Donald Trump’s presidency will go down in history as a four-year stain on America, soiled with racism, xenophobia, gross negligence, and eventually insurrection. But even before he took office, his campaign was oftentimes a free-for-all of empty threats and even emptier promises. One promise rings especially hollow. After vowing to do everything in his power to protect LGBTQ citizens, Trump would go on to shamelessly strip dozens of LGBTQ protections and rights established under Obama. As he watched Trump being sworn into office, filmmaker Tony Zosherafatain knew he had to make something to expose Trump’s lie to the LGBTQ community. “Trans in Trumpland” does just that, but the series is ultimately a testament to the resilience of the trans community.
Zosherafatain teamed up with friend and producer Jamie DiNicola to create “Trans in Trumpland,” a four-part docuseries that puts in plain sight the injustices, struggles, and dangers that transgender Americans face on a daily basis. In the series, Zosherafatain, who is also the show’s host, travels to four red states with blatant anti-trans legislation to meet with a group of trans individuals and hear their stories.
In North Carolina, Zosherafatain meets Ash, a transgender teen who is affected by the state’s discriminatory bathroom bill. In Texas, he meets Rebecca, a transgender woman and Mexican immigrant who had to spend months in an all-male ICE detention center. In Mississippi, we meet Evonné, who started the state’s first trans-focused nonprofit to help protect the trans community after her friend was murdered. And in Idaho, Army veteran and Two-Spirit Shane talks about how achieving equality and justice for trans Americans is inextricably tied to decolonizing America.
Each person’s struggles are different, but they are all in the same fight, and they all exhibit a resilience that is representative of the entire trans community.
Off screen, “Trans in Trumpland” has been a major contribution for and by the trans community. The series is produced by TransWave Films, a company co-founded by Zosherafatain and DiNicola that not only sheds light on the trans experience but also puts trans individuals in every role of production. Rounding out the team are several prominent trans advocates and actors who served as executive producers on the project, including actress Trace Lysette (“Transparent”), model and actor Chella Man (“Titans”), and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who is widely regarded as the founder of the modern trans rights movement.
Topic is proud to launch this timely and socially critical series. We had the chance to pick Zosherafatain and DiNicola’s brains about the impact of the series, what they want viewers to take away from it, and what they hope the next four years will bring. Be sure to catch “Trans in Trumpland,” only on Topic.
This series is such a powerful piece of work in terms of expanding trans visibility. In your opinion, why is visibility so crucial for achieving equality?
TONY ZOSHERAFATAIN: I think visibility is the cornerstone of equality because it allows authenticity to shine through. When trans people are visible in the media, more people become aware of, and understand, trans injustices. This awareness in turn helps propel people to take action and advocate for equality.
JAMIE DINICOLA: Most people, unfortunately, have never met a trans person. So, our task, as trans activists and creators, has become to normalize and humanize our experiences. Humans have this weird tendency to fear what they don't know. The more you see trans and queer people living beautiful, complicated, messy lives on screen, the more you are able to relate to them. I hope our work continues to humanize marginalized communities.
In the opening intro, Donald Trump is seen vowing to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens.” When you first heard this, did you have any ounce of faith in his promise?
TONY: I instantly felt like it was an empty promise. He had already taken such strong discriminatory stances, including advocating for the building of the border wall, that I was incredibly reluctant to believe him.
JAMIE: I think I had some denial going on, so, yes, when I heard that statement I thought, "OK, maybe he'll just leave us alone then…." But the day after he took the oath of office I remember seeing the LGBT page on the White House website removed, and I remember crying in my law professor's office and wondering what the next four years had in store for the trans rights movement.
Can you describe the moment you knew you had to make this series? Was it prompted by specific legislation? Or was it the moment Trump was elected?
TONY: I knew I had to make the series the week that Trump took office. I had a really bad gut feeling that he was going to target the trans community and other marginalized groups. Specifically, it was when he removed any mention of LGBTQ rights on the White House website that I felt a sense of urgency. I knew I had to do something as a filmmaker. The name "Trans in Trumpland" popped into my head randomly that same week, and I knew I had to roll with it and develop something.
JAMIE: I remember Tony coming to me and telling me about the idea for “Trans in Trumpland” and I immediately thought, "Yes, the only thing we can do right now is use our talents and resources to fight back against this rising tide of fascism. Let's get to work."
Can you describe how you felt when Trump lost the 2020 election to Biden? Do you feel hopeful for this administration?
TONY: I felt incredibly happy when Biden won the 2020 election. That, and very relieved as a trans Iranian-American. I feel incredibly hopeful for the Biden administration. Within just his first week of taking office, Biden signed an Executive Order protecting LGBTQ Americans. He has also made promises to expand legal protections for the trans community. I think the next four years will continue to be drastically better.
JAMIE: I felt relief. Immense relief. You cannot continue to make progress with an immovable president. Biden, at the very least, can be moved to the left. I have a great deal of hope as to what we can accomplish in the next four years if we keep organizing.
Biden has promised to resume the progress that he and Obama made during Obama’s administration and has already overturned Trump’s trans military ban. Do you think reversing legislation is enough or does the responsibility fall on everyone’s shoulders, not just politicians?
TONY: I think that reversing this type of hateful, transphobic legislation is a powerful step in the right direction. Mostly because it sends a signal from the highest office in the country that transphobia is not OK. However, I do think that some responsibility falls on all citizens to take the individual steps to confront transphobia, whether that's advocating for trans rights at the state and local level, or speaking out if someone in their network expresses transphobia.
JAMIE: Well, the thing that's really tricky with our form of governance is that individual states are given an immense amount of freedom to do what they please. This is why I think “Trans in Trumpland” is so vitally important at this time—it highlights the true irony of our government. A transgender person in Texas has significantly less legal protections than I do in New York. In almost any other nation on Earth, this idea would be laughable, but the brilliance of “Trans in Trumpland” is that it highlights this political hypocrisy. When you give states so much freedom, you then need federal laws to enforce certain rights, i.e., The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was needed because individual states were not giving their Black residents the same rights as their white residents. The trans community will not make true progress unless we have federally guaranteed rights.
The individuals you meet in the series are extremely diverse in terms of race, background, and personal experiences. Their trans identities are inextricably linked to issues like race, immigration, and colonization. How important is intersectionality in your work to portray the trans experience?
TONY: The trans experience is incredibly intersectional, even just from the perspective of not feeling comfortable in your body. I'm sure that most people have felt this to some extent in one way or another. Moreover, so many issues like immigration, which involves movement and shifting, is definitely relatable to the trans experience. For me as a filmmaker, it's incredibly important to focus on interconnections between people, and that includes working on issues of social justice, such as transphobia, race, xenophobia, and colonization.
JAMIE: I think we'll know that trans people are truly liberated when being trans doesn't need to be the forefront of our identities. I, for one, would prefer to think of myself as a filmmaker rather than a “trans filmmaker,” but that level of equality, I think, is still very far off. By highlighting each character’s nuances and multifaceted identities, we are, in fact, humanizing them even further.
What did you learn from their stories? Did anything surprise you or change the way you view your own experiences?
TONY: Each person we filmed changed my perception of what it means to be trans in America. I also learned that trans people are not only surviving, but thriving in the least likely of places in this country. I was surprised to know that I wasn't the only one who had faced family rejection when I came out as trans—many of the individuals also shared that same struggle.
JAMIE: Similar to Tony, I learned that trans people are everywhere, and their resilience is palpable in every corner of this nation. No matter where you go, you will find a trans activist demanding more for themselves and for their community. That resilience, in the face of so much systemic hate and discrimination, is astoundingly beautiful.
Laverne Cox recently cited a GLAAD study that found that 80% of Americans don’t know a transgender person. If any of this demographic watches ‘Trans in Trumpland,” what do you hope they’ll take away from the series?
TONY: I think this demographic of Americans will watch “Trans in Trumpland” and realize that trans people are their neighbors, their church members, their school classmates, their community members, and that we exist all over the country. What's different about the series is that it shows trans people in everyday life situations, which is very humanizing. The moments where we see each individual going through all of the human emotions of pain, loss, grief, love, happiness, and joy, are also powerful in that every human being can relate to those.
JAMIE: I couldn't say it better myself, Tony.
How did you put together your incredible team, which includes notable trans advocates and actors like Trace Lysette, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, and Chella Man?
TONY: After production ended in late 2019, Jamie and I discussed adding trans actors, artists, and activists, whom we admired to our crew. Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was part of the development for “Trans in Trumpland,” and we had originally planned to film her in Arkansas, but sadly her health didn't permit that. So after we wrapped up filming the series, we reached out to Miss Major about being an executive producer, and she loved that idea. We wanted to add an actress to our EP team, so we reached out to Trace Lysette, whom we had a lot of respect for due to her groundbreaking acting in “Transparent.” She had been wanting to produce a documentary for a while, so it was a perfect match. We had been following Chella Man's activism for the trans and deaf community for a while, so we knew we had to sign him as well. Our EP trio has been phenomenal to work with.
JAMIE: You can accomplish a lot if you just ask! Working with our EPs has been incredible. I am thrilled they joined us on this journey. Tony and I are very lucky to have the team we have. We wouldn't have been able to accomplish all of this without them.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other projects in the works?
TONY: Jamie and I, through our production company TransWave Films, are planning three more films. The first is a biopic about a trans activist, the other is a reality TV show idea, and the third is a horror script based on an actual experience we went through with our friends. We want to continue to work on innovative stories, whether they're focused on gender or other themes.
JAMIE: Yes, Tony and I are always thinking about what's next for TransWave Films. Right now, I'm putting the finish touches on a feature-length biopic script about a trans activist from the '80's. Tony and I are also putting together pitches for an innovative reality show idea. And lastly, we're just beginning script work on a trans-centric horror screenplay. So, we have a lot in the works, and we're hopeful that with “Trans in Trumpland”'s release we will have an easier time funding our next projects, because that is always the hardest part. And I think being “trans filmmakers,” we are, unfortunately, often underestimated and tokenized, and I'm really hoping that'll change once people see how beautiful and authentic “Trans in Trumpland” is.