Janet Jensen has been a teacher for the AGLIFF-sponsored Queer Youth Media Project and also worked on the crew of several notable features like “Boyhood” and “The Tree Of Life.” On Sunday at the festival, she was on hand to premiere her own work. “Formerly Known As” is a stunning documentary that follows the lives of three Austinites who are in various stages of transitioning from female to male.
The project began filming three years ago, long before Caitlyn Jenner came out and elevated the public conversation about trans lives in our culture. At the time, Jensen and her producers simply wanted to tell the stories of some of their friends and the struggles that they have had to deal with to in order to be themselves.
The trans community in Austin is pretty strong because, let’s face it, if you’re queer and feel like an outsider elsewhere in the state of Texas, you’re more likely to end up here. There may be strength in numbers, but that doesn’t take away from the lack of health services and surgical options that still find people having to save up to travel for much-needed medical procedures. We live in a state where surveys report alarming rates of discrimination and harassment of transgender residents, so the fact that the trans men featured in this film were brave enough to allow their stories to be documented is remarkable in and of itself.
The film’s subjects are friends with very different circumstances, even though they’re all on a similar path. Cruz has a supportive family and girlfriend who offer plenty of love and unconditional support. Over the course of the film, he is called out of town to attend grad school, but is thankful for a city that helped him become his true self. Fenwick is a divorced parent, locked in a frustrating custody battle over his daughter in a court system that doesn’t really understand or care about trans people. Kayden has a positive outlook and enthusiasm that is simply contagious, finding support locally and also through posting YouTube videos. Despite experiencing body dysmorphia, he works out frequently and launches an online fundraiser in order to combat the expenses of surgery.
“Formerly Known As” shows us how undeniably high the stakes can be in order to lead an authentic life. As Fenwick painfully admits, they’ve all had to be prepared to lose everything in the process. As more honest and heartfelt stories like these find their way into the public consciousness, we can hope for a day when that is no longer a concern.