At the turn of the millennium, Silas Howard made a caper film with his buddy Harry Dodge. By Hook or By Crook was a lo-fi bromance featuring the two first-time filmmakers as hoodlum outsiders, one trans, one not. In real life, Howard and Dodge were both transitioning; the movie allowed the former punk guitarist Lynn Flipper and artist Harriet Dodge to try on gender identities that to some degree — minus the petty crimes — stuck.
By Hook or By Crook did well on the festival circuit, but most media outlets and theaters didn’t know what to do with these outsiders, and the labor of love left its filmmakers in debt.
“We were like, ‘This is not a lesbian movie,’” Howard says. “We were trying to claim this gender-nonconforming space back then, but the press did not care. We just killed ourselves trying to get them to care.”
Fifteen years later, doors are finally opening for Howard, as they are for other creative gender pioneers. He won a Guggenheim grant, has directed three episodes of the Amazon hit Transparent and is currently directing his first episode of the new NBC series This Is Us.
If you need proof of the changing cultural mores around sexual identity and the transformative effect of Transparent in particular, look no further than the Highland Park bungalow where, on the Saturday after the release of the third season of Jill Soloway’s game-changing series, Howard is talking to a reporter while his girlfriend, actor and educator Heather María Ács, and friend Bashir Naim (who plays Simon in Transparent) are getting ready for a drag-show benefit for the Transgender Law Collective. They are prodigies of the underground, bubbling with the giddiness of sudden visibility — on their own terms.
“I’m so used to our community doing amazing stuff and then it lives there. We build the house and then we party in it. We don’t count on anything outside. But here, people want this. They’re ready for it,” Howard says. “There was a world out there that hasn't been seen and it’s not that this show represents all that world, but what it represents is breaking a lot of molds.”
As the first transgender director of the Amazon series, which follows a family as the patriarch becomes a matriarch, Howard literally embodies the Transparent effect: the lifting from underground of a community of artists.
Born in Vermont, Howard first drew attention as ax-wielder in the all-dyke San Francisco band Tribe 8. In 1994, on assignment for Ms. magazine, I followed then–Lynn Flipper and her bandmates to the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, where the tattooed punks were about to bring the first-ever mosh pit to the folk-influenced, female-only gathering. Rumors of their hardcore act initially drew protesters who feared the leather-bound lesbians were tools of the patriarchy. After MichFest icon Alix Dobkin welcomed Tribe 8 by introducing them and then stage-diving into the crowd, the audience went wild, and the band became repeat performers.
“I owe a lot to not fitting into the gay and lesbian scene, because it drove me to make everything I wanted to make not against them but so I could find a place that I felt OK,” says Howard.
Tribe 8’s presence was not the only “issue” at MichFest that year: One night, the band visited a group of activists parked in campers just outside the woodsy venue. Although the members of Camp Trans did not identify as male, they were not allowed on “the land” because they had the misfortune of being born with penises.
“Man on the Land,” the season-two episode of Transparent that just won the show one of its eight Emmys, features a festival based on MichFest. It’s an example of how deeply the show’s creator has tapped into the lived experiences of queer and gender-nonconforming women. Transparent is revolutionary because it brings to the fore marginalized communities by directly involving them in its storytelling (Soloway hires only female or trans directors and uses several gender-nonconforming actors), and by being uncompromising in its commitment to difficult, albeit sometimes absurd, depictions. Howard not only directed episodes two and four of season three; he acted as an adviser for the first four episodes and shot the pivotal turtle sequence at the start of episode three. It’s an apt metaphor for Howard and his generation of artivists: years later, the patient survivalist finally gets his day in the sun.
“Silas breaking through at this moment has something to do with what a show like Transparent has accomplished not merely through its storytelling but through its hiring and production practices,” says author/professor Dr. Karen Tongson in an email. Tongson co-organized the Nov. 2 USC conference “The Trans/Gender Tipping Point?” at which Howard will speak. “Soloway and her team have really transformed the industry by bringing in talent from queer and trans creative communities, and really fostering and nurturing people who are coming in from more subcultural or ‘indie’ art-making contexts, providing them with a platform, and encouraging them to transpose what they're good at from their previous lives (in Silas’ case as a punk musician, as an indie film director, as a teacher/scholar) within the ‘mainstream’ platform of television.”
Transparent is not the only outlet busting open binaries. Howard won his Guggenheim before Transparent brought him back to Hollywood. Maggie Nelson just won a MacArthur Grant and a National Book Critics Circle Award for The Argonauts, a memoir about her life and building a family with Harry Dodge. Against Me vocalist Laura Jane Grace made the cover of Rolling Stone and landed a TV show after coming out as male-to-female trans. And of course there’s Caitlyn Jenner.
OK, maybe trans is verging on trendy. But for someone like Howard, whose work has paved the way for folks like Grace and Soloway, this acceptance represents an important and authentic breaking down of barriers, not a passing commercial appropriation. Howard credits the generation after his, such as the students he taught at Williams and Queens colleges, with creating the sort of trans-man role models that made Lynn feel comfortable becoming Silas.
“I took so long to transition because I liked being queer. I made work that has been very important to the queer and trans community. That generation 10 years younger than me, that embraced By Hook or By Crook or Tribe 8 and the attitude and the spirit of individuality and self-expression and not fitting in and being a third gender, they inspired me. … I had a friend who was trans-masculine — he went by 'he' but was completely feminine in his expression. I think that’s what totally sold me. Even though I’m just a regular guy. I’m not super dandy, I have my moments, but I love in between. That was the party I wanted to join.”
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Howard is deeply aware that gender-nonconformists face serious problems of bias, harassment, violence, depression and addiction. Just as he was preparing to shoot his episode of season two, a friend committed suicide.
“All this movement happens and then there's sometimes backlash. That makes you feel more frustrated, because it doesn't just trickle down to everyone. For some people, it’s wait, the boat's leaving without me.”
But on this particular Saturday night, Howard and his friends are in a celebratory and philosophical mood. TV paychecks finance the work he really wants to do, like make music videos for Peaches or a feature film about a strippers union.
“We’re not breaking into TV — TV is breaking into us,” Howard says.