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A hilarious stand-up comedian and actor, Ian Harvie broke the glass ceiling when he became the first trans person in the world with a one-hour comedy special.
Harvie is unafraid to joke about subjects no other comedian would touch. He has toured the world with his unique act, challenging that traditionally macho, sex-obsessed world of stand-up in ways you wouldn’t believe. You may also recognize him from Transparent, as he appeared on two episodes acting in a role that was specifically created for him. His comedy special, May the Best Cock Win, landed on SEESO, NBC’s digital network, and is available now to stream.
We had the opportunity to chat with Harvie about trans visibility in Hollywood, how he landed himself on the hit show Transparent, drag queens, bears and what he’ll be doing to resist Donald Trump.
What came first for you, acting or stand-up?
I’ve been doing stand-up for 15 years. When I started doing it, I said to myself, “Holy shit! This is my jam, this is my thing, I love this so much,” and I chased it so hard. When I moved to Los Angeles 10 and a half years ago, I thought I would like to do acting, but I hadn’t done it since high school. I just thought I may fall into it.
So how did you eventually become involved with Transparent?
I started looking around at websites and then did some background work in Transparent. I ended up having a private Twitter conversation with Jill [Soloway], the director and creator. And she then asked me, “Will you come to the writer’s room? Come talk to us and tell us your story.” I went and shared my story with eight writers and Jill and some other producers. She then said, “We are writing a storyline for a trans guy that the youngest daughter Ally has a potential relationship with. And really, I just want to know if you will play him?”
The last time I had actually acted was in a production of The Hobbit in high school. I responded, “I’m scared,” and she asked, “What are you afraid of?” I then admitted to her I hadn’t done it a long time and she said, “What if I make a space for you?”
She brought some producers to a stand-up show that I did, and then she had me do an acting workshop with the entire cast. She then called me one day and said, “You got the part!” I responded, “Holy shit! I won’t let you down.” And she said, “No, no, no… I won’t let you down.” Who has that story? So that to me was an alternate Hollywood that I had been looking for. And from there I got these great managers after they saw me in Transparent. Everything that has happened for me is because of that moment and because of my managers and their push to get me other things. I feel very fortunate.
Are you still performing live?
I am totally still performing stand-up. That is a constant. The only times I’m not is if I am doing work on a show for some reason. My goal is to have acting feed stand-up and stand-up feed acting—to have those two feed each other.
There really aren’t that many LGBT comics. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of gay male comics, and definitely not many trans comedians. Why do you think it’s so hard for LGBT people? I almost feel like it’s easier for a gay man to get up in the gig as a drag queen and joke about sex and draw a crowd than for a gay man to stand up onstage and talk about sex. What do you think may be behind that? What is a possible boundary for LGBT people and stand-up?
I think you’re right. Gay male comics have a hard time drawing a crowd, but gay men will show up for Kathy Griffin or Margaret Cho. It’s fantastic for them. Gay men will also show up for a campy drag show with a big-name drag queen, but why don’t they support their gay brothers out of drag? I don’t know. I wonder if it’s some sort of internalized homophobia.
It’s weird that in order for us to watch a gay man talk about sex, they have to dress up as a woman to do it. Regardless, I think it’s hard for anyone LGBT—especially our trans brothers and sisters—to overcome that mainstream boundary in comedy. It’s not really happening.
I don’t know the exact answer, and I am exploring this in my head right now, but my gut reaction to that is that there is some internalized homophobia in gay culture and that it’s hard for gay brothers to hear another gay brother discuss and explore the realities of gay life. That kind of vulnerability is probably unnerving. It’s easier to hear it from a character than from a real face in the gay community. I don’t know.
Here’s something interesting: I know there are some really successful gay bear comics. Gay bears are much happier with their lives and bodies. They have a level of acceptance that other guys in gay culture maybe don’t have. I would say we are onto something with this idea of internalized homophobia.
What are your thoughts and feelings on trans visibility in Hollywood? What has been your takeaway from your own experiences, or what do you hope changes for the future?
I can tell you what I would love to see: I think Laverne Cox is the first person who has been cast as a series regular, on [the CBS show] Doubt. I would like to see more trans people cast as series regulars. I feel like the work going around is to normalize trans people, even though that sounds kind of gross to me. In a way, there is a part of me that is like, I don’t want to be normalized. I do want our community to be normalized so people aren’t violent to my sisters, but that word in general—I just hate the word normal. I have an aversion to it.
I am so excited for my trans sisters. I love that they are getting visibility and having their voices elevated, and I am so proud of every single one of them. The storylines keep getting more authentic. I understand the push and mission to change people’s ideas of trans women as these people simply putting on a costume. It’s not a costume. It’s not something they take off at the end of the day and wake up and put back on. This is who these people are. I understand the mission to elevate their stories, and couldn’t agree more to help make a safer environment for trans women to live in. I really think there’s an important issue with trans women’s lives at stake. Sharing their stories does feel more important at this moment than trans guy stories with all of the murders happening and all.
But I want to see some stories of trans men and have our voices to be elevated as well in the future. I would like to see a trans guy cast as a series regular. Whether it be that young great actor on Shameless or whether it be Chaz Bono or myself or somebody. There are a bunch guys out there getting started, and I would love to see a trans guy be a series regular and be an engaging character that creates more trans male visibility.
How are you feeling as a trans comic with this new administration?
I’m going to invoke my male privilege and not shut up as an open, out, trans queer guy. I am not going to shut up. I am not going to shut up critiquing him and his administration and policies. I am going to spread the word via social media. I am going to donate my time and donate my money, whether it be to the Dakota Access Pipeline to make sure that doesn’t happen, or whether it be to Planned Parenthood to make sure that stays funded. Whatever I can do to not shut the fuck up, that is my job. That was already my job as a comic, but it feels a million times more important than ever before. The only good thing that could possibly come out of this is that really good art is going to be made, and I’m not talking about memes on Facebook.
Watch Ian Harvie’s May the Best Cock Win, available to stream now.