By Darlene Leal
Transgender representation in media is either very limited or restricted to either political agendas or reports of women of color being murdered. André Pérez wants to change that narrative.
“America in Transition: Where is My Refuge?” follows the story of a transgender woman and immigrant named Nina Chaubal. Chaubal had worked for Google but decided that she wanted to help create a suicide hotline for transgender people with her partner, Greta Van Susteren.
Chaubal quit her job and traveled with her partner, another trans woman, to help connect with those in need. While passing through Arizona, they were stopped and asked to show their papers. When Chaubal quit her job, she lost her working visa and was now considered to be undocumented.
Chaubal was held in custody from Dec. 28, 2016 to Jan. 3, 2017. She was traumatized by the experience, but with the help of her media platform she was able to get bailed out.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), there is between roughly “15,000 and 50,000 undocumented transgender immigrants living in the USA.” When they are detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) they are often met with discrimination and mistreatment. Chaubal said she was lucky to have been sent to a female facility while most others aren’t as fortunate as they are sent to male facilities.
Chaubal wasn’t exempt from the trauma that comes with being detained, however. And despite dealing with trauma, Chaubal notes it could’ve been worse. She could’ve been sent to a male facility or been assaulted. ICE only has one transgender “housing pod.” HRC reported that trans women are detained twice as long as all immigrants and and are often victims of harassment and assault.
After being released, Chaubal and her partner had to attend an immigration hearing for Chaubal’s status in Chicago. The rest of the episode was focused on how they were helping to build their own community in California while awaiting the trial.
Chaubal spoke of her immigration status as a trans woman and how often trans women get sexually abused while being held in custody, despite making up a smaller percentage. She also spoke about the belittling of her relationship because she was with another trans woman, but in the end she ultimately got her happy ending.
After the showing of the first episode of the series, “Where is my Refuge?,” Pérez showed a compilation of the rest of his series and then opened the floor for a Q&A session.
Co-producer Karari Orozco-Olvera, 34, got the ball rolling by noting that this documentary series focused on trans people being “complete people.” “These stories are not only stories told by trans people, because I think that’s important, but these stories also share joy. There’s moments that, despite everything, trans people are happy. And that’s what I love about ‘America in Transition’ and your work,” said Orozco-Olvera to Pérez.
Director André Pérez said he chose to focus on the trans stories that are never told. “It’s the sense of intimacy. I’m interested in those vulnerable moments where people are real,” said Pérez. “There’s so many stories. Where are trans people with disabilities? Where are queer trans people? Where’s poly families? There’s transpastors and there’s so many stories that people can’t even imagine outside of the community and I know those people. I can give you five names for all those stories.”
Orozco-Olvera further emphasized that idea of intersectionality. “We know that the trans narrative of being born in the wrong body is often focused on people who have class privilege or white people. For us to create stories of trans people of color and marginalized communities, it wasn’t just about creating those stories but taking those same stories to those same communities,” said Orozco-Olvera.
“Screening these episodes in colleges in the south and rural communities throughout the country was very important to us,” Orozco-Olvera said. “We believed those people are the ones who need the most outreach.”
Orozco-Olvera further stated that Pérez was very focused on uplifting and focusing on trans people of color since he himself is a person of color.
Audience member and an educator Evelyn Boateng, 31, attended to show her support for Pérez.
Boateng noted seeing the importance of intersectionality within the context of the series. “I enjoyed the blending there. It’s not just ‘here’s a trans person, here’s a person of color.’ There’s a lot of blending that goes along with it. just as being a black woman and there’s some intersectionality there. Being black and a woman, and you have to consider both,” said Boateng.
Boateng stated that she came from a more conservative background and experiences like this definitely help with understanding that trans people are not one dimensional and just normal people like everyone else, which seemed to be the goal of both Orozco-Olvera and Pérez.