A documentary about the extraordinary life of Toronto activist Susan Gapka is coming at a pivotal moment for the trans community.
“We’re in this new age,” Gapka said. “We’ve got I am Cait on Sunday night, and we’ve got I Am Jazz on Wednesday nights on television.”
Growing up in difficult circumstances on the military base in Trenton, Gapka ran away from home and landed in Toronto at 17. From there, she became homeless, rebounded, transitioned, earned two post-secondary degrees and became an activist for transgender and housing rights.
It’s the sort of journey that makes for a good script — and a bit of inspiration.
“There has been so much progress in the last five or 10 years, I thought it was important to tell that story, so we can remember the struggles,” Gapka said. “Younger people are going to grow up, hopefully, without having to go through some of the things we had to.”
Lisa Rideout, director and founder of Lifted Eyes Media, said what’s happening today is important to the documentary’s timing.
Gapka has spent much of her life working to have the world better understand and accept transgender people. Now that trans people’s stories are trending in pop culture, there’s a broader platform for her story, Rideout said.
But, the timing’s also “tricky,” she noted.
“I want this film to be about so much more than Susan being a trans person. That’s just part of her personality, just one aspect, not her defining characteristic,” Rideout said. “It’s great there’s this platform, but it’s tricky because I don’t want her stuck in this box that that’s all she is.”
Gapka’s happy to be part of the documentary, but said the crowdfudning campaign that made the project a reality was a little “uncomfortable.”
“I’ve done a lot of public work, and could be called a public figure in some regards, but funding for a film where I was the centre of attention was unnerving,” she said.
The most difficult part will be allowing the filmmakers inside her early life, Gapka said.
“I’m feeling very vulnerable about what that brings up,” she said. “It’s going to raise some stuff, going back there.”
The Trenton-Belleville area has change a lot over the last 40 years, she said.
There’s now a Pride Parade and a trans youth group that meets weekly in Belleville — something she never would have imagined possible when she was young.
“That’s why I came to the big city lights, Toronto,” she said. “But I can tell you, growing up I never thought I would be who I am today.”