From Girls to Men: Meet the Director Bringing Transitions to the Screen

Right now, in the UK, a groundbreaking documentary is airing. Nick Sweeney’s Girls to Men follows three transgender men through their transitions, including surgical procedures. You might be familiar with the story from a viral video, in which one of the film’s subjects, Jamie Raines, took a selfie every day for three years to document his transition. Girls to Men is the second of a series: the first documentary tackled parents with young transgender kids, and the third will focus on a summer camp for transgender children. They’re exciting, inclusive programming, representative of the media’s growing acceptance of transgender people. Regardless, visibility isn’t everything – trans people are still subject to horrific violence and discrimination – but it is an essential step on the path to acceptance, and more of it can only be a good thing.

I met Sweeney, whose documentary Secrets of Living Dolls also went viral last year, at crowded dive bar Williamsburg. The first thing I noticed when talking to him is how incredibly articulate and careful he is with his words, picking them very specifically. It’s the same kind of care that he shows in his films, which obviously tackles some delicate subject matter. We had an in-depth chat about this latest project, covering the emotional ups and downs of transitioning.

L-R Billy (25), Alfie (17), Ethan (19). Credit: Yoann Desmoyer-Davis

So how did Girls to Men come about?

I have been obsessed with transition videos on Youtube for a really long time. I had my eye on them and checked in on people regularly, especially trans guys on T, or testosterone.  I had a couple of favorites and I took them to Channel 4 and they were as blown away as I was and commissioned it as a one hour documentary which grew into three episodes: one about families in the UK with young transgender kids, one about the summer camp in America for transgender children ages 5 to 12, and Girls to Men.

How did you meet Jamie – the trans man that took a selfie everyday during his transition?

I had seen Jamie’s amazing videos. He had been keeping these videos over a couple of years. One of the things that you’ll see is that his voice was dropping. They’ll do a video every week and you’ll hear their voice drop over 3 or 4 months. I had always been a fan of Jamie’s videos. I got in contact with him and asked if he would like to take a part in the documentary. And when I asked if he had any records of his transition he said, “Yeah, I took a photos everyday for the last 3 years.” It’s astonishing that he had done that. I think the reason why is because there are a lot of obstacles and difficulties that trans people face in getting treatment.

He documented this so meticulously as a record of not only the changes he was going through, but of the obstacles he had overcome. I think that’s what you see in the transition videos. They’re not only about the transition, but also about the overcoming of the obstacles, whether they be in the form of family resistance, or whether it’s just the difference between getting medical treatment for trans people. It’s incredibly difficult.

Jamie’s collection of 1,400 selfies.

Were you expecting the huge media buzz that you’ve gotten from the trailer?

Yes and no. I made a documentary a year ago called Secrets of the Living Dollsand that had a similar amount of attention world wide when it went out. I think it’s because of a couple of things. One is because it’s a face. When you see a face, whether a female mask or Jamie’s face across 1,400 photos, there’s something quite hypnotic about it. But also because people are genuinely interested about the lives of trans people at the moment.

I think the video is quite celebratory, in that it’s a short, inspiring, uplifting 30 seconds that in a way represents the ability for everybody to change as a person, whether they’re trans or cis or whatever else. I think that’s why people can, hopefully, relate to the documentary whether they’re young trans people or cisgendered people who have no idea what trans life is like. I hope that they can see this idea of change and be inspired by that.

The documentary goes into the actual surgery and medicalized process of transitioning. Are you also hoping to explore the social side of transitioning? 

The documentary follows the three main characters through the three stages of medical intervention that some trans guys go through, though not all are uncomfortable in that way. We follow Alfie, who is 17 and having his first injection of testosterone; we follow him in the months after as his voice drops and as he grows a mustache. We also follow Ethan who is 19 and having a double mastectomy operation. He has both breasts removed because they’re a source of great discomfort for him.

Then we follow Billy, who is in his 20’s and having a penis created from the skin of his stomach. It’s the first time that that kind of operation has been shown on TV in detail. One thing I would say is that we do look into the emotional lives of the people in the film. We see the struggles that they go through with their families which are like the struggles that a lot of trans people encounter. So it is as much focused on the emotional ups and downs that trans people go through, as well as the medical intervention.

Jamie’s viral video.

There’s been a lot of talk from trans people asking media outlets to steer away from this medicalized view of trans people. Do you feel like in making this documentary you’ve added to the process of sensationalizing it?

I think that on the topic of trans men, or people that identify as transitioning from female to male, there is a lack of information out there about the stages of medical intervention. When it comes to trans women, there’s a huge amount of information available online and a lot of documentaries that cover it. There’s just not a great deal out there about the journey for trans men. That was one of the comments that we kept encountering when we were starting to make the documentary. For example, Billy would say, ‘I’m about to have this huge procedure – phalloplasty – and I don’t know anything.’ There’s very few photos, very few accounts of people going through it anywhere.

I think that’s a tragedy. One of the reasons for that is because there’s a lack of medical professionals who are working in this particular area. In the UK, there’s only one medical team that performs phalloplasties for the entire transgender community. That’s a community of at least 10,000 people. That’s also why the wait time is quite heartbreakingly long. So, I guess in response to the question ‘what does documenting medical transitions mean,’ it’s really about providing information and demystifying what trans guys go through.

What was your main goal going into this series? Do you feel like you’ve gotten there?

I do! I feel like there were two main goals. One was to provide a resource for young trans people who are at the early stages of their own trans journey, people who are thinking of transitioning socially, or are afraid of doing that, or people thinking of surgery, or hormones. The other goal was to demystify the world of young trans people for people who aren’t trans, but want to know about it. There’s an enormous amount of curiosity about the lives of trans people.

In terms of whether we’ve reached those goals, I think some of the comments we’ve read online – and I read them all – have been so incredibly positive for the first film. Young people are saying, ‘this has been so inspiring,’ or ‘this fills me with hope for my own future.’ I burst into tears every time I read a comment like that. The online responses tell me more than the newspaper reviews do about whether it’s reaching the people we intended.

“The mother of the twins featured in the film went to school the next morning, and a woman ran up to her crying and hugged her… ‘My son is just like your child.'”

My Transgender Kid.

Have you gotten any particularly touching stories about the reception of the film? 

Yeah! When the first film, My Transgender Kid, went out, the parents were understandably anxious about what the response would be in their communities. The mother of the twins featured in the film went to school the next morning, and a woman ran up to her crying and hugged her. The documentary participant had no idea what this was about. The crying woman told her that her child was a student at the school and said, ‘My son is just like your child. He’s starting to wear girl’s clothes. I didn’t know what to do or how to react, but after seeing the program I know I love him and that it will be okay. There are other people like him out there.’ That was really moving for her and for me as well.

One of the most remarkable things has been the news coverage of the documentaries. For the most part, they use the right pronouns, terminologies, and used respectful terms to describe the journeys of the people in the films. I think whether deliberately or inadvertently, a lot of coverage tends to use terminology or pronouns that are not correct, and sometimes downright disrespectful, but I haven’t seen that with these films. That I consider to be a great achievement, and I’ve been grateful for that. I wasn’t expecting that.

Though we have a long way to go, do you think we’ve seen a lot of change in the past ten years regarding the discourse around trans people?

Yeah, absolutely I do. In the last year there are countless figures that have become known for being trans or gender queer or gender fluid, and there are so many more people sharing that and feeling comfortable doing that. There’s still an enormous way to go and it would be a discourtesy to not acknowledge that. One of the statistics that we return to a lot in the films is that 40% of adult trans people will attempt suicide. I think what that says is that we’re not looking after our trans population, which is heartbreaking. The hope with these films is that by showing these stories and these lives that people will empathize and understand what it is to be trans.

Are you giving a more human, or relatable, face for the trans community to identify with?

I think that by showing ordinary lives of the people in the film, we’re certainly portraying the stories of young trans people in a way that hopefully audiences can relate to and identify with. The tone of the documentaries is such that people will hopefully feel immersed in the lives of the people we’re with.

Is there anything in the larger trans discourse that people are missing out on?

One of the things that we’re lucky to be bringing to mainstream discourse about trans lives are the experiences of very young trans people, some as young as five. They’re talking very cogently about their identity, and they’re very aware of how society reacts to that identity. It’s difficult to talk to children about their experiences, we were incredibly lucky to come across these people who were so remarkably articulate in talking about what it’s like to begin transitioning into society. There’s a level of insight that children can give that you don’t get with adults. I wouldn’t say it’s honesty, an innocence.

Did you feel pressure to give justice to these stories as a cisgendered man? How did you mitigate that pressure?

Absolutely I did. There’s a real shortage of trans voices in media; it’s something I’m very conscious of. I wish there were more trans filmmakers that were being given the opportunity to tell their stories firsthand. In the future, I hope there are many more trans people making documentaries about the trans experience, as well as every other aspect of life. And obviously I hope that that changes, I wish that there was more diversity both on-screen and off-screen, or in any industry for that matter.

What are you hoping audiences to walk away with?

 I want them to have a greater understanding of what it’s like to be young and trans in the US and the UK in 2015. I hope the questions that both trans and non-trans people have about that experience are addressed seriously and fairly. And I hope that it helps to move discussions of trans lives forward in a way that is accurate and honest. And that it demystifies these experiences. To understand that being transgender is merely a facet of these people’s lives. One of the comments made during filming was ‘I’ll always be a trans man, but to me it’s not the trans part that matters, it’s the man part that matters.’ And I think that properly expresses that.

Check Channel 4’s airing schedule here for showings of Girls to Men, and stay tuned to Milk for updates on the American broadcasts. 

Visit Nick’s website here.

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