Gabe Silverman and Fiona Dawson discuss the origins and impact of their powerful documentary, and its connection to the controversial Trump administration ban on trans people serving in the military.

“Here we were with an original documentary about two trans service members in a relationship, in the military who were coming out publicly for the first time, and it just kind of hit like gangbusters.”

Gabe Silverman is as pleased as anyone that his and co-director Fiona Dawson’s 13-minute film chronicling the United States’ ban on transgender personnel serving in the military has become a fully-fledged documentary garnering awards across the world.

When former Washington Post journalist Silverman, and his wife, Transmilitary writer Jamie Coughlin, formerly of USA Today, quit their jobs to start a production company, one of the first calls they received was from The New York Times. “They had licensed some material from an activist, Fiona Dawson; she was an advocate and they wanted to pair her with a journalist to produce what at the time was going to be a 3 to 4 minute film.”

“This short film ended up on the front page of The New York Times and was really making waves; we knew the story was unfolding and needed to be told,” said Dawson, who appreciated working with Silverman on the project. “The combination of our backgrounds really meant that we had different skill sets and experiences to bring together to make something potentially different. 

“Filmmakers often have different primary motivations for making something. I’m an advocate who wants to use the power of film and television to change hearts and minds. I really wanted to use this as an advocacy piece to reach people that wouldn’t typically look at a trans story.”

“We have this opportunity to tell a really complicated and interesting story that intersects with many different issues, so we followed it and we thought there’d be one of two endings – that the ban would be lifted and we would have a kind of celebratory ending or the ban would not be lifted,” said Silverman. “But we never thought there’d be this third ending where we’d lift the ban, everything is hunky-dory, and more than a year later a new Commander-in-Chief decides to reinstate the ban.”

“Just a couple of months ago the Supreme Court did say this temporary ban could go into place,” said Dawson of the new ban, a final judicial decision on which is pending subject to several lawsuits. “Our prediction is that it will end up at the Supreme Court by next year.

“It creates a cultural climate that says that top leadership doesn’t actually really want trans members there, so any leaders beneath them that have an inclination to discriminate in some way kind of now have licence to do so. Of course it now means if you’re trans you can’t join the military.”

“What happened was that Trump tweets about it,” added Silverman. “The Supreme Court then decided that they would lift all the injunctions until it plays out in court. So now the ban is back in place. There was over two years between the time when the ban was lifted until April 12 of this year.

“During that time trans service members continued to serve openly and with the ban lifted there were zero incidents reported, no negative effect, and now it goes back into effect, it’s absurd. It’s the same thing you had under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell where you can be gay or you can be a lesbian but never tell anyone about it, never act on it, never live as your true self.” 

Transmilitary premiered in Australia at the Veterans Film Festival in Canberra last November before screening at Queerscreen and LGBT-centric film festivals across Victoria. This author was a judge at the Veterans Film Festival where Transmilitary was awarded the Red Poppy Award for Best Film. The win was in no small part due to the filmmakers’ ability to adapt to the rapidly changing political environment to tell a compelling story and the intimate, moving access they were granted by those trans service members who are not able to fully express their identity in the country they defend.

“They were willing to do that because they knew if they didn’t do that then the next line of trans service members and trans kids wouldn’t have the type of representation that they didn’t have growing up,” said Silverman. “We wanted to make a very personal documentary which yes is about policy, but also, what is the weight of the policy on individual service members and their families? They knew they were risking their careers.”

Dawson and Silverman developed strong, ongoing friendships and relationships of trust with the subjects of their documentary. This included Logan Ireland, a transgender airman who, serving as male, has been deployed in the US military, and Logan’s partner, Laila Villanueva. Laila was assigned male at birth and she has served in the military as an Army Corporal. 

Silverman cites one moving moment in particular. “Logan got a message from a mother in New Zealand who had an 8-year-old trans son who did not know how to deal with it. She’s a single mother, there’s not a lot of trans people in her community. She finally saw not only what her trans son could look like, but Logan’s mum, who is nothing but supportive, nothing but loving, and what that model does to a trans kid. When you unconditionally love them just like any other child, they thrive like everybody else. It became this amazing pen-pal relationship between Logan and this trans kid in New Zealand. They’d send each other gifts and letters, they still talk. It’s really cute.”

“At the end of the third screening we hosted at South By Southwest there was this one person whose gender presented very masculine,” said Dawson, who together with Silverman won the Best Feature Documentary Audience Award at the Texas festival. “When they came up, they said to me in a very whispered voice, ‘Just two weeks ago I retired from the Army and I actually identify as a trans woman. I haven’t started my transition yet, but I need you to know that this film is really going to help me explain who I am to my family,’ and I just got chills.

“Hopefully this film will stop a new ban, but if it doesn’t, but helps people come out as trans to their friends and families, I will be very satisfied that we completed part of the job.”

‘Transmilitary’ is streaming now at SBS On Demand

on SBS & Falkenscreen

For our Transmilitary review see here