HBO's 'The Trans List' a powerful, personal exploration of transgender identity

"The Trans List" is the kind of TV production that helps keep a community from being marginalized and silenced

There's the former model and "Bond Girl" who was designated a boy at birth. There's the combat-tested, super-muscular Army sergeant who was designated a girl. And a poet who says, "I think gender can actually change every single day. Myself is many selves."

These are some of the people featured in HBO's "The Trans List," a documentary exploring what it means to be a transgender American today. The list includes celebrities like "Orange is the New Black" actress Laverne Cox and reality-TV star Caitlyn Jenner. Both deliver touching testimony about the journeys that brought them to where they are.

But it's the stories of the not-so-famous individuals in this film by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders that most deeply resonate and, as a result, most successfully render a sense of transgender life.

The production arrives at a time when some members of that community are saying they feel especially vulnerable given the election of Republican Donald Trump and the mixed signals he sent during the presidential campaign.

Transgender people "are concerned for their safety, survival and legal rights in the coming years," Chase Strangio, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Associated Press. (Trump has not publically addressed transgender issues since the election.)

Presidents do have a bully pulpit — particularly when they bring their own social media following of 25 million, as Trump does. But this documentary is a reminder that HBO is a pretty big pulpit in its own right, with a track record of telling powerful stories. "The Trans List" is the kind of TV production that helps keep a community from being marginalized and silenced.

Bamby Salcedo, founder of the TransLatin Coalition, does not seem like someone likely to be silenced with or without help from the media.

"I am a very proud trans Latina immigrant," she says in the film. "Some people may think I'm a troublemaker, but our time is now. Our time to resist, our time to organize is now. Often times, the [lesbian, gay and bisexual] community is not supportive of the issues happening with us. Where the trans community is in comparison to the LGB community is that we are about 40 years behind — legislatively, economically, academically, you name it."

Salcedo says she became an organizer after transgender teen Gwen Araujo was murdered in California in 2002.

""That sparked the anger," she explains. "Ever since then, I've been like nonstop, doing whatever I need to do not only to make the voices of my community heard, but disrupting whoever."

While the power of Salcedo's story comes from her recounting moments in her adult life on the streets, on drugs, in prison or after she found her political calling, many of the most poignant recollections in "The Trans List" come from memories of adolescence and issues of identity.

"Shopping for clothes was always a nightmare growing up," says Amos Mac, a San Francisco photographer, writer and artist who was designated a girl at birth.

"The girls' sections at Kmart — those were my options," he adds. "So, it was like the most masculine stuff I could find in those sections. Clothing was the one thing where I felt like I had some control over how the world was seeing me. Anything that would hide my body. Large, giant pieces of clothing. I really loved any kind of like oversized hooded sweatshirts. I didn't want anybody to see anything, so I covered it up."

As Mac says this, the screen fills with images of him as a young man. In them, he looks like a film star or magazine model for men's clothes. Coupled with the images of him looking uncomfortable as an adolescent in baggy sweats, they are the perfect visual from director Greenfield-Sanders to illustrate the power of Mac's transition. The energy and appeal of Mac's male identity lights up the screen.

"I really don't know what I was waiting for so long," Mac says. "It seemed like it was no longer an option for my sanity or for my health. I was trying to make it through without transitioning, and I couldn't. I had to stop spending so much time trying to cover up my emotions and my problems, and I had to deal with myself."

Nicole Maines, who was designated a boy at birth, started her transition in the fifth grade. She went on to become a plaintiff in a lawsuit that ultimately determined that her school violated her rights by denying her access to the girls' bathroom.

"Bathrooms is sort of the focal point of trans issues," she says in the film. "Ooohhh, the bathroom. What do we do about the bathroom? It does start to collapse that structure of just two genders that has been for so long. But it's just bathrooms. We've all got to use them. It doesn't have to be so protected. It's not the Pentagon."

Maines says once she got her father to accept her transition, the whole family was behind it and they all found an empowerment in the legal victory.

"To a young person, whose parents aren't necessarily on board, I'd say you've got to advocate for you," Maines says. "That's what I did with my parents. They wouldn't have known if I wasn't as vocal. Advocate for yourself. Do not take no for an answer. Do not settle for less. This is your life. Just save yourself. Slay your own dragon. You can do it."

As optimistic as those words might sound, the film does not promise instant acceptance or happily-ever-after endings. While the individuals in the film have transitioned, that doesn't guarantee the larger society is on board with them.

Caroline Cossey, an international model who appeared in a James Bond movie, recounts what she felt when a British tabloid "outed' her in 1981 with the headline, "James Bond's girl was a boy."

"I felt desperate, suicidal," she says. "It really wasn't anyone's business and it should have been left to me."

Thirty-five years later, prejudice remains, she says.

"There are still a lot of bigoted, ignorant people out there who give people like me a hard time," Cossey concludes. "I just pray for them. That's all I can say, because they have more problems than I do. I'm just me and I hate labels and boxes."

In most of the stories, the struggle continues.

Shane Ortega, a U.S. Army sergeant who has served three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, explains how complicated life in the military can be for transgender individuals.

"Legally speaking for the last five years, I am male," he says. "My military passport — my red, official military passport — says male. With the Department of Social Security, I am male. But the entry system which holds the data for every service member, that hasn't changed for me. I still have to be addressed by members of my senior command as female. I'm not allowed to correct people."

The format of "The Trans List" is simple and straightforward, with 11 individuals facing the camera one by one and telling their stories. It follows in the tradition of other Greenfield-Sanders productions for HBO such as "The Black List" (2009), "The Latino List" (2011), and "The Out List (2013).

Perhaps because Greenfield-Sanders is a portrait photographer in addition to a documentary filmmaker, the 11 parts of the film seem like sharply etched portraits — ones that ultimately come together to give the viewer an intellectual sense of the diversity of trans life and a visceral intimation of what that experience might feel like from the inside out.

As long as stories like these are eloquently told on TV, the possibility of understanding, acceptance and protection for those telling the stories increases dramatically. And that's a political force to be reckoned with, too, no matter who the president is.

On tv

"The Trans List" premieres at 8 p.m. Dec. 5 on HBO.

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