In December of 2017, the 14- to 18-year-old members of “Just Us,” a program for LGBTQ+ youth at a local non-profit community center in a mid-sized southeastern city, sat down to watch The Trans List
, an HBO-produced documentary film that profiled 11 trans and gender non-conforming US celebrities, activists, athletes, and figures of note. Page Regan—then the program coordinator of Just Us, now a doctoral researcher and co-author of this chapter—selected the film to connect with the young people’s experiences and to offer visions of potential futures for TGNC youth, who were so often shown only limited options. Robert Marx, who was at the time an adult advisor for the youth group and is now a researcher and co-author of this chapter, was eager to see the young people’s responses to the video. As they watched, the youth were clearly interested; side conversations stopped, and they snapped their fingers to indicate support and agreement as figures on the screen shared experiences that resonated with their own. At the conclusion of the film, Page facilitated a talk-back session that invited the young people to consider the strengths of the movie. Although the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, many young people offered that the stories depicted on screen did not conform to their own experiences: those interviewed seemed wealthier, older, and more binary in terms of their gender identity (i.e., they tended to identify as either a trans man or a trans woman, rather than as non-binary or genderqueer).
During that conversation, one young person suggested that they could make their own film—sort of a Youth Trans List
—that more accurately captured their narratives. Several other students expressed interest, and the idea gained buzz and critical traction. Following the meeting, Robert and Page met to determine ways forward. Robert had previous experience with a youth participatory action research (YPAR) project that focused on marginalized youth’s experiences of discrimination and saw an opportunity to bring that framework to the documentary film project. Because both Page and Robert wanted the young people to be able to create a product that they would be proud of and that would accurately capture their experiences, they saw YPAR as a way of ensuring that the young people adopted a systematic approach that yielded meaningful findings. We then approached the young people with the more formal procedures of a YPAR project, and they were very open to it. Because their vision of the documentary film already included key aspects of research such as participant recruitment, interview design, and thematic analysis, the young people adopted the YPAR framework naturally and saw the benefit of approaching the project with systematicity and an eye toward research.
In line with the tenets of YPAR, the young people determined the research design, the participants, and the procedure, and they conducted the research and analysis themselves. Robert and Page served as adult advisors for the project, securing meeting space and other resources, ensuring that the young people respected each other and allowed all voices to be heard, and assumed liability, as the young people were under 18. Importantly, Robert and Page also provided research training for the young people, instructing them on best practices for recruiting participants, designing interview protocols, conducting interviews, and engaging in thematic analysis.
In the sections that follow, we outline the process from idea to execution, noting the successes and difficulties we encountered along the way following the Bergen Model of Collaborative Functioning (see Chap. 21, this volume). Throughout the research process, both the adult advisors and the youth participants remained singularly focused on sharing the stories of TGNC youth. We aimed to capture the complexity and variety of TGNC experiences in the hopes that audiences would have a better understanding of the realities of TGNC youth’s lives.
8.3.1 Inputs: Mission, Participants, Partners, and Funding
From its inception, the documentary film project had a clear and direct mission: the young people wanted to share their worlds, their experiences, and their hearts with a broader audience. In creating the film, the young people hoped to document the aspects of their lives that were most difficult, as well as their triumphs and goals for the future. In describing why a documentary film was the medium of choice for the project, one participant said, “The documentary literally allows you to see…because [in other situations] you see people, but you don’t see them. You don’t necessarily consider them, or you don’t consider what they like to do… You don’t consider what their favorite color is. You don’t consider how difficult it is for them to walk down the street, whether or not they’ve been walking on the street and feel secure, and whether they’re going to be sexually assaulted. You don’t consider any of that…You don’t consider them, and you don’t see them; and so, I think that the ... I do like the idea of the documentary being, like, you see them, and then, you see them.”
In our first meeting as a research team, we opened the group to any young person who was interested in creating a documentary film, and we recruited from among the youth who came to the community center for LGBTQ+ programming, as well as from other youth in the area who might be interested. Twelve young people, aged 14–19, attended our first meeting, representing a variety of gender identities and expressions. Most young people identified as TGNC, but two young people identified as cisgender allies. In that first meeting, the young people determined that the film would focus specifically on the most marginalized among TGNC youth: TGNC youth of color. Research team members cited the high rates of violence and murder that TGNC youth of color experience, as well as the fact that mainstream accounts of TGNC youth often omit or exclude youth of color, neglecting to consider the ways that racism impacts the experience of transphobia. For many of the research team members, this was also a personal project—more than half of the young people identified as youth of color, and their desire to illuminate their experiences came from a sense of not being heard in other forums.
To support the research endeavors, we relied on several key partnerships that proved invaluable. Because Page was a full-time employee of the community center, we could use the space as needed for meetings and, eventually, for filming. We could also recruit participants for the film and advertise through the community center, which made finding interview participants easier. Robert, who was then a doctoral student in the area, leveraged connections with his university and with the local library to help the project come to fruition. Robert received a small grant from the Community Engaged Research Core that provided both funding for the research project and guidance in managing the many moving pieces that go along with YPAR projects; this money funded everything from pizza at research team meetings to external hard drives to server access for uploading video segments. Robert also reached out to the local library, which fortuitously ran a studio and maker space for teenagers. The library provided editing equipment and space, which allowed young people to collaboratively edit the project, and it also had trained professionals who could offer guidance. An additional partnership proved important: the parent of one of the research team members was a professional filmmaker and had considerable camera and lighting equipment, as well as expertise with filming.
8.3.2 Throughputs: Implementation, Execution, and Analysis
As clear as the mission was and as natural as the partnerships came to be, other aspects of the research process were more nebulous. The young people had varying experience and interest in some aspects of making a documentary film, and so we split into two groups: one group focused on the specifics and aesthetics of the filming, and the other focused on the content of the documentary. This meant that one group focused on determining which cameras would be used, what the set-up would be, where and when we would film, and what the overall aesthetic vision was. The other group determined who would conduct the interviews, who would be interviewed, what questions would be asked, and what the overall emotional tenor of the film would be. This division enabled those with more interest in or knowledge about filmmaking to deepen their commitment to the technical aspects of the film, while allowing those who were more concerned with the recruitment of participants and the storytelling to focus on that aspect of the research. The research team met once a week for 5 months; we would begin as a full group and then split into the two teams, with one adult advisor going with each group, and then return to a large group meeting to share progress. Approximately a month into the project, a third adult advisor who also worked full time at the community center and who has considerable experience with digital media and filmmaking, joined the group and served as a technical advisor to ensure that the project was feasible and appropriate.
Over the course of these meetings, the research team determined the particulars of all aspects of the film, making most decisions by consensus and working to hear all voices. Each subgroup elected a leader who was responsible for the deliverables and for ensuring that all necessary work was completed. The young people put together dioramas of the filming day, wrote out interview questions, contacted young people to be interviewed, determined the schedule for filming, and even arranged for a local photographer—the parent of one of the research team members—to take photographs of the interview participants. Over the course of the meetings, the young people maintained unwavering focus on including the stories of TGNC youth of color and allowing them to be as complicated and complete as possible. Nonetheless, the young people engaged in vigorous debate concerning the specifics of achieving their vision; in particular, the youth had a bit of difficulty deciding on the scope of the interview questions, the participants to include, and who would conduct the interviews. This was the result, mainly, of thoughtful and judicious consideration of how to best meet their goals—they determined that young people of color might respond best to an interviewer of color, and they also struggled to balance their desire to focus only on youth of color with their concern that not enough young people would want to be interviewed. Similarly, their debate over interview questions centered on their desire to avoid leading participants into sharing overly sanitized, happy versions of their lives, but also wanting to avoid setting their participants up to only speak about damage and sadness. In the end, the research team reached a compromise by designing open-ended questions that allowed participants to respond in a variety of ways, but also by asking a set of specific questions, some of which included:
How does your gender identity affect your daily life?
What aspects of your identity are you comfortable with?
Are there aspects of your identity that you hope to change?
When do you feel the safest or most acknowledged?
What would you like to tell other LGBTQ+ people?
What has it been like to deal with living in a society that is often hostile to your existence?
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
What are you excited about?
They also created a schedule and rotated through interviewers so that everyone who wanted to participate as an interviewer could.
Over the course of the planning meetings, the young people engaged in all stages of the arts-based research project design. They finalized interview protocols through piloting and practicing questions with group members, determining which questions were too broad, which were too closed off, and which worked effectively. They also drafted a list of potential participants from their own network of TGNC youth of color, created recruitment material, and recruited participants. Additionally, the technical team created specifications for all aspects of the day of filming, including mocking up filming plans; determining the lighting plan; and designating who would set up, run cameras A and B, and get extra footage of the participants to intercut with their interviews.
The planning meetings culminated in a day-long filming session during which all interviewees were photographed, interviewed on camera, and filmed in informal interactions with the camera to capture their personalities. The research team set up all camera equipment and lighting the day before, then spent 12 hours filming eight interviews with TGNC youth. The interviews varied in length, but all were between 25 and 75 minutes. Following the filming of the interviews, three members of the research team worked at the local library to edit the film down. They began by removing verbal tics and fillers, and then brought transcripts of the interviews to the whole research team.
The research team spent a month reading each transcript, watching raw footage, and determining what aspects of each interview to highlight. They also engaged in thematic coding, surfacing key ideas across interviews to divide the film into units. The editing team then cut together the footage thematically, creating a 15-minute rough cut of the final documentary. The research team was trained in thematic analysis and engaged in a modified constant-comparative method that involved the reading and re-reading of transcripts, the identification of codes and themes, and the re-examination of transcripts to ensure that the identified themes still fit as the analysis continued. Because the YPAR team determined that their main product would be the documentary film (and not, for example, an academic article or a blog post), all research and analysis were conducted with the documentary film in mind. That is, the transcripts were analyzed with an eye toward the documentary, and the themes that were surfaced were those that would be present in the film. The transcripts were coded and analyzed systematically, but only in terms of which aspects of the interviews provided salient material for the documentary. As the major themes coalesced, the research team then read through each transcript to find the clearest and most captivating examples. One salient theme, for example, was the racial divide within the LBGTQ+ community—the research team deeply resonated with the respondents’ experiences of racism and isolation within nominally inclusive spaces or histories. The research team then selected moments from interviews that highlighted the lack of representation of queer people of color in LGBTQ+ history-telling and spoke to the isolation experienced in spaces for LGBTQ+ youth that were predominantly white. Another example of the research process centered on familial tensions. For example, after the team surfaced a theme concerning the complicated dynamic between trans youth and their parents—who could be both supportive and closed-minded—they re-read all transcripts for the voices and moments that best captured this idea. In this way, although the research team engaged in a systematic analysis of the data they had collected, their sole focus was the creation of the documentary film and the sharing of their findings in that way.
8.3.3 Output: The In-Progress Film
Although the research team worked cohesively to design, implement, film, and initially edit the documentary film, progress flagged in the months following filming. As other priorities came to the forefront—our research team was all students, after all—and as the required work became more technically demanding, weeks went by without progress. As of this publication, the film is still in progress. The research team has functionally disbanded; although they remain committed to having a completed documentary, we lack the traction and time to bring the project to completion. The third adult advisor, who has more technical experience, has recently taken on the task of beginning to edit together the rough cut into a final documentary film, but progress remains slow.
Although the film is not yet in its final form, both authors have shared clips of the film in trainings, classes, and educational settings. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and viewers have reflected on how much they have deepened their understanding of TGNC youth of color’s experiences. Specifically, audiences have noted the terminology they have learned and the additional insight into both the strength that TGNC youth of color have as well as the many challenges they face in their daily lives. One tangible impact of the film is that viewers at a center for sexual assault survivors have changed their intake forms and their trainings around gender and sexuality. These preliminary results, of course, must be taken lightly, as the film has not yet been finalized.
In addition to assisting with advising the research team, Robert also conducted interviews with many of the research team members in the hopes of better understanding the impact of working on the documentary film. The young people offered clear examples of the ways in which their participation had deepened their commitment to social justice and their belief in the power of documentary film. Additionally, though, the young people reflected on some of the challenges in the research project. In the discussion section, we include some of these reflections alongside our own thoughts. For the most part, the research team members’ thoughts resonated with our own interpretations of the events of the project.