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Review: 'Transhood' a Multi-Year, Multi-Family Snapshot of Transgender Youth

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Nov 12, 2020
Review: 'Transhood' a Multi-Year, Multi-Family Snapshot of Transgender Youth

If the title of the HBO documentary "Transhood" has an ever-so-slightly familiar ring to it, that's because like the acclaimed film "Boyhood" it was filmed over a period of years, revisiting the same people as time went by.

The documentary is very different, however, in that over the course of its five years of filming, the people that documentarian Sharon Liese visited were four families with transgender or gender-nonconforming children. Perhaps more remarkably, all four families lived in Kansas City - a place where religious and cultural ideas don't necessarily have much room for anyone who's a little different.

What most of these four children have in common is a certainty about who they are that simply won't be contained. The film begins in 2014 when the oldest of the kids Liese follows is 15, and the youngest is four. By the time the film ends - ninety minutes of running time and five years of lived experience later - the children we meet at the film's beginning are either young adults or on the verge of arriving there. With one exception, they have all maintained the fundamental sense of self they expressed from an early age, continuing to live, dress, and identify as the gender they know themselves to be despite their bodies differing from those identities.

Leena, the oldest, wants to be a model. She also sets her sights on gender affirmation surgery. Her parents accept her unconditionally, as does her grandmother; they do worry that one day Leena might suddenly identify as a male after all, and there's a sense of worry that if and when she does surgically transition, there will be no going back. (That's not a worry Leena shares in the least.)

For Jay, who's 12 when we meet him and 17 when the film ends, the certainty is equally consistent and deeply rooted. Jay's single mother, Bryce, is in tears at many of the junctures of Jay's journey, from his first injection of female hormone blockers to his eventual use of testosterone, but her child's progress toward manhood does not derail her own life. Eventually, Bryce undergoes significant changes in her own life, as a new romantic partner enters the scene: A partner who is just as committed to Jay as Bryce is.

Avery, at age seven, is already something of a celebrity and a voice for trans kids. Precociously self-possessed and well-spoken, Avery finds in her parents the same support and love that Jay and Leena enjoy - maybe even more; her mother, Debi, becomes something of an accidental activist when she begins speaking out about her daughter's journey. As well-spoken as her daughter Debi puts into words. the things that many young trans people and their parents might want to make clear to a world that pre-judges and clings to misconceptions about trans people; for one thing, Debi points out, pre-pubescent trans children do not have gender confirmation surgery. They don't even start hormone therapy until puberty sets in. What they do is undertake a "social transition," dressing and presenting as the gender they know themselves to be, and using the appropriate pronouns. In Avery's case, the pronouns are definitely "she" and "her" - though, as Debi tells the camera, Avery is "a tomboy trans girl."

In the case of four-year-old Phoenix, things are not strictly binary. Phoenix insists that he's a "girl-boy," which his parents (who use male pronouns for their child) take to mean that he's "non-binary, gender-nonconforming... gender-awesome," as his mother, Molly, puts it. "We don't really have a good term," Zach, Phoenix's father, summarizes.

The film's editing keeps up a lively pace, cutting between the different families as they react to the onset of the Trump years, national tragedies like the Pulse Nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida, and - closer to home - a "bathroom bill" that mandated schools pay thousands of dollars to (presumably cisgender) students if a trans student should dare to use a restroom or locker room corresponding to their gender identity rather than their physiology. The families also deal with marital strain, pushback and rejection from their own families, and their own sometimes challenging process of learning to accept a transgender child - a process that, for one parent, seems easily reversed when the youth in question eventually identifies with the gender assigned to them at birth.

All the while, the kids have their own challenges - the usual adolescent heartaches, plus the complications that, unfortunately, come with being trans in our current culture. One of them is dumped by a close friend; another suffers a romantic breakup; a third comes to regret being a poster child for trans youth, especially after being subjected to horrendous attacks by right-wing media and internet trolls. "Being a teen is hard enough on its own," Leena tells the camera, and her point is well taken: Being both a teen and trans compounds all the stresses and heartaches of the usual transition to adulthood.

But by the time the film ends its journey with these families, sharing the usual ups and downs of life along with some unusual ones, there's a sense you get that these young people are ready for impending adulthood and everything that it will mean for them. In a sense, you suspect, being trans - and having to speak up and speak out in their own interests - has prepared them for anything.

"Transhood" premieres on HBO and HBO Max on Nov. 12.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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