Cassandra James: Transgender Activist, Actress, and Artist - Part 1
I met Cassandra James at the first Trans March in Los Angeles this month and we had an instant connection. She was genuine, friendly, complimented my eyelashes, and immediately told me she had insta-stalked me. I admittedly had insta-stalked her as well prior to the event. From the start neither of us felt the need to “put on” for the other, which is rare in a city like LA. I was nervous before giving my speech at the march, so Cassandra took my hand and told me not to be nervous, that I was amongst family, and she was right. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know her and marching alongside her. I asked to interview her because from the brief conversations we had that day I could tell she had a lot to say and wasn't afraid to share it. This interview was extensive and profound, so I've decided to split it in two parts. I initially began asking the same questions I always do about gender and sexuality, but our conversation developed into much more than that...
CR: When did you first realize what gender and sexuality was?
CJ: For me, my tangible understanding of gender and sexuality were separate things. I always played with gender my whole life; but when it comes to sexuality, I remember being seven years-old on the playground and I wanted to be Scott’s best friend. He was this cutie at my school in grade 5 and I would chase him around the playground during recess. I remember realizing that I wanted to be his friend in a different way than most boys wanted to be friends with him; and that's when I knew that my heart, my feelings, were different.
When it comes to gender, I had discovered drag when I attended Ryerson University in Toronto. I studied theater acting there and drag became an outlet for the work that I was doing at school. I find that in a lot of theater acting and film/tv classes that the training is quite binary. I male identified at that time and therefore the work was all about what they call “neutralizing” and stripping away my habituals. I was very effeminate and to be the best actor, the best vessel for the character, I had to learn how to turn those things off in the opinion of the faculty and the training that I received; and it left me feeling very worn out, very depleted, so drag became an outlet extracurricularly that allowed me to express my feminine self outside of school. Fast forward four or so years, Cassandra the drag queen really opened me up to my authentic self and she became who I am today and is such an integral part of my identity... but she started as a character on stage.
CR: It’s so important for everyone to know that each person's story is so different and how they find themselves is so different and we shouldn’t be confined to one way of figuring ourselves out. So, when did you first identify with being transgender?
CJ: I lived androgynously for many years of my life. Cassandra the character became such a part of my social life and a lot of my social circle was through night life - so a lot of people never saw me as anything other than Cassandra for many years; but I didn’t strictly necessarily identify as trans or female. I had grown my hair out after university and was very fem presenting and sometimes I would tuck for certain outfits, and wear dresses sometimes, but it was all very androgynous. You know drag culture has a tendency to be quite sassy and from the start a lot of the girls would say to me, “Oh well Cassandra are you a wo-maaan” and my understanding and my exposure to the transgender experience up until that point had been what I read in the media, which was very limited at that time; and my understanding of transgender was that we are all extremely dysphoric, specifically genitally dysphoric.
I’ve since learned dysphoria manifests in a whole host of ways and that genital dysphoria does not define the trans experience, but because that was my understanding and I personally didn’t have genital dysphoria, I put two and two together and said, “Oh I must not be trans.” So my draw towards the feminine and my love of Cassandra the character that started to really take hold never crossed that threshold because in my mind I had convinced myself that because I didn’t wake up every morning disgusted by certain parts of my body that I must not be trans. I remember thinking about the binary and what it meant to be a woman in the world and what it meant to be a man in the world and there was a period where I felt by living androgynously I’m rebelling against the binary and that that was my truth. As time went on it began to satisfy me less and less, and it started to manifest in some dysphoria. I really felt like I was missing out on moving through the world in a certain way. I met a man who was straight identifying and we dated for six months. He understood that I did not identify as transgender, but I was his girlfriend. He knew my dead name, but I was saved in his phone as Cassandra; and when it ended the rug was pulled out from under me and I felt for the first time like, “Shit. What about that was so right?” - and that relationship was kind of like the final piece for me that helped me understand that I was a woman and that “woman” was how I needed to move through the world. Androgynous didn’t satisfy me, and it never felt like I was caving to the binary it felt like I was finally rising to meet the binary. I didn’t feel like I was copping out or anything like that, I really felt that I wanted to move through this world in this binary way, it’s important for me to be perceived as a woman, not an androgynous person. I had my own dysphoria around being androgynous and GNC (gender non-conforming) and that’s just how it manifested in me. For me, it started to be unacceptable [to be androgynous,] it just was not enough. I had a really tough dialogue with myself for two years and I really cracked it all open. Did I want to do hormones? What did that mean? Did I want to change my body? What about dysphoria? What about the fact that I didn't have genital dysphoria? What does it mean to be a woman? All of these big question about the trans experience, I explored them, I wept long nights - it was really hard work that I did for those years, and in that time I started presenting more and more female.
I remember I was traveling back and forth from Toronto and LA, and in LA to this day they [people in LA] only know Cassandra. I wasn’t living full time at that point but they really just knew Cassandra, they had no idea that I wasn’t trans. Coming to LA to visit and to perform and explore became a safe place for me. I remember there was one night where I wore my breast cutlets for drag out to party for the first time- and that was one of my rules that if I’m not wearing my breasts I’m not doing drag, and I remember saying I’m going to wear them tonight and then when I came home to Toronto I wore them every night out, and I never stopped wearing them. My experience was an evolution, I really unearthed who she was.
CR: We so often think of Caitlyn Jenner as the stereotypical transgender woman, but it’s not like that anymore.
CJ: Well yea and look at Transparent too, it’s one of the tropes that a transwoman is a little later in life, had this terrible secret that they’ve been hiding, and that this part of them that they’ve denied comes out and they start living full time- and usually in that trope a physical transition, a medical transition, becomes imperative to the narrative.
CR: We also now think of transgender people to be exactly like me, who knew at a really young age that they weren’t identifying with the gender assigned to them at birth, but it isn’t always that way.
CJ: Yes! That’s the other trope. Watching something like Gender Revolution is bittersweet to me but it was really exciting because they charted transition from intersex infants, children, and ended with teenagers getting implants to delay puberty. Now trans kids do cross hormone therapy.
CR: Yes, that’s what I did!
CJ: And that’s amazing. I’m on hormone replacement therapy because I went through the wrong puberty. I watch that documentary and it makes me cry all the time. I don’t regret my experience, the evolution and time that it took made me who I am, but there are aspects where I wonder if my transition would've been easier if I went through one puberty. For me my dysphoria manifests in my voice, I’m very self conscious of my voice, it would've been interesting if my voice hadn't changed. I also love being 6ft but I wonder about if I were 5’10” instead.
CR: I completely understand that. I was supposed to be 5’11” before I went on hormone blockers, but my voice was the only thing that started to change. I was 15, so I was already late bloomer but my voice did get deeper and people always ask why I don’t try to change it or use my vocal feminization training but to be honest this is how I am and it’s not comfortable for me to put on a different way of speaking. I always think that if I had just started my transition a year or two earlier I wouldn’t have this problem, but it’s my story, it’s what makes me me. But I also didn’t have the typical coming out story, did you?
CJ: I started living full time as a woman in all aspects of my life except for my restaurant job and with my family. Even during the day if I were to be walking through the mall or whatever I started to be perceived and presenting as female - but I still had my dead name at work and I hadn’t come out to my parents. I had actually worked with my cisgender best friend at the restaurant, and she was such a confidant for me during this whole period. She said to me at one point, “Okay Cass it’s time to start living full time, the restaurant is going to be a really great place for you to jump right in and see if this how you want to be perceived, do you want the world to see you as Cassandra? But the thing is babe, your mom comes to eat at the restaurant so that’s not fair for you to come out at work and change your name tag without having a conversation with mom.” So that was kind of a big thing. I wrote my mom a letter. My friend Janet came with me, we were going for dim sum and before we left I said, “Mom we have to have a conversation;” and I didn’t use the word transgender in that letter, I said in it, “Cassandra the character has become more important to me and means more to me than a character on a stage, and that she might expect to see Cassandra more,” and I asked her if, “I am Cassandra, can you call me Cassandra and could you use female pronouns,” and I never went back.
When I look back that is when I came out, it was November 2015. So I just hit three years! I didn’t start my medical transition until May the following year in 2016. It takes time, my doctor had never had any trans patients before and so she was learning it for the first time with me. There was tons of blood work and she wanted me to bank sperm in case I wanted kids and there was a waiting list for that clinic and it just takes time; but I started living full time. I’m so so so so grateful to have had such a supportive experience especially at my job because I know it can be such a nightmare coming out at work, and my manager was like “Yea I’ll make you a new name tag no problem.” She just said, “Oh I had no idea that you were going through this but yea let’s do it, and you can wear whichever you want”- and I never wore the other one again.
CR: How was that experience of going into work and feeling it out and knowing okay this is right because it works here for me?
CJ: It was amazing and I do want to talk about passing privilege because it’s a huge part of my experience and I’m really grateful, and I think so much of my experience was positive because of my privilege. I had already had my face lasered because of drag, I had already grown out my hair, so when it came time to live full time I knew how to be feminine and come out and perform femininity; because at the end of the day, trans or cis, we all perform femininity, the beautiful female soul comes out, but gender is a construct, it’s all play. My ability to come out was a product of my privilege; my job accepted me, my mom accepted me and even took me bra shopping and went to groups and learned a lot on her own as well. I was privileged that I lived in a supportive city and was able to afford a doctor that was able to help me, but yea it was an exciting time. Something that fucked with me a little bit was soon as I came out and living full time, people accepted me as a woman immediately and it didn’t allow me time to evolve into her; so sometimes I felt really rushed by the world. I was a woman already, but I felt like I was playing catch up. Many people in the trans experience, all they want is that immediate acceptance, but for me it was a little scary and moved very quickly. Right away the staff knew what was going on and talked amongst themselves about it, my kitchen friends would tell me I looked beautiful, I’m so lucky- and the customers were great too!
CR: Something very interesting that you shared with me is that you are pre-op and are in no rush to get surgery, if ever. I often talk about how transgender in itself is a spectrum. I am on one end where I felt my life could not move forward without it; could you explain where you are with that?
CJ: I think it all comes down to the binary - We need to understand that trans and cis people alike are oppressed by the binary - and here's the thing, we made it up! - we made up the binary! The caveman “man go hunting, woman picked berries,” we made that up! - There might have been at one time a kind of scientific root that affects the binary but we took that and ran with it and we really turned up the volume on all that and it’s now beyond anything that can be deducted to science and have created a system that is so oppressive and so limiting. I’m sorry to the moms-to-be out there but gender reveal parties are so offensive to me. (I agree.) If you want to find out the sex of the baby go ahead, but let me tell you that baby is going to tell you its gender when it gets older. Cis people because they’re cis and their gender aligns with their physical sex, they don’t understand that those two things are different. People of trans experience, queer people, we had to learn that very quickly, we understand that intuitively very early on in our experiences as queer people, but that’s a gift that we understand that this system is a complete fabrication. So if you want to talk about what it means to be trans and what it looks like, there are no rules. It became very important to me to be very thoughtful about my transition and I continue to spend a lot of time thinking about divine feminine, misogyny, and a lot about the binary. For me those kinds of explorations, that work that I’m doing on what it means to be a woman in the world became, in a way, more important to me than any sort of physical transition. I really had to mourn the loss of “man.” I had to give up any male privilege that I had because unfortunately misogyny is very real, because the world was very ready to take it away from me.
CR: Do you feel like there was an actual loss from male to female?
READ HER ANSWER AND THE REST OF OUR INTERVIEW IN PART 2 ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 25TH xxCR
Opening and closing graphics by Paige Almaraz