Tony Zosherafatain is the creator of “Trans in Trumpland,” a four-part docu-series on how the Trump administration has harmed trans communities. Among the executive producers is Chella Man, an artist and activist for both trans and disabled communities. Tony and Chella spent some time with me to chat about why the series is a must-watch, and how we’re still living in Trumpland, even with Trump out of the Oval Office.
You can read our review of the docu-series here.
Xoai Pham: Hi, everybody. I’m Xoai Pham, trans subject editor of Autostraddle. I’m super excited. I have the honor of interviewing two folks from the docu-series Trans in Trumpland. We have the creator Tony Zosherafatain and one of the executive producers Chella Man here with us. Thank you for chatting with me today. I’m super excited for this conversation. I want to start off by kind of grounding us in some context, right. So it’s not even been a month since the inauguration of the Biden-Harris administration. Trump hasn’t even been out of office for a month yet. And, and so I know that there are certain folks who are going to see this film would be excited to watch it. But question what it looks like for trans people in Trumpland when Trump is out of office? So what would you say to those people?
Tony Zosherafatain: Um, I think it’s a, it’s a good question. So I’m very happy that Biden won. And we’re about a month away, as you mentioned, and I think to what we’re seeing is, it’s, it’s really okay for people that are still in these, like, liberal parts of the country in New York City, LA, for example. But what I’m hearing from, like, the characters and trends in Trump land, and even just like friends that I have in red states, it’s still difficult. And why is it difficult is they still have these lingering state policies, for example, Ash in North Carolina, HB2, it’s still not formally like, it’s still a reality. So he’s dealing with that, the anti trans bathroom bill also, we’re seeing recently, I think it was Montana is trying to pass a bill that bars young trans athletes from participating on teams that align with their gender identity. And I think we’re seeing kind of still this incredibly bad momentum in these red states where trans people are this target, not a new target, but like, still a very strong target. And I think it’s a very hard reality still, for a lot of trans folks around the country. Because yes, we can have shift towards federal equality and inclusion. But what about the state level, it still is something that is, I think, going to be a strong focus for trans rights in the next four years. So it’s still really tough, a month away from the inauguration to be trans I think in a conservative state.
Xoai: That’s so true. In Montana, and in South Dakota, there are bills currently, that are meant to increase surveillance of trans athletes. And there are a couple other bills including in Kansas that are criminalize gender-affirming care for trans youth as well. So I’m curious for you Chella, what made you feel like you needed to sign on to this film, what, what really drew you to the message that the film was sending?
Chella Man: Well, during this time, you know, when Trump was first elected, I could not even vote. I was 17 at the time, and he actually came to speak at my high school in conservative central Pennsylvania. And that was just earth-shattering for me coming into my skin as a trans individual, queer individual, disabled individual, to see the kids that I grew up alongside for 17 years, just blindly walk by me while I protested outside of school. It just broke my heart. And I needed some kind of context, some kind of like solidified, condensed information of everything that happened to trans people over this time. And Tony, just, it was like this gift, like from heaven, you know, like he put into, he put so much work into this. It’s beautiful. The people that are highlighted, are articulate, are diverse. And I believe, like what they have to say is something that every—not only American who was under, you know, the Trump administration—
just anyone should hear because it’s just about human rights. It’s just about being a person that cares about other people. And so I mean, I wanted to sign on to this, because it’s, it’s imperative information, especially considering what we all just went through.
Xoai: What I’m really interested in is the fact that Tony, you are not only creating and, you know, running the show, but you are also in the film as a host and you’re engaging with all these folks from trans youth to two-spirit folks all across the country. And I’m curious, what motivated that decision for you to be a part of the storytelling as a trans person.
Tony: I’m glad that you really enjoyed this series Xoai, and that’s great to hear and Chella saying it’s beautiful and like Chella’s a great artist. So hearing that as well, I’m like, yeah, because I wanted to, like really capture people’s like, heartstrings, like get attached to their heartstrings and be like, trans people are human, we’re like your neighbors and stuff. So like, what motivated me and Trans in Trumpland to, like, direct it. And also be part of it is, I really like traveling and connecting with people. So I wanted to like be in front of the camera and like guide people, because I thought to myself, like how is everyone gonna be weaved together? Like these four characters that are very diverse. They’re like, all around the country. I was like, you know, I talked to my producer, Jamie. I was like, should I just be the host? Like, connect everyone and like the, the series follows me and like a red car across the country. And he was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” So I guess what motivated me was like that artistically. But also, like, on a personal level, I’m like, I’m a trans guy. I’m also first-generation. My mom was from Greece, my dad’s from Iran. And I’m Iranian-American. So Trump impacted me as a trans person, also, as a first-generation American and an Iranian American. So I was like, Oh, I was, like, impacted by this a lot. So let me tell a little bit of my story, throughout this journey in the series. So I felt like a really kind of like personal connection to the subject matter, which is like investigating what Trump has done to a lot of folks over the past four years, and just kind of like, wanting also to meet the characters and, like, go into their homes and like, see where they live and like, meet their friends and meet their family. And I like really like connecting with people. So that like, really, got to me as like an artist. I was like, Oh, I want to make it very personal and, like show people that I had a hard journey with my family at first coming out.
Xoai: That’s so beautiful. Thank you, Tony. Um, Chella, how did you feel like you saw yourself in that film? In what ways do you see yourself reflected by the different stories that were told?
Chella: Um, that’s a great question. I mean, going back to the first also, you know, while Tony was talking, another thing that another thing that I was thinking immediately when I got this email that it was about trans people in front of the camera, and behind the camera, I was like, sold, period, because that’s what we need! We need people not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera. Like, immediately, I was like, Oh, great. This is not tokenization, this is like real shit. This is the stuff that actually matters. They’re going to talk about things not on surface level, we’re actually going to go in deep here. So I already knew it was beautiful before…Oh, gosh, so many different… What initially struck me was ash, and how young they were. Because going back, you know, I felt the same way like the way they were discovering how hard and harsh the world can be as a really young person to see the world support a person like Trump and all that he stands for it was a whole lot to swallow. So to see that I felt, I felt very seen. And not only that, I feel so grateful and lucky because of, you know, Ash has a really great relationship with them, their mom, and I do as well. And to see that represented, I immediately actually sent it to my mom. And I was like, Look, this is this. This is like us. And that’s rare. You know, for someone like me, it’s not often I can send something to someone and be like, Look, I that’s me that feel represented. So immediately, that was episode one. And yeah, I was just sold, I felt just like Tony, even though I wasn’t even in it, I felt a deep personal connection as well.
Xoai: Yeah, I love that the film presents trans people not just based off of our gender identity, it’s, it’s about all of us, because we’re so much more than our gender expression. And I think that that was really important to show. It also feels like a lot of times trans people are having to plead to sis people, especially people in positions of power in government and institutions in order to maintain our rights and our dignity. And so in this case, who would you say the audience of the film is Chella? Who are you, who would you say that the film is trying to speak to?
Chella: I would hope this film speaks to everyone. Because I mean, everyone has something to learn, like trans individuals. This is just taking a step back. I mean, this is more a film about anyone who faces oppression or adversity at all. Yes, I’m sorry, I stumbled on my words. But um, it’s all about how to stay strong, stay true to yourself, especially when, like you said, the people in power who do not in any way identify with how to stay strong, and how to build community and a support system under that, that will allow you to persevere despite what the world looks like around you. And I think that that is a story that could help not just trans people, but anyone. I mean, so many people have something to learn from this, any, anyone that goes through any hardship in their life, which is, I would say all individuals in the entire world can learn something from the resilience of trans people.
Tony: When I was developing the series, I was like, who is my target audience? Who do I want to speak to? And I knew that like trans and queer people would be able to feel connected to the characters and the underlying, like civil rights issues and whatnot. But I thought to myself, like, I do want everyone to feel like they can relate to the series and the issues discussed. And I want to say ditto to what Chella said, like, I think the target audience is like, is everyone in a sense, because it explores themes of like, not fitting in high school, bullying, feeling racism, and I think a lot of folks can relate to that all kinds of people, Americans, or even people abroad. And so I think it’s like the target audience is like, is everyone because it’s very heartwarming stories. And there’s also this big underlying theme of motherhood, that really connected everyone. And so I think, like, who doesn’t like cool moms? Um, so yeah, I think like everyone can get something from from this series. And I hope that especially people that may be more moderate or conservative will watch it too and learn something from it.
Xoai: I love that this is coming out now because there’s also there’s been a lot of discussion recently about trans representation, especially since the release of another documentary-style film Disclosure by Sam Feder and executive produced by Laverne Cox, who we love. And so I’m curious for the both of you, witnessing the way that trans people have become begun to take more ownership of our stories in cinema and TV, and not just producing fictional works, but producing documentaries, that, that actually analyze the ways that we’ve been portrayed and, and proactively seeks to change the ways that we were portrayed. How are you feeling about the state of trans representation today?
Tony: Disclosure really went in and analyze like how we were portrayed in the past how we are presently, and I think it’s kind of interesting to even just like bring it back to like these anti-trans state bills are coming through. It’s like, the double-edged sword I guess, I would say like increased trans visibility can also lead to increase like discrimination because the more we’re coming out and asking for rights and owning our power, the more people are like attacking us. And so I think that’s like interesting and I’m not going to say like that’s happening in every state or everywhere, there’s also, you know, a positive incline towards trans rights. But I think like, there is a big shift happening with, like kind of what I said earlier, where there are more trans people directing and producing things behind the camera, I think that’s powerful. Because in the past, we were more objects in front of the camera to be analyzed. And so now, when you can have trans folks telling their story in front of the camera, behind the camera, that’s incredibly powerful. And I think where we’re at is I do want to say, I think there can be more trans-masculine and non binary representations to be to be quite frank, I think we need more of that. And also trans people who are diverse, maybe trans people who are deaf maybe trans people like for me, I don’t see any Middle Eastern trans people. I’m like, where are you guys at? So I would like to see more diversity in the trans voices, less white trans people, and also just like trans people in everyday roles, like trans joy, not getting murdered, falling in love and getting married, but that, you know, like not getting broken up with ’cause we’re trans. So that’s what I would say is like, we’ve gotten to a good point, but we need we need more representation still.
Chella: I mean, I agree with everything that Tony said, we are taking steps forward, but we are also taking steps back. And I think that, you know, I often say if I were born in any other time period, I wouldn’t be where I am today, I’m so grateful to be on this surge of like social media and technology, technological revolution, because if it were not for my social media accounts, I wouldn’t be able to be my own representation in the same way. Like, of course, I could always look in the mirror and be like, you know, I know who I am, period. But I can broadcast that. And that changes everything, brings people together. And I don’t have to wait for someone to like, put my face on a billboard or like on a whatever, give me a platform. I was like, No, you know what, I’m just gonna speak my truth. And I know, I know, there’s people out there who feel exactly the same way. And of course, lo and behold, everyone’s on a continuum. And everyone suffers because of binaries, like not just gender binaries, but like disability binaries, and stereotypes and stigmas. And so it hurts everyone. So if you just build a platform, where you are authentic and you’re just like, guys, this shit sucks. What are we doing? Like, let’s just let’s have some space where we validate people who are on the continuum who exists outside of stereotypes. So many people feel that and are hurt by that and want to be free from that. And I think that this is, you know, this is the time.
Xoai: This is absolutely the time. I also wanted to ask, so in the past two weeks, there has been an ongoing, an onslaught of anti-Asian violence, especially against Asian American elders. Even in New York, there was a Filipino man who was slashed across the face on the subway while he was on the first while he was on the way to one of his two jobs. And then there have also been, there’s also been reported violence in the bay as well. And that’s only the violence that’s been reported and documented, right. And so, you know, in the last calendar year, we’ve witnessed, people become more and more invested in racial justice especially invested in ending anti-Blackness. How is this film connected to the uprisings for Black lives, the fights for Asian Americans, just racial justice in general? How would you connect this film with those causes?
Chella: For this film, I mean, I think I would go back to the people that Tony and Jamie chose to uplift. I truly believe in collective liberation. And I believe they chose people who face multiple cycles of oppression on a daily basis. And by uplifting those individuals, you know, we all benefit and we are all more empathetic and understanding of what people go through. So I think it’s just a matter of choosing marginalized people who are at various intersections of oppression, and fully allowing them to tell their stories unfiltered, without tokenization. And that’s what I that’s what I truly admired about about this docu-series is who was casting and who, who’s being uplifted and, of course, like the benefits of that we will all benefit from that.
Tony: Yeah, ditto to what Chella said, um, it really saddens me to see like the wave of anti-Asian violence. I actually have had a friend recently she’s queer, and went to college together and she’s Chinese. And she was actually had a guy come up to her face in Queens and he was like yelling at her. And she posted about on social media and I was just like, are you fucking kidding me? We used to be roommates. And she would tell me just about, like what she would experience daily in New York City in Queens. I’m so really upset about that. And I think like Trump for the past four years, has not only exacerbated transphobia, but also racism, everything every ism every phobia, and when I was like, thinking about kind of creating this series, I was like, how can I also kind of like highlight people who faced double oppression. So whether that be immigration status, um, you know, I want to say ageism, too, with ash or racism, like with Evonne, who’s a Black trans woman in Mississippi that we filmed? How can I kind of like, tap into these waves of anti-Blackness, anti-Asian sentiment, anti-immigration sentiment the past four years, and now, because that hasn’t gone away with Trump getting out of office. So I want to kind of, I wouldn’t call it a connect back to what Chella said, which is that I made sure to choose characters that aren’t just trans, but also face other isms and other levels of injustice. And I also, for me, personally, as a documentary filmmaker, I wanted to be a passive post, because I have privilege in the sense that I’m coming from New York City, traveling to conservative state, so I have legal privileges. And also, I’m a mixed trans guy, so I can have white privilege. So I was like, I want to be a passive host in the series and not take away from people’s voices in these states, who, you know, are Black, are Latina, are facing potential deportation, because that’s an incredible difference in privilege that I had. So I wanted to make sure I gave everyone proper time. And I think that’s the storytelling is the way that I’m kind of like highlighting these multiple injustices in this series.
Xoai: What I, what I also love about what you did, Tony, was that even though this film is about the present, and it is a, it’s a nonfiction account of the present, it also feels like it’s a capsule of what could be possible in the future, especially when you were speaking to the person who is to spirit and is still preserving all of their heritage and the traditions that they come from. And I it makes me think what the future of trans people could look like, in the US and also elsewhere. So I think a lot of times we’re caught up responding to the types of violence we face and trying to solve those issues. And I think it distracts from us being able to envision what kind of world we want to inherit. And I think it’s intentional that we are kept from that. So for the two of you, what would you say in about 50 years, in half a century and around 2071? How would you want trans people living?
Chella: Freely! No restrictions as they are, I just want them to fucking tell the truth and like, hopefully, the gender binary, doesn’t exist, or at very least, is like less strong than it is now. I just I want people to not be afraid to be themselves. I don’t want colors to have gender. I don’t want smells to have gender with the actual. I just like, I just want people to be able to be people. Like stop stop with the stop with the categories. That’s that’s what I would have to say. But 50 years. that’s a, that’s a long time.
Tony: 50 years, like the gender binary should like just not exist, like, ’cause for me, even though like I’m a binary trans guy, like when I was filming in North Carolina and met Ash, I was like, Ash came out at 12 as like transmasc, but now is like moving more non-binary. And then like, meeting his friends who were Gen Z. I’m like, y’all are really woke right? And they don’t even like believe in gender categories. I was just like, I’m like sitting around and here’s like this young trans mass youth with like, cis male and female friends and they’re like talking about all these issues, and they’re like on TikTok and whatever kids are doing these days. I’m like, wow, like, yeah, 50 years, I do feel like the gender binary won’t exist. We won’t have these like gendered parties and also just like, legally and politically like, it should not be even a discussion. Do trans rights exist or not, or do trans people exist or not in this country. Like we should not be having that conversation even now. That’s what I would hope.
Trans in Trumpland will be available on February 25th to U.S. and Canadian audiences on Topic through Topic.com and Topic channels through AppleTV & iOS, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android, and Amazon Prime video channels.
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