Avery in Transhood. (HBO)
New documentary Transhood is that very rare thing: a piece of media about young trans people that actually platforms young trans people and their lives.
Released in October by HBO, the documentary is the culmination of five year’s of filming in Kansas City. Directed by Sharon Liese and executive produced by Kimberly Reed, who is trans, the tender documentary follows four families with a trans or gender non-conforming kid.
Jay, Avery, Leena, and Phoenix were aged four, seven, 12 and 15 when filming began on Transhood.
Filmed over five years, the kids and their families open up about navigating growing up trans in America’s heartland. The documentary aims to rebuff the anti-trans narrative taking hold across the US by humanising the young people at the heart of the issues: school, sports, healthcare and growing up trans.
It’s a tender, emotional documentary but what is clear is that each child defines their gender on their own terms. They don’t adhere to rigid categories, gender is often fluid over the course of filming, yet they each, as any trans person knows, know exactly who they are.
Debi Jackson is mum of Avery, the small girl who has become something of a poster child for trans rights in the last couple of years.
Avery is first seen aged seven in Transhood and is now 13 and doing “amazingly well”, Debi says. She told PinkNews about the moment her child came out to her as trans.
“We thought she was a feminine boy, maybe a gay boy, and we were totally prepared for that as my husband and I have a lot of gay friends,” Debi says.
When she was very young, Avery dressed up as a princess and play-acted as a girl. Debi says the difference was stark: Avery was “a depressed and angry boy” or a “happy, bubbly person when she was playing dress-up as a girl”.
“That was when we knew this was more than just a feminine boy,” Debi recalls. When Avery was four, she said to her mum, “Mum, you know I’m a girl on the inside.”
Debi says that she didn’t realised how stressful this moment had been for Avery until a few years later, when she overheard Avery telling a friend about coming out and saying that she thought her parents would stop feeding her and would throw her out to live outside on the street.
While those kinds of actions never factored into Debi’s response, she admits that it was hard at first.
“We had doubts,” Debi says, “we thought that we must be crazy to think this was real. We had family therapy and that helped us to trust that she knows who she is.”
That was nine years ago now. Avery, Debi says, had to “fight so hard to prove to others that she’s a girl” for a long time, but is now finding a style that fits for her: shorter hair, bigger jumpers.
And Debi now works with schools to help them create “safe and affirming” policies to support trans students and teachers.
Brought up Southern Baptist, she says that having a trans kid hasn’t changed her personal religious beliefs: “I see Avery as a gift from that creator. A gift who has made me a better person by expanding my mind and horizons and heart to people I might not have had a relationship with otherwise.”
What she hopes for the future is for Avery not to be limited because of being trans.
Debi says: “We hold far too many women back in our society, and she as a trans woman could be held back even further. So my hope for her future is that she has no limits.”
And she adds that the more she learns about trans communities, the more she realises how much more work there is to do to ensure that trans people of colour are safe.
“We need to do more to support Black and brown trans women,” Debi says. “They are facing so much violence. The number who are attacked and killed every single year is mind-blowing, yet so many don’t have their stories told or their names remembered.”
Debi’s advice? “We need to listen to Black and brown trans women. What do they need for jobs and careers and safe housing and access to healthcare?”
These things aren’t a “mystery”, Debi says, adding: “It’s time to start dismantling the barriers.”
Shortly after Transhood was released, Stephanie Byers, a Native American trans woman, was elected to the Kansas state house of representatives.
Byers, a member of the Native American Chickasaw Nation, is believed to be the first transgender person of colour elected to office anywhere in the United States. She will also be the first trans representative in the Kansas state legislature, helping to bolster representation on the body.
Transhood is on Sky Documentaries and Now TV from 19 January.