When Donnie Cianciotto was approached by his friend Anna Augustowska in Arizona during May of 2015, it was initially for a documentary on the drag community in Tucson. Cianciotto, a transgender man who was born in New York but moved to Arizona as teenager, had been involved in the Tucson drag scene in the late 2000s. In 2015, Cianciotto was working with a theater company in Arizona in the same office as Augustowska and was more than willing to help.

However, through their talks for the documentary, both soon realized that the focus would be very different, and it became a project that spanned over three and a half years of filming and took six years to release to the public.

“I told her about my personal experience in drag, she just got so excited and she told me, ‘I changed my mind. I would like to make a documentary about you’…” Cianciotto said. “It wasn’t really something that was supposed to happen, she really liked what I shared with her about my experiences and the next thing I knew, she was at my house two weeks later with a camera crew filming what would be the first scene of the documentary.”

That documentary, which initially started out as a smaller 15-minute project, would become DONNIE: A Transgender Man’s Story, a 52-minute feature that explored Cianciotto’s life as a transgender man and his struggles as well as triumphs. The documentary received praise at film festivals and even won a Rocky Mountain Emmy Award. Cianciotto described his documentary as an “uplifting tale of love, success, and happy ending,” wanting to tell a transgender story that did not merely revolve around suffering, but the experience of going from tribulation to triumph.

DONNIE tells a very revealing and deeply personal narrative of Cianciotto’s life. From his upbringing as an assigned female at birth (AFAB), his move from New York to Arizona as a teenager, to his experience coming out as transgender, the film tells a story of self-discovery, perseverance, and love. Cianciotto felt that sharing so much of his story would be valuable for trans youth.

“I would have benefitted so greatly from that type of documentary when I was young,” Cianciotto said. “I was a little bit worried about putting something out there and being so open, because I could receive threats for it. But I think it’s so important not just for trans and queer people, but for their family members too. Being able to show kindness like that could change hearts and minds. This project was made with the goal of trying to be helpful with the community.”

Showing positivity in DONNIE was important for Cianciotto. Echoing a sentiment similar to another transmasculine actor (and then link to the Emmett story once it’s up), Cianciotto said that an issue with transgender and LGTBQ+ representation in media is how often those portrayals focus on suffering and trauma rather than success or triumph. For example, much of the documentary revolves around Cianciotto’s attempts to get top surgery. Cianciotto moved from Arizona to New York in the mid 2010s in order to get easier access to top surgery through health insurance.

However, Cianciotto was rejected multiple times by his insurance due to various requirements not being met (such as not having been with a therapist in New York for long enough), and eventually had to crowdfund money to pay for the surgery outright.

While Cianciotto doesn’t shy away from showing the difficulties in getting surgery in the documentary, he placed a larger focus on the euphoria and affirmation he got from top surgery. This coincides with the larger theme of telling LGBTQ stories revolving around triumph instead of trauma.

“Before, [I’d look in the mirror] and knew my [true self was there], but never with my own eyes, but with my own heart and soul. Before top surgery, I would not recognize my chest,” Cianciotto said. “After surgery, it was like a confirmation that the image I was seeing in my head the whole time was accurate. It was so incredibly affirming that I was speechless for weeks. It was so empowering to finally see in a reflective piece of glass what I had seen in my head.”

An aspect of media representation that annoys Cianciotto is when cisgender actors portray transgender characters. Cianciotto believes that roles in movies such as The Danish Girl that win awards and earn notoriety should be played by transgender actors.

Donnie performing at Flagstaff Pride

“When they cast a cisgender person to play a transgender character, it takes a role away from a transgender person. It’s like cis people winning awards off of trans people,” Cianciotto said. “The big shift we need to see is trans people telling their own stories. When their whole character is based off of their transition, it's disappointing because the storyline is just about our trauma. We need to see more queer and trans joy and euphoria in media.”

Cianciotto is part of the Trans Voices Cabaret in New York City, an acting organization that puts on shows and performances starring trans, non-gender conforming, and nonbinary actors. The goal of Trans Voices Cabaret was not just to increase visibility but to also let the individuality of its members shine.

“We’re still individuals although part of a community. There’s something so safe about being in a room where everyone is trans. You don’t have to correct people or do the emotional labor of explanation. It’s taking the binary out of theatre,” Cianciotto said.

Donnie in Trans Voices Cabaret

Trans Voices Cabaret puts on shows every other month in New York, and also has locations in Chicago and even London.

Cianciotto has had a love for the performing arts from a young age,, and like many other people in the LGBTQ community, found solace in theater as it welcomed him with open arms.

“I think it’s twofold. One, the [theater] community has made a name for itself as being a more accepting microcosm of society where lots of LGBTQ+ people have been able to find success and a chosen family where they can be comfortable being themselves,” Cianciotto said. “And conversely, the fact that we get opportunities to tell stories where we don’t have to be ourselves or live our lives. It gives you a little break from whatever reality you might be going through.”

As for what’s next for Cianciotto, he’s not entirely sure. He just hopes that his documentary can empower trans youth all across the country to live their best lives.

Donnie - A Transgender Man’s Story is available to stream on Vimeo at www.vimeo.com/ondemand/donnietransgenderfilm.

Photo courtesy of Michael Feinstein.

Michael Feinstein

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Michael Feinstein will commemorate Judy Garland’s life on March 20 at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

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I think it’s fair to say we all want that #fitlife, especially with Spring around the corner — as well as Gaypril on the way. Whether it’s pool season yet or not, everyone would choose to look fit over not looking fit, if they could have it with a snap of their fingers. OK, the vast majority of us would.

If you’ve met me, or have been reading my articles, you know that I live, sleep, eat and breathe fitness; it’s my heart and soul. That being said, I’m here to tell you that the concept of “fitness” is oftentimes tragically misunderstood.

Before you get too aggressive with your goal for pool season, let’s dive a bit deeper into what fitness means on the inside versus what it looks like on the outside, and common misconceptions around this concept.

1. Beware of the cultural pitfalls and misleading information around fitness.

Most of the bodies you see in the media are probably not real, they just look very convincing. As a trainer who also moonlights as a photographer and Photoshop wizard, I’m telling you that it is incredibly easy to alter pictures in materially misleading ways. Once you know the tricks of the trade, the imposters are easily spotted. But that’s not what this is about.

The point is: to the untrained eye, it can be devastatingly defeating to see such impossible standards. It seems as though the cultural pressure to look a certain way, to look perfect, has spread all the way from runway models to fitness novices with the help of smartphone apps.

The truth is that we fitness models look that cut, and that lean for only a couple days at a time. That’s it! In many cases, months or even close to a year of training, dieting and programming all go into looking like that for ONE day. Let that sink in for a second. Day to day, I am less cut, less tan and much flatter muscularly than what you see in some of my pictures. That’s just the nature of the beast. So, when you have a bad day on the scale, in the mirror or in any other scenario, remember that we’re all human and that the most legitimate photos you’re comparing yourself against were from someone’s very best day. That should help to keep things in perspective.

2. Most people want the results, without actually doing the work.

Fitness is not six pack abs, it’s not superficial, it is not temporary and it’s not an isolated phase in your life. Further, fitness is not something you do for someone else, do to spite someone else or even to impress someone else.

Fitness is confidence, toughness, dedication, coordination, power, balance, speed, strength (both literally and figuratively) and persistence in the face of all obstacles. This includes control over your attitude, your mood, your sleep, your schedule, your diet and other aspects of your life. This means getting that workout in when you least feel like it.

It’s not easy, and it’s definitely a grind that has good and bad days. You must show up and keep working on the days you’re tired, stressed, rushed, defeated, doubtful, afraid and so on. The days you actually have to overcome something instead of just checking your workout off your to-do list are the days you have the greatest opportunity to really make progress, push your body and see the most improvement.

3. Fitness is really an internal mindset. The external physique is the fringe benefit.

I’ve said this time and time again, and it might sound strange coming from such an aesthetic-focused trainer, but you are not your body. Your body is a tool, it’s a means to an end, to express your internal mindset, belief system, discipline and dedication to your workout program. Your physique will come and go. Your strength will come and go. Your abilities will wax and wane depending on what you’re training for at the time.

The outside will, and should, be always changing, but the inside is what we’re really after here. Good trainers want to train you to believe in yourself when sh*t gets hard. We want to train you to be resilient in the face of injury, obstacles and other setbacks. We want you to set ambitious goals and shoot for the moon because you can get there with smart programming and relentless will (do yourself a favor and ditch the crash diets and the photo editing software).

So, as you make your spring preparations for swimsuit season, try focusing on developing a sterling, unshakeable internal character and the muscles will come along the way, this I promise you.

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