Documentary director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders discusses his forthcoming HBO special, The Trans List, a pioneering look at the leading voices in the trans community; sharing his thoughts on collaborating with Janet Mock; and his hopes for the film’s success.
Joseph Akel: Let’s talk about how you set about casting for The Trans List. Obviously, Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox are key figures in the public eye who have pushed the question of trans visibility to the forefront, but then you also have individuals who would largely be unknown outside the community. I’m curious how you set about deciding who would be in the documentary. My sense is that you probably interviewed many more than those who make it into the film.
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: We didn’t actually interview many more than those who appear in it. One of the things that I’ve always tried to do in the “List” films is not to invite someone to sit for the session if I’m not going to end up using that person. The Trans List is a carefully curated film trying to balance so many issues, ideas, people, ethnicities, identities—all of it. And to do that with only eleven people, it was a really great challenge. I would add to that, that you’re correct: you have to have Caitlyn, and you have to have Laverne, who are two trailblazing figures of the moment. Caroline Cossey, you could argue, was a trailblazer as well, but thirty years ago.
JA: Touching on some of the diversity of characters, you have individuals who have been engaged in trans rights and activism, but then also individuals, such as Buck Angel, who have pushed the visibility of trans members of the LGBTQ community in different ways. How did you achieve a balance with the subjects who appear in the documentary?
TGS: I would answer that first by saying nothing could have been decided in this film without Janet Mock. Janet was so much a part of these decisions. As a producer, she brought to us ideas about who would be best and why this person was important and why this person represented a certain area within the trans community. I really have to give her so much credit for this.
Buck was someone who came up, and I never had a second of hesitation around including him, having done a film on porn stars back in 2004 and feeling that their stories were remarkable. Buck came to me after the first screening and was almost in tears and thanked me for putting him in this film, because, he said, he’s often so much marginalized from within this community because he talks about sex so openly.
JA: In terms of the timing of this, was there a sense that this was a cultural moment that needed to be addressed, or was this something that had been in the back of your mind for a while?
TGS: Two years ago, Janet and Sam McConnell, another producer on the film, called me and said, “I think it’s time we think about doing a trans ‘List,’ and I said, “Yeah, I think that’s a great idea.” So it took about a year to raise the money, and then we jumped in. And here we are a year later. In the year that we were making the film, Caitlyn was coming out, and all of these things were happening. The bathroom issues, the military issues: all of these things were on the front page of the New York Times every day.
Personally, I have been aware of trans issues for a long time. I went to college in New York City, and I knew Candy Darling. I went to her funeral, and I was aware of the trans community because I was close to the Warhol scene, and that was the beginning for me of understanding that this is not people in drag; this is something else altogether.
JA: In making this documentary, I wonder if you have seen the changes that have occurred progressively toward the trans community relative to the age spectrum of individuals appearing in the film, and then, simultaneously, have you become more aware of the great amount of setbacks and marginalization that trans individuals still encounter?
TGS: The answer, of course, is yes. When you look at the life experience of Kylar Broadus, a black trans man from the South, and compare that to Caroline Cossey, a showgirl who had a career as a model and then was outed—these are so far apart, but they’re kind of the same generation. And I think that’s wonderful to see these two, who are kind of the same age, and how different their experience was. And then again, if you look at the younger people, someone like Shane Ortega, who’s in the military, and Nicole—again, young people, but very different experiences.
JA: I’ve spoken with several prominent members of the the trans community, and when asked about a figure like Caitlyn Jenner, the response has been that—whether or not you agree with Caitlyn’s political viewpoints, or however she has come to be the public figure—she has, at the end of the day, put trans visibility on a whole other spectrum.
TGS: I totally agree with you, and I think what it is—if you peel away at the layers—it’s because of sports. The sense of sports being a very macho, hetero-male domain, and that Caitlyn, who was so accomplished as Bruce, blows that stereotype to pieces. And that’s really what’s beneath it—that all of these people who grew up with Bruce and loved Bruce and admired Bruce have to somehow be sympathetic here. That’s why Caitlyn’s so powerful.
JA: She also transcends a generational divide, because as Bruce, she was very resonant with my generation of parents, and then with the affiliation with the Kardashians, she touches a whole Millennial audience.
TGS: You could not—if you sat down to try to figure out one person who could break the mold and open up people’s minds a little bit about trans—you could not find a better person than Caitlyn Jenner.
JA: One of the things I wanted to ask was, were there things that you learned about the trans community in the course of making The Trans List?
TG-S: Absolutely. I would say that my understanding was superficial. Probably, I was much more aware than most people, but when you do eleven interviews over an hour and a half each, you’re going to learn a lot. I was enormously educated by this film, and I think that’s something that will be one of its strong points—it’s remarkably educating.
JA: What are you hoping viewers will take away from The Trans List?
TGS: I feel that if people will watch this, it humanizes and educates about the trans community. That would make me very happy if that happened. If you watch this film, you can’t leave and not be changed by it.
The Trans List is available to watch now on HBO