On March 10 and 11, the University of Colorado’s Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) hosted its 11th annual TRANSforming Gender Conference. The event hosts a series of speakers and presentations, including a screening of VICE on HBO’s short documentary, Vice: Trans Youth.
The documentary, one of the first pieces in Vice’s new season, was driven by the debate around who can enter which bathrooms. Nicole Bozorgmir, a producer on the show, said that she “started researching this story almost exactly a year ago when the debate around bathrooms kicked off for the first time.”
VICE explored the issue deeper, and found that it went much further than bathroom rights. The team decided to focus on the complex questions of medical transition, which some transgendered people choose to go through. The final product features Emmy-nominated correspondent Gianna Toboni discussing the challenges facing trans-youth face. Toboni speaks with transgendered people currently in the process of, or who are considering, medical procedures to feel more comfortable in their own body, as well as the families of these individuals.
The episode told the transition stories of four transgender individuals. Kai, a five-year-old in Pearland, Texas, and her mother, were the first to be featured. Their story highlighted how young of an age the challenges members of this community face begin, and how people can come to change their mind on the issue. Following Kai was Max, an eight-year old, who was able to get a hormone blocker to prevent him from having a female puberty, and Steviee, a 15-year old who was received his first testosterone shot. Lastly, the piece focused on Charlotte, a young woman in a long-term residency program because her family wasn’t accepting of her gender. During the piece, Charlotte went in for a breast augmentation to help her feel more comfortable in her body.
Director Tim Clancy explained that their episodes are “hybrids,” citing sources for viewers to reference while talking to people at the forefront of the issue. This model provides the means for the statistics to come to life, according to Clancy.
TRANSforming Gender Conference took place in the Wolf Law building, and was attended by a variety of community members. Students, professors and Boulder locals invested in the transgender community filled the room. There were audible reactions to the screening – mostly laughter at happy moments and outcries when injustices against the transgender community were discussed.
After the viewing, community members were able to talk to Clancy and Bozorgmir about their work. The duo was receptive of feedback and criticisms about the piece; most notably, audience-members felt that the short documentary failed to address issues transgender people face outside of the medical world. Attendees also expressed concern that the episode explored transgender issues from a cisgender perspective, leaving out critical experiences only a transgender person could have. Other comments included how the the film only focused on one race’s experience, and left out the communities transgender people have created for themselves.
After receiving and processing the criticism, Clancy explained that they “didn’t nail the scale and scope of it,” because the 30 minutes allowed for the show forced the team to pick “a slice” of the issue to explore. They did not make the episode to be the end of the discussion – rather, they hope to allow these conversations with their audience to guide and shape future episodes on transgender issues. They also wanted the episode to have a focus outside of “liberal safe havens” like San Francisco and New York City, in order to show the challenges people in less accepting areas face.
Bozorgmir spoke in-depth about the way the team selected the documentary participants. She said that she felt “strongly against cold-calling families because it’s invasive.” The team mostly went through third parties such as clinics, organizations and support groups. These groups shared information about the episode with their clients, and allowed the families to reach out to HBO on their own.
During the process, Bozorgmir said she “was looking for people who were at a very specific moment where they were about to make a transition or in the stages of deciding – not just focus on the medical aspect but also because those are the times you’re particularly reflective about the steps and what it makes for you and your family.” She also recognized that there were very few families of color who reached out during the process.
Clancy said that media tends to present things like “this is how it is,” which can be limiting. Rather, Clancy aims to focus on “polarizing topics because people come at them from different ways of looking at them – if you can do a piece and engage both those sides, then good! If a troll writes 15 negative things at the bottom of a clip of Kai, well, I’m glad he’s watching. You never know what moment will transform a person like that.”
The team convinced HBO to share the full episode for free on YouTube here because they felt it was too important to limit to subscribers only.
Contact Arts Staff Writer Stephanie Wood at Stephanie.a.Wood@Colorado.edu