Portrait photographer and documentary filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is like a census taker with a camera and a healthy curiosity. In his multi-volume series The Black List and The Latino List, single entries The Out List, The Boomer List and The Women’s List, and in About Face, which examined the experiences of vintage supermodels, he has made a cottage industry out of elegantly shot and packaged direct-to-camera interviews that provide intimate access to specific demographics. Scheduled to air later this year on HBO, The Trans List continues in the same vein, shining a light on eleven remarkably diverse representatives of the transgender community as they reflect on their lives pre- and post-transition.
That group is significantly smaller than those surveyed in some of Greenfield-Sanders’ previous films, which allows greater breathing room for each subject and more time for illuminating anecdotes. The separate interviews of 60-90 minutes each — crisply edited down to a brisk hour with additional archive material — were conducted by transgender journalist Janet Mock, which clearly helped establish a common-ground rapport.
Kylar Broadus grew up in the Bible belt as an “uber-masculine girl,” inspired to embrace his male identity after reading about transgender jazz musician Billy Tipton, who died carrying the secret that he was assigned female at birth. A fan of TV’s Perry Mason, Broadus became a lawyer dedicated to advancing anti-discrimination policy for LGBT Americans, and is a particularly vocal advocate for the rights of trans people of color.
Statuesque British fashion model Caroline Cossey’s stunning looks enabled her to work undetected in the industry until she was outed as transgender by a London tabloid after appearing in the 1981 Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. Years after her sex-reassignment surgery, she maintains, “There’s a lot of people out there who say no matter what you do, you’ll always be a mutilated man.” Her story of finding community (and a wealthy benefactor) early on as a Paris showgirl is quite touching, and her ad campaign for Smirnoff vodka, waterskiing behind the Loch Ness Monster, is a hoot.
Photographer Amos Mac started shooting trans men in San Francisco as part of his own gender evolution, expanding that work into the slyly named trans male quarterly magazine, Original Plumbing. The poet Alok Vaid-Menon, who self-identifies with the pronoun ‘they,’ points to ancestral Indian traditions of gender non-conformity while claiming the right to feel masculine some days, feminine others, and sometimes neither.
Latin community activist Bamby Salcedo was galvanized politically by the brutal 2002 murder of transgender teen Gwen Araujo. While not downplaying the grim chapters of her own past, she gives a moving description of her maternal feelings as she observes young people transforming, and a sweet account of the Cinderella revelation of trying on a white gown for the first time. Another activist, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, provides vivid recollections of raids at New York’s Stonewall Inn, prior to the riots, revealing that she was arrested for knocking out a cop who tore her silk organza dress. She wants her legacy to be: “She came, she cared, she left.”
The youngest person interviewed is Nicole Maines, a student who successfully took a case to the Supreme Court in 2013 after being refused access to female restrooms at her Maine high school. Her segment appears to have been filmed before the uproar over bathroom access in North Carolina, but her quest to “pee in peace” seems rooted in a well-adjusted outlook on basic human rights, rather than a radical activist stance. “Just save yourself,” she states simply. “Slay your own dragon.”
Two prominent trans men featured are porn star Buck Angel, a tattooed hunk of muscle who gets emotional recalling “that little kid” he once was; and Shane Ortega, the U.S. Army Sergeant who was forced to wear a female dress uniform to an official Pentagon ceremony and has become an advocate for the rights of trans people in the military.
The biggest names included are Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. Jenner acknowledges the advantages of being white, privileged and wealthy when she transitioned, though adds, “Every journey has its struggle.” She also confesses to feeling a certain awkwardness about becoming an unofficial spokesperson for the trans community: “I am an expert on my story, nobody else’s.” Jenner expresses gratitude for having transitioned later in life, when she was more emotionally equipped to handle the change.
Cox is a delight. Warm and funny, she looks back on the eye-opening moment of watching Leontyne Price on PBS as a young kid in Mobile, Alabama, and getting an early understanding of the transformative power of art. She also traces her path from waitressing at New York drag restaurant Lucky Cheng’s, where the sisterhood of fellow trans performers helped compensate for the indignity of being treated as a novelty act for tourists. Commenting on her breakout moment, when her Orange is the New Black role landed her on the cover of Time Magazine as part of a story titled “The Transgender Tipping Point,” Cox describes the liberation of owning her big presence rather than trying to shrink and disappear.
While many of the interviewees touch on issues of abuse, rejection and discrimination, as well as the still-diffuse trans-community realities of drugs, prostitution and jail time, what unifies the subjects is their candor and proud self-acceptance, for some more hard-won than others. That stirring note is perfectly encapsulated by the Velvet Underground song “I’m Set Free” over the end credits.
Venue: Provincetown Film Festival
Production companies: Perfect Day Films, HBO Documentary Films
Cast: Kylar Broadus, Caroline Cossey, Amos Mac, Bamby Salcedo, Buck Angel, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Nicole Maines, Shane Ortega, Caitlyn Jenner, Alok Vaid-Menon, Laverne Cox
Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Interviewer: Janet Mock
Producers: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Sam McConnell, Janet Mock
Executive producers: Ingrid Duran, Catherine Pino, Chad Thompson, Tommy Walker
Directors of photography: Graham Willoughby, Joe Victorine
Music: Chris Robertson, Neal Evans
Editor: Johanna Giebelhaus
No rating, 58 minutes.