“Transparent” star Ian Harvie talks visibility for trans men on TV

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Out trans comic and actor Ian Harvie plays Dale in Amazon’s groundbreaking series Transparent. We spoke with Ian about his role in the show and trans male visibility on television and in the media.

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AfterEllen.com: Why do you think trans masculine folks are so rarely represented in popular media?

Ian Harvie: That would be a good question for Dale, the trans man college TA on Transparent to respond to. He might have some credible insights on this.

Maybe there’s an invisibility thing with trans masculine guys sometimes. For example, I have this thing—that I sincerely could give two shits about— called male privilege or passing privilege. It’s given freely to me at a glance because of my exterior gender presentation. I believe masculinity is less scrutinized or questioned and far more worshiped and maybe people, to a large extent, don’t clock guys like me as being different than cis guys, that’s a privilege, I know. As a result of that, maybe people sometimes just flat out don’t realize that WE EXIST?! Shit, I didn’t know we existed until I met another trans guy like me! So if they don’t know we exist, how could they know what our life’s loves and challenges are, that we have stories to share? Maybe that’s why people outside our community often don’t think to include us in their storytelling? Thankfully that wasn’t the case with the show creator of TransparentJill Soloway.

Here’s another idea to explore. The entertainment industry has always had a difficult time allowing new topics on television, there is a formula they think works. That tide has turned and there’s proof by looking at what the young, smart, cis-guy, Joe Lewis, head of comedy at Amazon Studios, has done by green-lighting this show and doing this dance with the brilliant storyteller, award-winning director, Jill Soloway. They had to know in their hearts they weren’t only making a show—they were about to carve a path and light the way for other show creators coming after them, making way for characters similar to Maura and Dale to come through as well.

As one of the benefits of this show’s impact, I would love to see more trans writers, actors, directors, producers, artists of all kinds in the industry, have their ideas and art be legitimately considered by industry decision makers.

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AE: How do you respond when someone feels like you/your character didn’t represent them as a trans masculine person?

IH: When a trans guy watches a character like Dale and feels like he doesn’t represent them specifically, I would agree with that because the story is not about them—it’s about Dale. He’s not you; he’s someone sort of like you. At the same time, I completely understand first-hand the desire we have to see ourselves well-represented in media. For me, that representation doesn’t need to be spot-on. I can spiritually be fed by witnessing shared experience with a character and not have it be exact. Just as long as that character’s truth has a possibility of being based in reality and veers away from stereotypes, then I’m OK with it. Plus, this is just one story—there will be other stories told down the road, they might be closer to yours, or shoot, maybe even further away—but it’s all OK. It’s art, everyone will see these stories and characters a little differently. No one idea of who Dale is will be absolute, that can be a hard thing to wrap our heads around. Dale may be many things to many people, but he can’t be everything to one person.

AE: Do you think the increasing (and increasingly positive) representation of trans women will ultimately result in increased visibility for trans men and gender nonconforming people? Why or why not?

IH: Yes, and I think that it already has! My trans feminine sisters out there, in all forms of media, have been parting the seas for people like me to come forward, there’s no doubt about that, it feels huge to me. I remember I was so excited when Candis Cayne was cast on Dirty Sexy Money; blown away with Laverne Cox’s character’s truth on Orange Is The New Black; and even though Maura on Transparent is played by a cis-man, I think Maura’s soul is represented so beautifully, I consider her absolutely positive representation; that has also helped create safe space for me and my trans sisters in the world and in the entertainment industry.

I believe with increased visibility and deeply good representation, people will see other people who are gender nonconforming—at the market, work, or in a public restroom—and have more understanding, love in their hearts, have a conversation, be more inclusive, and create a safer world.

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AE: What are the best and worst representations of trans masculine folks you’ve seen in the media? What’s good/bad about them?

IH: Well let’s see, on TV there was Max from The L Word, Adam on Degrassi, Cole from The Fosters, and now Dale on Transparent—that’s it. Forgive me, I’ve only seen The Fosters and Degrassi once, so I don’t know how those kids are being represented. I know I’m biased, but the real Dale seems like he’s a happier guy than Max ever was on The L Word. Dale feels like an open, out, self-loving trans man with a decent job. Dare I say he’s kind of sexy, without sounding too much like a douche? Max, as I recall, often seemed kind of like he was fighting something, miserable, negative, thinking no one understood him, maybe even victimized by his transness? These two characters just feel like they couldn’t be further from each other in where they’re at in their lives or energy.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s  important to show all aspects of being a trans human in storytelling, i.e. when we’re struggling or sad, that’s real too. But lets also show when we are proud, loving, and grateful to be who we are. For me it is sweet to play Dale, so now there’s more than one frame of reference out there for what some trans guys are like. And there will be more after me.

AE: If you can step outside yourself, what impact do you think your role on Transparent will have on the visibility of trans men, as well as the move toward having trans characters played by trans actors?

IH: This is the first time a medically transitioned trans man is playing a trans role, co-starring on a critically acclaimed, hit television series—that is definitely stunning to me! Not so much because I get to be that person, although, trust me, I am absolutely fucking honored to be that person, but I’m mostly stunned that it hasn’t happened sooner!

Maybe this seems obvious, but, hopefully other trans masculine actors will feel like a career in entertainment is possible? But more than that, I think the impact of trans masculine guys seeing themselves positively portrayed in media, as smart, hot, funny, kind, loving, productive, happy people; doesn’t only make us feel like we exist—it allows us to see ourselves having a life, a long life, a full life, a frame of reference for who we are, understanding we are not alone, a touchstone, a stamp of realness, feeling like we have a life worth living, and so much more.

AE: Are there any particular trans masculine folks you see increasingly visible? Not to suggest that we necessarily need a trans masculine version of Janet Mock or Laverne Cox, but is there anyone you see stepping into the national spotlight?

IH: I would like to stay part of this movement, absolutely. But there are so many amazing and talented trans actors, filmmakers, musicians, writers, artists of all kinds out there, many of them involved in or connected to Transparent and the creator. One of them, Rhys Ernst, is someone who I was introduced to because of this project, he got me involved. He is a great, young filmmaker himself, who had a film at Sundance, an art show in the Whitney Museum Biennial this year in New York with his partner and trans lady, Zackary Drucker. They are both producers and trans consultants on the show. They created a trans affirmative action program within Transparent, hiring trans people in all areas of the show-making process. Rhys also had a cameo appearance in the show and he’s a Point Foundation Scholar, which if you aren’t aware, is a really effing hard thing to achieve! He’s one of the smartest guys I’ve met in a while; I definitely think he is someone to watch as we move forward in this new era a trans visibility.

For more on Ian Harvie, visit ianharvie.com.

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