Jeff & Will welcome journalist and podcaster Tre’vell Anderson to talk about their book We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film. Tre’vell discusses the history of trans and gender expansive characters in TV and film, and how these representations impacted their own identity and community. They also highlight important moments through history, ongoing issues around representation, the memoir/personal aspects of the book, and advice for improving trans representation in media.
Look for the next episode of Big Gay Fiction Podcast on Monday, September 11.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find many more outstanding podcasts at frolic.media/podcasts!
Here are the things we talk about in this episode. Please note, these links include affiliate links for which we may make a small commission at no extra cost to you should you make a purchase. These links are current at the time the episode premieres, however links are subject to change.
- Tre’Vell Anderson Interview
- Tre’Vell Anderson: website | X (Twitter) | Instagram
- We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film by Tre’Vell Anderson
- Orange is the New Black on Netflix
- To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar on Amazon Prime Video
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on Amazon Prime Video
- Transparent on Amazon Prime Video
- Transgender Media – GLAAD website
- Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah by The Lady Chablis
- When They See Us on Netflix
- With Love on Amazon Prime Video
- America’s Next Top Model on Hulu
- Pose on Hulu
- Vogue Evolution on YouTube
- The Jerry Springer Show on The Roku Channel
- Maury Show on The Roku Channel
- Survivor (Season 33) on Paramount+
- Disclosure on Netflix
- The Cheetah Girls on Disney+
- P-Valley on Amazon Prime Video
- Sort of on Max
- Monica on YouTube
- Una Mujer Fantástica (Fantastic Woman) on Hulu
- Razor Tongue on YouTube
- Dirty Sexy Money on Amazon Prime Video
- Boys Don’t Cry on Amazon Prime Video
- FANTI podcast
- What a Day podcast
- We See Each Other: The Podcast
- When Crack Was King: A People’s History of a Misunderstood Era by Donovan X. Ramsey
- Pageboy by Elliot Page
- The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation by Raquel Willis (pre-order until November 14, 2023)
- Big Gay Fiction Podcast Links
This transcript was made possible by our community on Patreon. You can get information on how to join them at patreon.com/biggayfictionpodcast.
Will: Coming up on this episode, journalist, podcaster, and author Tre’Vell Anderson talks to us about their book, “We See Each Other.”
Jeff: Welcome to episode 435 of the Big Gay Fiction Podcast, the show for avid readers and passionate fans of queer romance fiction. I’m Jeff, and with me as always is my co host and husband, Will.
Will: Hello, Rainbow Romance Reader. We are so glad that you could join us for another episode of the show.
Jeff: We’re going to get right into our interview with Tre’Vell Anderson. This is an interview that makes me extremely happy and proud that we have a podcast so that we can amplify this important conversation. Tre’Vell’s book, “We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film,” is one we were excited to read because we like books that look at the history of queer media. This is much more than that, though, because it’s also part memoir, as Tre’Vell considers the trans characters they’ve seen in media and how the media has covered those characters, since they’ve got a background in entertainment journalism.
They also look at the state of the world today and the attacks on trans people as fueled by the way trans characters are presented in TV and film. This book is outstanding, and in particular the audiobook that’s read by Tre’Vell. We talk a lot in this conversation, including how the book came about, how they decided what shows to discuss, how we could all help elevate work by trans creators, and good representation of trans characters. And perhaps most importantly, it’s all about how this plays out into the political climate we’re in today.
Tre’Vell Anderson Interview
Jeff: Tre’Vell, welcome to the podcast. It is so awesome to have you here.
Tre’vell: So excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Jeff: So, Will and I loved your book, “We See Each Other.” We love history lessons about queer representation in media, and this one really struck us. And it’s such a good time for this book to be out in the world with, unfortunately, where we are in 2023 right now.
Tre’vell: Mm hmm.
Jeff: Can you tell our listeners what “We See Each Other” is about?
Tre’vell: Yes! So, “We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film” is part history of trans images on screen since the beginning of moving images, with a particular focus on Black trans folks and gender expansiveness on screen. Part memoir, so I take a little bit of my own personal journey, personal story and juxtapose it against some of these images that helped me make myself out of my imagination.
And the hope is that, I’ve crafted something that is digestible, that allows people to see how expansive our history is. But also allows them to see how much further we have to go in terms of the types of representations we see on screen.
Jeff: I love what you said there about “make yourself out of imagination.” That sounds so powerful to me when you put it that way because we always hear about representation’s important and I think this book just speaks to that so much because of that memoir aspect.
Tre’vell: Yeah. I mean, it’s often said that we can’t be what we can’t see. And I pushed back on that just a little bit and say, “But it’s not that we can’t be what we can’t see. It’s that if we had seen slithers of ourselves, opportunities for how we could show up in the world, us making ourselves might’ve been easier.” Because for so many of us, we have not seen ourselves fully reflected on screen, and yet here we are. And we have literally created ourselves, particularly for trans folks, for Black trans folks, we have created ourselves out of the depths of our imaginations. And we have made, literally made, ourselves purely out of knowing our truth deep down inside. And we exist nonetheless, in spite of not having those examples.
And I think once we begin to realize the ways in which trans folks in particular have been able to kind of carve space for ourselves, our literal beings and selves, I think it allows us to, once we start talking about the images on screen, again, see how far we still have to go. And also how many of the images that folks do think about when they think of trans folks, or they think about gender expansiveness on screen, how many of those have been harmful for us.
And so, even if you are a trans person and you did see Laverne Cox on “Orange is the New Black.” Or you did see, whether it was Sandra Caldwell in the “Cheetah Girls.” Maybe those images didn’t hold you as much as they could have because they were filtered through some cis imagination that just didn’t quite get it all the way right.
You know what I mean? Even Laverne Cox in “Orange is the New Black” is probably one of the better examples that I can pull, because in that case, you had a Black trans woman playing a Black trans woman and able to breathe life into that role. And so many other trans characters in our history weren’t played by trans people. They were played by straight cis men. And that contributes to a whole host of violences that we experience as a community.
Jeff: I’m going to go down that path for a second because you talked about it. One of the things I liked about the book so well is that you contextualized and even put it through a lens of today so many of those where you might call out as just a bad performance. And I won’t say any just to put them out there, but of a man playing a trans woman. There were examples that you gave where you also praised what it was for the time. And I’m thinking specifically here of like “To Wong Foo” and Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo.
Tre’vell: Absolutely. “To Wong Foo” is one of those films that I feel like these days, we look back at it as a potential representation of transness, particularly for the character that John Leguizamo played, Chi Chi. In the book I make a case that perhaps the other two characters are trans as well, because we never see them outside of quote unquote drag, beyond the opening sequence of the movie.
But it’s one of those things where, even if we do see Chi Chi especially as a image of transness on screen, that narrative is super complex and complicated. It was landmark for the time period in which it came out, absolutely. And it’s important for us to note that. But today with 2023 eyes, you look back on some of… You look back on some of the language used there, you look back on some of the trauma that those characters have to go through and you say, “Hmm, maybe it wasn’t as fabulous as a portrayal as we might think about.”
And for me, we have so many images I talk about in the book that I think John Q. Public might interpret as trans images or images of gender expansive people, and they project those images onto our lives as IRL trans people. But the reality is many of them can be both, sites of possibility for us as trans folks and also sites of trauma, also sites of violence.
I think of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” starring The Lady Chablis who is someone who we would describe today as a trans woman. But the character on screen is really just there to prop up the white guy in the middle. And so it continued this history of Black folks, in particular, being sidelined in narratives that really… If you watch that movie, you really want to know more about Lady Chablis. You know what else is going on, but you really want to know how this Black trans woman who is a drag performer is moving through this space and carving out her own identity alongside everyone else. And so what would it have looked like if that movie was about her? If that book was about her? That’s something that I often think about.
Jeff: To back up a little bit, I’m curious what led you to writing this book? Because it seems with your background, you were kind of destined almost to write this book.
Tre’vell: That is an interesting way to put it, and I wouldn’t disagree. Like, I got my start as a journalist at the “Los Angeles Times.” I was there for about four years. This was in a pre-Oscar So White world. Which I like to remind people, because before Oscar So White, the industry wasn’t really talking about diversity in any meaningful way. Like we were beginning to see and talk about authentic casting, particularly for trans folks.
But Oscars So White, which primarily focused on the Oscars and the fact that they had nominated all white actors and no actors of color for two years straight. But beyond that, it also was a call for the industry to put its money where its mouth is. Do you really care about these things? And so I always say that Oscars So White gave me job security because I was already at the “Los Angeles Times” covering diversity in Hollywood with a focus on Black and queer film.
It was those types of movies and those types of shows, to be quite frank, that my colleagues weren’t covering. And if they were covering it, they weren’t doing it with the level of rigor and adoration that they were covering everything else. And so that’s kind of how I got my start.
And really the book in some ways, started then. This was shortly before the season 2 premiere of “Transparent,” the TV show. I really wanted to figure out exactly what the history of trans folks on screen looked like for a piece. And I was doing all this research trying to find a timeline or just a resource of like, these are all the times or as many of the times as possible that trans folks have been on screen and I couldn’t find anything.
And I was like, that’s odd. That’s weird. Why doesn’t it exist? And then I reached out to Nick Adams over at GLAAD. He’s been their Director of Transgender Representation for 20 plus years at this moment. And he had his own personal list of images of trans folks that he gave me to use as a starting point.
And I created this timeline at the “LA Times” and always said to myself that this should be in a book, like somebody should put this in a book. Did not, to be clear, think that that person would be me. But fast forward a few years I really was like, “Oh, this is so interesting that we are living through the time period in which we as trans people have been the most visible that we’ve ever been as a culture and community, and yet we were beginning to see so much backlash to trans people in real life.” And I said to myself, “That’s It’s interesting. We’re so visible but also so vulnerable at the same time.” And I began to think about how the images that we’ve seen on screen, that our culture has seen on screen, of trans people in so many ways, I think is contributing to the ways that we’re being treated in real life.
And if we can begin to paint that picture, I think, and I hope, a little bit more clearly, it will cause creators, the folks in Hollywood, to realize the responsibility that is at play and hopefully begin to think differently about how they tell our stories.
Jeff: There’s a line in Angelica Ross’s forward that really speaks to that where she wrote, “We must be so incredibly careful about what we put into the world and what we absorb.”
Tre’vell: Yeah. Because, and we always hear said that representation matters. So much so that it’s become cliche at this point. It’s on t-shirts. Everybody’s tweeting it. It’s a thing now. And even as journalists we’ve become so accustomed to asking people, when was the first time you saw yourself on screen. It’s super common now. But I don’t think people really internalize that. And so for me, I want people to realize that that which we’re seeing on screen is leading to the violences that we are seeing in real life.
These folks in state legislatures who are trying to ban, erase, and otherwise, mute and marginalize Black people, but also queer people, and trans people, and these different attempts to outlaw drag in various places. I often say that they believe that we as trans people are predators, that we’re groomers, that we’re aberrations in society, because that’s all they’ve ever seen on screen.
There’s this GLAAD statistic that at the time I was writing the book and doing a lot of this research said that, 80 some odd percent of people have never met a trans person in their life. They believe they have never met a trans person in their life. And so the bulk of what they’re learning about us as a community is from what they’re seeing on TV. What they’re seeing on their social media timelines.
And if that’s the case, that these folks do not believe that they have met a trans person, what they are seeing on TV, what they are seeing in movies, means that much more. But I’ll take it further, and I say, they believe that they have never met a trans person because they have not yet made the environment around them comfortable and safe enough so that the trans people who are already in their lives, because we are already in your lives, don’t feel comfortable to tell you who they are.
And so, again, all of this means that that which we’re seeing on screen, it has that much more weight to it. Not just because John Q. Public is learning about us through it, but so many of us as trans people are learning about ourselves through it as well.
Jeff: And I definitely think that that’s where it’s a matter of what you put into the world and what you absorb. Because from the absorption side, we have to open ourselves up to want to understand and learn more. Like, I’m sure… can’t say I’m sure, because you never know what people have watched, but like, have the people who are making these laws watched “Pose?” And yes, “Pose” was from the 80s, and an entirely different time, but you do get a picture there. Are they watching something current? And I would pick, perhaps, “With Love” on Amazon that has a trans character. They are excellent.
Tre’vell: Isis King plays that character. And I talk about her in the book. Not because of “With Love,” but because she is one of those reality TV darlings that we don’t talk about enough. She was on “America’s Next Top Model” in 2008 as a trans woman. And there’s this era around 2007, 2008, 2009 in which a number of trans people were on reality TV, like carving out space. A different type of representation than the narrative side of things. But yeah, now Isis King is on “With Love” on Amazon, playing a trans character.
She also starred in Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” on Netflix, playing the trans sibling of one of the folks who we now call the Exonerated Five. But these images matter and having the authentic casting which allows a trans person to embody this trans character takes it to a different, a new level in terms of the types of images that we want more of because of what it will mean when… I’ll say it this way, it’s a totally different thing when we talk about the importance of trans images when you have a cis actor—we can throw out a number of names, Eddie Redmayne, Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto—we can go down a long list, who play these trans characters, often get mainstream Hollywood attention and adulation for it. But when the director yells, cut, they’ve got to take the wig off. They’ve got to take the makeup off. They can only ever talk about the community from that particular space.
But when Laverne Cox shows up on the red carpet. When Angelica Ross shows up on the red carpet. It’s not just a character for them, you know what I mean? Like they’re able to articulate the needs around not only these images, but also trans people in real life in a different way, in a more meaningful way, I believe, than those other actors.
Jeff: It was eye opening to me and I’m glad you mentioned that Isis King actually came from reality because the book’s section on reality was very eye opening for me because I don’t watch a lot of reality TV. And so to see that whole environment where trans representation and trans… I was going to say characters, but… well on reality TV you’re kind of a character.
But you have these transgender people now having the opportunity to present themselves as well as reality TV can, whether it’s “America’s Top Model” or the other shows that you mentioned, and to give that quote unquote realistic version of themselves to the public. You give us great watch lists in the book and I want to go back and see some of those to see how that really played out across the weeks that they’re on these shows.
Tre’vell: Yeah. I mean, some of them lasted fairly long on their shows. Some of them didn’t. But you know, I often say, and it’s been said to me in my reporting, that reality TV in particular might be the space in Hollywood where we’ve seen the most varied images of trans folks on screen, because of… there is an element of agency there.
I agree with you, there’s definitely a reality TV character. We know the producers are pulling the strings behind the scenes and whatnot. But it definitely allows us to see, in a very different way than scripted portrayals, real trans people, IRL trans people. Even Laverne Cox, who has shouldered so much of this visibility conversation, she got her start on reality TV. She was on a show called “I Want to Work for Diddy,” long before “Orange is the New Black.” I think of Leiomy Maldonado, who a lot of folks know now for her dance ability. She’s a ballroom queen who has transcended that particular scene. She was a judge on the HBO Max show, or I guess I should say the Max show, “Legendary.”
But before she did all of that, she was competing on “America’s Best Dance Crew” with her vogue team called Vogue Evolution. And it’s those women. It’s those people on reality TV that really were my earliest access points to actual transness not a cis person’s understanding or interpretation of transness.
And so, I say that we need to give those girls, give those dolls, and this includes, by the way, the trans folks who were on the “Jerry Springer Show” or the “Maury Show” back in the day. We need to give them their flowers because they educated generations of folks about transness as well, even while navigating what was, for many of them, this tense, transphobic, space.
Jeff: I can’t imagine, the way that those shows were set up back in the day, what it would be like as a trans person to go on that show and even open yourself up to being on that show just given the audiences and all of that. That seems scarier than I could ever imagine wanting to be in that time.
Tre’vell: I thought the same thing and then, as part of the book, I’ve done a limited series podcast called “We See Each Other: The Podcast.” I co-hosted with a fellow journalist who also happens to be a Black trans woman, her name is Shar Jossell. And the entire, it’s like nine episodes, and it’s meant to expand on some of the things that I just wasn’t able to get into in the book.
And one of the things that we wanted to do for that podcast was find a trans woman who was on “Jerry Springer” or “Maury Povich” to talk about their experience. We also wanted to interview some of those reality TV folks that I mentioned about their time on the show.
And so on the reality side we interviewed Jaila Simms who was on a show called “Making His Band.” This was another Diddy show back in the day. She is a Black trans woman who actually won the show. It was Diddy trying to create his own band to go on tour and do his next album. She actually won the show.
And I remember watching her… and even watching her now, when I watch the clips, and I do the same thing you say, it’s like, “Oh, that had to have been horrible to hear these people making these jokes about your body size or your voice or whatever.” And we interviewed her and she was like, “Actually, I found it to be a very supportive environment.” She’s like, “I recognize that they maybe did not know a lot of trans people, and so there was some ignorance, absolutely, that I had to navigate.” But she was like, “Behind the scenes, it was actually a really supportive environment. The producers allowed me to come to my transness in that space in the ways that I wanted to.”
I even think of Zeke Smith, who is the famous, “Survivor” contestant who was outed on the show a number of years ago. He also talked about how supportive not only his cast, but the producers were behind the scenes, after he was outed by another contestant on the show.
And then with Mimi Marks, who was the trans woman who we found who had been on the “Jerry Springer Show” almost 10 times. Even guest co-hosted with Jerry Springer. And she talked about how it was important for her to go into that space and use it as an opportunity to educate folks, despite all of the sensationalism that was baked into that. And how she developed a really great friendship with Jerry Springer outside of it, which is not something that we as trans people, many of us think about being possible today when we look at those images.
And so much about the book is about taking these cultural images and looking at them from every angle, the positive angle and the negative angle, so that hopefully, I’m creating and showing that the record is a lot more complex and a lot more nuanced than perhaps we often give it credit for being.
Jeff: I’m excited you mentioned the podcast. I didn’t know about that. So now I’ve got to go listen to nine episodes to check those out.
Tre’vell: It’s super good. And I’m not saying this just because it’s my show, but it’s the thing that I’m most proud of creating even beyond the book. Like the book was great and super proud of it, but being able to actually engage with trans folks about these trans images and trans folks who are living and loving and existing today.
Many of these folks who we just don’t talk to because they’re no longer in the limelight. I am super proud of the work that Shar and I did on that podcast, and you all should definitely check it out, especially if you loved the book, but even if you didn’t, because it takes these conversations in directions that I think folks wouldn’t expect.
Jeff: And we should mention, I mean, you’re a podcaster and such and so you’re really good at the audio. For our listeners who like audiobooks, which I know is a lot of them, the audiobook of “We See Each Other” is so good because you’re telling the story and that makes your memoir portions and some of your commentary about the shows all the more because your personality comes right through that.
Tre’vell: I’ve been told that I have a big personality and it was important for me to narrate my audiobook also because of what I believe is a unique writing style. What I’ve been told, I should say, from editors is a unique writing style, which is, when you read it, it might seem like there are a lot of run on sentences in my book. And that’s because there are. There are a lot of run on sentences, there are a lot of complex sentences, but that’s how my mind works.
And reading it might be a challenge because of what we think of as traditional grammar rules and all that other stuff. But when I’m articulating it, when I’m saying it, when you hear the particular rhythm that I have with my sentences and the intonation, I think it helps color a little bit more what I’m saying. And I hope that it hits you in the way that I intend it to hit you.
I’ve been telling people that this book will require you to do a little work, okay? And by work, I mean, maybe you need to go Google something that I don’t explain. Or maybe it’s a very long sentence that you need to read two and three times to really understand what I’m getting at. But I love that, because I want folks to begin to treat our history as trans people, as Black trans people, and even more broadly as queer and trans people, treat it with the seriousness and the rigor that you treat other histories that you find important.
And that means you’re gonna have to put in just a little bit of work, just a little bit, to truly understand our realities. And if you are legitimately committed to this work of equality, inclusion, equity, et cetera, you won’t mind doing a little work.
Jeff: That’s so well said. As we just look, especially on this show, we try to expand our listeners. Yes, you’re reading some queer literature. Let’s look at what more of that means from all aspects of queerness and what it means with gender and bringing in authors of color, creators of color, characters of color, the whole thing. There’s so much of it out there that’s so rich and vibrant and can help you get a view of the world that maybe just isn’t sitting around you or that you don’t know is sitting around you, as you mentioned before.
Tre’vell: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jeff: You mentioned you built this timeline for the book, all these shows and representations of characters that you found, how did you think about what to put in and what to leave out? Because I have to imagine there’s stuff on the cutting room floor that just didn’t make it.
Tre’vell: Oh, absolutely. There’s so much that’s not in the book. And that’s one of the reasons why I ended up doing the limited series podcast. But there’s so much that just didn’t fit, couldn’t fit. Or that I, consciously decided I wasn’t going to include.
But the book started off, and I pitched it and sold it as this, comprehensive take on trans images on screen. That was what they bought. But the book they got is not quite. It is purposefully not chronological. Largely because I was in the process of watching all these films, and I was particularly watching “Boys Don’t Cry,” this canonical piece of trans imagery on screen and I basically was triggering myself to watch this movie because of how graphic it is about the violence that Brandon Teena, played by Hilary Swank, experienced in real life. And I said to myself, why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this and unsettling so much within me, knowing good and well that I already have to face this same type of violence, potentially, just by walking out my door.
And so it was at that point that I had to unburden myself from this idea of doing something comprehensive and instead choose to zero in on the images that were most important to my becoming. Not as a means of ignoring and not dealing with some of the more traumatic images, because there are some that are in the book, for sure, but doing so in a way that still allowed me to move through the world and access possibility beyond what we have seen on screen.
But also, I wanted to make sure that somebody else could come behind me and tell their version and their how they came to see themselves based on the images on screen. It became important to give myself permission to not have to do this, like, 30,000 foot look at trans imagery. And just do the look at trans imagery that was holistically mine.
And so, that means that I talk about, for example, Tyler Perry as Madea, and how I feel like those type of cross-dressed characters, which includes Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire, by the way, have led to the very real experiences that I have had in community, just trying to move through the world, and juxtaposing that in a conversation right alongside Laverne Cox’s time in this industry, or Candis Cayne’s time in this industry, or Trace Lissette’s time in this industry. It felt important to do it and I think that… I’ll at least say, folks who have read the book thus far, who have consumed the podcast thus far, have found that to be an approach that renders this information deeply digestible. But also gives them whatever it is that they might need to, like, actualize the better treatment of trans people in their everyday communities.
Jeff: It was really interesting to me that you didn’t go the chronological and that you kind of package these various bits together like the reality TV things and hitting things like I’d completely forgotten about. Candis Cayne and “Dirty Sexy Money…”
Jeff: …which I had watched and enjoyed that show and Candis’s performance in it and how she kind of integrated into it because that was gosh, what was that in the 2000s, maybe?
Tre’vell: Yeah. Yeah early 2000.
Jeff: And to have that reminded to me. It’s like, oh, yeah, that, that was, interesting and different and good.
Tre’vell: And that’s the thing… we’ve always been here. We’ve always been in your shows, in your movies. I say often that I feel like people feel like we as trans people dropped onto the face of the earth with Laverne Cox and “Orange is the New Black” as if we don’t have this long history of trans folks being on screen prior to that moment and gender expansiveness on screen beyond that prior to that moment.
And Candis Cayne is a really great example because she opened doors for Laverne Cox. Laverne Cox has said that if it wasn’t for seeing Candis Cayne in “Dirty Sexy Money,” she would have never thought that she could be an actress. And it’s important for us to assert that history and assert the fact that we have always been here on your screens and in your communities since the beginning of time immemorium in every culture, in every community across this globe. Because of the ways that we see folks wanting to say that we are created on social media, that social media is creating all of these trans people out of nowhere, which is wild and absurd that we even have to say that, but here we are.
Jeff: Yeah, here we are.
Given that you had pitched this as the comprehensive view of trans characters, as you moved away from that, is that kind of where the memoir started to come into it too, as almost a framing?
Tre’vell: Absolutely. I knew that the introduction to the book always would be more personal. But I thought that that would be the only place that I myself would show up beyond my reporting that I’ve been doing over the last decade. But once I relieved myself of that particular burden, I was like, my story and how these images and images like them have impacted me is important too, which is really weird for someone who’s a journalist to often say, because we’re told that we’re not the story. We’re told that we should, never in so many ways, make ourselves part of the story.
But I also began to realize that like the articles, the reporting, the stories, the interviews that I’ve done that have been most impactful, not only to me, but to the broader community that has consumed my work, have been the things that have grown out of my own experience. And I wanted to say that I, and we, could be journalists as well even by asserting the importance of our own stories in this unfolding history.
And hopefully other folks who are trans and Black and queer and otherwise, and doing journalism will be able to see that their truths are important as well, and that they can bring it into their work and not endanger or betray journalism by doing so.
I will say I was struggling in writing the book before I made that decision because it is a gargantuan task to say that you want to capture the entire history of trans images on screen. It’s one of the things that I really love about the documentary “Disclosure,” that I had the opportunity to participate in. “Disclosure” as a film, it’s available on Netflix, is a comprehensive look at trans history on screen. And I know that Sam Feder, the director of that documentary, Laverne Cox executive produced it, I know that there’s so many hours of interviews and history left on the cutting room floor. But it definitely made it easier to like lean into the memoir aspect.
But it also made it, for me, it kind of ratcheted up the states of the book. Because now it’s not just a clinical approach to this history. Now it’s my own personal story. And because my personal story is an amalgamation of my family’s story, my grandmother’s story, it puts a different type of pressure, a different type of weight on it because for me it is important to recognize that my journey, my story is not my own.
If it wasn’t for my grandmother and my mother. If it wasn’t for trailblazing trans journalist Monica Roberts showing me that I could be a Black trans journalist who knows what life would be like. But I did. It definitely opened up kind of opportunities to lean into my own particular story. But the pressure and the weight just came from a different reason than trying to be comprehensive.
Jeff: As you were looking across all of this material, and even as it was going to be that comprehensive look, did you learn something that was like a surprise, or that was like, “Huh, didn’t know that before,” or anything like that?
Tre’vell: I think for me, a lot of the things I learned were about how some of these films came to be. Like “To Wong Foo” we mentioned earlier. The writer for “To Wong Foo” actually envisioned that as a play. But turned it into a movie when he couldn’t figure out how to get a car on stage. And the idea for the movie was inspired by this anti-gay propaganda movie that has a line in it, he says where the folks go, “Do you want these drag queens in your city, America,” or something like that? And his response was, “Yes! You actually do need these drag queens in your small town, middle America city.” And so he wrote it. You know what I mean? It’s those bits and pieces of information that were really interesting to me that, for whatever reason, I just did not know about.
Another thing that I really enjoyed was learning more about The Lady Chablis, as we mentioned. As part of the research for my book, I read her autobiography called “Hiding My Candy.” She also narrates an abridged version of her book for the audio book. So that was interesting and wonderful to hear her voice articulate her experiences. But to know and to hear how she lobbied to play herself in that movie. And told them your movie’s not going anywhere if you don’t cast me to play that version of myself.
To me, I’m like, that’s Black trans audacity. Because, like, who does that? And it worked. And that movie made her a cult star in a lot of ways. Made her, I would say, probably at that time, one of the most famous drag performers and trans women in the world because of how much that film is a cult classic to folks based on the book that it’s about. And so those are some of the things that I really enjoyed learning and being able to capture in bits and pieces in the book.
There’s so much that’s, like, didn’t make the book. One of the things that I wanted to include but just wasn’t able to, is during the process of “Disclosure” and watching “Disclosure,” I learned of Sandra Caldwell. Sandra Caldwell is a Black trans actress, and she played a role in my favorite Disney Channel original movie, “The Cheetah Girls.” She played Drinka Champange in “The Cheetah Girls.” Now I am a “Cheetah Girl” stan, okay, Jeff? Okay? And to know that a Black trans woman was right there, and I did not know.
Oh, I wanted that information because again, it’s a Disney Channel movie, and it’s this pivotal, to me, role in that film, and I wanted to include it so much. But it just didn’t fit. And so I was able to include her in different ways and in different mentions. But there’s just so much history out there, so many experiences out there, and I really look forward to what hopefully will be a rich collection of books and movies and documentaries and whatnot about trans folks who have always been here.
Jeff: I hope other people take on essentially what you mentioned, like you’ve done your memoir, look at this, and I hope others take up that mantle and do the same thing.
Tre’vell: And I want to be clear, I also hope that the industry, the publishing industry, allows them to do it. When I was coming up with my book, there were very few comps, a trans history of images on screen. All of the comps that I had to give them were like, bits and pieces. I was like, if you take this book, and you take this book, and you take this book, and you take this, then you have my idea.
Hopefully now someone will be able to say, “Oh, I want to do my version of ‘We See Each Other.'” You know what I mean? Because I think it’s important for us to realize that we’re all part of this broader ecosystem and your podcast, and my book, and somebody else’s short film or web series contributes to this entire ecosystem in which we are trying to flesh out this historical record that, for many of us, has not accurately represented how we and our cultures and our communities have moved through the world.
Jeff: Given the times that we’re in now, and we’ve talked about this on and off as we’ve been going, here in 2023, trans people, queer people under such attack from all sides. What are you seeing in the media now that can hopefully change that narrative or is it really trying to change the narrative right now through what we see in reality TV and even in scripted television?
Tre’vell: I think we have a number of shows, a number of projects that are out there that are examples of the type of storytelling we want to see more of. Some of those shows that come to mind, I think of a show like “P-Valley,” one of its lead characters their name is Uncle Clifford, this non-binary, mother hen type, played by Nicco Annan, who is not non binary or trans identified but it’s played so beautifully and it shows a non-binary character in a southern Black community where oftentimes we’re not thought of being and existing. And so I love that as an example of where we can go in terms of the types of storytellings that we see.
There’s another show called “Sort Of” that is on Max that stars Bilal Baig as a non-binary trans child of Pakistani immigrants. It’s a Canadian show that really shows what can be done when you allow a non-binary person and trans people to create our own stories and to star in them and to craft them completely.
But I know most people, when they think of trans images on screen, especially, today, they’re thinking of a show like “Pose,” which was groundbreaking for what it did for images on screen, but also for the careers of, Black and Brown trans women and fems especially. But we haven’t had another “Pose” on screen since that show was canceled after its third season. We still don’t often see a show in which the trans character is not the only one. But there’s more than one trans person, there’s a collective, a community of trans people.
So, it’s one of those situations where there have been moments of progress. And there are examples of the type of storytelling that I think more of us want to see. But we’re not there yet. And I think the goal is to get to a place where every single type of trans person has a type of trans imagery that they can look at on screen and see themselves reflected back to them. And, beyond our traumas, especially, and beyond sex work, especially. So many of our trans narratives are connected to sex work. Even the good ones. “Pose” has a number of sex work storylines, even as it was historic and important, and a sign of possibility for many.
There’s a movie out right now that folks should check out called “Monica” that stars Trace Lissette, who is a trans woman. And the narrative is about, this trans woman reconnecting with her family after all these years. And it’s a beautiful story. One of those Oscar-batey type stories that’s light on dialogue and all about that internal type of performance that they like to give awards to. It’s one of those types of movies and it’s great for how it depicts this trans woman. But the character is still engaging in sex work.
And speaking of that movie in particular, I think it’s a great example when we talk about the state of trans images and trans storytelling right now, Trace Lissette in that movie got an 11 and a half minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, one of the oldest film festivals in the country. Standing ovations at these film festivals, as I’m sure you know, are supposed to equate with attention and adoration. You get a standing ovation, and in particular, at the time in which this standing ovation happened, the longest standing ovation at that festival that year, it’s supposed to open up doors for you. But it took that film, despite that reception, months to get picked up for distribution.
And then once they got picked up for distribution, Trace Lissette and her team had to crowdfund to be able to afford PR for their movie. And then the movie comes out and she, despite crowdfunding the money to get PR, the movie struggles to get attention in so many different ways by the press. Despite all of these markers that are supposed to say, that this is a movie that you’re supposed to pay attention to and whatnot.
Now, think of that, and I should say, Trace Lissette is a white trans woman, so imagine what the Black trans people are going through to get our stories onto the screen. And so even as we talk about so much progress that we have seen, particularly over the last decade which I’ve had the opportunity of covering, we also have to realize that… as again, we, there’s more work to be done because, for every step or two forward, there’s always some other barrier put in place for our stories.
Jeff: I try to, at least I think of myself, as somebody who tries to keep up with these things. Until you mentioned it, I didn’t about “Monica.”
Tre’vell: My point exactly. The people like yourself who are intentional about finding out and seeking out these types of cultural productions. If it’s not getting to y’all, imagine the lack of awareness for folks who aren’t intentionally seeking out these types of works. And how does the broader Hollywood machine, how is it contributing to that type of erasure, that type of heightened journey that they have to go through just to get onto the screen? Let alone get some sort of attention or adulation or some sort of sustained career support because even after this movie, even after that 11 and a half minute standing ovation, roles aren’t being thrown at Trace Lissette.
Roles aren’t being thrown at Laverne Cox, who has been so historic in so many ways. I try not to be so much of a Debbie Downer, and I want to highlight and acknowledge the gains that we have made as a community. But if we don’t also note that we are just so far behind already, then we’ll never realize that we can’t allow creators, Hollywood storytellers, et cetera, to get comfortable with where we are. We’ve got to continuously push for the types of stories that we deserve. And we’re seeing more and more now trans folks not waiting for permission and doing it themselves. And that’s something that I love to see unfolding as well.
Jeff: For those of us who watch these shows, and try to find these shows and when we find one that we like, how do you recommend that we are able to rise up and say, “This show. I want more of that,” to where it matters. Because we see so many things removed from these services. Like, I don’t think “Legendary” is on Max anymore.
Tre’vell: I don’t, I think you’re right.
Jeff: How do we try to let the producers and everybody know? Cause I don’t think it’s just me even having a show or going on social media to say, “Hey, I really liked this thing. Make more.” I don’t feel like there’s a voice for that or an easy to make voice for that.
Tre’vell: Yeah, I’m inclined to agree with you. I think we’ve historically thought that, like, social media could become the town square where you are able to tell the powers that be that this is something you want more of, that this is what you care about. And I think there’s some truth to that. But Hollywood is interested in the money. That’s what it comes down to, right? And so streaming and viewing these works is important. Viewing them multiple times. Sharing it on social media. Sharing it with your community, and spreading the word is always important. But it always comes down to the dollars.
I do think that we have continuously shown as a community and as a broader culture that our stories can make money, and that they are interesting, and that they are profitable. But again, we show that, and we demonstrate that, and the finish line is moved because it’s not enough.
You can get a Peabody, like a “Pose.” You can get Emmys and Golden Globes, like all these other shows. SAG awards. Oscars for certain projects. I’m thinking particularly of the foreign language film “Una Mujer Fantástica,” “Fantastic Woman” is the English name, that was recognized and nominated for the foreign language film Oscar that stars a trans woman, Daniela Vega, as a trans woman. She was the first openly trans woman to be a presenter at the Oscars that year. We’ve shown all of this time and time again, and they move the finish line.
But that’s where I think the independent trans made, trans work comes into play. We can’t just support the ones that get the major studio support. We’ve also got to support the work that might be a little bit more rough around the edges, that you might only be able to access on Patreon or on YouTube. And we’ve got to put that on the level of importance alongside everything else because I find often that it’s those cultural productions that are really pushing the envelope, that are really showing us how we want to see ourselves. I’m thinking of Rain Valdez’s web series called “Razor Tongue” that comes to mind as something that folks should check out especially.
Jeff: I will put that on my list. And we’ll certainly put that in the show notes too, so people can find it.
Now, besides the book and the podcast we got to find out, you’ve got a couple other podcasts that you have with both “FANTI” and “What a Day.” Tell people a little bit about those so they can hear more from you.
Tre’vell: Absolutely. Absolutely. So I co-host two podcasts. One is called “FANTi.” It’s a word we made up, don’t worry about it. And “FANTi” is a show that I co-host with a fellow journalist, Black queer journalist, Jarrett Hill. And it’s a show about the people, places, and things that you love, and that you’re huge fans of, but also have some anti feelings toward. Hence the name, “FANTi.” So every episode we dive into a topic that is complex, that we have nuanced feelings about. Whether that is Tyler Perry as a creator. Whether that is artificial intelligence in the ways that that’s proliferating in society now. Whether that’s a film or a TV show. We run the gamut in terms of those types of topics. Comes out every Thursday, wherever you get wonderful podcasts.
And then the second podcast called “What a Day.” It’s a daily news podcast. So every day, myself and my co-hosts, I have three co-hosts Priyanka Aribindi, Josie Duffy Rice, and Juanita Tolliver. We recap the day’s news with a little bit of special razzle dazzle and energy as you get from this interview as well. But we recap the day’s news in like 20 to 30 minutes so that you know what’s going on in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of that has been anti trans foolishness. And anti-queer foolishness and anti-Black foolishness and wars in Ukraine and whatnot. But we also are intentional about making sure that we’re covering a lot of the joy, and a lot of the positivity that’s also going on at the same time.
Jeff: Excellent. I hope our listeners check both of those out.
So we love to get recommendations on this show, as you can imagine. And we mentioned that for folks who read “We See Each Other” they’re going to get a lot of options because you’ve got the great viewing guide that’s in there. But like right here, right now, as we’re sitting here in middle July, what are you reading or watching that you think our listeners should be checking out?
Tre’vell: I’m actually going to come out of left field with something that is not particularly about queerness or transness, but it is what I am currently consuming right now. And it’s a book called “When Crack Was King.” It is by Donovan X. Ramsey, and it is a tome of sorts about the crack epidemic in that era. And it tells the stories of these four different folks who were impacted by it. Donovan is a Black queer journalist. And so you get a little bit of his story, but it really is this kind of people’s history of the crack epidemic. So that’s something that I would encourage people to check out.
And then I would also say that I’m looking forward to reading Elliot Page’s memoir, which came out recently. And one of the people that I talk about in my introduction, whose book I think you all should check out, it comes out later this year in October, is Raquel Willis, a notable trans activist that many of you I’m sure have heard about. Her book is called “The Risk It Takes to Bloom: On Life and Liberation” and I think that she’s fabulous and wonderful and also a voice that more folks should be listening to.
Jeff: And what an amazing title. Just the title alone makes me want to find out what’s in that book. So yeah, that’s on my TBR now for sure.
What is the best way for folks to keep up with you online so they can find out more about podcasts and future books and future projects? Cause you, you’ve got a lot going on. We have only touched a little bit of things.
Tre’vell: I do have a lot going on. Well, you can always keep up with me on my website, trevellanderson.com. If you are still on the hellscape that is Twitter, I’m over there @trevellanderson. And then if you are on Instagram, I am there @rayzhon, R-A-Y-Z-H-O-N.
Jeff: Fantastic. Tre’vell, thank you so much for coming and talking to us about this amazing book. I hope the listeners enjoyed it as much as I did cause it was wonderful.
Tre’vell: Thank you so much for having me.
Will: This episode’s transcript has been brought to you by our community on Patreon. If you’d like to read the conversation for yourself, head on over to the show notes page for this episode at BigGayFictionPodcast.com. You’ve got links to absolutely everything that we’ve talked about in this episode.
Jeff: And thanks so much to Tre’Vell for spending time with us to talk about “We See Each Other.” I really hope all of you will pick up this book and check out its companion podcast as well. And after that, if you haven’t seen the shows that Tre’Vell spotlights, I hope you’ll add some of those to your watch list. It’s not always easy because some of the things that are mentioned in the book and even in our interview just aren’t out in the streaming universe at this moment, but always something to keep an eye out for. Most importantly, I hope you’ll take what Tre’Vell says to heart in helping to push back against the misinformed narratives that are put forth about trans people so that we can create a safer society for them.
Will: Alright, I think that’ll do it for now. Coming up next on Monday, September 11th, we will have a special panel discussion with a bevy of amazing authors.
Jeff: That’s right. I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion for Barnes Noble. It’s a NOOK Event Live featuring Gregory Ashe, Josh Lanyon, Layla Reyne, and Felice Stevens. We talk about their latest books and their careers in publishing books with LGBTQIA+ characters.
Will: On behalf of Jeff and myself, we want to thank you so much for listening, and we hope that you’ll join us again soon for more discussions about the kinds of stories we all love, the big gay fiction kind. Until then, keep turning those pages, and keep reading.
Big Gay Fiction Podcast is part of the Frolic Podcast Network. Find more shows you’ll love at frolic.media/podcasts. Original theme music by Daryl Banner.