Interview: Kevin McCarthy & Sayer Johnson, directors of Trans*Geek Movie

"The undercurrent is the joy that so many of us feel when living our authentic lives"

Image: © Trans*Geek Movie

There are so many amazing Kickstarters out there, from Cocktail Computers to progressive visual novels, that it’s hard to choose where your money should go. However, we came across one particular project that is not only tech-related and all-round awesome, but is also striving to raise awareness on the important issues surrounding trans discrimination: Trans*Geek Movie. (If you’re wondering why the asterisk, it’s to include people beyond just trans men and women).

According to the page, the film is “telling the stories of challenge and opportunity that lie at the intersection of Trans* Identity and Geek Culture.” The team has interviewed “all manner of geek” in the tech industry, from cosplay enthusiasts to software developers, all of whom are transgender or genderqueer, and who as a result, are harassed and discriminated against on a regular basis.

Most of the interviews and raw footage have already been gathered, and the funds raised will mainly go towards a few final “key interviews” and then post-production. The Kickstarter has a goal of $29,000, and at the time of writing, has raised almost a third of that.

Image © Trans*Geek Movie

The lowest possible pledge is $5, which will allow you to receive regular updates, your name on the supporters’ page, and a mention on social media. The highest pledge tier is $5,000 — this will identify you as Co-Executive Producer in the credits and on IMDB, and you and four guests will received a T-shirt and poster, be invited to work-in-progress screenings and, of course, the premiere.

Image © Trans*Geek Movie

But in addition to the movie itself, the people behind Trans*Geek also hope “to make the majority of our footage, sound recordings, transcripts, and research materials available to academics and others studying gender identity and geek culture.” In other words, this is a project that is far greater than one film. While the movie focuses specifically on “geeky” transgender and genderqueer people in the tech industry, the larger goal is to increase awareness and knowledge of the trans and genderqueer movements in general, and have real-life people tell their stories to wider audiences. We think that’s pretty awesome.

Unsurprisingly, the project has already encountered negativity – even from the automated tags on YouTube!

The Kickstarter page explicitly states that the team will “work with all team members to make them aware of the risks and provide resources to help them stay safe and avoid potential harassment,” which, as you can imagine in a project like this, is one of the top priorities.

In addition to the Kickstarter page, you can also read more about the project and stay updated via their website, FacebookTwitter, and YouTube pages.

We spoke to the project’s co-producers and directors Kevin McCarthy and Sayer Johnson to learn more about the story and goals behind the project.

Hi Kevin. You’re a straight cisgender man – can you tell us how and why you came to make a film about trans and genderqueer people in tech?

KEVIN: The first time I became aware of transgender people was when I was a teen in the late 1970’s. One of my favorite LP’s in my parents’ collection was “Switched on Bach.” I was mesmerised by the combination of artistry and technical mastery that it represented, and I wanted to find more work from the same performer. When I visited the library, I was initially surprised to find classical electronic music albums by two artists with the same last name, but quickly learned the story of Wendy Carlos‘ journey. I continue to be an avid fan of her work to this day.

Later in life, I was working as a Linux System Administrator, relying heavily on open source code. I began to notice that there were a substantial number of transgender people, transwomen especially, working in software development. I also quickly discovered the high price that many of them had paid when they transitioned in the workplace. Many impressive careers had to be rebuilt from scratch, and some people, at the peak of their professional productivity, simply disappeared from the field. This disturbed me, and I thought it was indicative of more general issues of diversity and inequity in the tech industry, and geek culture. I could see that transphobia in the tech industry and geek culture, a culture central to my life and identity, was causing deep wounds.

At first, I didn’t know what to do with these observations or how to address this injustice. The idea of making a film did occur to me (I had worked in film and video in the past), but I did not think that this was my story to tell. I worried about the inherent problems of a cisgender, heterosexual, white man trying to create a work on this topic. Some time later, I became friends with Sayer Johnson. When I shared my observations with Sayer, he encouraged me to move forward with the project. Sayer’s friendship gave me the courage I needed to take on this subject. Without his advice, and wisdom, there would be no Trans*Geek Movie.  I was thrilled when Sayer accepted the formal title of co-producer.

We are actively looking for more transgender voices to bring into the production team.  The inclusion of trans and genderqueer people in the creation of the film is critical to telling these stories fully and completely, in all their complexity.

Hi Sayer, how did you get involved with Trans*Geek? What drew you to it?

SAYER: Kevin and I have been friends for a number of years and had many conversations about identity, specifically Trans* and Geek culture. Once he had fleshed out his idea and made a plan to make it a reality, he engaged me. I immediately felt compelled to support and get involved. I firmly believe that storytelling is vital to the transgender rights movement and I immediately thought this was a creative and engaging way to hear narratives.

What kinds of stories have you heard so far from your interview subjects?

KEVIN: We have met so many people with compelling stories while making this documentary. We have talked with scientists, programmers, game developers, entrepreneurs, science fiction authors and critics, cosplay enthusiasts, and all types of fans.

I learned quickly that everyone has a different story to tell. I expected to hear a lot of depressing stories, and we did: programmers who have lost their careers, engineers that were driven out of their fields and are now homeless, gamers that have been harassed and threatened, people suffering from PTSD associated with the stresses of living with transphobia and transmisogyny every day of their lives.

We also hear amazing stories of achievement: three of the women that are taking part in the film are highly successful tech entrepreneurs. Some of the people we talked with transitioned successfully within their workplaces and continue to enjoy thriving careers. Many folks have persisted through hate and discrimination to rebuild their careers and become leaders in their communities.

There is no one “trans narrative”. This is something that mainstream media is slow to recognise. The stories we are hearing are as varied as the individuals telling them, and isn’t that what we should really expect?

Sayer, tell us about your background. How has your past work with the trans community played into your role on this film?

SAYER: I have been an out queer since the mid-80s as a teenager (lesbian at the time). I cut my teeth in ACT UP and Queer Nation. I then immersed myself with the Lesbian Avengers.

Later when I came out as transgender and found little to no community in real life for myself, I did what organisers do and created groups. First social emotional support groups, then 3 years ago I co-founded the Metro Trans Umbrella Group — we are a non-profit dedicated to building power for transgender people through education, advocacy, and community.

As I mentioned before, I believe storytelling is the key to pushing our movement forward. In the simplest terms, I believe it’s harder to hate someone you know, who has shared with you, who has let you peek into their life, and see the things that string us together as humans. And so visibility and storytelling with this film fits right in with my own vision and mission of building for transgender people.

Trans and genderqueer people face considerable harassment when they tell their stories publicly. How are you planning to protect your interview subjects when the film is released?

KEVIN: The dangers that face trans people are very real. More than 20 transwomen have been murdered this year in the United States alone. When you talk with trans and genderqueer people, especially transwomen, you quickly realise that “visibility” is not the unqualified positive that many in the media portray it to be. In fact, visibility and transmisogyny are a deadly mix.

Many people that we have talked to for Trans*Geek Movie want these stories to be told, but do not feel safe appearing on camera. Some people are participating in the documentary pseudonymously, some anonymously, and some only “on background.”

On more than one occasion, we have worked with people we interviewed to alter the extent or nature of their on screen participation because they feared it could negatively impact a professional opportunity they were pursuing.

Most of the people that we have interviewed for Trans*Geek Movie consider themselves, at some level, activists. Many of them are already aware of the risks that face women advocating for change in tech culture, and all know the dangers of everyday transphobia and transmisogyny. Part of the funding we are seeking will be used to collect resources to help mitigate the negative side-effects of publicity that people associated with the project may experience.

You’re describing the project as a movie – is it a documentary or is there a narrative weaving through? Is there a message or a conclusion we’ll be left with at the end?

KEVIN: Trans*Geek Movie is a documentary. The stories of the participants are told through interviews. Certainly, there are common topics that come to the fore again and again. Transphobia, sexism, and the myth of meritocracy in the tech industry and geek culture are recurring themes. So is the unique perspective on gender identity that transgender folk bring to bear.

One of the greatest pitfalls I have to negotiate as the director of Trans*Geek Movie is the temptation to make a movie about the experience of transgender people. As a straight, cisgender, white, college-educated male, I have to be mindful of my high degree of privilege. I cannot presume to speak for others. The questions that I ask in interviews, the responses we use in the final cut, and especially the process of editing, all entail unavoidable preconceptions and bias informed by my identity. As much as possible, I am trying to get out of the way and make space for people to tell their own stories.

What message are you hoping to convey?

SAYER: I think the message is multi layered. The film reflects back the beautiful wide breadth of trans narrative [and] it weaves together stories of identity and humanity and culture. There are some similar themes with struggle and gripping to find our spaces, but the undercurrent is the joy that so many of us feel when living our authentic lives.

What are you hoping to achieve with Trans*Geek?

KEVIN: Our hope is that Trans*Geek Movie will foster a much needed conversation about the role that gender identity plays in the lives of people that persist in a culture that is often openly hostile to any expression of difference. We want a wide audience to see that, along with the daily dangers and struggles, there are also unique expressions of identity and creativity that folks find through their work and play. We want the full authentic lives of trans geeks to be seen.

You can support Trans*Geek Movie now on Kickstarter – the campaign runs until the 13th of November. We can’t wait to see the finished film.


Main Image: © Trans*Geek Movie