By Kaely Monahan, October 2018 Issue.
Echo caught up with TransMilitary directors Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson ahead of their film's Valley screening – at noon Sept. 29 as part of the Desperado LGBT Film Festival – to find out more about the making of this documentary and the story behind these stories and here’s what they had to say. (Read Echo's review of TransMilitaryhere.)
Echo: What is the story behind this documentary? How did it come together?
Dawson: I had been one of the advocates around the repeal of “Don't Ask Don't Tell.” It wasn't until after that repeal that I, myself, came out and found that it allowed lesbian, gay and bisexual people to serve, but transgender people were still banned. So, I started documenting their stories around October 2012.
In 2015, The New York Times approached us in order to include these stories in [its] “Transgender American” series. They paired us all up together, Gabe, [writer/producer Jamie Coughlin] and I. Together [we] made the op-doc Transgender, at War and In Love. Seeing the impact of that film – how it helped raise the issue, how it really connected with people – and then also knowing that our service members were still putting their lives on the line by coming out as trans in the Pentagon and working to end the ban, [led] the three of us … to make this feature documentary that came out earlier this year. And here we are.
Silverman: The film clearly tapped a nerve in the right circles, we believe. Which kind of emboldened us to continue the story because, even though these positive steps were happening, the fight wasn't over. Obviously, the ban was still in place, the story was incomplete, and we had access to people who were still going into the Pentagon to state their case. So, we figured, let's keep this going and see where the film concludes.
TransMilitary directors Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson.
Echo: You managed to capture some raw and highly personal moments in the lives of the four service members highlighted in the film. And the diversity of your cast, if you will, really struck me.
Silverman: That has always been an important thing. El says it best in the movie: just like being black, being trans is not a monolith. So, it was important that we don't try to paint this as one singular experience.
Dawson: These four … naturally rose to the surface and we were very determined to have a diverse representation as well – as far as we could without having too many characters in the film.
Echo: How did you ensure their stories were told and also that the lives of our subjects could still continue in safe and positive ways?
Silverman: Well, I think it's important for us to … put us back into context in 2015 ... Logan and Laila [were] not guaranteed their safety or their jobs when they came out in The New York Times. In fact, they were well aware that there could possibly be negative repercussions for their careers, which adds to why they were so courageous for even coming out in the first place.
As the project evolved … and the ban was lifted, obviously their concerns shifted, and they became a little less [concerned] … The security of their job was never guaranteed by participating in this project, just like anybody who's coming out. Maybe "whistleblowers" is the wrong term, but … [for anyone] telling their truth in the face of systemic discrimination, there's no guaranteed protection. So that adds to why we really see all four of these characters as courageous human beings.
Echo: How did President Trump’s tweet, indicating he intended to reinstate the trans ban, affect the production of the film and, ultimately, the story?
Silverman: [Similar to] a lot of issues under this administration, we certainly were blindsided … We thought that once the ban was lifted – in June 2016 – that the film was finished. … We were really in the middle of editing when [President Trump's] tweet happened ... we had to race to, not only go back into production and tell the story adequately, but then go back into post-production to complete it ahead of time for the film festival circuit.
For us, there was heartache because … over the years we've really gotten to know these service members … These people have become very dear to us. So, we also understood that while this was a plot twist in the documentary, this also has grave consequences for people who are supporting families and supporting children …
Do we follow the tick-tock of this fight politically? Or do we end the fight before we know the final conclusion so that we're able to get out there and be part of the conversation in time? What I think we all [would] regret, would be sitting on these very impactful personal stories of what this ban actually looks like from a service member [perspective] and not being able to interject [them] into the conversation before any decisions were settled. So, we decided we were going to make this about the individuals and their experiences and try to get this film out appropriately and as quickly as possible to have to be part of that conversation.
TransMilitary screens at noon Sept. 29 as part of the Desperado LGBT Film Festival. For more information on TransMilitary, visit transmilitary.org. For additional details on the Desperado LGBT Film Fest, click here.
(Editor’s note: This interview was edited for clarity, continuity, and length. To hear it in its entirety, visit soundcloud.com/whiskeyandpopcorn.)