Interview With Trans Activist and Icon Calpernia Addams


Photo by Jose Guzman

In putting together a collection of interviews with compelling members of the queer community, one would be remiss to leave out trans activist, writer, singer/songwriter, actress, coach, and comedian Calpernia Addams. I was fortunate that she agreed to answer a few questions, and even more fortunate that she included accompanying links. (Thanks, Calpernia!) Take a look at what she has to say about her life growing up, the politics of language, and her history as a tireless advocate for equality.

How did you envision your future when you were growing up?

I really struggled with being a creative, intellectual, dreamer type growing up in pre-Internet, 1980s Nashville, and every thought felt judged by the fundamentalist Christian cult my family was in. I was socially awkward, poor and not very good-looking, so I spent a lot of my time walking alone in the woods and daydreaming, or lost in a book at the local library, imagining I was someone else. I imagined that I would become a musician and backpack across Europe. In my heart of hearts, I imagined myself as someone beautiful and mysterious like the femme fatales in the black-and-white movies I watched with my mother. I just never thought that would be a possibility.

As a kid you began performing bluegrass and gospel-style fiddle in church. Was music something you thought of as a future career path?

Music was something fundamental that everyone in our family just did. It was a basic skill, like cooking: Every kid learns at least how to make a grilled-cheese sandwich; some go on to become chefs. I play about seven or eight instruments now, but I wish I'd taken it even more seriously when I was young and my brain still worked well. I'm finishing up my first acoustic album, produced by my friend Patrick Wolf, the awesome, indie, cult superstar (and openly gay artist) whose music is so inspirational to me. It's going to be sort of like if Emmylou Harris and early Loretta Lynn had a daughter who hung out with Kate Bush and Lana Del Rey a lot.

You posted a great YouTube video a few years ago in which you discuss the stupid questions some people ask you. How often do you still get asked those questions, and how do you handle them if and when it happens?

When I made "Bad Questions to Ask a Transsexual," YouTube was still pretty new, and there weren't many "YouTube stars" like now. Views happened more organically, with people finding and sharing videos rather than big production teams and corporations running things like mini television shows with marketing experts. I started transitioning almost 20 years ago, and I kept hearing the same condescending and stupid things over and over. One night I came home from a photo shoot, had two glasses of whiskey, and decided to do a video based on an old list of bad questions I had made up. It was improvised, and I was slightly buzzed, but I think I humorously said a lot of things that a lot of trans women had been feeling for a long time. Out of nowhere a YouTube staff member wrote to me and asked if I minded if they featured it on the front page of YouTube. I was like, "Yes, please!" And it ended up with a few million views (across two versions), one of the few LGBT-themed videos that got a million-plus views in those early days. A key difference between "Bad Questions" and the language police of today is that I didn't tell people they couldn't ask those questions; I just tried to make them afraid to ask those questions.

When the most recent "T" word debacle was in full swing, it seemed like everyone with access to a keyboard and the Internet was sounding off with their opinion. What would you say is the most important thing to learn from the controversy?

People need to know their history, allow others to self-identify, and at least try to toughen the fuck up over the small stuff. And you can tell them that comes from someone who lived through the '80s and '90s, fought in an actual war and lost someone dear to anti-gay violence. If your experience with the word comes from being "triggered" by it on Tumblr, then have a seat. I do not self-identify as a "tranny," though I have used the term in protest against the thought police who want to reclassify it as a "slur." I identify as a woman, though I will discuss being a woman who transitioned if it's relevant or educational. But I stand strong for people's right to self-identify, and long before the small, vocal crop of college kids and older, separatist trans women joined the queer community, there was a historical tradition of trans people and even drag entertainers who shortened "transgender," "transsexual," or "transvestite" to "tranny." Many of these are trans people of color. (Also see RuPaul on "tranny.") This word was a casual, fun self-identity for some people, most of whom have faced the most extreme violence and discrimination it is possible to direct at gender-nonconforming people, over many decades. Last year I saw a wave of newly queer, ahistorical, mostly white, middle- and upper-class trans women storm in, grab language they didn't participate in or invent and try to outlaw it. I personally think they were just terrified that they might be associated with those "undesirables," the drag queens and sex workers and impoverished trans women of color who happily used the word as a casual identity. By the way, I use the traditional definition of "transgender," which is an umbrella term for anyone who crosses gender lines, including the drag queens so hated by the separatists.

You have worked closely with some high-profile actors to help them prepare for their roles portraying trans people on the big screen. How do you approach that situation, knowing that you will be seen (by some) as responsible for how the actor ultimately comes across?

Last year we saw some major strides forward for trans opportunities in media. Many of the things I've had to do in the past were as much damage prevention as anything: An artist wants to bring a trans story to life, and they are aware that they don't have a lot of knowledge beyond the surface, so they seek out someone to consult. What outsiders often don't consider is that the movie will be made whether I help or not. I can choose to give guidance and perspective, or I can say no and let them possibly make huge mistakes. Everyone I've consulted for has gone on to be nominated for, or win, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, an Emmy, and other awards as well. And of course, Jared Leto famously won his Oscar last year and surprised me by mentioning my name in his speech. There were a few vocal detractors of my work with Jared and others, but I mostly saw them as small minds with big megaphones. There was not a single detractor whom I'd objectively consider to be someone with an accomplished artistic perspective or background. Meanwhile, movies like Soldier's Girl, Transamerica and Dallas Buyers Club have opened up the world to empathize with unique, authentic individual characters in the trans spectrum. I've known actual people like Jared's "Rayon" character, and to the people who are embarrassed by poor, non-passing, HIV-positive, homeless trans people, I heartily say, "Fuck you." Others are upset that trans people aren't playing these roles. I am too, but thanks to these portrayals, new doors are opening (where they can). We are on a journey here. Thankfully, things are finally changing. Let's not forget the work that went into those changes.

Andrea James and I have been working both behind the scenes and out front to improve these opportunities and perceptions for over a decade, alongside other dedicated trans people who see media as an important focus. It's important to remember that however many awards and TV shows happen, there are hugely important issues being addressed by trans people outside the glamor of Hollywood too, as politician Dana Beyer reminded us recently.

One of my favorite things about you is how talented you are in so many different ways. Is there one particular variety of performance -- comedy, singing, or acting -- that you enjoy the most?

I love singing live in a speakeasy-, jazz-, or cabaret-type environment the most. Comedy is probably my second love. And I have another book in the early stages. I need to drink more coffee!

What are the biggest differences you notice between the crowds you perform for now and the crowds you started out performing for in Nashville?

I was a showgirl in the '90s. The majority of people in Nashville were closeted, and being LGBT was still a very underground, rebellious identity. We had just lived through the '80s, so people were fired up and getting a little more comfortable. There were protected and secretive support resources out there taking hold. It felt kind of rock-and-roll, countercultural, dangerous and cool to be lesbian and gay. Bucking gender norms was even scarier and more dangerous. Today you can take a college class on gender identity, subscribe to one of several LGBT-themed cable channels, attend your high school's gay-straight alliance meetings. I mean, let's not pretend it's easy or safe to be LGBT now, but wow is it easier!

In addition to being an amazing performer, you are also among the best-known trans activists out there. What is the most difficult part of being looked at as an activist, and what is the most rewarding?

There was a time when simply being out qualified you as an activist. I came up in that time. I think those days are close to ending. It's just not that radical to be out anymore, but I think it's still important. I was thrust into the spotlight in 1999 when my boyfriend's murder became national news, and I used that attention to work for justice for him. Since then, if anyone asks me to be somewhere for a cause and I can at all make it, I am there. That has resulted in work with PFLAG, NGLTF, SLDN, GLAAD -- basically the entire alphabet soup of LGBT causes. I've waved in small-town pride parades in the South, I've spoken to Oxford University and C-SPAN, etc., etc., etc. That has all been very important to me. But the hard part of being an activist is that people want to hold me to a very grave and serious standard, when I am at heart a jazz-singing showgirl with a filthy, transgressive sense of humor and an ever-diminishing capacity to suffer fools gladly.

You've had speaking engagements and performances in countries all over the world. What has been the most surprising experience you've had abroad?

I've traveled the world quite a bit, so it's hard to choose, but probably how sassy and cute the students were when I spoke at Oxford University. I expected them to be a bit stiffer. After the event I went out dancing with some of the young guys, and we had several rounds of tequila shots, then a breathtakingly beautiful girl studying microbiology walked me through the Harry Potter-esque cobblestone streets back to my historical hotel. It was magical.

Which of your many accomplishments makes you the most proud?

I get the most pleasure from singing live. I won't speculate if the audience feels the same, but they keep booking me, so I keep showing up. The movie Soldier's Girl has frozen the most painful moment of my life in time and does a great deal to keep that pain alive, but I am intensely proud that we were able to honor Barry Winchell's life with that beautiful film.

What advice would you give to someone suffering from a lack of self-confidence?

Oh, God, I would tell them that you might have those feelings of self-doubt for the rest of your life, but so do all the great achievers in the world. The key is to just keep pushing forward. Jane Fonda once told me that if you don't feel nervous before you go on stage, then you're probably not invested in what you're doing. Keep pushing on.