You first gained notoriety in a 2011 profile in Marie Claire magazine. Was the tone of that piece partially behind the desire to present a more honest, three-dimensional self-portrait?
Marie Claire was a baby step. I think it was everyone’s first public interaction with me, and it was a big deal for me at the time. When I did it, it was just to disclose the fact that I’m trans, and that’s all I did in that piece. I talked about my childhood and very much followed the typical transsexual tropes in media—you know, “I struggled with my body for so long, blah, blah, blah … ” I mean, I know it was more powerful than that. It changed a lot of peoples’ thinking. And lives. People came out as trans afterward. But for me, the book was a lot more complicated—in terms of talking about these different experiences that are beyond a single-identity-focus lens. If you’re a trans woman of color who grew up poor and engaging in sex work, there’s really so much more involved there.
Yes. But I try not to say that word too much. So many people are scared by it! And I try to speak accessibly, which is also a difficult thing when communicating through media. I try not to reduce the discussion, but I keep it open.
You brought up Laverne Cox, from Orange Is the New Black—someone who has totally revolutionized portrayals of trans women in media and pop culture. But there’s still that pervasive Law & Order trope of the “sassy tranny hooker” to deal with. In your mind, how much have those stereotypes affected America’s perception of trans individuals?
I think they’re so limiting. It’s not as if I don’t want those images to exist, but if the only images that exist are of trans women being belittled and reduced to punchlines, or tragedy, meaning only reporting on us in death—you know, when a trans woman is murdered, which might be the only time you even hear about a trans woman outside of trans, gender-justice, and feminist circles—then it’s dangerous because that’s your only representation, your only portrait of someone. Especially in Law & Order, there’s no story for those girls. It’s just a detective walking down the street, and there’s some tranny hooker. Literally—that’s it. She doesn’t have a name. She’s not necessarily a source to get more information.
I think the credits literally say “tranny hooker” sometimes—which is nuts, because on some shows even the most minor characters get at least a first name.
Yeah! Laverne often talks about her time playing those roles. They’re the only roles available. Now she has Orange Is the New Black, and she can really show what she can do, and be impactful. People are realizing, “Wow, I don’t really know much about trans women’s lives. I don’t really know much about trans peoples’ lives.” We don’t show them living. We may show them going from pre- to post, before and after. But that’s about it. And so I think it’s rare to see a portrait of a trans woman, post-transition, living life. And I think it has to do with the objectification of women’s bodies in general, but then there’s the added stigma of being a trans woman in this culture. It just becomes even more of a point of dehumanization and belittlement and objectification.