Buck Angel on Why We Need a Dialogue That Includes Listening

The entertainer turned activist is determined to stay positive despite sometimes feeling frustrated by the state of conversation on trans issues.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

January 23 2014 5:00 AM ET

You said that you felt that the attack on your site came from a specific group of trans women, and speaking in broader terms, as someone who has been reporting on various aspects of the community for a while now, this seems to be kind of a dichotomy or a combative nature that seems to exist between many trans masculine and trans feminine communities. There sometimes seems to be open hostility between these two facets of the community. As someone who feels they’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of that, where do you think that comes from? What’s behind that?
I want to make sure I don’t get myself in trouble here. I have to choose my words very carefully. And I also really need you to understand: I’m not angry. I’m not angry at all about this. I’m not. I’m sad, which is totally different than being angry. Because I don’t like to see this. It just tears us apart. We have such an opportunity right now in the world because the trans community is growing so rapidly. You know, when I was a transsexual — which I consider myself a transsexual, I don't consider myself a trans person — it was different. And so now it’s so huge, it’s growing, wow. You know, I would even say this by the gay community. If we could just all stop arguing, we could take the world over. We could rule the world! But for some reason we can't.

It’s a hard question to answer because I feel like if I say one thing, it could be misconstrued as something else. … We’re coming from different places. … I have privilege, let’s not kid, right? I’m a white guy. I have privilege, done. I used to be a gay woman. I totally get it. It’s like, my life sucked as a gay woman in the real world, right? In the real world, walking around as a hard-core dykey butch, people throwing stuff at me, getting my butt kicked … getting gay-bashed, all of that happened to me. So now as a white guy who looks like whatever, tattooed and whatever, I have privilege up the butt. And I know I have it. I’m not at all, in any way, shape or form, pretending like I don’t.

And so I think sometimes — this is only my own opinion; I don’t know anything about the trans woman world other than that I have a lot of trans woman friends. I don’t want to use the word ballsy, but it takes a lot of guts — I think, a little bit more guts for a trans woman to become themselves. Because you are giving up privilege to become who you are. Wow. Just think about that. That’s just powerful. When I realized that — because I didn’t get it — but when I sat back and started to think, what is up here? I’ve gained privilege, and they’ve stepped back from that privilege that they once had. So that can bring a little tension. And I think that’s kind of what I feel, is that tension of privilege.

And you said that was something you didn’t always get. When did that click for you?
That clicked for me when I really started getting more involved with community politics. And I didn’t understand. When people would say "You're privileged," I was like "What are you talking about?" Super defensive, right? Like, "I don’t know what you’re talking about." Because I didn’t have that language. I’m not even a high school graduate — not that that really means anything, but I don’t come from education. I come from street. Totally different. I’m a survival, street guy, and I was homeless. I was a drug addict, all of those things. I didn’t know education. I didn’t know that level of understanding politics. … All I knew was "Hey, I survived. Screw you! I know how to do this and that’s that. Grr." 

That said, I don’t have that anymore. I understand the politics of community. But I’m also very outspoken, and I think that’s also important, because it does bring up dialogue. If we’re all speaking the same way and we all use the same language, you’re going to lose a lot of stuff there. But you still have to respect people’s choices. So yeah, I would say just through really getting more involved with the community. And really understanding that everybody here is different, their journey is different. And yet, once I stepped back and got out of my own ego — cause a lot of the things are about ego and about "you, you, you, you, you," — I realized it’s not about me. I have to step back and look. 

"Look at you. You are a white dude. Nobody would ever know. I can basically even go naked and nobody knows." People treat me different. I forgot. I just didn’t think about that. All I thought about was myself. "My life is awesome. I can walk anywhere. I can do anything. Nobody says anything to me." And then it was like, "Oh, my God. Remember how it used to be?" I forgot. I didn’t remember how it used to be.

Chronologically, when did you really start diving into community politics and undergoing that shift in perspective?
Well, I would say 2009 or ’10. … Because I never wanted to be an advocate or activist. I didn’t want to be a public speaker. All of the things I do now? No way. I just wanted to make porn! That was my thing. I just wanted to make sex movies. It was awesome, I loved it. But beyond my movies, I didn’t know that my movies were ever even political. I didn’t even realize that. I didn’t realize that movies were anything other than pornographic. 

But then I started to realize when people started to write me tell me, "Wow, I’m not into you sexually, but what you’re bringing to the table is going to change the world. And it’s gonna open so many people’s conversations." And I was like, really? I don't get it. So that’s how that sort of blew up, I was like "Oh, you know what, I do have a message here that’s bigger than that." So, thank God I could grow as a person, because some people wouldn’t, right? Some would be really shut down around that. I’m lucky that for some reason I was able to open my mind. And then I started to realize, yeah, people want to talk about these things. 

The only way to be a good educator is to make mistakes. I really believe that. If I didn’t make mistakes, I would not be the person I am today. I don’t think I would be a good educator. I do believe in myself as a good educator, I really think so. I reach outside of our community. That, to me, is the most important thing with my work. And those are the people that I think need to be spoken to. Those are the people that need to understand who we are. I relate to a lot of straight dudes. Straight dudes relate to me. I mean, straight white guys, wow. Can you imagine? That’s a very hard … faction of humans to get to. It’s very difficult to get to them. And they’re like, "Wow, dude, you’re cool." And they start researching trans people and gay people. Come on, that’s pretty powerful. So that’s when I started to sort of go, "I gotta get my language together."

Speaking about language, I know something that you and some other prominent trans male figures have had to defend or give some perspective on is the use of the word "tranny." I've spoken with Lucas Silveira [front man of the Cliks] about this as well. And I know he has been the subject of a lot of criticism for using that word. How do you respond to folks who say that word is not anyone other than trans women’s right to reclaim?
It is a difficult question to answer. Because I understand tranny has been used [as] derogatory toward trans women. But how do you know it hasn’t been used derogator[ily] toward me? How do you know that? I’m 21 years a transsexual. I found that kind of offensive myself, that they would just assume it’s all about them. It’s not all about them. But, that said, of course I understand that. I work in the adult entertainment business! Tranny is the number 1 word used in the adult entertainment business, and it’s negative. I totally get it. 

OK, that said, how is one word reclaimable while another is not? That’s my question, and that’s always what I come back with. I don’t understand why, for example, queer is reclaimable, because I’m old. I’m 51 years old, I remember when "queer" was a dirty word. I remember that. I marched with Queer Nation and all of that. You know, reclaiming queer! It was a dirty word in the gay community. And now it’s a positive, awesome word. Now everyone’s queer, right? 

So in a sense, that’s what I’m saying. I’m a huge believer in reclaiming, empowering words. When you don’t empower the word tranny, those people who have used the word against us? They win the game. Because they’re like "A-ha-ha. Now we always have that word and we can always call you tranny, and you’ll always be angry about it, and you’ll always be shitty about it." But if we were like, "Uh-uh. We are trannies, and we rule!" Look at how you’ve just changed the dynamic of that word. That’s what I believe. 

It does not mean I don’t respect what they feel. I fully respect that. It has nothing to do with that. And I’m not a trans woman. I can’t tell you that. I’m a transsexual man with a different understanding of the word. The word has been used against me negatively. I don’t care. You can call me anything, just spell my name right. I really don’t care. I really feel that way. But you have to really understand that I respect and I understand that, but I’m also into reclaiming words. And if you don’t want me to call you a tranny, I would never call you a tranny. I wouldn’t do it.

So for you, it is a word that can be reclaimed, and in your opinion, that is reflective of each individual’s experience if they’ve had that word hurled at them or not.
Yes, because I have tons of trans women friends who call themselves trannies. Tons. Tons, tons, tons. And they love the word tranny, and they empower that word, and it’s awesome. Those are the women I’m around — so when I’m around those women and they’re saying "tranny, tranny, tranny, tranny, tranny," I’m like, "Tranny!" You know what I mean? That’s my language. I’m around that. I’m not around the other women, though I respect their opinion. As a person, you can’t expect everyone to have the same language as you. I just think you’re living in some kind of bubble that doesn’t exist, nor will it ever exist. And you know what? You’re angry now. You’re always angry. That’s what’s always fascinating to me, is a certain group of people who are always angry all the time. And that’s all they put out, is anger, anger, anger, anger. And nothing will change with anger. It will not. And I’m total proof of that. You have to change the way you view things, and the world is ugly and mean. 

You don’t think I put myself out there every day and hear so many ugly things every day about who I am, what I am? And from everywhere. But it doesn’t stop me, because I love myself. And I love who I am and what I do. And I’m willing to have a conversation like this. Why can’t we have a conversation like this? It’s such a nice, civil, awesome conversation. I guess it’s more of an interview, really, but you know what I mean.

Oh, yeah. In my opinion, the best interviews are more like conversations, anyway. I’m biased, because it’s what I do for a living, but I like having this kind of conversation. It’s one of my favorite things about working here at The Advocate, is that I get to have these kinds of conversations with people all over the spectrum and all over the world who’ve had different experiences. It’s fascinating for me.
Me too! It fascinates me. That [story] exploded, and I just stood back. It was fascinating to me, to watch it [exploding sound]. Now it’s not about me anymore. It’s totally not about me. It’s about something else. What is it about? I don’t even know what it’s about. Do you know what it’s about?

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