Jonathan Skurnik ’86 on his LGBT-themed Documentaries

Pete Williams ’76, November 2021
(excerpted in the November 2021 DGALA newsletter)

On October 7th this fall, DGALA hosted a Zoom event with Jonathan Skurnik ’86 about his documentary films “Becoming Johanna” and “A Portrait of Robert Jackson.” “Becoming Johanna” (2016) follows a transgender Latina teen as she is rejected by her mother and deals with life issues over a 5-year period. Skurnik made the Jackson short documentary when he was a senior at Dartmouth; it is a roving-around-campus interview with Robert Jackson ’86, who speaks candidly about his struggles as a black man and a gay man. The film had never been digitized, and so DGALA put up the funds to do so, and the film now will be permanently housed in the Dartmouth library system. Jonathan made both films were made available to DGALA members for viewing before the Zoom event and for a limited time thereafter. If you are interested in seeing either or both, or the Zoom event, email us at

The event was hosted by DGALA leader Lee Merkle-Raymond ’86, who knew Jonathan while the two were at Dartmouth; questions from the audience followed. The following is a summary of what was discussed.

Jonathan on Why He Made Becoming Johanna

I was gender non-conforming as a youth, and I was horribly bullied. So this project was personal to me. And it is for all youth, as well as all adults: we all are gender non-conforming to some extent, and we all are oppressed by a strict binary system. I had been reading about transgender youth living in communities that supported them. These children and their families were doing what my community hadn’t been able to do when I was a child. As a social change filmmaker, I wanted to document and help grow the movement that embraces rather than suppresses children with gender expansive identities. I found Johanna in an LA program for transgender youth, when she was 16. We worked together for five years as I followed her, and later as we toured the country to speak to large groups about the film [which also appeared on PBS].

Jonathan on the Robert Jackson ’86 Film

Robert was my friend at Dartmouth, and he had come out to me about a month before we made the film. Filmmaking was my passion at Dartmouth, and I asked if he would collaborate with me on a film about him, discussing his being black, and possibly his sexual orientation. Robert agreed, and he did come out during the filming. Later the film was screened at Webster Hall to over 300 people (as one of ten films from Jonathan’s class). Robert and I sat together; Robert was nervous; I told him I’d tell them not to run it if he wished, but he said, “No; it’s OK.” We held hands for the whole film. Afterwards, Robert received a standing ovation and much support from the audience.

Jonathan on the Future and Continued Relevance of LGBTQ+ Film-Making

There is still so much oppression and homophobia in our culture. Look at the status of Roe: such protections will continue to be under attack for many years. It is just part of the picture of progress against oppression. No one wants to give up OutFest in LA, or NewFest in New York City. I filmed a convention of LGBTQ+ Jewish young people in Orlando a few years ago. There were extremes of experience. Some kids were threatened; but in other communities there was no need to come out, as a variety of orientations were accepted. That is more what it is like today – levels of acceptance and oppression vary all around the country, and we need to approach the topic in that regard.

Jonathan Speaking with Green Light after the Zoom Event

“It was a joy to connect with both alumni and students to discuss my films. DGALA supported the digitization of the first major film that I made at Dartmouth, which I hadn’t viewed in over 25 years. It was gratifying to realize that the voice and themes that I’ve developed over a lifetime of creative output were incubated and developed while I was a student, and to see the extraordinary similarities between my very first film and my most recent PBS documentary. Another key part of my life that started at Dartmouth is my lifelong commitment to being an ally to the LGBTQ community, and making the world safe for all of us who deviate from the gender binary.”

Comment from Student Leader Jess Chiriboga ’24 About the Event

“Within, Dartmouth’s LGBTQ+ club, gathered together in Brace Commons over delicious pizza (thank you DGALA for funding!) and yummy snacks and desserts! There were a couple of new faces, which was incredible. Our group especially enjoyed seeing Dartmouth of the past in Jonathan Skurnik ’86’s film on Robert Jackson ’86. Collis sure looks a lot different these days! Thank you to DGALA for the incredible Q&A, the free pizza, and for digitizing the Jackson film for us to enjoy!”