Author of young adult novel The Art of Being Normal, Lisa Williamson, reviews transgender rights documentary The Most Dangerous Year exclusively for The Queer Review.
The year in question is 2016. So-called ‘Bathroom Bills’, aiming to repeal the rights of transgender people to use the bathroom that fits their gender identity are sweeping the USA. Vlada Knowlton’s intimate and engrossing documentary examines the impact of such proposals in her home state of Washington.
The subject matter is highly personal. Knowlton is the mother of a transgender girl and naturally protective of her daughter’s rights. She speaks movingly about her journey to accepting her child’s true self, a bumpy process that is echoed by the other parents featured, all of whom are breathtakingly honest about the realities of raising a transgender child in a world that is often hostile and ignorant to their needs. Without exception, the transgender children interviewed appear happy and well-adjusted. Encouragingly, this is backed up by recent study findings that revealed transgender children living in supportive, accepting environments are no more likely to experience depression or anxiety as their cisgender peers. This revelation is a ray of light in what is ultimately a frustrating watch.
Support for the proposed ‘bathroom bills’ is built on the irrational fear that the current law allows male predators to dress up in female clothes and enter female bathrooms with the intent of committing sexual crimes without rebuke. It’s a nonsense. As a senior Seattle police officer sensibly points out, in his 30 year career, not a single incident of this kind has been reported, not to mention the fact that such behaviour is already illegal. However, the complete absence of supporting statistics has not stopped the movement from gaining traction. For every thoughtful, clear-headed objection to the proposals, there is a red-faced man bellowing ‘think of the children!’ to disturbingly thunderous applause. On several occasions these moments are juxtaposed with quiet scenes of Knowlton and her young daughter entering and leaving a public bathroom, no commentary required.
It’s not all bad. From Republican state legislator Joe Fain’s unwavering support in the face of anger and disappointment from some of his constituents, to a local school district putting measures in place to make their schools more trans-inclusive, Knowlton provides us with tantalising glimpses of hope and progress, albeit slow and somewhat sporadic.
The comparisons to past struggles including the fight for same sex marriage, rights for the disabled and an end to racial segregation are valuable but lack the necessary detail and context to pack the maximum punch. In Knowlton’s defence, this is perhaps a whole other documentary in itself. The same can be said for the lack of conversation around violence towards the trans community, particularly trans women of colour, and the possible impact an enforced ‘bathroom bill’ could have on their safety. Having said that, Knowlton’s focus on her own child carries its own quiet power and emphasises the ultimately simple message at the heart of her film – whatever our gender identity, we all deserve the right to pee in privacy and peace.
By Lisa Williamson
The Most Dangerous Year is available on VOD and DVD in the USA now. For more information on the film visit the official website.
Lisa Williamson is the author of young adult novels, The Art of Being Normal, All About Mia and Paper Avalanche. Find out more about Lisa and her work at her website.