Documenting the Cost of Gender

It’s down to the wire for Dacia Saenz and Sara Stogner as they have nine days to raise the remaining $1304 to fund their transgender/continental/healthcare documentary.

The film, The Cost of Gender, is born out of the Common Language Project, and will focus on the state of transgender health care in the U.S. and why Americans are traveling abroad – namely Thailand – to get it.

According to Saenz and Stogner, to have gender reassignment surgery in this country a fully insured transwoman will still have to pay out of pocket upwards of $30,000 plus medical bills pre and post surgery. Whereas traveling to Bangkok, Americans can receive high-quality health care and surgery for about $6,000.

One of the things Saenz said came to light as they were embarking on this research is that the population traveling to Thailand are mainly transwomen and as a result, there is a community of American ex-pats who, after receiving surgery and experiencing a warm welcome, decided not to return to the States.

Saenz and Stogner are traveling to Bangkok and Phuket for three weeks at the beginning of November to explore this issue. Their aim is to talk with surgeons and nurses, American trans women who came for surgery and who did not leave and Thai trans women – to find out if the surgery is indeed affordable to them. They are also currently seeking someone who is scheduled to have surgery during the month willing to be filmed and share their experiences.

Saenz is a filmmaker and photographer from Austin Texas where she worked in television and documentary productions for CNBC, PBS, and the Sundance Foundation. She’s currently earning her Masters of Communication in Digital Media at the University of Washington. Stogner is a visual journalist and editor for the Common Language Project and The Seattle Globalist. The two met through their involvement with Reel Grrls,, a nonprofit media arts and leadership program for girls ages 9 to 19.

Saenz said the idea sprung from a conversation Stogner had with Emerson, who is featured in the Kickstarter video, after learning they were denied insurance for surgery even though they are an employee at the University of Washington’s Q Center – which is the queer organization on campus.

“It’s really intense,” Daenz said. “Emerson works at an on-campus organization devoted to creating a safe space for queer people is insured by the university and got denied coverage to receive their surgery. So this conversation kicked off a discussion about the discrimination trans folks face not only in trying to get gender reassignment surgery but also in day to day going to the doctor and that experience.”

Stogner took the idea to The Common Language Project, loved it and they asked her to choose someone to come along for the ride and she chose Saenz. This all happened in August.

And for Saenz, this project fuses her passion for gender identity and digital media.

“When I was looking at going back to grad school, I originally wanted to pursue a master’s in gender studies, “Saenz said. “As a genderqueer person its something I’m constantly thinking about and as a person who works with youth, we’re trying to help give youth the skills to critically analyze all of the messaging we get around gender. But I chose not to go down that path because liberal arts salaries of professors are limited right, there are no real opportunities anymore. So the organic step for me was to go into digital media and help people tell their stories. I find it really awesome that I get to be a part of something where I can help bring up these conversations. Somehow the universe is like, no you’re still going to be dealing with this.”

Saenz said part of the real ultimate overall goal is to address the hostility toward any conversation or people who don’t fit into the very traditional gender expectations.

“A lot of the conversations that have happened have wound up being in really academic circles so our hope is that this turn into a bigger conversation, a bigger series, where we touch upon a lot of different parts of the story – of what gender means and we’re able to create a language so we can all talk about it.”

Saenz said the hope is also to travel around the world and document and discuss how other countries view gender and compare that to the model that is in the States.

The goal is to lay a really good foundation for gender definitions as Saenz acknowledged, “it’s not about preaching to the choir.” The goal is to educate and inform and make the topic accessible for those who don’t even have the complexities of gender on their radar screen.

Fifty percent of transgender/gender fluid Americans reported having to teach their medical providers about transgender care and 19 percent have been refused medical care because of their gender identity, according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey that Saenz and Stogner quote on their kickstarter campaign page.

The $5,580 will go towards supporting this international reporting effort – pay for tickets to Thailand (which have already been bought), hire translators, rent gear and build a custom platform to publish the work.

The film isn’t the only thing that will be made. Saenz said there will be a series of mediums presented and that while they are starting with the cost of gender and gender reassignment surgeries in Thailand, it’s just the beginning. Language fundamentals, discrimination in getting health needs met, specifics around people’s stories – the goal is to look at the issue from a variety of angles. Answering the questions of why Americans are going to Thailand and why, even though it may be obvious given the extreme hostility transpeople face every day in this country, they need to leave to get even some basic needs met. The project will also look to the future and what it will take to become a culture that is more sensitive to trans people. Plans are also in the works to partner with trans organizations to create tools on how to become better allies and create a curriculum for medical schools.

Though there’s been support for the project (and an advisory team that includes Gus Lanza and Rev. Carla Robinson, a pastor of All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Seattle also featured in the Kickstarter video) Saenz said both she and Stogner have experienced pushback from inside the queer community and out.

“There has been a ton of support and a lot of weirdness,” Saenz said. “Neither one of our families has liked it or contributed, not shocking but disappointing. And there are some friends – queer and straight – who won’t blast it out there. We have a really complicated relationship with our trans folks and people don’t know how to talk about it and it’s really scary for some people.”

The Cost of Gender is slated to be published in February of 2013 on The Common Language Project and The Seattle Globalist – on a platform featuring video, motion graphics, interactive features, photos and written stories. DVDs will also be created and the documentary will be submitted to film festivals and screened in the Seattle area.





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