Later this week, Topic will premiere Trans in Trumpland, a new four-part docuseries directed by trans filmmaker Tony Zosherafatain, produced by Jamie DiNicola, and executive produced by Trace Lysette (Transparent, Hustlers), alongside trans activists and influencers Major Griffin-Gracy and Chella Man.
The series follows Iranian-American director Zosherafatain on a journey deep into America’s red states to interview four subjects about their experience being trans during the Trump administration’s bigoted and divisive reign of terror. Each episode focuses on a different trans person living in a conservative part of the country – Ash, a 13 year old trans boy in North Carolina, Rebecca, a Latinx trans woman in Texas, Evonne, a Black trans woman who runs Mississippi’s only transgender non-profit, and finally, Shane, a Native American Army vet in Idaho impacted by the trans military ban. We sat down with Tony Zosherafatain and Jamie DiNicola to talk about the show:
I loved the inclusion of Shane in the series. It’s so vital to hear from two-spirit people, and it’s a sorely underrepresented trans narrative. I was wondering how you came to know him and how did you go about finding all of the subjects? Tell me a little bit about how the project came to fruition…
Tony: the title just came to me randomly the first week Donald Trump took office in 2016. I knew I had to make something about LGBTQ Americans when he removed all mention of LGBTQ rights from the White House website during his first week in office…like completely took it off. I had a gut feeling he would target trans Americans and other disadvantaged groups. Trans in Trumpland just popped into my head and I was like, “I need to roll with this. What exactly would being trans in Trumpland mean?” The next week I thought, what I would do is, I would leave NYC and meet with the people who were going to be most affected by the state anti-trans policies and Trump’s hateful rhetoric…because I knew that I had legal protections. That’s when I started to think about Shane and the other characters. Shane specifically came to mind because I had been his internet friend for at least three years. We knew each other and were very friendly. I knew he was a dedicated trans-inclsuive activist for the military, so he was a very easy connection. I said “Hey Shane, I know you’ve been on camera before” and he agreed. I wanted to make sure that his two-spirit perspective and voice was in the series because he shows that there isn’t just this idea people that trans ppl have never existed…trans people WERE here and revered in the culture and him sharing his perspective showed me there’s a way forward. I think a lot of discourse is taken over by colonialism and thinking that trans people are this outsider identity. From there, we chose the other three characters through mutual friends and connections. We did at least a year of interviewing before we chose the four character. We wanted to make sure they were ready for this type of emotional storytelling. We started production in the fall of 2019 and got lucky – we finished in December 2019 just before the pandemic began.
It can be hard be hard to let a camera crew into your life, especially as an already vulnerable person in potentially unsafe areas. Tell me about how you and the crew established trust with the subjects?
Tony: Jamie and I are trans men and we’ve been telling trans stories for a while now. We essentially told every character, “Listen, I’m a trans person. I may not live in a red state, but you can trust me to protect your safety.” I would ask them if they wanted their last name included, or if they want to disclose information about their location. It was a very honest discourse asking “Are you ready to tell such a public story where you can get backlash from transphobic people, and if you are, what are the ways we can protect you?” That was a conversation Jamie and I had. There were a couple people we interviewed who said “I can’t be part of that, I can’t do that” and we respected that. It was a process of establishing trust through those interviews and preparing in preproduction to make sure that we knew who in their life was ok being on camera and who wasn’t.
Jamie: We both believe that trans people should be telling or at least leading trans stories – I think there was a level of trust that you can’t really manufacture.
I recognize that too often trans people are only centered within narratives of violence, though at the same time I acknowledge we live in a violent and transphobic society. That given, I’m curious if the crew encountered any unsafe situations while filming? What were the acts of solidarity and the strategies of trans resilience that made that work possible?
Tony: Going into it, Jamie and I got a lot of hateful transphobic messages and we actually had to stop our Kickstarter and fundraise privately because of it. There were messages like “Trans people should die’ and “You’re only 1% of the world population” and it was pretty crazy. During production, Jamie and I we kinda made a plan – we told the crew “If anyone asks while we’re filming, don’t say we’re we’re filming.” We didn’t tell anybody except for the characters and their families and friends…and if people would ask “What are you guys filming? Are you filming The Hunger Games” and when we were like “We cant tell you,” they’d get aggressive and wonder why. We intentionally didn’t tell anyone what we were filming because you never know how someone is going to react.
Did you learn anything new about America’s heartland that you didn’t know before, or did the experience of going to these places make you view it in a different way?
Jamie: I think I knew intellectually because I know the laws in this country and know a trans person in NYC has far many more rights than a trans person in Mississippi but actually being there and experiencing it is another thing. Just realizing the disparity in treatment based on where you are in the country is really astounding to me. I think trans people wont get full progress unless we have federal recognition and federal civil rights. I also think, besides the sad parts of it, it was amazing to see people who are changing on the grassroots level, and changing the perspective and culture in their communities…like the work Rebecca does in Texas with trans immigrants. They’re all up against these tough situations in their states and they’re changing the tide there. It was beautiful.
Tony: What Jamie says. It kinda showed me that there’s a lot of state-to-state disparities for trans rights, but I found that trans joy was a big theme. The ways that people are creating happiness and love and connections in their community was something I didn’t expect as much in these heartlands in deeply conservative states. Even in Mississippi, how Evonne is part of this church community and has created this non-profit that helps people there – it showed me that trans people…we exist across time and space. We belong everywhere and there’s people that are accepting no matter where you are. It was really awesome.
I was really happy to see the inclusion of Ash in the documentary, especially his practice of Taekwondo. It’s great to see trans people empowered in their own self-defense. There’s a sweet moment between you and Ash where you discuss your own experience as coming out as trans. Are you staying in touch and will you continue to be a mentor to him?
Tony: I loved interacting with Ash and his mom. It was hard to keep back all the tears. I didn’t have a supportive mom and I was disowned for two years by my family. He and I are really connected and I want to keep talking to him and mentor him especially as he navigates college as a next step. I really like that trans youth…they’re going to move the ball forward. I’m really excited for their generation and feel like they could get full equality.
There’s some really beautiful cinematography in the series. Tell me a little bit about the director of photography and how their work shaped the visual palate…
Tony: Jamie and I loved our DP Leroy Farrell from the moment we met him. We interviewed him in a Bushwick cafe and just got really good vibes. We’d seen his other work at Sundance, and he had a really nice inclusiveness and awareness as a cis straight man, and I just trusted him. He and I have a similar vision for poetic visuals and how to embrace the nature around a character. My strategy going in would be to discuss with him previous references from films, and ideas I had about really bringing out the colors and the mood of the scene..and honing in about what’s unique about each state and each character’s space.
Jamie: Tony and I did heavy research looking at different documentaries and aesthetics and styles so we could communicate with him.
How do you feel about the current media climate in terms of trans representation? There has been a movement of trans centred productions, from creative teams to trans actors playing trans roles. Pose was a huge hit, and Disclosure premiered less than a year ago. Have you noticed any positive impact since then? How do you think these movements lead to trans inclusion within the film/tv industry at large?
Jamie: Tony and I talk about this all the time because it’s something we have to think about and negotiate between..like…are there certain jobs we’re going to take because they’re good for our careers, but we’re also going to be tokenized in the process? Are we being hired just because we’re trans, or because we’re good filmmakers? I’ve had situations in the past where I’m asked to be part of a project and it feels like it’s merely just because of the creditibility that it lends to the cis production company. It’s a fine line that we have to balance and I hope that it becomes an absolute standard in the industry that you don’t make a film about trans people without having a majority of people behind the lens also be trans people. I think it’s astounding that it has to be discussed – it’s should be something thats obvious, but there’s so many cis white straight men that make films about trans people and then their careers skyrocket and it’s really upsetting. I think Tony and I are doing the most we can to combat that.
Speaking of Disclosure, what’s the #1 most offensive depiction of transness on film that you can think of, or one that still disgusts you to this day?
Tony: The Danish Girl comes to mind. I think that comes to mind because of the idea that a cis man can put on a wig and makeup and become a trans woman. At that point there were so many trans actresses that could have played that role – Jen Richards comes to mind, or Jamie Clayton. That gig could have gone to one of those actresses and furthered their careers. There were some trans actors in the film, like my friend Jake [Graf]. He played a cis male and he’s trans man, so that was great. Even thinking about Disclosure – it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. I think Sam Feder and Laverne Cox put a lot of work into it.
Jamie: I was thinking of The Silence of the Lambs. Everyone talks about that one, but it was a long time ago. Every time I rewatch a movie from the 90s, I find myself waiting for the trans joke. What was my little childhood brain having to digest at such a young age? It’s unfortunate that in so many movies from that time, there’s some kind of transphobic joke.
So, trans people and cis allies will be happy to watch the show, and I think these stories of trans endurance will be empowering to the queer community. How do we get transphobes or people who simply have never met a trans person to tune in?
Tony: I think what will happen is…when trans ppl and cis friends & allies watch this, they might recommend it to a family member or friend who’s transphobic and and say like, “Hey, listen. This will show you that trans people live down the street. They’re your neighbor. They go to your church.” I think it will reach those people steadily…
Form hiring Rachel Levine to overturning the trans exclusion policy in military, and an executive order on preventing/combating discrimination, the Biden administration took immediate actions to right some of the wrongs from the Trump years. What will being Trans in Bidenland be like?
Tony: I think itll be much better, especially on a federal level – that top-down effect that’ll hopefully trickle down to the states. I felt relieved when he won – I was like, shouting outside my apartment like “yesssss.” I’ve been feeling a lot calmer. I’m trans and also Iranian-American, so it felt like Trump was attacking me every day. I’m hopeful for the advancement of federal trans rights. He already overturned the trans military ban and I’m hoping he’ll pass a federal mandate that’ll every state have to cover trans hormones and surgery. That would make me so happy. It’s an issue we didn’t explore so much in Trans in Trumpland, but all four subjects said “I would really love for my state to cover trans health insurance.”
Jamie: You see how trans rights are really dependent on who’s in office and that’s really upsetting to me. It shows the stage that the trans rights movement is at, and how far we have to go until we have a more fundamental set of rights. Right now it feels like whoever is in office, they just write an executive order that sets us back four years and then we have to start all over again for the next four years. I think that true progress won’t be made until federal laws are passed.
What’s next for TransWave Films? Can you tell us about any other projects you have lined up?
Jamie: I’m nearly done with a script I’ve written about a trans activist from the 1980s – Tony and I are pitching that around to different agencies to see if we can get that funded. I think it’s really imperative to remember the people who came before us because Tony and I wouldn’t be here doing what we’re doing if it weren’t for those trans activists. I very much want to honor one of those people with a non-traditional biopic. We’re also developing a reality show.
Tony: Ditto to what Jamie said. The biopic will come first, and the reality show will be a queer trans dating show. We’re also working on an abstract horror film based on an experience that happened to us while renting a cabin with friends in upstate New York – it’s really creepy.
Yesss to more queer genre films! Michael Apted’s Up series reinterviewed its subjects every seven years and Monika Treut’s new documentary Genderation meets back up with the people from Gendernauts some 20 years later. Can we expect a check-in with the folks from Trans in Trumpland?
Tony: Definitely. It’s something I’ve thought about and considered doing down the line, especially for Ash. He’s super smart – he wants to be an epidemiologist and he’s probably going to cure cancer. Or Evonne in Mississippi – how will he non-profit be going in ten years? It’s something that’s in my mind – I’d be open to it doing that to see what they’re up to and how they’ve evolved.
Trans in Trumpland be available on February 25th to US and Canadian audiences on Topic through Topic.com and Topic channels through AppleTV & iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android, and Amazon Prime Video Channels.