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Comic Transformation

With 20 years of sobriety, comedian Ian Harvie looks back on coming out as a lesbian, then as an alcoholic and then as transitioning into a male body in The Fix Q&A.

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By Amy Dresner

07/03/14

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If you haven’t heard about Ian Harvie, you will. He is the first FTM (that’s female to male for you not hip to queer lingo) transgender comic. He toured with Margaret Cho for over three years before becoming a headliner himself. He makes all the girls swoon and the gay guys pant. With his puppy dog eyes, boy next door charm and a beard that would make any hipster in Silverlake jealous, he is seriously likeable and attractive. Besides being sweet, funny and taking the piss out of himself on stage, he is also over two decades sober. His comedy routine about his journey from female to male is as amusing as it is eye opening. And when the curtain closes you have a brand new and progressive set of ideas about gender, sexuality and relationships. I was lucky enough to tour with Ian when I was still a stand up comic. And as he just landed a recurring role on a new TV series, I thought it was the perfect time to introduce the Fix readers to this remarkably brave and talented individual. 

You’ve been sober for over 20 years. What was your bottom? How do you stay sober on a day to day basis?

It was a collection of my own bottomed out deeds while drinking that led to me feeling small and emotionally filthy. That ended up being too much for what was, at the time, my dwindling spirit. I guess I'm too sensitive because looking back my "bottom" doesn't sound that horrific from the outside; it was just horrific on the inside.   

To stay in recovery I have to rat myself out in some fashion every day; sometimes it’s in a 12-step meeting, sometimes to my partner, sometimes it's a subtle comment to someone I barely know and sometimes I do it on stage. But I need to come clean about something every day, even if I've said it before, I need to say it again. It's kind of like a mini admission of what I used to be like and what I'm like now. That ratting myself out is not to remind me of my former deeds. I've long since let that go. It's entirely about not forgetting the amazing gifts I have today in recovery.

We figured if a former career armed criminal and heroin addict, a transgender man and alcoholic, and an LA Jewish princess and recovering meth head could get clean and sober, fuck, anyone can!

Before you transitioned, you were a lesbian… a big-busted one as well. You have been very forthcoming about drinking over your discomfort with your body and with your gender identity. Can you talk more about that?

Yes, I drank a lot over my body and how I felt about it in relation to my gender. But I was an alcoholic before that. Feeling weird about my body just gave me a legitimate reason to medicate with booze. At first I thought I was somehow special about my awkwardness and my body….unique, like we all do. But after some time away from drinking and getting clearer, I realized that everyone feels a little nuts about their body, specifically in relationship to their gender. If you feel 100% okay about your body, and you feel masculine enough or feminine enough in your body every day of your life, then you're the fucking weirdo, not us. Learning that, I finally was at ease. I'm not perfect with it, nor do I expect to be, which allows me to let go even more. 

You actually took me on two sober tours with you and Felon O’ Reilly back when I was still doing stand up: “We Are Not Saints” and “Laughs Without Liquor." How did the whole sober tour thing start? What is your experience doing stand up for others in recovery vs. normies?

Felon started it over a decade ago because he began performing standup and some of his friends couldn't legally come to liquor pouring establishments, [because they were] mandated by the court. So he created a regular space where they could come and laugh in a clean and sober environment. There was a big turnout locally and he continued it regionally. He then brought me in and then we brought you in and went around the country. We did recovery centers, clubhouses, and theaters around all the major cities, no booze served. We figured if a former career armed criminal and heroin addict (Felon), a transgender man and alcoholic (me), and an LA Jewish princess and recovering meth head (you) could get clean and sober, fuck, anyone can! We raised thousands and thousands of dollars for recovery-based organizations around the country and we got to tease the shit out of you the entire time while doing it. You were like our little sister on the road with us. 

Sober or recovery audiences are intensely present and want to laugh. I think they're some of the best audiences around exactly for those reasons.

You just landed a role on Jill Solloway’s new series “Transparent." Tell me about that.

“Transparent” is about an LA family with serious boundary issues who have their past and future unravel when a dramatic admission causes everyone's secrets to spill out. Jeffrey Tambor plays the lead, a father who is reconsidering his gender, decides to transition, and comes out at 68 to his three children. 

I play the role of “Dale," a furry-faced, lumberjack kind of trans man and the love interest of “Ali," the youngest daughter, played by Gabby Hoffmann. I am playing a character that I happen to share quite a bit in common with. You might say we have similar souls. And for me it's especially exciting to be a trans man playing a trans man on TV. Also, I've craved seeing more of trans people in trans roles on TV. I hope I give Dale's character truth.

The process was absolutely non-traditional Hollywood and now I know now that's exactly who Jill is. She's driven by love, instinct and creative vision in her storytelling, and Amazon trusts her and allows her to keep those core values in the TV show-making process. When she called me to officially offer me the part, I was super emotional and I thanked her and said "I won't let you down." She quickly came back with "No, I won't let YOU down!" I was teary. I can't thank her enough for bringing me into her Transparent family.

You can watch the pilot on Amazon here. The series will be out on Amazon Prime at the end of September.

You recently shot your one hour comedy special “Super Hero," executive produced by Margaret Cho. How has this been received?

I'm really proud that I made MY OWN feature-length concert film, IAN HARVIE SUPERHERO, and that my friend Margaret (Cho) executive produced it. It's about my life and ratting myself out about my feelings about my body and my experiences before, during, and after changing it. It was so well received that it ended up screening at over 25 festivals worldwide including OUTFEST here in Los Angeles and Frameline in San Francisco. It won best of the fest at Palm Springs and Kansas City LGBT Film Festivals and People's Choice at Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. The film was just released to the public in April 2014 and is now available for download for five dollars on my web site: www.ianharvie.com. Here is the trailer for IAN HARVIE SUPERHERO:

You’ve said you do not identify as “male” but you do identify as a “man." Can you explain the difference?

For me biological sex is something science-y and gender is something I get to play with and create every day. This is just my opinion and how I feel about myself. For me, no matter how much testosterone I take throughout my life, I will always be biologically or genetically female. But if you meet me and talk to me and listen to me and experience me, you will see and feel undeniably that I am a man, albeit a self-made one, but a man, nevertheless. It's not important to me to be male and I am completely accepting and grateful that I was born female. I have such a rich life experience having lived as both man and woman. Not many folks get to claim that experience. I love all of my history even the hard parts. I wouldn't trade a single moment of it! And I also believe that I am who I say I am regardless of what my body might say to the world. It's taken me a long time to get to that place, where I know who I am is not up for public debate.

You take testosterone for your transition and some AA fundamentalists have said that steroid use is a relapse as it can alter your mental state and be psychologically addictive. What is your opinion? 

Quite simply, testosterone is not a steroid. It’s a hormone and not physically addictive. It's legitimately prescribed by my physician and what any fundamentalist AA people might think about me or my taking it is not my business. 

Self-love, self-acceptance and feeling comfortable in your own skin is something almost all alcoholics seem to struggle with. Do you think it’s harder for gay or trans people to get sober?

Everyone struggles, everyone. In my opinion, and this is just my opinion, my struggle is the same as everyone else's. For me it's not healthy to think that my struggle is harder or easier or more unique. It just is. I have such shared experience with everyone around me: our struggle with self-love, acceptance, being in our skin, sexual identity, or just generally feeling like we’re enough in this world. That describes pretty much everyone I know, sober or otherwise. 

So first you came out to your parents as a lesbian. Then as an alcoholic. Then as a transman. What were their reactions to each of these revelations?

Strangely, I think my alcoholism was the hardest for them to grapple. I don't think they saw that the struggle was with booze. And  I was pretty young so I think they might have thought I was just trying to figure out who I was, typical youth kind of floundering around. They didn't know I moved to Ohio at 19 because the drinking age was 19 and I thought, THAT'S THE STATE FOR ME! They weren't aware of my obsession with drinking before I ever put it to my lips. And on the other hand, I think they somehow knew for a long time something was going on with my overall sexuality and my gender because I started feuding with my Mom at 4 and 5 years old about not wanting to wear dresses and girl clothes. That feud continued through all of high school and beyond. So I think that was pretty glaring and they couldn't possibly say with a clear heart that they weren't aware of that on some level. But none of these revelations rocked their world. I have unusually unfaltering, loving parents. They are amazing and have stuck by me no matter what and I love them.

What do you have to say to other queer folk struggling with addiction?

I'm right there with you. I get you and you're among good company with your struggle. It gets better. But you gotta stick around sober for it to get better and receive all the amazing gifts. I would give them my number and tell them to call me.

Amy Dresner is a columnist for The Fix. She last wrote about gay pride and hating Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous.

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