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!”

Torrey Peters GR ’13 on Detransition, Baby and More

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

Her publisher Random House aptly described Torrey Peters GR ’13’s best-selling 2021 novel as “brilliantly and fearlessly navigating the most dangerous taboos around gender, sex, and relationships, gifting us a thrillingly original, witty, and deeply moving novel.” The novel (now available in paperback and currently being adapted into a television series) has won numerous accolades (Named One of the Best Books of the Year by Esquire: Long listed for The Women’s Prize; Roxanne’s Gay Audacious Book Club Pick; New York Times Editors’ Choice). However, tackling taboos and writing honestly about sex, gender and relationships can also bring forth detractors, as well as challenge thoughtful readers. On June 15 of this year, DGALA leader Sheila Hicks-Rotella ’04 led a candid conversion about these issues, ideas and more in a Zoom presentation co-hosted by Women of Dartmouth and attended by a large audience from around the world, who also asked questions. Following is a summary of what Torrey had to say. If you’d like to view the full Zoom recording, contact us at

Torrey on Her Time at Dartmouth

I transitioned and came out then; it turned out to be a good experience; people were not hostile; they were interested. My thesis advisor ended up being one of the most important people whom I have ever met. We started with a traditional thesis advising relationship, but it evolved to include broad philosophical issues; it shaped my thinking.

Influences for Detransition, Baby

Transitioning in my early 30s, I had to find meaning in life. Older trans women generally were not able to have the broader horizons that younger trans women do today. As a guide I read works of divorced cis women who were starting life anew in their 30s. You need to start over with less time, fewer illusions. They used humor, sadness, joy and loss. I tried to apply that model to trans women.


The phenomenon of detransitioning is sometimes used by bigots and transphobes; I do not believe that it is something that we cannot talk about. We all do things in life that we come to regret, but that does not mean that we were wrong in the first place. Most people who detransition do so because it can be very difficult; you can lose friends, family, jobs. I say, “Let’s talk about it.” That is more healthy. Even to joke about it. A comparable example has arisen when same-sex couples divorce; they may feel that they are stigmatizing same-sex marriage, but that is not true. Divorce should not just be for straight people.

Another controversy was my nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction [a prominent prize awarded annually in England to a female author of any nationality for a work in English]. Some critics called me a man in disguise infiltrating a women’s contest. These attacks did not bother me; they triggered good conversations in the UK and actually helped sales there. I take more seriously criticisms by trans people; some felt that my book exposes too many secrets.  I say that no transgender people should feel shame about any aspect of their lives, and the way to get rid of that shame is to shed sunshine, as my novel does, and as my public appearances, such as on “Good Morning America” and “Today” have done.

How Allies Can Help

There are short-term and long-term issues. Currently there are a lot of anti-trans bills in legislatures in many states. Yes, we should fight those. But you also need to understand that they are distractions so that energy gets siphoned off the fight. There are bigger issues than sports. Some trans women cannot get jobs and have other much more serious issues. And those issues extend to a lot of other people.

Advice for Writers

My early writing was for everyone and no one. Later, when I wrote for trans people, I found a sense of urgency. Don’t worry much about your craft as a writer, but ask to whom do you have something to say with urgency. Imagine those people and speak to them. If you do that, it will be interesting to others as well.

Use in the Book of “Transsexual”

Question from the audience: What were your motives in using “transsexual” rather than “transgender?” Answer [paraphrased]: This is the milieu in which I live. We sometimes make fun of the term “transgender.” Some of my trans friends have issues with the way that we have been grouped. It is not that “transgender” is a wrong term. But “transsexual” has the word “sex” in it, so it’s more fun and has a pulpy 70s feel. It’s just a preference.

How People Should Come Away from Detransition, Baby

It’s not that the book gives a solution. It describes the situation for trans women today and shows their problems. How are we going to make a life together and not lie to each other? This is the question that the book raises; the current generation of trans women must figure out how to live. In my own life I am grappling with some of the questions that the book raises.

The Zoom Session

Thank you for having me and asking such thoughtful questions. The logistics were great and the turnout was wonderful.

Becoming Johanna Viewing and Q&A (10/7/21)

We are thrilled to announce that documentary filmmaker, educator, and activist Jonathan Skurnik ’86 is providing DGALA members with special FREE access to watch his film Becoming Johanna, and will then join us for a Q&A on Zoom.

You will also be treated to a short about Robert Jackson ’86 coming out his senior spring (7 min). DGALA funds are being used to fund the digitization of this film!

Please register here.

A Vimeo link will be sent after registration to permit viewing in advance of the Oct. 7 Q&A event. There will not be a joint viewing session for these films.

NYC: Safe/Haven: Gay Life in 1950s Cherry Grove (10/1/21)

Join DGALA as we explore: “On view outdoors in New-York Historical’s rear courtyard, this exhibition explores the gay and lesbian community that flourished during the 1950s in Cherry Grove through some 70 enlarged photographs and additional ephemera from the unique holdings of the Cherry Grove Archives Collection.”

Read more about the exhibit here.

Tickets are free. This is a timed-entry event, and you must reserve your own tickets in advance here. (Please select the 6:30pm time slot.) For those interested, we can find an outdoor place to eat after the exhibition! Please RSVP here to let us know you’re coming, and that you have reserved your ticket!

Patricia Fitzgerald and Kay Guinness, Cherry Grove Beach
Patricia Fitzgerald and Kay Guinness, Cherry Grove Beach, September 1952 | Cherry Grove Archives Collection, Gift of Gay Nathan and Julie Paradise

DGALA Undergraduate COVID Thesis Presentation (7/13/21)

DGALA had the great honor to support the research of Olivia Goodwin ’21 this year. Olivia will now be presenting their interesting and important thesis research to the DGALA community on July 13th, 7-8pm EST. Join us by registering here.

Olivia shares more information about their thesis:

Olivia Goodwin '21
Olivia Goodwin ’21

My thesis is a mixed methods approach, which explores:

  1. how LGBTQ+ Dartmouth undergraduate students have changed their use of support networks during the COVID-19 pandemic,
  2. the differences between students by how their environment impacted their experiences with stress, and
  3. the differences of stressors between students of marginalized sexual orientations and marginalized gender identities.

I am specifically studying the experiences of LGBTQ+ students’ potential homotransphobic-specific stressors that quarantine imposed on some. I hope that this project becomes part of Dartmouth’s history as a record of students’ experiences during COVID-19.