Johanna Clearwater (submitted photo)
(*This column was updated at 9:36 a.m. on 6/15/21 to correct the time that ‘Becoming Johanna’ is airing on WITF-TV in Harrisburg.)
By Frank Pizzoli
“I’m not one of the boys,” transgender Latina Johanna Clearwater told the Capital-Star as she anticipates the screening of Becoming Johanna by the Harrisburg area’s PBS affiliate, WITF-TV, *on June 20, 3:30 p.m.
A compelling story by filmmaker Jonathan Skurnick, the film follows Clearwater, now 27, as she began her transition at age 16, gets kicked out of her home and school, but then finds a foster family who loves her and a supportive school principal who helps her graduate and thrive.
One of four films by the Youth and Gender Media Project, the series hopes to show how to reach every member of a school community — students, teachers, parents and administrators — to help them create educational settings that welcome all young people, regardless of the where they fall on the spectrums of gender identity and expression, according to a news release.
“I knew at about 4 years old I was experiencing myself in ways different from how other people saw me,” Clearwater told the Capital-Star.
Not having language to describe how she felt, “I did not articulate how I felt inside until I was 12 years old” when she opened up to two close friends. Johanna began her transition at 15.
A common flashback memory of Johanna’s is her at age four wearing a cowboy hat. Even at that tender age, she knew on a feeling level “I was being separated out by adults so that I fit within what they thought was my proper group based on how they perceived my sexuality.”
“It’s difficult when you’re that young to not feel safe when expressing to others who you are,” Johanna explained. “For a while I went through a stage where I felt like there were two of me – the person who I actually was and the person others thought I was.”
“Unfortunately, Joanna’s experience is reflective of my own transgender experience growing up,” says Preston Heldibridle, 22, recently appointed Executive Director, Pennsylvania Youth Congress.
Transitioning is a process.
“It’s not one or even several steps. There are lots of pieces of support that need to be assembled in order for an individual to successfully complete their transition,” Heldibridle said.
Heldibridle shared his own experiences.
“When I think of my own family, a Christian evangelical environment, they honestly thought that they were doing the best to protect me from deviant sexuality,” Heldibridle said. “For the success of younger people and adults making the transition journey, it’s important to have support that actually helps rather than judge.”
“Watching Joanna’s film, I couldn’t help but think of myself at 17 in high school. We had a Gay-Straight Alliance where I could mix and find safe space with other teens who were transitioning,” Heldibridle said.
One of his goals while leading PYC is “to make available to the public information that is based on current science not based on shaming fear.” The organization’s website lists local and regional resources “so people don’t fall through the cracks” he said.
Joanne Carroll, the executive director of Trans Advocacy Pennsylvania, said the film accurately reflects the experience of so many trans kids — “especially not being accepted by her mother, being harassed over bathroom use. All that contributes to a lack of self-worth,” she said.
Her reaction to the film underscores how lucky Clearwater was to find a foster home that was affirming and accepting.
“Unfortunately, here in Pennsylvania there are far too many case histories of rejected children being placed in a succession of foster homes that are just as unaccepting as her biological family,” Carroll laments.
Commenting generally on the state of queer civil rights, Carroll stressed to Capital-Star that “Pennsylvania needs to amend the Human Rights Act of 1955 to include protections for LGBTQ persons living in the Commonwealth.”
Every person, Carroll said, must be able to live their best, authentic life, knowing that they are safe, and know that they are able to live protected and entitled to the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Filmmaker Jonathan Skurnik told the Capital-Star he was looking for a young adult undergoing transition and who was hitting a rocky road. Johanna’s mom did not approve of her child’s transition.
“So, when I found Johanna, who is vulnerable but open about her experience, and her mother who was in her own way questioning what her child wanted, all the aspects of transitioning fell into place,” Skurnik said.
As a filmmaker, Skurnik says he’s seen a cultural shift around transgender issues.
When he first made the film in 2016, “There wasn’t a lot of interest. But that landscape has changed.”
Currently The Human Rights Campaign’s website notes that 2021 is a record year for anti-transgender legislation. That includes Pennsylvania.
Perhaps the current cultural tug of war over transgender issues is creating a market for information. Since the 2020 election there’s been a great deal of interest, Skurnik said.
“I’ve worked with more than 100 schools in workshops educational settings so that their administrations and staffs can better understand what transitioning students are going through,” Skurnik said. He’s also been successful in attracting a secondary grant to his film effort enabling him to produce a study guide as an add-on to the film when screen in classrooms.
The film plus a study guide may actually advance a goal of Clearwater’s.
“We should always act towards each other with the best possible intentions. We should, all of us, unlearn old behaviors that are no longer useful and learn new behaviors that will bring us together,” Clearwater advised. “It’s not complicated. We should all strive to teach the young right versus wrong as expressed by The Golden Rule.”
WITF’s decision to screen the film points to their commitment to the region’s queer community.
“WITF is strongly committed to representing our LGBTQIA+ neighbors in the programs that we air. We steadfastly believe in elevating historically underrepresented voices and convening civil discussion for positive cultural change,” WITF President & CEO Ron Hetrick said in an email.
Accordingly, in celebration of Pride Month, “it’s our honor to present a curated selection of ten documentaries — including Becoming Johanna, focused on LGBTQIA+ lives and issues.”
Opinion contributor Frank Pizzoli is the former editor and publisher of The Central Voice, the LGBTQ newspaper for Greater Harrisburg. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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