Documentary Review: “The Most Dangerous Year” chronicles transgender “bathroom bill” protests

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It didn’t happen by accident. It never does.

With gay marriage rights off the ballot, a civil right endorsed by the states and ratified by the Supreme Court, conservative think tanks needed something to rile and fire up “the base” in 2016, a new “craze” to bring out the crazies.

That’s when, all of a sudden, “bathroom bills” turned up in state legislatures all over America. An “issue” that most Americans never realized was indeed “an issue” suddenly ate up a lot of the country’s attention at a time when we should have been demanding to see Trump and Bernie Sanders’ tax returns.

Those bills, the Human Rights Report said at the time, made 2016 “the most dangerous year” for transgender individuals. The bills, virtual carbon copies of one another, passed from Red State to Red State legislature, most infamously in North Carolina, where a bill passed and the state had to deal with its repercussions.

But supposedly liberal, more urban and more educated Washington state was also dragged into the fight. It’s not the most representative state to use in a film about this subject, and “The Most Dangerous Year” can seem one-sided in the voices it uses in discussing a basic human right and the “fears” that others bring to that discussion.

Filmmaker Vlada Knowlton documented not just the step-by-step battle over SB6443, the “Bathroom Bill” in questions there (one among many attempts. She not only filmed and conducted interviews for the movie. She lets us meet the families that felt the need to fight against this legislation. And she narrates it, because this story hit at the very heart of her family. She lets us meet her transgender daughter.

“When she was three, she began to tell us she was actually a girl,” Knowlton narrates, and the five year old girl we see and hear on camera bears this out. We hear her telling her parents how she wants to grow up to be a fashion designer, photographer, and maybe a chef when she grows up.

The “fight” part of the movie is engrossing enough — snippets of advocates for the bill, interviewed on local TV, losing a touch of their moral superiority when pressed for “specific examples” of pedophiles dressing as someone from the opposite sex to prey on women or children, or pressed for data that backs up claims and fears about what having transgender people using means to the fearful.

Here’s Cyrus Habib, the state’s Lieutenant Governor, putting it bluntly — “Let’s be clear, there’s no clear evidence” that transgender people are any more likely to be sexual predators than anybody else in the population. He decries the effort, the scare tactics, “getting people to see a boogie man where there isn’t one” and recalls urging legislators on “the other side” to “take this opportunity to be on the right side of history” THIS time, “from the start.”

We follow Joe Fain, a Republican state legislator who weighs in against this bill and the voter’s initiative that follows, and watch him grimace through a generally civil (one red-faced man threatens to punch him in the mouth) but increasingly testy town hall meeting where he tries to calm fears, remind people of the laws on the books and avoids telling anyone they’re mistaken, lying or just plain wrong.

We’re given a glimpse of why people feel threatened by transgender men and women, a montage of movie and media representation of transgender people — murderers like Buffalo Bob in “Silence of the Lambs,” Norman Bates in “Psycho,” objects of fun such as “Saturday Night Live’s” “Pat.”

But the real value in Knowlton’s film is letting us meet some of the children and parents of transgender children, who lsay the issue is “a matter of life and death” for their kids. And unlike their opponents, they have statistics to back them up.

Parents, to a one, recall a STEEP and reluctant learning curve that hit their household when a child tells them she is really a boy, or a girl, in a body that wasn’t made for that identity.

“It’s not a phase,” one mother gripes. They all expressed alarm, dismay and then determination to support their child, even as the “bathroom bill” backers express sympathy for “the confused.”

Scientists weigh in on the latest research, chromosomes that determine sex now seen as filled with “variations,” the “mosaic” of “maleness or femaleness” in the brain that has nothing to do with genital development.

“I would like people to know that my daughter is NOT a threat! She just wants to use the bathroom. That’s all.”

Suicide among young people experiencing this realization and the difficulties they have with a society that won’t accept them is the harsh cost of “people confusing gender identification with sexual orientation,” the one that gets all the publicity.

But there are urinary tract infections, kidney issues, that stem from the fearful refusal to use public restrooms.

A chant on the state capital steps pretty much gets at the heart of the matter.

“Trans women are women, too. And need to pee, JUST like you!”

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Whatever else Knowlton’s film captures, and no matter what its shortcomings in setting and balance, etc. (misspelled graphics on sources of data, for instance), “The Most Dangerous Year” can be appreciated for that simple explanation.

Using a bathroom is a basic human right, and some people have issues with it that scar them for life. Unless you’ve got specific police report examples or hard data to back up your latest phobia attached to the larger issue of gay rights and homophobia, find something else to get worked up about.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual subject matter

Cast: Erika Lorentz, Meghan Hebert-Trainer, Huddle Morris Blakefield, Joe Fain, Cyrus Habib

Credits: Written and directed by Vlada Knowlton . A Passion River release.

Running time: 1:28

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