The concept of existing is something a lot of people—my nihilist self, included—take for granted. But, for me, that certitude completely changed in an hour, all thanks to a new documentary called We Exist: Beyond The Binary.
We Exist is a project centered on visibility, awareness, and amplification of a community that has been oppressed for far too long. What originally started off as an educational project to spread nonbinary awareness, soon turned into a full-length documentary following co-producer and activist, Lauren Lubin. Featuring appearances from activists Kristin Russo and them's Tyler Ford, We Exist is here to spur a conversation that may one day lead to tangible institutional change. The main goal of We Exist is to put faces to the everyday issues of nonbinary people, and it does that by focusing its lens on Lubin—from childhood to an abandoned basketball career to top surgery.
So what's the first step in spreading nonbinary awareness? Get this film and other pertinent educational resources in front of as many people as possible. According to the team, an accompanying study guide for the film is also nearing completion and should be ready for use with the documentary soon. So ahead of this, we sat down with Lubin, Russo, and director Andrew Seger to talk about the power of the internet, dismantling the gender binary, and the seven-year journey that was the making of the film. Read our Q&A, below.
Tell me a little bit about the beginnings of this project.
Lauren Lubin: Seven years ago at this point, the world was a totally different place. There was zero conversation, let alone about trans issues or about how gender could exist outside of the binary. For myself, when I was going through the personal journal of unpacking who I was, my feelings, and everything that I had been experiencing since I was a little child, it was through extensive research. [It took that for me to] recognize that, "Oh, this is something that has always existed throughout multiple cultures, and history, and time. Both past and present."
It was having that realization that gender was something that was much more socially constructed, that really [set off] the light bulb for me. But if this always existed, then how come we don't talk about it? And second, why aren't there enough resources for people like myself?
This really started out of a dire need. We lived in such silence, invisibility, and isolation that I saw the film as a perfect medium to bring both a voice and a face to something that really had to be seen and talked about. And, more importantly, as something that could be used as a resource for individuals like myself, educators, and even families.
What was it like for you to put this huge part of yourself out there?
LL: After seven years of really just blood, sweat, and tears, it felt like I was giving birth to my own self. I'm a private person, so this was against my nature, but it also spoke to, I think, the need to tell a story, and to start talking about these things. But going through the process, there were times where it was nothing short of just excruciating to have to share myself and really strip myself down to such a vulnerable point. It was very, very difficult.
Andrew Seger: It was an interesting thing coming from the point of view of a producer and director. You want to respect the story you're telling, but you also want to kind of tell it honestly and find sort of the most functional way to do that. I think we were able to go really deep, and get really personal in some places. In other places, not so much, because we're telling the story of a real human being who's currently living their life, and I think that's the kind of compromise or situation that anyone making a biography is going to have to kind of face at some point during their production.
Kristin Russo: Yeah. I obviously was not involved in the way that Andrew and Lauren were involved in the production, but I have sort of touched on the film's progress over the years, and I think that [within that time], the conversation that's been happening around nonbinary identity has shifted so much—to the point where the whole film shifted. And you can both speak to the timeline, but I know that the reason that I was even brought on, was sort of as a response to the changing conversation. Because it's just changing so quickly.
AS: Yeah. We had a completely different-looking film before. And conversations are changing, and they continue to change. But certainly, if this was seven years ago...
LL: We needed to explain what the gender binary was.
AS: Right. We had to sort of explain "transgender" because the level of transgender celebrity just wasn't there. That completely changed where we went. What was initially a very sort of rudimentary film, explaining basic terms and things like that, became a more gripping, more personal story. It was a lot richer because we didn't have to provide quite so much catch-up.
What spurred this shift in mainstream pop cultural consciousness?
KR: The internet. I've worked in LGBTQ communities for a decade at this point, and that has been the biggest driving force in terms of visibility. And I talk about this a little bit in the film—once people start seeing themselves reflected, their voices get louder. I think that has been a huge shift, and media too.
But I really think that the conversations that are happening on Twitter, Instagram, and, at the time, Tumblr... that was a massive place for these conversations about visibility. And I think they inform media. Mass media more than the other way around.
LL: To piggyback off what you were saying, I agree that the internet has been the most revolutionary and revelatory in terms of this specific cause, because education is power. And the internet has allowed access to information that once had to be spoon-fed to you. You were told how things were. Now, anybody is able to get online and search for information just regarding what they were thinking or what they were feeling.
I think having both some sort of a visual and/or message that's representing who they are, coupled with the fact that there's so much more access to information and education, has really just empowered people to make changes in the right direction. Or in directions other than what was simply just taught to us in a vacuum.
Shifting gears a little bit, what was the most surprising thing about the making of the project?
LL: I think I thought this was a film that people would watch once, and draw their conclusions. I've been blown away at how people say, "I'm not even going to tell you how many times I've watched the film because it's been that inspiring and impacting or educational for me." I've known people who've watched the film well over five times, which was not what I was expecting.
AS: I learned a ton during the making of this film. I thought that I had a handle on this stuff. I clearly did not. But also, I think, again, culture was changing in that way, so everyone was gaining a larger awareness, and a better sensitivity to these things. But the response since it's been out… was [amazing]. Hearing from people inside and outside of this community who see this film and either see themselves recognized or… Like, I have family members who were like, "I didn't get this before this film, and now this makes sense, and now is this what's happening when I see this?"
All of a sudden, they're connecting dots with things that they read in the paper or situations that they have experienced or seen around. That, to me, has been really great, and it seems like we're being pretty effective at our goal here for this thing. This was something that we kind of made in a vacuum. We didn't have any budget, we were just doing in between other gigs. You sort of forget why you're doing it, and how wide an impact it can have. But now that it's out, seeing that impact is really... It blows me away.
KR: Yeah. We did a screening at the [Jewish Community Center]. I was mildly surprised and impressed at the people who were engaging in the conversation at that screening. All these people who really have never traversed in this world outside of the binary before were really eager to learn.
I think that comes from the fact that this hasn't been a conversation happening on the margins anymore. In The Wall Street Journal and on primetime television—it's gotten to enough people where they're really curious, and they really do want to understand. I think the tool that both of you created is the most powerful tool I've seen. I showed it to my parents, and their response was like, "Oh yes." They got things that I've been trying to unpack for them for a long time.
AS: 100 percent. That happened with my family, too. My dad took a while to see the film.
The initial format was a lot different. Then, throughout the course of making the film, we started kind of bringing in more elements of Lauren's personal life and, at some point, we got 25 years of footage of Lauren's childhood, and I was like, "Now we got a story."
So when I was thinking about cutting this film together, I wanted to kind of serve two audiences. One of them is this cis audience that is kind of not aware of these things. But what they are aware of are sports, love stories, all these things. So by the time that you get to these sorts of prickly parts for a cis audience, they identify with who Lauren is. I totally snuck that in with family members. They couldn't deny that this made sense and was right for this person, and I think that's sort of a big thing that we were trying to do.
A little context with the JCC screening is that there is a community there that just goes to every screening, so they have no idea what they're walking into. Oftentimes, our audience is a little self-selected because they want to see a story about this. But at the JCC, you have a decent percentage of the crowd just walk in because it's Thursday. Having them watch this, and then kind of come with all these questions, was amazing because you're like, "This is an effective tool for anyone," and that's been great to see.
As you said, audiences for films like this tend to be pretty self-selected. Are there any ways you are trying to push it toward a more mainstream audience?
AS: We want to get this in every high school in the world. That's the plan right now. We've put together a curriculum that you can download so that kids can sort of have a led viewing of this and discuss afterward, and that's the goal here is to get it out in front of as many kids aged 11 to 100 that will watch this.
Who had the idea for this study guide?
AS: My stepfather is really involved in Oakland Unified Schools, and he had put together a study guide for another documentary. We always knew we wanted to get [the project] into schools, and so he suggested that this might be a good way to package it. I kind of took the bones of that study guide, and then we created a study guide around this film that kind of touched on some of the main points that we were hoping to get across.
As you all said, the conversation is constantly shifting. What do you think is the next step in terms of nonbinary visibility?
LL: From a practical standpoint, I hope that the next step comes from an institutional level. We already see California, Oregon, the West, making shifts from a legislative standpoint to be more inclusive and provide more options in terms of identification. There are basic human rights that really need to be put into place in order for people like myself to exist. To exist fully and safely, and be able to occupy spaces and contribute within society. I think the next steps would be from an institutional and legislative level. And that's really the whole purpose of, again, starting these conversations—bringing to light to the fact that there's work to be done, and infrastructure needs to be changed.
KR: I think that the legislative piece of it is always kind of hand-in-hand with the media piece of it too. That we're seeing nonbinary characters on television—and in children's programming—that is really massive.
Like you were saying, Andrew, you have to get [people] over here before they'll listen to the rest of the stuff. So I think that creators continuing to give visibility to trans characters, and specifically nonbinary characters, is also a means of saying, "Oh yeah, my kids watch that show and there's that character that uses they/them." I'm like, "These are all the little ways that our brains take information, and then when we're voting or when we're participating in politics or legislation, we're informed." We remember Lauren's story or we remember all these things that we've learned over the last few years, and I think that, together, they push things forward.
LL: Yeah. It's an exciting time, for a lack of better word, to be a part of that. We are really in and amongst the change—of being able to really shift the fabric and impact.
I might not see some of those changes within the immediate future—maybe within my lifetime. I don't know. But, for me, I feel like we're at a place with technology and the internet where change can happen much more rapidly, and we see it all the time. But it's also coming from a place of being realistic about it, because we're so very much at the starting line. We worked so hard just to get to the starting blocks. And now it's time to run the race.
Watch We Exist: Beyond the Binary here.