At a time when small children are thinking about their first day of school and how to ride a bike, Gwen Haworth (who was at the time a young boy named Steven) knew that her gender identity was awry. Even at that oft-innocent age her instincts were to keep those desires secret from everyone, something she kept to herself for more than two decades. “I’ve been aware of this since I was four,” says Haworth. “That meant 23 years of keeping this secret hidden, 23 years of self-hate and internalized transphobia.”
The frustration in her words is palpable. But these days the emotion that resonates from Haworth is peace, a softness of spirit. This is no queer tragedy. In fact, Haworth’s story is inspiring and worth celebrating — and comes complete with a happy ending.
The ending however is really just another beginning, in the form of a touching film entitled She’s a Boy I Knew. Haworth’s first- and second-person account of her evolutionary journey pre- and post-transition takes on a host of brave topics in front of the camera, asking difficult questions not just of herself but also her parents, her siblings, her ex-wife and her dearest friends.
As Haworth tells it, being trapped in the wrong body was incredibly difficult, but having no access to stories of successful transitions — either on film or in books — meant that the process was far more difficult and confusing for her and her family than it needed to be. “When I came out, people important to me didn’t really know what it meant to be a transsexual,” says Haworth. “There were a lot of things to learn, yet there wasn’t anything out there to watch that we were aware of. Trans women are often seen as monsters or victims in the media…. I always saw either the victims or victimizers, the serial killers, gender as performance and that grey zone between what is crossdressing, what is drag.
“There wasn’t anything that showed a family experience, to see other people like them going through the difficult questions but still being able to be there for each other through hard times. The suicide rate in the trans community is really high and a large part of that is through isolation and depression because of not having those people to fall back on.
“I hope that by showing my family’s experience, that would give other people something to dialogue from.”
The award-winning filmmaker decided to make She’s a Boy I Knew her thesis project while finishing up her MFA at the University of British Columbia. The timing — initially filming her family just after her fourth surgery and the legally official transition from male to female — was a conscious decision to document her family’s reaction to her transition over time. “What I wanted to get across to people was not necessarily the initial surface level frustration, but rather what was going on inside my family. If I had made it five years later, people would have forgotten a lot more, pain would have felt more distant, it wouldn’t have been truthful to the emotion of that time.
“I really wanted this film to be that resource tool that wasn’t there for any of us, and they understood that.” Haworth acknowledges how difficult this process was on her and her family but encouraged her kin to speak honestly so that others might learn from and relate to them. “It is not meant to be an objective documentary,” says Haworth. “It is intended to be very from-the-heart. Seeing a lot of my transition reflected through my family’s eyes, there’s more empathy for everyone.”
Some of the most moving moments on film take place in the form of conversations between Gwen and her military-career father. What came out of his hardened exterior was pure heart. “It is an amazing thing that I couldn’t have predicted. He could have been the hardest to access. But he was so there — so many of us have those silent fathers that don’t speak out — and it hits home to see that.”
Haworth’s film has been warmly embraced by the Canadian film community. After its debut at the Vancouver International Film Festival last fall it won the People’s Choice Award for most popular Canadian film. It also won the Women in Film and Television Vancouver Artistic Merit Award, the first time that award has been given to a transsexual woman. Haworth continues to move forward with the aim of getting the doc seen at every film festival and in every movie house interested in showing her work. But she is definitely taking time to appreciate everything as it is unfolding.
“So much of my life has been about this moment. All the hiding, the fear, the feeling that people wouldn’t accept me. I cried so much making this film, I gushed buckets and buckets.
“I’ve learned to love and appreciate these people so much more from hearing their words and learning more about them in the process.”