A year and a half after Laverne Cox became the first transgender person to grace the cover of Time Magazine, National Geographic followed suit with its own explosive issue. For its 2016 cover story, The Gender Revolution, National Geographic’s Robin Hammond photographed 80 nine-year-olds in eight countries. Poised gracefully on the cover was nine-year-old Avery Jackson, staring serenely into the camera, her bright pink hair and outfit striking a vivid complement to the magazine’s iconic yellow border. Jackson is one of four transgender kids profiled in “Transhood,” a tender-hearted documentary that humanizes trans kids while avoiding many of the usual gawking pitfalls. Following a timeline when trans rights have been consistently under attack, “Transhood” is a vital record of what it’s like to grow up trans in the Trump era.
Filmed in Kansas City, Missouri over the course of five years, “Transhood” shrewdly focuses its lens on families and kids in America’s so-called “heartland.” While the kids are all white or white-passing (without assuming anyone’s racial identity), the families range from working- to middle-class. The film addresses ostracization from religious family members, parental fatigue, and the financial burdens of trans-affirming healthcare, which isn’t covered under many insurance plans. For the most part, the parents in “Transhood” are normal, everyday people doing their best to love and support their children. Their dedication to their kids’ happiness, and the deepening relationships they form with them, make for some pretty heart-tugging scenes.
The oldest among the bunch is Leena, a redheaded teenager with dreams of becoming a Victoria’s Secret model. Her ruddy-faced dad, who wouldn’t look out of place in a beer commercial, emerges as one of the film’s MVPs. While swimsuit shopping, he makes the typical dad jokes, jokingly suggesting a full coverage rash guard and steering her away from the g-strings. Leena’s grandmother is similarly endearing, taking her to manicures and inquiring coarsely, as only a grandma could, about her bottom surgery. “Are they gonna give you the playpen?,” she asks, using what is either a priceless regional euphemism or her own unique invention. “The fun place? So you can have sex?”
Many trans films focus on trans-feminine identities, which is why Jay and his mom Bryce are another excellent addition to the story. Aside from being an adorable and sweet kid, Jay’s relationship with his mom is unbelievably touching. When she starts tearing up at one of his doctor’s appointments, he reaches over to touch her arm and tell her “it’s OK” through his own tears. “These appointments are really hard for me,” she admits. “It’s just hard seeing your name on that wristband.” Another scene where he is forced to out himself to his girlfriend feels painfully intimate, but necessarily revealing. “It’s just really hard being trans,” he says, articulating himself very maturely through an impossible situation.
Their story takes an even sweeter turn when Bryce falls in love with Laney, a long-haired butch who plays in a women’s football league. Though Jay takes some time to warm up to Laney, their arc gets a lovely button with his tearful speech at their small outdoor wedding ceremony. The reason for the rushed wedding? Because Laney’s health insurance covers trans healthcare.
The other two subjects are a bit more complicated, and filmmaker Sharon Liese deserves credit for artfully navigating the nuances. After becoming a public face of the trans-rights movement at such a young age, Avery begins acting out. When the National Geographic photographer shows up to her house, she is already showing signs of fatigue. Though her parents feel obligated to continue their activism, Avery is tired of framing her life around struggle and hardship, and who can blame her?
The youngest subject in the film, Phoenix, is just four years old when filming began. While their parents are supportive at first, once Phoenix de-transitions and begins identifying as a boy, their mother does a complete 180, calling transgender identity “a mental disorder.” Though she’s clearly going through her own personal transformation following a divorce, she says: “I’m glad I changed, I like this me a lot more.”
For all of its positives, “Transhood” spends a lot of time on the minutiae of medical transition, a narrative many trans people would like to move on from — yesterday. The first hormone shot or surgical consultation have by now become ubiquitous scenes in trans documentaries, and “Transhood” is full of them. The film feels definitively geared toward a cisgender audience; specifically parents who may be confused by the whole trans thing.
Still, the documentary works because of its expansive timeline and creative casting choices. While Liese herself is not trans, and it shows, she approaches her subjects with utmost respect and sensitivity, placing the kids firmly in charge of their own stories.
“Transhood” premieres Thursday, November 12 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.