Written by Jonathan Skurnik, Filmmaker
I’ve been working on a series of short films on Transgender and Gender Nonconforming youth since 2010. The series is called the Youth and Gender Media Project, and its purpose is to help schools and school districts create inclusive environments for transgender and gender nonconforming youth. When I started working on the project, the issue was just beginning to get press coverage. Within a year, however, virtually every media outlet I monitored was covering the issue, including Time, Newsweek, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, all the networks and most of the cable outlets. At this early stage in public awareness of transgender youth, the media was still treating these unusual children like aberrations, and most of them included some degree of sensationalism in their coverage. Even progressive communities were far from consensus about whether or not allowing a child to transition between genders was nurturing. Some even viewed it as abuse.
The first film in my series, I’m just Anneke, was one of the only high-quality documentaries available in the U.S. about transgender youth at this time, and for this reason, it played in more than fifty festivals in the U.S., picking up several awards, before going on to screen in many other countries in Europe and Asia. I’m Just Anneke was 11 minutes in length and was a snapshot in Anneke’s life at the moment when she was just beginning to face the decision of whether or not to transition to become a male. I had loftier goals for the project, however, and was attempting to raise enough funds to film with Anneke and her family over the course of two years of high school, following her through her final gender decision.
Unfortunately, I encountered reactions from several progressive funders that were similar to those I was encountering in other progressive communities. For example, I made it to the final round of one of the main funders of independent documentaries three times, but the panels never approved funding for my project. After the final rejection, I was told that the panelists were extremely uncomfortable with the fact that Anneke, the 12-year-old girl in my film, was taking a hormone blocker to delay puberty so that she would have time to decide whether she wanted to go through puberty as her assigned gender or as a boy. The film in no way advocated the use of hormone blockers; rather, I was covering the issue as a journalist. Nevertheless, the panel was so shocked by the practice that it seemed to be the reason they decided to deny funding. In the end, I abandoned the idea of making an expensive feature length documentary and instead decided to make a series of short films about different aspects of the issue.
At that time, the only funder who understood the importance and power of getting these films into the hands of school communities who were struggling with a sudden influx of gender nonconforming youth was The Fledgling Fund. Their first grant helped me with post production, but more importantly, it funded the training of an entire school district to be more inclusive of gender nonconforming youth. Their second grant will fund the creation of study guides for all four films in the series, which will enable schools and school districts all over the country to train their staff, students and parents about inclusivity for transgender and gender nonconforming youth.
After I completed the first two films in the series and shot all the necessary footage for the third and fourth films, I ran out of money and had to put the project down for two years. In the meantime, public perception of transgender youth was shifting from the freak-show variety to compassion and even admiration. In the face of tremendous bias, these children and their parents were following a path that no family would choose unless they felt it was absolutely necessary for their child’s wellbeing. And the progressive funding community was coming around now as well. Less than a month ago, the Arcus Foundation, which has long supported LGBTQ equality, came through with a grant to fund post-production for the third and fourth films in the series, as well as some funding for outreach and audience engagement.
Even more surprisingly, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles invited me to apply for funding to bring the films and curricula into Jewish day schools. When working with a funder, filmmakers are lucky to have one or two conversations with a program officer before a funding decision is made. With the Federation, we were emailing back and forth every week during the three month period between submission and decision. While my program officer Beth Freishtat fully understood the power and importance of our work, the panel had many questions and reservations about the validity of training young people about gender issues. They asked me at one point to alter my application to restrict teachings about transgender issues to high school age students because they were concerned that middle schoolers weren’t prepared to learn about the issue.
In a wonderful series of convergences that was emblematic of the power of timing, I had been hired to make a film for a non-profit named Keshet about their work on LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish community. As a result, I had some very powerful footage of rabbi and teacher Yechiel Hoffman teaching his middle school students about transgender issues in a Los Angeles Jewish day school. The students were not only ready to learn about the issues, they were eager to discuss it, and were already quite knowledgeable. I was able to quickly edit together a seven minute sequence from that classroom footage and send it to the panel.
The day before the Federation informed me of their decision to fund my project, the Jewish Journal came out with a very sympathetic cover story about transgender issues and people in the Jewish community. It seemed that the timing was right for one of the most mainstream Jewish organizations to get behind work that even two years ago would have seemed radical. And that funder that turned me down three times? They recently funded a feature length documentary about a young transman much like Anneke.
In the end, I’m okay with the fact that I was never able to make my feature. Instead, I have four compelling short films that will be used throughout the country to create safe and inclusive classrooms for all children, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum. And I’m grateful that the funding community and public perception has finally caught up with me.