The arrival of “Transmilitary” at SXSW is so timely and boasts such immediacy that you might think that Fiona Dawson and Gabe Silverman’s stirring doc is somehow a live feed, yet in the back of your head, you know that’s not how documentaries work, nor is it how political change is affected. Instead, the film covers four years of struggle for a group called SPARTA, comprised of active duty transgendered men and women lobbying Pentagon officials, among other government entities, to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy started during the Clinton Administration that prevents them from serving their country openly. While considerable progress was made during the Obama Administration, a ban imposed by tweet in October of 2017, only to be rescinded as Secretary of Defense James Mattis sought to slow things down to do his due diligence, left conversation around the issue to swirl publicly while privately many in active duty continue to wonder whether they’ll be able to carry on their military careers.
“Transmilitary” puts a human face on this legal limbo – four of them, in fact as it profiles a quartet of courageous soldiers caught in a crossfire they truly could never have anticipated. Dawson and Silverman criss-cross the country to find Jenn Peace, a captain in the U.S. Army based in Tacoma, Washington whose testimony to high-ranking Pentagon officials was essentially used against her when she returned home to learn she’d be subject to male regulations on the job; El Cook, a first lieutenant preparing for his second deployment in Iraq in Clarksville, Tennessee; and Laila Villanueva, a corporal in Hawaii, and Logan Ireland, a Kandahar-based soldier, who are a couple after both swapping genders and make their relationship work across continents.
The film would be fascinating if only for the inherent tension of observing a group of soldiers passionate about protecting the freedom of a country in which they are deprived of their own, yet Peace, Cook, Villanueva and Ireland’s experiences fighting wars on two fronts take many unexpected turns, as well as the personal lives they lead, and simply by observing their focus and dedication throughout all of it, “Transmilitary” demonstrates there’s no one else you’d rather have on the front lines. With the film premiering this weekend in Austin, Dawson and Silverman spoke about collaborating on the doc and navigating all of the many policymaking twists, as well as coordinating an international shoot and the importance of getting what you need from footage before getting what you want.
You made a compelling New York Times Op-Doc about Logan and Laila in 2015 – did that start you down the road of a feature?
Fiona Dawson: The genesis of the project actually started before the Op-Doc where we realized that the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” had allowed lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to serve [in the military], but trans people were still banned, but following the success of the Op-Doc, we realized that we could have a greater impact if we could tell the story that was continuing as it was unfolding of our service members that were coming out as transgender in order to educate Top Brass on why they should have the right to serve. We felt like there was a lot more work that we could still do.
Gabe Silverman: When the Op-Doc hit, it hit three days after Caitlyn Jenner came out on the cover of Vanity Fair and it was an opportunity to have this really nuanced conversation about transgender identity, and when we saw the impact, we were still at a time when [Defense] Secretary [Ash] Carter was starting to initiate the working group that studied this issue of the ban [on trans service]. We said, “Look, we have amazing access to the service members who are going in and out of the Pentagon and there’s this larger, more nuanced story out there.” We cover Washington D.C. a lot, but often times what happens – and has been lost in the conversation about policy – is how does policy really affect the individual. This was an opportunity for us to tell a service member-eye-view of what this policy looks like and what transgender service looks like.
How did you two actually come to team up in the first place?
Fiona Dawson: I had started the “Transmilitary” project in 2012 and started picking up on Logan’s story, in particular, during early 2014. Around that time, there were a few media pieces that had come out about other active duty service members – in fact, a sailor who had been discharged and outed as being trans. That’s how I met a gentlemen who ended up working at the New York Times, who had known that I had been following these stories, so in early 2015 when the Times wanted to do a series on trans-Americans, they approached me to do this Op-Doc. But of course, I needed to be teamed up with Gabe and Jamie to be able to put this piece together. [It became] this perfect marriage of me, as an LGBTQ advocate, building to be a filmmaker combining with the talents of Gabe and Jamie, who come from the journalist world. We bring different skillsets, [which is] one of the reasons why I think this story has become so intimate and yet so well-told.
Logistically, what was it like to cover so much terrain? You get dispatches as far as Kandahar.
Gabe Silverman: One of the challenges was that you have people who are all over the map and you have to find ways to maintain contact with them. In the early stages of the project, Fiona did a very good job of making sure in places we otherwise could get cameras that we were capturing calls and doing interviews over Skype and then later, when we were able to actually film them in appropriate settings – at home or on base – we were able to bring in our cameras and create a little more cinematic feel to the movie. The lesson here for people is that, ultimately what documentary filmmaking is about is the moment and not always the art. You need to let the art be what plays out in front of the camera. In some ways, we look at this in terms of the times and we were using every technology available to us to develop these moments that became critical in telling the overall narrative.
When there’s a ban in place on transgender men and women serving in the military, is there concern about filming a group like SPARTA?
Fiona Dawson: I had been advocating for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” so these service members were already my friends. SPARTA was emerging during 2012 and two women, Alison Robertson and Sue Fulton, were getting together to join the organization. We just had this agreement that they would be working on the advocacy and we had Erin Belkin at the comm center working on the research and I was going to be on this project like the third wheel where we would be documenting and covering the story. Really, the access comes from the relationships that we have – these are like our friends and our family and we had this foundation of trust right from the beginning.
Given the roller coaster ride of how the policy towards transgender service members was throughout the story, did your ideas about what this would be change throughout or did you had a holistic idea of what this could be from the start?
Gabe Silverman: When you do any type of documentary work where the story is unfolding in front of you, you know the road you’re on is solid, but you don’t always know where that road leads to. When we were first were following the initial push to repeal the ban, either the ban is repealed or not. Those are what we thought were the two option. Never could we have predicted that after the ban would be repealed, there was an unexpected third act, which is President Trump, who by all accounts from his rhetoric on the campaign trail, was the most pro-LBTGQ of the Republican candidates. Never did we imagine that there was going to be a possibility where he comes in and unexpectedly tweets out this ban one day. Unfortunately, this is one of those [places] where maybe our norms have changed with how Washington covers the president, but when the President tweets something like this, it immediately becomes part of the conversation. It made us look at the narrative, and we opened the third act to include that post script.
You’re able to cover so many different aspects of the trans experience as well as this chronologically-driven history of the fight to achieve equal status within the military, and do so in different ways – one beautiful moment is how you express Laila’s mother’s gradual acceptance of her change in gender with an evocative animated sequence. What was it like figuring out how to portray that moment, which is a break from the rest of the film?
Fiona Dawson: We’re very grateful that we hired ODD, Office of Development Design, [which] actually just won for “Icarus,” [because] his story was so important to be told and of course it happened back in a time when we weren’t taking video on our phone the way we are now. There was just no way to be able to share and document this story, but it was part of humanizing who transgender people are and [seeing how] it took this near-death experience for Leila’s mom, Lisa, just to be able to love and accept her daughter. It was just a very powerful moment that had to be told.
Gabe Silverman: One of the things that audiences will never know is the full extent of sacrifices our characters have made. For Laila, who has given 12 years of her life to the service, she’s experienced things that we can never know or ever talk about, so this is one of those experiences that really conceptualizes what it means to put your life on the line. As filmmakers, especially of independent films, we have limited resources, so we have to make sure that we know where we can put our resources. This was one of the emotionally impactive moments that was important to flush out visually and that’s why we were so fortunate to partner with ODD.
Over the course of the making of this film, the conversation around transgender people has changed and as you witness in the film, more people even within the military are more open about their support. Did things change over time in that respect for you?
Fiona Dawson: The guy that comes to my mind is Fisher, Logan’s friend in Kandahar. We never really explored an arc [like you’re describing] – that’s not to say that one might not exist, but it was extremely important for us to demonstrate that trans-people and trans-service members are part of a community and supported by their brothers and sisters in arms, who, quite honestly, don’t really care what sex they’ve been assigned at birth. They care about whether, “Have you got my back? Can you do your job?”
I met Fisher back in 2014, and there was no hesitancy on his part at the time, to be able to back his friend Logan up. As we got closer to our premiere, I think there was some nervousness with Fisher, but when he realized that the exact words that we put in the film was what he had said, then he made the decision, that “Yes, this is important and I have to stand up for Logan,” as he originally intended to do.
Gabe Silverman: As with any topic that becomes a major conversation in our public discourse, I think there’s this misconception that there are only two perspectives to this issue. The loudest voices often get the most coverage, but the truth of the mater is, this is a very nuanced topic. At the end of the day, the military operates best as a meritocracy. That’s what our characters are asking for. They’re asking not to be judged by their gender identity, but by their performance and I think what our film shows is for the characters who ended up in the film is that they all rise [within the ranks], especially when the ban was lifted.
One thing that was amazingly supportive of this was that, when President Trump tweeted about the ban, there was a poll taken that day – how many Americans support transgender service and 58% of Americans said they support transgender service, [with] about 20% of people who are unsure where they fell. About a week later another poll was taken, that number jumps to 68% because Americans understand that if you can get the job done, your gender identity doesn’t matter. This is why when we look at the politicians, this is a bipartisan issue. People like Senator John McCain, who has [war] experience I will never understand, supports it. Joni Ernst, a Tea Party darling form Iowa, supports it. [Military Vet and Democratic] Senator Tammy Duckworth supports it. We have to understand, our public discourse has to be far more nuanced than cable television would have you believe.
What’s it like to premiere this at this moment in time?
Gabe Silverman: We are absolutely pleased to be premiering at South by Southwest. Not only is it an incredible film festival, but basically the time could not be better. On February 21st, Secretary Mattis was supposed to give guidance to the White House [on this issue] and he has given his directive, but we haven’t heard anything from the White House just yet. We are at this moment, still unsure what the future will hold for [transgender members of the military]. We are hoping – and believe – there will be a positive recommendation and what we hope this film can do is to provide a nuanced, service member-eye-view of what this policy really looks like and who these people are. At the end of the day, the only thing they’re asking for is the opportunity to serve their country with dignity.
Fiona Dawson: I feel very energized and excited to get this story out [because] studies predicted around 15,500 people serving in the military identify as being trans and [transgender people] are twice as likely to serve as non-transgender people. These numbers make American military the largest employer of transgendered people. You can be fired in 29 states across the US, just for being trans, but you can put your life on the line to protect our freedom in a war zone? The irony of that just feels so palpable to me. So my hope and ambition is this film will reach an audience that already supports the military, but they just don’t know or just don’t understand who transgender people are. That way we can actually have a greater impact on trans rights in civilian life too.