Consider yourself past the “transgender tipping point.”
When Christine Howey came out as transgender in 1990, all she wanted to do was blend in. As a middle-aged woman in a society that equates visibility with youth, it wasn’t as hard as she had expected. Even friends and family failed to notice her as Christine at first. During her coming out party, she managed to hide against the wall, invisible in a sea of the people that loved her most.
Yet, after decades of seeing how easy it is for trans women and men to “disappear,” as she put it, and realizing how often trans people are attacked or killed or commit suicide, Howey decided it was time to tell her story. She knew turning her life into a one-woman show would be terrifying, but also that she was one of the few people who had the privilege of support to do so. And so she set about turning her experience with poetry and acting into “Exact Change.”
It’s especially rare to see a trans woman writing and performing her own story. Now that transgender narratives are emerging in the mainstream, the conversation has shifted from the whether-or-not of representation to how trans stories are told. The Huffington Post spoke to Howey about the value of sharing her journey in an artistic space, the ethics of depicting trans women and men in fiction, and what she hopes the future of trans representation will look like.
How does telling your story in the form of a play change how you think about your journey?
It’s really interesting, because when I came out in 1990 I didn’t want to be noticed. And I was able to do that. But then, as time went on, I was really getting frustrated with stories of transgender women and men who were facing all kinds of awful situations.
I was very aware that a lot of transgender people tend to disappear, because that’s pretty much all you want to do. You just want to live your life and want to not be singled out. So, I decided telling my story is something I can do. A lot of people can’t. At that point, I had come out in Cleveland, and successfully for the most part. So, I just decided to take the leap into doing it very publicly.
How did you start turning your life into “Exact Change”?
It was a long process. Of course, all of this was terrifying. Every single element of what I have now was absolutely stark, raving terror. It was just a process of realizing that somebody has to speak up, somebody has to say that this is not something to be afraid of, that it’s okay. I just had to go through the process of acclimating myself to my decision. It took a while to get there.
I really wanted to get across the idea that we have to look at people the way they are, not the way you want them to be.
What was the hardest part of the process?
There were a lot different phases along the way. At one point, I called the director and said, “I really want to take my wig off during the show.” That was a major decision, because for a a person like me, that’s the ultimate reveal. That was tough, but I thought it was necessary because I really wanted to get across the idea that we have to look at people the way they are, not the way you want them to be. My wig was the last vestige of my disguise and I wanted to strip that away.
You are open about having surgery in “Exact Change,” but do you find it at all upsetting that there is so much fixation on trans bodies?
It is a little upsetting. To me, the surgery was more like housekeeping. It was not really a big deal. The big deal for me was really going out into the world as a woman and being accepted as a woman and being able to live that way, which I did in 1990. The surgery happened in 1994.
Do you mean that the physical element of the trans journey can be more trivial than people realize?
Yes. That’s a mistake a lot of trans women make, too. They think the surgery is going to change their lives, and then it doesn’t. You’re still the same person after the surgery, with the same strengths and weaknesses and everything else.
To me, the surgery was more like housekeeping. It was not really a big deal.
Another misunderstanding you focus on in “Exact Change” is the obsession with sexuality (i.e. friends asking if you’re “a lesbian now”).
Yeah, a lot of people mistake transgender for a sexual [preference]. They think that you want to be a woman because you want to have sex with a man. That’s just where their mind goes and it’s just a lack of understanding, because really, up until the last two or three years or so, this hasn’t been talked about in the mainstream. I think until recently, it was considered that you wanted to have sex with men as a woman, not because of the gender you are, regardless of what your orientation is.
Generally speaking, what would you tell people who want to be more mindful in having dialogues around the trans experience?
I think it’s a matter of just asking the individual what pronouns they prefer and so forth. There are a few different variations being used out there and it is individual.
I would also ask the trans people involved to back off and take a deep breath and not overreact when people are trying to interact with you. A lot of people are really just trying to figure it out and be understanding and do it the right way but they might not know what the right way is. Other people are just being hostile. I think, in general, the best way for someone to interact with a trans person is just really to ask.
That said, there is a rightful sensitivity around asking about certain aspects of the journey.
I mean, I would always answer any questions, because I thought that was what was needed. Even if it was about sexual [identity] or surgery, I would try to answer the best way I could, just because we’re at that stage where people are trying to figure this out. It’s understandable that people have questions. In some cases, the questions are a little too personal or delicate, and I just try to give it a general answer and move on. But I try to make sure I show people I’m trying to answer their questions, because it’s understandable why people have questions.
How has the rise in mainstream awareness affected your experience with friends and family?
When I came out 25 years ago, there was much less awareness. It was difficult for everyone in my family. They experienced something akin to a death, as if Richard went away and here was Christine. And I understood that. I didn’t try and force anybody to respond positively.
My coming out was difficult for everyone in my family. They experienced something akin to a death. You know, Richard went away and here was Christine.
My mother had a hard time with it but then she actually did come around, as she does in the scene [in “Exact Change”]. We were in a restaurant and her friend came over to our table and I had no idea what she was going to do. I thought she was going to introduce me as her niece. When she said “my daughter,” it just bowled me over. You know, when I wrote and rehearsed the piece, it took a couple months to do that part without breaking down and crying. That was one of the most significant moments of my life.
As a trans woman sharing your journey on stage, how do you think about cis people writing or performing trans stories?
I think it depends. I actually wrote an article about this. In general, yes, I think trans women actors and men actors should be cast in those roles, but you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. For instance, I think it’s completely right to cast Laverne Cox in “Orange Is the New Black.” But I also think Jeffrey Tambor is perfect for “Transparent.”
Do you think telling trans stories with mainstream visibility has opened things up for different versions of the trans experience?
Yeah, I think so. That’s why I wanted to do my story in terms of poetry and performance, because I think you bring a lot more to the narrative. You know, the trans experience has been presented in fiction and it’s been presented in real stories, like trans people will go on talk shows or whatever and tell their story. What’s missing is this thing in between, where you’re telling your story in an artistic or, in this case, theatrical medium. That gives access to people in so many different ways.
You’re saying it’s easier to sculpt reactions by telling non-fiction stories artistically?
Yes, you have the ability to shape the reveal of certain facts and information. Instead of just going through the whole litany of things that have happened in your life, you can really bring new understanding by having people take that journey with you.
I think the next step is just really to have a sitcom on TV where there’s a transgender person next door and it’s not a big deal, where that character is just another person.
For example, there’s quite a bit of humor in my show. There are also a number of poignant moments, where I’m trying to put the audience in that moment to see how something feels. I think the only way you can do that is through art, the art of poetry or theater, or whatever you choose to use. That’s happened for a lot of other situations. I think it’s time now for that to happen in the trans world.
Holistically speaking, what do you think is the next step? What does trans representation over the next five or 10 years look like in an ideal world?
I think the next step is just really to have a sitcom on TV where there’s a transgender person next door and it’s not a big deal, where that character is just another person. You know? It’s kind of what the “Will & Grace” effect was for gay men. That’s what you really want to get to. We’ve made a lot of strides in the past couple of years, but I think that’s what’s next, getting to a point where it’s not this huge, conversation-stopping thing. The next step is making the trans experience just a part of life, because, of course, that’s what it is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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