Brave transgender teens have really put themselves out there recently, discussing how they came out in high school, made history as prom royalty, became equality activists, took a public stance on embracing makeup, even documenting their transitions on YouTube.
But Emmie Smith, 17, has gone one step further — allowing National Geographic into the operating room to film her transgender surgery for an upcoming documentary.
“I think people are fascinated by gender reassignment surgery,” Smith says in the film, slated to debut on Feb. 6, although a nine-minute preview can be seen online now. “They’re insatiably curious about it, but they also don’t know how to have a conversation about it. It’s not science fiction or mythology. It’s what happens to women just trying to be at peace with themselves and their bodies.”
Smith is featured in National Geographic magazine’s January “Gender Revolution” issue — which made headlines by featuring a 9-year-old transgender girl on its cover — along with her identical twin brother, Caleb.
In August, a year and a half after coming out as a transgender woman on Facebook, Emmie underwent surgery to match her anatomy to her gender identity — a complex process that, according to the documentary, involves turning the glans penis into a clitoris, the skin of the penis into the labia minora and part of the vaginal opening, and the scrotal skin into the vaginal lining in a space that’s surgically created. And National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson was there to document it so closely that the online video comes with a graphic imagery warning.
“It was stressful and scary at times, but it almost created a mission other than just recovery,” Emmie told National Geographic of the experience. “We were making something together.”
In the film, Emmie’s mom, the Rev. Kate Malin, of an Episcopal church in the family’s Massachusetts town, also opens herself up emotionally in front of the camera, as she’s seen giving wholehearted support to her daughter, comforting her after surgery, praying for her before, and crying in the waiting room after receiving word that her child has come through the operation okay.
“What my husband and I keep remarking on to each other is this just feels so right, it’s so her, it’s so the child we’ve always known and loved — even though a few years ago we wouldn’t have necessarily anticipated this step,” Malin says in the documentary.
Going through the major surgery was hard on everyone, with recovery posing an incredible challenge for Emmie. It wasn’t until months later, in fact, that she felt certain that she’d make the right decision. “If you’re not living freely that’s time wasted, and I felt my time was wasted pretending to be a boy,” she said. “It was the best decision in my life.”