When Donnie Cianciotto was approached by his friend Anna Augustowska in Arizona during May of 2015, it was initially for a documentary on the drag community in Tucson. Cianciotto, a transgender man who was born in New York but moved to Arizona as teenager, had been involved in the Tucson drag scene in the late 2000s. In 2015, Cianciotto was working with a theater company in Arizona in the same office as Augustowska and was more than willing to help.
However, through their talks for the documentary, both soon realized that the focus would be very different, and it became a project that spanned over three and a half years of filming and took six years to release to the public.
“I told her about my personal experience in drag, she just got so excited and she told me, ‘I changed my mind. I would like to make a documentary about you’…” Cianciotto said. “It wasn’t really something that was supposed to happen, she really liked what I shared with her about my experiences and the next thing I knew, she was at my house two weeks later with a camera crew filming what would be the first scene of the documentary.”
That documentary, which initially started out as a smaller 15-minute project, would become DONNIE: A Transgender Man’s Story, a 52-minute feature that explored Cianciotto’s life as a transgender man and his struggles as well as triumphs. The documentary received praise at film festivals and even won a Rocky Mountain Emmy Award. Cianciotto described his documentary as an “uplifting tale of love, success, and happy ending,” wanting to tell a transgender story that did not merely revolve around suffering, but the experience of going from tribulation to triumph.
DONNIE tells a very revealing and deeply personal narrative of Cianciotto’s life. From his upbringing as an assigned female at birth (AFAB), his move from New York to Arizona as a teenager, to his experience coming out as transgender, the film tells a story of self-discovery, perseverance, and love. Cianciotto felt that sharing so much of his story would be valuable for trans youth.
“I would have benefitted so greatly from that type of documentary when I was young,” Cianciotto said. “I was a little bit worried about putting something out there and being so open, because I could receive threats for it. But I think it’s so important not just for trans and queer people, but for their family members too. Being able to show kindness like that could change hearts and minds. This project was made with the goal of trying to be helpful with the community.”
Showing positivity in DONNIE was important for Cianciotto. Echoing a sentiment similar to another transmasculine actor (and then link to the Emmett story once it’s up), Cianciotto said that an issue with transgender and LGTBQ+ representation in media is how often those portrayals focus on suffering and trauma rather than success or triumph. For example, much of the documentary revolves around Cianciotto’s attempts to get top surgery. Cianciotto moved from Arizona to New York in the mid 2010s in order to get easier access to top surgery through health insurance.
However, Cianciotto was rejected multiple times by his insurance due to various requirements not being met (such as not having been with a therapist in New York for long enough), and eventually had to crowdfund money to pay for the surgery outright.
While Cianciotto doesn’t shy away from showing the difficulties in getting surgery in the documentary, he placed a larger focus on the euphoria and affirmation he got from top surgery. This coincides with the larger theme of telling LGBTQ stories revolving around triumph instead of trauma.
“Before, [I’d look in the mirror] and knew my [true self was there], but never with my own eyes, but with my own heart and soul. Before top surgery, I would not recognize my chest,” Cianciotto said. “After surgery, it was like a confirmation that the image I was seeing in my head the whole time was accurate. It was so incredibly affirming that I was speechless for weeks. It was so empowering to finally see in a reflective piece of glass what I had seen in my head.”
An aspect of media representation that annoys Cianciotto is when cisgender actors portray transgender characters. Cianciotto believes that roles in movies such as The Danish Girl that win awards and earn notoriety should be played by transgender actors.
“When they cast a cisgender person to play a transgender character, it takes a role away from a transgender person. It’s like cis people winning awards off of trans people,” Cianciotto said. “The big shift we need to see is trans people telling their own stories. When their whole character is based off of their transition, it's disappointing because the storyline is just about our trauma. We need to see more queer and trans joy and euphoria in media.”
Cianciotto is part of the Trans Voices Cabaret in New York City, an acting organization that puts on shows and performances starring trans, non-gender conforming, and nonbinary actors. The goal of Trans Voices Cabaret was not just to increase visibility but to also let the individuality of its members shine.
“We’re still individuals although part of a community. There’s something so safe about being in a room where everyone is trans. You don’t have to correct people or do the emotional labor of explanation. It’s taking the binary out of theatre,” Cianciotto said.
Trans Voices Cabaret puts on shows every other month in New York, and also has locations in Chicago and even London.
Cianciotto has had a love for the performing arts from a young age,, and like many other people in the LGBTQ community, found solace in theater as it welcomed him with open arms.
“I think it’s twofold. One, the [theater] community has made a name for itself as being a more accepting microcosm of society where lots of LGBTQ+ people have been able to find success and a chosen family where they can be comfortable being themselves,” Cianciotto said. “And conversely, the fact that we get opportunities to tell stories where we don’t have to be ourselves or live our lives. It gives you a little break from whatever reality you might be going through.”
As for what’s next for Cianciotto, he’s not entirely sure. He just hopes that his documentary can empower trans youth all across the country to live their best lives.
Donnie - A Transgender Man’s Story is available to stream on Vimeo at www.vimeo.com/ondemand/donnietransgenderfilm.