Cassandra James: Transgender Activist, Actress, and Artist - Part 2
CR: Do you feel like there was an actual loss from male to female?
CJ: I do, I do. For me it was violence and I wrote about it on my social media - I feel like I was always ashamed of being feminine, I don’t know how much male space I occupied or how much male privilege I held, however it’s undeniable- it’s so tangible and it's been so violent. It makes me think about how cis-women, for the most part, are socialized inside misogyny and they have no idea what the other side tastes like, you know? That is very oppressive and heartbreaking and damaging in its own way - but to be a woman of trans experience, to have tasted the other thing and then to have it, as an adult, violently ripped from you, is a whole other kind of violence that shook me to the core and continues to shake me. I think that trans-women have a lot to teach cis-women because we get to say [to society], “Hey that thing that you’re taking from me, actually all women deserve that thing, and actually I’m going to help make sure my cis-sisters access that thing too because you don’t get to take that away from us.”
CR: Why do you say trans-experience or people of trans experience?
CJ: Oh that’s just language that I moved through my transition hearing, is it something that you don’t like?
CR: No not at all, I say the transgender experience and I don’t hear many other people saying it, but you use it differently than I do. You say people of trans experience, and I say it as a whole, the journey.
CJ: That includes in my mind people that are GNC, non binary, trans-masculine and trans-feminine, it also includes transsexual people, and transgender people.
CR: Interesting that you say that, what does transsexual mean to you? A lot of people don’t know the difference between transsexual vs transgender
CJ: I’m still learning myself but my understanding is that people who do identify as transsexual is having a resurgence. There was a period where we didn't like that word anymore because it sexualized our bodies, but my understanding of transsexual is that these are people of trans experience (we laugh, it can’t be unheard at this point) who are typically very dysphoric and that a binary transition becomes essential to their mental health and wellbeing.
CR: Is that like me then?
CJ: I don’t know, I mean you get to tell me. There are transgender people who absolutely move through a binary transition. I would consider myself as one of those people, but I also understand that gender is play and I don’t feel oppressed by the binary. For people who identify as transsexual often, not all of them but often, bottom surgery becomes very imperative. They often subscribe to the binary in terms of presentation in more traditional ways, and that transexual really becomes about changing their sex.
CR: Interesting, because if you were to Google it basically says a transgender person who needs surgery, which is true, but I don’t like the word transsexual at all.
CJ: Me either, it doesn’t sit with me comfortably.
CR: Okay I’m glad you agree. By the way, the last time I interviewed a trans person was when I was studying abroad in Amsterdam, and I was still stealth, and that’s where I learned about the history of transgender people. I had to write a research paper and I did it on the difference of transitioning between the U.S. and The Netherlands. I had to interview two trans people, one male-to-female, the other a female-to-male, but it was more of a standard conversation. This is the first time, and I’m realizing this all now as we’re speaking, but it’s the first time I’ve interviewed another trans woman in depth.
CJ: While you were out yourself...
CR: Wow, you’re right. Thank you for that...
CJ: Doesn’t it color your experience? Whenever I meet a person of trans experience (we laugh again) who has spent any time or any period of their transition living stealth, it’s very intense for me. Not in a negative way, it’s just so not part of my experience at this point and I can’t wrap my head around doing it for myself, so I don’t understand. I often find myself projecting my own insecurity around passing onto the other person because I think like, “Oh my god, wouldn’t that be the scariest thing? Everyday leaving the house, wouldn’t your whole existence be around getting clocked?”- because I feel like it's already like that for me, and being transparent about being someone who is trans helps alleviate some of that for me.
CR: You're 100% correct and that's why I couldn't take it anymore, I was living a double life.
CJ: It does take a toll. I can’t imagine just erasing a part of your life. I understand people who are very dysphoric, they need to in a way to survive their experience but I think there's an opportunity as well to do some healing there. In the same way that I had to mourn the years of my life that I spent living in the wrong body - living in my wrong truth - if I hadn't done that work, it would’ve haunted me as a woman.
CR: For me the only reason why that happened was because I was passing and was so young and going off to college. No one really knew about being trans on a large scale, Caitlyn wasn't out, there was no way for me not to be stealth, and I wouldn’t have had the social and sex life I wanted.
CJ: Yes and no though. Queer people have existed and been transitioning long before Caitlyn...
CR: Totally, but where I went to school, on Long Island, it wasn’t safe, people would’ve known what trans was, but they still would have been like “what the fuck” and treated me differently than I wanted.
CJ: The genesis of passing privilege is safety privilege. However we took passing and we really as a community, and also in the outside cis-world, turned the volume up on what it means to pass. We all are participating in what I believe is a very damaging culture around passing and surgery. I always say that a medical transition does not dictate or define a transition, it doesn't.
CR: I completely agree. A lot of people think trans-women need to “pass,” to seem like they’re not transgender, and to also be fully transitioned
CJ: Well what does “fully” even mean?
CR: To society, it means having surgery, but they don’t understand you can be transgender and your own version of complete without it.
CJ: Passing privilege is rooted in two things; class privilege and genetic privilege. Class privilege is knowing you can afford hormones, for example. Genetic privilege is exactly that. You mentioned my framing before. I’m half asian so that must be where I get my framing from. I mean there are cis-women who are broad shouldered, and again this fucking binary - if you want to talk about passing, people with smaller frames are perceived as more feminine.
CR: So true I’ve really never thought about it that way.
CJ: You and I talked about the language I’ve discovered around being non-operative. The language that we currently use is “preoperative” and “postoperative” and that implies that every trans-person wants surgery, they're either before their surgery or after their surgery; but what about those who don’t want surgery? And when I heard that the first time I knew that that fit for me. I did have breast augmentation and it was very gender affirming for me; I didn’t really realize how much so it would be. It’s been a year and I have yet to gain sensation back in my nipples, and I worry about having bottom surgery because my body is very very sensitive. These girls who bounce back after a month, I am not that person, so the idea of undergoing SRS, [sexual reassignment surgery] to me, I just don’t think it’s part of my journey. I don’t think it would be a positive experience for me in terms of my physical health. On top of that I don’t wake up dysphoric every day. I have what I call institutional dysphoria. When I was dating my first big boyfriend after my transition, my dysphoria began to manifest because I understood that he had never been with a trans-woman before, so I started to think, “Oh is he going to miss vagina?” That’s where my dysphoria started to manifest, but it didn’t ever escalate to the point where I would be like, “Oh I need one of those.” He was amazing, but this was a lot of my own stuff that came up in our relationship. We’re not together anymore, but to this day I thank him. My trans-ness was never an issue and was such a simple, beautiful, easy part of our relationship that was really such a gift; and I’m very very lucky that I’ve had a few partners like that in my life, who didn't fetishize any part of my body, but they also didn’t shame any part of my body.
I think that there are more and more people out there that are like that, who understand that, if they are straight, that the woman is so much more than the physical body. My divine feminine, my female self, she radiates in a place that is not my crotch - she is in my heart and in my brain and on my skin, and so that helps me cope with what I call institutional dysphoria. Let’s face it, we as trans people are still being taught and told that we are less valuable than cis-people. That’s still the narrative and I think almost all trans people must experience what I’m talking about. Whether or not you’ve had surgery - again tying back into girls who live stealth, I understand why they do it because disclosing often pushes them back into the “other” when really they’re women just like anyone else. A trans-woman who has had surgery is no different than a cis-woman, she just can’t get pregnant - but aren't there so many cis-women who can’t get pregnant?
CR: Yup, my thinking exactly.
CJ: Unfortunately this stigma that we still have around being trans I understand because there’s so much violence that exists, yes physical violence is very real for us, but also emotional violence that’s being done to us around our worth. We are still perceived as “other” - people don’t even know the language around cisgender - they view themselves as women and we are other women, we are trans - and that’s why cisgender was created, it was a prefix added to women who are cis as an equalizer. I am a woman of transgender experience, you are woman of cisgender experience, therefore we are both women. There is no “I am a normal woman.” I hate that, or the other one, “Real woman.”
CR: Ughhhhh I totally relate to you, I get it.
CJ: They're called microaggressions and they happen every day (we chuckle) - and this is what it means to be trans and move through the world. People who are so loving will drop that phrase, “Real woman - Oh I had no idea, I thought you were a real woman!” Ah my heart, every time. I say, “Oh I am a real woman” but they say that because they don’t have the language, no one's teaching it to them.
CR: That's exactly the problem and I say this all the time. I was going out with this guy who’s from Montana and I usually get a sense of anyone before we go out but he seemed open minded and we hadn't slept together yet but had amazing chemistry...
CJ: Wait, do you disclose?
CR: Well I thought he knew already because we had met before and he had my Instagram
CJ: My rule is that I won't give you my phone number without telling you
CR: Ooo I like that! I was trying to get a feel if he knew about me so I started asking about things like weed legalization and abortion, then I said “What about LGBT rights?” and he said “I’m fine with everything but the T.”
CJ: Oh my god, gag.
CR: Oh I know. I stopped drinking my drink and started walking out and he ran after me and couldn’t understand why I was so upset. I said, “Let’s go outside” and told him I was transgender and he backed away from me and said, “Oh my god but we kissed! I have a fear about this!” I stood there and gave him this whole speech about my life and he said, “Well for the next guy, tell him first.” I walked out and never saw him again. I went to my friend Whitney about how upset I was that I couldn’t even change the mind of someone I had a genuine connection with and she told me, “Corey, no matter what, that boy will never ever think about a transgender woman the same” and that’s stuck with me to today. I feel we can’t judge those who weren’t given the tools to be a well-rounded individual, especially when it comes to the gender and sexuality spectrum.
CJ: He's moving through the world with such privilege as a white, cis, straight identifying male. I’m sorry but I have to put the responsibility on those men because those type of men are killing us. So, I’m sorry, but it’s not up to us. You cis-straight-white men have to contribute to our safety, you have to challenge your own stigmas, and challenge your own transphobia. It’s not my job to educate you, or save my own life in a bad situation. You need to dismantle your own fear. You need to hold your “bros” accountable when they shame you for finding a trans-woman attractive. You need to dismantle your own shame, that's not my job as a trans person, I will not be the vessel for your trauma. I get it, I understand that desire to forgive, but not when it’s rooted in my oppression and our violence as a community, it’s not safe for us to have that kind of conversation yet - and empathy is key, empathy is imperative. I’m not saying don’t empathize with the shame that men experience, but unfortunately it’s not my job to dismantle that shame for you, it’s yours.
CR: Wow. Yes to all of that… I do want to shift gears a bit and talk about, besides being an activist, or maybe this is it but, what are you most passionate about?
CJ: I’m an actress. I’m the first trans woman to play a recurring trans-feminine character on a major soap opera.
CJ: Thank you! I have a recurring role on General Hospital, and it’s amazing. I’m so proud of everyone at GH for understanding that it’s important to have a trans actor to play the part. I’m excited to be visible on such a long running show. I’m a storyteller. I’ve been a performer my whole life and that’s why I moved to la, that’s what I went to school for. I trained to be an actor, and that’s what I do for a living and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
CR: What is your biggest goal for yourself?
CJ: Well I have a few different goals. Are you talking professionally, are you talking spiritually?
CR: Give me both!
CJ: I want to be the first trans woman to win a an Oscar. (I got chills hearing this.) Spiritually, and I find myself thinking about this a lot since my relationship ended just recently, but I believe in love. In my life I have a deep desire for an ecstatic and revolutionary connection with another human being. I spent so many years working on myself; I started doing talk therapy when I was 14 and then went off to theater school and learned how to become another person on stage, which taught me so much about psychology and the performance of human experience. Then I transitioned and did so much work on myself inside that - and I feel like I grew my love muscles and I really want to meet someone who’s going to give me the best heart workout I’ve ever had.
CR: I love that so much and I couldn’t agree more. What do you hope for the future of our world?
CJ: Continued visibility is essential. I believe 82% of Americans have never met a trans-person that they know of - so everything that people are learning about us (the cis world at large in America, but also worldwide) is through the media and the way that we’re being portrayed. As an actress, the narrative of our journey is very narrow right now. I feel honored to be part of the change. My character on the show is a doctor, she's an oncologist, she holds a job, she has friends in Port Charles - I understand that the trans experience is rife with adversity, but that's not all our experience is, the more humanized we are, the more seen we are, the better. They need to see the nuances of our experience and understand that we’re no different than cis people. We fall in love, we get fired from our jobs, we hurt, we struggle with vulnerability just like everybody else. These are the Romeo and Juliet stories but we live them too, it's part of our experience - it’s not just coming out.
CR: What do you hope your imprint would be?
CJ: I want to make sure I’m representing the community with love and by telling my own story I’m able to create safe space for other people who are trans. I’m acutely aware of how much privilege I’m moving through my transition with and I became aware of that very early on. For me it became so imperative to be socially, politically sensitive, to make sure I was always clocking my privilege and doing my best to lift up the rest of our community who is not valued, is not seen, is not safe. It's a privilege to be all of those things, and I am those things, I am valued, I am seen, I am safe for the most part, and it breaks my heart to know that there are states in this country that are pushing through legislation that is damaging and allowing for violence against us. There are places in the world where it's still illegal to be who we are. I’m sorry I have no interest to have my Sex and the City fantasy in Dubai, it’s illegal to be trans in Dubai, I’m not going there, not until it's safe for all of us. I could probably go, because I pass, but no thank you.
CR: Is there anything you're working on that you want to talk about?
CJ: I started a conversation on social media. It's a hashtag, #30daysintransition. I started it as an actress because I felt like the narrative being told about our community was very singular and I wanted anyone, but particularly cis-people and also people in my own industry to click that hashtag and see how nuanced and diverse our experience is. So I posted 30 self portraits in 30 days and every day I talked about a different aspect of my transition, and I went in. I was extremely vulnerable. I talked about a lot of really intimate things about my transition and for me it’s not 30 days consecutively, the idea behind 30 days is that you can look at any 30 days in the life of a trans person, and no 30 days will be the same. So, I encourage anyone reading who feels comfortable sharing their story to use the hashtag. I read them every day, and to be part of visibility when it's safe to do so.
CR: I find most trans-women, except for you and one other friend of mine, have a very hard time connecting with me. When we meet it's like this eye exchange where we both realize the other is transgender, but don’t know if the other person knows that we’re both transgender, and it’s very awkward. It happens every single time, but it didn’t happen with you. I think it says something about where we are in our lives and our transitions and our comfort levels with being transgender.
CJ: Unfortunately there’s a lot of infighting within our own community and I think it might be a product of the oppression that we experience outside our community. Often bullied people bully and I hate talking about jealousy but it’s real. I find that trans-people, we’re always comparing our transitions and a lot of it has to do with passing and has to do with the binary and being accepted, and has to do with safety! I’ve managed my own dysphoria and my own transition but now I’m welcoming another person into my sphere, so I ask myself, “Are you going to behave in the way that I have decided is safe for me as a trans person?”
CR: I have chills, totally. It sucks but you are so right...
CJ: And women can be cruel to other women, trans or cis, and where does that come from? It’s rooted in misogyny. We are taught to fight with each other. Look at the way the media pits us against each other where did we learn it from ?
CR: Like who wore it better?
CJ: Yea exactly! We are silly to think it doesn’t affect trans women as well. This kind of rivalry, this comparison, this possessiveness around men who are transamorous. It drives me craazzzyyy!! At the end of the day just because you’re trans doesn’t mean we have to be friends. Vulnerability is very essential for me in my life and in my world and if you’re someone who can’t be vulnerable with me then we're probably not going to be friends. It has nothing to do with the fact that you’re trans or not - but that’s just me, thats my own code. I understand what you’re saying though. It’s hard to connect sometimes within the community. I feel really fortunate to have some leaders, some sisters, who have done their own work on themselves to not be threatened by the new girl in town. I just moved here two years ago and I’m in the room now with the same group of girls and it could’ve gone another way but I’ve been really welcomed by my colleagues- but I’ve also definitely experienced the other thing, where girls don’t value me as a trans woman they can connect with, but a lot of it has to do with passing and I think it’s just so oppressive and it’s not them, it’s a collective thing - it’s something they’re feeling from the outside and perpetuating from the inside.
CR: You and I were able to connect right away. You came up to me and said, “Hey I’m Cassandra I saw you on Instagram and you’re beautiful!” I said, “Oh my god same here, you’re so beautiful!” It’s like who cares? There was no competition. Right before I spoke at the Trans March, you said to me we were amongst family, and you were so right. It furthers my belief that we are all just people, we’re all humans.
CJ: We are all we’ve got. We are lucky to live in California, I’m lucky to have had a boyfriend. We’re lucky. Unfortunately the world at large doesn’t value us and doesn’t want us to survive and thrive and so we can’t afford to be in infighting. We need to learn how to value the uniqueness of each of our experiences. Only when we do that are we going to be able to stand up to the world and radiate at a high frequency.
You can find Cassandra on social media, and of course, on General Hospital. I encourage everyone to take a look at her #30daysintransition. Cassandra is a force to be reckoned with. The messages she shares are incredibly important and I am amazed by her strength. It was a pleasure interviewing her and I learned so much through our conversation. She has opened my eyes to a part of the transgender spectrum I’ve always wondered about. I love that she isn’t afraid to talk about the hard work it takes to have true self-love. She and I have completely different stories but our realness bonds together, and I am proud to call her a friend. Cassandra is a warm, loving soul and embodies qualities that every person should possess, and deserves all of the happiness, success, and love in the world.