The four-part documentary series “Trans in Trumpland” is the brainchild of Tony Zosherafatain, a New York-based filmmaker who finished transitioning just days before Trump was elected president. Although the twice-impeached ex-president stated, “I will do everything in my power to protect LGBTQ citizens,” Zosherafatain became frustrated with how LGBTQ rights in general — and trans rights in particular — were eroded over the past four years. His series profiles four trans people from red states dealing with issues of personal and political discrimination.
Zosherafatain asserts that what he learned on his journey across America “would forever change my view of America and my place in it.” It would be gratifying if “Trans in Trumpland” had that great an impact on everyone who watches this series. Most viewers will likely be justly moved by some of the lives on display. The four stories, each told in under half an hour, gloss over key issues, from the HB2 Bathroom Bill in North Carolina and the trans military ban, to the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the treatment of immigrants.
Each episode focuses on an individual who comes into contact with a particular topic. Ash, a teenager in North Carolina, poignantly discusses being outed in high school when he is identified by his dead name. He receives tremendous support from his mother, Daisy, who justly worries about her son’s health as he seeks medication and struggles with dysphoria since coming out at 12. There are also discussions about the high suicide rate for trans youth, as well as Ash’s pointed comment about possible dehydration because he won’t drink at school to avoid having to use the bathroom. But this episode also includes some nice moments of Ash and the filmmaker together, affirming their lives, and the freedom they feel being out.
Zosherafatain shares his experiences to compare and contrast with those of each of his subjects, and his camaraderie with his subjects is endearing. (The filmmaker was estranged from his mother after he came out as trans, but they reconnected a few years before her death.) Such moments refocus the issue-oriented stories and emphasize the power of visibility and community.
“Trans in Trumpland” also scores points for diversity in that the series features a trans teenager and three non-white trans people. There are multiple mentions of bullying and abuse, difficulties of being accepted by others, and demands for respect and dignity. But what comes across is each subject’s resilience.
In the second, and arguably best episode, Rebecca, a Latinx immigrant, talks eloquently about how she feels safe in a space where she can be trans and be in the Hispanic community. She experienced cruel and inhumane treatment when she spent six months in an ICE detention center. It is painful for her to revisit the facility — which she does with Zosherafatain. She conveys some of the real concerns she faced as she sought asylum following her release. One of the most interesting scenes in the series has Zosherafatain and Rebecca standing along the border wall commenting about the fear the wall causes and how it is a waste of money. Trump’s rhetoric about Mexicans is overheard in the episode, which will cause most viewers to have righteous anger.
Rebecca’s story also includes her relationship with her family, which is loving but complicated. It is interesting to note that in order to visit her brother, Rebecca has to cross an internal immigration checkpoint.
The third episode is perhaps the most joyous, but that is because its subject, Evonne, has such a gregarious personality. She is a trans activist who cares for the members of her community, such as her friend Jazielle, who was kicked out of her home at 15 after contracting HIV. Evonne, who has also been shunned by her family, is a proud “gay mamma,” helping folks like Jazielle go to school and have a place to live.
Evonne even turns the sad loss of a dear friend, into a positive; it helped her find the courage to stand up and assert her authentic, unapologetic self. Evonne’s inspiring story features her shopping — she dresses fabulously — and referencing (Ivana) Trump, but she is also seen visiting a church with an out gay pastor who helps her with the spiritual side of her life in a part of the country where religion can deny rights to the queer community. Moreover, living in Mississippi, Evonne also acknowledges the enslavement of her relatives in the past, and the sometimes harsh ways she has been treated in her life.
Rounding out the series is Zosherafatain’s visit to Shane, a two-spirit individual, in Idaho. A retired, disabled vet, Shane talks about the real (versus perceived) costs of keeping trans people in the military. But mostly, Shane addresses the polarization of America and the history of colonialism, suggesting that there once was a possibly better time and a place for trans people in this country. It is an interesting idea that could have been more thoroughly pursued. Instead, Shane is seen talking about fellow indigenous people and his environment. Zosherafatain is viewed smoking under a billboard that asks about heaven and hell in a reflective moment.
“Trans in Trumpland” is, like its subjects, engaging, but it is not especially provocative. It may be that Zosherafatain needed more time to do a deeper dive into the real issues, especially since the focus here is very one-sided. This series, however, merely scratches the surface, leaving audiences wanting more.
“Trans in Trumpland” | Directed by Tony Zosherafatain | Premiering February 25 on Topic.
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