BY ANGELA BARBUTI
In “Becoming More Visible,” audiences are brought into the worlds of four transgender youth transitioning in New York City. As we watch them starting new lives, we celebrate their victories as well as empathize with the struggles that come with these life-changing journeys.
“They’re fearless. They’re trailblazers leading the way. And I’m so proud to have been a part of their lives,” said Pamela French, who served as the film’s producer and director. It was by way of a citywide casting call through homeless shelters and community centers that French found four inspirational subjects who wanted their stories told.
Katherine, 19, is living in Brooklyn with her traditional Bangladeshi family who find it difficult to accept their new daughter. Twenty-three-year-old Olivia left her family in Atlanta and moved to New York to transition, while looking for acting and modeling work. Brooklyn native Morgin, 22, recently had gender-conforming surgery, and is pursuing her musical talents. Nineteen-year-old Sean lives with a supportive mother in Westchester and travels to Manhattan for doctor visits and to perform stand-up comedy.
Manhattan is the backdrop for the film and audiences are taken into the places that are resources for the LGBTQ community here, such as the Center at Mount Sinai, that serve their medical and mental needs, Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, which provides health care regardless of financial situations and Ali Forney Center, the largest LGBT community center in the country. “I thought it really painted a good picture of what the city is doing for people in that situation,” French said.
What stood out about these four people that made you want to tell their stories?We wanted to represent both sides, male to female, female to male. We wanted diversity, so we have an African American, a Hispanic, a Bengali, and it was nice to have a kid from the suburbs. ... And the access that each of these kids allowed us was very cool. They really wanted to do it too. Katherine is now a full-on activist. She’s working to help people. The first day she came to the casting in that dress, she was shy and just started transitioning. She has a really hard life living with her family. She should get out of there, but she wants her familial love. She wants that so badly. Olivia, in a way, has a very unusual character, because she doesn’t really have anybody who knows about her, hardly any friends, nobody to bounce off of. Whereas the other people had their mothers, families, social workers, doctors. I guess they all sort of balanced each other.
Morgin explained her surgery and how she felt after it, which was a powerful scene. Why did you think that was important to include?A lot of people don’t understand what’s going on and a lot of people don’t understand what’s going on down there. Do they have male organs or female organs? I think that question is really “what’s between your legs?” a lot of times. I didn’t get into that with them. Morgin had just had the surgery; it was a part of her story. She had complications; it was part of her life at the time. That was huge, her hormones and having to deal with how she felt about dilation. She had the surgery in the Philadelphia area and had to get there, so I thought that was a great time to spend some time together and shoot. When we showed the film at a festival in California, a young girl came up to Morgin and wanted to know about the surgery.
The cosmetic surgeon interviewed said she noticed the calmness after the body touches the soul. Did you see that?Yeah, it’s really amazing how they’ve changed. I’m closer with some than others. Morgin went through three major changes. At first, she was really interested in being a part of the film. And then as she become more in tune with her body as a woman, she less wanted to be involved, because she really is a woman. She’s not a transgender person anymore and doesn’t want to be reminded about this other person. She hates seeing the film. Then she became adamant about being part of it. And then when Caitlyn Jenner came out, she realized maybe it’s a good place to say that she’s a woman of trans experience. And now, she doesn’t really like the film. It’s horrible for her to see, because it’s not her anymore.
Katherine’s family found it hard to accept her transition. How’s it going with her family now?They don’t even talk to her. They didn’t really talk to her while we were filming, that was like an anomaly that they let us do that. She lives in hell there. She works until late and then goes home and crashes..
You filmed Sean performing at Gotham Comedy Club. What was that experience like for him?He’s still coming into his own as far as his comedic power and voice. He’s still finding himself. He’s also a little shy and still trying to become who he is as a male. I thought that was really brave of him, like Nancy [his mother] said in the film. So that was exciting.
Now going to Olivia, I thought it was interesting how she showed the other side of it. She was wondering if having the injections was worth it. What was she experiencing then and how is she doing now?She was back and forth. I had some issues with her. I love her, but we didn’t have as many opportunities to work together. And she never wants to see the film. So she did it; it’s done and there’s only good vibes. I think she’s incredibly articulate and really nailed what her life is. I think it’s phenomenal of her, her sense of self, but she also questions it. It’s not easy.
What is the message that you want people to take away from the film?The film has an opportunity to open doors and normalize what people think about being transgender. And allows parents, kids who are questioning their gender, or people in general, to not stigmatize people for being different and to allow them to be themselves and be loved. It really comes down to that. Accepting people for who they are. Not trying to put people in boxes. It’s a film of hope. It’s a film for parents also. I’m sure it’s frightening to wonder if your kid might be not be happy in their own body they were born with and what other people will think. I want it to be a film that empowers youth, parents and the audience to just really be more accepting, loving and open to things that are not quote unquote normal or as we want them to be.