At the start of each of the four episodes in the new docu-series Trans in Trumpland, streaming now on Topic, we hear the unsettling words of candidate Trump vowing, “I will do everything in my power to protect our L…G…B…T…Q citizens”, as he struggles to utter those letters, followed by snippets of news reports of what we knew was really coming, his administration’s anti-trans actions following his inauguration. The series’ director, Tony Zosherafatain who is trans himself, tells us that he had completed his physical transition just days before Trump came into office and the resulting wave of emboldened transphobia in the nation inspired him to take a cross-country trip to visit four of the states where trans lives were most under threat; North Carolina, Texas, Mississippi, and Idaho.
His first stop is rural North Carolina, where Tony meets high schooler Ash, who came out as trans to his accepting mother Daisy when he was 12-years-old and began transitioning at 15 with her help and support. As Tony shares some of his own story, Ash confides in us about the trauma of being dead-named and misgendered on his first day of school, inadvertently outting him. Heartbreakingly he talks about the all too common sense of desperation and suicidal thoughts he had when he was younger and the relief and liberation he felt when he came out to his mother. Outside this loving family unit, anti-LGBTQ sentiment simmers, as we hear news reports of the state’s notorious HB2 bathroom bill, signed into law in March 2016, which prohibited trans folks from using the restroom facility that aligns with their gender identity. Ash shares his personal experience of being so scared to go to the bathroom at school that he would avoid drinking fluids to the point of being too dehydrated to concentrate in class. Again with the support of Daisy, Ash legally changed his name, something that was of vital importance to him but a process which “terrified” him because it meant having to go to court and then subsequently publicly release his name and address and reason for the name change, which he feared might result in hate crime against him.
Just as Ash’s story takes us behind the headlines about anti-trans legislation to its every day implications, so does the story of a Latinx trans woman, Rebecca, put a human face to immigration statistics and reports about ICE’s treatment of its trans detainees. Brought to the US by her mother when she was ten-years-old, Rebecca talks of feeling safe within Houston’s Hispanic community despite the dangers for trans folks living in the state. She shares in harrowing detail her experience of being arrested, shackled, and detained with men, while bing denied access to her hormone medication, referred to only by a number, and repeatedly told “you’re nothing but a man” by the immigration officers. In a particularly poignant scene Tony and Rebecca stand by part of Trump’s border wall and discuss what it symbolizes to them, as we hear the former president’s dehumanizing, racist rhetoric murmur on the soundtrack. Touchingly, we see Rebecca spending time with her extended family, clearly adored by her nephews and niece, and embraced by her religious mother who had initially struggled to come to terms with her daughter’s transition.
Next Zosherafatain heads to Jackson Mississippi to meets a Black trans woman, LGBTQ activist Evonne. When her friend Mesha Caldwell, a trans woman whom she talks about as a “sweet, kind person who opened up her heart to everybody” was shot to death in 2017, Evonne says that the funeral home refused to touch her body, so she dressed her herself with the help of a friend. The tragedy of Mesha’s murder inspired Evonne to start the state’s only transgender non-profit to benefit Mississippi’s severely neglected LGBTQ community. Religion is important to Evonne and it’s moving to see her lovingly welcomed by an LGBTQ-inclusive church led by a gay pastor. Evonne clearly means a lot to those in her community as evidenced by Jazielle who was thrown out by her mother when she was diagnosed as HIV+ at 15 and taken in by Evonne. Living at the intersection of racism, transphobia, and misogyny in the state, Evonne talks of feeling “hated” by the white Republicans who run Mississippi.
In the final episode, as Zosherafatain travels to Idaho he poses the question, “Did our nation once have a place for trans people?” We’re introduced to Shane Ortega, a two-spirit indigenous disabled veteran who became one of the public faces of opposition to Trump’s trans military ban. Shane views the Trump presidency as merely “a symptom of what has been a reality” for indigenous folks “since 1492”, and that he’s a representation of the America that is “a colonial occupying force on this land”. In one of the most powerful episodes of the series Zosherafatain expands the definition of America itself, with Shane linking colonization to transphobia, pointing out that “trans people are considered sacred” by indigenous people. Acknowledging that although Trump might not be in power anymore, Zosherafatain points out that he received more than 74 million votes in November 2020, with all four states featured in this series voting to reelect him, so in essence Trumpland and what that phrase suggests, continues beyond the man’s hold on the reigns of power in Washington.
As Zosherafatain reunites with his own family after years of rejection and estrangement, he continues to search for his place in his country as a trans man. With Trans in Trumpland, he offers us four intimate portraits of trans resilience and joy in the face of state-sponsored adversity that are empowering and inspiring, and ultimately hopeful in that the love and acceptance these figures have found for themselves and from those around them can light a way forward for society at large.
By James Kleinmann
All four episodes of Trans in Trumpland are on Topic now .