In the late 90s, British filmmaker Fiona Dawson was volunteering in clinics, helping to organise conferences and seminars for migrant workers in Bangladesh. In the evenings she’d shoot the breeze, drink Heineken and play pool with a US marine who was stationed nearby. The two fell in love, got married, and in 2000 Fiona relocated to Houston, Texas. Not long after the move, the marriage ended and Fiona came out as bisexual, but her connection to the military remained. Working for the Human Rights Campaign, one of the US’ largest national LGBTQ advocacy organisations, Fiona was one of a collective of campaigners fighting to repeal the Clinton-era policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” If you could reform the military, the thinking was, it’d make society as a whole more willing to accept the LGBTQ community. The military had allowed African Americans to serve well before the passing of the Civil Rights Act, women were guaranteed equal pay to their male counter parts, so it seemed like as good a place as any to make their mark.
By 2011, after decades of campaigning, the repeal had finally passed – lesbian, gay and bisexual military personnel would be allowed to serve their country openly. Transgender troops, however, were not included in the new legislation. With an estimated 15,000 transgender people working in the US military (making it the largest employer of trans folk in the US), and with transgender troops twice as likely to serve as cisgender citizens, Fiona decided to set about cataloguing the work of SPARTA (Service Members, Partners, Allies For Respect And Tolerance For All) as they fought for the rights of transgender service members.
The result is Transmilitary, a documentary more than six years in the making which captures the highs and lows of a dedicated group of activists as they lobby for the recognition they deserve. It’s a rousing and necessary feature that’s fundamentally grounded in the honesty, openness and courage of its four lead characters – Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Corporal Laila Villanueva, Captain Jennifer Peace and First Lieutenant El Cook. Hopeful and heartbreaking in equal measure, Transmilitary reminds us of the power of personal stories to affect political change. Ahead of the film’s screening at this year’s BFI Flare, we caught up with Fiona to find out more about the film’s origins and her hopes for the future.
Can you remember what it was about this issue that first made you want to start documenting it?
The repeal went into effect in 2011, and by that time I’d decided that I wanted to redirect my career into media production. I moved to New York to pursue that dream and it was around that time I realised trans people were still banned from serving. I kind of felt ashamed, because over those years working to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” I, like many others, had always said LGBT people needed to be able to serve openly in the military. We’d kind of just brushed over the fact that trans people were still banned. As an advocate I felt strongly that we needed to finish that job. I had several friends who were trans, a couple of whom were in the military and we came together in October 2012. In my mind, that’s when Transmilitary started. I began comparing and contrasting the US and UK – in the UK trans people could serve and transition in the military since 1999, even before lesbian, gay and bi people could serve. I found a sailor in the US and a sailor in the UK, in the air force in the UK and airforce US, I found people who were similar demographic, similar age, rank, years of service, comparing their experiences. I wanted to demonstrate how in the UK when people could serve as their known gender, when they were supported in their transition, when they were allowed to get on with their job, they performed, they excelled. In the US, even though everything else was equal, they had to serve in silence. In early 2015 I was approached by somebody at the New York Times, they commissioned me, and my now director/producer Gabe Silverman and Jamie Coughlin, and the three of us made a short op-doc called Transgender, At War And In Love. That came out June 2015, it had some success, it helped raise the issue, it moved forward the advocacy work, it was Emmy nominated. We continued working on the feature because we realised this story was still unfolding. The service members were allowing us to film them around top secret meetings they were having inside the Pentagon, they were willing to let us come and film in their homes, they became our chosen family. We thought we had a nice happy ending and then Donald Trump tweets about it...
I felt sick watching it, because it builds to such a happy climax, but all the while you know what’s coming...
So in May of 2017, we actually had the early stages of a rough cut and had just gotten picked up by the IFP Documentary Lab, here in New York. Then that summer, as we thought we were wrapping up the post-production I remember I was about to teach, I was starting a class at nine o’clock in the morning – and of course when you’re teaching you have to put your phone down – and Donald Trump tweeted 40 minutes before the start of my class. My phone just blew up.
How did those tweets change the film and what you’d been working on?
Trump tweeting raised this to a much higher issue of concern in mainstream media. All along it was hard to get media’s attention, to raise awareness of the problem, but it’s interesting to see how it’s become such a mainstream concern, especially for LGBTQ advocacy. The very real effect for our service members is that these people's lives are in turmoil, up and down every single day. Luckily many of the people you see in our film are somewhat protected because they’re so far along in their transition, but SPARTA which has 800+ members now, has a lot of the younger members who are under serious threat from being discharged. We thought the film was going to end up with claps and cheers but we had to cut the wedding scene right down, it was the quickest video clip ever! My hope is that Transmilitary will reach audiences that wouldn’t normally watch a film about trans people. In America 78% of Americans think that being a military officer is a prestigious job, and so if they already have respect for military officers, surely they can see Captain Jennifer Peace as an officer first, someone who excels at her job, who just happens to be transgender. By trying to reach that part of America, we can show that trans people are not scary men, dressed as women that are going to attack your children in the bathroom. We’re trying to completely debunk that myth. We don’t want it to be too political, and in fact originally, we had no intention of putting Trump in the film, he just backed his way into it.
How did you film transgender troops whilst they’re banned from serving? A lot of it was shot on GoPros and through Skype interviews, I’m assuming that decision was made because you can’t follow troops with a camera crew without drawing attention to them.
We had to film and document with whatever we had. Certainly with Logan, he deployed in the fall of 2014 and arrived back in May of 2015, that was before the New York Times short film. I had raised a bit of money, and I did a shoot with him and his family, having discussions and saying goodbye, those ended up not being in the film, but that helped direct him to capture as much as he could on his GoPro and phone whilst he was away. Dr Jesse Ehrenfeld who was on deployment with Logan, he’s openly gay himself – he found out that Logan was trans – and luckily he had a hobby of filming and taking photos on his DSLR. We ended up directing Jesse to film Logan. They had to smuggle Logan into Jesse’s bedroom, they couldn’t be discovered because people would think it’s weird that the two of them are hanging out when their rank is so different. Jesse would be shooting on his DSLR and I’d be on Skype at West Point, sitting in the lobby of a hotel interviewing Logan as Jesse shoots. That’s just what you had to do! When I see the film at festivals, I think, wow! That grass roots effort is just so worth it. It reminds you, if you believe in the story, just use whatever tools you’ve got and get it done.
It gives it so much more intimacy as well. One thing you mentioned, was shooting footage with Logan and his family, there are lots of photos and footage from the childhoods of the service people you feature. Did you have reservations about that? Would it be similar to using a dead name perhaps?
I love that you brought this up, because I work on a team, and on a team different people have different opinions. We have to find consensus and compromise. Not everyone is going to be happy with every decision we make. My personal opinion, as an advocate, was that you would never use ‘before’ photographs. I had to fight against that in the New York Times piece as well. Using before photographs is like using a dead name, it invites people to gawp at how ‘girly’ they looked and how ‘masculine’ they look now. That’s a trope that I’ve tried to fight against. In the early years of the project, other media would find a story and tell it, going down these lines where they show a trans man shaving as a way to validate his masculinity. The thought from others was that it was important to show the child’s relationship to the adult-self, and to the parents. From the outside their lives looked like ‘typical’ everyday lives, they’re similar to everyone else. We chose photos when they were really young, or just a year or two prior, we didn’t do any of the adolescence, or them going through transition. We have really strong relationships with the participants, so we’d request photographs, explain the purpose and ask what they felt comfortable sharing. They gave whatever they wanted or cared to share. Then we told them what we’d selected and showed what went in, and asked are you ok with it? What I found fascinating over the years, in the beginning I was really vocal against anyone using before pictures, and my friends like Logan and Laila and Jen, would agree. As time goes on, and somebody gets more comfortable with their transition, they actually start sharing the photos themselves. I can understand it in the journey of life, it seems to me that people get so comfortable with who they are today that they take pride in where they’ve come from. Now I’m a little bit more open-minded, but I think if it was my decision alone I wouldn’t have shown them.
Working in an occupation that has such strict gender binaries, do you think it encourages trans service people to present their gender quite strictly?
As an advocate I understand that gender is not a binary, gender is a spectrum and we have so many different, beautiful stops along that spectrum. It starts at one end and ends at the other. Using this film as a piece of advocacy, the original intention was to reach an audience that doesn’t understand gender in that way whatsoever, who may not be that open in embracing LGBTQ people and who are very firmly stuck in a gender binary. The military is the most gender binary workplace you’ll find, if you’re a male, you’ve got to do this, if you’re a female you’ve got to do that. It depends on the audience that we’re talking about, if we talking about the audience that still sees gender as a binary, who need to understand who trans people are, they can relate to Logan because Logan fits into their understanding of what gender is, and I think it’s the same for all the characters in the film. We specifically wanted to demonstrate that Leila is a woman, that Jen is a woman and try to understand them. If we can get the audience to appreciate that, then hopefully in later years they can understand that gender is a spectrum. Of course there are people who identify as gender neutral, genderqueer, somewhere in between. I understand gender is three things – who you understand yourself to be, how you present yourself to the world and how the world sees you. Not everybody wants the world to see them as masculine as Logan, but that’s another story that needs to be told. Not everybody who joins the military and who identifies as trans does identify in such a gender binary, and that’s another issue that the US military needs to tackle. Once the ban has been lifted, the next thing we need to focus on will be recognition for gender neutral, genderqueer people. An interesting side note I want to add, Jen Peace told me a couple of weeks ago, just before this new ban was announced, that the army made a decision to change physical training standards to move away from a gender standard to move towards a performance standard, regardless of gender.
Their families are so supportive, it was so heartening, but also forces you to acknowledge that even people with such a supportive environment are finding life difficult when they don’t get the recognition they deserve. I can only imagine what it’s like for those who don’t have such a supportive family network.
We wanted to move away from the tropes you usually see about trans people – here’s this lonely trans person who has no support and is treated like a pariah in society. That’s how trans people have been shown in film and television. We wanted to demonstrate that’s not the story that has to be told all the time, there are actually a lot of family and friends who do support them in their transition. We wanted to use these families as role models and inspiration, to show that, whilst you can acknowledge a struggle, it doesn’t have to be like that. Trans people aren’t just isolated in a corner where no one wants them. They’re thriving and living just as much as we are. That’s not everyone’s story, through SPARTA we know of a lot of people who do struggle, but that’s not the only story.
What do you hope this film will achieve?
We’re very fortunate that we do have distribution now, and, as a Brit, I’m so looking forward to bringing it home to the BFI Flare. I want everyone to access the film, regardless of who they are or how they identify. For the LGBTQ community, the people who get it, support it and understand it, I want them to get their friends and family to see it. One review said, this is the film to show your anti-LGBTQ uncle during the holidays. I want LGBTQ people to use Transmilitary as a way of educating and inspiring people that don’t get it. Outside of that, we’re doing a private screening on Capitol Hill for lawmakers and their staff, showing the film to Congress as a way of providing an educational tool for lawmakers. We want to raise awareness at the top levels of government in the US. I believe that our media partner GLAAD sent copies of the film to every member of the Supreme Court. The court could rule with or against us, so we’re trying to get them to watch the film. We’re really being very unabashed about how we use and promote Transmilitary to prevent the ban from going into place. Right now it feels like the best tool we have.