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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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