Trans in Trumpland is a four-part documentary series by New York based director Tony Zosherafatain, which attempts to examine the lives of transgender Americans living in red states, i.e., areas notorious for their anti-transgender sentiment. It follows the lives of four people; Ash, a teenaged transgender boy living in North Carolina; Rebecca, a transgender woman and Latina immigrant living in Texas; Evonne, a transgender woman and activist living in Mississippi; and Shane, a Native American rights activist and veteran who identifies as two-spirit and lives in Idaho. Tony travels from state to state, interviewing these people and their families, and attempts to discover what transgender life is like in these hostile areas.
Throughout the series, a theme that we see again and again is the importance of community to each character. Whether it be a queer support network that Evonne runs in Mississippi, a Latin community in the heart of Texas that accepts and loves Rebecca, or even a group of teenagers who gather to play dungeons and dragons in the case of Ash, the moments of the series that resonate most strongly depict community as a beacon of hope against ignorance.
The series is not without its flaws. It too often engages in modern documentary tropes that feel unnatural when placed next to the moments of real emotion that are peppered throughout the show. An overreliance on slow motion, extreme close-ups, and unnatural posing of the subjects (making them look like the subjects of a photo shoot rather than a documentary) keep a distance between the people onscreen and the viewer. One wishes to see more of their daily lives, but Zosherafatain usually opts to tell rather than show, with a lot of the series taken up by monologues placed over this cliche footage. This acts to give the series a feeling of being important, but not very engaging. That is a shame, because each of these subjects are remarkably interesting, but viewers are not given an opportunity to really get to know them, with their personalities being tampered down by the tired documentary tropes.
The series also rarely engages with transgender life in the broader scheme of modern politics. For a show entitled Trans in Trumpland, there is a strange lack of examination of the origins and reality of transphobia. In all fairness, this might come from Zosherafatain’s desire to not expose his subjects to hate or even physical endangerment (or to expose himself to it for that matter), and that is certainly noble. But to have a series supposedly about the reality of life that transgender people face in red states, and then have every person on screen espouse pro-trans views, gives an anti-septic quality to the material. One notable exception to this is a truly brave scene wherein Tony and Rebecca go to the ICE detention center wherein Rebecca was held for six months. Even though they never go inside the facility, it is clearly distressing for Rebecca to be there. This is hard to watch but it is a better emotional argument both for trans rights, and against the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrants, than most of the material previously seen in the show.
Overall, one is left with an unfortunate feeling that Trans in Trumpland is content to place the narrative of its director over the lives of its subjects. If anything, the documentary shows that trans people make up an incredibly diverse segment of the population, but each person here is treated the same by Zosherafatain. Documentary filmmaking at its best serves as a peek into a world that one had no idea existed and can be genuinely thrilling. The subjects here are fascinating (particularly Evonne and Shane, who both make the strongest impressions on the viewer) but rarely are they given room to breathe.