BY Brandon Voss
March 15 2010 2:35 PM ET
Your makeover subjects don’t know you’re trans women until you show up at their doors. What’s the reasoning behind that choice?
There aren’t a lot of transgender people on television, so the reactions our makeover subjects might have to us might mirror the reactions that America might have to us. The makeover subjects may raise the same questions America has about transgender folks. We didn’t tell them ahead of time because we wanted truthful reactions when they met us. All but one of the women had never met anyone transgender before.
Did the surprise revelation make any of the women uncomfortable?
You’ll just have to watch and see how we handle it, but it gets juicy. The reality is that we’re in the infancy stage in terms of transgender representation in the media. We’ve seen exploitative and stereotypical representation of transgender folks for years, but rarely do we have diverse, humanized representation, and I’m proud that our show is bringing that to the country.
In the premiere episode Nina comments that your makeover subject looks like she’s thinking, “How dare these bitches look better than I do and they weren’t born women!” Have you often gotten that attitude?
I have. I don’t even know what to say to a woman who asks, “Why do you look better than me?” I think everyone’s beautiful, so it’s kind of ridiculous, but it’s also part of the reason for this show. So many people have come up to me over the years and asked, “How do you do your makeup?” and “Can you help dress me?” So there must be something there, and hopefully people can learn from what we have to offer.
What would you do if some lady rang your doorbell and tried to make you over?
[Laughs] Well, I haven’t asked to be made over. I’m not an advocate of ambush makeovers, because even if you think somebody looks crazy, they might be feeling really cute about themselves. It’s all about living for yourself: If you’re feeling cute, feel cute! All of these women have asked for makeovers because they’re not feeling cute.
For your first makeover you returned to your hometown of Mobile, Ala. Was that strange, or have you gone back to Mobile often since your transition?
My mom still lives there, so I’ve been going back about once a year for the past five years. It is weird going back because I felt very isolated growing up in Mobile. I was a very feminine child, and that was rough for me because everyone thought I was a boy. I had to suppress all my feelings about being a girl, so I was desperate to get out of there as a kid. But now I feel grateful I had a place like Mobile to grow up because it really shaped me into who I am today, and I love myself.
Your childhood pictures are briefly displayed in Transform Me’s opening sequence. The trans people that I know aren’t exactly eager to discuss their pre-transition lives, let alone show photographic evidence of it to strangers. Was the decision to display one of your “boy” pictures difficult for you?
It was a hugely difficult decision. I’ve been acting for years, and people have often asked me for old photos, but I can’t count how many times I’ve had to say, “Absolutely not.” So when the network said, “We really need to see pictures of you from before,” all three of us were like, “Um, we’re not doing that.” But because this is a makeover show where “before and afters” are important, we consented to do it. Under any other circumstances, we wouldn’t have.
The idea of passing seems very different in the trans community than it is in the gay community, where the desire to pass as straight is often considered counterproductive or offensive. You’re obviously openly transgender on your show, but how important is it for you to pass as a biologically born female in your everyday life?
Oh, wow, that’s a great question. Whenever I heard “passing” when I started immersing myself in the transgender community, I immediately thought about my black history — when black folks needed to pass back in the day. Some black people who could pass felt they needed to pass because they lived in a cultural context that was hostile to them because of their race; it wasn’t about changing that cultural context. Any necessity an individual might feel to pass is a reaction to discrimination that needs to be eradicated, so I personally think passing is problematic. I’ve always been out as a trans woman. I’ve endured so much harassment and discrimination in my lifetime, so I respect those who just want to live their lives quietly, but politically I feel it’s crucial that we’re out as transgender people. People need to see that transgender people are diverse — that we’re doctors, lawyers, parents, sisters, brothers, and everything in between. The more we come out and put faces on the transgender community, the more perceptions will change.
Do you find it harder to gain acceptance as a trans woman within the African-American community?
I can’t speak for everyone, but it has been harder for me, and some black girlfriends of mine feel the same way. I don’t want to suggest that black folks are more transphobic than other groups, but I do know that a black transgender woman living in a black neighborhood gets harassed more than a white transgender woman would. Even a white transgender woman who might pass, black people don’t care — they’re like, “Oh, that’s a white thing.” But they’re disturbed when they see another black person who’s transgender because they feel it’s somehow an affront to the race. A lot of black folks need evolution, but a lot of white folks do too.
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