Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

2016 Was “The Most Dangerous Year” for Transgender People [EXCLUSIVE]

In 2016 as so called “bathroom bills” swept the nation, trans people found themselves more vulnerable than ever. Not only were hate groups purposely stoking fear and spreading misinformation, but people were falling for it.

For documentary filmmaker and director Vlada Knowlton this crisis hit particularly close to home. Her daughter is transgender and in this film, she tackles this civil rights battle from the perspective of a group of embattled parents as they band together to fight a deluge of proposed laws that would strip away the rights of their young transgender children. With the help of a coalition of state lawmakers and civil rights activists, these families embarked on an uncharted journey of fighting to protect and preserve their children’s human rights and freedoms in this present-day civil rights movement. 

TV GOODNESS: I know this story is really personal to you, but what was the moment this issue reached the tipping point for you and made you think, “I have to do something about this?”

VLADA KNOWLTON: “I found out that these so-called bathroom bills are not only propagating throughout the country, but they’re coming into our state. Six of them came to our legislature, our House of Representatives and our Senate in Washington.

When I found out that those bills were going to be debated, proposed, [it] was pretty clear to me at that point that my own daughter’s rights and the rights of all trans people were going to be under horrific attack at that point. We basically didn’t have much of a choice but to stand up and start going public and speaking out against this.

I had the resources and the ability to make a film. I’m a filmmaker. I had that skill, so that’s what I had to offer to the civil rights fight. I decided at that point, it wasn’t about whether or not I was comfortable with making that film or going public. At that point, we basically had to fight for people’s lives. So, there wasn’t that much of a choice.”

TV GOODNESS:  I’m glad that people are recognizing that this is a civil rights movement. It’s very serious.

KNOWLTON: “Oh, extremely serious. This is about innocent people’s ability to move around in their society, to be public individuals in their society with the same rights as everyone else. To be able to live their lives, to have jobs, to have housing, to have healthcare, to have access to safe and secure and public education. So, this is absolutely a civil rights fight that basically affects whether or not people can live. It’s a matter of life and death to have civil rights and equality in a modern society. It’s as simple as that.”

TV GOODNESS: It does seem like it was an extremely difficult and personal decision to make your private life public. What was that experience like and was it difficult?

KNOWLTON: “Yes, it was definitely difficult. It was difficult for me. It was difficult for all the families that agreed to participate, and I did have a couple of families who opted out in the end. They thought about doing it, but then they decided it was too much of a risk, and I totally understand that.

For families with transgender kids, we’re still, for the most part, under attack because of ignorance, because of lack of education, lack of information. So, coming out to speak as a family, as parents, it’s still a very risky thing in our current world.

I have this very strong sense of responsibility and obligation. We understand that having seen other civil rights fights in our history that this knowledge, that silence equals death. We understand that. We see what happens to transgender youth when they don’t have rights, when they don’t have support and acceptance. Suicide rates go up, and it’s not because they’re transgender. It’s because of the way they’re treated by their society and by their community. It’s a human issue; it’s not just a transgender issue. 

So, yeah, it’s risky. It’s frightening. It’s infuriating at the same time, but we’ve felt like we had a responsibility and an obligation to this community, so we went forward with it.”

TV GOODNESS: How did you approach allies, educators and the people initiating these bills to be in the film?

KNOWLTON: “I have many contacts in our community because I was already part of a parent support group and have other friends in our community who have access to lawmakers. At the time when this was happening, the people involved, the lawmakers involved, the activists, they understood how pressing this issue was. We could reach out in an email, and say, ‘Hey, I’m a filmmaker locally. I’m also a parent of a transgender child, and I’m part of this support group, and’ so on and so forth. I wanted to talk to them about whatever bill we were talking about or the issue or the ballot initiative. 

They understood that pretty quickly. So, that’s not to say that everybody said yes. A lot of people didn’t say yes, and especially people on the side of taking away rights from trans people. So, the people that were for the bathroom bills, many of them didn’t agree, and for various reasons I’m sure.”

TV GOODNESS: I learned a lot about the trans community, about kids and adults who are supported and accepted. I had no idea that 59% of trans adults avoid using public restrooms for fear of assault and harassment. Why was it important for you to include some facts and figures? Is it because you wanted more people to have an idea of what they go through every day or was it more than that?

KNOWLTON: “As you said, you didn’t know about these statistics. I wanted people to be aware of what it’s really like for transgender people in our society. It’s already difficult enough as it is.

There’s already so much just discrimination and bigotry against them because of ignorance, and passing laws to take even more rights away from them, to indicate to the rest of the world that it’s okay to attack them and harass them will make things even that much worse. So you’re adding insult to injury at an extremely egregious level at this point.

So, I wanted it to be clear. I want to make sure that people understood that these are individuals who are already so vulnerable to attack, and they’re not posing a danger of any sort to the rest of us. They’re just trying to live their lives just like everybody else. Making their lives even more difficult, taking away their basic, civil and human rights is ridiculous. It makes it even more difficult for them to live.”

TV GOODNESS: I was surprised by how many people brought up the fact that there are men waiting to dress up as women, so they can attack people in the bathroom when it has literally never happened.

KNOWLTON: “It’s a very effective fear-mongering tactic that’s not actually grounded in reality. It’s not supported by any actual real data or statistics.

We feel vulnerable when we’re in a bathroom or when we’re changing somewhere, and the idea of some sort of a nefarious predator coming in there is very frightening to people. So, it’s an effective fear-mongering tactic.

Even after the Massachusetts ballot initiative that tried to take away rights from transgender people, after that failed, even the right-wing groups that were for it came out and admitted that they knew that the bathroom predator myth was, in fact, just a myth, that it’s not actually borne out by facts.

These fear-mongering tactics have been used in the past against other minorities. Very similar tactics were used against gay people a few decades ago, and very similar tactics of fear of people in bathrooms were used against people of color even more decades ago. So, it’s effective, and they try it.

TV GOODNESS: Did anything surprise you when you were making this film?

KNOWLTON: “I mean, a lot of things and not enough things, I suppose. I was already sad and jaded about how much ignorance and bigotry there is against trans people, so that didn’t surprise me. But it did surprise me a little bit how vociferous and bold the anti-transgender contingent was with their claims about danger to the public posed by trans people, [saying] people are dressing up as transgender people [to attack them.]

I was quite surprised about, like the Just Want Privacy group, how bold they were in stating claims that weren’t backed up by any facts. I was also a little bit surprised that, quite honestly, the general public didn’t care so much. They just listened and then didn’t go [do any] fact-checking. I think that’s where the boldness comes from.

Not that many people are willing to do fact-checking. They just take people who are on TV or on the radio at their word. That’s a human instinct, I guess, as well. So, yeah, that was a little surprising and a little sad for me, definitely.”

TV GOODNESS: Is there one thing or maybe a couple of things that you’d like to see allies do in helping with this fight?

KNOWLTON: “I would definitely like to see allies take more time and effort to get educated as much as possible, so that they have the tools and the information available to them to challenge people’s ignorance whenever they see it, whenever it presents itself, when people say things that are clearly wrong about transgender people, when people attempt to propagate myths and misconceptions about transgender people. This happens every day, especially on social media. 

I would encourage allies to challenge those attempts at propagating misinformation because we know the facts at this point. The scientific and medical community around the world knows the facts about trans people. They know it’s not a choice. They know they’re born with their gender identity just like everybody else.

I’d like to see more allies coming out and speaking up on behalf of trans friends saying, ‘No, you’re wrong. That’s actually completely false what you’re saying. It’s not a choice. It’s not a mental illness. They’re just regular people just like everybody else who are born the way they’re born, and they deserve all the same rights, human and civil rights as everybody else.’”

TV GOODNESS: Any final thoughts you want to share?

KNOWLTON: “I hope people aren’t nervous or afraid to watch this film because they don’t know much about this issue. This is actually a very educational film, and I think it’s pretty easy to watch. I made it in an attempt to actually make it something that’s user-friendly for a mainstream audience that doesn’t know much about this issue. So, I hope people do watch it.”

TV GOODNESS: I hope so too. I felt like I learned a lot. So, thank you for that, and I hope this helps in the fight. There’s so much going on in the world, but I hope people devote some time and energy to this.

KNOWLTON: “Me too. Me too.”

Edited for space and content.

The Most Dangerous Year is out now on VOD and DVD.

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