Houston lawyer Danielle Joy “DJ” Healey, 61, is the subject of a new documentary called Our Dad, Danielle. The film is already receiving awards and recognition at film festivals for telling the story of Healey’s experience coming out as transgender, and her determination to pay forward the work of past activists to make Texas—and the world—a safer place for the trans community.
Filmmaker couple S.E. King and Leah Judge produced the documentary. King, who has a personal connection with Healey, also directed the film. The two were neighbors—a serendipitous connection that eventually led to the film collaboration.
“This grew out of a project I conceived to film a series of very short sketches I had written to post on the web about the lighter side of the trans experience,” Healey explains. “It was a family project that my wife, daughters, and I could do together, acting as ourselves. I hired S.E. to produce and direct it, and after a couple of days of filming in March 2018, she nicely told us that while our daughter Sarah was a tremendously talented actress, apparently neither my wife or I had any talent for acting. S.E. had a strong background in [writing, directing, producing, and developing for tv and digital streaming companies], and asked us to switch gears and do a documentary about my transition as a practicing lawyer and as a person living in Texas.”
King, a genderqueer lesbian, identified with Healey’s struggles. The filmmaker grew up in a conservative Christian family and is the youngest of six kids. As a closted queer kid, she felt heavily tormented by cultural expectations to please people and fit in. Her escape was in film and television, which King credits as the genesis of her passion for the art of filmmaking.
“When Danielle called me in 2018 to confess the secret she’d kept for so long, I resonated with the sadness, isolation, and fear she felt. It was a profound connection to that journey of self-acceptance, and the battle with religious and societal shame. [That feeling] ignited the spark for all of us to commit to this. My intention is to reach others like us out there who might be experiencing the same thing. But I also want to reach the 70 percent of Americans who [claim they] have never met a trans person. That hits me, and I feel it should hit us all. No matter what, I want to honor this journey for the Healey family and the LGBTQ+ community, infusing this film with as much honest empathy as possible,” King says.
Healey began her transition later in life. In the trailer for the film, she explains that she was 44 years old the first time she told someone about her gender identity. At the time, Healey had an established family life. She and her wife, Becky, had been married for 35 years and had two children, Hillary and Sarah.
Healey also built a successful law career during that time. She graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law in 1985. Her current practice focuses on patent law, and she is a senior principal at Fish & Richardson, P.C. As the film’s trailer reveals, Healey’s practice has expanded in recent years to help other people like her find justice in a state (and world) that often demonizes the LGBTQ community, especially trans women of color and immigrants.
King is grateful for the growth experience that came out of making the film. “A highlight was developing a stronger connection with Danielle and her family, and meeting some of the incredible women in her life whom I also had the privilege of interviewing for the film. I got kicked in the gut so many times during the almost four years it took to make this.”
Our Dad, Danielle is already receiving early acclaim. The film won the Audience Award at the 2021 Vail Film Festival. It was also named Official Selection at the 2021 Portland Film Festival, where it will be available online through November 8.
“We are up for the Audience Award again in Portland, so if you like our film and believe in the message, please, please, please vote for us!” King emphasizes.
Healey believes that it was important for her to participate in the making of the film because of the message it sends about trans people, especially in a state as hostile toward the trans community as Texas. Every legislative session over the last several years has included attacks on the LGBTQ community, with specific animus directed at the trans community. This year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott included anti-trans legislation in all three of the special sessions he called. House Bill 25, which bans trans student athletes from competing in sports that align with their gender identity, was finally passed on October 15. Texas is one of several Republican-led states that have instituted similar laws against trans children, including the so-called “bathroom bills” that ban all trans people from using the restroom or locker room that aligns with their gender identity.
“I agreed to do this film to help people see [that trans people] are not the demons that some politicians portray,” Healey concludes. “We take care of our children; we do not prey on children. We use public restrooms for the same reasons others do; we do not lay in wait to spy on and attack women and girls. We have families, homes, and friends. We are just people, like everyone else.”
This article appears in the November 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.