On June 23, my documentary, “A Self-Made Man,” aired on
America Reframed. After a successful festival run, this was its broadcast premiere. I used to get quite nervous when I had to speak about this film at festivals, not because of my slight discomfort with public
speaking, but primarily on account of pronoun usage. I was concerned that I
would mess up and use the wrong one — say “she” instead of “he,” or something
like that. You see, my film is about Tony Ferraiolo, a transgender youth advocate, and his work with trans kids. As I learned working with Tony, pronouns are very important to the
transgender community, and I wanted to make sure I respected that.
I met Tony the first time in a Starbucks in New
Haven, CT. I contacted him because of an email sent to me from a stranger, someone
who had seen one of my films. It turned out she was the mother of a transgender
child and felt that Tony and his work would make a great documentary subject. Initially, I was hesitant because this was a subject I knew nothing about. In fact, I had
never really thought much about transgender people and, probably like many
Americans, had a lot of pre-conceived ideas. But I was intrigued and went to
Tony was warm and forthcoming and, had I not known his
story, I would never have imagined that he was born female. I asked him why he
would be comfortable with me, an outsider to the trans community, making a
documentary about being transgender. He said that I have the eyes of the
general public and would ask the questions that every outsider has.
Sure enough, I did ask those questions as I went from
ignorance to understanding. I learned how gender identity begins in childhood, but without support, it can take a lifetime to achieve self-actualization. I
learned that sexual preference has nothing to do with gender, though most folks
confuse these all the time. Tony told me about the difficulties of his own
gender-transitioning. When he was a little girl, Tony insisted that he was a
boy, but no one listened or understood. Tony didn’t even really understand
himself. There wasn’t much information available at that time, and not until he
was a middle-aged adult, when he watched a documentary about gender identity, did
he have an epiphany. That is when he finally transitioned from female to male. After
that, he started to address the need for information and support in the trans
community, and he began his work as a transgender youth advocate.
Tony invited me to film the support groups he leads for
youths and their families. I was taken by how these were just ordinary people
coping with something that they did not know how to deal with. Pronouns were
just a small but important part of it. I witnessed parents coming to terms with
their child’s new identity, learning to refer to them by their child’s
preferred pronoun, accepting the change with courage and trepidation. I filmed
kids talking about school plays and pool parties one moment and then hormones
blockers the next. I documented transitions from male to female, from denial to
acceptance, from sadness to joy. Their stories echoed Tony’s, and when we edited
the film, we intercut their transitions with his. Yet Tony is the star, not only
in this documentary, but also in the way he has chosen to live his newfound
life and give to this community.
For many of us who are not transgender, it is hard to
comprehend what Tony Ferraiolo and his charges face. Yet the basic idea is
simple. With support and understanding and, yes, some effort in pronoun usage,
we can give them what everyone deserves: the right to create themselves and
live the lives they choose.
“A Self-Made Man” had its
national television broadcast premiere on Tuesday, June 23, 2015, on World Channel as part of the third season of the “America Reframed” series. Check local listings or rent the film via Vimeo.
Lori Petchers is an award winning documentary filmmaker whose films have screened in festivals and venues throughout the world.