Interview: Trans Male Comedian Ian Harvie on Why Representation Matters and Being The First to Have His Own Stand Up Special
One of the best parts of my job is to provide a megaphone for different voices and learn about some truly interesting people. Trans male comedian Ian Harvie is no exception. Since opening for Margaret Cho from 2006-2009, he’s gone on to appear in hit shows like Transparent and Mistresses.
During Seeso’s preview night for the upcoming comedy festival in New York, I got to speak with him about his experiences in Hollywood and why representation is so important.
This season, you appeared in Young & Hungry as Gabi’s (Emily Osment) long lost uncle, Chris, who was born a woman. My favorite thing about “Young & Bowling” is the way that the show handled your storyline.
It was so sweet that it was about Gabi [being] mad that she missed her relative and that she’s like “I don’t care about your transition! I care that I haven’t seen you. Where the hell have you been?” And that, to me, was as it should be. That’s how you should be about family that you haven’t seen or there’s been some sort of displacement or family separation of someone that you adore. It shouldn’t be about their transition, it should be about, “Hey, I fuckin’ missed you.” So it was a sweet take. I hope I get to do something else with them.
Right now, the trans community is gaining such visibility in mainstream media. Do you think they’re doing a good job or could they be handling things in a better way?
I think they’re starting to do a better job. Media in general, I’m not just talking about news. When people say media, they often just think the news, the reports of trans statistics or a trans person was murdered or that sort of thing. I do think those things are important to report but in media, outside of just the news, we don’t really think of the media as movies and TV and documentaries and everything you could possibly consume to learn something about trans people.
It is getting better because trans people are getting to tell their stories as opposed to non-trans people telling trans people’s stories. So when you get that inclusivity, then you get the story right. So it is getting better. There’s a long ways to go, of course, as we say with anything around racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and that sort of thing but, yeah, we have a long way to go. But it is getting better. I mean, with shows like Transparent and even how Young & Hungry handled that storyline, even how Mistresses handled the storyline. So I think that people are understanding that they must include trans people in the storytelling behind the camera, in front of the camera, in the writer’s room, producer, and all aspects…because it’s passing through so many hands before the consumers actually see it and having us involved in the storytelling is gonna get the story right. When you get the story right, it can be lifesaving so representation matters.
It’s interesting because a decade ago, you didn’t really hear the word “trans” uttered in the mainstream.
Back to representation. I remember when I came out—I ‘m old, I came out when I was 19 and in the lesbian community. I came out again later when I was 32 and I’m 48, and I remember thinking had I ever met a trans person when I was a kid, I might have known sooner who I was. It’s really hard to understand who you are when you’ve never seen yourself in somebody else. I think so many people have been trying to scratch the surface of who they are and then when they see someone that they identify with, they’re like “Oh my god! That’s me!” So I think that that’s something that is really important. This elevation of trans voices and visibility in media and accurate storytelling is allowing people out there to come out much quicker without the struggle of trying to put the finger on who you are. So it’s really beautiful.
With your upcoming standup comedy special, I heard you’ll be the first trans male to have one.
Seeso is so behind this and so excited about it and I’m so proud to be doing it. I have wanted to do this. When people have said to me things like, “did you ever think that something like this would happen?” and I’d say yes. Not because I felt I deserve it, but because, yes, I dreamed about it. And my dream is coming true and Seeso is helping to make that happen.
Do you feel like you’re carrying a torch? Do you feel a lot of pressure to do this?
No. I don’t feel like there’s pressure. A long time ago, I was opening for the great, wonderful Margaret Cho and I was very scared to go on stage and tell my story and say that I was trans, even in front of LGBT people. And she said, “You know what? There is nobody out there talking about this. They need your voice. We need representation in this area. And you’re it. Do it.” And I don’t feel like I’m carrying a torch. But I do feel like in comedy, especially that it’s a cisgender non-transgender man’s sort of world historically.
I think it’s great that I’m the first, but more than that, it’s going open the doors for other people to make specials too. There are a lot of other trans comics out there that would love to have a special and for their voice to be elevated and it’s important to hear our stories. So I don’t feel pressure by that. I feel excited, I feel proud. I feel proud that this is gonna be the first one and that hopefully, it will create a pathway for others to come through,
Do you notice a difference in how people react to you when you go overseas?
Yeah. I found that in Australia and Canada, in particular, they’re not shocked when I say I’m trans. They are because of maybe what I look like but it’s not a shocking, scary thing for people. Comedy is disarming so it’s hard to get shocked or scared as an audience member. Maybe in the U.S. there seems to be a whole flood of ideas or misconceptions about trans people, that we’re somehow deceiving people or tricksters and we’re not really who we say we are.
It seems like Australia, it just seems like they were playing an improv game with me and saying, “yes, and…We believe you.” There was no pause or beat and they were incredible audiences. Whereas, I think sometimes here, they have to take a pause and I often will acknowledge that pause in the audience because I can feel it. I can feel it happen where people take that pause and go, “wait, really?”
If you look at me, I have a full beard, I have super short hair. And for me to say that I was born female, I’m sure everybody for a split second pauses. I’ve been doing it for 15 years and I need to give [the audience] a second to take it in and then we can move on. And I usually joke about it like, “You guys are gonna be fine. It’s okay. We’re all gonna hug it out after the show.” But I do think there’s that millisecond longer of a pause here, “I don’t know.” So everybody gets it everywhere.
I mean, transgender consciousness is happening everywhere. And a lot of it is due to violence and it is due to transgender rights and being granted rights that we should have been granted a long time ago. And then, with that, there’s always some sort of push back and in that push back, it’s elevated into the news. There’s trans women of color being murdered, so there’s things like that that are happening that are really horrific. They’re happening here but they’re also happening in Australia, they’re happening everywhere. It’s not just here. So they are aware of some of these things already.
I’m hoping that I’m putting a new spin and a new touchstone or framework to what trans people are really like and I do it in a way that’s subversive….And that I’m not wagging my finger at them in the show at all…By the end of the show, they’ve laughed, they’d walk out and have a totally new perspective about what trans people really are.
Yeah, and it’s subversive because I made them laugh through it all and they learned something new. And I’m hoping that somewhere sometime, when somebody said something off-color about a person who is trans, that someone who was in my audience at one time would say, “Hey, you know what? It’s actually not really like that.” That would be beautiful to me. If someone were to just stop and go, “Actually, I kinda know a trans person and it’s not really like that.”
Look out for Harvie’s special on Seeso in December.
(image via screencap)
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