Rain Valdez began working in the film industry 15 years ago, but for most of that time she was living a stealth lifestyle—none of her colleagues knew she was a transgender woman. After feeling encouraged by trans-centric projects like Transparent in 2014, Valdez finally chose to break free from the secrecy of that lifestyle and began connecting with other trans people, eventually going on to work behind the scenes on that series.
Valdez had stopped acting years before out of fear that her gender identity would be exposed, and had spent the last several years working post-production on films. But now she's has returned to the screen, to act in a short romantic comedy she wrote and directed with Natalie Heltzel. Called Ryans, the film is debuting at the Outfest LGBT film festival in Los Angeles on July 10.
Romantic comedy is one of the most popular and easily digestible film genres. These movies tell lighthearted stories about love and interpersonal growth that the general public can relate to. In that way, rom-coms may also be significant cultural forces reifying existing—or producing new—relationship standards and gender roles. But transgender people and trans storylines are totally absent from the vast majority of romantic comedies—there has never been a blockbuster love story featuring a trans woman.
The "Ryan" in Valdez's short is a dreamy prospect for trans girls around the country: He's fit and handsome, doesn't care that his love interest Tori (played by Valdez) is trans, and to top it off, he's a supportive big brother to his younger, newly out, trans sister. But when they meet, Tori annoyingly disqualifies Ryan based on one insignificant detail: his name, which is the same as Tori's ex.
Ryans is a charming 14-minute criticism of the casual discrimination that takes place while dating, spanning from preconceived judgments against transgender women to grudges against guys with the same name as your ex. Coming from the mind of a trans woman, this critique weighs heavily; Valdez has experienced men's biases against dating trans women. She knows firsthand what that looks like, but she's not afraid of using that high-powered perception to examine her own similar tendencies to judge men for superficial reasons.
What's left is a smart, and appropriately simple, rhetorical question posed by Tori: "Can we not let our fears, and or past experiences, form a basis opinion about someone we don't know?"
BROADLY: Your film suggests that we shouldn't judge one another for superficial reasons, which can range from a name to a gender identity. Why is that idea important to you?
Rain Valdez: It can be so frustrating when you meet someone on a date and [they are] already making future plans based on their assumptions about you. If they really like you, then they start dreaming about what their kids would look like with you; if they like you a little, then they start imagining what sex would be like that night. Well, I can't bear children, and I don't necessarily want to have sex that night. And just to turn the tables on myself, I've caught myself not wanting to date someone because their skin color was too similar to my ex's. And in one incident...had the same name! So if we stripped away the preconceived notions, the assumptions, and expectations, maybe we'd all have a better time during a first date.
It's my favorite genre, but I'm saddened that I can't really see myself, or my type, in these films.
How important is it for trans women to be represented in romantic comedies? Are there even any rom-coms that do feature trans women?
There aren't many at all. In fact, I can only think of one. It's important for our community to start owning this genre, now more than ever. [In] the movies I saw growing up with trans women, the characters were either outed, fetishized, vilified, or all the the above. I remember watching [the film] Soapdish with my family and laughing really hard—until we got to the end, when Cathy Moriarty's character was outed and made to be the villain. I remember feeling really sad and thinking that I was a bad person. Some years later, Hollywood did it again with Ace Ventura. Like Soapdish, I was enjoying the movie with my family until the end, when Sean Young was outed and vilified. It was upsetting. I was afraid to grow up. So positive and accurate representation of trans women in comedies is something that's very important to me. It's my favorite genre, but I'm saddened that I can't really see myself, or my type, in these films. And I think it's time we start changing that.
What has your experience been like working in Hollywood as a trans woman?
It hasn't been easy at all. I lived stealth for a very long time and for fear being "found out." I would sometimes turn down auditions; I had quit acting altogether because I was afraid of what would happen if/when I became successful. After watching those movies that depicted us very negatively and reading about [trans supermodel] Caroline Cossey's story, I didn't think I had any other option but to find a different career. I was already struggling as an Asian American female in an industry that's controlled by men; I thought that if I came out as trans, then I would be adding another label: Asian American trans female. Thankfully, since I came out to my reps and my close friends, everyone has been very supportive. I don't go out for cisgender roles as much as I used to. Because of my "passing privilege," some casting offices take that as not "trans enough." So it's still a challenge.
The Little Mermaid was the closest thing that reflected what I felt as a child.
Your character opens up about breaking free from a stealth lifestyle. Is that something you personally relate to? Are we moving away from "stealth"?
The story is based on a lot of my own personal experiences. Coming out of a stealth life was very freeing for me. I do think we are moving away from the archaic ways we were conditioned to believe in. I get the old ways, to a degree. I get why I was told [that] I'd have a better life if I didn't tell anyone. And truthfully, living stealth allowed me to survive certain challenges. Resources were difficult to find, and in my case, it felt safer if I kept quiet about it. But the world's changing, and I'm seeing more kids and adults proudly identifying as trans. Whereas before, I had one choice: to live as a woman and that's that. In addition to the science, and positive role models like Laverne Cox, Geena Rocero, and Trace Lysette. We also have a language that we didn't have before. Language that can empower a person of trans experience to articulate what they're going through as well as open up cis-normative spaces to be more inclusive.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in the Philippines and grew up in Guam. I knew early on, about the age of 5, that I was a girl. We'd watch Charlie's Angels and I'd tell everybody I was Jaclyn Smith. When I ran around and played, I was always Wonder Woman or She-Ra. My stepfather tried to put a stop to what he called "being a sissy." But to me I was just being myself; I was confused about why it was such a bad thing. I was always very feminine; androgynous was the one word that felt a little close to what I was feeling. It wasn't it exactly, but I didn't know the word transgender until much later. Because of all the negative depictions, even the word transgender created this internalized phobia, so I didn't want to be that, either.
Have you seen more transgender people involved in professional creative projects in the last few years?
I have seen more transgender people involved in creating and filmmaking, and I think it's wonderful. I think it's a great start. When I was coming out of stealth, I felt like I was in sync with what was going on in the universe. Laverne Cox's career was taking off, Janet Mock's book came out, and [it was] the birth of Jill Soloway's show Transparent, which is what really changed my life. It's amazing to be alive today to see this movement come in such full force.
What do you hope that men will take away from Ryans?
I want more men to start seeing trans women in a different light. I want more men to start owning up to what they're attracted to. The character Ryan, who's played wonderfully by Zach Mendez, is not a perfect character. He has his own challenges when it comes his family. But through those challenges he's able to see Tori (the character I play) as just someone he's attracted to and possibly someone his sister can grow up to be. If more men can set aside the stereotypical mentality that society has conditioned us to believe, which creates the fear of emasculation, I think they'd be much happier and evolved. At least that's the kind of man I'd like to date. Trans women are some of the sexiest, funniest, wisest, and open-minded women I know. As a woman, I know what I have to offer to a man. My trans experience doesn't make me less of a woman—it influences me and teaches me to be a better person.
What kind of films do you hope to be making in the future?
Definitely rom-coms. After working on Ryans, I feel this is my genre. I'd love to see a strong-budgeted rom-com with a trans actress playing a trans female lead. There's such a lack of it, and I feel like there's a space for it now. We're also very funny! We have a wealth of humor that we're dying to share. We can be very sexy, too. I'm in the process of writing a sexy comedy pilot, which will feature three trans women whose stories interweave with each other as they navigate through dating and life in queer spaces as well as cis-normative lifestyles. I want to normalize trans existence in romance and sex because we do have those in our lives.
Trans youth didn't grow up with fun, romantic movies that included their storylines. What effect do you think that has on them?
Well, it had a serious effect on me and made me fearful of what I'd become. I also used to think that living my truth would mean that I'd be giving up on love and I'd be alone for the rest of my life. Which is a sad thing to believe, and I would hate for a young trans person to think that love won't be possible. It's totally possible. I believe it's my responsibility to start creating those positive examples. The Little Mermaid was the closest thing that reflected what I felt as a child. Ariel is the ultimate trans girl: She was born a mermaid and transitioned into a human. And she lived happily ever after with a man who didn't care that she used to be a mermaid. It was a metaphor for my life. We need more content like that—but a little bit more on the nose. Why not? It's so untapped—let's give our trans youth something to believe in. Something to live for.
Tickets for the Ryans screening at Outfest are on sale now.