the struggles that our documentary subjects have faced to find appropriate health care, often put on a merry-go-round to find doctors who understand trans issues AND then also willing to take their type of government-paid health insurance.
Although we saw so much positive media coverage for the transgender movement, we also realized what was being portrayed in the media was still not representing underserved, less privileged and poorer communities outside of major cities . What happens when you don’t look as passable as Laverne Cox or if you don’t have the financial resources to outwardly transform yourself as did Caitlyn Jenner? Thus, we have continued our documentary filming over the last five years to bring an insider view of the transgender rural experience to mainstream media. The education of America on transgender issues needs to continue. Having spent so much time within these communities has made us ultra-aware of what trans and gender non-conforming people must endure on a daily basis.
Thus, when President Trump recently announced the ban on transgender people in the military, we took to our project’s Facebook page of 1,250 followers and posted photos of James and Ashlee and urging support for the trans community in the face of continuing adversity.
And then we saw it. The sleeping giant of perhaps how much of America really thinks about the transgender community. We were absolutely horrified to the public reaction to our post supporting the transgender community. How did this response change so drastically in only 4 years? What we had witnessed over the years since we started our project – the growth in awareness of transgender issues, the supportive media coverage, transgender actors on major television shows – seemed to have not made enough difference to a majority of the country. Where have they been? Have they not seen what we have seen? Why are they not progressing toward acceptance of people different themselves?
I can only assume that these people expressing such vitriol for the transgender community are continuing to be spurred on by our dubious, non-truth telling President with his right-wing agenda. There was a time during the campaign that Trump expressed support for the LGBTQ community, even as he stuttered to get the letters out of his mouth.
The Trump followers (as best I could ascertain looking at their Facebook accounts) are the ones using our Facebook page as a bully pulpit to rail against people they don’t know, nor care to know or begin to understand. “Jon B.” proclaimed to have accepted his two gay brothers and a transgender nephew, but says transgender people in the military cause too many questions and confusion. “Lacey B.” posted a graphic that proclaims “gays get a month (e.g. June Pride) but straight people get a lifetime in heaven” and “Damon S.” posted several images with anti-gay profanity, one featuring former President Bush. Their limited level of understanding will only continue to grow more deaf as we see Trump continue on his tirades.
So, where do we go from here? This experience only bolsters our commitment to documenting the life of James and Ashlee. James, who is now engaged to a woman in the military, had hopes that he might have his gender affirmation surgery covered once they were married and he qualified under her insurance policy. Now with that in jeopardy, his life is turned upside down yet again. Perhaps this pales in comparison to what so many other rural transgender people deal with on a daily basis, but it is so very real. As James once said, “I know how I want to be seen, but I feel like I’m not seen like any of these things…. they don’t see me”.
“Ellenville” Documentary Film Project