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Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

SIFF Documentary Review: “The Most Dangerous Year” highlights the urgency of the fight for transgender rights

Faced with the chal­lenge of mak­ing a film on a top­ic that was so per­son­al to her fam­i­ly, Vla­da Knowl­ton knew that she had no choice but to push through.

The Most Dangerous Year

The Most Dan­ger­ous Year
Direc­tor: Vla­da Knowl­ton
Release Year: 2018
Run­ning time: 90 min­utes
Watch trail­er

“There are per­son­al top­ics that are sim­ply inspi­ra­tional and then there are per­son­al top­ics that are also mat­ters of life and death. And this one, unfor­tu­nate­ly, more close­ly fit the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry.”

“The Most Dan­ger­ous Year”, pre­mier­ing at SIFF 2018 next week, gets its title from a report issued by the Human Rights Cam­paign that warned that 2016 was going to be the most dan­ger­ous year for trans­gen­der Amer­i­cans.

The film chron­i­cles the fight in Wash­ing­ton over so-called “bath­room bills” through the sto­ries of a num­ber of fam­i­lies, includ­ing Knowl­ton’s, with a trans­gen­der child.

Knowl­ton and her hus­band have two daugh­ters and one son. Their youngest daugh­ter was born with a body typ­i­cal­ly asso­ci­at­ed with being male, and thus they were rais­ing her as a boy. But at age three, she start­ed to tell her par­ents that she was a girl. When she was being social­ized and treat­ed as a boy, their daugh­ter was unhap­py and strug­gling, but once they accept­ed what she was telling them, that she was a girl, and start­ed treat­ing her as a girl, she blos­somed.

In 2016, their trans­gen­der daugh­ter was a spunky, con­fi­dent, five year old.

But the specter of com­ing fight for her most basic rights was a con­cern for the whole fam­i­ly, as well as for the sup­port sys­tem of oth­er fam­i­lies with trans­gen­der chil­dren that the Knowl­tons were a part of.

So Knowl­ton set out to make this film to doc­u­ment their fight as well as to edu­cate more peo­ple about what being trans­gen­der real­ly means, which she believes will ulti­mate­ly lead to greater sup­port for the trans­gen­der com­mu­ni­ty.

When asked if the deep per­son­al nature of the top­ic for her fam­i­ly ulti­mate­ly made it more chal­leng­ing to make than film, she said that was def­i­nite­ly the case.

I think this par­tic­u­lar top­ic, one which held my own child’s life and future in the bal­ance, made the process of mak­ing the film more chal­leng­ing..”

“I think one of my top chal­lenges here was to make sure that I didn’t allow a sense of despair or fear cloud my judge­ment when going through each stage of the film­mak­ing process. It was def­i­nite­ly an exer­cise in com­part­men­tal­iza­tion, the likes of which I’d nev­er attempt­ed before.”

Par­tic­u­lar­ly tough, Knowl­ton said, was “hav­ing to inter­view or film peo­ple who don’t con­sid­er my daugh­ter sane or who don’t think her core iden­ti­ty is real.”

In Wash­ing­ton State, and in cities and states across the coun­try, bills were being pro­posed that pro­hib­it­ed peo­ple from using restrooms that match their gen­der iden­ti­ty, and instead requir­ing that all peo­ple use the restrooms based on their gen­i­talia or the sex that they were assigned at birth.

Anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws in Wash­ing­ton State have allowed peo­ple that are trans­gen­der to use the bath­room, wash­room, or restroom that match­es their iden­ti­ty since 2006, but as mil­i­tant right wing rad­i­cals across the coun­try ral­lied around the cause of enforc­ing their patri­ar­chal val­ues sys­tem on every­one else, sev­er­al groups in Wash­ing­ton began clam­or­ing for leg­is­la­tion here.

First, six dif­fer­ent bills were ini­tial­ly pro­posed in the state Leg­is­la­ture, with one, Sen­ate Bill 6443 hav­ing pub­lic com­mit­tee hear­ings and mak­ing it all the way to the Sen­ate floor for a full vote after it was passed by the Repub­li­can-led com­mit­tee.

Fam­i­lies fea­tured in the film tes­ti­fied at the hear­ings and par­tic­i­pat­ed in ral­lies in front of the Capi­tol Build­ing in Olympia.

Thank­ful­ly the bill lost by just one vote, as a few Repub­li­cans split with the rest of their par­ty and vot­ed against tak­ing basic rights away from trans­gen­der indi­vid­u­als.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the fight was not over, as a right wing orga­ni­za­tion in Wash­ing­ton that had led the fight against domes­tic part­ner­ships in 2009 and against the state’s mar­riage equal­i­ty law in 2012 cre­at­ed a group with the mis­lead­ing name “Just Want Pri­va­cy” with the goal of col­lect­ing enough sig­na­tures to get a par­tial repeal of the state’s anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion rules on the bal­lot.

The Knowl­tons and their sup­port group of par­ents made a plan increase their activism in order to ensure ini­tia­tive effort would not be able to get the required num­ber of sig­na­tures. While most of the fam­i­lies were nor­mal­ly pret­ty pri­vate and not want­i­ng to draw atten­tion to the fact that the had a trans­gen­der child, they all agreed they had to become more pub­lic in order to reach and edu­cate more peo­ple, so that peo­ple would real­ize “our kids are just kids” and that there was no rea­son to fear trans­gen­der peo­ple using bath­rooms that fit their gen­der iden­ti­ty.

The Wash­ing­ton Won’t Dis­crim­i­nate cam­paign kicked off in April of 2016 to counter Just Want Pri­va­cy’s sig­na­ture col­lec­tion efforts.

The coali­tion con­sist­ed of over five-hun­dred busi­ness­es, labor unions, non-prof­its and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Equal Rights Wash­ing­ton, Legal Voice, Moms Ris­ing, and the Gen­der Jus­tice League, as well as NPI’s Per­ma­nent Defense project.

Oth­er impor­tant sup­port­ers of trans­gen­der rights fea­tured in the film are Aiden Key, a trans­gen­der man who is the founder and leader of the sup­port group for par­ents of trans­gen­der kids that the Knowl­tons par­tic­i­pate in, and Wash­ing­ton State Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Cyrus Habib.

Habib pow­er­ful­ly address­es the spe­cious main argu­ment of those who advo­cate for so-called “bath­room bills” by claim­ing women and chil­dren will be at risk of some kind of vic­tim­iza­tion or assault.

“Let’s be clear: there is no doc­u­ment­ed evi­dence that peo­ple who are trans­gen­der are any more like­ly to be preda­tors than the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion,” Habib says. “There’s no rea­son to believe that indi­vid­u­als using the bath­room that fits their gen­der iden­ti­ty leads to any of these sorts of acts.”

Habib then points out the polit­i­cal moti­va­tions for these emp­ty argu­ments. “I under­stand that there are peo­ple out there who are being told that allow­ing trans­gen­der indi­vid­u­als to use the cor­rect bath­room will lead to dan­ger for them­selves, or even worse, their chil­dren, and that can be a very pow­er­ful threat or a very pow­er­ful way to instill fear in peo­ple…”

“It’s an attempt to broad­en the appeal of this social­ly con­ser­v­a­tive mea­sures, by get­ting peo­ple to see a bogey­man where there sim­ply isn’t one.”

That analy­sis match­es the data from the two hun­dred and twen­ty-five cities across the coun­try that have trans­gen­der anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws, as there is zero evi­dence of an increase in crimes or com­plaints.

Thank­ful­ly, Just Want Pri­va­cy was unable to col­lect enough sig­na­tures to get their dis­crim­i­na­to­ry bill on the bal­lot in 2016. They tried again in 2017, and also failed. At the time “The Most Dan­ger­ous Year” was com­plet­ed, it was believed that Just Want Pri­va­cy would try again in 2018, but no such effort has mate­ri­al­ized. The group appears to have giv­en up on qual­i­fy­ing an ini­tia­tive to the statewide bal­lot for now.

I asked Knowl­ton if this made her feel like at least the issue of pub­lic bath­room use is now fair­ly safe in Wash­ing­ton State. She answered that she sus­pects the group is wait­ing to see the results of sim­i­lar ini­ti­ates in oth­er parts of the coun­try this year. She sites one that failed in Anchor­age, Alas­ka in April, cur­rent sig­na­ture-gath­er­ing efforts in Mon­tana for an ini­tia­tive to poten­tial­ly go on the bal­lot, and a mea­sure that will be vot­ed on in Mass­a­chu­setts in Novem­ber ask­ing vot­ers if they want to repeal or pre­serve their cur­rent trans­gen­der anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion law.

“I don’t think we can say that trans­gen­der rights are tru­ly safe in Wash­ing­ton until they are safe across the coun­try,” Knowl­ton said.

“And that, of course, would also require a com­mit­ment to equal­i­ty and civ­il rights at the fed­er­al lev­el. So there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“There are bat­tles on sev­er­al fronts right now,” she says.

“The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is mak­ing attempts to roll back non-dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions for trans­gen­der peo­ple in health­care. Obvi­ous­ly that would be dev­as­tat­ing to trans peo­ple and their fam­i­lies.”

“The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has also recent­ly rescind­ed pro­tec­tions for trans­gen­der pris­on­ers. That is par­tic­u­lar­ly dan­ger­ous for trans­gen­der women inmates who are exposed to an inor­di­nate­ly high­er rate of rape and abuse. The Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion has indi­cat­ed it won’t pro­tect trans­gen­der stu­dents from dis­crim­i­na­tion in their pub­lic school dis­tricts. And I think we’ve all heard about the administration’s ongo­ing attempts to ban trans­gen­der sol­diers from our mil­i­tary.”

“These are all mali­cious attacks against a minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tion and these attacks rely on one thing and one thing only: the majority’s igno­rance, ” Knowl­ton adds.

“Main­stream sci­ence and med­i­cine have already estab­lished that trans­gen­der peo­ple are not men­tal­ly ill; that they are born trans­gen­der; that being trans­gen­der in and of itself is not any sort of pathol­o­gy but is rather part of the nat­ur­al diver­si­ty of the human race.”

The film fea­tures a num­ber of med­ical experts explain­ing the sci­ence, includ­ing Dr. Kevin Hat­field of The Poly­clin­ic in Seat­tle.

He explains that a per­son being trans­gen­der is not some­thing any­one has con­trol over, but that it is deter­mined genet­i­cal­ly, much like how we inher­it eye col­or or are born with left- or right-hand dom­i­nance.

Knowl­ton feels that if more peo­ple were aware of these facts, it would go a long way toward end­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion. “I think that one of the most impor­tant things we as allies can do is edu­cate our­selves and oth­ers on these types of facts. Edu­ca­tion leads to under­stand­ing, which leads to jus­tice.”

Read­ing Knowl­ton rec­om­mends for fur­ther infor­ma­tion include:

  • this guide for sup­port­ing and car­ing for trans kids put togeth­er by the Human Rights Cam­paign and the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics;
  • this analy­sis of pre­vi­ous research on sup­port­ing gen­der diverse chil­dren by the Col­lege of Fam­i­ly Physi­cians of Cana­da;
  • this lit­er­a­ture review from Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty on the impor­tance of tran­si­tion­ing for men­tal well­be­ing;
  • and, for those who don’t a mind denser, sci­en­tif­ic jour­nal arti­cle, this arti­cle explains how the gen­i­tals and the gen­der of the brain are formed at dif­fer­ent stages of fetal devel­op­ment.

Explains Knowl­ton: “Those two sys­tems are inde­pen­dent of each oth­er and it has been estab­lished that a fetus that devel­ops a male repro­duc­tive tract can some­times devel­op a brain with a female gen­der iden­ti­ty and vice ver­sa. So this arti­cle both under­scores the bio­log­i­cal under­pin­nings of being born trans­gen­der or cis­gen­der and offers some hypothe­ses of how this might hap­pen.”

The Nation­al Cen­ter for Trans­gen­der Equal­i­ty is also a great resource for infor­ma­tion and for start­ing to take action. You can sign up for their email list, check out their Action Cen­ters with detailed info on spe­cif­ic issues like health care and schools, or make a dona­tion to sup­port their work.

“The Most Dan­ger­ous Year” is also great first step towards edu­cat­ing your­self on trans­gen­der rights and what is hap­pen­ing local­ly in Wash­ing­ton State.

If you are in the Seat­tle area, I high­ly rec­om­mend get­ting tick­ets to one of the SIFF show­ings. After SIFF the film will be going to oth­er fes­ti­vals, so like and fol­low the Face­book page to find out where it will be going next and get details of future screen­ings as they are sched­uled.

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