01/16/2014 05:26 EST | Updated 03/18/2014 05:59 EDT

I Grew Up Trans on the Prairies, Now My Story's at Sundance

In a few days, the NFB musical-documentary My Prairie Home will light up screens in Park City, Utah, at one of the most prestigious independent film festivals in the world: Sundance.

When director Chelsea McMullan first approached me with the idea of making a documentary about my life, I assumed it would remain mostly in the present tense. I thought it would be some sort of road documentary where cameras followed me while I crossed the Canadian prairies on the Greyhound bus. I envisioned a few interviews about what it's like to be a transgender singer. There would be shots of me singing on stage, and interviews with well-meaning people from my shows who struggled to understand my gender identity, trying -- and sometimes failing -- to call me by the gender neutral pronoun 'they' that I prefer.

I couldn't think of anything I felt like discussing from my life prior to when I left Alberta to pursue a career as a musician. In my mind Rae Spoon was born that day, and everything else was left behind me.

A few months later I boarded a plane from Montreal to Calgary with a film crew seated around me, feeling optimistic. After breakfast the next morning, I felt like I was ready to talk on camera. I had combed down my hair and done up my top shirt button. I threaded the microphone through my shirt and hooked it onto the back of my pants, and then sat as straight as I could, looking into the camera.

"Ready?" Chelsea asked.

"Yeah, I think so," I replied.

"Okay. How does it feel to be back in Calgary where you grew up?"

This should have been an easy question, but I froze. The light shining on me over the camera felt too hot. The film crew and I had just eaten in the Denny's that I used to go to on Sundays after services at the Pentecostal church. We were filming in a hotel three blocks from the townhouse complex where I had lived when I was four; I remember accidentally tasting a mud pie there one day while I was playing. I didn't know what to say. I could taste mud in my mouth like something rising inside of me. All I wanted was to keep it in. Come on. Just answer!

Instead, I whispered, "I don't know." I thought I saw Chelsea raise her eyebrows. I started to sweat. As the subject of a film, I was supposed to be at least interesting, and this was only the first question of the first interview. I knew that if I didn't find an emotion I could express about my childhood this would become a waste of time and money for the National Film Board, but I felt like it was the last thing I could do with a camera on me.

I had a difficult childhood. Growing up in the Pentecostal church with parents who genuinely believed in the rhetoric about Jesus coming back at any moment was made more complicated by my schizophrenic father's mental health issues. His frequent outbursts made our home extremely unstable for all of us kids. One of my brothers died when I was seven, and there was no space in all of the other turmoil to grieve.

When I was a teenager in the 1990s I came out as queer, and I was in an openly queer relationship that resulted in bullying and violence in my high school. I was gender variant, and I had struggled to perform my assigned female gender as soon as I was old enough to put on my own dresses. This all felt like a heavy story to tell. It didn't make for good small talk, which is why I had been avoiding talking about it ever since I had left Calgary at the age of 19.

Despite the difficulties, I did have a lot of good times growing up with my siblings. We created an imaginary world to live in that provided us with fun despite the situation around us. As a teenager in Calgary, I learned to sing, play guitar, and write songs. It's where I found the music that lifted me to new places, and has been carrying me along ever since. The real answer to Chelsea's first question was that being in my hometown evoked a conflicting rush of pain, joy, and grief, as well as memories of the music I had both listened to and created while living there. I wanted all of that in the film. In that instant, I made the choice to stop blocking those feelings, and let them carry me instead.

"There's a lot that's hard to talk about. I think I need to take a step back and figure it out," I said to Chelsea.

"Okay, how do you want to do it?"

We decided that I should write out the stories that were coming back to me. That's how I wrote my first book, First Spring Grass Fire (2012, Arsenal Pulp Press). It was intended to provide a narrative for the film to be woven around. I also wrote the songs for my album My Prairie Home to be used for musical sequences in the film. In the end, I used the very music that had saved my life to communicate how it had done so.

Growing up in the Canadian prairies, I couldn't have ever predicted that I'd be in a musical-documentary, let alone go to Sundance with it. As a teenager, all I knew about Sundance is that those films in the video store with the Sundance logo tended to provide a window into realities outside of the conservative suburbs where I lived. I'm proud to have stumbled my way into being in one of these films, and I hope that it can perhaps provide a window for those who are trapped in places that don't accept them, and who need to hear stories about making it out.

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