An Interview With Actress, Performer and Trans Activist Candis Cayne


Photo Credit: Project Publicity

Back in 2007, long before the recent mainstream media's embrace of the trans community, Candis Cayne was cast as a lead character on the ABC primetime drama series Dirty Sexy Money. Though she had been performing for years, the role made Candis one of the very first trans women to achieve fame on the national scale. The public at large might have only gotten to know Candis from that point on, but she had been performing for years in the New York City club scene alongside drag queens like Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine, and was very much a part of the fabric of queer culture. Her renowned dance numbers, which sometimes involved Candis taking to the streets of New York City and dancing on the hood of taxis, gave her massive credibility as a dancer and choreographer.

Recently, Candis has appeared alongside Caitlyn Jenner on I Am Cait, the occasionally controversial but always important reality show documenting Caitlyn's transition. It's no coincidence that Candis is able to provide Caitlyn with support - as she told me, working as an actress and performer as a trans woman for over 20 years has certainly given her experience with being trans in the public eye. In addition to her acting career and presence on reality TV, Candis has continued to honor her love of performing on the stage. On October 23rd she's hosting Le Bal at the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, an incredible drag show documenting the history of drag culture, starring Drag Race favorites Raja, Delta Work, Mariah Balenciaga, Courtney Act and Willam.

Take a look at what Candis had to say about her trans experience, the "PC police," and her love of the drag community.

You transitioned before the Internet was available as a resource in the same way it is now. How do you think the Internet has changed the experience of being trans?

It's makes a world of difference. Girls and boys who are beginning to transition now have everything at their fingertips. There's no question of who they could possibly be, just a bigger question of how they want to transition, or who they are. They can go on the Internet and really find out everything - all the history of the trans community, the resources that are available to them in their communities... it's really amazing.

You are without a doubt a pioneer in terms of trans actresses playing big roles on TV. When you were first cast in Dirty Sexy Money, did you have any sense of the kind of sea change that was going on for trans people in Hollywood?

When it first happened I was totally surprised that I got the part, t took a while for it to sink in that it was really happening! I would go on auditions even after Dirty Sexy, and people didn't know where to put the trans woman; they were still working on their acceptance of it. In the past seven years or so, the opportunities have really grown by leaps and bounds. This pilot season I went to so many auditions for pretty great roles for trans characters, which has never happened before. So it has changed a lot - the world is definitely a different place.

There are a lot of ways to be an activist for the trans community. What role do you see yourself playing as a trans activist?

I always thought of myself as being a trans activist in a bit of a different way. I'm not someone who can write legislation, I'm not somebody who is going to march down the street and fight that way. What I do as far as my role in trans activism is be on television, do interviews, and conduct myself in a way that shines a positive light on the trans community. Hopefully doing that will help change the hearts and minds of people. With activism you have the writing of legislation and the protesting, but it's also important to hear trans actors and actresses speaking about their lives and their cause in a positive way, because that truly reaches the masses.

The relationship between the drag community and the trans community is not always a positive one. As someone who started off performing in drag shows and continues to work in the drag community, what do you think the root of the issues there are, and do you think we're getting closer to those issues being a thing of the past?

Personally, I have never had those issues. I've always had friends around me in the drag community that have always been supportive, so I'm not really sure what kind of issues there are. I mean there are problems in every group of people, but I don't think there is a larger trans/drag issue. I could be wrong, but it's nothing that I've ever felt.

Photo Credit: Project Publicity

I spoke to Calpernia Addams a while back about the so-called "PC Police," and she essentially said that people who get super upset over the use of a word need to reevaluate where those feelings are coming from, and not let a word have that much power over them. What are your feelings about the use of the "t word" in the queer community, and do you agree with Calpernia that some people need to just get a thicker skin?

Being a part of the trans community for 20 years now, I know that the "t word" was always a word we used to describe each other in a fun, happy way. That being said, I understand that some words trigger some people, and there's nothing I can do about that other than to not use it in a public forum. When I'm doing interviews I don't use the word because I don't want to offend anyone, and I understand how that word could be a trigger for them. I've told media outlets that I don't think there's anything wrong with the word, but that's me, and I realize that other people do, so I choose not to use it for that reason... except when I'm speaking with my girlfriends.

We are definitely living in a "PC police" world, so until we're all one race and everyone has every bit of ethnicity in them, so there can't be any reads because you'd be reading yourself, I'm just going to do my best to not offend people. For Jenny Boylan, one of the girls on "I am Cait" with me, the "t word" is definitely a trigger word. She doesn't want it to be used around her, and I get that. If she doesn't like a word, then I'm not going to use it around her.

A lot of people know you as Caitlyn Jenner's good friend on I Am Cait. Given how high profile Caitlyn's transition was, and how much flack she has occasionally gotten from the queer community, were you ever concerned that some of that negativity was going to get thrown your way?

No. I've walked the walk and talked the talk. I've been an open trans woman in the media for the world to see for 20 years, so nobody can come to me and tell me that I'm doing something wrong. I could teach a master class in it at this point! Caitlyn is 5 months into a transition of her life, you know? People are always adapting and always changing, especially when you're transitioning, so it's par for the course. She's going to be learning things, she's going to be asking questions, she's going to be making mistakes, but that's alright because she has a group of girls like us around her to help make sure she knows she's going to be okay.

The mainstream media has embraced the trans community more than it ever has. Have you experienced anything problematic about answering questions regarding trans folks from people who might not be very familiar with the subject?

I think that a lot of people don't know about trans issues, so as long as they are respectful and they ask questions purposely and honestly without being offensive, I don't mind talking about it. It's all about the intention behind the question.

You've been tapped as the host for Le Bal, a big drag stage show being put on at the Ace Theater in Downtown LA. What was the inspiration for the show, and what about it are you the most excited for?

I'm looking forward to the essence of the show. The producers really want to make it an "old school" kind of feel, trying to bring back the feel of the 40s. The want to get it back to when drag was pure, which I really love. The cast is also really great, so I'm really looking forward to hanging out with my sisters and doing shows!

Photo Credit: Project Publicity

The cast performing with you for Le Bal really is amazing (Raja, Willam, Delta Werk, Mariah Balenciaga, Courtney Act). Did you have a hand in selecting the other performers? What can the audience expect from them?

I didn't have a hand in picking them, but they're all amazing performers in their own right. They are all big names in drag for a reason, so I think people should expect a really fun show with a lot of really good, entertaining art on stage.

What do you hope the audience of Le Bal comes away from the show with?

I feel like especially in LA drag is lost - there are a few places that do drag, but Los Angeles as a whole has yet to truly embrace drag as an art in the way they do in other cities around the country. I hope that Le Bal sparks an embrace of this type of show, one that really explores and honors the history of drag.

Keep up with Candis on her Instagram and Twitter.