VICE’s Gianna Toboni Spotlights The Unseen Struggle Of Trans Youth

“These kids have to confront these questions every day”

Photo by Madeleine Peters, VICE

Thanks to actions taken by the Trump administration, last week saw a swell in nationwide support of transgender youth, whose freedoms are being threatened thanks to the government’s rollback of Obama-era policies that allowed trans people to use the bathrooms of the genders they identified with. And while the bathroom issue is at the center of the public debate over trans youth, the reality is that young trans people and their families are facing questions far more profound and life-changing than where they can go to use the toilet. 

This Friday, on the second episode of VICE on HBO in a story called "Trans Youth," journalist Gianna Toboni explores those questions by profiling four young trans people who are facing controversial medical decisions that will alter the course of their lives. Toboni visits eight-year-old Max, 15-year-old Stevie, 16-year-old Charlotte, and 5-year-old Kai, each of whom is at a different stage in their transitioning, with different family and geographical situations that will have a significant impact on their lives going forward. With the national rate of suicide for a trans person at 40 percent, the decisions Toboni spotlights in her segment are often life or death. We spoke to her several days before the Trump administration’s announcement about telling this story and what she learned from it. 

What is your journalism background?
I worked with ABC news for a bit. I was a digital correspondent-producer for Katie Couric's show on ABC. I was at ABC News before that, doing some field producing and booking. I then worked for AL-Jazeera for a bit. Then I quit and raised money on Kickstarter for a film that I cared about, which I didn't think any of the places I was working for were interested in. It was about UN Peacekeepers who had been raping and assaulting women in Haiti and around the world and the UN's handling of it. VICE caught wind of that, and that's how I started working with them.

What was your role in conceiving the segment on trans youth that you did for VICE?
It's different for every story. Sometimes I'll pitch and develop the stories, sometimes it would be a different producer. In this case, it was my really great producers. They'll bring me on board, we'll all kind of chat, we'll go through a pretty rigorous development process, figure out what the story is, put it in front of Shane [Smith, founder and CEO of VICE]. He'll approve it, and then we just start calling people and figuring it out, finding the families, getting all the background information together, refining exactly what it is we were going to film.

A lot of the country see trans people through the prism of Caitlyn Jenner or Transparent, that is to say, older. Was part of your goal here in working with younger people to show a different side of the trans struggle?
Definitely. We wanted to show what was happening around the country that people weren't paying attention to. It's the agony that these families and these kids are going through when deciding whether or not to transition. I think what was really important to us, too—that we weren't just showing kids in urban environments. We were showing kids whose parents are ordained ministers and live in the most conservative parts of the country, and then people who live in more liberal parts of the country. Showing that range of families allowed us to represent what's happening in the country now.

How long did this story take to develop and shoot? 
We'll produce pieces simultaneously. One weekend we're in Boston shooting with Max's family, and the next week I'm in Kuwait doing a different story, and the next week in Russia and then back to the trans story. We started shooting trans youth in June all the way up to October, but we're doing many other stories in between. 

I was amazed by the maturity of these kids. I'm wondering if that is a product of what they're going through, or are they mature and that's why they're able to handle everything so well?
I think you grow up fast when you're dealing with that internal conflict at such an extreme level. One of them said in the segment, "What you're seeing in the mirror doesn't connect with what you're feeling on the inside." There's no other way to describe it. I think when you have to have those conversations at such a young age, you begin paying attention to what's happening in the country, and your parents are talking to you about it much more. When I was their age, there's no way I was reflecting on this type of stuff. I didn't know who the fuck I was. These kids have to confront these questions every day.

When you spoke to former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, she came off a very compassionate and was on these people's sides. Do you imagine a similar conversation with the current attorney general?
I'd be really interested. We tried really hard not to make this a political story because we felt like the science of it was not being represented in media. Right now, when you look at any print or broadcast pieces about transgender, for the most part, it has to do with the political battle and the bathroom laws. To us, what's more important is what these families go through on a day-to-day basis, the conversations that they've having. So we tried to focus on that.

Are these parents worried about what this administration means for their kids?
We filmed all of this before Trump got elected, so we didn't talk to them on camera about it, but we definitely kept in touch with them. For a lot of these families, not much changes. At least right now. We'll see what happens with Obamacare and those type of [changes happen], but in terms of the bathroom laws, some of their states were already suing the federal government over their directives, so their kids weren't able to use the bathroom to match their gender identity as it was. In that sense, nothing's really changed. This five-year-old who we started the piece with, she wasn't able to use the bathroom even when the Attorney General Loretta Lynch had issued that directive. 

You spotlight some children who are blessed with accepting parents, and some who are not. Which did you find to be more common in putting this story together? 
I don't know. I think probably what's common is parents who are scared and don't know what the right decision is, and have to find therapists for their kids themselves, and have to work through these decisions and have to agonize over these decisions. Even the doctors don't know what's going to happen in 15 to 20 years. They don't have long-term data on whether people change their mind. Or when it comes to cross X hormones, what the effects on one's body are going to be. I'm not sure, but I think Rachel O'Brien, Max's mom, said it best. She said, "This has been incredibly difficult, but I'd rather have a son than no child at all." They're contending with a 40 percent suicide rate if they don't allow their child to transition. 

Was this making this story a learning experience for you? How much about this subject did you know going in? 
This is maybe the only story I was afraid to take on and I think that the reason I was afraid to take it on is because I didn't know how I felt about it, and I knew that the doctors didn't have the answers, so there was something about it that was undiscovered, which I think is a good thing because that means there's a lot to explore, and you really have to sort of dig and feel and explore how you feel about the issues. It was completely enlightening for me. 

What stories have you done that have profoundly changed your view on something and how does this one compare? 
We did a story a couple years ago on international surrogacy in India and on the last day of that shoot we sort of stumbled across the underground, like the black market of surrogacy, and we found ourselves sitting across the table from someone who was trying to sell us a baby that was 15 days old, who was also at the table, and that fucked me up. That is a really heavy situation to be a part of because you realize that the person who is trying to sell you this baby doesn't even know your name. They don't know if you're a pedophile, they don't know if you're involved in some trafficking ring. They don't know anything about you, and they're begging you to put, as they called it, a down payment and just take the baby. So I think that was completely enlightening—that this stuff exists in the world and it's not that hard to find. It's a different kind of enlightenment than what you get with the trans story, which is that you realize how difficult this is for people, especially when the criticisms and some of the misconceptions of trans kids are that, "oh, they just want attention, they're choosing to be this way." And in reality, it is so hard for these families, it is so emotional. It is no condition to envy. 

“Trans Youth” premiers at 11pm this Friday, March 3, on HBO.