Ian Harvie, a transgender comedian based in Los Angeles, is a lifetime comic, but he officially began his career at a small comedy club in Maine in 2002 worked his way around the country, and in 2006 he was handpicked by comedian Margaret Cho as her opening act. Over the past few years Harvie has been not only an activist but also a face for the transgender community. In addition to founding one of the first transgender-based dating sites, www.ftmlover.com, Harvie will return to his roots this summer in Portland, Maine, where he is directing the Maine Comedy Festival and Golf Tournament, which takes place August 5-7. The Advocate spoke with Harvie about his role in the LGBT community, the impact of the younger generation on the fight for gay equality, and how he uses comedy to break down the uncomfortable barriers of every day life.
The Advocate: As a transgender comedian, do you usually come out to your audience at the start of a show, or do you wait after a few jokes?
Ian Harvie: I usually make an audience wait a little bit before I spring it on them. Give them some material that I know will get them laughing and build our relationship a bit. By the time I tell them I'm trans we've already done something as intimate as laughing together. They would likely find it hard to dis me after that, at least not without feeling a little like a complete douche.
Have you ever had a negative experience from the audience due to your role in the LGBT community?
I don't accept "negative" experiences from any audience. Whenever I've felt something offbeat, weird, or dark from an audience member because of their trans/queer-phobia, I've never gotten upset with them, I've only ever said to myself, I'm going to make that fucker laugh. I do and we're good. If you can make someone truly laugh, they are yours after that.
Chaz Bono was the most recent cover story in The Advocate; could you relate to his personal story?
Sure. Chaz and I may differ in language when it comes to how we describe our experiences, how we identify, and where we're at now in our lives as this unique type of men. But I've found if you stick to feelings and try not get hung up on language, we all in the LGBTQ community — and frankly, the rest of the world as well, not just trans guys — have a tremendous amount of shared experience of hardships and triumphs in relation to our sexual identities. I think we can all relate to feelings of discomfort in our own bodies in relation to our masculinity/femininity, and we've all assessed it at some point and most likely have thought about how we could help ourselves feel better in our own skin. I feel really lucky to have been born female, have female history, and all the good and hard experiences that has given me. I've learned so much and I'm still learning. I have no regrets or resentments about the hand that I was dealt and the life I've made.
How did it feel to be “discovered” by Margaret Cho?
It’s something that comics dream about, going to the big city to be an artist and getting scooped up by a queer iconic comic like Margaret, just ... dreamy. She's since become one of my best friends and great writing partners and confidants. Anything good you think of her, just multiply it by a thousand once you know her. I'm so grateful for her love and influence in my life.
Do you find it offensive when people say things like “I could never tell” or “You pass well” when you tell them you are a transgender male?
I know a lot people think they're paying you a compliment by saying those kinds of things, but I'm not into it. I don't tell people that, but it does nothing for me spiritually to hear those kinds of things. It was never my mission or important for me to pass, I only wanted to feel better in my own skin. The actions that I took to help myself feel better — surgery and hormones — led me to possessing some privileges that I'm not always thrilled about; one of them is passing. I think far too much importance is placed on "looking the part" in our culture, and it's upsetting to me when people use that as a qualifier to decide whether or not someone's identity is real. All you have to do to be real is to open your mouth and identify who you are. I am who I say I am, no matter what my body may visually tell the world, and its not up for public debate. The only time I think passing is socially important is when it's a safety issue for that trans person.
Has comedy helped you bridge the gap to inform people on the struggles of those in the gay and transsexual community?
Yes, without a doubt! I think comedy and humor might be the best vehicle to get people to understand and accept the LBG and especially the T communities. Sharing humor and insights while getting laughter is intimate but not invasive. It’s a way to open people up without needing to break them. Most times, they just laugh, then assess what they learned later. It’s perfect, really.
You have recently begun to tour colleges and universities, specifically Catholic schools such as Canisius College and Fordham University — Jesuit institutions in New York State. As many people find it hard to separate religion from their views on the LGBT community, how did those experiences turn out with a younger audience?
One of the most exciting things about touring colleges is how incredibly smart students are; I'm blown away every time at how far ahead of the LGBTQ curve they are, and it is really exciting to think that when I'm an old fart, that these people will be the ones in charge. The part that might be the most exciting is going to colleges like Canisius and Fordham — schools that have intense roots in Catholicism — and that these kids are creating such visible and positive and inclusive change from the inside of these campuses out. It's really amazing that I was invited to these schools, that students made this happen and made the events such great successes. It’s truly inspiring.
Has being in the public eye made you more or less critical of your transgender identity?
Yes, I am more critical, but not of identity; I'm more critical of my own language. I try to think a little bit before I speak publicly and ask myself before I open my mouth if I understand the power of my own words, just as I think anyone should. I may be a public figure, but I'm a human being first. Sometimes I simply get shit wrong. I don't mean to, but sometimes I screw it up. It doesn't mean that I am those words that I say, it means I'm a human being who got it wrong and who's trying to get it right.
Is it true that you went to an all female college?
Yes, Lasell in Newton, Mass. It's coed now and much bigger. I would lo-o-ove to go back there and do a show! I keep writing to them, but no response. Hmm ...
Where do you see the acceptance of transgender individuals going within the next 10 years?
In the next 10 years, I imagine more acceptance and safety for trans kids coming out and being loved and supported by their family, friends, and schools. My girlfriend's mother is an elementary/middle school principal in Maine, and their school is reworking school policies to be more inclusive of trans kids and their needs. She ran some stuff by me and was interested in my feedback. This was really exciting news for me to hear coming from a rural town in my home state of Maine! It makes me really hopeful. I also imagine more legislation being passed with great organizations like the Transgender Law Center to protect trans folks rights in nondiscrimination laws around employment, housing, and health care. I imagine that if we did a check-in 10 years from now, there will be tremendous growth in these areas of change.