Transgender Tuesdays

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Breaking Through
A Documentary Charts How a Clinic’s Innovative Program for Transgender Care Changed Lives, One Tuesday at a Time
by V. Anderson

Transgender poster web

Twenty years ago, we were still at an age where [transgender people] were barely considered human,” Nurse Practitioner Mark Freeman described the conditions that motivated his documentary, Transgender Tuesdays. The film, edited and co-directed by Nathaniel Walters-Koh, looks back at the unintentional pioneers of the transgender community who would often choose not to go to doctors, because a trip to the doctor meant misinformation, misdiagnosis, and mistreatment. Many suffered greatly as a result.

With his film, Freeman gives the viewer rare access to the faces behind the stories, to a community that is often, because of persecution and prejudice, inclined to caution. Privacy is discarded, and interviewees, through their personal experiences and those of people they remember, become the historians of a life that was for many years hidden from the mainstream. One remembers a person who died of appendicitis, because going to a doctor would mean giving up his identity of passing as a man. Another recounts being sexually abused by a psychiatrist around age eight; another remembers a doctor trying to re-use a needle with the justification that none of his patients were HIV-positive and that, in any case, the virus was too big to fit through the needle. Perhaps the most graphic and saddening story is about an AIDS patient who, while her health was devastatingly declining, was told that she was going to hell by the nurse assigned to care for her. Black market pills, hormones, and surgeries, therapy and psych analysis requirements for legitimate surgery, unregulated international routes—this was all part of the pre-1990s climate.

Then, in 1993, Transgender Tuesdays was born. This would be the first primary care clinic in the U.S. that would specifically serve the health needs of the transgender community. It was started by Freeman and other healthcare professionals at the Tom Waddell Health Center in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. Facing the reality that many transgender people at the time resorted to “survival sex work” and would not make it to appointments in the mornings, Freeman suggested that they make Transgender Tuesdays a nighttime clinic. “I was always super impressed by how amazingly brave [transgender people] were, but they were really held back. If you can’t get a job, if you believe that everybody you see on the street is looking at you with at least morbid curiosity, if not outright hatred—everybody, all day long… how do you get the resources to trust yourself and believe in yourself?”

The film visually highlights interviewees’ individual talents and potential beyond the social confines of their genders. Nola van Della, a talented artist, speaks while her artwork floats across the screen, superimposed and almost interactive with the words she is saying.

“I was treated like a human being, and that was surprising,” van Della frankly states of her experience going to the clinic. This feeling alone undoubtedly drew many other patients to Transgender Tuesdays.

Mark Freeman (right) and Nathaniel Walters-Koh at the world premiere in San Francisco. Photo by Rick Gerharter
Mark Freeman (right) and Nathaniel Walters-Koh at the world premiere in San Francisco. Photo by Rick Gerharter

Freeman described the unique type of care patients received: “You weren’t going to a specialist to get hormones or possibly surgery. You were going to a primary care clinic that was going to be your place that wanted to take care of you, and the hormones were just a part of that.” Even if people did not have an appointment, they would still go to the clinic on a regular basis just to be with other transgender people. It became both a healthcare facility and a sort of community center.

Yet, the initial idea was not transgender care. According to Freeman, “This was started by the HIV team of a small clinic in an inner city. We didn’t actually have a transgender team at that point. Our purpose, really, was to get people in for HIV care, or to avoid the need for future HIV care by keeping them healthy. Part of the good that came out of the San Francisco model—and I don’t think it’s ever going to be time to forget that this stuff happened because the federal government took a hands-off attitude and forced people all over the country to do it themselves—it came out of that. The first transgender clinic in the country came out of the HIV epidemic and people’s responses to it.”

Veronica Klaus narrates transgender history, which works as a scripted throughline, and archival footage from Prelinger Archives adds visual context to the stories that are told. Klaus was a natural choice for Freeman: “She’s an actress, she’s a performer, she’s brilliant. She’s been a dear friend. She was my patient. She immediately said ‘yes’ [to the film]. We went over the script and made it authentic to her. At the end of recording her, she started telling me her story, and I was like, ‘Roll camera again!’ It was the one story that put everything together.”

Narrator and one of the stars of Transgender Tuesdays, Veronica Klaus. Photo by Kingsley Lara
Narrator and one of the stars of Transgender Tuesdays, Veronica Klaus. Photo by Kingsley Lara

At the end of the film, Hillary Clinton’s 2011 Geneva speech on LGBT rights is excerpted. Freeman gave his perspective on this inclusion: “We started out making a movie about healthcare and the breakthrough and change that we were able to accomplish as a model for what can happen and should happen everywhere. We couldn’t just talk about healthcare, however. It became obvious we had to talk about employment. When people with great credentials and a great résumé submit to 300 companies and never get one call back—that had to be dealt with. When Hillary made that speech in the middle of our editing this film, we thought it was a very brave speech, and we wanted to include it.” Clinton’s speech made LGBT equality a world issue.

When asked why this film is important for young people in the LGBT community who may not suffer the same level of prejudice and marginalization as those who came before, Freeman explained, “Let’s give credit and gain strength from how people survived, how well they survived, how well they held onto their humanity, how creative they were, and that’s the answer to your question of why young people would appreciate this. Because, by being out there, they opened up possibilities that we now take completely for granted.”

Transgender Tuesdays has screened at several festivals and will be showing in January at Ingersoll Gender Services in Seattle and at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland. For more information and to see the trailer, visit:www.transgendertuesdaysmovie.com. For educational institutions and public libraries, visit www.transgendertuesdaysmovie.com/academic. Healthcare advocates and LGBT activists can request a Brown Bag Lunch version with a Spanish language option, thanks to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (e-mail: [email protected]).

V. Anderson interviewed photographer Leah Nash in January 2014’s Gallery.