Inspiring Maker: The Gift of Struggle

By Aaron Spencer

The risqué subject of the documentary might have pushed the voting tallies over the top. The film was about the revival of burlesque, which has plenty of sex appeal and is a fairly popular pastime in the Pacific Northwest. The film is good in its own right, and it’s narrated by Margaret Cho, which gives it some star appeal.

But Courtney Hermann probably could have made a film about grass growing and won. Hermann is an acclaimed Portland documentarian and professor at the Art Institute of Portland. She was voted one of Hand-Eye Supply’s Most Inspiring Makers, an honor given to Portlanders who make things. She rode atop the supply store’s dazzling float in the Starlight Parade last month.

Hermann is deserving of the seat: her films have won audience awards at several film festivals and have appeared on PBS, among other prestigious outlets. But she humbly credits her many current and former students in town for the Maker title.

“I’d like to say I got votes because of the project alone, but I think it was students,” she says (we might find out next year if the work content actually matters in voting – Hermann’s next film is about uranium mining).

Hermann, 40, has a philosophy about filmmaking that intersects with her identity. She identifies as queer – she’s a woman, but she presents herself with many masculine characteristics. Her queerness for a long time was a source of struggle, something she says that all good documentaries need. That struggle has helped her become the successful creator and teacher she is today.

“I think the struggle is a gift,” Hermann says, “because you instantly have this whole other relationship with the rest of humanity, where I think you can more easily tap into the shared humanity of people who are different from you.”

Hermann grew up in Baltimore with conservative parents – “old school,” she calls them – Christian, but not the “you’re going to hell” variety. They bought her baseball bats and footballs and were still surprised when she came out of the closet at 22.

But shortly before that milestone, they bought her the only thing she ever really begged for: a video camera. One of the first models for home use, it recorded to VHS and cost $1,200.

“That was a lot of money in the ‘80s,” Hermann said.

She enjoyed making home movies, but she knew she wanted to be a teacher. Her mom did it; so did her sister. It was in her blood.

But she didn’t know she wanted to teach film until one day in 1992 in Charlottesville, Va. She was there for the Virginia Film Festival. Her professor for her documentary film class sent her. She was 19, and she and some friends filed into a cool theatre to watch the documentary “To Render a Life” by Ross Spears.

The film is about the ethics of making the documentary: how to portray the lives of other people and the questions one grapples with in the creation process. All of that resonated with Hermann, but what sticks with her is one scene.

The film included the story of a family living in rural Virginia. They lived in a trailer with no air conditioning and a wood-burning stove. In one scene, the mother makes dinner for her family in a crowded kitchen in the middle of the humid summer, sweat dripping from her brow.

“It struck me,” Hermann says. “It struck me with the humanity on display and how much I felt like I was really moved by the strength and power of this character. Those are the kinds of characters that interest me in my own work – strong individuals persevering despite situations that are really difficult.”

Herman walked out of that theater knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Today, Hermann is a faculty member and assistant academic director of the digital film and video department at the Art Institute, and she’s received the faculty of the year award. Hermann feels that her androgynous sexual identity has been more of an asset to her as a teacher than a detriment. As she puts it, she feels like she can “be everything to everyone.” Women are grateful to have a woman role model in a field dominated by men, and the men see her as someone who is accessible and understands them.

“I feel in the final analysis, that being queer and a different gender somewhat, has actually improved my ability to relate,” she says.

Overall, Hermann says some of her proudest moments come when her students access the power she’s learned to find within herself.

“The students really see, in some cases for the first time, they really, truly understand how hard they can actually work,” she says, “so they get this great sense of self empowerment and come out the other side of this really tough and difficult experience feeling great strength and power. And it’s all in service to this art form that I love – documentary.”

Trans student strikes out on her own

As a child, Sabrina McCoy’s favorite movie was The Goonies. She liked it because the kids were just like her – lower-middle class with quirky interests and big imaginations. Even the main character, Mikey, was asthmatic, just like her – both of them carried around inhalers. Most of all, the kids didn’t apologize for who they were, even when others put them down.

The movie was formative for McCoy, 34, because when she was a child, she was a boy. She decided to transition to female six years ago, a decision that put her on her own adventure and changed life as she knew it. She quit her job, divorced her wife and moved to Portland, where she began a new career – film. She now attends Portland State University, where she’s pursuing a degree in film production.

“They say entertainment is all escapist,” McCoy says, “but when you’re growing up in a horrible environment and you don’t have a lot of support…that escapist type stuff is all you have.”

McCoy grew up in a conservative factory town, Rockford, Ill., just outside of Chicago. McCoy can point to clues that she was transgender as a child, like throwing tantrums when her mother would try to put her in “boy clothes.” By the time McCoy was in college, she had figured out that she was gender variant. But because of her conservative surroundings, she says, she suppressed it. She finished college, got married, got a steady job and bought a house.

“But you can only put something in the back of your mind for so long before it basically breaks wide open,” she says.

The breaking point came for McCoy on Memorial Day on 2006. She was hanging out with her wife at another couples house watching anime. Between drinks, the women started talking about their likes and dislikes about bras – which brands they like, which stores are better, how annoying iit is when the underwire digs in on one side.

What struck McCoy about this conversation was how easily and immediately she was able to jump in and contribute to it – she had after all, been experimenting with cross dressing. But when she did jump in, she could practically hear the scratch on the record player.

“They looked at me and said, “Wait a minute. How do you know about that?” McCoy recalls. “And then a switch in my head switched over and I was like, ‘Boom. I was female.’”

What followed can safely be described as dramatic. McCoy’s wife already knew she was gender variant – McCoy had told her before they got married – but when McCoy decided to transition to female, her wife said she couldn’t be in a romantic relationship any more. McCoy’s revelation wasn’t the only thing that led to the couple’s divorce, to be sure, but it played a large part.

So McCoy started rebuilding what would be a new life for her. She met another woman online (McCoy identifies as a trans lesbian), and the two soon developed a long-distance relationship. After McCoy finalized her divorced, sold her house and tied up some other loose ends, she decided to move to be with her girlfriend – in Portland.

“For me, a kid from Illinois, you grow up with cornfields and it’s flat,” McCoy says. “The Pacific Northwest was sort of like this magical beautiful land of coasts and caves and hills and evergreen trees and absolutely gorgeous scenery. So it kind of became a dream of mine to be out here one day.”

Once in Portland, like so many others, she was unable to find steady work. Her main concern was medical insurance; since she was transgender, she wanted it as soon as possible. The easiest way to get it, she thought, would be to go back to school.

And while she was changing things up, she thought, “I may has well go and study a new field to try and better my career chances,” she says. “And I might as well study something I love.” She chose film.

When she graduates, she wants to create a documentary that shows transgender people in a positive light. Essentially, she wants to make the film she could have shown her parents when she came out of the closet.

“When I came out to my parents,” she says, “they were like, ‘What does this mean? How should we react?’ I didn’t have any good answers.”

Her mom struck out on her own for information. She ended up going to a video store, where she was told to watch TransAmerica – a film that for a mother learning what to expect from her child’s life, McCoy calls “problematic.”

McCoy wants to make the film she could have shown her mother.

“I want to show that trans people can have relationships and jobs and that some of them do really great things,” McCoy says. “Basically a documentary film that shows trans people living normally.”

Aaron Spencer is a professional writer and editor. Reach him at aaron@JustOut.com

Aaron Spencer

About Aaron Spencer

Aaron Spencer is a regular contributor to Just Out. He is a professional writer and editor.

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