This is the fifth feature in a series that aims to elevate some of the transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals who have played a significant role in the ongoing fight for trans and queer liberation. Check out the previous features with CeCe McDonald, Kate Bornstein, Laura Jane Grace and Buck Angel.
Calpernia Addams is a transgender musician, performer, actress, activist and legend whose work has elevated transgender visibility and created spaces for queer and trans-identified people in Hollywood and beyond.
The first openly transgender woman to receive her own Bachelor-style reality dating show, which aired in the early 2000s, Addams has worked alongside friend and collaborator Andrea James to create Deep Stealth Productions, "a full-service production company that produces entertainment and educational content" involving issues affecting "differently-gendered people." Long before mainstream transgender visibility began to grow on television, Addams and James were two of the most prominent trans voices working and navigating the historically cisgender, heteronormative world of Hollywood and carving out space for people outside of and in-between the gender binary.
Addams' journey to living as her authentic self included time spent living in a fundamentalist Christian cult when she was a child, as well as serving time in the United States military. In this interview with Huffington Post Queer Voices, Addams reflects on living openly in the spotlight, the idea of a unified "trans community" and her own personal legacy as an entertainer and activist.
The Huffington Post: Can you pinpoint the beginning of your career? What were some of the first defining moments for you as a trans actress, musician and activist?
Calpernia Addams: If I had to think back to the origins of my desire to entertain, I’d have to revisit the three most influential places of my life: church, a library and a show bar.
I was profoundly shaped by growing up in a fundamentalist Christian cult in 1970s and '80s Nashville. We were taught of all the darkest, scariest parts of the Bible as if they were literal and true: Demons stalked us invisibly from Principalities of the Air. A literal Devil focused his immortal and powerful will specifically on me, in hopes of dragging me with him on Judgment Day into a fiery lake of burning sulphur riddled with undying worms. This was a horrible way to grow up, the moreso because I was trans, but they say art is often fed by struggle and pain. It certainly developed my imagination. The best thing -- perhaps the only good thing -- to come out of that time was the gorgeous Bluegrass Gospel and traditional music that I learned to sing and play on my fiddle, piano and other instruments.
The church tried to keep us away from modern movies, television and music as much as they could, though bits and pieces leaked through. I desperately looked for mental escape by reading books, sometimes one a day, even reading as I was walking at school the way people walk hypnotized by their smartphones today. I wanted to be those incredible characters from all the great works of fantasy, science fiction and drama that I absorbed. I wanted to be beautiful, heroic, loved, powerful, smart, exotic… I wanted it all.
Lastly, after years in the military that forced me to come out of my shell and stand up for myself more, I went to my first gay bar and saw some beautiful transsexual women on stage. It all came together for me: I could perform music, be a larger than life “star” (in the small way that a Southern gay bar showgirl was allowed at the time) and through it all I’d be embraced and encouraged as I transitioned.
Now, years later, I have 14 years or so in Hollywood behind me with a decent page of IMDB credits, many many hours of stage time and a new career opening up as an acoustic musician and singer. As my friend Andrea James often says of transition in general, how many people actually get to live their childhood dream? For me, I am living both my dream of being my authentic self as a woman and my dream of being a working artist.
What role has music, art, and performance played in your journey to live as your authentic self?
In my early days as a showgirl in the South, trans women often performed on stage alongside drag entertainers at the various gay bars, as both an artistic outlet and as one of the few jobs in which you could work encouraged and loved among people who included you in their self-made family. If you were good, it could become a full time career, as it did for me. I was called by my female name and pronouns. My innate, natural femininity was complimented and encouraged. It was so different from how my family had all but cast me out, and how the average non-LGBT person reacted with disgust, scorn, condescension or outright violence.
It was a parallel life… we all lived alongside non-LGBT people, and moved through their world when we had to, but all of our friends were LGBT. All the bars we went to were LGBT (and pre-Internet, one had to leave one’s house to find community and friendship). The only people who loved me and treated me like a human being were LGBT. Some trans women never needed those cocooning years that the LGBT community gave me. They transition as quickly as possible and immediately move through the world as a heterosexual woman. I’ve been sneered at by a few of those, who see women on my path as failures: “Be a straight woman! Don’t ghettoize yourself in the gay bars!” Others have taught me all the things I never learned about non-LGBT society, and helped me fit in better in that new world.
The stage gave me so much confidence in myself, which I’d never have had outside the unique LGBT world of that time. I’ve always said that the stages of gay show bars are one of the only places in the world that a chubby loudmouthed effeminate boy could become a star and even a sex object. One of the only places a skeletally thin, lisping sissy could become a drop dead gorgeous bombshell. I took as much of that magic as I could, and made myself from it.
You appeared in a reality dating show as a trans woman years before what TIME dubbed the "trans tipping point." What was this experience like? How do you think this shaped reality television and public perceptions of trans people?
I was lucky enough to star in the first reality dating show starring an “out” transsexual woman: "Transamerican Love Story." It was a complete blast! World of Wonder, the production company behind so many iconic shows and media, took a big chance on me. I “fix up” decently, but I’m no breathtaking beauty like Candis Cayne or Andreja Pejić. Plus I have the burden of a tragic backstory, which I believe has held me back in many ways here in Hollywood.
I totally get that reality TV is just stupid fun, but I really wanted to do good as a representative of the trans community, too. I decided the only way to make it work was to approach it earnestly: I would go in with an open heart and open mind, look for someone nice, and try not to do anything on camera that would embarrass me or the community. I’m proud of the show, but it probably would have made more of a splash if I’d done a few drunken bikini slap-fights or slept with all the guys just off camera like they do on "Big Brother." I didn’t end up finding a boyfriend from the show, but it was a great bonding experience for me and my best friend Andrea James. And the most enduring gift from it has been the forever-friendship that we developed with the host Alec Mapa and his family, Jamie and Zion.
I’ve always said that the stages of gay show bars are one of the only places in the world that a chubby loudmouthed effeminate boy could become a star and even a sex object. One of the only places a skeletally thin, lisping sissy could become a drop dead gorgeous bombshell. I took as much of that magic as I could, and made myself from it.
I’m thrilled to see the doors blasting open for trans people in the performing arts. We have always been there, on stage or screen or in song, but we no longer have to hide. I just hope internal politics don’t end up holding us back any further. And I hope the young artists who are finding success now will remember their big sister Calpernia when it comes time to cast that next role in their movie!
You founded Deep Stealth Productions alongside Andrea James. Why did you two take on this endeavor? What was the initial goal? How has that vision grown and changed?
Traditional trans wisdom used to hold that you really had to start over in a new city at a certain point in your transition. No matter how gorgeous you became, or how integrated into your chosen communities, there were always people in your hometown who loved to take jabs at you by throwing your old name out: “Girl you look amazing! You’ve come so far since I knew you as Rock Rockwell!” or just outing you as trans behind your back at any opportunity. I left Nashville to start over in Chicago, and there became friends with someone I considered a legend in the trans community: Andrea James.
Andrea was a highly educated advertising executive who, in her spare time, founded one of the earliest and most exhaustive online trans information resources, TSRoadmap.com. She began it as a “keyword” in the early days of America Online, meticulously gathering info about hormones, surgery, legal and even spiritual issues for trans people. She later moved it off of AOL and to its own website. I had never met a trans woman like her: She lived a high-class, high-powered life among “straight people” and I saw none of the tell-tale signs of transition that I had come to recognize in the showgirl trans women I new. And most amazing of all, her speaking voice was absolutely, perfectly female. My speaking voice almost always cued people that I was trans, and in the process of her teaching me to change it we decided to create an instructional video: "Finding Your Female Voice." It was a very plain looking video, but it really worked and we were soon selling out of them faster than we could make them. We started Deep Steatlh Productions and added other instructional titles, until eventually we had enough capital to follow our dreams of making and supporting media by and for trans people in Hollywood. Since then, we’ve made several well-received short films, produced a major theatrical event with Jane Fonda and Eve Ensler, consulted for countless media projects and major corporations, and maintain several websites full of free resources for trans people.
What are your thoughts about "the trans community," especially as it's seen by the mainstream? How do you view where "the community" is right now and where is it going?
When we used to refer to a “trans community,” we were talking about a wide-ranging and diverse group of individuals who all shared the experience of socially, medically and/or legally taking steps to move from presenting as their assigned birth sex and gender roles, to their target sex and gender roles. In earlier times, it was often simplified down to desiring or having “the surgery” and crossing full-tilt from one side of the gender binary to the other, no shades of grey. As the transgender umbrella has expanded to include all manner of movement around the axis of sex and gender, I usually specify my journey as being “transsexual,” clarifying that I wanted to go to the furthest extent possible of medical, social and legal transition to female. Our communities have had the same growing pains and squabbles as any minority group, especially one whose unifying factor can be such a subjective experience. As attitudes have opened up, medicine and psychology have deepened their understanding and resources have become more abundant. We have new generations of trans people who never had to go through the “cocoon” underground years in gay bars and other LGBT undergrounds. Or live in constant dread while “passing” in mainstream society lest they face takedowns like 80’s trans supermodel Caroline Cossey experienced when she was outed and lost her career.
To me, worse than lacking a sense of history is lacking a sense of humor. I see a great humorlessness, selfishness, and a lack of empathy taking center stage sometimes and it honestly makes me ask myself, “What the hell was it all for? This?”
Many of us wanted this opportunity to join society with as little friction as possible, but I think it has also led to some younger trans people lacking a sense of history, and of compassion for people who built their identities in very different times. To me, worse than lacking a sense of history is lacking a sense of humor. I see a great humorlessness, selfishness, and a lack of empathy taking center stage sometimes and it honestly makes me ask myself, “What the hell was it all for? This?” Thankfully, there are more shining lights of wisdom, leadership and talent emerging in the trans community to push back against the ahistorical and selfish voices. I still have high hopes.
What does the future hold for Calpernia Addams? What do you want your legacy to be?
I like to think my story still has many chapters to be told, but in risk of appearing too geeky, I sometimes feel like Bilbo Baggins at the end of The Lord of the Rings. He was terribly worn down by the burden of carrying The Ring, so he chose to leave his old life behind and sail away forever to the heavenly Grey Havens with his dearest friends. Performance and art are my life, but I have plans to do a European tour with my forthcoming album of all original acoustic music. I love, love, love the bawdy nighttime speakeasy stages, where my inner Mae West and Marilyn Monroe take possession of me. But last year I spent a day walking the ancient stone circles of a small town in Wales, and then my dear musician friends and I tuned our instruments while the sun set. I spent the night sipping Scotch and playing the harp in a Gypsy tent, no makeup on and my hair up in a simple sweep. I haven't felt so happy in years.