In the interest of full disclosure: the author of this piece identifies as genderqueer and believes transgender journalists should be the first ones allowed to report on the issues pertaining to us.
As the United States slowly crawls out of the horrors of the pandemic, praising 2021 for all the ways it's different from 2020, the LGBTQ+ folks have a hard time sharing the joy. Instead, the transgender and genderqueer community witness the news with bated breath as the U.S. lawmakers enact transphobic legislative efforts across the country, putting the lives of our youngest under intense scrutiny.
In Arizona, there have been bills banning TGNC youth from partaking in any interscholastic sports proposed to the State Senate. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill hindering the ability of female trans-athletes to play on public school teams. In total there have been more than 70 legislative efforts to backtrack on trans rights introduced in 2021 alone with six more months of the year ahead.
Worse yet, young athletes from Florida can now be forced to undergo unnecessary and intrusive genital inspections to “confirm” their assigned-at-birth sex. Well, did we really learn nothing about sexual abuse disguised as medical procedures from the decades of athlete abuse by USA Gymnastics and the former national team doctor, Larry Nassar?
“We gave everything we had to give,” Representative Omari Hardy tweeted after the bill went into effect. “We reasoned, we shouted, we pleaded, we cried, we broke down [and] left the House Floor. But today, Florida Republicans passed a bill not only banning trans kids from playing sports but subjecting kids whose sex may be disputed to genital inspections.”
In the wake of such suffocating for the community news, Aurora Bachman’s film, JOYCHILD, comes as a lungful of fresh air. We present to you an interview with Bachman about the process of directing her documentary, what it was like for a cisgender woman of color to work on a movie about a genderqueer kid, and how a documentary can be a love letter and a guide to being a parent-ally.
Watch JOYCHILD trailer here.
About Aurora Bachman: Bachman recently graduated as a Master of Fine Arts from Stanford’s Documentary Film and Video graduate program. She’s currently based in San Francisco and plans to work on promoting JOYCHILD as well as finishing up her final MFA project for the foreseeable future.
Finley: How did you come up with the idea for JOYCHILD?
Aurora: I made [the movie] in my first year of my MFA. I made it because shortly before I started conceiving the idea, my long-term romantic partner at the time had come out to me as transgender. Initially, that was very challenging for me because I wasn’t aware that's how they identified. I don't think that they were even aware at the time either. And it was a really big change in our relationship. I was sort of struggling with navigating how to perceive them, how to love them through that. So I think joy child was a part of my process of trying to understand and move through the difficult conversations we were having. Ultimately, the movie became like a love letter to my partner. It was a way to say “I'm listening to you and I love you.”
Finley: Did you consult your partner at the time on, you know, the filming process. On what it's like, to portray a trans-person?
Aurora: I think part of why I made the film was because we were struggling to communicate about it. They were very much like “this is how I feel but I don't ever want to talk about it.” In a way, I had to process it all alone. Of course, they knew I was making the film, but they weren't a consultant because they were uncomfortable speaking about all of this. I suppose, my film was also a way to begin this difficult conversation with them. I just very much wanted the film to be driven by the children portrayed and their parents. They were running the show, and I was following their lead, which’s why there wasn’t a need for anyone else to consult me.
Finley: Could you describe your creative process a little further?
Aurora: Of course! All of the visuals in the film came from conversations that I had with the kids about who they were and what they enjoyed doing as children, and their moments of joy. I wanted to show authentic parts of their lifestyles. Some people asked me if the conversations you hear in the film were scripted. Like, how would a kid say this if it’s not scripted? But, really, the movie was very minimally scripted or edited. It's just their conversations, exactly as they happened. Also, we had lots and lots of conversations about the film with the children and their parents before, during, and after the shooting process. So I very much see the process of making the film itself as highly collaborative.
Finley: Yes, as you said, the movie felt very honest and very authentic. The way it was done made me feel connected to the kids’ personalities and their uniqueness. So how did you come up with the idea to make a film specifically about gender-expansive children?
Aurora: I suppose I was generally interested in the way kids experienced gender. I studied psychology as an [undergraduate student] and, specifically, attachment theory, and I worked in a lab. For people who aren't familiar with attachment theory: this sector of psychology studies the patterns of relationships we make throughout our lives and the way we form attachments. Attachment theory states that, basically, you create a template for the way you're going to form relationships throughout your life based on the relationship you have with your mother. And the idea is that, ideally, a mother acts as a “safe haven” for their child. And if a mother creates a safe environment for their child, the child feels secure enough to explore the world and to explore themselves, because they always know they have this safe space to return to. And so I was really interested in sort of exploring the idea of a mother as a safe haven for a child as they're exploring their gender identity. I knew that I wanted to explore gender identity through the lens of a parent-child relationship, and have the moms in the film be very peripherally present with the body of the film being about the children.
Finley: I’ve never heard of attachment theory before! This makes a lot of sense. How did you manage to find kids and parents to participate in the documentary? I imagine it must’ve been really difficult, with the children being young and all.
Aurora: Oh, yes. That was really, really challenging. Um, I can imagine. I mean, having someone put their child in a film is sort of a scary and potentially risky thing to do. Especially when you have a gender-expansive child! Many parents didn't want their children to be filmed because they didn't want to potentially expose them to any kind of harm. Being public about your identity can be hard to navigate. There was one camp of parents that I would approach that would say “no,” because it just didn’t feel safe to them. And there was another group of parents who had very young children who felt like someday their child might want to medically transition and pass as [cisgender]. The parents didn’t want to make any decisions for them or publicize the fact that they were trans. I knew I was asking for a lot. Eventually, I came across this playgroup in Berkeley, California, for gender-expansive kids and their families called “Rainbow Families.” The kids and their parents meet up at playgrounds twice a month and just spend time in the community, it's very informal. After I found out about the group, I found out where they would be hanging out one day. I was kind of desperate and just showed up. I know it could’ve been seen as creepy and I tried my best to be very transparent about why I was there. There were a couple of parents and kids who were really receptive and very interested in being a part of the film. And so I ended up with three different kids in JOYCHILD.
Finley: Were you worried about being a cis-person making a movie about transgender folks?
Aurora: Definitely. Yes. It's something I always try to be transparent about. I think it's really important. You know, far too often stories about trans people, queer people, people of color, etc. are told by white, cis, straight people. I see it all the time. I’m a person of color and I've always seen these films that are just made by people who should not be making them. So it’s something I try to be hyper-aware of. And I'm always trying to grow and learn, and find better ways of doing things. So, you know, if or when that critique comes, I'm welcoming of it. And I'm excited to hear what people have to say and to learn from that.
Finley: I suppose another route for critics can come from their transphobic beliefs. For example, from republicans. Have you received any such backlash?
Aurora: Luckily, I haven’t yet. With the film coming out in the pandemic I’ve been able to receive very limited feedback as of right now, especially with all of the viewings being virtual. When it comes to the negative feedback, it mostly came from people skeptical or unsure about the concept of the film. I often get people misgendering the child and I'm like… Did you even watch the movie? There hasn’t been an outright hostile reaction but a lot of older folks don’t understand the concept of being gender-expansive or non-binary, so there has been a lot of ignorance. I suspect, though, that might change when the movie is more available to the public. And, you know, I feel very protective of the kids. I hope that this will be a positive experience for them. I just sort of feel like you have to be a monster to watch this and feel anger. I think that this film has come out at the right time. I didn't make it in response to anything that was happening politically or socially, I made it in response to my own life. But, of course, it's timely with all the anti-trans legislation, with trying to block kids' access to healthcare, or take away their ability to participate in school sports, or, you know, use a certain bathroom. I wanted to make real trans people seen, I guess. Now it’s like, here’s who will be impacted.
Screen JOYCHILD here through The New Yorker.