It wasn’t until Deborah Svoboda dated someone who is trans that she understood how little she understood about being transgender. “I realized how very misunderstood they were, including by me,” she says. And that comes from someone who identifies as queer and has lived and worked in diverse communities.
So Svoboda decided to use her skills as a multimedia journalist to learn about one aspect of transition: sex reassignment surgery. Surgery is something that people tend to fixate on. The “Did she or didn’t she?” aspect of it even came up in Vanity Fair’s coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition.
Svoboda put flyers up in LGBT health clinics in the San Francisco area, asking people if they would be willing to let her document the experience. Jamie Nelson, who says he identifies as a transgender male who is queer, and Jetta’Mae Carlisle, who says she identifies as a straight woman, said yes. Both were preparing to have surgery, and were willing to let Svoboda follow them through the process.
“They also both wanted to tell their stories for the purpose of breaking down fears and misunderstandings around trans people,” says Svoboda, who lives in Emeryville, Calif. “I could see that these two people both had an incredible amount of courage and openness that I knew we needed to tell such an intimate and in-depth story.”
She met with Nelson and Carlisle for almost a year. As the surgery dates grew closer, she met with them daily to photograph, video or gather audio. Carlisle flew to Phoenix for her surgery, “So I drove there and spent a week documenting her experience, physical and emotional.”
In the end, Svoboda says, she learned an incredible amount. “The lengths they have had to go through in order to be themselves inspire me,” she says. “They’ve been forced to ask for what they need, to face criticism, rejection and even degradation. They’ve gone through pain and confusion and still they find a way to hold their heads up and say, ‘This is who I am.’ ”
The video originally appeared on KQED’s State of Health blog.