She's one of the transgender community's most passionate advocates. Yet New Hope plastic surgeon Christine McGinn has an equally intense suspicion of the news media even as she relies on them to get her message heard.
"There is so much ignorance out there about transgendered people," says McGinn, one of half a dozen transgender men and women profiled in Trans, a documentary screening Sunday as part of Philadelphia QFest and one of an unusually large crop of transgender films at the annual lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender film festival.
"I've been on Anderson Cooper, Dr. Oz, and Oprah Winfrey, and even these shows have a difficulty with transgender representation," McGinn continues. "The most well-meaning hosts can end up making a circus of it all."
Despite her reservations, McGinn agreed to take part in Trans after meeting its producer, Mark Schoen, who served with her on the board of the National Advisory Council on Sexual Health, formed by former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher.
"Basically we got to talking about ... how there is a need for a well-made documentary that covers some of the social issues that affect transgendered people," says McGinn, one of the few surgeons in America who specialize in sex-reassignment surgery.
Schoen, founder of the sex health-education company Sex Smart Films, says he and McGinn decided to approach the topic from a new angle.
McGinn, Schoen says, was disenchanted with media coverage that focused only on her personal story, which he allows is "a fantastic story."
Born Christopher McGinn, she was raised in Bucks County and trained at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine before enjoying a career as a flight surgeon, first with the Navy, then with NASA.
She was subjected to intense — and, she says, exploitive — media coverage in 2000 when she had sex-reassignment surgery. Schoen promised he would not sensationalize his subjects, and his film does not dwell on McGinn's preoperative state.
"This film is about discrimination, human justice, and civil rights," says Schoen, who moved to New Hope two months ago. Issues covered in the film include workplace discrimination, hate crimes, and the antipathy of the health-insurance industry to transgender health needs.
McGinn says most major medical organizations, including the American Medical Association, consider hormone therapy and surgery not as elective treatments but as necessary for the transgender individual's well-being. "There has been plenty of research which shows that the therapy that combines hormones and surgery is very effective," says McGinn. "This is a serious public health issue," she adds, citing the vastly increased incidence of suicide attempts among transgender people.
Trans explores these issues as they affect five other individuals, including female-to-male transgender Cris Salamanca, a 22-year-old student from Colombia whose gender confusion led him "to intensely self-destructive behavior," says Schoen. "We invited him to Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference [in June 2011], where he had a life-changing experience" after learning about his condition. Two of the film's subjects didn't decide to transition from male to female until they were in their 50s. One of those subjects, identified only as Pam, "had a successful business career, a wife, and three kids," says Schoen. "She did everything a parent could possibly do for her kids, but when she came out, they all rejected her." Another subject, Danann, was born a boy but decided at the age of 7 that she was female. The film follows her family's decision to allow her to dress and live as a girl.
Trans director Chris Arnold says each portrait tries to show "that each trans experience is really something that everyone can understand and sympathize with."
He adds, "The film is trying to reach out to people who have had no real education about the trans experience and show that these are not freaks ... but that they are the most discriminated group in America."
QFest is showing other films about the transgender experience, including I Stand Corrected, a documentary about King of Prussia native John Leitham, a bassist who performed with the Mel Tormé Orchestra and Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band before transitioning to Jennifer; Facing Mirrors, the first transgender film by an Iranian director; and Melting Away, the first such film from Israel. For schedule information, go to www.qfest.com.
Movie Trans Showing Sunday at 4:30 p.m. at the Ritz at the Bourse. The producer, Mark Schoen, Dr. Christine McGinn and others from the film will be there to discuss it. Information: www.qfest.com.