When politicians want to pander to certain voters by enacting anti-LGBT regulations in the military, they usually make vague statements about "troop morale" — the idea being to convince other parts of the electorate that they're all for inclusiveness in theory, if only it didn't work out so badly in practice. Not buying that for a minute, Fiona Dawson and Gabriel Silverman's TransMilitary introduces several outstanding trans service members whose peers and superiors are totally unfazed by their situation, knowing that being able to count on someone in the field is infinitely more important than what's in his or her pants. If it didn't have to deal with the current commander in chief, this timely documentary would be an uplifting story of social progress, finding an upper level of Pentagon leadership that is far more open-minded than many would assume. As it is, the doc is a persuasive plea for tolerance in an arena where, it seems, the most destructive bigotry is coming from outside.
In their first film as directors, Dawson and Silverman acknowledge big-picture statistics — with an estimated 15,500 in service, the U.S. military is the largest employer of trans people — but focus on individual stories. We meet four subjects, watching as they navigate codes of conduct and advocate for change.
Staff Sergeant Logan Ireland, born a woman, is a Channing Tatum-shaped manly man when we meet him in Kandahar province; muscle-bound and wearing a wispy moustache, he served his long stretch in the desert among warriors who had no idea he wasn't born a man. Back in the States, his girlfriend Laila Villanueva was born a boy. Laila recalls being elated when Bill Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy was repealed under President Barack Obama, allowing gays to serve openly in the military — only to find that she herself was granted no new rights: "I had no idea it didn't cover the T in LGBT," she recalls.
Captain Jennifer Peace grew up as a boy and escaped a troubled family life by joining the military, where she has earned consistently high performance reviews; Captain El Cook, a black trans man from Houston whose clique of bros accept him fully, keeps a ponytail of long hair, just in case he is told by superiors that he has to present himself as a woman.
Military dress and hair regulations play a large role in the film, requiring trans people to have backup plans ready: Laila's hairstyle allows for her to slick it back and present herself as a man (though her sculpted eyebrows attract attention); Jennifer, after being outed as trans in one workplace, is forced to wear a male hairstyle and ditch the makeup.
Peace is only outed because she stood up for herself: She's one of several members of SPART*A (an LGBT military advocacy group) who are lobbying Washington to end the ban on trans service. On the whole, though, her work with the group is a dream. Early in the doc, a tentative meeting with the Pentagon's Brad Carson goes much better than expected, with a single appointment turning into a string of meetings on the spot, in which Carson apologizes for the way the military has treated trans individuals. With his support, the SPART*A activists start an awareness campaign that takes them into offices of the military's top leaders, all of whom seem receptive to their message and interested to learn more.
Separately, Ireland finds himself attending a public event with Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. Ireland's doctor is there with him, and in a Q&A he asks the Secretary about trans service members. Carter's response is sympathetic and thoughtful, and after the event, Ireland bravely introduces himself to Carter as a trans man.
Things are looking up for the film's subjects, whose families we're meeting along the way, but of course viewers see the heartbreak to come. Midway through the doc, we start seeing references to the "bathroom bill" and other trans-related controversies; 80 minutes in, the doc glances at what's happening in the 2016 Republican primary campaign. In June, Carter announces an end to the trans ban, something President Donald Trump would later try to undo with a tweet.
The current state of things, as in nearly every other matter where Trump has a say, is in question. But one thing TransMilitary makes clear is that individual trans people can work effectively in the armed services, and that co-workers and top brass are not necessarily an obstacle to that service. (In cases we see here, they're vocally grateful for it.) Perhaps if Trump had actually served in the organization he now leads, he might be less confused on the matter.
Production companies: Free Lion Productions, Side X Side Studios
Directors: Gabriel Silverman, Fiona Dawson
Screenwriters: Jamie Coughlin, Gabriel Silverman
Producers: Jamie Coughlin, Gabriel Silverman, Fiona Dawson
Executive producers: Amy Nauiokas, Vinay Singh, James Connolly, Zeke Stokes
Director of photography: Gabriel Silverman
Editor: Gil Seltzer
Composer: Mark Degli Antoni
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)