Children embody a contradiction: in one sense, they live with limitation, restricted to whatever their guardians deem safe, but their newness to the world can give them a sense of boundless possibility. For children who realize that they are transgender, this contradiction is heightened, as their desire for self-determination clashes with the risk of rejection from those who care for them. Today’s trans children may have greater access to information about their identities than they might have had even a decade ago, but the rising visibility of trans people has been accompanied by a conservative backlash that serves as a reminder of the continued perils of coming out. For even the most confident and well-protected trans children, explaining themselves can be a harrowing prospect.
Aurora Brachman’s documentary short “Joychild” offers a sensitive portrayal of this experience, drawing in the words of a child who has gone through it. In voice-over, with ethereal scenes of children at play, a child named Lou describes a memory to their mother, Tenysa, of the moment they told her for the first time, “I’m not a girl.” Brachman found the film’s subjects through a play group for gender-expansive kids, and the title comes from a conversation she had with the parent of a nonbinary person who decided to replace “son” or “daughter” with the term “joychild.” The film is shot in black-and-white, lending an air of nostalgia to the scenes it captures—Tenysa painting cat whiskers on Lou’s face, another child tenderly stroking a pet bird—and, in concealing the colors of the children’s clothes, giving their gender expression a subtle flexibility. Lou is arrestingly articulate about their range of emotions during their conversation with Tenysa. “I never intended to tell you. I felt like I shouldn’t,” they admit. “I mean, like, even I was doubtful. I’m just a little kid—how would I know? And then my brain went and took over and said, You’re doing this. And I went ahead and said it.”
In light of the inherent anxiety of coming out, Lou’s mother’s gentle affirmation as they tell the story comes as a salve. After Lou says, “It’s probably the best memory I have, telling you, ‘I’m not a girl,’ for the first time. But it’s probably the worst memory, too, because that was so hard for me,” Tenysa responds with a tone of palpable compassion that gives her simple words (“I’m sorry it was hard”) a transcendent weight. Hearing Lou’s vulnerability and understatedly profound self-reflection, it’s painful to imagine an adult responding with anything but unequivocal support. Despite expanded awareness of trans issues, negative reactions from family, whether baldly discriminatory or anxiously discouraging, remain startlingly common. In its short runtime, “Joychild” makes a clarifying emotional argument: the only humane and reasonable response to trans children is to listen with generosity as they try to express hard-earned truths about themselves.
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