A new documentary film explores the lives of transgender kids at different stages in their lives, examining how they navigate their everyday lives while transitioning.
“Transhood” follows the stories of four trans kids in Kansas City, beginning at ages four, seven, 12, and 15. The documentary was filmed over the course of five years, starting in 2014, and watches as the kids redefine their “coming of age” as the face the challenges they encounter.
Director Sharon Liese, a Kansas City resident, learned about a transgender youth support group in her area in 2013.
“Living in the middle of the country, it was a surprise but I was happy that there was support available for this community right where I live,” she explained. “I got in touch with them, went to the support group, and fell in love with the families. I was impressed with how they’re navigating this. There is not a lot of trans representation in media, so I knew I had to tell their stories.”
The documentary follows four-year-0ld Phoenix, seven-year-old Avery, 12-year-old Jay, and 15-year-old Leena. As the years pass, each kid finds their own path in a conservative part of the country. While they face traditional growing pains like acne, break-ups, and sibling rivalries, they are also faced with body dysphoria, threats of violence, and making life-altering decisions their cisgender peers do not face.
For Liese, filming over a time lapse was crucial to telling this story.
“We wanted to tell a story that was told over time,” said Liese. “The time lapse component was important. In 2014, people were just beginning to tell stories of trans people and youth, but it was short-lived, a snapshot of their lives. I like a longitudinal approach and to see these kids’ experiences.”
“Sharon brought us a sizzle reel with two of the four cast members and we were riveted,” said Sasha Alpert, a producer on “Transhood.” “It was so well done and we were particularly drawn to the kids. The fact that they were not from the coast was interesting. The struggles that these families had to deal with was not known to me.”
The documentary later caught the eye of Kimberly Reed, a film director known for her documentary “Prodigal Sons,” about her trip to a high school reunion in Montana and hopes for a reconciliation there with a long-estranged adopted brother. As a transgender woman, Reed recognized how helpful “Transhood” could be for trans kids to watch. In time, she signed on as an executive producer.
“I wish that I had been able to see this film when I was young,” said Reed. “When I made the film ‘Prodigal Sons,’ I did Q&A’s all over the world and one of the most common questions I got was from parents of trans kids who didn’t know which way to turn or find resources. They sought advice from me, but it was very clear that if there were a film out there that depicted the lives of trans kids and everything they were going through — their triumphs and their defeats — that would be a really good portrait for them to refer to.”
Though the documentary was filmed over five years, Liese was able to film key moments in the kids’ lives because she is a Kansas City resident. Her proximity gives “Transhood” a more intimate look at the everyday lives of these kids — and as a result, some of the kids’ most difficult moments are caught on camera.
“Whenever something was going on, she was able to head over there and film it,” said Alpert. “You end up getting more intimate moments than a producer from New York flying in for six days. The access was incredible. There were so many key moments that we only knew the day before that they were going to happen.”
“In the edits that I saw, it was clear that Sharon’s patient footage would be able to tell a complex story like that,” said Reed. “I usually quote Roger Ebert when he says that films are empathy machines. That’s what film does best, to see the world through someone else’s eyes, especially when trans people and trans kids are misunderstood and, frankly, being used as social wedge issues.”
Liese, Reed ,and Alpert agree that in “Transhood” telling the stories of kids was paramount, emphasizing that they know more about who they are than adults do much of the time.
“Young kids up until teens go through so much change, particularly in how they feel and their outlook on life,” said Alpert. “There is so much evolution and change as the kids get older. Adults usually self-actualize. Kids are struggling and stretching, trying things out and figuring things out, and are usually more daring than adults.”
“Our kids were so in touch with who they were that some adults don’t get,” added Liese.
“These kids know who they are at a very young age, and they are very certain about gender identity,” said Reed. ”To force them to be a gender they are not is cruel, and it’s bad policy, talking about the level of laws that are affecting these everyday lives. And it’s also bad parenting to force them into a gender that they are clearly aren’t.”
The documentary airs on HBO the day before Transgender Awareness Week, which begins November 13 and culminates on November 20 with Transgender Day of Remembrance. Following the premiere of “Transhood,” HBO will air a Q&A that discusses the documentary as well as looks at where the cast is now. The talk will be moderated by a member of GLSEN, which works to end discrimination, harassment, and bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression in K-12 school and on whose board Reed sits. HBO will also host a landing page of resources for the LGBTQ community, including links to support organizations and resources for transgender individuals.
“It’s important to know that we take the responsibility of telling stories about trans youth very seriously,” said Alpert. “That’s really important to us, we took that responsibility seriously being cisgender women.”
“We take allyship so seriously,” Liese said. “We want others to be able to understand and empathize with the kids in the doc. We hope there are kids and families who see the film and see a part of themselves in the cast. The cast is super excited for the world to see their stories after so many years.“
TRANSHOOD | Directed by Sharon Liese | Premieres on HBO, Nov. 12, 9 p.m.; streams afterward on HBO Max