A new documentary almost two years in the making follows the gender transition of Gemma Hickey.
Peter Walsh of Nine Island Communications wrote, directed and produced the film. The two spoke with CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show about creating, and now sharing, Just Be Gemma.
This film gets its title from something your late grandmother said. Is that what's at the heart of this film?
Hickey: "Absolutely. My grandmother was a very wise woman … and a real matriarch in our family and when she spoke, everybody listened. So whenever I had an issue … I always went down to chat with Nan and she always gave it to me straight up. She was asking me about what I was doing about my transition … it was a very frank discussion and humorous. And then I told her, 'You know, Nan, I might not want to be a boy or a girl,' and she said 'Just be Gemma. That's all Nan wants.'"
She passed away during the making of the documentary, didn't she?
Hickey: "She did indeed. A couple of days before I had to go up for top surgery. So I was really feeling like I wasn't going up at my best, but all my cousins were like, 'You've got to go up, you've got to get this done. Nan would want that.' And that's what I did."
The film follows Hickey through the hormone treatments, through the surgery. Looking back, did you know what to expect going into this?
Walsh: "There were a couple of surprises … It was a tough time. Gemma had a rough go just before Christmas, and it's not the Gemma that you're going to hear on the radio and that you know in the media who has a profile — and that's one of the things that attracted me to this was the opportunity for someone who is prepared to hang out there, to share their story, to have no conditions on the documentary was remarkable access and trust."
Any regrets about letting the cameras get so close?
Hickey: "I knew it would be a big deal, but I really felt it was necessary to bring people in … I mean the film is in part about my gender transition, but it's also about me transitioning through life, and that's really relatable to every single person out there because it's part of the human condition. We all struggle. We all suffer loss. We all suffer relationships that don't work out and struggle with our inner selves."
There's lots of intolerance out there, do you see this as an educational piece?
Walsh: Secondarily I did. You have this interesting character who's going on an interesting journey … and I knew that the timeliness of it mattered. Gender is one of the new parts of the discussion about inclusion. Just think of transgender people as people. They're just people, like so many other people have something a little different about them that in no way changes the fundamental discussion, which is that we're all humans. We're all people. We all are equal [and] deserve respect and common courtesy and that's, to me, the takeaway."
You're a very public figure. You've been public about the sexual abuse you've suffered as a child. Is it therapeutic for you to put yourself out there?
Hickey: "It absoultely is. If I can take my trauma and turn it into something positive for other people, it's very healing for me. My activism is very personal … but it's very important to me to live authentically and that means living authentically in every way possible. I have no more secrets in my life. I have nothing to hide and my vulnerability is my greatest strength, and with that out there, I feel like nobody can hurt me."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.