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3 people say they were tricked into appearing in anti-trans film 'What Is a Woman?'

Three people who appeared in the viral documentary “What Is a Woman?” told NBC News that the producers misrepresented how it would portray transgender topics.
Dr. Marci Bowers outside her office in Burlingame, Calif.,
Dr. Marci Bowers, a surgeon in Northern California, said some methods of anti-transgender filmmakers have been “completely deceptive.”Preston Gannaway for NBC News

Three people who appeared in a viral documentary that criticizes the transgender community said they were tricked into being interviewed for the movie, titled “What Is a Woman?”

The filmmakers’ alleged sleight-of-hand tactics contradict the movie’s promise to be a “fearless” examination of the modern gender debate, and the tactics appear to show the lengths to which some conservative activists have gone to try to cast doubt on the rights of trans people. 

The video debuted in June 2022 to little fanfare but received wide attention on Twitter last month with the help of tech billionaire and Twitter owner Elon Musk, who reversed the platform’s previous restrictions on the movie and allowed it to be uploaded and shared on the platform. He then promoted it on his own account, writing, “Every parent should watch this.” Twitter’s previous management had a rule against degrading behavior or other hateful content. 

The movie has since marked more than 187 million views on Twitter alone and been endlessly memed and recycled among conservatives, making it another major flashpoint in a nationwide conflict over transgender rights that’s also playing out in state legislatures, public libraries and courthouses. 

But three people who participated in the film’s production by sitting for interviews told NBC News that its producers misrepresented how it would portray transgender topics and that they were unwittingly inserted into “gotcha” moments with right-wing provocateur Matt Walsh, who narrated and starred in the film. Two of the three people provided copies of emails in which a producer, Rebecca Dobkowitz, used flattering language and wrote that the documentary would bring to light the challenges facing trans people. 

“What Is a Woman?” ended up very different from that pitch. 

It includes repeated attacks on trans people, with Walsh at one point calling them part of an “insane ideological cult,” even as the 95-minute movie employs some methods of documentary filmmaking such as formal interviews. 

Screenshot of an email sent to Naia Ōkami requesting an interview with her for the transgender documentary on Sept. 8, 2021.
Naia Ōkami received an interview request from a producer, Rebecca Dobkowitz, calling the documentary “independent” on Sept. 8, 2021.Courtesy Naia Ōkami

Few who watched the movie likely knew about the tactics used to make it. 

With its popularity online, the film has spread myths about sexuality and gender, including the debunked rumor that some children are identifying as cats and using litter boxes at school. 

Dobkowitz did not respond to requests for comment via email, text and voicemail. Walsh did not respond to requests for comment sent to the conservative website The Daily Wire, which backed the film and where he has a podcast and column. 

Walsh said in January 2022, while the movie was in production, that he had a plan for “waging an all out assault on gender ideology.” 

“People see that gender ideology is toxic and insane. We have the numbers to fight back and destroy it. All we need is the will to do what’s necessary,” he said on Twitter

Dr. Marci Bowers, a California surgeon whose patients include trans women, said she first heard from Dobkowitz in July 2021. The producer emailed her with what seemed like a friendly request for a documentary about transgender people and the “challenges they face in today’s culture,” according to a copy of the email that she provided to NBC News. 

“Since you are a leading expert and professional in this field, we would love to interview and hear your insights,” Dobkowitz wrote. 

Bowers said she felt Dobkowitz was hiding her intentions with the “completely deceptive” email. 

A map in Dr. Marci Bowers' office shows gender-affirming patients in the U.S.
A map in Dr. Marci Bowers' office shows gender-affirming patients in the U.S.Preston Gannaway for NBC News
Pronoun pins in Dr. Marci Bowers’ office.
Pronoun pins in Bowers’ office.Preston Gannaway for NBC News

“I didn’t really know about Matt’s conservative credentials,” she said of Walsh. “They sugarcoated it just a little bit. They didn’t give me an indication of what it would really be about, but they did give me the title of the video.” 

The movie includes footage of an interview with Bowers and with two other people, who told NBC News that they felt they were deceived: Dr. Michelle Forcier, a Brown University professor, and Naia Ōkami, a trans woman who lives in Washington state. In the movie, Forcier talks about the process children go through in learning about gender, and Ōkami talks about a different subject entirely — her affinity for wolves — as Walsh tries to make a link between animals and trans people.

While documentary filmmakers such as Michael Moore often use edgy tactics to advance a specific point of view, the use of deception to obtain an interview is generally frowned upon, especially when the subject is a person vulnerable to harassment, according to a 2009 report from American University based on interviews with 45 professional filmmakers and producers.

But in recent years, subterfuge has been popularized by right-wing figures such as James O’Keefe, who founded the hidden-camera outfit Project Veritas. 

The tactics that Walsh’s team allegedly employed were already somewhat known within the trans community when the movie was in production. In February 2022, Eli Erlick, a trans rights advocate, published a Twitter thread alleging that Walsh’s team had reached out to her for an interview using a fake name and a front organization called the Gender Unity Project. 

At the time, Walsh did not respond to media inquiries about his methods, including from BuzzFeed News and Insider

The tactics now seem to be spreading. Erlick said that a second right-wing figure, Robby Starbuck, recently tried to recruit her under false pretenses for another documentary-style video called “It Takes a Village.” She posted emails to Twitter. 

“The style of Matt’s film is going to be replicated,” Erlick said in a phone interview. “I think they’re using it as a model for a new form of far-right disinformation masquerading as a documentary.” 

Starbuck did not respond to emailed requests for comment. He told Rolling Stone in an email last month that trans rights activists were misrepresenting the subject of the documentary he is working on. He told the magazine that his documentary will not involve any “unethical editing,” that no one “of either political side has been upset about their interview,” and that he is taking a “fair and honorable approach to each individual.”

By the time Erlick revealed Walsh’s tactics last year, Bowers, Forcier and Ōkami had already been interviewed by Walsh. 

When Ōkami heard from Walsh’s staff in September 2021, she was already experienced in media appearances, so she pressed Dobkowitz for more information on the project. 

Naia Ōkami
Naia Ōkami agreed to be interviewed by filmmakers who said they were interested in “advancements in transgender care.” Instead, they were critics of such care.Grant Hindsley for NBC News

Dobkowitz wrote back using the same email account she used to contact Bowers. “This documentary will explore the challenges the transgender and LGBTQIA+ face in today’s culture, as well as advancements in transgender care and gender/sex affirmation surgery,” she wrote.  

“We are coming from the position that as more attention is given to the transgender community, it’s critical that accurate information is available to the public,” she went on. 

In the movie, Walsh did not use phrases such as “transgender care” and “affirmation surgery” — terms that support trans rights — and instead referred to some such treatments as “chemical castration.” 

Ōkami said she would not have done the interview if Walsh’s staff had been forthcoming with their perspective. In the movie, Walsh mocks Ōkami for her spiritual and psychological connection with wolves, something that is not connected to her being transgender. Opponents of trans rights often raise the alarmist and false idea that transgender identity is somehow encouraging people to identify as animals. 

Naia Ōkami
Naia Ōkami of Washington state feels a strong connection with wolves unrelated to her being transgender.Grant Hindsley for NBC News

“It was complete fraud in my opinion,” Ōkami said. “He wanted to use me to make us look ridiculous, to make us look sensational.” She said she spoke with an attorney about potential recourse but was told there was little she could do because she had signed a general release form provided by Walsh’s staff. 

Forcier, a professor of pediatrics at Brown University, said she got an email from Walsh’s staff that she thought was a sincere inquiry about the science of puberty blockers. 

“I said, ‘sure.’ Learning about blockers is really important, and I’m always trying to be available to talk about the science and help people understand,” she said. For everyone, she said, “I think there’s room for growth, in terms of both individual and larger cultural understanding.” 

Dr. Michelle Forcier.
Dr. Michelle Forcier.Courtesy Dr. Michelle Forcier

Forcier said she felt pressured to sign a release form before she knew much more. 

“They said they needed the release before they made the effort to come down from Canada,” she said. “There were definitely some pressure tactics: Sign this so we can use the footage.” She said she hasn’t been able to find copies of the emails. 

The interview — part of which Walsh later posted online — didn’t last long, Forcier said. A few minutes in, Walsh compared gender dysphoria to believing in Santa Claus and compared puberty blockers to “chemical castration.” Forcier ended the interview. 

“I thought, ‘This is not what I thought this was going to be,’” she said. “I thought, ‘This is now a gotcha video, and I was not quite informed about what’s going to be happening today.’” 

“He was getting frustrated because I just wouldn’t say some of the things he wanted me to say,” she added.  Forcier said she tried to get in touch with Walsh’s staff afterward to learn more and to ask to see the video. She said they didn’t respond. 

Doctors who provide transgender care and their allies have been the targets of misinformation campaigns organized on social media for some time, and the promotion of the video whipped up even more of a cultural maelstrom and harassment of the people interviewed for it. 

Forcier said she keeps a folder of the worst emails she gets in case she needs to send them to law enforcement later. 

“People send really graphic, sexual, violent comments about me being a pediatric gender-care provider. It’s way more graphic and sexual than any work I’ve done,” she said. She shared excerpts with NBC News, including one email saying, “I’m sure Lucifer has a nice warm seat waiting for you.” 

Bowers said that one person tracked down her daughter on Instagram and told the daughter she was going to hell. She said that she and her daughter try to take the harassment in stride and even joked about it on Mother’s Day. 

“I’d been at the front line for a long time, so I’m used to taking a lot of arrows, but we take those arrows and we send them back with kindness and truth,” she said. Bowers is serving a two-year term as president of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the medical group that writes the standards of care for trans health care. 

Dr. Marci Bowers in her office in Burlingame, Calif.
Dr. Marci Bowers said she’s “used to taking a lot of arrows.”Preston Gannaway for NBC News

Bowers said that she doesn’t necessarily regret speaking to Walsh. She said her inclination is to talk to anyone and try to find common ground. But she said Walsh in the video came across to her as smug and arrogant. 

“He edited it in a way that wasn’t fair, so it doesn’t leave people with any sort of knowledge or education. It just heightens their fears of trans people — to his and his viewers’ loss,” she said. 

“Matt really is just a bully,” she said. 

Bowers said that she’s undeterred. Her clinic near San Francisco offers surgery not only for transgender people, but also to victims of genital mutilation and other people needing gynecological services. 

Dr. Marci Bowers in her office
Dr. Marci Bowers in her California office, where she treats a variety of patients, including trans women. Preston Gannaway for NBC News

“I’m here helping people in three areas of medicine that are not covered by current services, so I’m pretty certain that I’m doing God’s work. What is Matt Walsh doing but trying to return us to some 1950s simplified version of male and female?” she said. 

Forcier said that, like Bowers, she hasn’t let up in her medical work and that, if anything, she now has more resolve. 

“These are adults bullying and victimizing children,” she said about Walsh and his supporters.