Jamie Clayton is an actor appearing in the popular HBO drama series "Hung." The show is about a male prostitute, and Clayton, who is openly trans, plays the role of a transsexual woman in the show seeking the main character's services. There are so many ways for this to go wrong, as I nervously opined over the summer when I first heard about Ms. Clayton's upcoming role.
But in her recent interview with The Insider about her role (h/t TransGriot), she shows that she is not only a pretty face, but understands how to position herself as an actor who happens to be trans to a wider community that often sees us in stereotypes.
This is no mean feat, made so much more tricky by the politics both inside and outside the community. She manages to stake her territory without falling into unthinking adoption of either mealy-mouthed or strident memes ("it shouldn't matter" or "there's so much prejudice"). At the same time, she manages to communicate both of these concepts with grace. They're both true, but wearisome, and said baldly they position one as either an elitist or playing the victim card. It takes a smart cookie to communicate such deep and complex issues in accessible, nonverbal ways, and perhaps that is the definition of acting.
Her interview is after the jump.
I note that I haven't seen the whole episode, just the trailer. (I don't have a TV, and I haven't yet figured out how to access the show online. You can find the trailer here.)
Kudos to The Insider for not concentrating on Ms. Clayton's transgender history, for not looking for salacious or titillating tidbits. One of the most brilliant aspects of Ms. Clayton's personality is that she is so down-to-earth, genuine and likeable. She is not afraid of being out, but it is clearly not her main focus, and that provides a lot of room to see her as an actor, rather than a "transgender actor." In describing her reaction upon first hearing of getting the part, she said she burst into tears and called her mom. She's not afraid of revealing her humanity, and we like what we see.
I found it fascinating that she got the role because the casting director saw her featured as part of her acting school in a New York Times article, "Act Out Class Helps Gay Actors Find Themselves Onstage." She appears in a video on the Times website, in which she talks about wondering whether she belonged in the class, because she is not gay. The context of the video appears to be a discussion in the class, at that time, about suicides of young LGBT people. She affectingly describes her revelation that there is common thread, that she, and other young people of her generation, were "told that what we were doing was wrong," and that they "should hide it." As a trans young person, she was told "you can pass, so don't tell anyone, because that's the goal." She wasn't happy doing that, and it wasn't until she told everyone that she found happiness and liberation.
Ms Clayton is treading the treacherous path between being closeted in stealth and making one's life all about being trans. How often do we find trans people with "passing privilege" willing to be out? Part of that is the fault of the medical profession, which told so many people that the only way to make it was to hide. I remember well hearing those words, and how utterly I rejected them, how wretched they made me feel, but I nodded my head compliantly, waiting for the gatekeepers to give me the magic letters I needed to proceed with my transition.
As my politico friend Melissa Sklar is fond of saying, the trouble with trying to help trans people through the political process is that so many of us simply blend into the woodwork after transition, and disappear. Those that are left are often saddled with the crushing weight of social oppression caused by stereotyping, discrimination and "lookism." Political representation requires a subject to represent, and enough subjects to be heard above the din of the crowd. To see Ms. Clayton speaking up so eloquently, and yet to be clearly identified first and foremost as a talented actor, that is music to my tired ears.
I applaud Ms. Clayton for not getting bogged down in the intra-group wrangling about transgender vs. transsexual. She simply identifies as a woman. If some people identify her as transgender, so be it. I don't know how she personally thinks of her identity, and she is smart enough to know that it doesn't matter on the public stage.
She said she was attracted to the part of Kyla in the show because the writers made her "a regular girl, she's so human." This echoes her response in a fascinating People Magazine article by Janet Mock, in which she talks about the New York Observer article coming out. (Click here to find out more about that Observer piece.) I find Ms. Clayton's response particularly interesting. Unlike the common narrative, which says that one achieves "normalcy" by hiding who one is, she accomplished this by coming out. That's totally refreshing.
I'll never forget the day the article came out. My whole life just completely changed," she reflects of making the decision to be "visible to the public" as a transgender woman and in effect say, "I'm here, I'm this girl. I'm totally like everybody else."
And that sense of normalcy is what initially attracted Clayton to Kyla, which is her first acting role.
"I love that she's just a regular girl, and I love that she wanted Ray to know [she's transgender]," the actress says. "With Kyla coming into Ray's life he has a big lesson, and I think it shows people we're constantly growing, and if we open ourselves up to new experiences we become better people."
There is, of course, the counternarrative saying that "normal" is a socially constructed concept, that we should not want to be normal, and that speaking about it is taboo because it condemns those who are perceived as abnormal. But that ignores the reality of human nature, of which "fitting in" is a large part. Much as I abhor the glib explanations of evolutionary psychology, I have to admit that I think we are gregarious herd animals by nature. And as much as I agree that no one should be condemned for being different, neither should anyone be condemned for wanting to be a part of the larger social network. So kudos to Ms. Clayton for saying it out loud: I'm just a regular girl.
Of course, this might be seen to conflict with positions I have taken in the past, noting that part of the causes of heterosexism and transphobia in the gay community is the powerful desire to be seen as "normal," and to disavow other elements of the community seen as "too queer." But I don't see it as a conflict. It's fine to want to be seen, and to see one's self, as "normal." What's not fine is participating in the same game as the oppressors, and trying to ingratiate one's self with the crowd by excluding and oppressing others, trying to re-focus the prejudice and hatred elsewhere instead of confronting it.
The key issue we as a community have to overcome is stereotyping -- that people have an idea of what it means to be a transgender or transsexual person in their heads, and assume that you are the image in their head. This prejudice is the ultimate cause of social and legal discrimination. It's the reason that our employment discrimination laws focus on stereotyping in a big way.
My biggest problem on meeting new people, who, for whatever reason, know that I am trans, is getting past their well-meaning "but you're not like the image I have in my head of trans people" comments that clog up the first few minutes. It usually translates to "I have an image of trans people that they're weird but you're not weird." I could beat them up a little about that, but find it not a useful way to start the conversation. I just want to relate to them about whatever it is we are together to work on, not engage in trans 101 class. I'm a professor and a scholar and a lawyer and an advocate and an interesting, complex, whole person. I want to be out, but I don't want to be reduced to the one component part that they see as freakish.
As Ms. Clayton said, "I just want to be judged for my work and not for my past." In answer to the complex question of "what is the most common misconception about transgender people?", Ms. Clayton's answer shines. She doesn't fall into the trap of comparing herself favorably to other trans-identified people, implicitly condemning those who aren't are as comely or passable or out. Rather, she deconstructs the stereotyping issue in clear, simple, forthright words. What is the biggest misconception about transgender people, according to Jamie Clayton?
"That we're all the same....People have ideas in their head about what transgender means, and they see one example and they assume we're all the same, but we're all different. I just want to act."
Well said, Ms. Clayton.