Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Why I'm Impressed By Jamie Clayton

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | November 07, 2011 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Jamie Clayton, Thomas Jane, trans actors, transgender actors

JamieClayton2-copy.jpgJamie 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.

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Jessica Mink | November 7, 2011 6:09 PM

I'm not doing it the same way as Jamie, trying to make it with everyone knowing that she is transgendered, but as I transition, I'm integrating my male past into my female future and thus also having to live as transgendered to those who know me. And it's turned out to be more freeing for me to live supported by my past as a transgendered person than it would have been to live as a woman without that past.

Oh please... She certainly didn't reinforce any negative transgender stereotypes with that insipid, sickening "TRANSform Me" show on VH1.

I don't hide the fact that I'm Trans, but there isn't enough money in the world to tempt me into exploiting myself on some idiotic reality show whose title is meant to be wordplay on the name of the medical condition I was born suffering from.

I didn't see the "TRANSform Me" show on VH1, Erica, so I can't comment on what stereotypes might have been reinforced. My feelings about reality TV shows are kind of similar to yours, Erica. Someone recently offered me the chance to be on a reality show, one that I have actually seen and even like, but I had no second thoughts in saying no thanks.

As far as exploitation, one thing that occurs to me is that the entertainment business, and reality shows in particular, are all about exploitation of stereotypes, and this perhaps no more than any other. Part of the reason I have no TV is because I don't find that particularly interesting any more. But every business has its seamy underside, and let me tell you, the lawyers and the professors have plenty to answer for.

I've seen TRANSform Me. It's a silly, very lightweight, disposable show but I don't think it was especially exploitative. Yes, they did have picture of the three trans women as "boys" at the beginning of the show (which I could have done without). Jamie and Laverne both comported themselves with real dignity and only Nina "trannied" it up for the camera. The thing is, young girls and women saw that show and might have had a more positive (or, at least, less freaked out) view towards trans women and I think it was worth it for that. Plus, Jamie is a professional makeup artist, so why shouldn't she do that within the confines of a reality show? Believe it or not, large parts of our barely educated population don't respond to serious discussions about medical conditions.

Jillian I couldn't help but to notice that in the interview the term used by both Jamie and the interviewer was "actress". Not once but throughout. Yet in this post you use the term actor repetitively and never actress. That may seem minor and certainly the term actor is often applied to either sex but it jumped out at me because the interview used the feminine noun actress but you avoided it. Why?

Good point, Deena. I used the term "actor" because I had learned, at some point, that in the acting profession the use of the term was preferred to differentiating between male and female actors. I didn't even notice the use of the term "actress" in the other stories. I'm wondering now whether I should have used the term "actress" instead.

She sounds like someone I could really learn a lot from.

Great post, Dr. Weiss.

great look at this actress--glad to know about her. but it's important to not further the myth that stealth trans people are "closeted". somebody who lives their life as simply male or female and views their trans history like any other private medical condition is not necessarily hiding or shameful. for many trans people, if they are ever closeted at all, it's before they transition. secretly being male or female was their closet. I don't think anyone can ever be 100% stealth, and it's particulary difficult for anyone in the public life (it would certainly be discovered). It may even be that this particularly actress felt she was 'hiding' something by not being openly trans to everyone. But let's not phrase things in such a way that makes it look as though people who value self identitification and medical privacy are any less proud or honest about who they are.

Ezky, I have a question about this idea that being trans is "a private medical condition." I have a lot of sympathy for this idea. But what do we say to those who argue that adopting such a position requires that trans people are invisible and apolitical to the extent they are able to pass, leaving those unable or unwilling to pass, or those in the beginning of transition, to suffer from the most outrageous discrimination because the trans community as a whole has not been willing to take a public stand for rights in order to preserve their privacy?

Well, a couple things, Dr. Weiss. For one, I say that not being forced to or expected to disclose what is or was in your pants is a very progressive, political idea, actually. I think it is a radical notion that not everybody has a right to know somebody's trans status. The expectation that one *must* share this info furthers anti-trans violence and lays the responsibility on the trans person alone. It also requires that they "other" themselves for the sake of non-trans comfort levels.

So, The idea that a stealth trans person is not political is incorrect. Stealth can be an *active* political stance and a statement to those who are so uncomfortable with us that they feel they must know in advance how to read us or whether it is "safe" to be attracted to us.

Secondly, this idea of 'passing' or ‘not passing’ as some kind of political litmus test is strange to me. Just because someone may need medical intervention or prefers khakis to purple hair, or is, say, a femme lesbian constantly read as straight, does not mean they are being apolitical by being who they are.

I for one wish that the “visible=the only way to be political” crowd would stop and think about how that can marginalize stealth people within the movement and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In order for more stealth people to feel like they can join the fight they have to have a safe place to do so.

Nevertheless there are MANY passable and sometimes stealth trans people who do important activist and legal work in LGBT communities. A lot of stealth trans people are also queer or gay identified, very out about that, and doing pro-trans activism (while suffering anti-gay oppression at the same time).

I don't really follow the idea that if the 'passable' people identified themselves as trans, that those unable or unwilling to pass, or those in the beginning of transition, would suffer less. [If anything, I've seen the reverse happen in the LGB community: the more that the 'assimilated' people come out, the more the 'visibly queer' are expected to disappear or shape up.]

There are a lot of intersections of identity and it's not necessarily the 'not passable' who are suffering the most; I think given a variety of circumstances there may be times the stealth person is most in jeopardy and times the non-passable person is. Race and class and gender of course also all play a role.

It’s a dangerous, and I think, anti-trans view that once stealth people can pass they have stopped fighting the good fight.

Om Kalthoum | November 8, 2011 6:56 PM
(I don't have a TV, and I haven't yet figured out how to access the show online....)

Pssst... One word (or is it two?): BitTorrent. The free app I use is Vuze. There are many others.

I got rid of my TV, and a show with a name like Hung doesn't sound like anything I'd be drawn to. Still, I used Vuze to check out what's available. If I chose, I could download all of Season 1 and 2 and everything televised so far of Season 3 of Hung, and be watching it this evening.

Wait. I changed my mind. I'm going to respectfully disagree on one point. (I still think it's a great post, though.)

Yeah, we're all different. She's right. And she said it plainly. But I disagree that this is the best take away.

We always talk about how we're different. Like, always. And we seem to have this idea that, if we only talked about how we're different more, the more we'd understand and respect each other. But all I see is people fighting--identity politics wars that never end. And when we fight, we think the solution and the way to peace is to explain our differences even further. Well, maybe there's a connection between those things. Maybe, just maybe, the fact that we spend all our time thinking about how we're different is the very thing that's causing us to fight so much, maybe that's what's making it so hard to see the humanity in each other.

So, perhaps, we've got the whole thing backwards. Maybe we're thinking about it the wrong way. Maybe the thing to do is to focus on what we've got in common.

I personally sometimes have no idea what motivates the members of our larger community. Either the larger T or the larger LGBT. Even if you explain it to me, I'm not gonna feel it. But I can sure understand all the things we have in common. I can feel those things in my gut. And when I think about it that way, the humanity of the other people shines forth to me in a way it never does when all I do is focus on differences.

Okay, now I'll shut up.