“These people are no different from any of us. It would be impossible for anyone not to develop a connection to these families if they spent some time with them.”

This is VICE News Correspondent Gianna Toboni. In a recent interview with The Michigan Daily, Toboni shared her experiences from creating the documentary episode, “Trans Youth” for VICE on HBO. The 30-minute piece follows transgender youth across America, all in different stages of their medical transition. It’s raw, real and asks viewers to do a lot more than simply watch. “Trans Youth” asks its viewers to think about a group of children and parents who are in the fight of their life.

The “fight of their life” is not something to be taken metaphorically. The documentary begins in Pearland, Texas, with five-year-old Kai Shappley. Kai is a transgender child in one of the most conservative, right-wing school districts in America. After spending some time at home with Kai and her mother, Kimberly, the episode follows Kimberly to the Pearland local school board meeting. She stands before her community members and leaders, and makes the case for Kai’s right to use the bathroom of her choosing:   

“I am a mom of a little girl that I would like to see live,” Kimberly said in the episode. “I am a mom of a little girl who has a 41% suicide rate. That is a very real thing. Please understand. I’m not fighting about bathrooms. I am fighting about her life.”

A lack of support from the community is crystal clear. The school superintendent left the room halfway through Kimberly’s speech. At this point, it would be easy to spend the rest of the episode exploring in the politics of transgender laws — but that’s not what “Trans Youth” does, and it’s a stronger episode for it.

The fight for Kai’s life runs much deeper than conservative politics, and not just for Kai — for all transgender youth, to live in a body with which he or she does not identify is excruciating. So painful, in fact, that for those who can’t remedy what they feel, suicide is the only option.

It is this fight — the fight to transition medically — that “Trans Youth” highlights.

“[The episode’s creators] made a decision to focus on the medical transition because (they) felt like that’s what other media companies hadn’t focused on,” Toboni said.

Bathroom laws are all anyone hears about — but those laws hardly scratch the surface of what it means for a transgender youth to transition. The medical process of transitioning is relatively unexplored.

“I have never done a story where I can talk to the experts and they don’t know the answer,” Toboni said.

This uncharted territory, though scary, has not deterred children intent on making the transition. Toboni interviewed eight-year-old Max O’Brien as he went through the process of receiving hormone blockers. The blockers aren’t permanent, but undergoing cross-hormone therapy is. Max and his parents have a few years before they have to make that decision.  With no long-term data backing these medical treatments up, no one can know for sure what these medical treatments will mean 10 years down the road.

The episode does an excellent job of exploring what this uncertainty means for transgender youth and their families. Intimate interviews put viewers directly in the homes, backyards and hospital rooms of these people, giving outsiders a perspective on an issue which is foreign to them.

Uncertainty about the long-terms effects isn’t the only issue with the medical transition process. It’s expensive. Very expensive. Toboni estimated that a hormone blocker costs between $750 and $800 per month. So, the transition is, per Toboni, “completely prohibitive if insurance is not covering it.”

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order to dismantle many benefits of the Affordable Care Act, families of transgender youth are in a state of limbo. As a viewer watching interviews filmed prior to the executive order, a major question raised is how things have changed since. Toboni and her crew have stayed in touch since the election.

“There’s no other way to put it, they’re devastated,” Toboni said. “They don’t know how this is going to affect their health insurance, whether they’re going to be able to continue transitioning.”

The episode features men and women at each stage of their transition — from pre-medical, like Kai, to surgical, like 18-year-old Charlotte. Charlotte has lived at the Waltham House — a group home in Boston for LGBT youth — since she was 14, after her mother threatened her life for wanting to be a woman. For someone like Charlotte, made to feel like she “had no place in this world,” the opportunity to surgically transition is life-altering. It allows her to feel comfortable in her own skin.

Without the assistance of health insurance, however, this might not be possible. Those unaffected cannot fully imagine the emotional toll it takes. 15-year-old Steevie Geagan offers a glimpse.

“You have no idea how hard it is, waking up and not really connecting with what’s there,” Geagan said in the episode. “To prolong the treatment process, would be dreadful.”

By highlighting the medical transition, the documentary is better equipped to capture the emotional fight America’s transgender youth face daily. The biggest take-away is that this issue is about more than politics. It’s people’s lives. To highlight the medical process and present it to a large audience creates discussion that may not have been present before.

“Trans Youth” showcases people who are fighting for their right to be happy.

“I think that’s the reason we do this work. To help educate people and help those influencers, policy makers, civilians go on into their communities and act in a way that they feel is appropriate,” Toboni said, reflecting on the episode’s potential to inspire viewers. “That’s the first step in creating change.”

Those in Ann Arbor who are eager to make change don’t have to look far. The University of Michigan’s Spectrum Center offers programs, academic services and a comprehensive list of LGBT student organizations. Residential group homes like the Waltham House exist nationwide.

Though they live in an almost constant state of uncertainty and turmoil, Toboni admired that the transgender youth will not be deterred.

“They’re still going to protest, they’re still connecting with their community and they’re continuing to fight,” she said.

“Trans Youth” is available to stream for free on YouTube through March 18th courtesy of HBO. Watch it here

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