Canada
3 min

She’s a boy I knew

Gwen Haworth's journey to award-winning documentary maker

A few years ago, during the first year of my Masters degree, I kept spotting someone vaguely familiar. I say vaguely as something about this person rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint why or how. All I knew was the fashion choices felt a little bit gothic, and inspired by someone who used to listen to bands like The Smiths, Depeche Mode and The Cure.

That I only saw this person in passing or from a distance made each encounter feel like a scene from a mystery movie or a high-suspense drama. Just who was this mysterious figure?

When we finally saw each other face to face, it dawned on me how I knew this person. We’d been students at the community college where I now teach, and though we didn’t hang around too much together, I remembered once having a gap between English classes when I drove us in my navy-blue Pinto to a Fun for Under Five Bucks store and we revelled in the then just developing dollar store craze.

Apparently, fun was easily purchased back then.

“Steve?” I asked in the creative writing department hallway. “Steve, it’s Billeh from Kwantlen College.”

“Actually, I’m transitioning and my name is Gwen now,” she said now-blushing, but with a firm, yet sincere voice.

I know that we talked a little bit more about the life and school, but I don’t remember the details because I felt so bad about referring to her by her former name in front of a bunch of classmates. I also couldn’t fully process how the shy man who I admittedly crushed over way back when had decided to transition. We’d obviously led much different lives since our first years in school together, but I’ve always believed that people who grew up in similar situations — Depeche Mode listening arty boys from BC’s Fraser Valley — understand each other in a very intimate way.

Later that evening I sent off an email that described my hope that I hadn’t made her too uncomfortable and that we should reconnect sometime. This was in the fall of 2001, just a few weeks after 9/11.

Over the subsequent years, we kept seeing each other at East Vancouver house parties, queer cultural dances and, for a brief time, when I was sleeping with her girlfriend’s roommate. I soon forgot about the guy I knew from college, and delighted as Gwen became more Gwen. Sure, things like the chin reduction or her fabulous new breasts helped define her, but it was how she now moved, and the confidence that now emanated from her that struck me the most. It just made sense.

Throughout all these changes, Gwen kept taking classes and working on a feature length movie about her transition that she intended to use for her Masters thesis, the project that would ultimately become She’s a Boy I Knew.

When a jury of filmmakers awarded the Women in Film and Television Artistic Merit Award at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, I was one of the many folks happy to see fellow queer artist Gwen Haworth take the prize. That the jury decided to give the prize to an out trans-woman really blew my mind. Let’s put it this way: as Gwen documents in her film, the movie business hasn’t really had the most flattering representations of trans folks. Think about Silence of the Lambs. The festival also bestowed the Audience Award for Most Popular Canadian Film!

Gwen’s film is a no-holds-barred look at her and her family’s take on the various stages of her transition. It really is a marvel and, frankly, a pivotal film — for both trans folks and Canada’s long history of award-winning documentaries. I’m not going to describe the actual film too much though, as a picture is worth a thousand words and and a feature-length documentary is worth a whole lot more. Please check out her website www.artflick.com to confirm the next screening. It’s being shown around the world.

As someone who also grew up in those same Bible Belt suburbs, I know how difficult it can be to make the decisions you need to make. Thank you, Gwen. Perhaps we can hang out at a dollar store sometime soon.

Billeh Nickerson is the second vice-chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada.