Since Elon University senior Zach Bocian was a kid, he has struggled with masculinity and what it means to “be a man.” It wasn’t until he reached adulthood that he was able to come to terms with his own gender identity. 

“I realized that I don’t have to wear baggy clothes or go to the gym all the time if I don’t want to or don’t like to, to prove I’m a man,” he said.

It was that realization and fascination with gender, along with his interest in the Trans-community that led him to begin research for his BFA thesis project: a film package for a feature film called “Facemask.” The package includes a screenplay, trailer, a projected budget and schedule, visual references and a business plan.

Facemask is the story of a closeted transgender female named Tyler grappling with coming out as her true self as well as maintaining her passion: football.

Getting the background

During the fall of his junior year, Bocian, a double major in cinema and television arts and political science, spent time in Los Angeles for the Elon in LA Study USA program and then extended his stay through summer 2016. 

He went to various trans pride events and met many individuals spanning the whole spectrum of transgender from male to female, female to male and gender non conforming.

“They’re such incredible people,” Bocian said. “The community — although private in many respects and sensitive in many respects — rightfully so — are some of the most accepting people I’ve ever met.

“It made me feel really incredible. I was so grateful to them because they proved to me that gender is such a social construct.”

After the passing of HB2, Bocian was “all-in” for the project and began researching intensively.

As a cis gendered, heterosexual, white male, Bocian has been very careful to create an authentic portrayal of the trans experience as an outsider.

“The trans experience is so varied,” he said. “There’s not one checklist. There are different things that all trans people usually go through, but the way they go about them, and how they get to them, and what is considered a transition and what is considered ‘presenting’ is different for everyone.”

Bocian reached out to various physiatrists, psychologists, surgeons and specialists both in LA and in the Triad area when he returned to Elon. While still in LA, Bocian met with a surgeon who specialized in gender-affirming surgeries and told him he needed approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which approves all scholarly research projects that use human sources. 

So in addition to the 10-page proposal needed for the School of Communications at Elon, he also had to draft a 20-page paper for the IRB.

An accurate portrayal

Once back in North Carolina, he met with psychiatrists and specialists hoping one would mentor him and share their clients with him to interview. After visiting a few group sessions and meeting various professionals, Bocian met Shana Gordon-Cole, a gender specialist working with Tree of Life counseling in Greensboro.

“After going through her thousands of clients — because we needed to choose subjects who were at the same age as Tyler, played sports, were both female to male and male to female because you want both perspectives and also related to her plight in some way,” Bocian said. “Then I needed to pitch them on this idea. And tell them that a lot of what they went through I want to use for her because it needs to feel authentic.”

They eventually picked 15 individuals and seven agreed to be a part of the project, some of whom were even football players.

Professor Muriel Vernon, assistant professor of anthropology with expertise in transgender health and culture, helped Bocian compose his IRB proposal and has been advising him for the duration of his project. She says Bocian has done a good job of balancing authenticity and maintaing accesibility to a mainstream audience. 

“It’s good that he needs to know the details of hormone treatments and how they work and how they don’t work,” Vernon said. “Because I think he had a point where he wanted to show the progressive changes of the body with hormones and I said ‘That’s fine, but this person would not be playing football competitively with these changes A., not visible and B., not effecting the game’”

Bocian wants to make it clear that the screenplay and the recently produced trailer are not the final product of his project. His goal is to have the feature film made and reach the widest audience possible, but only on his terms.

If his film were to be produced, Bocian wants the lead to be a transgender actor. Yet, for the trailer, Bocian does not have the money or legal backing to ensure a transgender actor’s safety.

“If this movie were to get made  it would be with a trans-actor,” he said. “It is going to be made with a LGBTQIA inclusive cast and crew and it is going to be made in the proper sense, and that is something everyone needs to understand — especially the gender and LGBTQIA community.”

Junior Patrick Mobley and other cast members film the trailer of “Facemask.” Photo courtesy of Zach Bocian.

Hiring an inclusive cast

More than 40 percent of the cast and crew for the trailer identified somewhere on the LGBTQIA spectrum, and the other 60 percent fell into another under-represented minority. A majority of the budget thus far has come from the Gender and LGBTQIA Center (GLC) at Elon and its Alumni Network, which asked about the demographics of the cast and crew when Bocian and his two producers, juniors Katie Shannon and Hunter Strauch, pitched the idea.

“When we pitched the alumni board for the LGBTQIA center they asked about that and we said yes, that’s exactly the point of the project, because you don’t want a bunch of white people telling the story of a minority,” he said. “That’s what happens in Hollywood and that’s wrong and we see it. Yes, it’s my project, and [I am not a minority], but if you surround yourself with the right people and listen and collaborate, hopefully you’re going to get an authentic piece of work.”

Bocian hopes to bring his script to people in the industry he admires who have worked on projects such as “Transparent” and “Boys Don’t Cry” and to make a movie that will reach as many people as possible.

“I’m hoping that the mass audience of this entire country are interested in it because it is about a modern American society,” he said. “I want them to say, ‘Oh cool, it’s a football drama. Oh my gosh I’m learning about this incredible new topic.’ I go to the cinema to be educated and learn about people, so that’s what I want it to be.”

Bocian says the hardest part of the project so far has been proving to people his authenticity and passion for this topic.

“And I do not want sympathy for that,” he said. “Because it is hard and because why the heck should I be caring for this — but on the opposite, why shouldn’t I?” 

This is why Bocian has ensured his research is thorough. He continues to get notes from the transgender individuals he has spoken to throughout the process and has asked five professors and mentors to read through each draft of his script.  

Mathew Antonio Bosch, the director of the Gender and LGBTQIA Center, said Bocian’s commitment to receiving feedback throughout his process is ensuring a more authentic final result.

“An added bonus for the Gender and LGBTQIA Center was Zach’s ability to share with us, and his thesis panel, drafts of the full script throughout the writing process to ensure that the language and content chosen felt authentic and true to the experiences many of us face around gender expectations,” Bosch said. “Which helps to avoid the tokenization that so many trans characters experience in today’s TV shows and films.”