In December of 2015, Vlada Knowlton and her family were adapting to the realities of their five-year-old daughter Annabelle’s transgender identity, and after a difficult period of adjustment things were going great. Then she got a phone call. It was Aidan Key, founder of Gender Diversity, a support group for parents of trans kids that had helped the Knowlton family navigate the often-frightening process of affirming a child’s gender identity. Key had bad news. A new wave of anti-trans legislation was about to hit Washington, and he had a difficult request for Knowlton: Would she be willing to apply her skills as a filmmaker to document the coming struggle?
“I never intended to make a film about transgender people, because for me it was such a personal thing,” Knowlton says, “I’d already gone through that trauma and thought things were gonna get good in our lives again. But it became clear to me after this conversation that I had to use whatever skills I had to start fighting, not only for my own child but for all people like her.”
The result is a full-length documentary, The Most Dangerous Year, which chronicles the struggle of people like Knowlton and her family as they fought multiple legislative efforts to deny civil rights to trans people. The film makes its world premiere on Capitol Hill at The Egyptian Theater as part of the Seattle International Film Festival.
The measures came in quick succession, from a state senate bill that attempted to repeal a rule that allows transgender people access to the restroom that matches their gender identity to two consecutive initiatives attempting the same. All three efforts failed, thanks to the opposition of activists, lawmakers, and families.
The Most Dangerous Year chronicles this alarming chapter in Washington’s civil rights history. “This dark cloud was hanging over our head for two years straight,” Knowlton says, “It felt like being in our own private war zone and only we could feel it.”
After Key’s call to action, Knowlton went right to work. In January of 2016 she started filming the protests and legislative sessions concerning the succession of “bathroom bills,” which often put her in the same room with the very people who considered her five-year-old daughter a danger to society.
“Looking back, I’m not sure how I managed to get through that. I had to force myself to put on my filmmaker hat in those situations—you have to put all your parental emotions aside and do your job. It wasn’t easy.”
Knowlton remembers exactly where she was when she heard the news that the last anti-trans initiative, I-1552, failed to receive enough signatures to get on the ballot. She was on a ferry with her family heading to Victoria for a birthday party when she started receiving a flood of texts and phone calls.
“The feeling hit me so hard I had to stand up, walk away from my family and run into the bathroom and just cry for five minutes,” she recalls, “I was sitting there in the dirty bathroom stall crying and I thought, ‘My daughter still has the right to go to the bathroom on this ferry.’ It was the most incredible relief and happiness.”
Knowlton experienced a further measure of victory from those years of struggle when her film was accepted into SIFF, where it will make its world premiere. Lawmakers, fellow activists and families who lived through the events and appear in the film will be in attendance.
Knowlton says her daughter Annabelle, now seven years old, loves the movie. She’s living happily as her true self, surrounded by affirming friends, teachers and family.
“When we talk to her about these issues we explain: ‘There are a lot of things people in the world don’t understand, and one of the things people still don’t understand very well is what it means to be born transgender. That doesn’t mean they won’t understand forever, it just means that this is new information in this part of our history. Everybody who meets you understands what this is all about and they love you, so everything’s fine. But the people who don’t know any transgender people are still confused and kinda scared. We’re fighting to make sure everybody starts to understand and becomes educated, and everything will be okay in the end.’ It’s a simple story because it’s true.”
The Most Dangerous Year premieres at SIFF May 29 at the Egyptian, with another screening June 2 at Shoreline Community College Theater. SIFF 2018 runs through June 10th. For the festival schedule and tickets visit siff.net.
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