It was Christmas Day, and Gilmore Girls was depressing me with its relationship drama, so I cast about for something that would hold my interest but not harsh the sliver of holiday jolly that flickered within my breast. And I found Transhood, an HBO documentary released earlier this year. It promised me a lighthearted look at the lives of four trans kids of various ages in Kansas City. I’m not sure I agree it was lighthearted—and I suspect for many trans people, a lot of this documentary would be triggering or disconcerting—but I do think the documentary is worth watching for the one, fundamental truth it highlights: trans people aren’t the problem; the lack of acceptance we face is.
The documentary follows four families over 2014 to 2019; I’ll list the ages of each kid as of 2014: Jay is a 12-year-old trans boy; Leena is a 15-year-old trans girl; Avery is a 6-year-old trans girl; and Phoenix is 4 years old, and therefore classifying Phoenix’s gender is a little more difficult—4-year-old Phoenix says “I am a girl boy, a boy who wants to be a girl,” but as the years go by, Phoenix’s journey is perhaps the most complicated of all.
That this documentary filmed over 5 years is valuable, for rather than capturing a snapshot of these families’ lives, it shows how the families change, especially with the transition from the Obama to the Trump presidency and the subsequent rise in threats to trans rights. It reminds us that transition literally means change, and that for children grappling with questions of gender identity and expression, what feels right at one age might not feel right at as they get older.
For the first part of the documentary, I felt very emotional, in a positive way. Some happy tears as we are introduced to each kid, learn their story, see the way their parents support them and use the correct pronouns, etc. Some sadness as I’m reminded how much the healthcare system in the US sucks as Jay’s mom breaks down wondering how she can afford medication that will help him deepen his voice. Some euphoria as Leena and her dad go shopping for a swimsuit, because I know what it is like not only to go shopping for affirming clothing but to do it with a supportive person at your side.
I am someone who came to my transgender identity well into my adult life. So, in some ways, this documentary is a revelation for me of the childhood I didn’t have. It left me with the question, “Was I luckier?” Was I luckier to grow up oblivious to my true gender, to be socialized as male without questions, until I had reached a point where I had a type of independence and autonomy that these children don’t necessarily have? A great deal of this documentary is about the struggle that the families endure—was it better that my family didn’t have to go through that? Being counterfactual, of course, these questions don’t have answers. I’m always a little annoyed when people asked “if you could go back, would you change things” … because the truth is, I like my life right now and I think the idea that going back and changing things would make it better relies on a false premise that our potential lives can be ranked in some kind of hierarchy from worst to best. I don’t believe that’s true at all—if I had realized I am trans earlier in my life, some parts would have been better, I am sure, but other parts of my life might not be what they are today, and maybe I would be unhappy still with those.
So Transhood made me think about what I missed out on in my childhood—both the euphoric and affirming things, but also the scarier stuff. For Avery, for example, much of her journey centres on her ambivalence towards being a highly visible activist. You might recognize her as the girl on the cover of National Geographic’s special issue on trans children back in 2017. Avery craves the opportunity to tell her story herself, rather than letting her mother do it. Yet, especially as she gets older, she regrets centreing her trans identity. She wants to entertain, yes, but she wants to do it for fun rather than out of an activist mentality. And it is very interesting to watch her parents navigate this minefield of trying to support your young child, whose mind is changeable as many children’s minds are, while also wanting to make the world a better place for that child through activism.
There were times when I got a little frustrated with the documentary for how much it centred the experiences of the parents. This is a common issue in coverage of transgender people, particularly transgender children: the feelings of the parents become paramount, become the key to the story, when really the feelings of the child should be the most important thing. Yet I realize that the documentary is trying to show cisgender people, particularly parents of kids who, you know, might turn out to be trans, how these parents have processed and coped with this experience. I recognize that there is a place for this type of coverage—but I don’t think Transhood quite nails it.
Perhaps this is most evident in the story of Phoenix, the youngest child. Phoenix’s parents divorce, and shortly thereafter Phoenix decides that he is not, in fact, transgender (as best as he can articulate at that age). He goes back to calling himself a boy and expressing himself with typical masculine clothing, and if anything he seems quite resolute in the concreteness of his gender identity. And by the end of the documentary, Phoenix’s mother has gone from being extremely happy and supportive of Phoenix experimenting with gender and expression to saying that “children are not transgender” and that maybe some are but it’s “a mental disorder.” I don’t fault Transhood for including this, but it was so hard to see and hear that change. Because this is such a real and harmful opinion.
Transphobic people often bring up both of these issues when trying to debate trans people out of existence: detransitioners and the idea that we “force” transness upon children. I would hesitate to call Phoenix a detransitioner, for he never really transitioned even in a social sense—he was questioning and experimenting. Even if he had, and he then decided to detransition, that is ok too. People are allowed to change their labels. As for the idea that we somehow encourage or force children to be trans—have you ever tried to force, like really force a child to do or think or believe something? Children have minds of their own—minds that are still growing and developing, yes, but they are autonomous creatures. What matters is listening to what they tell you and supporting them in their journey, and I believe that all four families in this documentary do that.
No, the impression I got from Phoenix’s mother, and her harmful comments towards the end, was simply one of relief. She was relieved that she no longer had to be a part of this struggle for trans rights, that this would no longer be her life, and of course that Phoenix would no longer have to face that type of discrimination. And this is where Transhood gets it right.
Every moment of doubt, every moment of indecision or upset, that one might attribute to one of these children being trans is in fact attributable to the discrimination trans people face in our society. Jay’s inability to get the medical care he needs is not a result of him being trans—it’s a result of the shitty coverage for trans healthcare under most US insurance policies. Leena’s struggle with breaking up with her supposedly-supportive boyfriend, with being turned down for a modelling opportunity because she discloses she is trans—those don’t happen because she is trans, but rather because of other people’s bigoted ideas about trans people. Avery and her family’s struggles around activism and visibility, their exhaustion and her dissatisfaction with being so high profile—none of that happens because Avery is trans. It happens because our society basically requires trans people to fight, to be activists, to get the rights we should have simply because we are human beings like the rest of you. And while I can’t say Phoenix’s resolution that he is cisgender is a result of that kind of social pressure, it seems pretty clear from the documentary that his mother’s relief comes from feeling that pressure and that hatred towards trans people.
In other words, being trans is not the problem here. It’s not a mental disorder. It’s not something to be fixed with therapy. The problems that trans people face, problems of mental and physical health, of social isolation and lack of acceptance, all stem from discrimination. From transphobia.
What I find most disappointing about Phoenix’s mother’s attitude—and what I wish Transhood would have pushed back against or explored—is this idea that, now that Phoenix is cis, she and her family aren’t part of this struggle anymore. It’s an understandable reaction, but it strikes me as very privileged (and very white). What I wish more than anything that this film had covered more would be how vital it is that cisgender people stand up for trans rights even if you don’t have a trans person in your life (and I mean, you probably do, even if you don’t even know it). If we leave trans activism for trans people and their families alone, then of course they are going to burn out. And I’m not suggesting cis people can come in and save us—let trans people lead the movement, but show up for us. For every example of transphobic bullshit I see on my Twitter timeline, it means a lot to me to see a cis person speaking up about it.
I went into Transhood quite hopeful that it would be a documentary about trans kids being kids. That it would help normalize being transgender, while also being a kid, for a cis audience. For the most part, I would say that it achieves this goal. From the resources posted on HBO’s website for the film, to the editing decisions, it is clear to me that the producers have approached this documentary from a position of being an ally.
This documentary definitely raised issues in my mind about consent. For Leena and maybe even Jay, I can understand having the capability to consent to appearing in this documentary. For Avery and especially Phoenix, I’m less sure it is possible to expect a child to understand what this type of intrusion into their lives means. If this seems incompatible with my pitch above regarding how children are autonomous beings who can figure out their own gender, let’s put it this way: I think one’s gender is a lot easier to understand than the implications and possible ramifications of appearing in a documentary with an audience that could be in the millions. I’m not sure I understand that, and I’m in my 30s!
So, my final verdict? Transhood has the best of intentions, and overall it does well. I would recommend it, more so to my cis friends than my trans friends, simply for the emotional weight a lot of the documentary carries. It didn’t wow me as much as Disclosure did (read my review here), and I think it missed the mark in terms of having a better discussion about allyship.
But I am very glad that documentaries like this are finally being made, documentaries that see trans people as people rather than objects to be gawked at. This documentary is a sign of progress—but it is also a reminder of how much farther we have to go.