|Laura Jane Grace|
One woman sits in an abandoned studio strumming gently on a guitar. She wears black clothing, her nail polished is a little chipped, and her hair obscures her face, She isn’t singing, but these sounds emitting from her guitar provide background for a chorus of voices that were muted in a past life.
The chorus of voices is what makes Laura Jane Grace’s True Trans a radically important online series. The transgender narrative is oftentimes sculpted outside of our hands. Whenever you see documentaries about transgender people they discuss surgery in ominous tones, they linger on childhood photos and present these bodies as science fair projects or worse side show attractions for those curious in seeing a before and after. It’s damaging when we can’t speak for ourselves, but Grace is turning the trans documentary on it’s head and making it a celebration instead of a curiosity. Her goal was to meet transgender and gender variant people on the road to connect in some way, and what she has done is bring to light a true narrative from those individuals she interviewed instead of the type of linear transition story that usually sits underneath the transgender documentary category.
What strikes me personally about this show is how often these narratives intersect with my own. I can remember the first time I ever saw a transgender person on television, and just seeing that there were other options was a staggeringly emotional experience. I was always too afraid to confront those feelings head on, because of my religious upbringing and parents who were ultimately difficult after my coming out, but I always knew in the back of my mind that was where I would eventually be. Our Lady J mentions at the end of episode Four that in one moment of thought she considered what she would do if she was on a desert island and how she would imagine herself, and she saw herself as a Woman. This isn’t entirely different from my near constant wishing I would wake up in a body that aligned with how I saw myself.
There’s also the consideration of realization of dysphoria which I can remember vividly in my own life. I was only three or four years old. I went to bed like any other night, but my mind sent me off into what was essentially an alternate version of my life. Everything was just as mundane, and there was nothing of note in this dream except for one small change. In this dream I was a girl. A reflection looked back at me in a flowery dress and pigtails and I couldn’t have been more disappointed when I woke up and saw a boy staring back instead of that girl that I knew I really was. For Grace that moment came when she was just as young as I when she saw Madonna perform on television. That’s who she wanted to be, and she mentions the disappointment of knowing that it wasn’t quite feasible. There are other things that link these stories like drug use, suicide attempts, and music as an outlet, but the one unifying theme is dysphoria. Blue (another transgender interviewee) mentions that it varies from person to person, but in some cases it’s a living hell.
|Paris is Burning|
Dysphoria is in many cases the key to all of these feelings. It’s why we want to change our bodies to align with how we see ourselves, and it is demoralizing to see our true selves unrepresented in mirrors every day of our lives. “It’s as important as the air your breathe” is one phrase used to describe the necessity of having a comfortable body. The entire discussion centered around dysphoria in episode 2 subtly deconstructs the myth that trans healthcare is based around cosmetic procedures, and it’s all done through letting transgender people speak up about their own lives, and in the context of the documentary I don’t think it’s been handled this well since Paris is Burning, and even then that film wasn’t 100% about our lives.
True Trans isn’t as formally ambitious as that documentary either, but they share a similar celebratory tone around their subjects as well as performance being a key part of identity. Paris is Burningfocuses on ball culture while True Transshifts it’s lens towards punk rock. Laura Jane Grace got into punk rock in the first place due to it being about “smashing gender roles”, and others discuss how glam rock punks of the 70s featured many bands where gender roles were challenged. In essence art seems to have opened up the doors for an older generation of transgender people featured in this doc as an outlet. They didn’t have the internet and no one was talking about gender variant people on television so these punk rock bands in some way slightly cracked open the doors even if they weren’t actually transgender. At least they were questioning gender in the first place.
I believe art has the power to shape our world views and challenge what we see as normal. It can be a radical unseating of systematic power,, and it can get people thinking. I also believe in the personal as political theory. What makes True Transmore than just a fascinating documentary on lifestyle is how those two things intersect to make something that comes off as an important work of art. It isn’t necessarily cinematic with it’s 60 minutes style talking heads documentary style filmmaking, but it transcends it’s own formal limitations by allowing voices to be heard that were once stamped down by a society that wouldn’t listen. I go back to those days when I watched transgender documentaries on the discovery channel when my parents were in bed hoping to see another person like myself on television if only for a moment. I craved that visibility because I didn’t want to be alone in this world, and it’s not like I knew anyone who was transgender. Ten years later this show is now available for all those out there questioning or curious. Something this celebratory is going to have a positive impact for those who need it, and those who view it curiously not even knowing what a transgender person is like will see our humanity. If it changes one mind or helps out one person who really needed it then it’s powerful in all the ways art can sometimes be. I know it will help others out, because it’s already made me feel like a stronger person for having viewed it.