New documentary puts trans people on both sides of the camera

‘More Than T’ shows how trans people tell trans stories.

CREDIT: More Than T
CREDIT: More Than T

One might think that a documentary made largely by transgender people that tells the stories of seven transgender people would mostly be about transgender issues. But it’s not — and that’s the point.

On Friday night, Showtime will premiere More Than T, a look into the lives of seven very different trans people who have far more to say about themselves than what it was like to transition.

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“Attorney, Artist, Actor, Advocate, Counselor, Mentor, Minister” — these are the terms the documentary uses to introduce its subjects, and they’re only the beginning of each person’s story.

The film is a project of the M·A·C AIDS Fund, a charity founded by M·A·C Cosmetics. The organization sought out Silas Howard, the first trans director on the Amazon show Transparent, with the goal of creating a series of vignettes. Howard recruited Jen Richards of Her Story and Nashville to help out, and the project turned into a film and an even wider education effort.

“We really wanted a diversity of voices to be represented,” Howard told ThinkProgress in an interview. “It’s still sorely lacking in mainstream media, and what’s interesting about gender nonconforming and trans communities is we’re so often at the intersection of the most vulnerable.” The film captures these intersections across race, gender presentation, socioeconomic class, and age, portraying a community that fails to fit into a single mold.

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“They’re so inspiring in that — in spite of everything they’ve been through — they talk about their circumstantial privilege and that they are still the anomaly and they’re reaching toward helping other people,” he said. “That gratitude and grace that they all embody is just very inspirational to me.”

More Than T arrives just as many are engaged in a renewed conversation about the importance of casting trans actors in trans roles.

For instance, the announcement of cisgender actor Matt Bomer’s starring role as a transgender woman in the film Anything raised concerns last August — and the first preview clip for the film, released last week, seems to confirm fears that the movie will fall into familiar tropes.

By casting Bomer, the film regurgitates an all-too-familiar, narrow portrayal of a transgender character: the role is played by a cis actor; the character is a sex worker; the character is worthy of pity but not respect; and the character is not “passable” in their gender presentation.

In response, several trans actors produced a new video explaining why Hollywood must do better by them.

Howard’s documentary casts an even darker shadow on this stale portrayal, and he believes that trans people telling trans stories adds a certain urgency to the project.

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“The media may have a certain focus and storytelling may have a certain focus, but we’re not isolated in a bubble of our own identities and needs,” he said. “We’re all codeswitching. We’re all coming from different backgrounds.” Likewise, Howard didn’t make the film for a trans audience. “This is maybe the filmmaker’s delusion, but I make my work for everyone,” he said. “I hope that the specificity makes it universal. I hope people that think they have nothing in common with anyone in this community feels touched by somebody’s experience in the world.”

And the film doesn’t stand alone. Its cast, along with numerous other members of the transgender community, also feature in a series of “Trans 102” PSAs that Richards wrote and produced in partnership with Refinery29. These videos cover a variety of topics, including basic language and pronouns, trans visibility in the media, trans health care needs, being trans in school, and of course, bathroom access.

So viewers can learn from the film that trans lives are far more complex than just the steps involved in transitioning, but still come away equipped with resources to better understand how to respect trans people.

Howard hopes the film can be an opportunity for viewers to reflect on empathy and compassion at a time when it can feel like those things are in short supply.

“I feel like right now it’s crucial for all of us because we’re so targeted, because this administration is just so hateful and it’s really bringing out this toxic blame,” he said. “I like the idea of spending time in our day to try to understand what other people are going through, and I hope that this adds to that. Stepping outside our lives — that’s what storytelling does for us.”

More Than T premieres Friday night on Showtime and is also available on demand.