Born and raised in a small, conservative town in California, Filipino-American filmmaker PJ Raval readily admits that he had some preconceived notions about Trinidad, Colo. (population just shy of 10,000), when he decided to make his first feature-length documentary, Trinidad, about the former frontier outpost that has become known as the sex change capital of the world. Out sat down with Raval to chat about how a story about three very different transgender women -- a surgeon, a rocket scientist, and a physician -- uncovered the social underpinnings of a community that fostered a surprising safe haven for people undergoing genital reassignment surgery. From a special 1960s dispensation from the Vatican that permitted the surgery in the first place, to an outpouring of community support to continue the practice when its pioneer passed away in 2006, Trinidad is a testament to the human conditions ability to, every so often, mysteriously and pleasantly surprise.
OutLets start out with a bit about you and your background. Youre in Austin, Texas now. Did you grow up there?
PJ Raval: No, I actually grew up in central California in a small town called Clovis -- south of San Francisco, north of Los Angeles. Its in the middle. It was fairly conservative, kind of a small country suburban type town. I pretty much grew up there and moved to San Diego and I lived in San Diego for about 10 years and then, at some point, I decided to go to graduate school. I was an art major so I decided I was going to do an art program, but I had done a little bit of filmmaking -- more experimental filmmaking -- and I randomly applied to UT Austin, their film program.
And then I got in and thought theres no way Im going to move out of California. I thought for sure I was going to go to art school. But then, I dont know, I went to Austin and I thought this is a really cool place. Ive never really done filmmaking before and this could be fun.
Austin has such a great reputation for being an artsy, indie community.
I think thats the thing...because its artsy-indie you feel motivated to say I can do whatever I want.
Where along the line did the idea for the film Trinidad come about?
Its interesting because I made it with a good friend of mine, Jay Hodges, who had never made a film before. He comes from the book publishing world. And Id been working in film for a while, but Id never really made a documentary before. Id worked on documentaries, but I primarily was doing narrative and experimental work -- a little bit of music video work as a director and a cinematographer. We were at a dinner party where someone was talking about [Trinidad], that they had just driven through Colorado and passed this town. And he and I just thought, Come on, no way! And, you know, I grew up in a small town. Jay grew up in a small town. We just couldnt wrap our heads around it. And there was so much mythology around it -- even from what this person [at the dinner party] had said.
What sort of mythology?
That it was a town full of transsexuals, you know, that there were a lot of clothing stores for large women.
So you knew there was some truth to it, but obviously some myth, too.
A lot of myth, yeah.
And how did you proceed after that dinner party?
We started Internet researching it. And we started in 2004 because we just discovered that Marci Bowers, the surgeon there, had just taken over Dr. Bibers [the Trinidad surgeon who began performing genital reassignment surgery in the town] practice. And the fact that she was a transsexual -- or has a transgender history, that is how she prefers to describe it -- was really fascinating. So then I kind of was like, Oh my god -- this could be a really interesting documentary.
Dr. Marci Bowers is a key figure in the film and shes so fascinating. One of the things she makes very clear is that, in terms of performing genital reassignment surgery, she sees herself first as an artist, then an Ob-Gyn, then a surgeon, but the fact that she has a transgender history comes much farther down the list. Do you think her patients see it the same way?
I think its a really unique opportunity for her patients because not only are they going through a process that is a big deal -- its a physical surgery -- but I think also to go to someone who they see as successful in terms of having a transgender history, I think they feel inspired and supported. And she is very into not only is this a physical thing, its a spiritual thing, its a mental thing -- its a holistic approach.
When did you first go to Trinidad?
Essentially what happened was we ended up calling Marci. She was super nice on the phone. And she said, Why dont you come down here, meet me in person and we can talk in my office. And I was like, Oh, lets do it! Lets get a camera And, again, Jay had never made a film before, and I said, Trust me, this will be awesome. This is the way its supposed to work. Weve been invited, lets go. So we went and immediately we were like, wow -- this is really interesting. That research trip turned into our first production trip.
So you flew out, met Marci and started shooting?
Exactly. And then pretty much throughout the next two-and-a-half years Id go out every two, two-and-a-half months. You know, whenever there was something happening. And then the second or third time I went out there was when I met Sabrina and Laura, who are also in the film.
And these three women -- Marci, Sabrina, and Laura -- are obviously integral to the story.
They are. I thought this is an amazing trio -- a trinity. Three very different personalities, three very different ideas about what gender means, what transgender means, you know, how they live their lives. I feel like a lot of people think that within a community everyone is pretty much on the same page. And Ive found that even within the gay community, within the lesbian community, the Asian-American community, people have varying ideas. So I just found that here are three strong personalities who are very particular in their beliefs. Sometimes theyll get along, sometimes they wont. And such is life. Just like any other community.
Its different when youre on the outside. Like, when youre part of the gay community you recognize that theres so much diversity, but when youre on the outside, you dont necessarily see that. For me, that was a takeaway from the -- that theres such diversity among the transgender community, even when it comes to what transgender actually means.
Yeah. And I think a lot of people have misperceptions, too, that its the whole idea of a woman trapped in a mans body. Sabrina [a former contract engineer for the NASA Space Shuttle Program], for instance, very much believes that shes a transgender woman. She has a different experience from Marci, who very much believes that trans is part of her history -- she is a woman. And I feel like Laura [a physician trying to build a practice in Trinidad] was in the process of trying to really formulate what she really thought about it since it was such a recent awareness of her identity.
Towards the end of the film, theres an evident rift between Marci and Laura that was interesting to watch. It was uncomfortable at times. What was it like actually being there?
I wondered how people were going to react to that because I feel like when you are making a work of unrepresented communities theres this pressure to paint everyone in a perfect light. But I dont think thats realistic or human. So I very much wanted to show that there are differing opinions, there is tension that exists and people make things work -- or recognize that they are part of each others community. And then, obviously, here are these three transgender women who are trusting me to tell their stories and present them to the rest of the world. Honestly, I dont know if I could do that -- have someone else present me to the rest of the world. So I felt this incredible amount of trust that they placed in me. So right when I finished the film I screened it for all of them and was like "let's talk about it," but I stand behind all the decision here because this is how I perceived it when I was there. And thats the thing for me that makes documentaries different from say a news piece. [Because] as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, this is the story that I saw -- this is the perspective that its coming from.
Especially when youre dealing with three different personalities like that, there has to be a merging of storylines in a way.
Exactly. It was really funny because at some point we were making the film I was joking with the editor and I said, "Were making a film about a doctor, a surgeon, and a rocket scientist."
Thats right, because Sabrina was an engineer for the space shuttle.
Yeah. So its really kind of funny. It shows three very successful, very different personalities. I feel like when you make a film like this -- because its a community that a lot of people dont necessarily pay attention to -- you do want to educate people. And I think thats part of the education process. Its showing that were not all going to go shopping together. Or be best friends. They all respect each other but they all have very different points of view. And tension is part of that process. Its part of being human.
On relationships, another extremely important relationship is the one between the people of Trinidad and the transgender community. And feelings about their town being referred to as the sex change capital of the world. What did you notice there?
I think there is this perception that in a small town youre going to get run out, beat up, not accepted. But I feel this is a great example of a community of people that for them its not a question. And I think its not a question is because, for them, its been going on since 1968. So, at the time, for it to be 2004, 2005 and up to 2006, when I was still shooting, for them its just part of their social landscape. Its a non-issue.
What did you expect the towns reaction to be?
I had my own perception of small towns. And its interesting because since making this film, Ive definitely traveled with [the movie] to bigger cities and in a lot of ways I could be walking down the street in Trinidad with one of the characters and no one bats an eye, but I could be walking down the street in Los Angeles or San Francisco, places youd expect to be very, very accepting and liberal and [thats not the case].
Why do you think that is?
Maybe the fact that theyre not in contact [with transgendered people] as frequently, maybe thats part of it. Or intrigue? I have no idea, but its interesting how people react differently in different places.
Speaking of the tolerance of Trinidad, there is also a financial aspect and benefit to the community in play, too.
Yes. Yeah, so I think there are different levels of it. One, [the surgeries] have been going on for such a long time -- what would be the point of running them out. And does anyone really want to because theyre just so used to it. And then, two, the hospital does benefit and the town does benefit from having the practice in terms of visiting patients, visiting families, surgical expenses, things like that. And then I also think the third thing is that also it is this Wild West kind of town so maybe the mentality has something to do with it also. And Dr. Biber, too. When he started the practice he was such a well-respected individual in the community. Hed been there for several years at that point and he was also a family practitioner and a very well respected man. And when he passed away, I really saw the town very much come together.
And you were there for that, right, when Dr. Biber died?
Yeah, I was actually there when he passed away. People really always had wonderful things to say about him.
That marked a potential turning point for the town -- an opportunity for them not to be seen any longer as the sex-change capital of the world. But what you captured instead was an outpouring of solidarity -- editorials, letters to the editor, even the support of the local Catholic priest.
It was really interesting every week to read another letter to the editor and what someone else had to say and I think they hit it when they said, We want to be a town of tolerance. And thats what they practice there. At some point -- and we dont go into it in the documentary, unfortunately -- but Reverend Phelps [the independent Baptist pastor notorious for his vitriolic antigay protests] was protesting and the town actually asked him to leave. And I think that says a lot about the town.
What surprised you most about Trinidad?
I was very surprised by the towns response. I thought for sure [genital reassignment surgery] had to be a hush-hush thing in the town and I expected to run into a lot more people who had issues with it. But again, I feel like that was my own stereotypes of small towns.
But I do feel like this really is a special case small town. Do you think youd get that same reaction somewhere that didnt have that rich sort of history with a topic that for many is still taboo?
I think, if anything, it shows that its possible. Its possible because heres an example of one.
How do you translate that then to communities that dont have that same sense of acceptance?
I think a lot of it is about awareness. Its about education. Its about learning that these people have the same tensions, the same wants and desires, the same need for acceptance, the same need for self-expression.
And your film is one way of trying to move that dialogue forward
I hope so. Its interesting because after making the film, theres been a lot of asking if I set out [to start that conversation]. And, honestly, I set out for my own personal interest. I wanted to learn more about it. I was fascinated by it. And I just hope that it meant that someone else would be, too. And other people would respond to it in the same way because I was very intrigued and I didnt know much and thought I should know more as a gay man, as a queer individual.
And how has the audience response been to the film?
Its been great. When I was making the film, I thought it was going to be interesting only to a transsexual population. It would be interesting only to a gay and lesbian population. And its actually not the case. For all purposes, these were heterosexual men transitioning to physical females. I think most people were surprised when they watched it that these people could be their father or could be their doctor or someone in the community that they know. These are everyday people.
Youve done narrative film, have you done other documentaries?
Just short ones. This is my first feature length.
How do the two compare?
Its interesting because I also work as cinematographer -- its almost two different ways of working. But what I love about documentary is that its true that true life is sometimes you just cant write this. Sometimes its more fascinating than scripted material.
Theres a responsibility that comes with it, too. Do you find it difficult to be there without leaving a footprint, so to speak?
Well, heres the other thing, too -- a similarity with fiction filmmaking. You want the people in front of the camera to trust you. And you have to make them feel safe like youre not going to take advantage and youre not going to paint them in a light thats -- I dont want to say bad light -- but in an untruthful light. And I feel like thats the same with actors. The actors have to respect you as a director and take your direction. And I think its the same with documentary, you have to the trust of your subjects so that theyll be honest with you. So that they dont perform for you in a light thats not truthful.
That sounds like a lot of pressure and a lot of responsibility.
And its also a lot of fun [laughs].
Outside of film -- what are your other interests and passions?
Thats a good question. I dont know if I really have any other outside of filmmaking [laughs]. I mean, I just love working with creative people. Its funny, now that I actually work in film, I actually dont see as many films as I used to. I probably should increase that. Of course, I love like going out to dinner with friends. I feel like Ive been paying a lot more attention to things that arent film, but creative like, you know, music. I love music. I love seeing shows and live music and artwork -- museum shows, gallery shows, same with theater. I like different forms of artistic expression that maybe I dont do. Oh -- and I love taking this ballet class. Its so much fun. I cant stop talking about it.
How did that come about?
A good friend of mine teaches this class that she calls gay ballet. Its awesome -- kind of just for fun. Its a group of people who arent necessarily trained dancers, who obviously are past the age of becoming ballerinas [laughs]. But its fun to be in this room and take a ballet class. And again, its a different form of expression.
I cant believe you almost forgot to mention a gay ballet class.
I love my gay ballet. How could you not? Gay ballet is going to save the world.
Thatll be your next film?
[Laughs] Yeah, thatll be the next one -- gay ballet saves the world.
PJ Ravals first feature-length documentary Trinidad, was just released on DVD. Head to the official website for a trailer and to purchase a copy of the DVD. Raval is currently working on his second feature-length documentary, a never-before-seen look at LGBT and gay-friendly retirement communities across the United States.