By Nicole Veneto
If I’m being too harsh on Trans in Trumpland it’s because we cannot afford to fall back into the liberal complacency of the Obama years.
Trans in Trumpland, now streaming on Topic.
Trans liberation has come a long way since 1973, when Sylvia Rivera chewed-out the hegemonically white and cisgender gay rights movement for its gross indifference to their trans brothers and sisters. Even some seven years after Time Magazine declared 2014 the “transgender tipping point,” our current media landscape has made remarkable progress incorporating trans narratives and experiences onscreen: Pose, Euphoria, Tangerine, and the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman to name a few. Politically speaking, however, the cards are still gravely stacked against the trans community. Anti-trans violence reached newly recorded highs under the Trump administration (in 2020 alone, at least 37 trans people, most trans women of color, were murdered). Transphobic bathroom bills ,cynically weaponizing concern for “women and girls’ safety,” have passed in numerous states. And the administration’s attempt to federally redefine gender as biologically determined and immutable under Title IX deliberately undermined civil rights protections for trans people. Despite the progress made in the cultural arena, the sociopolitical circumstances transgender Americans find themselves in has seldom changed — if anything, things have worsened under the pandemic.
In order to understand how much damage Trumpism has done to the trans community, Iranian-American filmmaker Tony Zosherafatain (himself a trans man) traveled across the country to chronicle the lives of several transgender Americans living in states Trump won in 2016 and 2020. Executively produced by the legendary Miss Major Griffin-Gacy for Topic Streaming, Trans in Trumpland is a four-part documentary series that offers a humanistic look at its trans subjects, intersecting with issues such as health care, migration, and the family. Unfortunately, despite its impressive credentials and good intentions, Trans in Trumpland is a disappointingly surface-level look at the myriad of institutional forces affecting trans people in red states. Between privileging identity — rather than class-based — politics and glorifying military service as a rite of equality, Zosherafatain’s documentary ultimately serves as yet another bit of neoliberal navel gazing offering no new vision of the future.
Trans in Trumpland begins promisingly enough by focusing on trans youth. In North Carolina, Ash, a 15 year-old trans boy with ruddy cheeks and custom-made rainbow Converse, and his supportive herbalist mother Daisy grapple with medical gatekeeping and the barriers presented by House Bill 2, an early bathroom bill passed in March 2016. In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Daisy describes how her insurance company refused to cover Ash’s life-saving testosterone after being on the phone with them for hours. A compelling documentary feature could be made of Ash and Daisy’s story, one that really spends time on the web of issues facing trans youth — especially health care and needless bureaucracy — and the grave importance of familial support.
The second episode features Rebecca, a Latina trans woman from Texas who was detained for several months in a (very much still in operation under Biden) ICE facility. Trans migrants and undocumented immigrants are among the most vulnerable within the LGBT community, and their treatment at the border exposes how deeply inhumane America’s immigration policy truly is. While detained, Rebecca was placed in a men’s facility, denied her hormones, constantly misgendered and referred to only as a number, and eventually put in solitary confinement. Her account of being brutally demeaned by ICE is more than enough to make your blood boil, and yet Zosherafatain feels it’s necessary to drive Rebecca back to the facility she was held in for some easy on-camera trauma porn. The effect isn’t compelling, but uncomfortable, and this foregrounding of trauma and suffering over healing and resilience is where Trumpland loses its radical footing.
There’s also the issue of the series’ rather binaristic depiction of trans identity. Trumpland follows the narrative that trans people are “trapped in the wrong body,” but this mainstream conception of trans identity impedes an understanding of gender as something fluid and constantly in flux. The third episode, which follows Evonné — pronounced, amusingly, like “Ivanna” — a black trans woman and longtime gay house mother in the community, is the only time non-binary and/or gender fluid identity is referenced. Perhaps this is asking too much out of 112 minutes (the series could easily have been released as a feature), but the opportunity here to introduce unfamiliar audiences to the full spectrum of gender identity is one that shouldn’t have been left on the cutting-room floor.
Where the series really falls apart is in its final subject: Shane Ortega, an indigenous transgender veteran from Idaho who identifies as two-spirit. He’s already been featured in a number of documentaries, and is best known as a proponent for transgender inclusion in the military. He makes frequent appearances as a talking head on cable news shows to discuss Trump’s controversial military ban. As an avowed leftist, I find the liberal campaign around trans military service to be inherently antithetical to the goals of trans liberation. No true progress can be made for any marginalized community by participating in (or supporting) the infrastructure of the military industrial complex. As Audre Lorde famously said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Even as Ortega (dressed in full Native garb) chastises the United States for being “a colonial occupation force,” he speaks proudly of serving in the world’s most powerful — i.e. destructive, imperialist, destabilizing — military force at the height of the War on Terror. Apparently Ortega is of the mind that trans rights include the right to drone bomb civilian communities in the Middle East (something former intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning was jailed for exposing, thank you very much).
If I’m being too harsh on Trumpland it’s because we cannot afford to fall back into the liberal complacency of the Obama years. The fact is, belief that the Biden administration will agitate for radical change in the trans community’s material circumstances is grossly naive. Trump may no longer be in office, but the rhetoric, policies, and institutions of power he exploited still remain — despite the arrival of new faces. Though it’s competent enough as an intersectional introduction to trans identity and experience, Trans in Trumpland ultimately rings hollow.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.