Stand-up comedian Ian Harvie is rocking one hell of a beard these days. That isn’t so surprising for a 46-year-old male stand-up comedian about to make a big Hollywood breakthrough in a show with major critical buzz (Amazon’s upcoming comedy series Transparent). But Harvie had to try harder than most guys to achieve bearded glory. He had to become a man — in the eyes of the rest of the world, anyway.
“I knew that I felt like a boy,” the transgender actor tells me as we catch up over Skype (full disclosure: we’ve known each other for years). “I identified with all the boys in the neighborhood. I identified with my brothers. We are all taught the binary from a very young age of boy/girl, male/female, masculine/feminine. Girls felt like the ‘other’ to me. And I had crushes on them and I felt like one of the boys in every way.” By the time he was three years old, he was arguing with his mother over his desire to wear boys’ clothes instead of girls’ clothes.
He doesn’t resent his mom at all for pushing back. It was the 1970s in rural Maine — not exactly a hotbed of queer activism. “People got beat up,” Harvie says. “Someone in Maine who was effeminate got called a f—-t and thrown off a bridge in Bangor. So I think she heard stuff like that she was like, ‘I don’t want that to happen to my kid.’” But his parents have evolved with the times. Today, he adds, “My parents are amazing about all of this.”
And his parents have plenty to be proud of. After spending 14 years in the stand-up comedy trenches, working with everyone from Margaret Cho to Zach Galifianakis, Harvie nabbed a plum role in writer-director Jill Soloway’s hotly-anticipated new dramedy, Transparent, which debuts in full on Amazon September 26 (the pilot has been available online for months). The show follows the fortunes of the Pfefferman family, a Los Angeles-bred clan that includes three adult children and a patriarch, Mort, played by the extraordinary Jeffrey Tambor. Mort is a closeted trans woman, wearing conventional masculine clothing like a costume around his children, only donning his “real” garb when he’s alone or among trans friends. Harvie plays one of those friends, a trans support group member named Dale who eventually gets to know Mort’s daughter, Ali, played by Gaby Hoffman.
He didn’t have to audition on camera for the role, which is basically unheard of in Hollywood. But he did have to tell a tiny white lie. Harvie says sheepishly, “When Jill asked me to do Transparent, I said you know what? I haven’t acted in a long time. I would have to sort of dust off my skills and she said, ‘Well, what if I helped you do that? What if I made it safe for you?’ And I was like uh, okay. But what I didn’t tell her was that it had been since English drama class in eighth grade.” Regardless, he impressed Soloway and Amazon execs enough to nab the part.
It will be by far the most prominent role Harvie has had to date. I ask him what he thinks about becoming an even more public persona. “I have no idea,” he says. “I have some wishes that are more about trans visibility. This is such beautiful storytelling and that someone I think finally fucking got it right about trans folks.” I wonder if people always “get it right” about Ian’s identity as a trans man. It seems that for the most part, the answer is yes. He says, “In fact, I get straight cisgender guys come up to me [after a show] and give me that bro hug or they slap me on the back and say ‘Dude, that was so funny.’”
(Cisgender is a term used to describe an individual whose gender identity matches the sex with which he or she was born or assigned. For example, I was born with female organs and I identify as a woman, so I am a cis woman.)
However, there are exceptions. He recalls in particular his appearance on the show Comics Unleashed with host Byron Allen. He says he didn’t want to “make a big deal” and just assumed that the other comedians on the show would know that he was a transgender guy. That’s not exactly what happened.
“The two other guys that were on the show came up in my dressing room and were like, ‘Hey, bro, what’s going on? How’s it going? Good. I’ll see you out there, man.’ And they gave me the bro hug and they brought me into the bro circle. We get out on stage and [it turns out] they had no idea [I was trans]. But Byron Allen sets me up to tell my jokes about it. And the body language of the dude next to me, he shifted and you could see him move away from me, freaked out. And he turned and he said, ‘I’m fucking pissed right now.’ And I said, ‘What are you pissed about?’ And he goes, ‘I’m pissed that the chick next to me can fucking grow sideburns and I can’t.’” The line got a big laugh from the crowd.
And though Harvie didn’t know it at the time, Byron Allen had set up his appearance almost in the manner of a carnival barker. Harvie recalls seeing the introduction once the show actually aired. “All he said was, ‘Don’t change your channel. We have something on the show tonight that you have never, ever seen before. So tell your friends, call your friends. Right now, tell them to tune in right now.’ And when I saw that, I was like, ‘God, that fucking asshole.’”
Harvie makes a habit of coming out in his act and in his personal life, in part because he hates running into situations like the one on Byron Allen’s show. “People are fine with it when I come out. But if I don’t come out and they find out later, it’s weird. [Some] dudes feel like they’ve been duped somehow because they had thought of me in a certain way. And even, like, in a flannel and with a beard… ‘How could it fucking possibly be that you’re really a chick?’ It’s like, ‘I’m not a chick. You had it right the first time. I am a dude, just not the kind of dude that you thought.’”
Sara Benincasa is a comedian and the author of Great and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She tweets @sarajbenincasa and is currently on tour: dates are at SaraBenincasa.com/shows.