What happened to Johanna’s pursuit of happiness?

woman looking into the distance seriously
Johanna Clearwater, the subject of the "Becoming Johanna" documentary. Photo credit: The Youth and Gender Media Project

I was always raised to believe that America was the best place to live, land of opportunity and equality for all. But after watching the documentary “Becoming Johanna” during Trans* Awareness Week and seeing the difficulties she faced, my perception on the subject truly changed.

Through the documentary, directed by Jonathan Skurnik, I could vicariously experience how difficult it was for her to find her own identity, and the pain and struggles of dealing with society without acceptance or support. Where is Johanna’s “opportunity” for the pursuit of happiness? Where is the “equality” that protects her from mistreatment or negative stereotypes?

Members of the transgender community are people too, people who want to be comfortable in their own skin with the freedom to express themselves without scrutiny and instead be celebrated for who they really are. Gender is a cultural term which identifies you as a man or woman based off of social constructions and biological assumptions. But what if how you feel or what you identify with goes much deeper than what’s on the surface and therefore can’t be categorized as being the norm.

I used to think that being transgender was more of a choice, which is obviously not the case as Johanna points out how she struggled with her identity since childhood. I was so ignorant and unfamiliar with the subject that I would always simply avoid trans people because of fear of the unknown; I didn’t want to try to understand. After watching the film, it definitely changed my perspective on the situation by helping me understand how difficult it could be living as a trans person’s in today’s society.

Johanna is very brave and did the world a favor by opening up and sharing her story. Most people wouldn’t put their own story on display like that for the public to judge and criticize. The film shows how Johanna faced true adversity with difficulty at school, with no sense of belonging, no gender, and no identity.

What hit home and was very poignant for me was when she discussed how her own mother couldn’t accept her for what she was and cast her out, forcing her out into foster care. Those of us lucky enough to have our parents’ love and support know that it is limitless, providing inspiration, confidence, affection and all the support we can ever need.

It was when Johanna discussed having lost the love of her mother because she couldn’t accept her that I truly connected to her and changed my perspective to be more accepting of people’s differences. Not only should we aspire to be more accepting of others and their differences but we need to stop the harassment, discrimination and rejection towards the trans community because these biases can and do have detrimental effects.

Although Johanna never discussed in the documentary that she had contemplated suicide, suicide attempts among trans people are very common. With over 6,000 respondents, the U.S. National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2014) was the largest survey of transgender and gender non-conforming adults to date. In that sample, “41 percent of respondents reported ever attempting suicide. These figures vastly exceed the 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population who report a lifetime suicide attempt and are also higher than the 10-20 percent of lesbian, gay and bisexual adults who report ever attempting suicide”. The numbers alone clearly illustrate that discrimination, harassment, bullying and negative treatment of these people is very harmful, even fatal and needs to stop.

Change your perception and get educated on the topic. Don’t be so closed off to things that are unknown or different from your way of thinking. Try to be more accepting of other’s lives and their pursuit of happiness. Times are constantly changing. I strongly believe that everyone has the right to love or marry who they want, and now I’ve been liberated to believe you have the right be comfortable in your own skin and choose your true identity.

We need to initiate action. Watch “Becoming Johanna”. There is a real visual connection that takes place which appeals to the emotions, displays harsh realities trans people like Johanna face. It just might change your perception if you put yourself in another person’s shoes before jumping to a conclusion.

Written by Mercury Mellor