Born as Gussy, Donna Personna always knew that she was different. When she was 17, she left her religious Baptist family in San Jose and moved to San Francisco. Probably one of the most difficult decisions, but she never looked back. Over the years, Donna became a trans activist and one of the most legendary Cockette performers.
When she reached her 50s, she finally could embrace her true trans woman identity. Her postponed transition was to protect herself and her family, even though none of her 13 brothers and sisters had ever met Donna. They only knew her when she was the shy Gussy or Gustavo, not the bubbly and joyous Donna Personna. Now 73 and still performing, Donna wants to reunite with her family while fighting for trans rights, acceptance and inclusion.
‘Why did they abandon me?’, ‘Do they still think about me?’, ‘Do they ever want a reconciliation?’ Right from the start, it’s clear that the problematic relationship between Donna and her family is something she’s been thinking about for years. However, despite having lived alone for almost thirty years and not seeing her family, Donna Personna is everything but melancholic or broken.
Instead, she’s one of the bravest, strongest, most resilient trans activists. She doesn’t only find the courage to try and re-connect with her family but also to fight for LGBTQIA+ rights. Her impact on the LGBTQIA+ world becomes even more significant when she gets the chance to co-write a stunning play about the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria Riot.
Donna knew some of the transgender women that stood up against the police harassment during that riot. With this play, she wants to honour them in the best way possible while reminding us of all the horror that took place that evening. Both press and the audience praise Donna, her actors and the play. This results in many sold-out performances, nationwide coverage and Gloria, Donna’s sister, hearing about this critical and stunning play. After all those years of silence, Gloria finally reaches out to Donna. Will this be the beginning of the reunion Donna so deserves?
Performer, writer, trans activist, etc. Donna is a woman of many talents, and that’s something that director Jay Bedwani and writers Collette Legrande, Mark Nasser and Donna want to highlight in the best way possible. You see the vibrant colours, upbeat songs and electrifying atmosphere when the charismatic Donna is performing and the more intimate, personal and emotional moments when she talks about her personal life.
It’s clear that she wants to leave her mark and wants to do something that will change the LGBTQIA+ community. Her fight is highly courageous, inspiring and stunning to watch. While much progress has been made, it’s essential to keep reminding us what still needs to be achieved. Yes, this honest and down-to-earth documentary is packed with emotions and vital messages: preserving trans history and being able to embrace your true self (no matter how old or young you are).
In this documentary, you get to know Donna Personna from her perspective and through the few stories her family members wanted to share. It would have been great if more stories about how other people see Donna Personna, her strengths and what she means to the LGBTQ+ world were included. That outsider’s perspective is missing from “Donna” and could have enhanced the impact of Donna’s inspiring story even more.
With his latest work, Bedwani has created a candid, open and inspiring documentary about a courageous, energetic and ferocious woman who shows us that you’re never too old to start living the life you truly want. The documentary is filled with emotions, heart-warming and eye-opening moments; therefore, “Donna” is a beautiful, honest and important portrait of a legendary performer, writer and trans activist you must see.
“Donna” is out now in U.K. cinemas
15th July 2022
THE QUICK SELL
An intimate and candid portrait of the inspiring trans activist, artist and performer Donna Personna. It follows her journey to live authentically as herself and to reconnect with her family.