Every once in a while, we stumble across people whose stories beg to be heard. You see them at a coffee shop, maybe at a show, or, in director Matt Kliegman’s case, at the airport. “Markie was putting out some signal, and I picked up on it,” says Kliegman. “I felt a magnetic pull, and was compelled to stop and talk with her.”
Kliegman was flying back to Milwaukee to visit his parents when he met Markie Wenzel, a recently transitioned, towering seven-foot-tall, former-evangelical-preacher-turned-TSA agent. Markie’s charm and charisma led Matt to reach out right there at Mitchell Airport, starting what would become a decade-long storytelling adventure.
“At the beginning, I didn’t set out to make a feature-length film,” says Kliegman. “I just knew there was a story to tell.” Over the next couple of years, he would fly to Milwaukee more than 20 times to film Markie, slowly piecing together his documentary, Markie In Milwaukee.
Kliegman filmed Markie during everyday life: going to the grocery store, the State Fair, Brewers games. As their time together continued to unfold, there didn’t necessarily seem to be a beginning-middle-end element that would turn the recordings into a narrative film. But Markie’s magnetism kept Kliegman coming back. “We were really just hanging out, becoming friends and seeing Milwaukee through her eyes,” says Kliegman.
Then, in 2013, Kliegman received a call that would change the course of Markie’s story, and the direction of the film. During that time Markie reconnected with the evangelical community and decided to de-transition—or go back to presenting as a male. This was only a few weeks before Markie was set to have her gender affirming surgery.
“As a friend, I supported any decision Markie decided to make,” says Kliegman, “but I didn’t think this was the end of her story.” At this point, Markie’s congregation welcomed her back with open arms, and with that support, Markie lived again as Mark—serving as a church leader and a preacher, and reconnecting with family.
During this time, Kliegman spent a lot of time with Markie, filming her homecoming and reconnection with the evangelical community. There was a powerful story to be told here—of faith, of tenacity, and of spirit. “I wanted to make sure this film didn’t come off with an evangelical lean or as a conversion story,” says Kliegman. “That’s not what this is about.”
Markie’s experience was anomalous. As a preacher, her church and faith said her existence was an abomination. As an actualized, transitioned woman in the LGBTQ community, her background as a preacher and her still-strong faith isolated her from people whose churches rejected them. Markie continued to try to connect her new community through religion, though it was often not welcome. “The LGBTQ community was welcoming and receptive, but when Markie started talking about Jesus, they just rolled their eyes,” says Kliegman. “She still wants to educate, to spread a message. She went out of her way to become a leader again, but it didn’t stick.”
For Markie, there seems to be no “right” answer. Determined to live the rest of her life in a fulfilling, self-affirming manner, she’s beginning to forge her own path forward. With the wild success of the film, Kliegman and Markie are touring the world, sharing their story together through film.
Markie In Milwaukee will screen three times during the Milwaukee Film Festival, on October 19, 21, and 31. Both Markie and Matt will be in attendance for the first two screenings.