Director Vlada Knowlton sat down with the Emory University community to talk about her recent film The Most Dangerous Year. You can watch the trailer for the film above and explore video excerpts from the Q&A below.
Gender is a matter of perennial concern in legal and religious spheres, and its implications are often profound: a person’s gender can determine their roles, responsibilities, rights, and opportunities in a given community. Even in relatively egalitarian societies and religious traditions, girls, boys, men, and women are expected (or required) to behave in ways that correlate with their gender.
In recent years, however, a diverse and growing number of scholars, activists, and others have questioned widely- held assumptions about gender. Of course, feminists in the United States and elsewhere have long questioned how societal roles have been tied to sex, and have asserted that a person’s sex should not narrow the scope of opportunities that they are afforded. Today, advocates of transgender rights emphasize that a person’s anatomical “sex” is not necessarily an indicator of their “gender.” Whereas “sex” primarily is defined by the presence of certain reproductive organs and other physical traits, “gender” refers to constellations of personality traits and forms of self-awareness that exist on a wide spectrum of masculinity, femininity, and more. This means that not every male (sex) is a man (gender), and not every female (sex) is a woman (gender). Indeed, some women and girls are born with penises. Some men and boys are born with vaginas. And some individuals, regardless of their anatomy, identify as neither men nor women.
At the same time, one’s physical anatomy (sex) is not necessarily irrelevant to one’s gender, according to these viewpoints. Many transgender persons find it important, or even essential, to undergo surgical and hormonal treatments to bring their bodies into harmony with their inner sense of gender. Where yesterday’s feminists burned their bras to protest patriarchal norms, transgender persons today may fully resect their breasts or use hormones to grow new breast tissue in order to feel more at home in their bodies – and perhaps also to feel more safe in a culture that still distinguishes strongly between men and women. Gender is thus decoupled from one’s sex-at-birth. At the same time, it may be deemed necessary to recouple sex and gender for some individuals via medical interventions and the adoption of gendered social conventions, such as clothing .
Many view such claims with confusion or alarm. To them, statements like “some men have vaginas” are contradictory. Men and boys are, by definition, males. They have penises and Y-chromosomes, and women don’t. Likewise, women have vaginas and two X-chromosomes, and men don’t. The fact that some men are less masculine than others, or that some women are less feminine than others, may show that humans have diverse personalities. But it does not mean that some women/females are actually men/males, or vice versa. On this view, gender is rooted fundamentally in one’s anatomical sex, not in one’s personal sense of identity. Some religious conservatives, for example, have insisted that binary forms of gender are woven into the very fabric of creation and should, therefore, not be tampered with. Some feminists, arguing from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, have also defended a closer linkage between gender and sex. Although gendered norms and inequities remain problematic, in their view, they insist that the identities and experiences of cisgender girls and women should not be conflated or confused with the those of transgender girls and women.
These disagreements are not merely philosophical. In the United States, gender still has significant social, personal, and legal implications, despite a century of legal changes that have decreased the inequitable treatment of men and women. From clothing and interpersonal relationships to sports, education, religious rites, parenting, politics, medicine, marriage, and public bathrooms, men/boys and women/girls are treated and expected to behave in gender-specific ways. Thus, we are faced with many important questions: Who is affected – and how? – by laws and norms that define and regulate gender in particular ways? Who is protected? What happens when widely-held definitions of gender are challenged or blurred? What should happen? And who gets to decide?
These questions were at the heart of a recent screening of The Most Dangerous Year at Emory University’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion. The Most Dangerous Year is a documentary film that chronicles the experiences of transgender individuals, families, and activists who protested a series of proposed “bathroom bills” that would have limited transgender persons’ access to sex-segregated public bathrooms. The director of the film, Dr. Vlada Knowlton, is the mother of a transgender child and was an active participant in efforts to prevent these bills from being enacted into law. She was present at the screening and participated in a live discussion with the audience.
Knowlton’s film movingly depicts her own family’s struggle to come to terms with her daughter’s gender as part of a broader narrative about the movement for transgender rights in her home-state of Washington. As she explains, “It was very important to me to tell the story in an objective and factual way and let both sides of the battle speak for themselves in their own voices … As difficult as that was, I found that as a parent, when you are forced to defend your child’s life and future, your reservoir of fortitude is limitless.” During her conversation with the audience, Knowlton answered questions about the science and psychology of gender, her experiences as a mother and activist, the participation of transgender athletes in sporting competitions, religious and political dimensions of debates about transgender rights, the changes in her daughter’s wellbeing after she began to identify socially as a girl, and more. The event reflected CSLR’s dedication to facilitating challenging conversations, convening the best minds, and training the next generation of academics, lawyers, and religious leaders to advance the global conversation on law and religion.
On September 19, 2019, the Center for the Study of Law and Religion hosted a film screening of The Most Dangerous Year, an award-winning film about transgender rights, bathroom bills, and the families of transgender kids. Managing Director Justin Latterell moderated a Q&A with director Vlada Knowlton after the screening.
[Justin Latterell] You studied Psychology, received a doctorate in Cognitive Science, and now you’re a filmmaker! Can you tell us more about your journey and how you got to where you are now?
[JL] One of your previous films looks at motherhood, but this one was different; you’re in front of the camera, as well as behind the camera. What was it like to make a film that was, at least partly, autobiographical?
[JL] You mentioned a time where a child socially transitions in many cases.There is a move from an experience of some serious desolation and depression and even suicidal thoughts to more of a happy, and in many ways, an ordinary kid’s life. How common is that part of the transition and how does it fit into your family’s experience?
[JL] Several of the kids that were featured in your film do identify pretty clearly as a boy or a girl. Where do non-binary kids fit into this story?
[Audience Member] When we look in the framework of transgender rights, it is embedded within a religious setting; it’s embedded within a setting of feminism and gender equality on a more fundamental basis. What is the foothold that you found most effective when talking to various communities about this?
[Audience Member] Whenever it comes to talking with people and trying to educate people, the most soul-crushing moment is when you bring all these arguments to the table, and you lay out all the basis for why transgender people are just like us and have the same rights as us, and then they come back with “well, that’s not how God intended it.” Clearly, the movement, as seen in your film, has so many allies in religious sects, but I also heard people saying “God created man and women-we need to respect that.” With no disrespect to religious institutions at all, when that’s the counter argument that people are coming at you with, how often did you see that, and how did you and the people you are working with deal with that counterargument?
[Audience Member] I am a graduate student in Emory’s Physician’s Assistant Program hoping to go into transgender pediatric care. We had a pediatrician come in for a lecture and he said, “If healthcare providers didn’t feel comfortable caring for a transgender child, they could tell the person to find somewhere else to get care.” What is your opinion on the pediatrician informing us to tell the patient to find somewhere else to get care if we feel uncomfortable? Also, what is one thing you would like for me to share with my class at the PA school?
[Audience Member] Could you share any stories that you’ve come across in a pediatrician’s or a psychologist’s office that have either been reaffirming or discouraging that either your family has experienced or other stories from parents of other children who are assigned a different gender at birth?
[Audience Member] There has been an increase of headlines debating transgender participation in high school sports. What are you thoughts on transgender polices on competitive sports?
[Audience Member] How did your other children handle the transition of their transibling? Do you typically hear more complaints/concerns about trans women in the locker room or transmen in the locker room?
“Transgender Rights, Bathroom Bills, and the Families of Transgender Youth – A Conversation with Director Vlada Knowlton.” Canopy Forum, December 4, 2019. https://canopyforum.org/2019/12/04/transgender-rights-bathroom-bills-and-the-families-of-transgender-youth-a-conversation-with-vlada-knowlton/