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Activist and Filmmaker Fiona Dawson Returns to Houston for Transgender Unity Banquet

Fiona Dawson

With Trump’s proposed ban looming, she plans a feature-length documentary on trans service members. 

By Lourdes Zavaleta

President Donald Trump’s proposed transgender military ban would cost the U.S. millions and put the nation’s security at risk, according to Fiona Dawson, an Emmy-nominated director, producer, and writer.

“There are as many as 15,000 trans individuals who are amongst the great and talented who serve in the military,” Dawson says. “Some of them have decades worth of service and many play very critical roles. It cost money to train them. They cannot just suddenly be replaced by new recruits.”

Dawson, who lived in Houston from 2000 to 2011, will return on Saturday, Nov. 4, to keynote the city’s 25th annual Transgender Unity Banquet. The banquet, which begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Houston Marriott North, honors trans allies and advocates. Dawson will discuss her projects promoting trans rights since leaving the city.

After coming out as gay in 2004, Dawson worked for local nonprofits including Casa de Esperanza, the Houston Area Women’s Center, and Bering Omega Community Services. Dawson also worked in the social departments at Shell Exploration & Production and BBVA Compass.

When she realized that she wanted to produce media, Dawson moved to New York City in 2011 and later settled in Washington D.C. in 2014.

After “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, Dawson began advocating for trans people who were still banned from serving.

“While promoting the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, I noticed that many of us were using the term ‘LGBT,’ but we did not consider that the ‘T’ was not actually included,” Dawson said. “After its lift, I wanted to continue work that would discriminatory bans.”

In August, Trump signed a memo directing the secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to put forward a plan for banning trans service members due to medical costs. But Dawson says that the price of discharging all trans service members would be more than 100 times greater than the cost of retaining them.

According to a report co-authored by current and retired professors at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, the projected cost of discharging the military’s trans troops is $960 million, while the cost of providing them necessary health care is $8.4 million.  

“Whether this new policy is implemented or not, this shows that there is still a lot to do when it comes to changing the hearts and minds of people,” Dawson says.

Along with her co-directors at SideXSide Studios, Jamie Coughlin and Gabe Silverman, Dawson is working on a feature film about trans service members members as a call to action. She hopes her work will help Americans know and understand trans people through the lens of trans service members. It marks Dawson’s third project telling the stories of active-duty trans service members through film.

In 2012, Dawson began TransMilitary to elevate the lives of active-duty trans service members. In 2015, she and her team were commissioned by the New York Times to produce the short opinion documentary, Transgender, at War and in Love, which became one of the NYT’s most-viewed online films.

Dawson went on to receive the White House LGBT Champions of Change award, and the film was named Best Documentary by the the White House News Photographers Association. It was also nominated for both GLAAD and Emmy awards.

Because of the film’s success, and the need for more exposure in the media, she, Coughlin, and Silverman began working on a feature-length documentary about trans service members.

In 2016, while they were filming, the ban against trans service members was lifted. Then, in July 2017, Trump announced on Twitter that trans Americans would no longer be able to serve.

On October 30, a federal judge temporarily blocked the White House policy set to take effect in March 2018, ruling that it was based on “disapproval of transgender people generally.”

“When the ban was lifted, we were on an ultimate high, but with the roll in of this new administration, transgender service members lives are again under threat,” Dawson says.

Trump’s memo gave Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to determine by February 21 if trans service members currently serving will be allowed to remain. Dawson’s film will premiere in January 2018, one month prior to Mattis’ decision.

Proceeds from the Transgender Unity Banquet will fund scholarships, Houston Pride activities, annual recognition awards, and grants. Tickets can be purchased here.

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Lourdes Zavaleta

Lourdes Zavaleta is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.
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