‘We get to be everybody’s neighbor’: Transgender friends share lifelong bond in new movie

Jack and Yaya are ready to share their stories with the world.

The heartfelt documentary “Jack & Yaya,” debuting this week, charts the three-decade friendship of Jack, a transgender man, and Yaya, a transgender woman, who met as next-door neighbors when they were toddlers.

Directed by Jen Bagley and Mary Hewey, “Jack & Yaya” premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 22, on the WORLD Channel as part of the channel’s June commemoration of LGBTQ Pride Month, reports the Asbury Park Press, which is a part of the USA TODAY Network.

“One thing about the film (is) it could almost not be about transness, it could be about friendship and family and support,” said Jack, whose last name is not being used to protect his privacy. “But I definitely feel it is appropriate for Pride Month in the way that I see pride and celebration, that we have a lot of joy in the film and a lot of acceptance and things to celebrate.

“And, I think it’s also important to know during Pride that there still is progress to be made. … We can’t just stop all of our (progress and say), ‘Oh Pride, now we have a month, cool.’ Obviously, we have to keep pushing forward.” 

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Yaya hugs Jack during a visit to Boston in a scene from the documentary "Jack & Yaya."

The film can also be streamed via worldchannel.org as part of the “America ReFramed” series, and is available on the PBS app.

Yaya, whose last name is not being used to protect her privacy, reflected on the fact that her and Jack’s stories will be heading to official app of PBS, the channel that was the home of childhood staples such as “Reading Rainbow,” “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

“Surprise, we get to be everybody’s neighbor now,” she said. “So it’s a really amazing thing and it’s a wonderful thing to do in Pride Month, seeing the fact of what Pride Month stands for — the fight that trans women of color started so many years ago and the fight that’s still going strong today because, let’s just face it, it’s got to keep going.”

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Jack and Yaya take one of many selfies in Florida in a scene from the documentary "Jack & Yaya."

“Jack & Yaya” is a celebration of the decades-long bond between the Gloucester County, New Jersey, natives, who met when Jack was 3 and Yaya was 2. Jack, now 36, relocated to Boston and Yaya, 35 still lives in the Garden State.

Bagley and Hewey, filming in 2017 and 2018, use the geographic distance between their protagonists to illustrate how vastly different LGBTQ rights can be in states across America. Jack changed his name with relative ease in Massachusetts, while Yaya faced a more difficult path in New Jersey.

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“We have certain laws that actually protect us now in Jersey, and then in Florida they’re banning trans children from playing in sports,” said Yaya. “So it’s kind of crazy, how ridiculously different it is in each little part of the country.”

While just last week President Joe Biden’s administration said that the rights of transgender and gay students are protected under Title IX, there are currently efforts at the state level across the country to legislatively prohibit transgender student athletes from competing on teams consistent with their gender identity.

Jack grabs his father, Tony, while telling a story after the Eagles game in a scene from the documentary "Jack & Yaya."

“Jack & Yaya” shows how two transgender people from a conservative area of South Jersey can still be embraced by loving, supportive families.

“Our town primarily voted for the Republican (candidate for) president in 2016,” Jack said. “And I think it’s interesting to know that it doesn’t have to be political, it can be (about) human connection. It can be sharing that experience of when you connect and when you open up to someone and when you see really someone for who they are.”

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At a time when countless transgender youth find their rights in potential peril, the film offers thoughtful and nuanced visibility.

“Historically in media, trans folks have been pretty misrepresented and inaccurate and honestly not kind as it’s a lot of like, ‘Oh, this is a trans person,’ and it’s like the butt of jokes,” Jack said. “It often has a lot of racism and a lot of homophobia, sexism. It’s a lot of negative, historically, in the media, that portrayal.”

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But, Jack said, it doesn’t have to stay that way.

“I think seeing real people with real messy families and real messy lives and not even the beautiful kind of messy and with different political opinions can just show that not everything has to be hard,” he said. “You can just love each other.”

“Jack & Yaya” premieres Tuesday, June 22, on the WORLD Channel, and will be available to stream via the PBS app and worldchannel.org/episode/america-reframed-jack-and-yaya.

For more information on the film, visit jackandyaya.com.

Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years.

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