Artists of the Trans Experience Open Up About Identity, Casting, and Art as Activism

Playbill Pride   Artists of the Trans Experience Open Up About Identity, Casting, and Art as Activism In honor of Pride, Playbill gathered three transgender artists for an open discussion about identity, representation, auditions, and activism.

Slowly but surely, stories about the trans experience—and employment of trans artists—are becoming more prevalent in mainstream entertainment. While trans representation on stage and screen was nonexistent a few years ago, we are slowly moving the needle with work like Amazon’s Transparent, Laverne Cox’s breakout in Orange is the New Black and her star turn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Fox, as well as the theatre’s own Shakina Nayfack on Hulu’s Difficult People as some of the most high-profile examples.

Still, there is a long way to go. Playbill gathered three artists of trans experience to gain their perspective and learn more about the intersection of trans identity and art. Kita Updike is a model, singer, and actor who appeared in this year’s indie film The Misandrists; Devin Michael Lowe is an actor, model, and intersectional activist of transgender experience, in association with Transcendence Icon Company; and Shakina Nayfack is and actor, writer, director, producer, and activist best known for her touring show Manifest Pussy and her role as Marcy on Hulu’s Difficult People.

In an exclusive discussion, moderated by trans ally and activist Alexandra Ferrara, three artists of the trans experience talk everything from coming out as trans to guidelines for allies, from honest fears to ways in which they wish the casting of trans artists would change. Watch the video roundtable above moderated by Ferrara, with excerpts from their eye-opening conversation below:

Alexandra Ferrara: What was the most challenging part of your transition and the process of becoming your true self? Or what is still a challenge?
Devin Michael Lowe: People have expectations of what a man is supposed to look like and what a woman is supposed to look like. When your body doesn’t necessarily align—I haven’t had any surgeries so if I’m not wearing a binder, then people might clock me [as transgender]. It can be a real issue that can cause harassment.
Shakina Nayfack: We were even talking about that in the photo shoot. While it’s fun to get all glammed up with each other, there’s an expectation of what a glamorous trans woman should look like and what a hot, tough trans dude should look like. We’re not like that all the imte. We can put it on for the camera or whatever, but I don’t walk around with this blonde hair every day. I’m usually just bald and storming my way through New York City.

AF: When do you feel the most confident in your skin?
Kita Updike: I feel really confident when I’m with my family now. I think that has kind of changed. It didn’t used to be like that, when you were talking about the challenges ethrough the transition. I had a lot of challenges being at that age, with my family, trying to get access to hormone therapy and what that means as a minor. I’m from Fort Wayne, Indiana. I mean, this is Pence country. There were not a lot of clear steps for them to take, so now the flip side of it is that I’ve become extremely comfortable and confident when I’m there. I feel confident as my parents’ daughter when we’re out, and it just feels good.

AF: How do directors and casting directors facilitate the hiring of trans people?
SN: In casting, it’s usually now on the breakdown: “Seeking trans actors for this role.” Sometimes their roles are written to be trans, sometimes people are revisiting more classical text and now deciding this character should be played by a trans person.
DML: Putting it on the breakdown—
KU: It’s like when they say “Seeking all ethnicities”
DML: Like “seeking all genders, both cis and trans actors welcome.” … I feel like, us as trans artists, if we know you’re seeking a trans person—because people assume me as a cisgender man all the time—I’ll tell you because I know it’s what you’re seeking.
KU: The reality of us sitting here is like we said before, “What if we want to eat?”

AF: What can people who want to educate themselves do? What are the resources?
SN: I recommend several times a day that people pick up Kate Bornstein’s My Gender Workbook, which is a really great interactive almost textbook for understanding the social construction of gender. There’s exercises and activities and quizzes. It was really helpful for me when I was trying to understand my own gender identity.
KU: Going to your local library. If you think you have a trans child, or if you think you have a trans friend, before you approach them, try to do as much research as you can. The internet is a beautiful tool. You can read a lot of the science behind it.
DML: And no trying to insist that any trans person that you meet should be doing the emotional labor of educating you.
SN: Part of our profession is being in the public eye, so we take it upon ourselves to do that emotional labor part. But for the average trans person, just trying to get through their life, there’s a lot more at stake. Even this conversation is not actually exemplary of the type of conversation that you should assume any trans person is willing to have with you.

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