Director Silas Howard: From S.F.'s Fringe Scene to the Big Time

Silas Howard
Silas Howard behind the scenes on the set of 'A Kid Like Jake'

If you were in San Francisco’s LGBT community in the late 1990s, early 2000s, you couldn’t escape Silas Howard’s creative influence. He was a founding member of Tribe 8, the ground-breaking band that launched the gay punk queercore scene; he cofounded Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Café, a lesbian hotspot and performance space; and produced—with his friend Harry Dodge—the 2001 trans feature film By Hook or By Crook, which won five Best Feature awards at film festivals around the country. New Queer Cinema described By Hook as the seminal work of the New Trans Cinema.

“San Francisco was the perfect city for me,” Howard says now. He recalls the queer artistic scene at that time as “a bunch of lost kids … playing, setting up shows for each other, being audiences for each other. With success nowhere on the horizon, we couldn’t fail. We were nonconformists and I still feel like that’s where my heart lives. I owe a great deal to that discomfort that either the world had of me or I had, because it drove me to do a lot of things like be in band, or just build the world where I felt OK.”

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Silas Howard behind the scenes on the set of Transparent

Even after transitioning in his late 30s, Howard—who is partnered with a woman but retains his queer identity—says he never embraced a particular kind of masculinity. “I don’t identify culturally with typical [or] any kind of straight, white male identity.” It’s one of the reasons he’s vocal about his trans identity. He feels the same about his class background, which he admits, “forms me as much as my queer or trans identity does. Class has really been such a part of my daily experience.”

After By Hook, Howard got a film degree and has been making and directing documentary films, advertising spots, and television shows ever since. Called the “best trans director working today,” Howard’s television credits include The Fosters, Faking It, Hudson Valley Ballers, and This Is Us.

But, even after Howard’s career took off, his experience with poverty colored his world view. “It doesn’t seem to change the impact of where I come from.” He hopes to find more ways to address class issues in future projects like Lusty, a feature film about the foundation of the first dancer’s union, formed at San Francisco’s Lusty Lady strip club. “It’s just such a great story about a stigmatized group of [women],” he says. The film has “a good sense of humor, but a very feminist lens, [and] it’s just very much from the dancers’ perspective.”

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Silas Howard behind the scenes with Jeffrey Tambor and Anjelica Huston on the set of Transparent

In 2015, Howard became the first out trans person to direct an episode of Transparent (he later served in a consulting-producing role during season three). “Jill Soloway and really, the whole team there, they’re the ones that made it important that a trans director be on the show,” Howard says. “They said it’s important to have the experience of trans writers and directors, camera people—in all the different departments.”

“Other shows have given spots to trans actors,” Howard says. “But actually opening up the process, giving us opportunities to build off of so that we can start getting access, bringing that into our own work is, is amazing. The way that Transparent does it is very unique and it’s really special.”

Howard’s current project is the feature film A Kid Like Jake, based on a play by Daniel Pearle and starring Jim Parsons and Claire Danes as the parents of a gender-nonconforming child, who make some questionable decisions in trying to do right by their son, while confronting “the ticking clock of the way our public-school system is crumbling, and [how] this society cherishes specialness—like, ‘you’re special, you’re special’—but punishes difference. As a parent … [you] can get very protective which can lead you to doing the wrong things.”  

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Silas Howard behind the scenes on the set of Transparent

Howard says A Kid Like Jake is “not a trans story” but more about “policing gender,” the “stakes of gender” and “commodifying otherness, how we have to label ourselves, and where we fit in. It’s about the world around [Jake]. It’s flipping the lens on the parents, on the schools, on all the people sort of chiming in.”

The project’s queer credentials include LGBT producers, out gay actor Jim Parsons, Octavia Spencer who plays a lesbian in the movie, trans actors, and Howard’s decision to go to the “next level up” in casting by opening non-trans roles to both cisgender and trans actors. He also asked casting “to find a kid who authentically is a little princess-obsessed little boy in real life. We found this amazing kid, Leo. His wardrobe’s off the hook. We didn’t even buy clothes for him, we just used his actual clothes, all these amazing skirts, and these dresses!” [See Leo below in background.]

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Silas Howard behind the scenes on the set of A Kid Like Jake, with Leo in the background.

“It’s just an incredible cast,” Howard says. “And what I’ll tell you is, what it was like is just this incredible creative collaboration. It’s just been a dream.”   

A Kid Like Jake is scheduled to premiere during the 2018 festival season.

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