Something magical

Jason Barker on gender, spirituality and A Deal With The Universe

by Jennie Kermode

Waiting for a ship to come in, in A Deal With The Universe
Waiting for a ship to come in, in A Deal With The Universe

Jason Barker's groundbreaking documentary A Deal With The Universe, about fertility treatment, being a transgender parent and the struggles that he and his partner Tracy went through to have a child, brings a refreshing human angle to some highly contested issues. In the first part of our recent interview he and I discussed his process as a filmmaker, his reasons for making the film and the importance of telling positive stories about trans people's lives. This part begins as we approached the subject of how other trans people have reacted to the film and what they thought about his decision to try and get pregnant himself.

Jason looking out at the universe
Jason looking out at the universe

“Our community have changed a lot," he says. "I think when I was pregnant I had one comment from one trans guy. It didn’t really bother me because I thought, look, this is about him. It really was about him as someone who wouldn’t like anyone to know he’s trans, so this was a really public thing for him, he didn’t like it. But on the whole I found the trans community to be amazing – unanimously supportive and really congratulatory and they really have been with the film as well. I think it’s interesting because I think we as a community – the trans community – are often portrayed as if we are upholding gender stereotypes. I know it isn’t true.

“When I was making the film I did worry slightly about what other trans people might think about it, because there’s a lot in the film that’s questioning gender identity and being quite critical, I suppose, of what that means. In the film I say some things like wondering if it’s about my body being female. What would that mean? I was thinking, I don’t know how this will be for people to watch, but people have met it with such positivity and warmth. To me it says something about our community, that maybe I’d underestimated our community as well and actually we’re much broader and more open minded...” he trails off.

Does he think that the film will be understood in different ways by trans people and others?

“I don’t know. I’ve had a reaction from some trans people that’s really lovely and I’ve had trans people crying afterwards and then they say to me that for them it was just about seeing somebody loved – that that was something that really touched them. I find that very touching as well.

“There was a screening that I wasn’t able to attend last week and then somebody wrote to me and she said that it was the first film that had made her cry since E.T., and it was that – she said that it was just seeing a trans person in a relationship in that way. I think that is something: stories that we haven’t seen... I think, as trans people, we’re a bit backed into a corner, as if being trans is the last resort. A friend of mine said, and I think it’s true, that being trans is what you are when you’ve exhausted all other possibilities.

Tracey and Jason
Tracey and Jason

“I think to a certain extent that’s true but I think also the think that w don’t necessarily – or aren’t able to – talk about is that actually this is who we are and it can be really brilliant as well. That it can be a positive or it just is what it is.”

Something else we don’t see very often in films, but which features quite heavily in this one, is an exploration of different kinds of spirituality. Was that something that was important to Jason throughout his life or was it a product of his struggle to have a child?

“I think there’s something about fertility treatment that really puts you right on the edge of...” He pauses for a moment. “It’s like the limits of what science can do. And then there’s a mystery that’s left. I mean, this is the case for anyone and this is another audience for the film, I think – I’ve also made big connections with anyone who’s been through fertility treatment. They would understand this: there’s a point when the doctors can have done everything, when you’re a the limit. Science has done everything that it can to give you the optimum chance of being pregnant and then you’re not. Or you can have done, I mean, we see it all the time, there are people who have done everything they can do to not be pregnant and then they are, you know? It’s like roulette.

“But then there’s this thing and I suppose it’s just the not knowing and the not being able to control, I guess as humans we give that this magical element. And I suppose in the film there’s this idea of deserving as well and I think that – particularly if you’re LGBT – I feel like, and this is my sort of subtext for the film, I feel like being in the generation that grew up just as Section 28 came in. I think I was still just finishing school when that came in so being a teenager and having all of those discussions about LGBT people and not being able to be spoken about and this idea of contagion – but knowing, also, that I was queer in some way...

Jason looking sharp
Jason looking sharp

“I think those things – and this is why so many of us are worried about what’s happening these days as well – those things do have an effect on people. One of the ways that I feel like it’s had an effect on my generation is, well, it’s had an effect on our mental health but an effect on, kind of, do we deserve things? You know, do we deserve happiness? And that strange idea of deserving that’s connected in some way with religion as well. That gap at the edge of science, that piece of magic, I was filling the gap with we don’t actually deserve this. And trying to find ways around that. So I think some of that spirituality was trying to circumvent what that deserving is about. Trying to find a way, to find a Pagan goddess or a spring water thing or a Virgin Mary or something.

“There’s a point in the film where I think maybe I just need to accept that my body is female. I’m even trying that because I think maybe that’s the thing that I haven’t done. And that doesn’t work either.” He laughs gently. “Because basically you can’t make it work. There’s nothing you can do. In the end it’s arbitrary.”

So how is the family doing now?

“The family is great,” he says happily. “Originally I wanted to end the film with a kind of, like, ‘here are the three of us,’ and Tracey said ‘Oh, I don’t want to be in that.’ She felt like she’d been in it enough. We tried, we tried some filming and it all went wrong. There was something where I plugged in the microphone and it drained the batteries in the camera. And we were on a windy beach and t wasn’t very nice and then it became kind of a funny thing but in the end it felt like fate was saying ‘don’t do it,’ So I went with what we already had, which was things from the photo booth from the computer.

“Tracey’s quite funny. She takes it all very much in her stride, you know. It’s like ‘Oh, we’ve got a cinema release.’ ‘Yeah. Cool.’ She’s very relaxed about it all.”

A Deal With The Universe poster
A Deal With The Universe poster

He’s mostly working on writing at the moment, he says, with a radio play due to air on the BBC in January, but he’s still drawn to the idea of making another documentary.

“I do have an idea of an archive film. Something from the Nineties talking about history. I’d quite like to do something about that. I feel like I was part of a generation of people who transitioned who were possibly the first transmasculine people who were accused of following a trend. I don’t know that people had accused people of that before the Nineties. It seemed to be a thing, that we were the first generation that was accused of doing something because it was fashionable, and that has kept going, obviously – people are still saying that now – and I’m kind of curious to go back and see what happened to those people.

“The idea that people’s lives stop after transition is such a myth. I also think that when you read in the press that people use words like detransition - so the idea is that you transition and detransition and that comes with regret – lived reality, people’s real life experiences, isn’t actually like that. To use the goth analogy, I was a goth and I’m not one now and I don’t consider myself degothed. And that was a very important part of my identity at the time.

“I suppose what I’m interested in is the way people’s journeys go through life. I feel like there are certain parts of our identities that are in flux and that’s fine, and other parts that we’re expected to have this kind of commitment to, gender being one and sexuality being one. As time goes on and I get older I’m just not sure about it all. I’m interested in [filming] something about that. I’m not firm on it and I haven’t decided what but I’m curious about that: about how real life can be a lot more complicated. A lot more complicated and a lot more simple.”

Read what Jason Barker had to say on telling positive trans stories and the filmmaking process behind A Deal With The Universe.

A Deal With The Universe is in UK cinemas from Friday.

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