Patti Harrison is something of a renaissance woman. As a stand-up comic, writer, actor, and podcast host, Harrison rose to internet fame when her satirical take on Trump’s trans military ban on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon went viral last year. She’s helping pave the way for trans people in the industry by using her work to speak out on issues like racism and transphobia. Harrison is uncompromising in her art, choosing to take part only in projects that both appeal to her and amplify the stories of marginalized trans people in Hollywood and beyond. Despite dealing with online harassment, she remains steadfast in her goal to educate the masses on the trans experience patiently and with humor. She currently co-hosts a self-described “dark humor” podcast with Lorelei Ramirez called A Woman’s Smile, which addresses issues like relationships, sex, and the #MeToo movement.
We asked Harrison about her art, online feedback, and the strength it takes say reject sensationalized trans stories.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On the best and worst parts of the job
It's really exciting when you write something new and it goes over well, especially in a live show. Getting instant feedback, a big laugh in real time, is wonderful. A negative thing is that I am open to more criticism and harassment online. I don't think all criticism is abuse, but it can be over-encumbering to have 100 people all giving you advice you didn't ask for at once. And in general, people on Twitter harassing me for being openly and visibly trans/feminine can be exhausting. But also I realize I have an option to not be online.
On breaking barriers for trans representation in the industry
I would say as a comedian and actor, I remind myself of what my interests are. Cisgender people in the media really want to capitalize on trans stories. I appreciate the interest, but more often than not, the stories written by cisgender people are a sensationalized perception of the trans experience. Not all representation is good! So I've been more active about being honest and saying "no" to projects I think feel inauthentic or not in my voice and giving honest feedback like "I am going to pass on this because this trans character is one-dimensional" etc. It's hard and scary to do sometimes because I don't want to burn bridges but also I want the future to be good ???? [laughs] I don't want this to sound like I'm tough. I am always quivering with my pants full of watery shit when I have to be honest.
On her defining moment of 2018
I got hired to work in a writers’ room with Jason Segel and had to pick up everything right away and move to Los Angeles for a few months. It was my first extensive writers’ room experience and I adored Jason and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so it was this very surreal experience. It was a crash course and I really loved everyone I got to meet and work with.
On the toughest challenges she’s faced
I have body dysmorphia, and had to have a lot of conversations with myself about whether or not it is healthy to enter an industry that places so much importance on what I look like, whether I like it or not. It's taken me a very long time to start to build confidence, and I now work in an industry that often tries to convince me almost all of my value is in the way that I look and present. I've had so many meltdowns because hair and makeup people don't know how to do makeup in a flattering way on a trans girl. I still feel a lot of stress about it, so I've been, again, ma[king] more of an effort recently to push back when I disagree or to be honest when I'm uncomfortable. It's an issue of compounded misogyny/ trans misogyny, and the media's obsession with centering cis-passing trans binary people, particularly women.
Generally in my life, I've always had low-self esteem/felt afraid my ideas were bad, and unsure of myself. Struggled with a lot of internalized shame. It's taken my whole life to realize that that shame belongs to other people, and not to me, and that, whether they like it or not, I get to live and have a big life and be terribly annoying and loud.
"Hopefully we can get to a place where marginalized people can hold space in the media without having to mine their oppression or comment on their marginalization."
On creating change
Hopefully by just being outspoken, visible, and uncompromising on what I want to do in my career, I can help open doors for other people or fortify a foundation for more trans people, not just trans women, and not just white trans people. Hopefully we can get to a place where marginalized people can hold space in the media without having to mine their oppression or comment on their marginalization.
Any time in my life my opinion was changed by someone else, it's always been by someone I already had respect for. Someone who wasn't yelling at me, someone who was already my friend who did the labor of calling me out on some bullshit opinion I had at the time because I was ignorant. They took the time to talk to me as a friend about why my opinion was wrong, and it fully changed my mind. I don't think anyone should be forced to teach lessons and you definitely don't owe every stranger who disagrees with you your time, especially when it's the oppressed teaching the oppressor. But some people do have the patience and the stamina to have those conversations, and I think if you have it in you, and the other person is reasonable enough, a conversation can really affect someone's mindset in a positive way.
On what she’s most proud of
I am really happy with my podcast, A Woman's Smile with Lorelei Ramirez. She's one of my favorite comedians of all time, so to get to work on something with her has been a real dream come true. It's a very dark, layered podcast that I would not consider "entry level" listening I guess. Lorelei and I both have backgrounds of kind of dense trauma, L!O!L! So it's cool to be able to explore dark humor with someone I have great chemistry and a sense of understanding with, and to make something that really speaks to my sense of humor. She is one of my best friends and she makes me laugh harder than anyone else. Shout out to Joe and Alex at Forever Dog Productions who do insane sound design for it. It's my dream baby!!!!
On sticking to your guns
I've been trying to focus on my goals and wants. Believing more in myself. Focusing on what I want to do versus what people want and expect of me. Trying to find the courage to push back when I disagree with something at work, and trying to find the energy to do it in a calm and productive way. Trying not to immediately shut down my own ideas because I have a history of low self-esteem, so there's self-doubt I have actively worked to shut down, which means saying things aloud because I know I have good ideas! But also being OK if they [my ideas] are wrong, and not being too sensitive to learn from them if they are.
25 Strong is a new series highlighting people who have broken barriers and changed culture in 2018. Created with Reebok.