Trans Men on Sex, Art, and Identity in Transparent
Amazon's Transparent quietly made history when comedian Ian Harvie became the first transgender male actor to portray a transitioned trans man on a scripted American television show.
Although the hit dramedy's storylines largely focus on the experiences of trans women, exploring the late-in-life transition of Maura Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor), creator Jill Soloway was intentional about including multiple trans perspectives in the writing and producing processes, including those of men — and Transparent's trans male viewers have taken notice.
Harvie's character, Dale, who appears in episodes 6 and 7 as a romantic interest for Maura's daughter Ali (Gaby Hoffman), is a happy, handsome, successful man who's helped trans men watching feel validated and reflected in an unprecedented way. Yet his portrayal has also brought up deep questions about the representation of trans men in popular culture.
To find out how consciously Transparent addressed some of these questions, The Advocate sat down with Ian Harvie and Rhys Ernst, a trans male artist who worked as one of Transparent's associate producers.
In this first part of a wide-ranging conversation, Harvie and Ernst discuss how the character of Dale was developed (partly by chance), Harvie's own motivations and vulnerabilities around the character, and what it took to "pull back the curtain" on the intricacies of queer sex that's often missing from television.
The Advocate: How was Dale developed?
Rhys Ernst: One of my jobs as a trans consultant and a producer on Transparent is to be a liaison to the trans and queer communities. I'm constantly looking out for trans personalities and actors to put in front of Jill and the writers, in hopes that certain individuals will end up inspiring characters.
For trans characters, there's a relatively small pool of talent available (not because trans people aren't talented, but because they're a small demographic to begin with), so it makes sense to write for who is out there as much as possible. Ian was one of those people — everyone was really taken with him, and Dale came into focus after [Harvie's] visits to the writers' room. [Screenwriter and director] Francois Truffaut has a quote that I often paraphrase in regards to inviting the trans world into Transparent: When creating a fiction, leave the window open and let the real world in.
Ian Harvie: I was asked by Rhys to do background work on the pilot. I agreed to, and then later Jill Soloway invited me into the writers' room to share my life and trans experience; she and the writers were developing a story arc for Ali Pfefferman. Everyone in the writers' room wanted to hear my life's tales, [and] I had them cracking up and tearing up at moments. Dale was born out of those stories I shared with Jill and her writing family.
At the end of my sharing those stories, Jill asked me if I would consider playing the role of Dale. ... While crapping my pants, I said yes, but that I needed to dust off my acting skills. She said, "What if I helped you dust off those skills?" I said, "Then yes; yes, I would." So Dale and I share a soul and some life experiences; it's not exact, but it's pretty darn close.
Dale stands out in American pop culture as the first transitioned trans man who's played by a trans male actor. That's a huge gain for trans male visibility in scripted TV. Did these thoughts affect your development or portrayal of Dale?
Harvie: If that's true, how amazing! You can thank one of the biggest allies to the trans community that I know, Jill Soloway, for that. This was by her creation. I have to say, not knowing that information, I still felt an enormous responsibility to this character and storytelling, to treat them with the love and care they deserve. I always want to make sure I'm not perpetuating any glaring, incorrect stereotypes of my trans brothers.
It's a delicate balance to be deeply concerned with those goals, have them be in my heart and mind, and to also not let those become obsessions that negatively impact my performance in front of the camera. I understand the weight of my job politically, and at some point I have to trust myself that I do posses these responsibilities in my body, allow myself to let go, so that I may — with love and fun — create and be Dale.
What's your take on Dale's reception?
Harvie: Transparent is work of art, and everyone watching it will see something different — perspectives vary. We all get plugged into feelings because of it, and I try to remember that feelings aren't facts. No singular response to this art is going to be absolute, and that's a tough thing for people to swallow, even me! I often have an urge to explain art in a defensive way, and I'm not always good at letting go and letting it be different things to different people.
I'll share my perspective on some of what could have been happening between Ali and Dale. For me, the dynamic was about what happens when we as humans are put in a specific box by someone or by our own creation. In this case, the boxes were set up as a binary of a hypermasculine man and a high-femme woman. The question I saw raised was, How long can someone stay in that expectation before they get so uncomfortable that they have to rip off the "corset" that binds them? This was all done through a sequence from the time that Dale picks up Ali in the '71 Ford pickup to the time they arrive back at Dale's house in the Toyota Prius.
We're left questioning what parts were real and what parts were fantastical — Did Dale really even shave Ali's pussy? So many questions!
But that is exactly what happens for me in real life when I've been placed, or gone willingly, into a box of assumption. I question, What, if any of this, is even real? The length of time that I have been able to maintain that space before the discomfort was too much for me has varied, but I inevitably unravel or implode if the expectation is too high. I have to go back to just being me, and sometimes living with a fear that I might not be enough or might not be loved. Will you love me if I'm not who you thought I am?
"Will you love me if I [fill in the blank]?" is a significant theme of Transparent, and I feel like that question is definitely present between Ali and Dale's exchange. Will you love me if I'm not high femme? Will you love me if I'm not always a butch, bossy, top Daddy? Will you love me if I'm struggling with my own gender experience? Will you love me if I ... drive a Toyota and not a Ford? The list goes on.
High-femme Ali, butch top Dale, and the pussy shaving! Watching it, I felt like it was a sub/dom scene, but it wasn't set up for viewers to understand it that way. For example, we don't see a discussion about safe words or establishing that kinky relationship first.
Harvie: This is a 30-minute episodic series, it's fast-paced, and it leaves the smart audience to fill in a lot of the blanks. For me, I got more a Daddy/girl dynamic than a dom/sub connection between Ali and Dale. Some might say tomato/tomahto, but I think it was set up to make us think about the connection between Ali and her parent's — her daddy's — recent coming-out news.
Also, these ideas of who Dale might or might not be, and what he does and says, are possibly being made up in Ali's head. I think we see the real Dale outside of the classroom on the bench, and at the very end of their date in Dale's house, where he offers Ali some tea. All other parts of Dale are up for question. In turn, if Ali is conjuring much of this, there might not necessarily be a proper power structure and safe word discussion before the pussy shaving scene.
We later get a bathroom scene with the notorious slippery dildo. Daddy/girl scenes, dildos, fumbling to release sex toys from their packaging — these are all, in some sense, a way to "pull back the curtain" on aspects of queer sex in all its outside-the-box (and sometimes awkward) glory. The lack of "setup" or explanation normalizes it to an extent, yet there's a tension — we're "seeing" the world through Ali's eyes, and are right there with her as she feels confused, naive, or uncomfortable.
Harvie: I would agree with a lot of that, especially normalizing queer sex to "everyone else's" kind of sex. A lot of times the build-up and tension is so high that the actual deed itself is often far less climactic than the foreplay. Sometimes you gotta stop in the middle and do something completely unsexy, like tear open a condom wrapper and roll it down your dick, insert birth control, strap on your cock harness and slide your cock through the leather hole; maybe you have to lube up some body parts, oh and "be right back, just let me go pee first .. ." The list goes on. This list is not a queer list of awkward moments: They are universal to anyone who has ever had sex with another person.
So I don't agree with Ali's feelings of confusion or discomfort being about the sex with Dale and its queerness. Remember, Ali is sexually experienced, creative, and doesn't shutter easily. ... She's open, maybe has a queer vibe herself. I can't say for sure if Ali even sees gender.
But I do see her feelings stemming from her preoccupation with her parent coming out and her life now making sense in a way that it hadn't before. She seems to be either wounded all over again or consciously acknowledging her pain for the first time. She may think she's getting it together, going back to college, dating a TA in the women's studies program who coincidentally might share some gender experience with her parent. All of that confusion and hurt seems to fall out of the bottom when "sparkle unicorn" slips out of Dale's hands onto the floor.
Ernst: One connection that hasn't been made in any writing I've seen about this episode is that both Josh Pfefferman (the brother character) and Dale have sexual performance issues. In episode 7, Josh is on a date with Rabbi Raquel and can't get hard, while Dale, as discussed, drops the dildo when things don't heat up between him and Ali. It's interesting to note that both men in this episode are treated equally in this regard, [as] Josh and Dale are some of the only male main characters in this largely female-led cast.
What do you see Dale meaning to Transparent's trans male audience?
Harvie: There are pieces of Dale that people will love and might see some of themselves in. Hell, you don't have to be trans for that connection. But I sometimes struggle with people's language when they talk about Dale's character and how it doesn't directly represent them. Sometimes I want to say, "You're right, this character doesn't represent you, this is a story and it's not about you, it's about someone sort of like you, but not … you.
Dale may be someone who has some shared experience with you, and how you feel about things on the other side of your individual experiences are going to be very different. Some trans men own their female history and are wiling to announce it from a rooftop, while others may choose to live stealth, any and all processes here and in between, and all feelings and outcomes are correct!
Trans men also vary in their use of language when referring to their bodies: "Vag," "cock," "down there," "lower half," "chest," "the girls," "the boys," "bonus hole, "none of your effing business." And they too are all absolutely right, and I will never argue with anyone when they share with me how they identify their bodies and personal language.
I think Dale on Transparent will be many things to many people, but he will never be all things to one person.
Check back tomorrow to hear more from Harvie and Ernst as they deconstruct trans men's representation in media.