Filmmaker Rhys Ernst On Telling Trans Stories In Hollywood
When he’s not serving as a producer and consultant on Amazon’s Transparent and other Hollywood productions, Rhys Ernst has his own films to write and direct—not to mention a notoriously close-minded industry to contend with. We sat down to chat passing, power gays and the importance of queer spaces. Text & photos Sean Santiago.
Sean Santiago: Your work has dealt before with the “clubbiness” of masculinity. What are your thoughts on men as an audience, and making work that speaks to or addresses them?
Rhys Ernst: It’s interesting because I think all audiences are presumed to be men, whether people realize it or not. You get into this rut of thinking that everyone’s perspective is sort of male, or the male perspective is the neutral thing around which everything kind of performs. I think it’s really interesting to look directly at masculinity because it’s perceived to be invisible, typically. Like, femininity is performed while masculinity is inherently nothing. [That’s why] I love that barbershop poster of those guys, because it’s such a particular construct of identity. Just the fact that they’re being photographed is sort of uncomfortable and weird, because they’re not usually the subject. Like, doofy guys out in the world seem so alien and constructed and specific, but [we treat them like] they just emerged out of the ether like that and that that’s completely natural. I don’t think that’s true at all.
SS: Do you ever worry that the more you present as yourself to the world there’s an attendant invisibility that can come along with that, where you pass so well as a cis white male that your transness becomes invisible?
RE: That’s something that troubles me a lot. When I started to transition I became aware of the fact that I could pass and that would be it. I think I’m sort of allergic to being perceived as straight or cis or “normal,” or something like that. It just totally makes me want to react against it. But I immediately also realized that that was kind of the challenge for me at that point, or I felt like I wanted to take on the challenge of really incorporating my transness into my work, really putting it out there and integrating that into my identity.
The idea of passing is something I push against, even though I’ve found that my natural state of gender is not particularly androgynous. I used to wonder if I was genderqueer, or if I was reaching for masculinity and it always just fell in this canyon of androgyny before I started hormones and stuff like that. I did find that what feels good for me happens to be a more traditional representation of masculinity, to some degree. But the fact that I’m a queer guy and date men and so on allows me more range with my gender. You know what I mean? I have some trans guy friends who basically are straight, because they’re dating women, cis-women. And that feels, to me, like a really confining space to exist in. Not even to be trying to conform but to find yourself perceived in that way constantly. What do you do [about it]? Do you start dressing really differently? Do you constantly talk about being trans? To me I would not want to find myself reflexively in the role of a straight cis white guy.
SS: How much do you feel you need to perform your queerness then? Because I think there is this gray area between gay and queer, and where does that start, or stem from, and how do we reconcile these identities?
RE: I think there’s a huge distinction in L.A., [and] I think this has changed since I first moved here, but it felt like a very gay and lesbian city, you know? Not very queer. WeHo and that whole world, it’s basically these clone armies of cis gay guys who are totally the jocks from high school all over again and it’s insane to me. Like, being a man isn’t inherently a problem at all–
RE: [Laughs] But in practice it is probably, you know, one of the more toxic roles in society. Not as a rule across the board, but...I mean, it’s sort of like being rich. Like, not all rich people are bad, but it’s a privilege thing. It’s really easy to be an asshole if you’re rich and it’s really easy to be an asshole if you’re a guy.
SS: There seems to be a lot of fear, and I think amongst gay men in particular. I think at some point we are all in that queer space where you’re young and your gender isn’t matching up with your instincts or your impulses and then you kind of come out of that space. But I think that a lot of gay men then want to feel safe, or feel like a part of something bigger structurally so that they don’t have to go back to feeling that uncertainty, that ambiguity.
RE: I think at some point there had to have been a deeper investigation or reconciliation, or a larger questioning of roles and politics in the world. And probably some degree of an exploration of feminism at some point. You know, opening those issues up for oneself. I think that that’s kind of the difference, to me, between queer and gay. And a lot of the gay guys, like power gay dudes, they never had to do that. They were already jocks, they were already on their way to being stock brokers or whatever and this was the one thing that didn’t fit in with that and they found a way, because of the way the culture grew around being gay, they found a way to accept that one piece but never let it challenge anything else. I think that’s kind of a bummer and a problem.
On the other hand, I don’t think that everyone who happens to have been born gay or queer has to be a counter-cultural radical, either. It’s great on the one hand that people who have conservative backgrounds can be gay and just do that and find a way to sort of integrate that. But I also think it’s really important these days to hold onto the more counter-cultural and subcultural roots of the queer community. I started to go to gay bars a lot more than I used to specifically to hold onto that and to not say, yeah, Grindr is enough. I really think it’s important to hold onto that, kind of like supporting your local bookstores. If we don’t have that kind of place in the future it’s like the gay stock brokers win.
SS: It’s interesting you bring up gay bars as those kinds of cultural spaces. JD Samson recently did a piece for Broadly on the death of the lesbian bar and spaces for queer women.
RE: It’s so real. It’s crazy, I’ve been aware of that too because I feel like I was sort of lucky enough to be L, G, B, and T at different points in my life, so...you know, I came out of some degree of a lesbian community years ago, and a lot of my friends are lesbians still. But yeah, it’s like, in LA there are none. In San Francisco even, I feel like there’s like one left or something. It’s crazy.
SS: I remember an interview you did with AfterEllen, you were on the red carpet and you were talking about Cherry Jones. After I saw the second season of Transparent I immediately texted my best friend, who is a lesbian, and I was like, we need to talk about that feminist lit professor. Because she was so sexy! But I was also like, is this what every other gay guy watching this is doing? Is that a wavelength we’re on?
RE: I feel like gay male culture is so confining and so straight in a way. I have a gay friend—I would call him a gay guy rather than a queer guy—but he’s cool, he’s a buddy. But he briefly dated a girl not so long ago and his friends just gave him so much shit for it. It was like, exactly the equivalent of what would’ve happened to him if he’d dated a boy in high school. To me it’s confounding. I feel like the queerest thing possible would be like a gay guy and a lesbian dating. Like, that’s the queerest thing you could possibly do.
Also, I don’t think this goes in both directions all the time, but I feel like lesbians, or a lot of lesbians I’m friends with, watch gay porn all the time. Or like, fetishize Tom of Finland or that kind of thing and would totally be down to fuck gay dudes. But that conversation is not happening in the other direction so much, I don’t think. It’s almost like...is that misogyny? Is that because like, gay guys who have some degree of privilege are just going to shoot themselves back inside this bubble where now everyone is just like them again and won’t branch out of it? Or is it fear? What is it?
SS: I think there is some form of security to take in feeling that your sexuality is resolved, to whatever degree. You know? When I was younger there was such a fear around the idea that I’d chosen to be gay. I felt like if my sexuality wasn’t locked in place...I didn’t know how to navigate that. That wasn’t a discussion that was happening.
RE: There’s nothing wrong with desiring like, this super hot fantasy jock bod. I get it. But it’s so specific. It’s just walls. I think that there’s a lot more fluidity with men’s desires than they can accept, whether they’re straight or gay. We have such a diverse world and if that’s the message underneath being your authentic self and you’re not just falling into another box, then sexuality has to be able to embrace diversity as well. I think we all have to challenge ourselves a bit.—