In his groundbreaking award-winning series of documentary films America in Transition, director AndrÃ© PÃ©rez takes viewers on a visceral journey through the heart of the country.
PÃ©rez and the transgender and gender nonconforming individuals of color whose stories form the nucleus of each episode serve as resilient guides through often misconceived geographic and human terrain which is breathtaking in beauty, powerfully moving and unrelentingly dauntless.
The third episode of America in Transition takes viewers to PÃ©rez's birth state of North Carolina to meet trans Latinx Marine veteran Z Shane Zaldivar, who is rejected by both his family and his country at the height of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Zaldivar has since taken his fight to his community where, according to America in Transition, he has become an "unlikely activist" while he also grapples with his Christian faith and serving God as a trans person.
His story will help kick off the crowdfunding campaign #WeBelong, which seeks to raise $20,000 in 20 days to help fund another three episodes of America in Transition.
Those who attend the episode's premiere on June 7 at the AMFM Gallery on Chicago's Lower West Side are not only promised a "very sucia dance party" but an opportunity for a frank and open discussion with PÃ©rez and Zaldivar following a free screening of Zaldivar's story entitled Called to Serve.
It is a title that not only befits the episode's subject but the film's director.
Describing himself as a once "isolated Puerto Rican trans person" from the South, PÃ©rez founded the Trans Oral History Project. Since 2008, it has gathered and immortalized over 500 stories as part of StoryCorps.
He created America in Transition two years ago not merely as a series of films but an entire campaign built around community engagement and an education designed for an audience that extends beyond the boundaries of the LGBTQ umbrella.
"When I started the Trans Oral History Project, I didn't know any trans people and I really wanted to build community," PÃ©rez told Windy City Times. "I was seeing all this media about the trans community but trans people of color weren't represented. There were so many issues we weren't talking about: immigration, criminalization, sex work. I have this feeling that we are in a moment that is going to define the trans community for generations and if we didn't talk about stuff that matters, there may not be another moment in my lifetime."
Among the stories that Trans Oral History Project collected, PÃ©rez began to see a connective tissue that he said resonated with him.
"It was this idea that people had to give up who they were, their culture and the spaces they came from in order to be trans," he recalled. "I got together trans people of color who I really respected and are leaders throughout the country and we started talking about what it would look like to have a platform that was trans-led, where trans people of color got to talk about the things that matter to us."
The team PÃ©rez found is a multifaceted tapestry of community talent including activist and writer Karari Orozco-Olvera, public speaker, activist and advocate Ashlee Marie Preston, writer producer and community organizer Lexington Lawson and cinematographer Christian Mejia.
Between them and others, they have already forged three episodes which confront issues such as HIV criminalization, sexual violence, race and family acceptance. The subjects of each episodeZaldivar, Arizona trans and GNC advocate Tiommi Luckett and Wisconsin law student and model Dezjorn Gauthiernot only personalize those issues with their compelling stories but put a desperately-needed human face on a community which has suffered whether through the absence of that face or it's demonization by the media and politicians.
"We really wanted to find people who were in more rural places," PÃ©rez called. "So, we looked in Facebook groups and participated in regional and statewide conversations."
As a Latinx filmmaker, the lives of undocumented trans people are stories PÃ©rez is impassioned about bringing to the forefront of a discussion no one wants to have. "But it's been very difficult to navigate the line of, on the one hand, wanting to raise awareness about this issue and talk about it in real ways but also not wanting to put an undocumented person at more risk," he admitted. "We know that there's a war on immigrants and we want to keep them safe."
Born in Virginia, PÃ©rez spent most of his teenage years in Jacksonville, North Carolina with a mother whose work revolved around keeping people safe.
"She was in the military," he said. "She was super-butch so, from the outset, my role model of what gender means was not typical. At the same time, I got messages in my teen years that I wasn't OK. It was always something beneath the surface but nobody spoke about directly. A lot of people encouraged me to go to Massachusetts saying 'they'll understand you there.'"
He ended up attending Marlboro College in rural Vermont.
"It was a tiny town and I remember there was a friend of a friend or a friend who was trans," he said. "I had so many questions and I wanted to engineer a way to meet. That's the genesis of the Oral History Project. Trans young people do not choose where they live and most of them are in middle-America."
Politicized in college and inspired by the city as an epicenter of community organizing, PÃ©rez moved to Chicago in 2009.
"I wanted to be around more people of color," he said. "In the summer of 2009 I went to the Puerto Rican parade in Humboldt Park. It was amazing and so exciting to be around people who were excited about being Puerto Rican. I realized I knew very little about my heritage."
However, in much the same way, people who are not part of trans communities in the South tend to breathe a sigh of relief that they are not slap in the middle of perceived capitals of religious and societal intolerance. They know very little about the trans people who live in rural America or the work that they do to make their towns better places to live.
America in Transition not only challenges regional biases but the traditional narrative found in documentaries involving transgender people.
"A huge aspect of what we wanted to do was to show trans people in their communities," PÃ©rez said. "There's this idea trans documentaries are focused on an individual person, their transition and their relationship with their physical body. I feel like we are missing the story. The story is about our country, our society, how it's changing and how it responds to trans folk. That's what the title "America in Transition" means. It's really important to me to show people with their families and in their workplaces; to show the messiness of that."
The series has provided a chance for PÃ©rez to return to North Carolina. Through his journey, questions are answered and perceptions changed.
"Are their trans people there? Queer people? Activists? What are they doing right now?" He asserted. "There are powerful legacies of resistance that people have in those spaces. But we don't hear that. We hear that the South is terrible place where no one should ever go. But it's really beautiful. There are organizations like the Campaign for Southern Equality and people like an older Black trans woman who creates space that holds her community together and takes care of people in her own home. It's grassroots, personal responses to issues."
Just as the #WeBelong campaign ends June 27, Series Fest will begin in Denver, Colorado. The event "showcasing the best and boldest in episodic storytelling from around the world" is a proving ground for shows hoping to reach a wider audience.
America in Transition has been entered.
"It's possible we could sell it to a major network or television station," PÃ©rez said. "But I'm interested in using an online space to reach specific audiences. I know people who are isolated are all online. I also want to reach a broader audience. We want to do a website that is interactive and has workshops that provide toolkits for people to use in their own communities."
That broad audience includes society's more Conservative elements.
According to PÃ©rez, America in Transition has travelled to seven Southern states and held a dozen screenings, roundtable and panel discussions which have reached over 1,000 people.
"It's why we have created a community engagement campaign," PÃ©rez noted. "Just watching something doesn't necessarily change someone's worldview. What does is having a meaningful conversation with people in our communities. We want to go to churches around North Carolina and ask them to do community screenings [of Called to Serve]. For people in the South, so much of their morality comes from the church and some might be at least open to having a conversation. If we can get into those spaces, I think we can really change lives."
America in Transition has launched its campaign with a $5,000 pledge drive. The organization wants to reach that goal in the next six days. To contribute, visit: goo.gl/forms/wOmNwBAjdYcwGe0m2 .
For more information about America in Transition, visit AmericaInTransition.org . For more information about the Called to Serve event, visit Facebook.com/americaintransition.