Film

How 'The Trans List' Stays True to Trans Experiences

With Janet Mock as a producer and a interviewer, and 11 diverse trans community leaders featured throughout, the documentary feels truer and richer than most.

Katelyn Burns

Among many trans people, there is an implicit understanding that most trans-focused documentaries and feature films will get at least one large thing wrong about our experiences. As just one example, consider a trope of trans films: the trans woman depicted gently fingering a frilly dress or putting on her makeup. It's a hallmark of works like The Danish Girl and others, for cisgender directors and producers who find power in proving that trans women need to wear masks of product and feminine clothing to trick the world. To trans people like me, it's insulting.

Tonight, The Trans List, the latest in director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's "List" documentaries (previous works including The Out List,The Latino List, and The Black List) premieres on HBO. It features interviews with 11 notable trans activists and artists, each in their own right a fitting illustration of the transgender tipping point in media today. But through the beautiful simplicity of its interview-driven format, Greenfield-Sanders's film manages to avoid reductive stereotypes in its portrayal of trans lives by giving the trans community power to tell its stories in their own voices.

"This film is really trans people talking in their own voice—there's no filter," said Greenfield-Sanders. "It's trans people, for the first time in an hour-long film, talking about themselves and their experiences." And in that, it is precedent-setting.

The greatest challenge faced by any trans-focused film is to depict its characters in a way that feels true to their lived experiences—in other words, by not succumbing to an exploitative cisgender gaze. That's seen in another trope of trans documentaries and films: the display of pre-transition childhood and baby photos. There's a right way and a wrong way to do this; through a cisgender gaze, it's a narrative ploy that can come across as prying, in a sense that implicitly says "we know who you really are." But in The Trans List, such photos are seen in conjunction with the actual trans people depicted, who describe their pasts in their own words. Allowing that context to flourish makes the experience entirely more powerful.

"The hope is that these films will be seen outside of the specific groups that they're about," Greenfield-Sanders said. "The Black List was beloved within the African American community, but it had an audience outside of that, and that's very important. I don't want to be preaching to the choir." It's a mark The Trans List hits as well—while playing to a large, mainstream audience, it's interesting and true to the experience of those it depicts without becoming insular.

And it does all that without losing sight of the diversity to be found within the trans community. The film ties together the common gender experiences of six trans women, five trans men and a non-binary person, but also explores such topics as a trans woman's experience taking part in drag shows and how the British colonization of India affected their society's gender norms.

The film features Janet Mock as both interviewer and producer. By placing a transgender person at its helm, the end result feels both truer to our experiences and richer for it. That's seen in other trans narratives that take pains to place the community both behind the camera and in front of it, like Transparent and Her Story. Mock, with years of experience as an editor at People and host at MSNBC, makes for an extraordinary host, who's well-connected to the dynamics of the trans community and a skilled interviewer.


Watch VICE News Tonight visit Gavin Grimm, the 17-year-old transgender boy whose fight to use the correct school bathroom was heard before the Supreme Court this Fall:


One narrative from the film that shines through is that of Nicole Maines, who transitioned as a child, using puberty blockers. It's a persistently controversial story, and with international press and government attention currently fixed on how best to treat transgender children and how schools should set policies about them, Maines's story cuts straight through to the heart of what it means to live as a trans child. She talks about her experience of having a school monitor assigned to her at all times to make sure she didn't use the girl's room at her school and memories of her case winding its way through the court system of her home state of Maine. Her case was the first to successfully argue that trans people should be covered under federal Title IX sex discrimination protections, a ruling that came down in 2013, long before the HB2 "bathroom bill" controversy.

When asked about Nicole, Greenfield-Sanders pointed to one specific line from her interview: "'When it comes to testosterone, I dodged a bullet!' That's a very powerful thing to say. And she meant it. I think that it makes you focus on how important that early transition for her was," he said. And it does—it's nothing less than a breath of fresh air to hear a young trans adult describe their own experience transitioning young, especially as column inches and online spotlight surrounding the issue are handed to almost anyone but.

The Trans List is an achievement for trans filmography, with enough material here to both enlighten cis audiences and maintain the interest of those already well-versed in the trans community—especially trans people who may be skeptical of such offerings. It's another welcome chance for trans people to finally tell our own stories, one that follows in a string of such forward-looking productions that feel long overdue.

Follow Katelyn Burns on Twiter.

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