In a TED Residency Talk last December, actor and trans activist Samy Nour Younes said, “Trans people are not new. Gender variance is older than you think and trans people are part of that legacy.”
The talk, “A Short History of Trans People’s Long Fight For Equality,” quickly gained more than a million and a half views.
Younes reviewed the global cultural history of gender variation worldwide and the unique identities of those were often considered shamans and valued within their communities as well as those elsewhere who were at risk of police action, jail, or being confined to an asylum for their gender nonconformity.
“So whenever people ask me why trans people are suddenly everywhere, I just want to tell them that we’ve been here,” Younes said. “These stories have to told.”
Now, Younes is telling their own story in a new show onstage at The Tank on December 16. They describe the show, “everyday.,” as a “solo cabaret” that utilizes parts of diary entries and recordings from the first year of their transition, stories from adolescence, and songs from musical theater.
Gay City News spoke to Younes about the upcoming show and the power of culture and art in moving the gender identity social justice movement forward.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What is the show about?
SAMY NOUR YOUNES: On the surface level, the show is autobiographical. It’s a coming out story. It’s a survival story. The show covers the first 23 years of my life, and not much after. Once you scratch that surface, we’re exploring issues of healing, of growing, and of forgiveness. But if I’m doing my job right, I’m also examining how and why we tell coming out stories. Right now, I’m only speaking about coming out as a trans man. I didn’t come out as gay until a few years later — I mean, it’s complicated, and I came out several times, but coming out specifically as a gay trans man happened later — and that part just didn’t make it in.
MURRAY: Will it be hard to go back and reach into what must have been a very intense time in your life and then to present some of that in front of an audience?
YOUNES: When it comes to trans coming out stories in the media, specifically those that are written by non-trans people, they’re so often fraught with trauma. It’s not that there’s no truth in that — many trans people face violence and rejection, among other things, when they come out — but I just find that a lot of these media narratives are focused on how much the trans character suffers. If showing cis people just how much pain we can possibly be in was enough to activate them into supporting the trans people in their life, they would have done it by now. As it stands, a lot of those narratives feel gratuitously sad, like trauma porn.
With the rise of trans writers, directors, script consultants, etc., we’re seeing more nuanced stories, and fully-realized characters, which is such a relief. I’d like to see more of that, but I think there’s also a thing that a lot of trans people do when we’re among our community, and that is the sharing of past trauma. It’s important to emphasize, again, that this happens when we’re in spaces for just us. We’re in the presence of people who understand. We’re not there to relish in each other’s suffering; we’re there to hold space for each other, shoulder the burden, and heal together. And it’s a bonding moment, too.
Sometimes, the closer you become with other trans people, you start to refer to these memories with a dark, rueful humor. But that can only come out of knowing you’re in good company.
MURRAY: How have you developed your dramatic voice for the show?
YOUNES: The thing about me being the one presenting my story is that, inevitably, it will sound like the dominant narrative. It isn’t. Even in my solo show, I can think of at least 10 different people whose paths in life intersect with mine. I’m sure if they had the platform I was generously given, things would look and sound a lot different. I am not trying to dominate the narrative just by having a narrative. I hope that comes across, too.
Early on in my transition, I was accused of “making things about me,” which felt like a punch to the gut. Only ever by cis people, by the way. I’m glad I had trans friends who understood what I was going through. I think the big reason it hurt was because I spent so many years in life — literally 23 years — trying to be whatever version of myself that others would accept. I really repressed myself just to be loved by other people. That fucks you up, having to do that for so long.
And that first year of a medical transition involves so many new experiences, changes, sensations, emotions, etc. that you simply need to be allowed to process. So to be navigating all of this shit for the first time and being told, “Stop making it about you,” like… it’s never been about me. And if what I need most right now is to live according to my own needs, to examine and grow and heal and define myself, I’m allowed to have that.
MURRAY: You were a working actor for years in Baltimore. What’s it been like since you moved to New York City?
YOUNES: Going from Baltimore to New York City, and connecting with a local community of queer and trans-identified artists, is probably what I needed most for my growth. I love Baltimore, always will. And I wasn’t doing poorly as a working actor there, but it also wasn’t sustainable. I was working six jobs to support myself, and I was well known enough in the area that I was finding regular work. But I needed bigger work opportunities.
Living in New York City, I don’t just audition for things locally, I have the opportunity to audition for projects across the country. When I started acting post-transition, it was 2012. I was the only working trans actor most people knew, so I got put on this pedestal that I didn’t want to be on. It was isolating, but also, I started to internalize that. I really was like, “I’m the only one.”
And not only is that so not true, but there’s a richly talented community of trans artists in New York City and across the world. Of different disciplines and backgrounds and perspectives.
I’m just one small part of the picture. So being part of this community and figuring out how I fit in it has helped me come down from that old pedestal.
MURRAY: I know you’ve been involved in many efforts to push for better representation of trans lives in the entertainment industry and also to see trans roles played by trans actors who are right for them. How are things going in that area?
YOUNES: Trans representation has shifted in just a short while. In 2017, I wrote an op-ed about my personal experiences as a trans actor of color. The editor gave it a very click-baity title about how Hollywood only casts white trans people, which even then was untrue.
And while the personal stuff in that op-ed still holds up, I’m glad that the industry stuff is quickly becoming outdated.
We’re in an era where, slowly but surely, people are acknowledging that we’ve been getting trans stories and representation wrong. Acknowledging that we need to cast trans people to play trans roles, that trans people need to be consulted on scripts with trans characters, or, better yet, that trans people be allowed in the writer’s room — there’s still much to be done but we’re moving in the right direction.
SAMY NOUR YOUNES | “everyday.” | The Tank, 312 W. 36th St., first fl. | Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. | $15 at thetanknyc.org/calendar-1/everyday