Imara Jones: Hello, fam. Welcome to the TransLash Podcast, I’m Imara Jones. And we have an out of this world show for you today. You’ll have to listen to find out what it is. If you’re just tuning in, the TransLash Podcast is a politics and culture show with a trans perspective. And that means this week, we’re talking about the first presidential debate. Oh, boy. Joining me to help talk about that and to process all that the debate means is the brilliant Jamilah King, who hosts the Mother Jones podcast:
Jamilah King: We have a roadmap that’s been set up for us already by generations of people who have fought battles that are much more difficult, much more personal, much more deadly even than this one. And it’s our responsibility to follow it.
Imara Jones: Plus, I get super nerdy and all the way sci fi with Ian Alexander, a groundbreaking tran actor, who’s helping Star Trek go where even it has not gone before.
Ian Alexander: I can’t wait to see this future where we’ve all sort of transcended and ascended gender.
Imara Jones: Before we dive in, I want to start off with a moment of Trans Joy.
One thing that always brings me joy is trans people getting what we need to feel at home in our bodies. That’s why I’m shining the spotlight on Point of Pride’s binder exchange program. They’ve given nearly 9000 binders to trans people who need them since 2014. Tyler Rodriguez runs the binder exchange program. He says they sent binders to people in all 50 states and more than 60 countries.
Tyler Rodriguez: Sometimes I get emails from folks who’ve gotten their binder, and they’re just so excited and I just find myself laughing at their email and, you know, it’s got 18 typos because they were so excited they couldn’t even see the keyboard properly. My personal favorites are always, every once in a while I’ll get a parent. And you know, you get the subject line, you get the preview of the email and you always see, “my child got their binder from you,” and I always cringe a little bit. And then almost every time I open one it’s like I can’t believe how different they are. You know, I can’t believe how happy they are now. And, you know, as someone whose family was not always supportive of my transition, knowing that there are supportive parents out there is just…makes my day every time.
Imara Jones: Tyler, thank you so much for the important work you’re doing with Point of Pride. You are Trans Joy.
Now we’re turning to the news. And of course that means delving in to this week’s presidential debate. It was a hot mess. Helping us untangle and process what happened is the one, the only Jamilah King, race and justice reporter at Mother Jones, who is always bringing sharp, thoughtful insights to everything. We are recording this conversation the morning after Tuesday’s debate. Jamilah also hosts the Mother Jones podcast and is my former colleague at Color Lines. And Jamilah’s dream job, of course, is to run an upstate animal farm. Hey Jamilah, how are you?
Jamilah King: Hi, Imara.
Imara Jones: That is your dream job. Right?
Jamilah King: It is def–I don’t dream of labor, but it is my dream life. Yes, absolutely.
Imara Jones: Running an animal farm, we’ll say that.
Jamilah King: Exactly. Living amongst animals is my dream.
Imara Jones: Well, thank you so much for joining me to unpack, as we said, what happened last night. I want to just go through some key moments that stood out for me and to get your insights about them and to have a conversation about those. I wanted to just start out, to frame this, that Donald Trump did not show up to debate Donald Trump showed up to burn down. That essentially, during the debate, he played the role as arsonist. I don’t see how anyone could have done better than, than Joe Biden during the debate. And, of course, part of being an arsonist is to just burn facts left and right. But the first moment that I wanted to talk to you about that I think is really important thing to note and a turning point in the debate that continues to reverberate is Donald Trump’s refusal to disavow white supremacists, and his encouragement of them, specifically, the group Proud Boys. So let’s just listen to that sound.
Chris Wallace: But are you willing tonight to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha, and as we’ve seen in Portland?
Donald Trump: Sure, I’m willing to do that–
Chris Wallace: Are you prepared specifically to do it? But go ahead, sir.
Donald Trump: I would say, almost everything I see is from the left wing, not from the right wing–
Chris Wallace: So what are you saying?
Donald Trump: I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.
Chris Wallace: Well then do it, sir.
Joe Biden: Say it, do it, say it.
Donald Trump: What do you want to call them? What do you want to call them? Give me a name, give me a name.
Chris Wallace: White supremacists and right-wing militia. The Proud Boys.
Donald Trump: Proud Boys: Stand back and stand by.
Imara Jones: So Jamilah, I am wondering what struck you about that moment when he was given that opportunity told, encouraged, prodded by Chris Wallace, and did the opposite?
Jamilah King: So Imara, I think that this debate–I don’t think, I know that this debate went exactly as planned. Trump acted exactly how he’s acted over the past four years. But beyond that he’s acted the way he’s acted for the better part of 40 years, which has been about the amount of time that he’s been in public life. The Proud Boys moment was so fascinating to me, because that was probably the truest thing that he said, on that debate stage.
I think that to his base, which are people who are deeply invested in white supremacy, they are ecstatic. This morning, they saw a Donald Trump who was defiant, who didn’t care about norms. Because I think that even though the economy is probably the worst it’s been in many people’s lifetimes, and we’re dealing with this unprecedented virus, they are deeply invested in a president, in a figure, in a Savior, who is reflecting back their commitment to white supremacy.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think that that’s right. And I think you and I have spoken about and I’ve gotten a lot of insights on this from you and your interest in cult leaders. And, and a part of being a cult leader is creating an alternative reality, creating your self as the proponent of that alternative reality in which the adherents will have everything better, you name it, just fill in the blank. And thirdly, that there being an army, literally, of adherents within that, right, there’s always muscle within a cult movement, interestingly enough. It doesn’t only work on belief, it also works slightly on fear. And I think that one of the things that was important was, for me, it was that moment, right, appealing to the army within the group of adherents, specifically the Proud Boys, and how it’s a necessary part of having and being in a cult. And his racism is the belief system that holds the cult together, I think.
Jamilah King: So Imara, I think it’s, it’s really fascinating. I don’t even think I’ve thought about this, to think about Trump as a sort of cult figure. One thing that I’ve learned in my reporting on cults is that leaders come through in great moments of uncertainty. And what differentiates a cult leader from a regular leader, right, is the just adherence to false ideologies that are proven to be false, and you really don’t have any mechanisms of accountability. You know, I think that this is a moment where we have so many people who are struggling, so many people who are searching for answers, so many people who are afraid, and they want to go to something familiar. Joe Biden, it was impossible for him to actually provide a counter to Trump in any meaningful way. But, you know, Joe Biden isn’t that, that figure who I think we as as people who are struggling in this moment, can go to and say, “Okay, I trust that this person will lead me through.” I think there’s a case to be made that, you know, Donald Trump came across as a stronger leader than Joe Biden, if only because he, you know, was willing to yell and scream and like you said, just be an arsonist and set everything aflame, despite anything else that was on the table.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think, to that point, I take what Joe Biden was doing slightly different last night. I think that he was trying to do what Joe Biden does, which is to connect with people individually and to show empathy. So why don’t we just turn to that for a moment and listen to Joe Biden speaking directly to people and connecting empathetically.
Joe Biden: Look, you folks at home, how many of you got up this morning and had an empty chair at the kitchen table because someone died of COVID?
Imara Jones: And so in that moment, I think, you know, he was trying to talk to people who had lost, right? And the emblematic idea of someone not being at the breakfast table is this idea of, “I understand what it means to lose.” So I think that he does focus on empathy. And so I don’t think that he was trying to offer sweeping ideology. What I do think that he was trying to do was to connect with people and to show that he understood what they were going through and as a result was a solution to that. But–
Jamilah King: Right.
Imara Jones: But your challenge is that you think that we need something bigger than that.
Jamilah King: Well, you know, I think that first, if you went into this debate undecided, you know, like, I don’t know what to tell you. You were not reassured in any meaningful way. I think anyone who watched this, right, exactly like anyone who watched this debate, the takeaway is exactly what you thought it was going to be before you turn on your TV. The moment that stood out to me actually, Imara, was when Donald Trump kept trying to hammer him on his son really,
Joe Biden: And I resent–
Donald Trump: Are you talking about Hunter?
Joe Biden: I’m talking about my son, Beau Biden. You’re talking about Hunter.
Donald Trump: I don’t know Beau, I know Hunter. Hunter got thrown out of the military. He was thrown out, dishonorably discharged.
Joe Biden: That’s not true, he wasn’t dishonorably–
Donald Trump: For cocaine use and he didn’t have a job until you became Vice President, would you–
Joe Biden: None of that is true
Donald Trump: as president–he made a fortune in Ukraine and China and Moscow and various other places–
Joe Biden: That is simply not true.
Donald Trump: He made a fortune and he didn’t have a job!
Joe Biden: My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people we know at home, had a drug problem. He’s overtaking it, he’s fixed it. He’s worked on it. And I’m proud of him.
Jamilah King: Trump tried the empathy card, he tried to say, you know, “Shutting down the government has led to so much alcoholism and depression and you look at the drug use.” But I think Joe Biden really nailed it when he defended his son, Hunter Biden, and said, “Yes, like many people, my son struggles with addiction. And he’s sort of come out on the other side of it right now.” But I think that’s a story that a lot of people can relate to. And I thought, you know, that’s maybe something that is a little bit more resonant to people in sort of rural Pennsylvania or Ohio, who are kind of in the throes, to white people in rural Pennsylvania and Ohio, who are seeing jobs disappear, have seen those jobs disappear and are struggling with, you know, the meth epidemic. So I do think that there were moments of deep compassion from Joe Biden, which was great and useful, right. Like, I think that’s ultimately what we would like to see in a Joe Biden presidency is not necessarily him being Obama-esque and charting a path to change, but it’s him showing enough compassion and kind of knowing when to step out of the way.
Imara Jones: I think that’s a really important point, because, after the debate last night, because I couldn’t sleep, I actually did the Donald Trump test. He looks at people with the sound off, and then he makes a determination around whether or not they look qualified enough for a job or whether or not they look like they’re succeeding or not, and he makes hiring decisions based upon that.
Jamilah King: Hmm.
Imara Jones: And so I did the Donald Trump test. And I think that at the beginning, you’re right, he did look strong and Joe Biden looked weak. I probably looked at it for 25 minutes with the sound off. And then probably 15 minutes in, the body language changes. Joe Biden starts to look certain, and Donald Trump looks like he’s crazy, because he’s starting to go on these long rants. And Joe Biden is just standing there, either shaking his head or looking at the camera, and he actually looks like the one that’s in control and Trump looks like he’s the one that’s coming unhinged.
Jamilah King: Hmm.
Imara Jones: And that crescendoed in that Proud Boys moment, I think that was the maximum moment of him literally not thinking about what he was saying and just going there, going where he really wants to go. To that point, I saw Frank Luntz, who’s this Republican pollster who’s always on Fox, he always has a group of, quote, “undecided voters,” and he had them on last night. And one person called Ruth is gaining fame on Twitter this morning, because apparently, she went into the debate undecided again, I don’t know how, and what she said was that Trump sounded like a crackhead and that there’s no way she’s gonna vote for him.
Jamilah King: Yeah, I mean, look, I that’s a really interesting point. It reminds me I was actually texting a few folks last night during the debate, and I have a friend who is sort of a political Insider, who made that exact point that you just made Imara, that, especially earlier in the debate when it kind of felt like Trump was definitely baiting Biden into saying something awful. That Joe Biden was giving off the appearance of a leader, like he was looking into the camera a lot more than Trump. But I think the thing that’s going to be really difficult is like, how do you make Donald Trump look any more incompetent than he’s already looked over the past four years? Right? Like, what else can we do? There’s not a lot left, right, like he is someone who is willing to just lie and he says things I mean, he was even called out for, you know, when Joe Biden referenced the fact that he told people to inject themselves with bleach. And he was like, “Oh, I was just, clearly I was being sarcastic.” And he wasn’t. So again, I think it goes back to this idea that people who are supporting Donald Trump are deeply invested in white supremacy, they care about him as a symbol to show that they are important that they are still relevant, that they are still the majority. And, you know, I just really, truly hope that this is an inspiration for folks who have the ability to vote, just go out and vote. You know, my colleague, Ari Berman, who covers voting rights is constantly saying that the election is not on November Third, the election is happening right now. I just got my absentee ballot in the mail from New York, like the election has been happening for weeks. And I really, really hope that all of these moments of frustration, that people are able to look at them and use them as motivation to get to the polls.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I think that you’re right, over a million people had casted their ballot by September 27. So the election is happening. And I think that fundamentally, that last night did not change the dynamics of the race. And that is a problem for him, because every day that he loses is a day that he loses. On this particular point of possible losing, right, we don’t know what can happen. There can be a lot of things that happen at the last minute that shift the dynamics of this race and we do end up with Donald Trump as the clear winner within five weeks, so who knows?
We should say that because no one does really know. Right? But we do know that there’s a strong probability, at least today, that he will not win. And one of the most important other standout moments of last night’s discussionand where I think we’ll sort of land the plane on today’s discussion, is his lack of commitment to both free and fair elections and to respecting the results of an election. Here’s what he had to say about that:
Donald Trump: I am urging my people, I hope it’s gonna be a fair election, if it’s a fair election–
Chris Wallace: You are urging them what?
Donald Trump: –I am 100% on board, but if I see tens of thousands of ballots being manipulated, I can’t go along with that.
Chris Wallace: And what does that mean, does that mean you’re going to tell your people to take to the streets?
Donald Trump: From a common sense, I’ll tell you what it means, it means you have a fraudulent election.
Chris Wallace: And what would you do about that?
Donald Trump: They sent out 80 million people, they’re not equipped, these people aren’t equipped to handle it, number one. Number two, they cheat.
Imara Jones: Jamilah I don’t know about for you, but that was a really shocking moment for me, because one of the things that he did do in that, and this is because he’s an arsonist, is that in torching the electrical system, he also didn’t realize that he’s also setting himself up to be delegitimized, right?
If the results are close in three states, and it’s because of some voter suppression stuff, Joe Biden’s going to have an argument. And ultimately, this is going to the court of public opinion. Ultimately, the House of Representatives will have a say in what happens because they have to certify the election. And so it’s weird. He thought that he was undermining Joe Biden, but he may be undermining himself. What struck you about it?
Jamilah King: It was actually something that Trump said, where he talked about his Supreme Court nominee, and he was bragging about how he could have three but he also mentioned that he appointed more than 100 federal judges to the bench. And that is terrifying to me. That’s the long game. He has changed the landscape, no matter what he does, or how he does in November, if he wins or if he loses if he accepts the defeat or not.
The damage that he’s done in his four years is going to last for generations. It’s really important for folks who feel threatened by that damage whose lives have been imperiled by that damage, it’s really important for us as movements as people who are ostensibly on the margins of society to start thinking long term too, just to think beyond Election Day to think beyond this awful year to think even beyond the next decade, and think about the type of world that we want to build, because if there’s anything that Republicans have taught us, it’s that you have to think about the long game. You just have to.
Imara Jones: I think that’s right. And I think that for me, this impulse, on the part of people who have been historically marginalized and progressives to a lot of times throw our hands up at the process and be like, well, we don’t want to participate, this is just bad, everybody is bad doesn’t do what you just said.
Jamilah King: Right.
Imara Jones: Right, which is to, we have to look at what party politics and the machines and the levers of power that are available to us and figure out how to use them to advance what we want,
Jamilah King: Exactly.
Imara Jones: It’s taken Republicans almost 50 years to do to the Supreme Court what they want to do to be on the cusp of ushering in all the changes that they want in society. And in the beginning, most of the views of the people that they have put on the Supreme Court were the fringe views within their own party. But they worked really hard, this minority, to ultimately take over the Republican Party, and they’re on the verge of taking over the country in terms of its legal structure, and what’s even possible.
Jamilah King: Right.
Imara Jones: We have to think about it in the same way, right? We don’t have the luxury of not playing the long game,
Jamilah King: Right. And I’ll just say, you know, to that point of thinking about the long game, there are folks amongst us who have been doing that, you know, I think about Sylvia Rivera, and the gay pride parade in 1973 in New York City, and you know, she’s on stage, screaming at people to recognize the validity and the humanity of trans women. And she’s being booed, by, you know, gay and lesbian people in the crowd, like that was more than 40 years ago.
So, you know, I think there are models in our community. And I think there are people who have been sort of challenging the idea that we cannot think long-term, I think we have to really think about the world that we want to see and think about, what is that world going to look like in 50 years? And what do we have to do right now to make that world possible?
Imara Jones: I think that’s exactly right. And lastly, I just wanted to make the point that all the things that we’re talking about right now together form the basis for white supremacy, right? And which is why Donald Trump is a white supremacist candidate. We know that there is a strong relationship between white supremacy and patriarchy, specifically misogyny, and rooted in that are issues that you just touched upon, and gender identity and gender overall. And so I think one of the things that we just have in a nutshell from this entire experience last night is the demonstration, as you said, of who Donald Trump really is, and what the last four years have been about and why those of us who want a better world have to think totally differently.
Jamilah King: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll say, Imara, it’s, it’s so hard these days to be hopeful. Most days I am not hopeful, it’s a struggle to get out of bed. But, you know, I was thinking last night, the thought that kept entering my mind was, as a Black person in America, I don’t have the luxury of apathy, or resignation, because I’m thinking folks always talk about like, you are your ancestors’ wildest dreams, or whatever. I’m thinking about, you know, if I were to go back and talk to my grandmother, you know, who passed away or my great grandmother, about what they lived through, they would just look at me and be like, “Honey, what? This is it?” So I just feel like, you know, we have a roadmap that’s been set up for us already, by generations of people who have fought battles that are much more difficult, much more personal, much more deadly even, than this one. And it’s our responsibility to follow it.
It’s our responsibility to learn the lessons of folks who come before us and to try to build that world that we want to see. And so that’s, that’s kind of where I land on a lot of this is like, I don’t have the luxury of apathy, it may be hard to get out of bed, it may be like, really depressing to wake up every day in Trump’s America, but you know, it was way more depressing to wake up and Woodrow Wilson’s America. You know? So we need to really keep that historical context in mind.
Imara Jones: I think that’s a perfect, perfect, perfect bow on our conversation. And I think that you’re exactly right. I think all the time about how my worst days are better than many of my ancestors’ best days. And this idea that you laid out that people who have come before us, like Marsha P. Johnson, like Harriet Tubman would look at anything that we complain about today and say, “Ciao,” and literally keep it rolling. And so we do have their example. And their example is hope and persistence and fearlessness. If you can hold on to those three things, we’re gonna make it through this.
Jamilah King: I think that’s exactly right Imara.
Imara Jones: Thank you so much for joining us, and we now understand why you host such an amazing podcast and why people read what you write about race and politics and social justice. Jamilah, thank you so much for joining us.
Jamilah King: Thank you so much for having me, Imara. It’s a pleasure.
Imara Jones: That was Jamilah King, race and justice reporter at Mother Jones and host of the Mother Jones podcast.
And now it’s time for Transform, the part of our show where we elevate changemakers in our community who innovate and create a better world for us all. Transform takes us into their world. Today, I am nerding out and totally excited to talk about Star Trek and trans representation with Ian Alexander. Ian plays Grey, the first ever trans character in the history of the Star Trek franchise.
Grey will debut in this season’s Star Trek Discovery, which will premiere on October 15. That program will also introduce a non-binary character. However, pushing the bounds of final frontiers is not new to Ian. Known for his role on the Netflix series OA, he’s also the first out transgender Asian American to act on television. As a Trekkie, I can recite, you know, “Space, the final frontier…”
Captain James T. Kirk: These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Imara Jones: It is a true way to be talking to you right now Ian, thank you so much for joining us today.
Ian Alexander: Thank you so much for having me, Imara, I am so so excited. It makes me so happy that you’re a huge fan of Star Trek. I personally am still learning so much about the universe. I’m like, working my way through Discovery right now.
But yeah, I can’t wait to bring authentic trans representation to the Star Trek universe. I know there has been some allusion to gender non-conforming in past characters, especially involving the Trill. But I’m excited for it to be like explicit trans actor playing a out trans character in the universe.
Imara Jones: I mean, I think, you know, it’s far beyond time. And I think what’s so exciting and why people are so excited is because, how can there be a future without us, and that imagining ourselves in the future is so key to the vitality of our community. And so being in a show that is about the future of the future, I think it’s it’s really, really a powerful moment for our community. And I know, that’s why we’re so excited.
Ian Alexander: I absolutely agree. Like I can’t wait to see this future where we’ve all sort of transcended and ascended gender. I mean, that’s, that’s my goal, personally. And I like sort of looking forward to this future in Star Trek, where 1000 years from now, gender is not necessarily something that people need to discuss, like, there’s just a openly trans character that exists and it’s not necessarily a huge deal. And I’m so, so excited, I can’t really dive in too much about the character without getting into spoiler territory. But there’s just so many exciting things that gray and Adira, the first nonbinary character in the Star Trek universe, is going to bring to the table. So I can’t wait for you to see it.
Imara Jones: Go ahead, make news tell, you know, give us a spoiler, I’m happy to do that!
Ian Alexander: Good point.
Imara Jones: On this issue of the future, and playing someone in the future, and the fact that you’ve been on, you know, a sci fi inspired series on Netflix. I’m wondering when you were a kid, you know, seven or eight, could you imagine what you’re doing now? I mean, it’s really fascinating that in the future of that person who was seven or eight, you are playing a person in the future. So I’m wondering what your imaginations were as a child around where you were headed and what was possible.
Ian Alexander: I never would have pictured anything like what I’m doing right now. I mean, I always had dreams and aspirations of becoming an actor or just being someone that like made an influence in the world and I’ve always wanted to help people. So that was always my main goal. I had no clue that I would get the opportunities that I’ve had. And I am so grateful that with the way I was able to bring an Asian American transgender teen, onto the screen and into mainstream for so many people like myself who had been invisible, I don’t remember seeing any trans characters or even like gender non-conforming characters unless they were villains when I was younger, I really can’t think of anyone that was like a positive role model for me that made me feel truly seen and affirmed in my gender.
And it wasn’t until I started acting on The OA that I started seeing other roles, like Elliot Fletcher’s character on Shameless, where I was like, “Okay, like I can see, now there are more opportunities for transmasculine people.” Things are opening up even more now with Leo Sheng’s character on The L Word and, you know, there’s Garcia in Tales of the City on Netflix. And, yeah, there’s so many amazing nonbinary trans masculine actors out there. But yeah, I never could have imagined there would be a whole world of acting and voice acting and being on a video game, The Last of Us Part Two that I was on, like, I never could have imagined I would be immersed in so many different amazing sci fi fantasy fiction worlds.
Imara Jones: Yeah, and I think what’s so amazing about what you’re describing is how, sometimes even for, quote, “mainstream actors,” and I guess that’s a code word for white straight actors, there’s this idea that in order to fulfill or embody your role, that you have to totally separate yourself from the character, and that that’s somehow true acting, that transforming. And I think that what’s really interesting about what you’re describing is that what can be powerful about us in fulfilling our roles even as artists or creators is actually being able to bring a part of our experiences to these roles, to be able to bring, what we’ve been through and how we perceive the world into our work.
Ian Alexander: Absolutely, I mean, I have definitely gone on quite a few rants about this, but the, I mean, it’s, it’s so important to have authentic representation, especially when it comes to trans actors playing trans characters. As an actor, I mean, there is an element of assuming a role and you know, doing the character work, and really studying and discovering how to portray this new person, but there also is an element of bringing your own experience to the table. And so much of it is drawing from your own experiences, at least in my method of acting like I am drawing from my own past and history and feelings that I’ve had before, situations I’ve been in before.
And so I wouldn’t be able to do that, and really tell a true, authentic story of a trans person without having that lived experience myself. And so I really just sort of bring that to the table, when I’m acting, it’s not a choice that I’m making, it’s not a costume that I’m putting on, like, at the end of the day, I still am that person. So it was very authentic and genuine in a way that I just don’t believe a cis actor could get to that level of like authenticity with being trans and like, what it’s like to be trans and exist in a world that is not made for people that don’t conform to the gender binary of you know, you are assigned this gender at birth, and then you must remain that gender at birth. Anyone who breaks out of that binary is rebelling, essentially. And so I think that that’s something to be extremely proud of.
Imara Jones: On that issue, what do you say to directors, I mean, if you could say to directors, or to show runners about this specific issue about representation, and this idea that, well, one of the reasons why we have to cast “broadly,” in quotes, for trans characters are people who are gender non conforming or nonbinary is because we can’t find, you know, that those actors just don’t exist. And therefore, we have to cast this wide net. When you hear that, what do you think and feel? What crosses your mind?
Ian Alexander: When, you know, I hear casting directors or directors say, “Oh, well, there’s, there’s no one out there for this part, we just have to pull from who we have.” I would point them to the story of my own, like experience coming into acting, which was: I had no professional experience, I didn’t even have an agent or manager and the creators of The OA, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, they both really, really, really wanted to bring a transgender actor to play the 14- to 15-year-old Asian American character that they had written. And the casting directors told them you know, “You’re not going to be able to find someone who is 14 or 15, also Asian American, also transgender male, like it’s just not going to happen.”
They were like, “Well, let’s just see, let’s put out the open casting call, let’s see what happens,” and they took that leap of faith. And then they found me. And so it’s possible it very much is possible to just sort of put an open casting call out there and to find someone who may not have made a name for themselves yet in the industry, but they still are just as talented and just as qualified for the job. I mean, I would point them to Hunter Schafer on Euphoria, like, I don’t believe that Hunter had any prior acting experience, at least to my knowledge I don’t think she did, prior to Euphoria.
And now she’s like, hugely influential among among like Gen Z and I would say that she’s like one of the it girls honestly, like someone who so many teenagers look up to and admire. And so just because someone isn’t already popular and well known, doesn’t mean that they can’t be if given the opportunity. There’s Aaron Philip as well. I mean, she literally built up her platform, just online completely by herself wasn’t signed as a model. She just kept manifesting and putting out into the universe, like “One day, I’m gonna be a supermodel.” And look where she’s at now, she’s a supermodel like she did that.
Imara Jones: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And it’s also the power of owning our own images and our own stories and asserting them before we’re necessarily seen by larger society. This idea, again, of making sure that we control our images, control our stories and understand that that is enough, which I think is really powerful. Speaking of bringing all of yourself to your roles, one of the things that is true about you is that in addition to being an actor, you are also very much an activist, someone who cares about our community and where we are in society. And four years ago, you were involved in a very famous response to students trying to police and prevent trans students from using bathrooms at UCLA and just sort of erase us in that way. And I’m wondering if you can just talk about how you’re feeling right now, about where we are on trans rights and trans acceptance.
Ian Alexander: I am so glad that you brought that post up, because so much has changed in those last four years since I made that response. For context, there was this like image of UCLA students protesting trans people being allowed to choose whichever bathroom they wanted to and you know, they had some very, like, transphobic hate rhetoric that was like, “Oh, you know, we’re not going to be safe in bathrooms,” like, “Use the bathroom that your genitals are assigned to,” or, you know, something along those lines.
Imara Jones: “Keep your transgenderism out of our bathrooms?”
Ian Alexander: Yes, exactly. Yeah, just that BS. And I just was so fed up, very angry, just pissed off, honestly, at being told like that I wasn’t a human being that I just wrote a sign that said, “Shut the fuck up.” Just, I mean, it was a viral post. So today, I would say, we still have so much more to go. Trump has actively been trying to roll back protections for LGBT people, especially trans people. And so I would love to see trans people in the State Senate or even in the US Senate making these decisions. I honestly would say most of the important work has to come from everyone, not just trans people advocating for our rights. It’s all hands on deck sort of thing.
Imara Jones: Yeah, I mean, use that terminology, you’ll be using it on the ship, if that’s where your character ends up on Discovery. I think that that’s right. And I think that for us to have a future that we want. All of these things have to happen in the present with regards to creating more space for us in society. So all of the things that you said are so on point. I’m wondering what you hope we look back and take from the presence of your character and what you’re going to bring to Grey?
Ian Alexander: Wow, that’s a great question. I would say that the main thing that I want people to take away from Grey’s character is that there can be someone that exists, like myself, someone who is transmasculine and nonbinary and trans. We can exist and we can succeed and thrive and be happy and supported in any environment. And there’s a sense of unity and family, especially with the people that Grey comes into contact with, like his sort of partner in crime Adira, and when he needs Culber and Stamets it’s just a loving, supportive environment, which everyone deserves. And I think that’s just the main message I would want people to take away is that everyone deserves that safe space to just express themselves freely and be who they are, regardless of what gender they are.
And also that someone can be trans and it doesn’t have to necessarily be the defining points of their character, like they can still have a personality outside of just their identity or they can have a story outside of their gender. And I think that’s really important for other trans actors as well to have opportunities where their storyline might not necessarily revolve around the character’s journey through their transition or coming out as trans. Because trans people have such rich, diversified lived experiences we all–yes, we all are so proud of being trans but also, there’s so much more to us as well.
Imara Jones: Well Ian, thank you so much for joining us today. You have made history, you are making history, and there will be so much more history that you will make undoubtedly, as you’re still at the very beginning of your career. I’m so thrilled that you could join us today. And also, I’m just wondering if at some point, just tell Sonequa Martin-Green that I said hello?
Ian Alexander: Okay. I definitely can’t do–I will recommend my podcast to her and like, maybe the rest of the Trek family.
Imara Jones: Yeah, yeah. Because I mean, she doesn’t know who I am.
Ian Alexander: She will soon!
Imara Jones: But truly, it’s fantastic to have you on today. And as I say, this is this is just the beginning and it’s so exciting to see.
Ian Alexander: Thank you so much for having me on. This has been such a pleasure, Imara. I am so grateful. And so excited for you to be able to see Star Trek Discovery season three and meet Grey.
Imara Jones: Absolutely. That was an Alexander who will play the character of Grey on the upcoming season of Star Trek Discovery. Grey will be the first ever trans character in the history of the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek Discovery premieres on October 15.
Thank you for joining us on the TransLash podcast. Don’t forget to listen all the way through to the end of the show for something extra. I’m Imara Jones. If you like what you heard, please go to Apple podcasts to rate and review us. Also, you can listen to TransLash on Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Check us out on the web at translash.org to sign up for our weekly newsletter. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at translashmedia, like us on Facebook and tell your friends.
TransLash podcast is produced by Translash media by Futuro studios. The TransLash team includes Ruby Fludzinski, Oliver-Ash Klein, Montana Thomas and Yannick Eike Mirko. The Futuro Studios team includes Nicole Rothwell, Jess Alvarenga, Stephanie Lebow, Leah Shaw, Julia Caruso and Sophie Davis. Our digital strategy is handled by Daniela Capistrano with support from Sean Watkins.
The music you heard was composed by Ben Draghi and also courtesy of ZZK Records.
Okay TransLash fam, what I’m looking forward to over the next couple of weeks is the launch of my new website imarajones.com. I had an old website and it was actually a Tumblr page that we converted to make look like a website. So now that just doesn’t work anymore for so many different reasons.
So we have a bonafide website where you will be able to dig deeper into all of the content that I produce not only with TransLash but across the board and sign up for an upcoming Imara Jones newsletter. So go to imarajones.com, check out all the stuff, all my new pretty pictures and also sign up for my newsletter.
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