SISTERHOOD.

ALEXAN­DRA BILLINGS, TRACE LY­SETTE, ALEXAN­DRA GREY & RAIN VALDEZ

Gay Times Magazine - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy Aaron Jay Young Fash­ion La­teef Thy­na­tive Re­touch­ing Bryan Clavel Words Tom Ras­mussen

From the trail­blaz­ing se­ries Trans­par­ent to fight­ing for trans in­clu­sion within main­stream tele­vi­sion, Alexan­dra Billings, Trace Ly­sette, Alexan­dra Grey, and Rain Valdez are a force to be reck­oned with. De­mand­ing trans in­clu­sion and equal rep­re­sen­ta­tion within the main­stream, join the rev­o­lu­tion as they – and we – de­mand trans in­clu­sion with­out ex­cep­tion.

Tom Ras­mussen speaks with the fierce four of Trans­par­ent on the vi­tal im­por­tance of trans peo­ple be­ing let in the room to tell their own au­then­tic sto­ries, the power of ally­ship, and why they’re not ask­ing for rep­re­sen­ta­tion, they’re fuck­ing

de­mand­ing it.

Ev­ery­one knows that Wikipedia can’t be trusted: you’re taught from an early age that if you want to find some­thing out you must use a re­li­able source, one with ex­per­tise, a knowl­edge and un­der­stand­ing much deeper than yours, or that of a po­ten­tially edited Wikipedia page. In a cli­mate pol­luted by fake news it’s in­creas­ingly be­come our re­spon­si­bil­ity to plun­der the au­then­tic­ity of our sources, of the ways we re­ceive the in­for­ma­tion, the facts, the sto­ries.

For some rea­son, how­ever, it seems as though pow­er­ful sto­ry­tellers — the ones who sit in air con­di­tioned board rooms lin­ing the Sun­set Strip — have a blindspot when it comes to telling the sto­ries that live in­side mi­nor­ity ex­pe­ri­ences. Over and over again tales from within the LGBTQ com­mu­nity are told by ac­tors, and teams, who have never even touched their own butt holes, let alone un­der­gone a life­time of ac­tu­ally liv­ing the of­ten painful ex­pe­ri­ence they have the “em­pa­thy” and “brav­ery” to play. A name check here for Call Me By Your Name, God’s Own Coun­try, Love, Si­mon, Any­thing, Dal­las Buy­ers Club, The Dan­ish Girl. The list re­ally does go on (and on)... but you get the gist.

It seems as though when it comes to telling mi­nor­ity sto­ries, any old Wikipedia page will do. And that’s where these women come in. Meet four of the stars of Trans­par­ent: Alexan­dra Billings, Trace Ly­sette, Alexan­dra Grey, and Rain Valdez. Across the four, soon to be five, sea­sons of the ground­break­ing show which saw trans storylines spot­lighted in nu­anced ways like never be­fore, these women played vary­ing roles, of­fer­ing up depic­tions of dif­fer­ent parts of the trans ex­pe­ri­ence. It was the first show of its kind: where they hired trans tal­ent both in front of and be­hind the cam­era, in the writ­ers room and on set.

“They were brave enough and ac­ces­si­ble enough to lis­ten and hear what was hap­pen­ing,” Rain Valdez ex­plains when I ask if she thinks Trans­par­ent got it right. “I think they did their best, based on what they were learn­ing through the process. I think Trans­par­ent be­came what it is and be­came very au­then­tic and be­came a beacon of hope for what cre­at­ing con­tent could look like, and what ally­ship could look like.”

“Trans­par­ent was my first ma­jor act­ing role, and got the most ac­claim to date, but it was also my small­est role to date,” Alexan­dra Grey adds. “I wasn’t on that set too much, but I re­mem­ber feel­ing the love early on, and in com­par­i­son to do­ing other TV work, Trans­par­ent was a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, which is the only way it should be.”

But of course, the show had it’s prob­lems too: the lead role given to Jef­frey Tam­bour, who has now been ejected from the cast af­ter al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, caused right­ful out­cry way back when the cast­ing was an­nounced be­cause, yet again, a cis male ac­tor was go­ing to lead the de­pic­tion of transness on screen. There­after, the show’s cre­ator, Jill Soloway, com­mit­ted to hir­ing as much trans tal­ent as they could. But was that enough to re­ally change Hol­ly­wood?

“Any­time you’re em­ploy­ing trans ac­tors you’re on the right track,” Trace Ly­sette, who played the bril­liant Shea, tells. “But I haven’t seen my story yet. I haven’t seen a work­ing class, ur­ban trans woman from New York City — I haven’t seen my jour­ney. I think it’s a re­ally cru­cial mo­ment in trans Hol­ly­wood right now, and we have to take the reigns and have to cre­ate our own op­por­tu­ni­ties be­cause wait­ing around for cis het­eronor­ma­tive pre­dom­i­nantly white Hol­ly­wood to give us a chance... well, we are all a bit tired of tak­ing baby steps.”

While Trans­par­ent rep­re­sented per­haps the bi˜est of these baby steps, all of these women are still fo­cussing on mak­ing their own op­por­tu­ni­ties, their own self-au­thored work that ac­tu­ally speaks truth to power and cen­tres their ex­pe­ri­ence with­out the harm­ful gaze of what cis­gen­der sto­ry­tellers as­sume a trans story looks like.

“I just would like to see trans peo­ple cen­tred in what­ever story,” Trace con­tin­ues, “and not only our stru˜le, but also our bril­liance, and com­mu­nity, and the happy end­ing so to speak. I think of­ten­times we don’t get to see the day-to-day and the joy that we ex­pe­ri­ence and I think that the world needs to see what it looks like when we are happy and when we are loved.”

The rep­re­sen­ta­tion con­ver­sa­tion is one which has ar­guably come a long way — for the most part (save for Ab Fab and Ghost in the Shell) we don’t have white ac­tors play­ing peo­ple of colour like in the twen­ties and thir­ties; we don’t have male ac­tors play­ing women like in Shake­spearean times. So why do we still have cis­gen­der and het­ero­sex­ual folk sop­ping up all the roles for trans folk, non­bi­nary folk and ho­mo­sex­u­als? Surely an ac­tor’s job is to play roles across the board? Surely a sto­ry­teller should mine the hurt­ful and harm­ful ex­pe­ri­ences in­flicted on com­mu­ni­ties to show the world what it’s re­ally like?

But the prob­lem is, it’s never what it’s like. The prob­lem is it’s a mere pro­jec­tion of what a mi­nor­ity ex­pe­ri­ence looks like through a nor­ma­tive, and of­ten white, lens. The prob­lem is that while well-known cis­gen­der ac­tors step ig­no­rantly into trans roles a harm­ful myth is per­pet­u­ated that the trans char­ac­ter on screen is re­ally just a cis body, be­cause the mo­ment they step out of the role the world sees the ac­tor as cis once again. The prob­lem is, it makes transness look like a ‘tem­po­rary state’. The prob­lem is, it sets a nor­ma­tive beauty stan­dard that trans peo­ple should look ex­actly like cis peo­ple. The prob­lem is that harm­ful depic­tions of trans and non-bi­nary folk, of peo­ple like us, is that it never solves the vi­o­lence — it only por­trays our bod­ies as sites for it, be­cause we only tell sto­ries about it. The prob­lem is, cis-nor­ma­tive cul­ture thinks our lives are only vi­o­lence, trauma, pain. But they’re not.

“I think of­ten­times we don’t get to see the dayto-day and the joy that we ex­pe­ri­ence and I think that the world needs to see what it looks like when

we are happy and when we are loved,” is Trace’s an­swer to this. “It’s so im­por­tant for the world to see all that we are and not just their tiny scope of what they think that they know about us be­cause these myths are per­pet­u­ated over and over by cis het­eronor­ma­tive peo­ple, and have been for decades.”

And these women are putting their tal­ent be­hind their words. When I ask them what they’re all work­ing on per­son­ally, they re­veal that they’re telling a range of sto­ries which high­light un­seen as­pects of the trans ex­pe­ri­ence. Trace has just been cast as the lead in Col­ors of Ava, in which Rain also fea­tures and will be co-pro­ducer, which is de­scribed as a love story. Alexan­dra Grey has just acted in, pro­duced, writ­ten and di­rected her own film The Blue Sky which is about fall­ing in, and ne­go­ti­at­ing, love as a black trans woman.

There’s a com­mon thread be­tween the sto­ries these women are telling: they’re all vari­a­tions on the theme of the love story. And think about it — have we ever re­ally seen a trans love story told, and told well? All there is is that ter­ri­ble one where Ed­die Red­mayne spends three hours blush­ing in a corset.

“I al­ways re­lated to and grav­i­tated to­wards watch­ing rom coms grow­ing up be­cause as a young trans per­son life is al­ready hard, so rom coms kind of gave me that es­cape and that fan­tasy of be­ing able to find love and be­ing able to find fun in life,” tells Rain when asked about why she’s so drawn to telling love sto­ries. “So, as a young girl want­ing to grow up as a woman, I al­ways saw my­self in San­dra Bul­lock or in Ju­lia Roberts.” I ask the same ques­tion to Alexan­dra Grey.

“I think it’s im­por­tant — you know we talk about all this cast­ing con­tro­versy, Scar­lett Jo­hans­son,” she adds. “But what peo­ple fail to re­alise is that none of these storylines ever cen­tre around mi­nori­ties, and African Amer­i­cans, and what it’s like to be a black trans per­son in Amer­ica or in the world. I want to do that, so that I can be re­flec­tion to those lit­tle brown trans girls and trans boys, who don’t know what it’s like, and also for those peo­ple in African Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties who never deal with the LGBTQ com­mu­nity. It’s time for us to do bet­ter — it’s time for us to talk about di­ver­sity across the board. And that was re­ally im­por­tant to me in mak­ing my film The Blue Sky. I wanted to de­pict what that was like as a black trans woman fall­ing in love with a black man.”

“So we need to not only fo­cus on who gets to tell the sto­ries, but also what sto­ries are told?” I ask Alexan­dra. “Right. I’ve done about eight guest stars on TV: I’ve played crack­head twice, a pros­ti­tute, a mur­derer, a drug ad­dict, a can­cer pa­tient. I’m very grate­ful for that, but none of them have been pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the trans ex­pe­ri­ence. And that’s what my film is go­ing to show you. It’s go­ing to show you the trans woman col­lege stu­dent who’s very smart and loves mu­sic and and works a job and lives a nor­mal life. We don’t of­ten see that. Es­pe­cially when our trans nar­ra­tive is cen­tred around white trans peo­ple — it’s only one rep­re­sen­ta­tion. When the av­er­age life ex­pectancy for black trans women is 35, and black trans women get mur­dered at re­ally high rates all the time in this coun­try, I think it’s about time for us to see our­selves re­flected: that might open peo­ple’s hearts and minds a lit­tle bit.”

Vi­o­lence begets vi­o­lence, and when so many peo­ple’s only ex­pe­ri­ence of transness is see­ing it badly por­trayed on the cin­ema screen, that vi­o­lence repli­cates in real life. We need to be see­ing sto­ries about trans folk who love, who de­serve to be kissed from head to toe, just like any­one else.

“Yes,” says Rain, “be­cause these sto­ries de­cide who gets to be loved. It tells the world boy meets girl, girl meets boy, you know, and at the end I’m like ‘who gets to be the one gets to suc­ceed in love?’ Hol­ly­wood has such a huge in­flu­ence in the world in terms of how cul­ture is shaped and how so­ci­ety is shaped, and it’s no won­der we’re con­stantly be­ing oth­erised and trans women are be­ing killed by the num­ber ev­ery year. It’s no won­der trans peo­ple are be­ing kicked out of their homes or not be­ing able to get the jobs that they want or have hard time dat­ing.”

There’s no doubt that these four amaz­ing women know ex­actly how to tell the sto­ries, and what sto­ries need to be told to both rep­re­sent the trans ex­pe­ri­ence and make it safer and

hap­pier in re­al­ity. But the fi­nal ques­tion must be about how we achieve this. Time mag­a­zine de­creed we were at the trans tip­ping point, some two years ago now, but are we re­ally?

“I hope so,” Trace laughs. “But I think this change starts by in­ten­tional ally­ship and what I mean by that is: peo­ple with ac­cess, usu­ally cis folk in Hol­ly­wood, of­fer­ing us the shot or the op­por­tu­nity to be in­volved with projects that are for us and about us. And some­times that means that they have to step aside a lit­tle bit be­cause a lot of us have been in this in­dus­try a while but we are hit­ting this kind of glass ceil­ing. It’s about ac­cess, it’s about peo­ple and ac­cess. The per­fect ex­am­ple would be Ryan Mur­phy tak­ing Janet Mock un­der his wing and al­low­ing her to write and di­rect on Pose. I also think sib­ling-hood be­tween trans folk in the Hol­ly­wood in­dus­try is re­ally im­por­tant be­cause hope­fully those of us who have a foot in the door are go­ing to work to­gether for a very long time. And I think that once we all get to col­lab­o­rate and share our bril­liance the world will be able to see our au­then­tic nar­ra­tives. So I’m look­ing for­ward to that.”

“I’m not ask­ing to be in a room with Vi­ola Davis and Halle Berry,” Alexan­dra Grey con­cludes, “I am ask­ing to be con­sid­ered for a role that you’re cast­ing for an African Amer­i­can woman, whether cis or trans, that you give me that op­por­tu­nity to come in and show you what I can do. Vi­ola Davis said it best: ‘If you’re com­mit­ted to in­clu­siv­ity let it cost you some­thing.’ I say to those pro­duc­ers and writ­ers and ex­ecs: I say take that chance — they have the power to make his­tory. Take that chance be­cause there’s never been an award for act­ing by a trans per­son in any­thing. Start tak­ing those chances on us, be a part of the change. Be­cause we might win an os­car, and then you’ll have made a whole new Scar­lett Jo­hans­son.”

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