celebrating trans history before caitlyn jenner

Director Rhys Ernst profiles transgender pioneers in a new docuseries.

by Zio Baritaux
01 July 2016, 1:15pm

We've Been Around, a series of six frank and profound documentary shorts on transgender trailblazers, begins with two best friends, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who, as the narrator explains, "were part of a thrown-away community of drag queens, sex workers and trans folks—the people who fell between the cracks of the gay and straight worlds." Although Marsha and Silvia took part in the Stonewall Riots of 1969, a landmark event that galvanized the gay liberation movement in the U.S., they were still ostracized by the LGB community. In a speech at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally, for which she had to fight her way onto the stage, Silvia screams, "I have been beaten, I have had my nose broken, I have been thrown in jail, I have lost my job, I have lost my apartment for gay liberation! And you all treat me this way?" Emmy-nominated director Rhys Ernst, who created We've Been Around and also co-produced Amazon's Transparent, says, "Sylvia's speech gives me goosebumps every single time." The other stories in the series are just as stirring, and range from Albert Cashier, a trans man who fought in the Civil War, to Wilmer Broadnax, a trans man who became a popular gospel singer in the 1940s. "Though all of the progress we've made in the recent past years of the Trans Civil Rights Movement may seem like it's happened abruptly, there are many people's shoulders we are standing on," Rhys says in the following interview with i-D. "Trans people have always been there, throughout history, often hidden in plain sight."

Why was it important to make We've Been Around now? Is it because there is a spotlight on trans people in pop culture? Is it important to show trans people pre-Caitlin? Or is there another reason?
As a trans person, I've had a deep desire to learn about the lives of those who came before me—to see that others had done it, had lived full lives and made change. I've been lucky to find mentors in trans-feminine elders like Holly Woodlawn, Flawless Sabrina, and Kate Bornstein. But I've had much less access to trans-masculine elders. This impulse led me towards trans history.

How did you select these six stories?
Early on, we brought on a research assistant to spearhead the development. Soon after, we brought on academic, trans historian and filmmaker Susan Stryker, and historian, blogger and activist Monica Roberts. Both brought a breadth of knowledge to the production. We worked hard to find the best and most complete stories. Diversity across race, gender, era and region was important to me. We came close to making films on other subjects but halted for one reason or another. There's tons of other amazing stories out there. One thing I would like to expand upon is nationality. I was only able to take on histories based in the U.S. on this first collection. If I were to do more, I would be very interested to include stories from places across the globe.

Which of the stories is your favorite? Which resonates with you the most and why?
I have a hard time picking one favorite. I love Lou Sullivan's story and find that it often makes me cry. S.T.A.R. is another one I love—the music and the animation (by trans collaborators Jules Gimbrone and Clyde Petersen) comes together perfectly. I also love Lucy Hicks Anderson—she has an amazing story working uptown as a socialite and underground running a brothel during Prohibition. Camp Trans and Little Axe and Albert Cashier are all amazing too—I can't pick one! Fortunately, each film is five minutes so they're very snackable and you don't have to watch just one.

I was particularly moved by S.T.A.R., and Silvia Rivera's speech in that film, which depicted how trans people were excluded from the gay liberation movement of that time. Do trans people still face an issue of acceptance in the LGB community? How can we fix this?
An amazing trans filmmaker named Reina Gossett, who has been making a narrative film about Marsha and Sylvia, is responsible for finding and sharing Sylvia's speech on her Vimeo page. I owe her and her collaborator Sasha Wortzel a great debt, as that speech is one of the most riveting parts of the series. Trans people are still not equals—in broader heterosexual society or in the LGB community. Our issues are newer in terms of broader attention. I hope to see more cis LGB and straight allies taking up trans causes—educating themselves, making trans friends, dating trans people and intentionally emphasizing trans identities and issues.

Where do you think, or hope, the trans community is headed?
We need policy change. Trans people can still be legally fired or denied housing and other public accommodations—just because they're trans—in 32 states. Anti-trans violence increases every year, and disproportionately targets trans women of color. Trans unemployment is a huge issue. My hope is that storytelling can effect change and increase public support of policy changes, and that, in turn, will enable trans people to be authors of many more stories. 


Text Zio Baritaux

Rhys Ernst
we've been here