Last night, at the premiere for Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word, narrator and executive producer Laverne Cox explained some of her intentions in creating the documentary: “We wanted to tell trans stories on television, and we wanted to do them in a different way than what we have seen before.” Trans narratives aren’t the most commonly explored narratives on television, but between Jill Soloway’s brilliant dark comedy Transparent, Laura Jane Grace’s True Trans web series that premiered last week on AOL Originals, and The T Word, which will air simultaneously on MTV and Logo tonight, it’s fair to say there has been a rise in these narratives. But The T Word goes a different route from what we’ve seen by centering on a more diverse and younger group — the subjects range in age from 12-24; they were in attendance last night, and Cox praised their bravery — and the result is fascinating and informative, heartbreaking and optimistic, and far better than your average MTV documentary.
The T Word follows the lives of seven transgender young people. It smartly combines the typical problems that teenagers face (fitting in, friendships, falling in love, the anticipation and apprehension of losing your virginity) with the specific, heightened problems that these young people encounter (transitioning at an already tough period in their lives, the suicidal feelings, the constant fear of violence). Trying to find love is hard enough, but it’s only exacerbated by a mother asking, “Straight women are going to want to date a man and lesbians are going to want to date a woman, so who’s going to want to date you?”
In a scene like that one, and later scenes when a man struggles with his mother’s refusal to use proper pronouns and a young girl talks about the verbal harassment she’s had to endure, it’s clear that this documentary is also about truth and bravery. As Cox told the audience last night, “Being trans in this world is still a highly stigmatized identity, and to come forward, and to own that in your lives is a big deal. It’s a great deal. And to do so on national television is courageous.”
The documentary shies away from the usual sensationalization and exploitation that most MTV documentaries (see: True Life) employ. It has the basic MTV-like stylistic elements throughout, but — and I suspect this has much to do with Cox’s influence — it’s more straightforward and toned down. The stories are being told simply so that they can be heard, not so MTV can reap the benefits of salaciousness. Cox inserts herself in the story when necessary, in one-on-one interviews and narration that smoothly ties together disconnected segments, but she’s fully aware that this documentary belongs to the youths she’s interviewing.
The T Word is also incredibly, jarringly honest. No punches are pulled, such as when L’lerret details the fear of walking down Bourbon Street because police officers target and arrest trans women of color by mistaking them for sex workers or when Daniella tearfully recounts her rape and the insensitivity, accusations, and shaming she received at the hospital while reporting it. Grim statistics abound in The T Word (41% of trans people will attempt suicide), as well as a tribute to trans murder victims, making it a hard — but necessary — watch.
But The T Word is also intent on telling positive stories to let other trans youth know that there is hope. It’s a fair balance, explaining that not everything is bad and not everything is good. The grim stories are balanced out by the hopeful ones: the stories about finding yourself, falling in love, and achieving victories like being able to use the girls’ bathroom in elementary school. The documentary subjects are smart, lively, and have good senses of humor — Kye, who recently received national attention for being the first openly transgender play in the NCAA Division One league, jokes through his frustration about the ridiculousness of the media questioning his genitalia after games: “How many sports do people play with their genitalia? How many jump shots has LeBron James made with his penis?”
Twelve-year-old Zoey’s story is particularly memorable. She’s remarkably confident and self-aware — not just as a trans person but as an adolescent — and is candid about her struggles in a moving, admirable way. She calmly discusses the hatred she’s had directed at her (being told she’s an abomination or a sin) and shares her comeback when people tell her that she’s going to burn in hell someday: “OK, I’ll see you there, too.”
She is also an example of the diverse subjects that Cox sought out for the documentary. Zoey’s incredibly young and receives endless support from her caring mother; Daniella, without a family, was homeless and slept on subways for a long period of time. The aim was to get as many different voices in the conversation as possible, because all of these narratives are unique and all deserve to be told — and heard.