We've Been Around is a five-part docu-series that looks at the lives of trans people throughout history, including the iconic Stonewall protestors Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera; the lesser known Lucy Hicks Anderson, who was a black trans socialite in Kentucky and California during Prohibition; Albert Cashier, a transgender man who fought for the Union Army during the American Civil War; and Lou Sullivan, the first trans man who was openly gay, and denied gender reassignment surgery because of his sexual orientation.
Directed by artist and Emmy Award-nominated Transparent co-producer Rhys Ernst, the project asserts that trans pioneers have always been fighting for their lives—quietly and not so quietly, noticed or not. "We've been here, throughout time, often hidden in plain sight," Ernst says in a press release. "These stories show us just how important it is to share our histories."
We talked to Ernst, who has exhibited work at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, about his first foray into documentary filmmaking, the importance of a trans lens on history, and why this project is personal. (You can watch all the short films in the series over at the Advocate.)
BROADLY: I just finished watching your documentary series and was really moved by it. We've Been Around was originally premiered in concert with the release of The Danish Girl on DVD. How did this collaboration with Focus Features come about?
I consulted on The Danish Girl, and basically in that process I had been working with Focus Features directly. We kind of then about how it would be really great to put a spotlight on the fact that trans people have existed throughout history. I think that's really a piece that's been missing from the conversation right now and that there's sort of an impression that this is a fad or a recent phenomenon. This has been happening throughout history and across cultures.
Focus has also been really supportive of other trans initiatives. They recently announced a talent development program and a $10,000 scholarship for trans filmmakers through Film Independent in Los Angeles.
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Watching the short documentaries, I couldn't help but think about the amount of research that went into this project to be able to tell these stories that haven't really been told before.
There was a lot of research done on this project. We brought on Susan Stryker, who is a renowned trans scholar, particularly in regard to trans history. She wrote the book called Transgender History, so she was great to have on the project as a consulting producer. We also worked with historian Monica Roberts, who runs the blog TransGriot.
The films took several months from research to completion. The research was a huge part of that. For instance, some of the material we had to gather on WIlmer "Little Ax" Broadnax, [a popular black gospel singer from the 1940s to the 1970s, who was also a transgender man], I don't think had ever been totally put together before. We were finding and pulling some primary sources from music historians and things that were sort of lost to time in somebody's filing cabinet. We almost thought we found Little Ax's niece, but then it wasn't actually her. There was actually a lot of sleuthing in some instances.
I'd love to talk about the documentary on Albert Cashier, the US Civil War soldier who was a trans man. He served the Union Army, was beloved by his fellow soldiers, lived as man his entire life, and then in old age, after he was outed as female-bodied due to an injury, he was committed to a women's insane asylum—where he died—and forced to wear a dress. I found his story particularly haunting, especially due the fact that to this day he is still misgendered. The National Parks Service calls him "one of the most famous female soldiers," but your doc seems to really make it clear that he was a trans man.
I'm glad you brought up how he's misgendered so much. That's absolutely true. While during the Civil War you did have women who dressed as men to fight or to be with their partners or to access what male gender privilege could grant them, you also did have trans men. Through a backwards lens it's hard to discern one case from another, especially using scholarship that didn't have an LGBT lens. It's really unfortunate that without a trans affirming gaze, Albert's story is often retold as a woman who was so patriotic that she dressed a man to fight for her country. But that's missing the goal of Albert's story.
What really clarified to us that Albert was trans was that he lived as a male before and after the Civil War—and to his death. That to me is the part that's overlooked when he's conflated with women of the time who fought in the war by presenting as men.
It's great that your series can help bring that transgender historical framework into the mainstream. As I was watching the films, I was just thinking how they would fit in perfectly with the sort of slideshow and narration-based videos they show to kids in history class, but at the same time they're not sanitized in any way. Was that educational aesthetic intentional?
I'm a filmmaker who is coming from a more experimental and narrative background and some of my earlier work used a lot of mixed media, lo-fi animation, and slides. I've used this aesthetic in my work a long time ago and I'm sort of revisiting it. I definitely can imagine these films being shown in an educational format. That would be lovely.
When we made the film S.T.A.R., that focuses on [trans activists] Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, Susan Stryker and I talked a lot about the history of the Stonewall Riots. One of the questions about that history that often comes up is who threw the first brick—was it Sylvia or Marsha? Were they even there? There's this disputed, complicated, and murky history about who is responsible for this moment, to the point where it becomes mythology. The aesthetic of that film—a coloring book come to life—was a way to playfully present this material. It's like storybook for kids that tells this mythology, but yet it's very radical. I love that mixture in tone. I mean, Sylvia's [Christopher Street Liberation Day] speech that we excerpted for the film is totally amazing. There's a part where she says, "I've been beaten, I've lost my job, I've lost my apartment—and you all treat me this way? What the fuck is wrong with you?" She's like, cursing at the audience and fighting for her life. It's so gripping and so relevant, still. This was not a fun-and-games type of story, but at the same time Marsha and Sylvia named their organization "star." Whenever you see pictures of them, especially Marsha, they were always dressed to the nines and looked fun and vivacious. They had a great sensibility about being in the world and had a sense of play. So when making these films, echoing that mixed tone was exciting for me.
From the point of view of an artist, whose intention is probably not necessarily to "educate" people on trans issues, what was your approach to this project?
This is certainly the most documentary and research-based thing I've ever made before. All films take a village but this one took many villages. It was a very collaborative process where I really tried to engage the community. I brought on a lot of trans collaborators in all kinds of different roles and I reached out to a lot of people of color to get their perspective.
This project was a labor of love and very much from the community. There's so little out there on trans history. I just found this project really interesting and exciting. For me, the series came out of another project I did for Visual AIDS on Lou Sullivan, who is also the subject of one of the films for We've Been Around; that was the first time I made work around a trans person from history and it was about trying to find my trans masculine elders. Personally, as a trans person, I've been very lucky to be around feminine elders. I think there's been more access to that, which is has been wonderful and really important for me. But I have been frustrated at times that I've had such a hard time finding a trans masculine equivalent. What's trans masculine history? Who are those people? Where even are the older trans men now? I don't have anyone to look to. For a number of reasons, trans masculine people have been much more invisible and much more silenced in their histories. With this project, I wanted to look towards my own trans history and forbearers to see where I come from and where we're headed.
You can watch the videos on the Advocate here.