Her work includes films about Americans standing up assertively for civil liberties to one about a romantic soul traveling the spectrum between the living and the dead. Sarah Feeley’s professional filmmaking career projects a theme of fluidity, and the assertion that one deserves personal dignity.
On March 17, 2015 CNN released her greatest work, an amazing short film called Raising Ryland.
The film features a little boy name Ryland who is six years old. From birth, Ryland had two pieces of information to impart upon his parents. The first was that he was deaf. The second was, in spite of displaying female characteristics, that he was actually a boy.
Sarah Feeley is on a singular mission to “amplify the voices we don’t frequently get to hear.” She herself knows what it feels like to grow up with the pang that she was not like others around her.
She recalls, “One of the ways that children learn about themselves and their world is through modeling. They look at the world around them and look to see themselves reflected in their environments. For an LGBTQ child, it may be difficult to find positive, affirming reflections of themselves in their families or in the wider world. This may weaken their sense of belonging and lead to feelings of shame. All children want to belong. No child should have to live in shame. I was a child who wanted to belong and struggled to fit in. Now I know that all the things that make me different also make me unique… but I didn’t know that then. Back then, being different felt like the worst possible thing. “
As an adult, she has found solace and safety in her life partnered with another woman. Allowing herself to be her own authentic difference has given her a space in which she could find herself. “My partner, Ali, inspires me every day. I am so grateful to have her in my life. We’ve been together for over 11 years. She’s taught me about love. About optimism. About who I want to be and about the person I am. I am a better person when she’s around… the whole world is a better place when she’s around. If you meet her, you’ll know what I mean.”
Still, she has not found that the world at large understands her fully integrated self. “I am a director, and I am a woman… I would like freedom from the assumption that these two things are incompatible.”
In the last few years, “voices we don’t get to hear” reached out to Sarah. They were the voices of LGBT kids who found they could not continue fighting the bullying and rejection and had ended their lives. Sarah felt driven to take action to both have them heard as well as to end the trajectory towards tragedy so many were on. “I believe that all people deserve to be wholly known and loved for who they are. I wanted to make this film because I was heartbroken by the rising number of LGBTQ youth who felt so hopeless and unloved or unloveable that suicide seemed like their best option. When we share our stories, we become visible and reduce shame,” she states.
Sarah set out to find her Ryland and to tell his story. “I wanted to share an LGBTQ-affirmative story so that more parents could learn how to create a safe and supportive space for their children, to try to find inspiring and positive stories that might give a struggling young person hope. I wanted to show that there are parents out there who love and support their children with no strings attached even when it means confronting their own fears and expectations. There is a challenge, while working on a film that focuses on parents and children, to find a family who is willing to open up and share their story on film. It takes time to build the trust a film like this requires. It also takes a special kind of courage on the part of the parents to share something as personal as how they parent their child. I feel a huge responsibility to create a safe space during the filmmaking process and to craft a film that honors this bravery in the editing room. Through this process, I met a number of amazing parents. One mother introduced me to another and another and another. That’s how I met Hillary. (Ryland’s mom).”
Through the process, Sarah also narrowed her scope to the specifics of the transgender journey. “I see gender as a universal issue. It plays a major part in how we relate to one another as humans. When transgender people are allowed to live authentic lives, we are all given permission to live authentic lives. I am really encouraged that more and more stories focused on transgender lives or featuring transgender characters (in fiction stories) are being told. In Western culture, gender is often understood as an absolute binary that comes matched to a person’s anatomy. While this is true for some people, it is not true for all people. Gender is a spectrum. Sharing stories is one of the ways that we become known as humans. I think it’s important to for transgender people (and all people!) to be represented in the story of humanity. It’s easy to dismiss people whose lives we don’t understand whose experiences seem far away from our own experiences. I started with the hope that sharing Ryland’s story would help to open minds and bring people closer together.”
In the short film itself, Ryland’s parents make it clear why they signed on to the project and answer critics of their participation, and their choices in parenting. “41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide. 41 percent. That’s what it comes down to, do we want a living son or a dead daughter. So that’s where we get pissed. That’s where we say, ‘people can go screw themselves.’ They can try living with that statistic. It’s not their kid, they are not forced to face it. So they can sit back and make judgments all day long,” they assert.
Ryland himself was an eager participant. Sarah reports, “Ryland is very happy to be part of this project. He wants to world to know that it’s cool to have two kinds of things, his cochlear implants and that he’s transgender. Behind the scenes, we worked with (and continue to work with) transgender youth, transgender adults, experts and organizations who work with families raising transgender and gender non-conforming children. The people who have worked on this project believe that sharing stories like Ryland’s helps to promote visibility and make the world a safer, more understanding place for families raising transgender and gender non-conforming children.”
Transgender activist and author Siobhán Patricia Lynch is not convinced such a film, which she considers “fluff”, is a good approach. “I have mixed feelings on a lot of this stuff – part of it focuses on privacy of the Trans kid. When I was young, I would have given anything to be identified as a girl and not any different – we don’t know how these kids will feel in their teen years after their parents have made the choice to “out” them to media ‘look at us – we’re great parents’ – it seems bizarre to me that this is what is so sensational it sells these days. Trans issues have become the new rights battle – but it comes at a price to all the individuals that are now front and center. I made that choice for myself – I feel this kind of news is at the expense of the child who is already experiencing enough in trying to figure out who, or what, they are.” She penned her concerns in an article called The Trans Reality, Not All Feel Good Fluff . In the article, she further states, “The reality is, that we don’t live charmed lives, we’re not fluff pieces, we’re the tragedy, and this increased visibility is going to make things worse for trans adults, before it gets better, and we have targets on our backs…I think the thing that annoys me is parents who accept who their children are, as trans, are not heroes; they are doing exactly what they should be as parents. This isn’t extraordinary, its the bare minimum I would expect from a good parent, yet we somehow hail them as heroes.”
Sarah responds, “That’s interesting. I have not heard that reaction. I agree that violence, discrimination and depression are big issues that adult transgender people face. That’s another story that needs to be told. I hope that sharing Ryland’s story helps to promote a culture of understanding where all people are free to live authentic lives. The response Raising Ryland has been overwhelmingly positive. We have received notes of encouragement, gratitude and appreciation from people around the country and around the world. We’ve been contacted by parents who are desperate to find help in their local areas (and we’ve worked to connect them to those resources).There are families who have written in to share their own personal stories. Many people have let us know that they would like to see more of Ryland’s story because sharing his story has made a difference in their lives (or their children’s lives).”
At least one family who were forever transformed were Mimi and Joe Lemay. They had been struggling with their own 5 year old child who was in a state of constant misery. After seeing Raising Ryland, they told NBC, “The Whittingtons explained their process of transitioning him and clearly that little boy is so happy now, so adorable, so full of life and animation and we were very struck by that and we talked about it. And we said, what if we showed our child the video of this boy? When the video finished we asked him, what to you think about that boy? Do you think you would like to be like that? Have a new name? And have everyone know that you’re a boy? …He said ‘That’s what I want. I want to be a boy always. I want to be a boy named Jacob.” Now Jacob is happy, vibrant, engaged and alive. Mimi reports, “I realized how much he came out of his shell. He had never been a girl. That was a figment of my imagination.”
Sarah’s film is more than informative, it has become in itself, transformative. Sarah is not done, however. Up next is an expansion of the Ryland story into a feature film. “It dives deeper into Ryland’s story and the young transgender experience. Our film tells one family’s experience. They happen to be a white, middle class family. Lots of different types of families from lots of economic backgrounds are raising LGBTQ children. I think their stories need to be told, too. Really, there are so many stories that need to be told! The rate of violence against transgender women, especially transgender women of color, is a big issue. LGBTQ youth homelessness and/or LGBTQ youth in the foster system is another big issue. I’d love to see more scripted stories include transgender characters (men and women). I’d love to see more roles being played by transgender actors— all kinds of roles, not just roles for transgender characters. We have had a very positive response to the short and people from around the country are donating to our feature film fundraising efforts. We still have a long way to go. Every donation, no matter how large or how small, helps moves us closer to our goal. For major donors, we can accept tax deductible donations through our fiscal sponsor. People can individually donate by visiting: www.raisingryland.com/donate.”
While facing critics and naysayers, Sarah has a personal center, and her own true north that her mission is the right one. She shares, “My personal connection is empathy. I think all people deserve respect My mother has given me so many great pieces of advice and one she’s given me that applies to life and to this project. TRUST YOUR GUT. I don’t know about your gut, but my gut can be a mumbler sometimes. Making a film is noisy. So it can be hard to hear your gut. Making a film is also a labor of love, it’s incredibly personal, and yet, you can’t do it by yourself. So you need a lot of trust. Trust in your team. Trust in your subjects. Trust to know when it’s working and trust to know when it’s not. I hope that sharing Ryland’s story helps people begin to understand what it means to be transgender and see that transgender children who are loved and supported by their families are more likely to lead happy, healthy lives. More than 50% of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday. A study by Trans PULSE demonstrates that this number drops by 95% when children are supported by their families. The first statistic is so heartbreaking. The second statistic presents such a simple and beautiful solution: Love.
My gut tells me to love. Making this film is love, the outcomes from this film are love. Love is the mission.”
Raising Ryland is featured at OutFest in Los Angeles on July 16.
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Sarah on CNN: