On the heels of a report that the current administration may attempt to legally define transgender people out of existence, a new documentary is debuting on Logo on Nov. 15 at 8 p.m., giving an in-depth look on the lives of several transgender soldiers in the United States military. It builds upon the 2015 New York Times op-doc short, Transgender, At War, and In Love, and according to the filmmakers and subjects involved, TransMilitary is an essential documentary to show skeptical family members, or anyone who simply needs a reminder of the hurdles faced by the transgender community.
“This film is definitely the film you want to show your anti-LGBT family member to bring them a better understanding of what it’s like to be in our shoes,” Corporal Laila Villanueva tells Bustle over the phone in late October. Villanueva and her husband, Logan, who is also a transgender soldier, were also the main focus of the New York Times op-doc. She’s eager for TransMilitary to reach viewers when it debuts, and for it to hopefully nudge even a few people in a more accepting direction. “I think if this film is able to change one heart, or one mind — just one heart in a crowd of 100 people — then we are doing our job. We are planting those seeds, and making sure that we grow them amongst society.”
Similarly, Fiona Dawson, director of TransMilitary and the doc that preceded it, wants it to reach everyone — not just people who are already allies. “We would really love allies to be able to [share TransMilitary] to help reach those people who wouldn’t automatically go click play on this film,” she says. “I’m openly bisexual myself — I’m very much a part of the LGBT community. I want our community to be able to use these stories to reach people outside of our community so that we can try to help shift hearts and minds. [Talk to] your anti-LGBT family, not only this Thanksgiving, but throughout the holidays, and from here on forward.”
TransMilitary documents the journey of Villanueva, her husband, and other transgender servicemembers as they fight for both their country and their personal right to exist. Filming began in 2015, when the ban against transgender military members was still in place, and now as their futures remain unclear amidst ongoing government turmoil. “We continued filming [after the initial documentary] hoping we would end on a good note, with our last administration … but we did not foresee this being such an issue with our current administration,” Villanueva shares. “Then the election happened, and it just sent us through a whirlwind of events and emotions. Here we are today, trying to ensure [our rights], and doing the best we can to stay afloat at a time when an administration is telling us we shouldn’t exist at all.”
In addition to tackling the big topics, diving deep into these servicemembers' lives also reveals some of the more nuanced discrimination they can face. For example, Villanueva says she’s been met with more difficulty within the military as a trans woman than her husband has as a trans man. And, she’s also encountered the everyday sexism that every woman might encounter. When she presented as a man, she felt that she had her opinions heard, and was invited to take part in important conversations more often. When she transitioned, she says she wasn’t listened to nearly as much.
“It’s [similar] for a lot of cisgender women in the military who are looked at like they can’t do a certain thing,” she shares. “I don’t think it’s focused on just being a trans woman or a trans man — the gender gap is that because it’s a hyper-masculine environment, women are often seen as weak.”
If we aren't visible enough, or we're not standing our ground, then we cease to exist, and that's not what we want to do."
Despite the tumultuous nature of the fight for transgender rights, it's important for these women to continue working toward a better future. Villanueva says continuing to be at the forefront of the transgender movement can be daunting, but she feels a certain responsibility to speak out. “I was very reluctant to share my story because … I was jeopardizing the privacy of my own home, the privacy of my family,” she says. “But [since the first doc] I have grown so visible that it’s almost important for me to share my story, because if I don’t, then we just sit back and watch everything unfolds. If we aren’t visible enough, or we’re not standing our ground, then we cease to exist, and that’s not what we want to do.”
Fighting under this administration may be discouraging and difficult, but Dawson says she’d feel much less hopeful if TransMilitary and other these kinds of media didn’t exist to fight anti-transgender sentiment. “I feel very grateful that we have these tools to help combat that. For many, many Americans — LGBT, trans, people of color, [those dealing with] racial issues — a lot of them are really feeling attacked at this time, and I think I would feel worse if we didn’t have this film as a tool to help combat that,” she says.
And according to Dawson, the fact that TransMilitary focuses on the particular sector that it does could help it move even more people. “Our country certainly has a tremendous amount of respect for those that serve, so my hope is TransMilitary can reach those people who just kind of need tipping over to understand what it means to be trans,” she continues.
TransMilitary's goal is to open eyes about the transgender experience, and as it hits a widespread audience this week, think about what Dawson and Villanueva want for the film. Watch it and learn from it yourself, but also share it with someone in your life who's resisted being educated on the subject — you never know what stories can bring along a change of heart.