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After Emmy nomination, what’s next for ‘TransMilitary?’

After Emmy nomination, what’s next for ‘TransMilitary?’

In the fine tradition of the military motto, “no guts, no glory,”  the producers of the short documentary film, Transgender, at War and in Love, are pressing on with the next phase of their TransMilitary project — a full-length feature — following its recent nomination by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for a national Emmy award.

But not before they look back at how far they’ve come.

What is now a 12-minute film began in 2012 as a project to put a face to transgender troops serving in silence. Then, early last year, the editorial board of The New York Times chose to commission a new video based on the personal stories of two trans service members. On May 14, 2015, The Times called for open military service for transgender members of the military, which estimates say amounts to more than 15,000 active duty personnel.

And this undertaking was not only groundbreaking and daunting, it was something most Americans had no idea was even a problem.

That includes two of its producers, who were hired by the paper to work with “a woman we had never met about a topic I quite honestly knew nothing about,” conceded Jamie Coughlin, cofounder and executive producer of SideXSide Studios in a blogpost.

“I was in the Thayer Hotel at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy. We had to set the scene, the lighting, camera, etc., in the most restrictive of circumstances,” recalled Fiona Dawson, the creator of TransMilitary.

Dawson is an out bisexual, media-savvy LGBTQ advocate, corporate communicator, outspoken leader and now a producer, who grew up near Boston, U.K., and has lived in Houston, New York, and the Washington, D.C. region. She posted on Facebook how she and her team were rushed from the start, which was especially true as she sought to film one last interview with Senior Airman Logan Ireland of the U.S. Air Force, a transgender man who was already serving overseas. Dawson filmed Ireland with his family before he left in 2014 and via Skype throughout his deployment, but the team needed his final anticipation before he returned to the States. The person who volunteered to capture Logan on camera in Kandahar was another key figure for the forthcoming feature film: LGBTQ advocate Jesse Ehrenfeld, M.D., the man credited with sparking the process that ended the ban on transgender military service.

All just novices in the film world, trying to do our best to ensure that Logan’s story was told. A couple of months later, when I saw for the first time that Gabriel had cut The New York Times op-doc together with that scene being the opening lines I burst into tears of joy, because it showed that our labor that day (or night for Logan and Jesse) had paid off.”

Gabe Silverman, left, Fiona Dawson, Jamie Coughlin, right
Gabe Silverman, left, Fiona Dawson, Jamie Coughlin, right Gabe Silverman

Gabriel is Gabe Silverman, creative director and cofounder of SideXSide Studios, who together with Coughlin brought years of experience in journalism to the film. With Dawson as director and producer, they slammed together a modest documentary, which The Times called an “op-doc,” akin to an “op-ed.”

“At first they wanted a short 3 to 5 minute piece, simply to put a face to the movement,” Silverman tells LGBTQ Nation. “Remember at the time transgender issues hadn’t become part of the mainstream conversation. When we delivered the first cut, which was roughly 8 minutes, The Times op-doc team asked to expand it to 12 minutes.”

Laila Villanueva, left, and Logan Ireland.

The team, Silverman says, was delighted to expand on the two central figures in their film, Ireland and his fiancée, Army CPL Laila Villanueva, a transgender woman. “I give them a lot of credit for seeing the potential in Logan and Laila’s story — to give their story the platform it deserved,” Silverman tells LGBTQ Nation. 

Coughlin called Ireland and Villanueva, “magnetic,” in her blogpost. Their romance is a major highlight of the film. “They love each other with might, grit and a heavy dose of understanding. Logan is a total sweetheart, just about the nicest guy you could ever want to hang out with. Laila is one of the goofiest, most fun, most loyal friends I know,” she wrote. “Oh, and she is a killer karaoke singer.”

And you might say Coughlin, Silverman and Dawson had to be in harmony, for the project to be a success. “Jamie and I come from the world of news,” he adds. “Fiona’s background is advocacy. Marrying those two worlds can sometimes cause friction. However, I genuinely believe that dialogue made for a better product. In the end, we had a journalistically sound, emotionally charged video that incorporated the subject-matter expertise necessary to cover transgender issues in a sensitive way. One of our big successes was avoiding the typical tropes people see in transgender media – trans women putting on make up, trans men pumping weights, etc.”
Like Coughlin, Silverman conceded the transgender experience was something new for him to get to know, and understand.
“I did not know much about the subject when we started, therefore  I did not have a fully formed perspective. Through the process of making the op-doc and now our full-length feature TransMilitary, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and befriending dozens of transgender people. Coming to fully understand one’s gender identity takes an act of courage, especially in today’s divisive climate.
“But there’s another layer here – I’ve always considered myself a feminist but exploring transgender issues as a cis, heterosexual, white male, has forced me to take an even deeper look at how women are treated in our culture.”
The introspection is not his alone. In the last few years, the military has ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” eliminated its ban on women in combat roles, and on the very day The Times posted its video and an op-ed by Dawson, June 4, 2015, the Air Force issued new rules making it harder to discharge transgender airmen without cause.

Then on June 30, the last day of Pride, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced transgender members of the military would no longer be barred from serving openly. That day, Dawson was at the Pentagon with one of the principal figures in the movement and in the film.

“Early in the process we warned Logan and Laila about the backlash that could potentially happen,” Coughlin blogged. “Beyond jeopardizing their careers, they needed to be prepared for personal attacks online. If you haven’t before, go ahead and randomly select the comment section of any socially focused news story online. You’ll be appalled at the vitriol.”

“Instead what happened was an enormous groundswell of support,” Silverman tells LGBTQ Nation. “The night we published, Jamie and I sat together reading through the hundreds of comments of support people left on, Vimeo, YouTube and Facebook. People from all over the world connected with Logan and Laila.”
Coughlin recalled they wept reading those comments. “So many viewers identified with Logan and Laila, came to a new understanding of transgender people, and opened their hearts.

“It’s the most important thing I’ve done in my career to date, and I was such a small part of it. Logan and Laila are heroes, and all the thousands of transgender troops and Americans who bravely stand beside them.”

The team, including former Times executive producer Jason Spingarn-Koff and coordinating producer Kathleen Lingo, will learn if their work won an Emmy on September 21 in New York City. And Dawson tells LGBTQ Nation that even though the film’s Kickstarter campaign fell short of its goal, despite raising more than $37,000, a new campaign is underway through the website Their goal is to raise the money necessary and find a willing distributor who will help them expand the 12-minute film into the full documentary they envision, telling more stories of trans service members and their families. “We will also take viewers inside the efforts to lobby the Pentagon,” Silverman says, “and connect the dots of how we got to open trans service.”

And he says he hopes to showcase how elements of American society, beyond the military, is struggling with the concept of trans acceptance.

“Throughout our interviews, one theme emerged: trans women in the military are particularly susceptible to discrimination. We’re seeing this fault line emerge in civilian life as well. One example is the bathroom bills, which sprung up across the country. An absurd and tragic litmus test is being applied to both cis [non-transgender] and trans women who just want to use the restroom: If you don’t meet a passerby’s definition of femininity, you run the risk of being harassed. Another example is the alarming number of trans women of color who are murdered in our country every year.”

Click here to watch Transgender, in Love and at War and here for more information about TransMilitary.

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