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‘Masculinity is whatever I want it to be’ – The OA’s Ian Alexander opens up

TextIan AlexanderInterviewDominic Cadogan

The upcoming actor pens a personal letter exploring his trans identity and how make-up has made him the man he is today

Welcome to Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity, a campaign dedicated to exploring what ‘masculinity’ means in 2019. With photo stories shot in Tokyo, India, New York, and London and in-depth features exploring mental health, older bodybuilders, and myths around masculinity – we present all the ways people around the world are redefining traditional tropes.

After coming across an open call on Tumblr looking for a trans Asian American man for Netflix series The OA, a young Ian Alexander applied with little acting experience, securing the role as Buck. Now, as an icon for young trans kids growing up, we speak with him about his experiences with masculinity, make-up, and how his parents came to terms with his gender identity. 

Masculinity is something that is ever-evolving in my understanding and expression of it, especially in 2019. Masculinity isn’t defined by a specific look or presentation. In my experience, it’s more of a feeling than anything that can be defined by words. That’s the only way I’ve ever been able to describe my gender identity to anyone since I came to terms with it – there’s a feeling of dysphoria and discomfort when wrong pronouns are used and a feeling of joy and validation when my correct pronouns are used. 

I associate masculinity with that feeling of euphoria, in which I feel happy about my self image rather than insecure. I have also grown more secure in my masculinity in 2019. I view make-up and fashion as fluid as gender identity and sexuality; after all, masculinity in the 17th century meant wearing wigs, heels, and make-up. I don’t like being confined to societal expectations of what a man should look like. My masculinity is whatever I want it to be. 

“I don’t like being confined to societal expectations of what a man should look like. My masculinity is whatever I want it to be”

In 2019, I want masculinity to be dissociated from its typical perception via toxic masculinity. I believe that everyone has a certain personal association with masculinity and it’s important to develop a healthy relationship with it. This year in particular, I’ve been working on developing a healthy relationship with my masculinity and also being more comfortable with my physical and mental state. 

I’ve begun the process of hormone replacement therapy to feel euphoric by alleviating dysphoria, which has helped me feel more confident and present in my body. I’ve been allowing myself to heal from past traumas related to masculinity, and am developing an inner strength that allows me to be vulnerable with myself and others. 

I hope that by the end of the year we can all heal from our collective wounds related to toxic masculinity and make the world a safer, more compassionate place.

What does masculinity mean to you in 2019?

Ian Alexander: My understanding of masculinity has been ever-evolving, especially within the past year. Moving to LA and being surrounded by other trans people and a larger trans community has really shaped and evolved my understanding of gender. Masculinity, to me, is more a feeling than anything. I don’t really know how to describe it, but it’s an inner strength. I would consider myself to be a protective, caring person, traits people normally associate with femininity, but for me, that’s a very masculine thing to protect and to care for people. Masculinity is also whatever I want it to be, it could be me wearing a crop top and make-up with my nails painted if I want. It can also be me wearing sweats, a t-shirt and a snapback if I want. It’s whatever I want it to be. 

How has your relationship with clothing and make-up helped craft your identity?

Ian Alexander: My relationship with clothes and make-up also has evolved. A lot of trans masculine people can probably relate to this, but when you first come out you feel like you have to prove to people that you’re a man and that you’re macho. I definitely had this phase where I rejected femininity, make-up and everything that made my body look feminine because of my dysphoria. Part of that personal growth was being comfortable in my skin and realising that clothes are genderless, make-up is genderless, jewellery is genderless. It’s just pieces of clothing and metal.

One of the biggest things that made me more comfortable was wearing make-up and more ‘feminine’ clothing. I feel more comfortable in my own skin, so I feel freer in my gender expression. I’ve always loved make-up, I’ve always enjoyed pretty jewellery and that was a part of myself I had to lock away when I first came out as trans. I’m only recently really getting more comfortable with bringing that side of me up again because I was told for so many years after I came out that I wasn’t manly enough, I’d never be a man, I was too feminine and always was a girly girl. I internalised the things I heard and now looking back on that, it’s all not true. I don’t need to prove my identity or masculinity to anyone. Now, I just have the freedom to do whatever the hell I want and it’s great. 

How did you get into doing make-up? 

Ian Alexander: I used to do drag make-up a couple of years ago, but I’ve kind of fallen out of the habit. I’ve been meaning to get back into it because it’s fun. It really started on Tumblr as well and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. I was really, really into RuPaul when we started filming season of The OA. I remember being in Manhattan in this tiny one-bedroom that I was sharing with my mom and doing a full look in the bathroom but immediately taking it off because I didn’t want her to see. 

It was a weird space where I wanted to explore my gender expression, but I had recently come out a year prior and I didn’t want my parents to think that me putting on make-up was a sign of me changing my mind or detransitioning. Now, I’m 18, I’ve been independent on my own for a year in LA and I have the freedom to do whatever. 

“I don’t need to prove my identity or masculinity to anyone. Now, I just have the freedom to do whatever the hell I want and it’s great” – Ian Alexander

Can you tell us about your personal experiences with gender dysphoria? 

Ian Alexander: For me, I was lucky to realise earlier on. A lot of people don’t realise until much later in their lives because of what society tells them or maybe their lack of access to education on what a trans person is. I started getting these feelings of gender dysphoria when I started going through puberty, so 11 or 12. For so many years I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I hated every part of myself. I hated how people perceived me, I hated looking in the mirror and I didn’t know that was gender dysphoria until I did research and discovered what a trans male person was. 

I didn’t even know that trans men existed because there was no representation of them in the media whatsoever. It took many years of me fighting it and hoping I could fix myself. Due to my religious background, I thought there was something wrong with me and so I was trying so hard to repress it – that almost killed me. I definitely wouldn’t have survived my teenage years if I hadn’t come to terms and accepted who I was. I genuinely think I would not be here today, had I not said: ‘Alright I’m a boy, I want to use he/him pronouns and that’s just who I am’. It took a lot of support from my friends and a lot of research and support from the online community, in order to really understand what was going on. 

Where did you find support and resources to help you navigate your trans identity? 

Ian Alexander: I read a lot of trans resources on Tumblr. A lot of people would make posts about what different gender identities were and I didn’t really know for a while what it was. I didn’t immediately know I wanted to use he/him pronouns, it took me a bit of figuring out and research. 

I also watched a lot of YouTube videos, a lot of female-to-male testosterone and top surgery videos. Those were very helpful because I had never seen a trans man talk about his experiences before. The ones that impacted me the most, were the transition timeline videos or posts on Tumblr, where people would say: ‘This was me five years ago and this is me now’. Those were the ones that helped me realise I was the before picture, the sad, unhappy person, and I realised I had to try and figure things out. Also, just talking to people, messaging them and asking them questions. It’s really easy to do that anonymously on the internet and I think that really helped me when I was too scared to ask anyone in my real life. It also gave me a chosen family as well, which I think sometimes is a stronger bond than your biological family. 

How did your parents come to terms with your identity? 

Ian Alexander: When I auditioned for The OA, it was probably seven or eight months after I came out to my parents as trans and they were still having a really hard time with it. When I told them this part was for a trans character, they wrote it off as ‘oh it’s just a character, it’s not real. You’re not really trans, you’re just a girl playing a boy’. It wasn’t until I got on set with my mum and everyone knew me as Ian and as he/him/his, and that was the first environment where she realised that people could support me even if I was trans. She sort of had the mentality of ’no one is ever going to support you, you’re going to be really unhappy and you’re never going to get what you want’. That was essentially my parents’ reasoning. 

It really made her realise that people could view me as her son and not question or judge it. She got more comfortable with people using he/him pronouns for me and using Ian. Eventually, she started using them too because it normalised it for her, it made it easier for her to transition from what she had known me as my whole life to being put into an environment where people only knew me as Ian. It made me really happy as well because it was the first time I heard her use my correct name, in a way that wasn’t, ‘I’m never going to call you Ian’. It was really validating to be surrounded by people who were supporting me for the first time in my life. 

You made history appearing on The OA as the first Asian American trans male actor, how can the rest of the industry catch up? 

Ian Alexander: It starts at the root of things and the shows that are being written about trans male characters and have trans narratives aren’t being read by the higher people who even make those decisions. The argument that there’s not a lot of trans male actors isn’t right, there are. There’s a lot of us, we just don’t have enough opportunities to become mainstream. 

No one really knows how many trans male actors there are because they haven’t had their big break yet or their chance to shine. What really needs to happen, is that there needs to be more open castings. What I’ve seen recently is casting directors opening up a role to anyone, regardless of gender and that’s really helpful because maybe a trans person would be perfect for the character when originally it was written for a cis women or a cis man. That would be a great step to take to open representation. 

Highlighting existing trans actors and giving them more opportunities too. I’ve been really lucky to have that and people will reach out to me because of my work on The OA and I get more opportunities because of that. A lot of progress has been happening, even within the last year, and people in Hollywood are becoming more aware that trans masculine people are so underrepresented and they want to help make change. It’s a great first step. I want to see the industry get to the point where it accurately reflects the real world because trans people exist, people of colour exist, people with disabilities exist. I would like to see that reflected in front of the camera, behind the camera, in the writers’ room, the executives’ room, all of that.

“As trans people, we’re held under this microscope where if we don’t conform completely to the gender that we are then people will say: ‘Oh well you’re just faking it’... it’s just ridiculous” – Ian Alexander

How are you feeling since the news was announced that The OA wouldn’t be returning? 

Ian Alexander: Of course, at first I was heartbroken, but the support I’ve seen in the past week has just been insane. Right now #TheOAisreal is trending on Twitter and #SaveTheOA was also trending. The amount of love I’ve seen for the show is really heartwarming and it gives me hope that maybe we will save The OA

How does it feel to be a role model and representative for young trans people in the mainstream? 

Ian Alexander: It’s so humbling, but it’s a lot of responsibility to be one of the only visible trans people in the media. It also allows me to change people’s lives and all I’ve ever wanted to do is positively impact the world and make people happy. That’s been my goal in life all along, so it’s so touching to get messages from people who tell me: ‘You’re the first person to ever make me feel seen in the media’ or ‘you’re the first person who made my parents understand my identity’. Messages like that really mean a lot to me because I know how it feels to not have anyone in the media who you relate to, so it’s great that I can be that for other people.  

What are some of the difficulties of being a trans person in 2019? 

Ian Alexander: As trans people, we’re held under this microscope where if we don’t conform completely to the gender that we are then people will say: ‘Oh well you’re just faking it’. But in reality, if a cis man wore earrings and eyeliner, he’d just be a cool guy. It’s definitely a double standard, and it’s the same with trans women. A trans woman doesn’t shave her face for one day and then people say: ‘Ooh you want to be a man again’. It’s just ridiculous, no one says that to a cis woman if she’s just a little hairy and has a little moustache. No one is going to criticise her for that. 

What advice would you give to anybody struggling with their identity or masculinity in general? 

Ian Alexander: I would say that you don’t have to prove yourself to anybody, you just have to be enough for yourself. Whatever that means for you is what works for you. My biggest piece of advice would be, don’t be afraid of what other people think, because at the end of the day you’re the one that is in your body and you’re the one who has control over it. What other people think shouldn’t hold you back from expressing yourself and being happy. Maybe that means wearing make-up, maybe it means not wearing make-up, it’s up to you. It’s your gender, you can do whatever you want with it.

Read more from Behind The Masc: Rethinking Masculinity here.

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