Oprah Interviews GLAAD's Nick Adams

Oprah interviews GLAAD's Oprah Interviews GLAAD's Director of Transgender Representation Nick Adams after her sit down with Elliot Page for The Oprah Conversation.

Video Transcript

OPRAH WINFREY: So welcome, Nick Adams. Thank you for joining me.

NICK ADAMS: Thank you for inviting me to talk to you today, Miss Winfrey.

OPRAH WINFREY: Well, please call me Oprah, Nick. We're on the first name basis at this point, OK?

NICK ADAMS: Thank you.

OPRAH WINFREY: We've had enough conversation, that we are first-name basis. So I am so grateful to you and to glad because I just wanted to share with everyone that I did a lot of homework and preparation before my interview with Elliott Page had, at least, an hour's conversation with you. And I watched the movie, "Disclosure."

But I think a lot of people who want to be educated and supportive allies do not have the option of being able to call up Nick Adams. And we get a lot of readers, who say, I don't want to offend anybody. But how am I supposed to just know the latest phrases to use or how I'm supposed to respond? Do you have any resources you recommend?

And really the question is, how can people get more comfortable being uncomfortable?

NICK ADAMS: Well, that's an interesting question. There are resources on GLAAD's website. For those who don't know GLAAD, it's a non-profit organization. And we exist to be a resource to media content creators to help them do a good job of telling LGBTQ stories.

And as the Director of Transgender Representation at GLAAD, I work specifically with people like you Oprah but also showrunners and network executives and writers' rooms, who want to make scripted transgender characters. And I have colleagues who work with journalists as well.

So we want to use the power of mass media to help people understand. Because most Americans today think they've never met a transgender person in real life. They may have met someone trans and not known it. But most people think they've never met someone trans in their family, their workplace, their school, their church.

So I believe that by using interviews like the one you did with Elliot Page, and by films like "Disclosure," and by scripted characters that people sit down and see on their favorite TV show, that we can begin to help people understand more about what it means to be a transgender person.

And if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have worked at GLAAD since 1998.

OPRAH WINFREY: Wow! Well, you know, Elliot recently opened up about his intention behind talking about his transition publicly. And he said this. He said, it felt like an opportunity to use a wide-reaching platform to speak from my heart about some of my experience and the resources I've been able to access, whether therapy or surgery, that have allowed me to be alive or live my life.

So what do you hope comes from this interview?

NICK ADAMS: Well, I do hope--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

OPRAH WINFREY: Do you think it's a good thing that he speak out?

NICK ADAMS: I do. Yeah, of course. I do think it's a good thing. I mean, you know, they estimated that there are approximately 1.4 million transgender Americans. That's what UCLA'S Williams Institute has estimated. And I think that's a low number. Because I think as society becomes more accepting of transgender people, more of us are going to be able to speak about who we are and the truth about our lives.

But even if that is the number, it would take a long time for all 1.4 million of us to go around and individually introduce ourselves to 360 million Americans. So when people who are well-known, like Chaz Bono or Elliot Page, decide to disclose that they're transgender, people already feel like they know Chaz. Or they already feel like they know Elliot.

And so it's good for them to be able to use the platform of mainstream media to talk about their lives and to draw attention to the social issues like Elliot has done in the interview that he did with you-- you know, the anti-trans backlash that's happening right now and all the Bills that are happening that are targeting trans youth.

I do think it's important, you know, for Elliot to not just share his own story, but to also talk-- to be able to use that platform to talk about the ways in which transgender people are being targeted by certain forces in this country right now and as a political wedge issue. And so the fact that he's able to do that sitting down and talking to you, I do think will make a big difference in society.

OPRAH WINFREY: I just want everybody to know, in case you don't, that a cisgender person is a person whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth. And recently, since people have started to share their preferred pronouns, have you noticed this whether on email signatures or bios on social media?

I want to know does this feel like allyship? Or does it feel like performance? And how do you think we can distinguish between the two? I mean, all of a sudden, I started getting you emails from people I've known forever, and they have their preferred pronouns. I'm like, what is going on?

NICK ADAMS: It is good because it creates an environment in which-- you know, pronouns are a way that we gender people. If I call someone she/her pronouns you assume, that means that that person is a woman. So when someone uses a pronoun that you may not expect, either they're switching from she/her to he/her or they're using they/them pronoun, it is a form of sort of disclosing something about their gender.

And so when nontrans people, cisgender people, make it more common to share pronouns, it makes it easier for transgender people to let you know something about themselves. Like, oh, hey, you may have thought I use he/him pronouns. But actually I use they/them pronouns.

That being said though, I do think that allies of trans people should not think that allyship ends with sharing your pronounce. It's literally step one. And cisgender people, it really doesn't cost you anything to share your pronouns. Because people assume it already about you. And the assumption they make is correct.

So to put it out there is good. But I think that-- I hope that cisgender allies will see that step one and then really think about what comes next in terms of how I can make the world a safer place for transgender people, especially transgender people of color.

OPRAH WINFREY: So to be an ally, you're saying, it goes beyond the pronouns basically.

NICK ADAMS: Yeah, there's so many issues that trans people face in this culture today from family rejection to employment discrimination, from higher rates of poverty to terrible interactions with the police, to terrible interactions with the medical system and doctors who have no training whatsoever in how to provide transgender health care, to you know over 30 bills introduced-- no, over 100 bills introduced in over 30 states this year, trying to limit transgender people's access to health care and to playing sports.

A few years ago they tried to legislate what bathroom we could use. So all of these issues are ways in which we need to make the world a safer place for transgender people, especially transgender youth. And as you think about allyship, thinking about how can I help in those areas. How can I reach out to my state legislator and tell him or her that I don't support this bill that they're debating?

Or how can I think about hiring transgender people in the workplace because transgender people of color have four times the national unemployment rate. We desperately need jobs. Decriminalizing sex work and there's just so many different ways in which trans people are marginalized and oppressed.

And so for allies to educate themselves about that and think about ways that they can help is like the next step after putting your pronouns in your email signature.

OPRAH WINFREY: Well, there is a moment during my interview with Elliot, where I could tell that he was surprised that I asked him about how he finds joy. So how do you think we can add more stories of joy to this cultural narrative on the LGBTQ community?

NICK ADAMS: I'm so happy you asked that. And yes, I saw Elliot's surprise when you asked him. Because, I think, we have to talk about the oppression, and the marginalization, and the transphobia that exists in this culture because you can't undo something until you name it, and point it out, and undo it.

But I also hope that we won't solely focus on that, and that we can talk about the stories of transgender people who do succeed who fall in love. You have to have a sense of humor if you're trans. I mean, there's no way to avoid that. You really have to be able to laugh about the kind of world that we live in.

And so I am very much about sharing stories of trans excellence, trans success, trans joy. I look a lot at where the transgender characters are on TV. Where are we being represented on TV? And we were so much further ahead now than we were when "Orange is the New Black" premiered in 2013. That was really where Hollywood started to change in terms of portraying transgender people in a better way.

But where we're at now on TV is still in very heavy dramas often. And there's very few like sitcoms with trans characters in them. And I want to see opportunities for cisgender allies to be able to laugh with us and not at us in comedies, you know, elevating the voices of transgender people who can find humor.

And also to think about the ways in which transgender people-- what we're doing lies in the face of what we're told we have to be and do. I was assigned female at birth. I was told, you have to be a girl. I was like, I'm not. And the empowerment that comes from saying, this is who I am, and I'm going to take steps to achieve that, is a form of joy.

And I think it is something that even cisgender people can't take away from the trans experience. That we can all be more than we've been told we must be. And I do think that telling those stories of trans people as well can be transformative for the culture in addition to talking about like how can we remove the oppression that trans people face.

OPRAH WINFREY: You know, one of the things that was a bit of a challenge for me, and I got pulled up on it when I was producing the Elliot Page story for Apple, I actually called Elliot manager/publicist Kelly, and asked her to ask him for permission to use a clip of him from the Oprah show when he appeared promoting "Juno." And he did give me that permission.

We specifically did not put in pictures of Elliot when he was talking about the Oscars and what a traumatic experience that was. And so as we approach Mother's Day-- I know a personal friend who has a transgender son, who came home and found pictures of him from-- you know, as a child.

And it was an explosive situation. His mother was so confused and upset. So as we approach Mother's Day, do you have any advice for moms or parents [INAUDIBLE] how to support children after they come out? And what kind of support have you seen that kids or adults typically need?

Because you know, I wasn't-- you know, I literally questioned, why is it wrong to show the pictures of him on the red carpet? And it was explained to me why. So I think for a lot of people, as I said, who don't have the benefit of you or advisors, explain to us why that is considered offensive.

NICK ADAMS: So for many, many years, media-- whenever they told a story about a transgender person wanted to put the before and after picture side-by-side. And the more shocking, the better, right? The more like salacious and sort of freak show, the better-- the super macho man who's now a woman.

And that was just the way-- it was the way the media sensationalized our lives for so long. And I think there has been a lot of pushback from trans people, saying, when you do that, it sends a message that you're undercutting who I am now. Who I am now is what's important, not how I was before.

Celebrities are in an unusual position. Because people, like Elliot and Chaz, they can't erase all evidence of their prior lives because it's out there on the internet far and wide. So they have are kind of in a different situation than the average trans person.

But to your story about the son coming home and finding the kid pictures around the house, I will say this. I mean, I think trans people are not a monolith. Trans people have very differing attitudes about their pictures of themselves pre-transition, about their old names.

And I think some people are fine with it-- don't care. It's perfectly fine. They consider that part of their past. And they're OK with it. Other people are like never want to see it again. Please get rid of all evidence of it. And other trans people are in between there somewhere.

So I think the best thing that parents and family can do if you have trans family members is ask the trans person, how do you feel about these pictures? And sometimes, there can be a compromise. Like I know a lot of trans people, including Elliott, who in "Time Magazine," shared some childhood photos where he looked like a boy, you know.

Because he felt like those represented authentically how he felt who he was at the time. And those pictures where we're trying to conform ourselves to what society thinks we should be, what we should look like, how we should behave, those are often really tied up in a lot of trauma and pain. And looking at them does not bring joy.

And so if a parent wants to support their family member, allow that person to feel joy when they come home, I think just ask them how they feel about the photos, and then either find a compromise. Or just put them all away and choose to focus on the photos that represent who the person authentically is.

OPRAH WINFREY: When I was talking about my friend's son, you said, "pictures of him when he was a kid." You didn't say "pictures of him when he was a girl." That would be inappropriate to say, correct?

NICK ADAMS: I mean, I think so. You know, like people, you're born and either from the ultrasound or a quick glance, everybody decides what your sex is when you're born. And they assume that your gender matches that sex. Because that is the experience of cisgender people.

The idea that the biological sex and the gender identity, which is who you are on the inside, who you know yourself to be could be different, is so surprising to cisgender people. Because for them it's like the water that they swim in--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

OPRAH WINFREY: It's literally a foreign concept. It's literally a foreign concept. You can't even imagine.

NICK ADAMS: When you have a gender identity that's different than the body that you're born into, when people insist on saying like you were born a girl or when you were a girl, it's like-- that's the assumption that somebody made when they looked at that person's body. But that assumption was just wrong.

Like people do know what their gender identity is when they're very young. Like usually people know what their gender is before they know what their sexual orientation is, right? Sexual orientation tends to come later in, like puberty. Gender identity-- you know it when you're really, really young. Am I a boy or a girl? And maybe for some people, they don't feel like they're either one of those things.

And it's the articulating that and saying, oh, my gender identity is different than you assume it is based on that ultrasound photo or what you saw when I was born. And so if you say Elliot Page was born a girl, for example, it's like prioritizing that biology over gender identity. When, in fact, gender identity is the agency. It is the subject.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

OPRAH WINFREY: Because he never felt like a girl. He never felt like a girl. What he says in the Apple interview, I knew one thing. I knew I wasn't a girl.

NICK ADAMS: Yes, very much so. And it was so hard to say that. And I'm also in LA. I've run a support group for families with trans kids for the last 12 years. And what's really heartening to me now is that for whatever reason, the culture has evolved to the point where kids are able to say, oh, hey, my gender identity is not what you think it is based on that thing the doctor wrote on the birth certificate at a younger age.

And parents are now willing to listen and actually affirm that the gender identity is actually more real and more valid than what was written on the birth certificate.

OPRAH WINFREY: How young were you when you knew?

NICK ADAMS: Hmm. I mean, I always knew that I wasn't a girl. I just couldn't put two and two together that that meant that I could be a boy or a man. I mean, I'm very old, Oprah. So this was the dark ages. So there was no-- and this is why I'm so passionate about media representation. Because I was an avid consumer of media, watching TV, and watching movies, and everything, you know, just inhaling it from the time I was a kid.

I never saw anyone who told me that I could be something other than a girl, even though I knew I wasn't that. So that's another reason--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

OPRAH WINFREY: That's why disclosure was so important. I found that to be so enlightening. I think it's very much like growing up and not ever being able to see yourself represented in a way that reflects what you know to be true.

NICK ADAMS: Yeah, and it's not like-- transgender men were largely invisible in Hollywood for many, many, many decades. But transgender women were very visible in Hollywood but just in these twisted, distorted, unreal ways that cisgender people made up in their heads that what it meant to be trans.

And so invisibility-- also there's a price for that. Like young trans boys and young trans men or non-binary people looking to see themselves and seeing nothing, there's a price to be paid for that.

But invisibility is also a privilege compared to the hyper visibility that trans women were subjected to from, as you saw that D. W. Griffith movie, you know, all the way through all of the psychopathic trans women serial killers in the tragic trans victims, and all the distorted ways in which trans women were portrayed.

And, you know, we all learn what it means to be trans from film and TV if we don't have anyone trans in our real life, and that includes trans people. So when you're looking to screens to see what can I be, what does the future hold for me, can I have a job, can I have someone who loves me, and you either see nothing or what you see is really, really sick, and twisted, and distorted, it's very difficult.

So I'm so passionate about authentic media representation for trans people and all of our diverse experiences. I'm really pleased that Elliot is willing to be public, and willing to talk about his experiences, willing to produce, and be in things that will have better trans representation.

Because I know that things are really going to change when trans people are actually able to tell our own stories, instead of having this weird way in which the stories have been told for us for so many years.

OPRAH WINFREY: We've come a long way, as you just said, since you first stepped into this role in the '90s.

NICK ADAMS: That's so long ago. So long ago.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yes, we're the '90s, I mean, the '90s now are decades ago. So how has your role changed since then, Nick?

NICK ADAMS: Well, it's interesting. I have had many, many jobs at GLAAD, consistently always working on transgender representations. But I had other things to do as well. Because quite frankly, for the first many years that I worked at GLAAD, it was disappointing. Because I was advocating, and I was making change, and I was trying to push things forward, and writing the GLAAD video reference guide.

And yet, the media just really wasn't interested in changing. Certain things would happen that were big news stories, like, Chaz Bono doing a giant media tour in 2010 and being on "Dancing with the Stars." And that was huge for visibility for trans men in particular. But then everything kind of went back to normal after that. And there wasn't really much change.

But I honestly believe that with "Orange is the New Black." and that character that Laverne Cox played, and the way she leveraged that character into the cover of "Time Magazine," and being an advocate for the community has just been like world changing honestly.

Because all of Hollywood seemed to wake up and think, oh, we can write a transgender character that's not a flat one-dimensional stereotype and cast the trans woman to play her. Like what? And so now, I'm just busy 24/7 with requests from people wanting to do better.

But to your point where you started, many cisgender people, no matter how well-intentioned they are, don't know how to do better. So GLAAD helps. We are a resource to media content creators to help them get the information, and the resources, and the knowledge they need to do better.

But eventually also, what I'm starting to see now, is that there's an interest in bringing in trans writers, trans directors, trans producers on projects. And we do see better, more authentic, well-rounded trans characters on TV. But I think that we're not quite there yet. You know, "POse" is ending unfortunately, three seasons of "Pose." And now, sadly, it's coming to an end. And that was a show really from a trans point of view.

But I hope that soon we'll get another show that is maybe a comedy.

OPRAH WINFREY: Joy.

NICK ADAMS: And I also hope that like, honestly, here's the other thing I want to say. Like while I know we're in this phase right now where we have to educate people about what it means to be trans and have better stories about what it means to be trans, if you think about it, Oprah, from you being in the episode of Ellen's show, right, the puppy episode.

And that was such a huge deal when she came out. It was a year in the making-- that episode, bomb threats, the cover of "Time Magazine." And we had to live through that to get to the point now where if someone says they're gay, most people go, OK, good. You know, I mean, like, OK, thanks for telling me.

I long for the day when someone can say that they're trans and have people go, OK, good. Thanks for telling me. And then what else is interesting about you? Because I'm here to do the work to explain to people what it means to be trans, and how your gender identity is a real thing, and how sometimes is different than the sexual assigned at birth.

But I do look forward to the day when we get to that point where people are just so accustomed to it. Because they have trans friends, and family members, and coworkers, and people at church, that it's not so shocking, or surprising, or doesn't require the cover of "Time Magazine," and an "Oprah" interview.

Although, I am so grateful that you've done it. Think about how far we've come with gay and lesbian representation since the Puppy episode.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

NICK ADAMS: And I want us to get there with trans people too.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah, because I was a part of that episode and then had Ellen on the show, I got those threats, too. At the time. worst hate mail I'd ever receive. We literally had to take people off the switchboard because of the vitriol that was coming through. So we have made progress. And I just want to thank you and thank GLAAD for your support in helping you with this interview.

I was actually more nervous about this interview than anything because I wanted to get it right since I was on the poster for getting it wrong, like for the trailer for "Disclosure." Yes?

NICK ADAMS: I hope that you saw in "Disclosure" though, that there was-- it wasn't so much wrong as it was-- that was a moment in time for all the talk shows and journalists. And also the movement to your interview with Janet Mock and now to the interview with Elliott is what everybody needs to do.

Like just learning all the time and becoming better and just understanding more in depth is all we can ask of people. No one is born knowing everything there is to know about everything.

OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah, I really appreciate it Laverne acknowledging. Watching me in the '90s, and then watching that interview with Janet Mock, and hopefully, now with Elliot, you can see that I wanted to do better and wanted to help everybody else do better. And we thank you and GLAAD for leading us in that path. So I appreciate it.

NICK ADAMS: My pleasure. And I really, really enjoyed working with you on this. And I really am grateful for all the care that you took. And I thought you did a wonderful job with Elliot. So thank you so much.

OPRAH WINFREY: All right, more to come. Thank you so much, Nick.

NICK ADAMS: It's a pleasure. Thank you so much. Bye. All right, bye-bye.