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Meet Joanna Fang, The First Openly Transgender Woman To Win A Primetime Emmy

Joanna Fang, second from the right, at the 2016 Emmy Awards. Fang was the first openly transgender woman to win a Primetime Emmy.

CREDIT: TV Academy.

From Sarah McBride becoming the first transgender woman to address a major party convention to Misty Snow becoming the first major party transgender candidate for the U.S. Senate, transgender individuals have been spearheading a lot of history-making “firsts” this summer. And this season’s unprecedented achievements were not just isolated to the political world: during this year’s Emmys, which aired this past Saturday, Sept. 17, Joanna Fang became the first openly transgender woman to win a primetime Emmy. Handed this year’s Emmy for Outstanding Sound Editing for a Non-Fiction Series at only 25 years old, Fang spoke with Generation Progress about her journey towards personal awakening and achievement, and how young transgender professionals can find success while staying true to their identities.

Generation Progress (GP): What made you realize that you were transgender?

Joanna Fang (JF): I’ve been aware of my transgender identity for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories occurred when I was 3 years old.  I remember having dreamt that I had become a woman and that I could either stay a woman and lose my family, or pretend to be a man and gain my family back. The nightmare had left such a mark on me, that I remember recording the dream down on my father’s camcorder. The tape of my confession still exists somewhere in the Fang Family VHS vault.  A few years later, I realized that I was not alone in my gender identity struggle when I read about the murder of Gwen Araujo (a transgender woman who was murdered because of her identity).  Her death cemented my resolve to eventually transition, but also highlighted the very real dangers of being trans.

GP: What was the moment you decided to come out and why did you feel that it was the right moment?

JF: My coming out process was slow and incremental. For some people, my mother especially, I gave several years heads-up before I went public. This gave my loved ones time to adapt and educate themselves. I also came out to my co-workers one at a time prior to June 19th this year, my rebirth day and coming out day.  My reasoning for such a delay and further perpetuating nearly 25 years of waiting was mostly to establish my career first and foremost. I will say there is never a “convenient” time to come out and transition. In hindsight, I wish I had come out in college or maybe even high school considering how well my friends, colleagues, and family have been adapting. However, hindsight is 20/20, who would have predicted the sea change that has occurred this decade!

GP: Since coming out as transgender, what has been the biggest professional challenge for you?

JF: The biggest thing I’ve had to maintain is the proper use of my pronouns. My first week at work as Joanna, I sat down and explained that although we all respect one another, casual mis-gendering hurts. I know that they respect my gender identity; however, I must correct them as means of self-advocacy. The first few weeks were awkward linguistically but two months later, things have evened out pretty well!

GP: After being nominated for the Emmy, did you always envision yourself wearing a gown to the ceremony? Did you have any concerns about it? 

JF: I certainly had to confront the suit vs. gown debate. I wanted to be out and proud but at the same time, I was nominated with my retired name (Jonathan). Two weeks before the show, I was able to get airfare and all of a sudden I was running to find dresses, arrange a makeup artist, and prepare my remarks. A few rushed emails later, the TV Academy updated my name on everything and anything they could. I tried not to get myself nervous; there was a good chance I’d be representing transgender people on stage so I practiced walking with confidence and poise.

GP: Many transgender people have to modulate their gender presentation in different spaces, including airports. You wore an amazing gown at the Emmy’s, and something more masculine presenting when you went to the airport—could you tell me about that?

JF: Despite the incredible effort I put into my Emmy’s red carpet look, the sad reality for many transgender women is that our bodies do not quite match attempts at legal identification. For my journey to Los Angeles, I opted to travel in male clothing and my male identity to avoid any problems. On the flight back, I was actually stopped at the body scan machine. Despite my efforts to look male, the TSA agent had tagged me as “female” and the body scanner operator marked an “anomaly” by my crotch. Immediately, the female TSA agent who was about to pat me down had me run through the machine one more time, this time selecting “male” and therefore clearing the “error” in the scan. We still live in a society where gender markers are seen as utilitarian necessities for identification. It can get overly complicated very quickly and my number one priority is to stay safe. We are forced to take a compromising position.

GP: What thoughts ran through your mind when you were on the stage after winning the Emmy? Did you have any thoughts about your new identity and the role it played for you in that moment?

JF: To be on stage as my true self was deeply affirming. I didn’t win this award solely because I was trans, the voting was based on the merits of my team’s work.  I just so happened to have my talent and reputation survive the coming out process. In addition to that, my mom took the Emmy’s as an opportunity to help me come out to my extended relatives. She sent a single text and a single picture, “Jonathan is no longer Jonathan, her name is now Joanna and she just won an Emmy.”  I’m the first transgender woman to win a Primetime Emmy. The moment was deeply emotional: it made up for not being able to go to prom as a woman, it made up for all the countless nights I locked myself in my room unable to attend black tie events due to gender dysphoria.

GP: Have you experienced or do you know anyone who has experienced discrimination based on gender identity?

JF: The statistics from the Human Rights Campaign are staggering: 14 percent of transwomen unemployed, 44 percent underemployed. I’ve had girlfriends telling me to avoid O’Hare International Airport in Chicago due to the severe mistreatment they suffered under the TSA.  One of my good friends works a retail job and is constantly mis-gendered by her boss and outed to strangers and clients as a result. The stories are endless. The worst case I’ve seen involves a company’s website. My friend transitioned on the job and although her peers and colleagues accepted her, they did not change her company bio for two whole years. If you are someone who employs transgender employees, make the effort to learn their pronoun, and speak their truth. If you are a transgender employee, you must self-advocate to the safest possible limit. Stand firm. Don’t just fight ignorance, fight the pretension and complacency we see from people in positions of privilege.

GP: Currently, the federal government still lacks explicit provisions protecting people of all ages from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The Equality Act, introduced in Congress in 2015, would create those protections, but hasn’t yet been enacted. If you were to speak with members of Congress, what would you tell them?

JF: George Carlin said it best, “just don’t be an asshole.” There’s no amount of saving face or political spin to make an ignorant and hateful legislation sound good to constituents at large. Legislation is often a harmless game of politics to the privileged; but to the trans girl of color working on the streets of New York, it is a lived reality. The only delusional people in Congress are the ones who think they’re getting away with calling hate something else. We see them with clear eyes. Might I add that North Carolina’s HB2 is completely unenforceable and gave a lot of non-government citizens the idea that they can police people’s gender identities. It’s 2016, why can’t we aim higher? Why can’t we lead by principle?

GP: At the young age of 25, and having already won an Emmy, what aspirations do you have now? And do you think being transgender would affect your journey?  

JF: If anything, I think I’ve become a better sound editor and Foley artist having begun my journey to connect my mind with my body. Being trans gives me deeper insight into the lives of others, it gives me the comfort of finally feeling some form of mental stability and exposes me to new life experiences. I’m a filmmaker first, a transwoman second. Gender is such a deeply embedded part of our society that there’s still thousands of things to learn from oneself that can be adapted to better work and better art. I want to keep digging deeper, and unlocking better Foley performances and art from within my experiences.

GP: What advice would you give young transgender professionals who are early on in their career?

JF: Be realistic with yourself and aware of your surroundings both physical and non-physical.  If a work environment feels unsafe for your eventual transition, fight to make it safe or withdraw. My transition has been smooth mostly due to very brutal and realistic decisions, my contingency plans had contingency plans. The months leading up to coming out can be torturous, waiting for that first dose of HRT can feel like eternity.  But take your time, don’t move forward until you’ve checked both directions. Also understand this, finding a job is tough and finding a job as a transwoman is even tougher. Set your expectations accordingly, but do not let yourself get overwhelmed by the sheer misogyny. There’s nothing we can do, but be ourselves to the highest possible caliber. Hopefully, with some good exposure, the right people will come.

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