Trans America: Champions of Change at The White House


Trans America: Champions of Change at The White House

Hari Nef
Zackary Drucker
Our Lady J

Photos via Instagram

Following Transgender Awareness Week and Transgender Day of Remembrance, the White House hosted LGBT Artists Champions of Change, an event that recognized nine LGBT artists whose work has transformed and continues to inspire their communities.

Additionally, the program featured two discussion panels on queer issues, as well as screenings of the film The Danish Girl, and the season two premiere of Amazon’s series Transparent. The show’s creator, Jill Soloway, and her dynamic team were on sight, as was the real-life inspiration for Jeffrey Tambor’s character “Maura,” Soloway’s own parent, known to most as “Moppa.”

“I am of a generation where something like this not only would be impossible, it would be illegal,” said panel leader and Transparent actress Alexandra Billings during the affair.

Artist honorees included Marco Castro-Bojorquez, Fiona Dawson, Jess Dugan, Joanna Hoffman, A.J. King, Pidgeon Pagonis, Lee Levingston, L.J. Roberts and Steven Romeo. This creative militia distinctly challenges the binary system that has been pinned upon us as a culture, using their preferred medium to communicate perspectives of intolerance.

“I think this milestone illustrates that intersex activists are on the right side of history and that the doctors still doing these senseless, non-medically necessary surgeries are slowly becoming irrelevant,” said activist Pagonis.

By searching #LGBTchamps on instagram, one can see the rallied troops in action, surrounded, in this context, by the White House’s complicated backdrop of American history. A pair of brown eyes peeks out from under Abraham Lincoln; a flock of giddy field-trippers spot the White House gym; Moppa hams it up between two American flags; smiling trans women pose against portraits of First Ladies.

Though the yellow brick road to an end-result of social acceptance of LGBTQI people remains long and winding, it is certainly a bold statement that America’s government not only acknowledges the inadequacies community members face, but that a day was given to honor the lives of those on the front-lines (and in such a profoundly sacred space, no less).

Perhaps this demonstration acted as a modern-day Liberty Bell with its sound vibrating, leading to a state of deeper awareness and hopefully stronger unity throughout our country.

BULLETT spoke with three members of the Transparent team, whom attended Champions of Change: Co-Producer Zackary Drucker, Writer Our Lady J and Actress Hari Nef.

What does it mean for our society that LGBT artists were formally invited to and honored at the White House?

Our Lady J: “I think it means that we have the nation’s attention. It’s a pivotal moment in our movement. The Obama administration was the first administration to even say ‘trans’ and to not only talk about trans issues, but to invite trans people and trans artists into the White House to further the discussion—to further where the movement is and where we’re going. There hasn’t been anything like this so far in our movement. And although people have been working in the movement for decades, it is important to acknowledge how far we’ve come. I think, more than anything, it was an acknowledgement of how far we’ve come.”

Hari: “LGBT artists have been historically unrecognized by major institutions in the United States and artists often depend on institutional recognition to make a living. This is a positive affirmation that empowers LGBT artists to work without fear of erasure.”

Zackary: I think it’s an incredible moment that we are amidst. I don’t think we should count on that kind of support from upcoming administrations. An article came out yesterday about Obama’s quiet transgender revolution and I think that he does want his legacy to include everyone. I’ve always said many of the cultural directives that we take actually do come from the very top. And when you look at the reverberations that came out of George W. Bush’s reign in pop culture and media, it was enormous; it was like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys; it was squeaky clean. And when you look at the Obama era, you have this celebration of difference and these pop stars who have really celebrated difference and being on the fringe.”

Yeah, Obama has often stated he wants his time in office to represent all of America.

Zackary: “I think that’s the biggest sort of obstacle for the republican party at this point. They represent a dwindling population. Until they expand their notions of difference, I don’t think they’re going to be very successful at capturing our imaginations because our culture has changed. You can’t really dial back the hands of time. Or maybe you can—maybe it will take something catastrophic or some kind of other diversion for us to sign over more of our civil rights.”

So, you aren’t confident that support will be there in future administrations?

Zackary: “Not for a second do I think that if Donald Trump or Ted Cruz were elected that we would be invited back to the White House. It would be a fortress of male, white, cis privilege. I think we’d be pretty locked out. I think women would be pretty locked out of positions of power.”

Personally, how did it feel for you to visit the White House on behalf of your work and your life experience?

Zackary: “It was tremendously validating. I’ve always known that I was trans. I’ve always felt like I’ve been on the fringes, like I’ve been outside of the mainstream and normative culture. And I think that many of my decisions in life have been about celebrating that position. But I always thought that I was gonna be a scrappy artist, barely surviving. And that only changed with Transparent. People always ask me what it’s like working in the entertainment industry, and I’m like, ‘I was actually an adjunct teacher before, making like, $5,000 a semester, and moonlighting at a bar to make ends meet.’ That’s actually the real shift. My life as an artist always happens, but what I’m doing to survive might change, so this sort of coalescence, this moment where I can bring my art-making practice to my trans identity to a platform that reaches a lot of people is this incredible kismet. The Champions of Change, the nine people who were nominated, are these incredible LGBT artists, many of whom I wasn’t aware of, and I think that it was life-changing for all of us. I think that when you imagine yourself to always be on the outside, and then you realize that somebody is inviting you in […] I will die happy. I say that to people all the time, not being ironic or morose. I really feel like if I were to die today, I would feel like I accomplished a lot.”

Hari: “It was humbling, gratifying and affirming. I’ve struggled at times to reconcile LGBT as a monolithic movement. We’re all so different, but I felt solidarity on that day.”

Our Lady J: “It was an emotional day. I had tears several different times. It has not been an easy life. There are still struggles, even though I acknowledge my privilege of where I’m at with my job and my life, and yet there are still struggles that are very real and sometimes paralyzing. I was standing next to Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s Senior Advisor, as Alex Newell sang the National Anthem, and I just cried. I felt validated and seen. Also, I felt an immense responsibility run through every vein in my body to have this voice and this position on Transparent. It really summed up how much work I have to do.”

I loved when Valerie said, “The media is a key tool to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” Have you experienced that sentiment from your standpoint?

Our Lady J: “I think at some point in my career, I thought that I was just an entertainer. And I remember taking pride in that [and] hiding from responsibility. In the past few years, with this movement of change, I do feel that there is so much power that artists hold. And with great power comes great responsibility. I do feel that change does happen through artistry and through storytelling and through media.”

Over the past seven years, the Obama administration has been working to improve the quality of life for marginalized people. What have you found beneficial during his time in office, and what walls keep being hit?

Our Lady J: “I personally have not benefited from much because I started my transition before his administration. A lot of the barriers that’s he’s lifted, for example, he changed the policy with passports—you no longer have to have gender reassignment surgery in order to change the sex on your passport. And that’s something that’s huge for global travelers. State-to-state it’s different for ID’s. I think a lot of the things that need to happen are around healthcare—access to mental health care for trans people, access to transition-related care [and] post-transition-related care. People are still really in the dark about these medically necessary procedures. I think on a federal level, they should really be pushed, through. Also, it’s still legal to be denied housing in 30 something states, and that’s horrific. Also, incarceration procedures for trans people—most people are misgendered and sent to the wrong prisons. There are still so many things that need to be looked at, but I think overall his administration has given me more esteem in my own journey.

What was it like watching The Danish Girl, which portrays one story about a transgender woman in the 1920’s, while working on and presenting a series that addresses that experience today?

Our Lady J: “I think in order to understand where we’re going as a movement, we also have to acknowledge and understand how long we’ve been around as a movement and as a people. And transness has been around since the beginning of time. It’s manifested in many different ways in different religions, with eunuchs [and] with two-spirited individuals. So The Danish Girl has an importance in that it’s educating people about the advent of modern day transness, when science stepped in and started playing a role in transness. And Lilly’s story is important because it was so ground-breaking for that medicine to be available, and it was so courageous for her to take the steps and to achieve what she needed from that.”

The first openly trans woman, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, was recently appointed as as the Director of Outreach and Recruitment for the White House personnel office. How is her now validated leadership a testament to the acceptance of the trans community in the U.S?

Zackary: “I actually met Raffi before her appointment when she was at the National Center for Trans Equality in D.C. She has a long history as an advocate and as a professional in politics. I was so excited to hear about her appointment because I think it’s a victory for our entire community. Employment discrimination is one of the biggest impediments for trans people and I think it’s the only way out of the obstacles we face as a community. Survival sex is usually the last option when you don’t have other options for employment.”

Hari: “I feel safer as a U.S. citizen knowing there’s a trans staff member in the White House. It’s a good start to a larger project for trans advocacy in U.S. politics. When trans people can be denied employment and housing in 32 states, when only eight mandate access to trans related healthcare, when we’re unemployed at two to four times the national average—we have a long, long way to go. She moderated a panel on trans media representation, and she did a great job. Rhys Ernst, a trans artist and producer on Transparent, spoke on the panel, but the rest of the panel consisted of cisgender folks. Everyone who spoke was great, but I’m glad she represented trans women up there. We need to be heard within conversations about trans media representation, but most of the time we are just talked about.”

How did real-life “Moppa” (Carrie Soloway) embrace watching the season two premiere at our nation’s capital, when the series essentially exists because of her journey?

Our Lady J: “I spent some with her in D.C. From what I could tell, she was very proud. I know in general she is very very proud of both Jill and Faith, and so supportive of this show. And in fact at the beginning of writing season three, I started reaching out to her to talk about her past and to get to know Carrie more, and therefore get to know Maura more. She’s been very generous with her stories and with her life. And on a broader level, she’s an incredibly courageous and brave person. I don’t think any of us really ever expected to be at the White House in that capacity. I never imagined that I would be with a group of trans people being honored and given a private tour. Of course, I’m an artist with an ego and I always hope for the best, but when your dreams actually do come true, it’s funny in the ways that they come true that you never imagined.”

I read that Jeffrey Tambor spoke out about the impacts of the White House inviting LGBTQ artists to be present there, and he was also live chatting on twitter. How has he taken on the responsibility of his role?

Zackary: “There’s been so much controversy around cis actors playing trans roles, and it’s such a complex issue. It’s going to look so different in 10 years when we have a less demarcated idea of who’s cis and who’s trans. In the same way that there’s these shades between men and women, there’s also these shades between cis and trans. Actors are keenly aware of all of the internal mechanisms—of the feminine and masculine parts of themselves. To give a cis actor an opportunity to experience that part of themselves in a way they may not on their own is actually a tremendous gift. If every cis person tried to walk in a trans person’s shoes, we would be living in a really different world. For Jeffrey, I mean, he talks about this all the time—it’s been one of the biggest life-changing, insightful moments [for him]. He’s hyper-conscious of never misrepresenting the movement, of representing himself as an actor and not as a trans person. The amount of precision and consideration that he gives to all of these micro-decisions that nobody would ever even be aware of, like how he talks about things in press—sometimes he’ll bring me or Rhys onto interviews just to listen, chime in and make suggestions.”

As awareness has been brought to the transgender experience, what tensions have you seen arise or expressed between cis and trans women? What can all women do to bridge the gap and therefore increase inclusivity?

Zackary: “For me, I come from a really strong feminist tradition. The women in my family taught me, a person assigned male at birth, that we are feminists. This is what feminism is about for us, and you are a feminist too if you believe those things. So I grew up identifying as a feminist, which is probably really rare for many people assigned male at birth. My politics of feminism have always been inclusive and I think the wave of trans-exclusive radical feminism has really caught me off guard because many of the second-wave feminist voices have come out as anti-trans, so I feel a little surprised by that. But the trans movement is so intertwined with the gay liberation movement in its roots, and I think it’s unfortunate that the alliances between the trans movement and feminist movement weren’t established earlier. It’s like 50 years overdue. The personal is political. I use that all the time. Who you go to bed with is deeply personal and it’s really political for that reason. But who you are is on the continuum of gender quality. The thing I’m trying to say is that the LGB fight would be be impossible to separate from trans participation, and not that ultimately we’re talking about gender equality, which is about feminism, and the trans movement is on the continuum of feminism. I think that’s really clear. Right now I am seeing a lot of what happened in the 1970’s, when lesbian feminists were saying they’re better feminists than straight feminists. The pool has expanded, and if we’re all women, I think inclusivity is inevitable. The politics of exclusion and the scarcity politics, which is [saying things like], ‘If you consider yourself a woman then that takes something from me being a woman.’ Scarcity politics is what’s underneath a lot of that. ‘You’ll never know what it’s like to be a woman.'”

Our Lady J: “The first step into a more inclusive sisterhood is acknowledging that trans women are just another type of a woman, rather than a separate species of women. Sometimes what I feel in women’s spaces is that there’s a history of negative attitudes toward trans women, not from the majority, but from a vocal minority who believe that trans women don’t belong in women’s spaces. Most women’s spaces were developed around this idea of needing safety from male oppression and the patriarch and violence, and all these very real things that women face, and yet, it would be amazing if cis women understood that trans women are in that same umbrella. We all suffer from the patriarchy, and I think trans especially suffer from the patriarchy in different ways and in similar ways. The more we can understand each other as women, the less divide we’ll have among cis and trans people.”

Something I find interesting as a feminist is what the parameters of femininity entail.

Zackary: “There’s so many layers of identity, and you can’t really parse them out. I think that when I transitioned, with male hormones, I just didn’t really experience things with the emotional depth that I did as a woman, so all of a sudden, just hormonally I went in the deep end. There’s this whole part of the human experience that has this emotional depth that the other part doesn’t understand. So some things are probably hormonal [and] a lot of them are social and cultural, but as far as women being marginalized go, trans women are among the most disenfranchised groups of women. Homicide, rape, unemployment—we’re actually not citizens, we’re not full citizens. We don’t have the rights of other women, yet. I really believe in advocating for the disenfranchised members of our community, regardless of how we define that community. At the same time, I think the thing that trans people need to do is to start eradicating that delineation that we’re ‘trans women.’ Underneath it we’re all just women is what it’s about. I don’t need different treatment than other women, but I want equal treatment. I think there’s a lot of misconceptions when it comes to things that t.e.r.f.s. say about trans women, [which] usually feel egregiously inaccurate. I always think a simple conversation would really solve all of their problems. The Olivia Records controversy was in the 1970’s, and they brought in Sandy Stone, who was a trans woman, to help in their operation, and then she was pilloried [and outed] for being trans. That was one of the first documented conflicts between cis feminists and trans feminists.”

Our Lady J: “It’s a question that I answer through my art and it’s a whole thesis.”

During the panel, Jess Dugan said, “Art has this incredible power to reflect ourselves back to us and to validate who we are in our innermost selves.” What do you think about that?

Zackary: “I think that at best, art allows us to explore our innermost terrains. I think that’s absolutely true. Especially when you’re coming from a place when you really don’t feel reflected. Sometimes it’s a challenge to see yourself reflected, too. I think if you’re making art for anybody but yourself, it can lose its luster. It has to be exciting for you.”

Hari: “It’s true. Art embodies experiences and LGBT experiences are often erased.”

Our Lady J: “That’s mirroring in Psychology. Hopefully we get all of our needs met through our parents and our family and the people who raise us. I think as gender non-conforming people, growing up and being born into a very binary world, we don’t have access to that mirroring. And so we turn to art for that. It’s not only how we see ourselves, but it gives other people an opportunity to see themselves through our lives and our stories. For people who don’t have art to turn to, I think substance abuse is so big in our community because we don’t have that mirroring. Our lives physically improve when we do have mirroring—that’s proven by Psychology. As artists, it is our responsibility to be that mirror until those mirrors exist in every household and every family.”

Around 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and they are heavily subjected to substance abuse. Why is this demographic particularly vulnerable to these conditions?

Our Lady J: “When you don’t have equal opportunities to housing, education and therefore income, you have no choice sometimes but to disassociate from the pain. For me, I’m sober; I’m a recovering addict because I did not have the mirroring that we spoke of and the esteem. When I looked for that esteem, I only saw darkness. I saw that I didn’t have the opportunity to transition; I saw that even if I did transition, I wouldn’t be taken care of. I could lose my apartment; I could lose my job; I could lose healthcare. It’s a lot easier to turn to substances rather than live with that fear. It’s a coping mechanism and it saves people, I think, from suicide. Our suicide rates are so huge. I know a lot of stories of people who do go into recovery after substance abuse, but still credit the substances from saving them from their own lives because suicide is just around the corner for so many people in our community.”

By the government focusing specifically on artists and their pursuits, how can that benefit those who are suffering?

Our Lady J: “Everything is up to the voters, really. We’re a democracy. Artists spread the word and the voters take action. It’s our responsibility as artists to incite action and to inspire. Hopefully, whenever you portray your story in an emotional and an authentic way, people respond to that and want to take action.”

Hari: “LGBT art must be taken on its own terms, but it is also a means for straight and cisgender folks to better understand LGBT experiences. Understanding can lead to acceptance, empathy and change.”

How are Transparent team members “Champions of Change?”

Zackary: “Jill Soloway has assembled an incredible group of artists. I’m impressed with her ability to bring us together. There is not a bad apple in the bunch. It’s so palpable when you read interviews or have a conversation with anybody who’s connected in the show; it’s almost a guarantee that they’re an amazing, cool person. And being at the White House, the actors here are these accomplished talents, and the trans people here are these dynamic, free-thinkers on the crest of the wave. And then you even have Eileen Myles, who was one of my original heroes and still is. I’m sure Eileen Myles was never welcomed to the White House, and funny that she’s here as a part of the Transparent crew—she should be having her own event.”

Hari: “Transparent humanizes the trans experience, situating it within a bigger picture. It’s good art and good storytelling. You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”

Our Lady J: “They are Champions of Change because they are so supportive. I had never written for television before, [so them] having patience with me as a new writer and at the same time acknowledging my gifts to the room, not just [as] a token trans person, but [as someone who’s] actually contributing things […] Everyone involved in the show has a personal stake in the movement, whether people are trans, gender non-confirming, or have families members or are just allies. There is not one person on the show who doesn’t acknowledge the social gravity of what we do every day.”