How does the mother of a 5-year-old transgender girl cope with local lawmakers attempting to take away her daughter's civil rights? If you're Vlada Knowlton (pictured below), an award-winning filmmaker residing in Washington state, the answer to that question is twofold: You fight on the frontlines for justice and bring your camera crew in tow.
The Most Dangerous Year, Knowlton's most recent film project, follows her daughter, the rest of her family, and other community members who rallied against a string of anti-transgender "bathroom bills" in Washington back in 2016. The feature-length documentary premiered in Seattle in 2018 and is scheduled for a limited theatrical release in New York City and Los Angeles later this month.
NewNowNext caught up with Knowlton to learn more about The Most Dangerous Year—and Knowlton's perspective as the mother of a young trans girl.
Take me back to the moment when you decided to start documenting this very personal journey.
It wasn’t an easy decision to make. It was the point after I spoke to Aidan Key, who’s one of the main cast members of this film. He’s a trans man himself and the founder of a support group for parents of transgender kids. After he spoke with me about sort of what’s coming in 2016—and we all know how that year played out on many levels!—something changed. … Up until that time, I really had no desire to make a film about trans kids or my own personal story. That wasn’t something I was willing to broach at that point. But after [Aidan and I] spoke ... it was no longer a question of, Am I comfortable with this? Am I brave enough to try something like this? It was like, you know, we all have to stand up together and do anything we possibly can to fight against the bigotry and hate that’s coming our way. And I said to myself, Okay, if I don’t make this film, who will?
Can you tell me more about that?
I think we all have a sort of obligation to the rest of our society to contribute the skills that we have, the resources we have at that moment, when they’re most needed. I’m not much of a social person or a people person; I’m not really an activist who sort of stands up in public and uses a loudspeaker—you know, all those things. And I’ve never really been that active politically before. But I realized I have one skill I can contribute: I can make a movie. I know how to make a film. I’m also the parent of a transgender child. So, I had this information; I had this skill; and I had access to the trans community, the activist community, and the lawmakers in Washington state. I was kind of in this unique position.
What was it like, trying to balance being the mother of a transgender child, a vocal ally to the trans community, and a documentary filmmaker?
It was sort of the ultimate exercise in compartmentalization. That was the toughest aspect of it; I’d never attempted to do this to such an extent ever in my life, where you really have to shut off certain strong emotional forces in you as a parent. Obviously, when you’re being the filmmaker, you have your filmmaker hat on. I think at this point in my life, I maybe was mature enough to do that. I’m not sure if I would’ve been able to do that when I was younger. It’s hard.
Something I loved about the film was the educational aspect of it and the breadth of expert sources you included—counselors, advocates, licensed medical doctors. How did you go about selecting these people?
I had access to these doctors. I knew of them, and I also knew that they were some of the top in their fields. You know, I totally understand that some people who are opposed to trans people having the same civil rights as everyone else would say, “Oh, these doctors are biased; you spoke to experts who are on only one side of the debate.” I don’t really see it that way, though. Because these are the people who are doing this research [with trans children.] And they’re the ones who are actually uncovering truths that the mainstream medical and scientific organizations are actively embracing. [Their work] is why we have medical and scientific support of trans people—because that’s actually the reality of things. I wanted to make sure we had the latest information in the film. So for me, it wasn’t so much a “both sides of the argument” kind of issue. It was more a question of, “What do we know right now?”
Anti-transgender bills keep popping up, like the so-called “Slate of Hate” in Tennessee.
I was just [in Tennessee]! I showed the film at an LGBTQ conference and spoke on a panel. ... It’s heinous—they’re trying to take rights away from gender-diverse people and trans people in many different ways. And gay people, as well. [Tennessee lawmakers] are trying to take away the rights of same-sex couples to adopt children.
And their approach feels so sinister.
Right. The Tennessee legislature is trying to change the definition of what “indecent exposure” is, which is just so pernicious. Changing that definition to not be defined as intent—nefarious intent—but as the presence of a human being whose body parts don’t match what you’d expect? I mean, that in and of itself is such a heinous attempt to discriminate against people. Basically, they’re saying that indecent exposure is just you being there with your body looking the way it looks.
How does it feel knowing that this film you made years ago is still so relevant?
[Anti-transgender legislators] just keep trying different tactics. The "bathroom predator" myth didn't work for them; going after young kids isn't working so well, because why would anybody want to go after an innocent little kid? It's really unfortunate and ironic to me that this film is in demand because of all of the hateful legislation being brought up around the country. And I honestly wish that it wasn't in demand. Personally, I wish that this film never had to be made ... But the irony is definitely there, that this film is doing well because of this frightening world we live in right now. And I wish that wasn't true.
Has your daughter seen The Most Dangerous Year?
She has. She likes it! She’s proud. My other kids love it, too. They make little cameo appearances in the film. My older daughter and son are very happy with it.
Do you think they're aware of the impact telling this story could have?
I think kids are smarter than we often give them credit for, with understanding social issues. They really get it. My two kids who are teenagers, they talk about these issues at school all the time. I think young people today understand gender diversity better than people from my generation do. And that’s a good thing! That’s a very hopeful thing. ... I mean, it’s been three years since we started making this. There’s never been a point where one of [my kids] said to me, “Mom, I wish we hadn’t done this.”
That’s what I loved about the film, really. At its heart, it felt like a story about families and children who just want to live their lives like everyone else.
I think that’s what’s missing a lot from the media narrative about transgender people, too. And it’s really important for us to start thinking about this. This is crucial: These are just regular, everyday kids. They’re no different from anybody else. By accepting them and supporting them, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re letting them just be regular, happy kids. The flip side of that is rejection, depression, suppression—that’s the point when your child is not having a happy childhood. When you reject them for who they are.
The Most Dangerous Year opens in New York City on Friday, April 12, and in Los Angeles on Friday, April 26.