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The Men of Transparent Sound Off on Trans Men in Media

The Men of Transparent Sound Off on Trans Men in Media


'We want to see healthy, funny, sexy, productive, life-loving trans guys,' says comedian Ian Harvie. 'We've all been starving for those characters that we can personally relate to.'

Continuing Monday's conversation about the portrayal of transgender men on television, trans artist Rhys Ernst and comedian Ian Harvie touch on the historic nature of Harvie's character, Dale, in Transparent, and what it will take to answer the questions surrounding a lack of visible, out trans men in mainstream -- or even queer -- media.

Why are there so few depictions of trans men in television and film? Why are trans men often portrayed by female-identified actors? Why do their storylines often end in tragedy or messages about their inadequacy as "real men?"

Transparent's Dale stands out in American pop culture as the first post-transition 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?
Rhys Ernst: It's kind of crazy to me that no other medically transitioned transmasculine actor has been cast in this type of role before, and so long overdue. All the trans roles were played by trans actors, with the sole exception of Maura (the politics of which have been discussed at length in other articles). We went to great lengths to seek out trans actors and create as many trans roles as possible throughout the season. A few roles that were played by trans actors weren't even trans-specific -- that included speaking parts as well as trans extras peppered in the background of numerous scenes.

Transparent focuses more on transfeminine identity than on transmasculine because of the details of the Pfefferman story. I wish there had been more room for transmasculine parts in Season 1, but we had to stay within the scope of the Pfefferman family and their experiences. I'm excited to push for more transmasculine parts in Season 2. We think of Season 1 as groundwork and see this all as part of a long game.


Photo right: Ian Harvie

What are your thoughts about the history of how trans men have been represented on TV, and how Transparent fits in this picture?
Ian Harvie: There have been so few trans men represented in scripted television. There's Max from The L Word, Adam on Degrassi, Cole from The Fosters, and now Dale on Transparent, and two of those characters are kids. I love those young actors on Degrassi and The Fosters who are carving a path for younger trans guys, creating conversation with families and making the world a safe space for young, gender-nonconforming kids-- that's crucial. But outside of that, we can barely talk about a history where there's very little to discuss.
We could talk about the history of invisibility of trans men. I know there is a deep need for our community to see ourselves accurately portrayed in storytelling. We want to see healthy, funny, sexy, productive, life-loving trans guys. We want to see relationships, love, sex, struggle, family, and friends all around those trans men. We've all been starving for those characters that we can personally relate to. When we see good trans storytelling in media, our hearts pour with joy and it helps us feel like we exist -- we're not alone and life feels possible!

I've been craving that too, and before I met my first trans guy friend in real life, I could barely see myself having a life again, because I knew no one who was like me. I had no frame of reference for who I was or what my life might look like. When I finally did see myself in another trans man, it was like my life fell into place, and those kinds of mirrors can be lifesaving. Maybe the loving, human depictions about trans lives in Transparent are a life vest, and that feels pretty historic to me.

As far as Dale, specifically, on the show making history, he is a lot of things to me. Dale feels like an open, affirming, self-loving trans man. He's got a good job, he's desirable, funny, kind, bossy, kinky, and so much more that hasn't been revealed. That only character I could contrast him to would be Max on The L Word, and what I recall of Max was that he was an anxious, unhappy, resentful, misunderstood, constantly "put-upon" man. These two characters feel like they couldn't be further from each other in process or spirit, and I think Jill Soloway and the Tranparent writers did a great job at making that choice with Dale.

Historically speaking, I guess this is the first time an adult, medically transitioned, trans man is playing a trans role, costarring on a critically acclaimed, hit television series -- I guess that could be marked in the books in some way (if it doesn't sound as douchey as it just did to me in my head).

Transparentclassx633_0Above: Gabi Hoffman as "Ali" and Ian Harvie as "Dale" on the set of Transparent

I've honestly never seen such a multilayered exploration of sex with a trans man on scripted television. As the "first" at anything, there's a pressure to make a portrayal unilaterally positive and uncomplex, yet Transparent often veers away from the expected. What do you think audiences glean about real-world trans men, their bodies, and their sexuality after watching this stylized, artistic rendering?
Ernst: There was a lot of discussion internally between myself, Ian, and the other trans members of the cast and crew about Dale's arc from a trans perspective. Would some in the trans community find it problematic that Dale self-identifies as being a "man with a vag"? Would the failed sex scene make Dale symbolically inadequate?

Because there's so little representation of transmasculine people in film and TV, there's a deep desire to see trans men affirmed first, before transmasculine representation can deviate into more difficult territory.

I think a criticism of Transparent could be that it's ahead of its time. Instead of Trans 101 or 201, we're jumped several steps to 501: A more advanced conversation about trans identity, one that shows trans characters in all their flaws, complexity, incongruence, and awkward moments.

As a trans filmmaker, I'm interested in making work for a future audience. What if we skip ahead several steps and leave it up to the audience to catch up? That's what interests me.

[Screenwriter and producer] 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.

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Mitch Kellaway