Since moving back to North Carolina in May, Christine Newton Bush has been carrying an envelope labeled “For N.C.” in her purse. The envelope contains name-change documents, a newly printed birth certificate, and a signed letter from the board-certified surgeon who performed her gender affirmation surgery.
“You and I sitting here don’t need to carry around documentation that proves who we are,” says Carrboro’s Diana Newton, Christine’s sister. “I mean, it’s really kind of ridiculous.”
Christine and her spouse, Judith Bush, decided to move back to North Carolina after living in California for sixteen years. The day before their offer on a house was accepted, House Bill 2 passed. But they didn’t take it as a cue to turn around.
“It was a clear sign we were doing the right thing—that it was time to come home,” Christine says.
Christine came out as a transgender woman to most of her family in 2004, and Diana has been documenting the family’s evolution since then. After twelve years of filming and piecing together key moments, like Christine coming out to their mother and a tense discourse with their evangelical Christian brother, Diana’s documentary, The Ties That Bind, is in postproduction, with a premiere aimed for autumn.
“I was a little skeptical as to how much cooperation she would get from the family, but I was on board from the start,” Christine says. “And I appreciated that, back in 2004, there was a desperate need for this angle.”
At the time, as Diana explains, the transgender community itself had little visibility in the media, let alone among families. She sees her own family as a microcosm of the country’s culture, and the film as an exploration of how people can bridge their differences.
“Right here in our family there are generational differences, religious differences, political differences, and gender differences,” she says. “It’s not a fairy tale story. I’m trying to pull back the curtain and show what a family looks like, in some ways at its best and worst.”
Christine’s childhood was largely spent in Boone, in a minister’s family. She was born ten years after the youngest of her three siblings. She realized early that she was supposed to be a woman, and she divulged that information to her partner, Judith, before they were married in Cary in the early 1990s. Judith encouraged her to move forward with her transition.
“You go through a period where you’re experimenting, where it’s something you do part time in order to exorcise your ghosts,” Christine says. “And if in fact you are a transsexual person, those ghosts will not go away. Judith was tired of seeing me being haunted.”
In the film, the family’s reaction to Christine’s revelation is rooted in religion and the South. On one side of the spectrum, their brother, Lee, responds by saying, “Jesus loves you anyway.”
“I think it’s useful that we see such a range of perspectives, and that religious values are summoned, because it shows that it is possible to use a faith response constructively rather than as a wedge,” Diana says.
On the other side is their mother, from whom some of the siblings wanted to hide Christine’s transition. But they decided that because it was happening so quickly, they had to reveal the truth to their mother, who was in her eighties. Christine told her on Mother’s Day in 2005, while Diana filmed.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I have absolutely no regrets,” Christine says. “Any reactive response that we feared was a complete myth. She was so loving and generous, and she actually concluded that interview with, ‘I certainly don’t love you any less,’ in this very simple, pure way.”
In the middle is their sister, Anita, who at first reacts negatively but gradually comes to accept Christine, after discovering her best friend’s nephew is also transgender.
“She started to realize that the transgender community is just part of the fabric of our world,” Diana says. “People are wildly diverse, and maybe it’s not so unusual.”
Diana stresses that she wants to frame the film as a family story rather than a transgender story. She believes Christine’s transition is just one kind of prompt that can send families into a spiral of change. She chose the title The Ties That Bind because it implies many layers of meaning.
“Ties connect us, but they can also constrain, and they can certainly confound us,” Diana says.
Christine believes that Diana is succeeding brilliantly in asking the question raised by the popular hashtag: “If we are not this, what are we?” After making the Newton family confront it, the film will make audiences confront it, too, when it comes to the Cucalorus Film Festival in Wilmington in November.
“Having it documented has brought into relief my relationship with the family, the realities of which I was naively ignorant,” Christine says. “I feel like I’m more real as a result of having to confront the realities of the responses.”
“I don’t know that in the course of documenting this we’ve become a happier family,” Diana adds. “But I think we’ve become a more authentic family, and to me, that is worth it.”
This article appeared in the July 13, 2016, issue of Indy Week.