Male or female?
Boy or girl?
Most of us can answer that question without a second thought, but for some people, the answer isn’t so simple. American Transgender takes us firsthand into the daily lives of three individuals—Clair, Jim, and Eli—who each identify with a different gender from the one in which they were born and raised. We witness their struggles and triumphs, and experience their hopes and fears. How do they manage at work, build careers, maintain friendships, and nurture lasting, intimate partnerships? Each of the characters in the film tells their story in their own words as we follow them through life’s daily battles and victories, both large and small.
The following is a Q&A with the three characters in the film: Clair Farley, who was born male and transitioned to female, and Jim Howley and Eli Strong, who were both born female and transitioned to male.
Why do you think a project like this is important?
JIM: Not only does it help educate society at large, more importantly I hope it can provide inspiration for fellow transgender people, particularly youth.
CLAIR: This project is important because it goes beyond other stories out there that focus purely on the physical transition. This film showcases not only our experiences as transgender people but also our challenges and successes that are common to all people, transgender or not.
What do you hope viewers will get out of watching this program?
JIM: I hope it helps people remember that the most important thing we can give each other is love.
CLAIR: I hope viewers will recognize that we are just like them. We experience challenges finding work, love, and understanding but in the end, we all come from the same source.
What is the single most important issue that trans people today are facing?
JIM: There is not one, definitive answer to this question but in my opinion, I believe it is a lack of respect for our dignity as people and the hatred and violence directed at us that are products of fear on the part of the uninformed.
CLAIR: As with most people in our current economic climate, the most important issue is joblessness. Transgender people are experiencing unemployment at a startling rate above the general public. As a counselor and job coach for the nation’s first transgender employment program, I am hopeful that we can help remove the barriers to equal and safe work places. We cannot limit these services to San Francisco alone and are working to replicate throughout the country.
ELI: Hate crimes against transgender people are on the rise, particularly in DC. Transgender people are being assaulted and murdered, just for walking down the street. Not having equal opportunities to get and keep a job, or having medical expenses covered by insurance, or being able to serve in the U.S. military, all show the larger population that we are ‘less than.’ Many people don’t even see us as human, which they think gives them the excuse, right, or authority to beat, stab, shoot, rape or otherwise hurt and kill us.
If you could tell the audience one thing about the trans community, what would it be?
JIM: I cannot speak for the entire community, but I am a survivor, not a victim and I have a lot to teach the world if they would be willing to learn from and about a life path that differs from their own. In the natural world, variation is often times marvelled at and wondered about; the beauty of a hybrid flower for example. How are my trans sisters, brothers, and I any different?
CLAIR: Throughout history in some cultures, transgender people have been honored and respected as healers, warriors and spiritual teachers. Today this rich history has been seemingly forgotten; I encourage you to become friends with a transgender person so that you can come to know us as we know ourselves and realize that we are just like you. Fear of the unknown hinders forward progress of not only the individual, but of nations.
What do you think the biggest misconception about the transgender community is?
ELI: The biggest misconception about the trans community, from many in the heteronormative society, is that we are trying to pervert others, mainly children, and trying to “recruit” them into our community. Our lives are not easy, and I have never wanted another person to have to deal with the hate and discrimination that I face. I did not make a choice to be transgender and therefore I’m certainly not trying to ‘recruit’ others. From many people I’ve known in the lesbian community, there is the misconception that, once I just accept that I am a woman and that I can be any kind of woman I want, that I wouldn’t want to be a man. The only problem with that is that I’m not a woman and I don’t want to be a woman….in any form.
JIM: Again I cannot speak for the entire community, but personally I feel as if the biggest misconception is that I want “special” rights as a person. I don’t want special rights; I want and deserve equal rights under the law.
CLAIR: For me the biggest misconception is that there is only one way “be transgender.” Our individual journeys are all different but we share the hope to be perceived as we perceive ourselves. In the end, it’s about respecting another person’s internal sense of self and gender identity. Another misconception is that transgender people want to discuss their surgeries or physical transition, what their birth name was or what their bodies look like under their clothing. It is disrespectful. These private matters should only be discussed if you are their doctor or if they bring it up.
Do you have any advice for people who are questioning their gender identity, or for family and friends with a loved one who is?
JIM: My advice for those questioning their gender identity would be to love yourself and remember that life and your transition are about the journey, not the destination. There may be times that hurt like hell, but it is these times that make the beautiful moments even sweeter. Everybody has something, even if they won’t admit it, that makes them feel different and it’s in our differences that we are all the same.
For family and friends, please understand that turning your back on this person could be detrimental to them…right now they just need you to love them. They may be confused and scared and really need your support. Remember, they are still the same person on the inside…their spirit remains the same. When faced with the decisions of fear or love, please choose love. It will make all the difference in the world.
ELI: Find someone to talk to. Build a support system. There are support groups for both trans folks and their families and friends. There are counselors who specialize in trans issues and can help you navigate your feelings and give you a safe space to discuss your thoughts
CLAIR: Keep loving yourself always… Keep loving your child, brother, sister, friend, mother, and father always. We are more than our physical bodies; if it was removed our souls would remain.
Don’t miss the premiere of the one-hour special, American Transgender, airing Tuesday, May 1, at 8PM et/pt only on National Geographic Channel. Watch a preview »
For a list of resources on transgender issues, download GLAD’s Transgender Resources.