Remember the hot captain of your high school football team — the class president and valedictorian voted most likely to succeed? If you grew up in Helena, Mont., that might be Kimberly Reed, a lesbian filmmaker now living in Brooklyn. Born Paul McKerrow but no longer hiding behind the drag of helmets and cleats, Reed displays her true identity at her 20-year high school reunion in Prodigal Sons, which reconciles her male past with her female present. Reed’s documentary and directorial debut also explores her relationship with her younger gay brother and a longtime rivalry with her adopted older brother, a brain injury survivor who — no joke — discovers he’s the grandson of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. An international film festival favorite opening February 26 in New York City, Prodigal Sons will air this summer on the Sundance Channel. Reed explains the politics of “passing” and why she’s no Chaz Bono.
Advocate.com: Before we discuss your film, let’s talk about the fact that you recently appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Oprah sang Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” to your face.
Kimberly Reed: [Laughs] That was really weird. That was the only time I was afraid up there, because I was afraid she was going to ask me to sing. That whole experience was pretty intense — it was my first trip to Chicago — and it all happened very fast. I really think my mom stole the show; what she said was awesome. But this whole thing’s like a roller-coaster ride, so I’m just trying to hang on.
I first learned about you and Prodigal Sons from reading your six-page profile in the January issue of Details. Since it’s a men’s magazine, the article focuses heavily on your previous life as a golden-boy jock. How did you feel about that piece as an introduction to much of the world?
Rick Moody is a great writer, so it was an honor to have him tell my story. I was a big fan of his writing even before I met him at the Yaddo artists’ colony. I love his elevated style of writing — he gets enamored with his subjects and runs wild with them — so it was cool to see him do that with our story. A lot of the article was about my days in high school — the glory days and stuff like that — but that is a big part of my story and a big part of the film.
The Details piece points out that you can “pass,” which is a term you use yourself in the film. Talk to me about your idea of passing, because that notion is often considered counterproductive or offensive within the gay community.
In the trans community, it may be issue number 1 — a big, big issue. It’s exhilarating when you do pass, and it feels so right, so it’s something that you really love. I don’t really think about it anymore, but I certainly did at first. That idea operates differently in the trans community. If you’re gay and trying to pass as straight, it might seem like you’re trying to fit in and pretending to be something you’re not. But in the trans community, passing isn’t about being something you’re not; it has more to do with being seen for who you really are.
You speak in the film about how the majority of trans people don’t acknowledge their pre-transition lives, even going so far as to burn childhood photos in some cases. So it’s safe to say that there are very few trans people who would not only attend their high school reunion but also make a documentary about reconciling with that past.
Yeah. And I think part of the audacity to do that involves erasing the issue of me being trans and speaking to human issues that we all have. We all have a history, and we all grow, change, and then have to figure out how to fit back into our families, which causes an enormous amount of tension. On one hand, our film is very specific and unique with a lot of crazy stuff going on — my story and my brother’s story is not typical — but we’ve been taking the film to festivals all over the world, and it’s really cool to see audiences of different cultures and religions connect with a message that isn’t lost on those specifics. There’s a much bigger, more universal story about family.
Because that sort of self-reflection isn’t typical trans behavior, have you gotten any negative feedback from the trans community?
I can honestly say — and I’m knocking on wood here — there has been a flood of e-mail and Facebook messages, and I haven’t gotten a single negative comment. I forward the messages to my mom because they’ve all been so great. A lot of people tell me about how they couldn’t talk to their parents about being trans, but then they watched the film together and now they can talk about it. Somebody even said to me, “You just made life easier to live.” I mean, how can you beat that?
Calpernia Addams, a trans entertainer, has a popular YouTube video called “Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual,” which details the many taboo topics to avoid when speaking to a trans person. Are there things that one should just never ask you, or do you welcome natural curiosity about your situation?
Both. Curiosity is good, but there are certain things you wouldn’t ask any other stranger you bumped into on the street, so I do draw lines. In general, people put too much emphasis on the surgery — and there are probably multiple surgeries, and it’s not all about the genitals. That’s private. It is odd to have a complete stranger come up and initiate a conversation about your genitals. That’s an awkward position to be in.
You could have used your film as an opportunity to answer a lot of questions people have on the actual transition process, but you skipped over those details.
It was a conscious decision to not get bogged down in that. There are films that do that very well, but there aren’t a lot of films that talk about the post-transition experience, especially a decade later. But that sense of renewal, change, and reinvention is something anyone can relate to on some level. You don’t have to change your sex to reinvent yourself. Some people do it with a haircut or a new pair of socks.