In recent years there has been a growing increase in the visibility of trans individuals in the media. While greater representation of trans stories aids in validating the existence of trans people, it is important to note the way in which trans people are portrayed.

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NewFest, New York’s LBTQ+ Film Festival, offers a short-film programming titled “BEYOND THE BINARY,” a shorts program dedicated to filmmakers exploring the diversity of experiences of trans, nonbinary, and intersex individuals. 

 

The opening film, Here With You, written by and starring Morgan Sullivan (he/they), directed by Nona Schamus, follows the story of a trans couple who are drawn together on a chance night out. The film not only prominently features two trans characters played by trans actors, but the entire crew behind the film was made up of trans members. 

 

Before the BEYOND THE BINARY programming at NewFest, I had the opportunity to meet up with Morgan and discuss the representation of trans people as well as trans artists in the project!

Where did your inspiration come from in the making of Here with You?

I had the idea for the film because my girlfriend is trans too and I hadn’t seen any portrayals of trans people dating. I feel like almost all of my friends that are trans also have trans partners. It was a story that needed to be told. I am a trans actor primarily and I just wasn’t being called in for trans roles. I really wanted to play a trans person so I made the role for myself. I first had the idea because it’s based off of my relationship and I wanted to show a happy, healthy, cute trans relationship.

What was it like to work on the film with an entirely trans cast and crew?

It started out just me writing it and trying to figure it all out. And then I approached Nona, who is our director, who is super awesome.I knew I wanted them to direct it when I first started writing it. It was just us two at first. You know, it’s a little bit nerve-wracking, it was the first film I ever made. When you don’t have any precedent that you can do something because you haven’t done it yet, it’s scary. I was really lucky to be able to work with Nona who does live in that world, like behind the camera, and who knows how to do all this and taught me so much. It was a super collaborative process and really exciting because they have a trans partner too. The film was like collectively telling our story.

"The film was collectively telling our story" 

"The film was collectively telling our story" 

Was there a massive difference being able to work on a project like Here with You that has an entirely trans cast and crew compared to other acting and creative experiences? 

I mostly play cis roles now, like young cis boys, and I’m usually the only trans person on set, which is fine - it’s not preferable. Sometimes I just don’t talk about being trans or somehow it does come up and people are surprised or whatever. I like to be able to focus on my work and it’s a little bit hard when I’m worried about how people are perceiving me. Being able to work with an entirely trans cast and crew - it just felt like I could exhale and really focus on the work. It was so nice, we had pronouns on the call sheet and everyone was talking about their name origins and surgery stories and that stuff that you don’t usually get to talk about. The energy was really great and everyone was really excited to work on it. It’s been great because then there are people that met there, different crew people, that hadn’t known each other and are now working on other projects. It’s this way of community building and growing together and having more representation. 

This is a personal curiosity: what is it like playing cis men? The times that I’ve played cis men it’s very ironic or it feels very ironic.

I’ve been on T for four years and then I got top surgery three years ago. It’s been a funny thing thing because I went from only, only, only getting called in for trans roles. Period. That’s all I was being called in for -- I wasn’t being taken seriously for cis guy roles. Then it was this kind of funny change where somewhere around the two-year mark I started getting called in for cis roles and I was like, “OK…” I can’t say that I don’t feel dysphoric going into auditions and seeing all of these cis guys in the waiting rooms, but I also know that being trans we have this deep well of experiences. I might be biased, but trans actors, to me, are inherently more interesting because we’ve gone through so many different life experiences. It sounds so cheesy, but we have this wisdom about things because we’ve had to grow up really quickly. I personally have had to grow fast and make all of these decisions that impact the rest of my entire life and trust that’s what I want for myself. That’s no small feat, you know? With cis roles, I tell myself, “You know what? Once I’ve booked the role, it’s a trans role. Period.” It is what it is and I’m going to play it however the hell I want because they’re trusting me to do that. When I first was getting called for cis roles I felt the need to show my “manhood,” which is funny because I don’t consider myself a super masculine person. I identify as a boy but I don’t identify as a trans masculine person.

What, for you, is the distinction between being a boy and a trans masculine person? 

It’s how I feel in my body. I always knew I wanted to be flat, have a flat chest. It’s the way I see myself and experience myself. It took me awhile to make that distinction. A lot of the representations of trans guys that I was seeing were super masc, super muscle-y, and I was questioning things a lot because I’m not that, so am I not a trans guy? That’s partially why I made my role in Here with You the way I did. Elliot is a little more shy, kind of a little geeky, which is what I am. I think that it’s important to show that there are, obviously, different ways of being trans and there are all kinds of ways of embodying transness. I never saw a dorky trans boy on screen represented. It took me a long time to go from this place where I was pushing to prove myself in auditions like “I’m a man. I’m a boy. Look!” It took me a long time to figure out what kind of boy I was and am. It’s still a journey. I’m still figuring it out.

I hear you. I started T this past summer. I came out as non-binary in January, so it’s been like…

 

Yes! Big year!

*Holds out hands for high fives.*

 

*Returning high fives* Oh I know. 

 

I love that! 

 

It was interesting because… I hear you on the representation of trans masculinity. I would say your character portrayal in this film is a kind of masculinity that I would identify a lot more with. Like soft boys? I don’t know if this is true for you too, but growing up I very strongly related to certain male characters. 

 

Yeah. 

And I never understood whether it was because there were such poor representations of different kinds of women and, in fiction genres, women are also expected to empathize more with men or whether it was a trans thing  *Laughs*

It’s hard to parse! It’s hard to parse. And that’s why I think it’s so important to show so many different kinds of trans people because I was like, “What the hell is wrong with me?!” Because I was  looking at all these super muscle-y, super buff trans guys. I was like, “I don’t want to be that. Is that my only option?” Sometimes there’s a lot of toxic masculinity in the trans male community. Being able to present a different possibility of transness and of how we can exist in relationships that are cute and happy…. I’m just happy to do that.

The romantic genre is massive, especially rom-coms and romantic dramas. Of course we’re familiar with there being mostly cishet storylines, but I would also say we’re seeing mostly mlm (men loving men) storylines and then very few wlw (women loving women) storylines. I saw Carol for the first time recently and I felt really bad I had given one of my other trans friend’s homework, we give each other homework, and I was like, “OK you have to watch Call Me By Your Name” and they said, “OK you have to watch Carol.” 

 

I liked Call Me By Your Name!

 

I am obsessed with that movie. And I saw Carol, which my friend loved. I went into watching Carol like, this is supposed to be something we were going to be like, “Oh yeah, we’re both so gay for this.” But I watched it and it’s a beautiful movie, it just didn’t impact me that much the way I thought it was supposed to. It didn’t feel… when I watched Call Me By Your Name, I was sobbing by the end of it. I was so attached to Elio, I felt he was such a representation of myself. I just didn’t see myself in either of Cate Blanchett’s or Rooney Mara’s characters. I think part of it is them being nineteen-fifties women, so it’s a very specific kind of time period that I think someone like me who recently came out and started transitioning I’m like… *uncomfortable noises* femininity. It doesn’t feel like something I can comfortably touch again… yet. However, because I’m also known to be obsessed with Brokeback Mountain, my friend was like “Why do you think it is that you resonate more deeply with mlm than wlw stories?” And then I had this whole conniption all day because I was like, “Oh my god is this an internalized sexism thing, what IS this?” But I realized it’s because a lot of lesbian love stories that are out, at least the ones I’ve seen so far, are not the sort of stories I identify with because I still identify with more masc, androgynous women. Anyways,  I loved Call Me By Your Name because I loved Elio. Elio is the kind of boy that I see myself in. 

 

Exactly! Honestly, when we were doing the storyboard for Here with You we used a lot of stills from Call Me By Your Name because Elio is very similar to how I see the character of Elliot: a vulnerable, young person just figuring it out. Trans people can have just as involved storylines, it doesn’t have to be only about them being trans.

"Being able to present a different possibility of transness and how we can exist in relationships that are cute and happy... I'm just happy to do that"

"Being able to present a different possibility of transness and how we can exist in relationships that are cute and happy... I'm just happy to do that"

Here With You, and the other films in NewFest’s BEYOND THE BINARY programming, explore just that: involved storylines that go beyond being trans. This does not mean that trans identities do not feature at the forefront, but rather it the fact of being trans is one thread in the larger tapestry of each character’s human experience. 

 

There are existent narratives of trans people out there, many of them continue to be damaging towards our community. Films like Here With You challenge those narratives by featuring the perspective of trans people. Representation and visibility become those on the terms of trans people, granting larger agency in the narratives that surround us.

 

At the end of the day, trans stories are about us as people and trans people. 


So what’s next for Here with You? After a series of tours at Frameline, Outfest, Seattle Queer Film Fest, and New Fest, Here with You will also be traveling overseas to Paris, where the film will be translated into french by a trans translator. Morgan mentioned the intention to develop the film into a larger series that will feature Elliot as its protagonist. “That’s what’s on the horizon,” he said.

Keep up with Here with You and get information about future screenings  at the link below!

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