How Making Trans in Trumpland Changed My Perception of the Transgender Experience

Iranian-American trans filmmaker Tony Zosherafatain on how his perspective shifted while making his timely new docuseries for Topic.

The clock struck 3:38 a.m. as a green streak flashed across the sky on a desolate road between Boise, and our ultimate destination of Pocatello, Idaho. “What was that?” my producer Jamie asked me. Equally confused, I replied, “Maybe a UFO or a farmer playing a trick on us?” My producer and I, two trans men from the Northeast, lost without GPS, stuck in the middle of farmland. Our worst fears about filming in the most rural parts of America had come true already. This was Idaho, after all, a state that had voted for Trump in 2016. The thought of having to knock on one of the farmhouse doors filled me with immense fear. As a transgender Iranian-American, Trump had already attacked both of my identities. Luckily, one of our phones got service, and we found the highway again, finally arriving at our hotel in Pocatello.

One of the highway signs in Idaho that we passed on day one of production.

My alarm went off right at 8 a.m., and I got up, excited yet nervous. My calendar alert went off: Day one of production. This moment had finally come after three years of planning Trans in Trumpland. I had conceptualized the series the week that Trump took office in 2016. I was used to telling character-driven narratives, starting with my first film, I Am Isak, a short about a trans man living in Norway. Even filming in Norway felt less foreign than Idaho, since that country’s policies align more with those of my home state, New York. I got dressed and met my crew, everyone expressing a similar feeling of cautious excitement. We were in Idaho to film Shane, a Native American trans activist who also happened to be a military veteran. My prior films had focused mostly on trans embodiment, but in meeting Shane my approach would be different. I was primarily interested in the transgender sociopolitical experience in the “Trumplands” of America. I wondered, how could someone like Shane live, let alone exist, in a state like Idaho?

Tony Zosherafatain on camera interviewing Shane, a Native American transgender veteran in Idaho.

As production in Idaho progressed, it became clear that Shane resisted being shaped by the anti-trans hostility in his state. He served his community on the reservation, advocating for trans awareness and better education. To him, living in Idaho provided him with open space and a cheaper cost of living, a major difference from his prior home in Los Angeles. I witnessed Shane being embraced by his community, including his neighbor, a burly cisgender man who was also a veteran. I’ll never forget the day that his neighbor came out to help us all set up a rig. Was Shane’s feeling of acceptance in Idaho universal across “Trumpland”?

A roadside cross just outside of Houston, Texas.

In the places we visited for Trans in Trumpland, the theme of religion was omnipresent. Crosses scattered across highways became part of the series’ symbolism. In our other production states of Texas, North Carolina and Mississippi, religion – especially Christianity – formed the backbone of many communities. My preconceived notions of transness made it difficult to associate religion with trans livelihood. In Mississippi, our character Evonne used her faith to overcome adversity and launch the only trans non-profit in her state. To her, trans people are also “children of God.” She saw no conflict between trans identity and faith. Our character Rebecca, raised Catholic in her Mexican-American household in Texas, felt similarly. We filmed her being a happy participant in her mother’s grace prayer before dinner.

Rebecca and her family praying and saying grace before dinner in Texas.

In North Carolina, our teenage character Ash was atheist and wasn’t raised in any particular religion. He did feel scared by the anti-trans preachings of a nearby church, but he had a solid support system consisting of his mom, a sibling, and his friends. His state, North Carolina, is home to the notorious anti-trans bathroom bill known as HB2. As a young trans boy, this law forbids him from using the men’s bathroom. Yet, despite this discrimination, Ash was observed participating in all the joys of adolescence. His mother noted that he is healthy and happy, surrounded by an inclusive group of friends. I asked his mom, “Would you consider moving out of North Carolina?” She replied that this was home to them, so it would be difficult to move Ash away from his school and friends.

Ash walking through the hallways of his school in rural North Carolina.

I thought about my own teenage years growing up in Boston, and how I didn’t even hear the word “trans” until I was 19. And now in 2019, when filming in North Carolina, here was a young trans teen being openly embraced by his mother and community. Maybe transness couldn’t be defined solely by spatial definitions? As we ended production, my answer to this question became clear. Trans people exist across all instances of time and space, our individual experiences too vast to define. To be transgender in “Trumpland” is to embrace this reality.

Tony Zosherafatain is a filmmaker, producer, and writer living in New York City. He directed Trans in Trumpland, a four episode docu-series which premieres February 25 to US and  Canadian audiences on Topic through and Topic channels through AppleTV & iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android, and Amazon Prime Video Channels. He is the co-founder of TransWave Films, a New York City-based production company.