BY AJ TRAGER
YPSILANTI – Alia Ismail, a local trans masculine young adult, spent his youth discovering who he was, moving to multiple cities around the state and attending Crestwood High School in Dearborn Heights, all while growing up in a bi-cultural family. Now living on his own and attending college, he has begun filming and sharing his transition in a documentary titled “Crossing The Divide,” set to launch in October 2016.
When he first came out as trans in his freshman year of college at Eastern Michigan University, Ismail had a hard time seeing how he fit into the trans community. The only trans people he had heard about were rich white people with supportive families. Ismail is a 20-year-old Arab-American with an estranged father and a little brother who looks up to him. He didn’t feel mis-gendered as a child and didn’t identify with the “born-in-the-wrong-body” narrative that is so often told.
“What do Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono have to do with me? I’m just a queer kid with student debt who works at a coffee shop,” Ismail said. He looked for other trans stories that he could relate to, but couldn’t find any.
“Most things I watched just made me feel like an outsider, or it was explaining what transgender is. So I was like, ‘Why don’t I tell my own story?’ I want to be the little Laverne Cox for young trans guys.”
Ismail had a different presentation in high school and recounts his time there to be very segregated, bouncing between the white and Arab communities in the school. He grew up not knowing how to discuss his gender identity, but was naturally drawn to boys clothing and aggressive sports while reluctantly wearing girls clothes, per his mother’s request. Around the age of 9, things began to solidify.
“I always viewed myself as one of the boys. When I imagined myself in my head … I imagined myself at a young age with short hair,” Ismail said. “I always wore my hair in a ponytail. It wasn’t until I hit puberty where I felt a little uncomfortable.”
Ismail came out as lesbian his senior year, lost a lot of friends and started dating his first LGBT partner.
“There wasn’t anyone trans around me until I had my first girlfriend,” Ismail recounts. “They are now using male pronouns. He first told me when we were dating. I didn’t know anything about being trans.”
A year later he came out.
After Ismail told his therapist that he wanted to make a documentary about his transition, he put Ismail in touch with Lorne Clarkson, a trans man and documentary filmmaker.
“We were on the same page right from the start,” Clarkson said about his first meeting with Ismail. “We both just want to tell a story that other young trans* people can relate to, something raw and unguarded. We want to talk about things like the feeling that you’re not ‘trans-enough,’ and how confusing it is when society starts treating you like a different gender.”
Production on the documentary has already begun. It will follow Ismail through his first year of transition as he begins hormone replacement therapy and navigates his new social identity. He’s excited to have started hormone therapy but is also nervous.
“I have no idea what my life is going to be like a year from now, but I’m really hopeful. I feel like I’m getting a fresh start in life,” Ismail said.
Crossing the Divide has launched a Kickstarter campaign https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1373141071/crossing-the-divide to raise $10,000 that will be used to buy film equipment and continue filming through spring 2016 to capture Ismail’s first full year of transition.
“This film is a passion project of good will; I don’t expect to make money from it. I really believe the project will help trans youth feel less isolated,” Clarkson said. “I feel I have a responsibility to make this film. I know how lonely transitioning can be and how easily feelings of shame and self doubt can develop. I’m passionate about this film because it’s a story I know would have helped me when I was transitioning.”
Clarkson will attend Ismail’s therapy and hormone appointments, with aspirations of adding in a trip to the Ivory Coast, where Ismail’s father lives, to capture the multi-cultural world Ismail has lived in his whole life.
“I wanted to show that you can transition at any stage of your life — it doesn’t have to be through puberty. I am going to take this journey by myself and do it, and if you want to follow me, you can,” Ismail said.