Behind the Lens: The Filmmakers of “TransMilitary”

“We are at the forefront of this fight for equality, for the right to exist."

Life has forever changed for the team that made TransMilitary, the award-winning documentary that profiled four transgender members of the armed services. Their film is coming to Logo this month for its worldwide television debut on Thursday, November 15, at 8pm ET/PT.

“Before, I wouldn’t have thought of how different a transgender man or a transgender woman was treated, in the military or out,” said producer-writer Jamie Coughlin, by phone on her way home from the latest screening at NewFest in New York City last month. “Even if I’d seen a news article about it, I wouldn’t have understood it to the degree I do now, having gone through this experience with everybody; being in the passenger seat, watching them go through this transitioning experience, and the different challenges that came up for different people.”

The filmmaking team behind TransMilitary includes (above, from left) co-director and concept creator Fiona Dawson, director Gabriel Silverman, and (far right) producer-writer Jamie Coughlin. All three are cisgender; Dawson, a longtime LGBTQ advocate and first-time filmmaker, identifies as bisexual. Silverman and Coughlin, who married earlier this year, got their start in newsrooms doing digital video, and started their own production company, SideXSide Studios.

They spoke exclusively with NewNowNext about their work, which won the Audience Award at SXSW, the Grand Jury Award for best documentary at the Florida Film Festival, and honorable mention at OutFest. TransMilitary has opened eyes, they said, including their own.

“When you start to learn about the legal protections that are and are not there for transgender people, it saddened me to learn the hopscotch they have to play when trying to patch together what rights they travel throughout our country,” said Silverman. He cited the example of one of the service members profiled, Captain Jennifer Peace, stationed in Washington state, which has broad protections for gender identity.

“She was fully protected as a civilian, off-base,” he said. “She couldn’t be fired from her job just for being transgender. Then she crosses over onto base and now all of a sudden she’s in the hot seat and can be fired for being transgender.”

Silverman and Coughlin have been traveling around the United States promoting the film’s release with Dawson, who originated the concept of telling these stories, and last month screened the film at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

“It’s been six years of my life, working on this,” Dawson said with a modest, stifled laugh as she reflected on her struggle to bring these stories to the screen. “To now be premiering on the Logo channel and have this film with a TV distributor is just thrilling and exciting, but at the same time, it’s sad that there is still such a need for it after all this time.”

And the need is real. On October 29, ten transgender rights groups including the National Center for Transgender Equality filed a brief in the case of Doe v. Trump, in Washington, D.C. It’s one of four federal court cases challenging the Trump administration’s so far unsuccessful efforts to ban transgender people from serving in the military. A federal judge issued an injunction against the administration’s latest proposed ban in August, and the matter could soon be argued in front of the Supreme Court.
 

“The film’s premiere on television is monumentally important, and couldn’t come at a better time,” said Laila Ireland, a 12-year Army veteran and one of the four transgender individuals featured in TransMilitary (pictured, above, second from right). She and her husband, Staff Sergeant Logan Ireland of the U.S. Air Force, also appeared in the Emmy-nominated short film that Dawson, Silverman and Coughlin made in 2015, Transgender, At War and In Love. That New York Times documentary profiled not only their military experience and expertise, but movingly told the love story of this couple, a trans man and a trans woman.

TransMilitary expands their story to include that of First Lieutenant El Cook and Peace’s promotion to company commander. Dawson said perhaps the hardest part of filming was having to dig into their own pockets to capture those moments, until President Trump inadvertently helped them raise funds.

“The ironic thing about the president’s tweets last summer [announcing a ban on transgender troops] is that it helped us get the message out that this was an important issue that needed to be documented,” Dawson recalled. Retired army colonel Sheri Swokowski, Judge Phyllis Randolph Frye, and several other prominent trans advocates donated money, and more than 100 others made financial contributions; trans photographer Rhys Harper volunteered to drive hundreds of miles to film Logan and Laila’s reunion when he returned from deployment to Afghanistan. The film is the first feature documentary to receive a grant from the GLAAD Media Institute.

“We are at the forefront of this fight for equality, for the right to exist,” Laila Ireland said in a Facebook message. “It matters and is important that we tell our stories, that we empower the language and the voices that we represent and uplift, and the decisions that we make.”

Estimates are that 15,000 troops serving in the U.S. armed forces identify as transgender, and the documentary tackles how the lifting of the ban in 2016 and the Trump administration’s attempts to reimplement it is impacting these American heroes.

“Thousands have came before us and thousands will come after us,” senior airman Logan Ireland posted on Facebook. “We are both beyond humbled and grateful to be included in the documentary, TransMilitary. My hope is that we have, and will continue to, represent our community with the dignity, honor and respect they deserve.”

TransMilitary premieres on Logo on Thursday, November 15, at 8pm ET/PT. For more info, click here.

Writer, producer and public speaker Dawn Ennis was the first out trans journalist in TV network news. A widow raising three children, she's the subject of the documentary "Before Dawn/After Don." You can find her on YouTube, Twitter and LifeAfterDawn.com.