www.ambiente.us JULY / JULIO 2008
Stunning: An Interview with Calpernia Addams
by Steve Ralls
Calpernia Addams’ very first love story
may have been with a fiddle.
“I started my entertainment career
playing Bluegrass gospel fiddle in
church with my family as a child,” she
recently told Ambiente, “which gave me
my first taste of being onstage. I’ve
never looked back since then,
progressing to almost ten years in
professional theatre before moving to
Hollywood to explore film and television.”
Fast forward a decade or so and
Calpernia can still be seen on stage –
this time with openly gay comedian
Alec Mapa – playing the fiddle on Rocky
Top in Mapa’s show No Fats, Femmes
or Asians. That performance follows
her fiddle scene in the Oscar-nominated
film Transamerica, which followed
Soldier’s Girl, a film about her
experience in the media spotlight
following a highly publicized murder
at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Army
base in 1999. And in between, she’s
appeared on the CBS crime series
CSI and headlined her own hit reality
TV series, Transamerican Love Story.
Rest assured, though, that Calpernia
isn’t just fiddling around with fame. In
the span of just a few years, she has become a recognizable star of stage and screen, a visible advocate
for the transgender community and a trusted resource in the entertainment industry for information on fair
and accurate portrayals of transgender characters and storylines.
Along with partner Andrea James, Addams has founded Deep Stealth Productions “to produce and
support media that acknowledges the contributions of trans people to the arts.” Deep Stealth recently
released Casting Pearls, which finished at the top of LOGO’s Click List and toured film festivals across
the globe. The duo’s next project, Transproofed, is a short comedy that just wrapped filming.
Along the way, she’s even become a YouTube celebrity with her comedy video Bad Questions to Ask a
Transsexual: The Director’s Cut, which has been viewed more than 1 million times on the popular video
Long before Hollywood came calling, though, Addams was coming to terms with her own identity in a very
un-Hollywood like setting.
“I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household in Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1980s,” she
recalled in our recent interview. “My family had to approach my eventual coming out as trans, and my
transition, from a position of almost complete lack of previous exposure to the idea. Their ultra-
conservative religious views did not help their understanding.”
And though Addams acknowledges that “the South is much more progressive than people give it credit
for,” she also remembers that “nonetheless, in 1980s Nashville, before the internet had really taken off,
there were very few sources of information about GLBT people and our history.”
That lack of resources, coupled with a family struggling with a transgender child, meant “that I ended up
having to leave Nashville immediately upon graduation from high school, to escape a very stressful family
“To this day,” she told Ambiente, “they do not really understand me or make much effort to do so.”
Indeed, it is her family experience, and the stories she hears from other young people across the country,
that convinced her to sign on for her newest role: Star of a new, national ad campaign for Parents,
Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). The campaign, under the banner This Is Our Love
Story, highlight PFLAG’s long-time commitment to supporting the transgender community. It began
appearing in publications around the country this summer, and a companion website, Transform the
Movement: Tell Us Your Love Story, is expected to launch later in the summer.
“When I began searching for information as a teenager about why I ‘felt this way,’ one of the first groups I
heard about that supported young people was PFLAG,” Addams says. “The idea of someone’s parents,
and friends, supporting them openly when they were GLBT was a real mind-bender for me and,
unfortunately, seemed completely alien to my own life of fear and judgment coming from my family. It was
heartening to know that ti was at least possible in other families, though. It gave me something to dream.”
“All these years later, now that I am old enough to have a child of my own if I wanted,” she says, “I see the
progress that has been made by PFLAG in supporting families and friends who are supportive of the
GLBT loved ones, especially kids, and I’m excited to be a part of that after all these years.”
The PFLAG campaign highlights the organization’s ground-breaking support for transgender issues,
including its policy of only supporting trans-inclusive legislation. The organization took a leading role in
advocating for a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in Congress and,
Addams says, she’s particularly grateful for the group’s efforts to educate the broader community about
the importance of transgender issues.
“I think that gay and lesbian people might care more if they understood that they can be affected just as
much as trans people by sanctioned discrimination against someone for behaving ‘female’ when they are
legally male, or vice versa,” she says. “For example, Caliente Cab Restaurant in New York kicked
Khadijah Farmer, a ‘butch’ lesbian woman, out of the women’s restroom because they thought she was a
transsexual. "If she had been fired from her job because her 'butch' appearance led her employers to
believe [the same], she would technically not be protected under a non-trans-inclusive ENDA. . . ." (-- in
other words, if she was fired because her employers interpreted her butch appearance as an indication
that she were transsexual, she would not be protected under a non-trans inclusive ENDA. So any
gay/lesbian/bi person presenting outside typical gender boundaries could be labeled as trans, correctly or
not, and then be legally discriminated against.) . . . . [I]t illustrates that discrimination based on gender
identity is not just a trans issue. It is an issue for any of us who reject a rigid gender binary or archaic
behaviors and dress codes.”
Hand-in-hand with fighting for equal protection under the law, Addams says, the community must also
face another critically important struggle. “The most pressing issue facing trans people is probably
learning to respect and value themselves in a society that does not understand them and actively
misrepresents them in media and popular culture,” she told Ambiente. “This can be accomplished by
providing role models and supportive family and friends, which is right in line with PFLAG’s work.”
It’s also in keeping with Addams’ courageous work in speaking out, standing up and being a role model
In 1999, just after the 4th of July holiday, Addams found herself forced into a media spotlight after her
boyfriend, Army Private First Class Barry Winchell, was brutally murdered with a baseball bat while
sleeping in his cot at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The story became a national story, with reports on NBC
Nightly News, 60 Minutes and in The New York Times . . . to name just a few.
And Winchell's relationship with Addams made her one of the first – if not the first – transgender American
to be front-and-center in a national media firestorm.
By all accounts, Addams’ response was the epitome of grace under fire.
“Barry’s murder was the most tragic event I have ever experienced,” she says, “and at the time I felt that it
was my duty to do what I could to fight for justice in court and honor his memory through careful and
considered cooperation with the makers of the movie Soldiers Girl,” which was based on her relationship
with Winchell and told the story of the days leading up to his murder.
It is a story that still haunts Addams and follows her almost everywhere she goes.
“Barry was murdered almost ten years ago now, and the fact that I still have to discuss it at least once a
week with someone who has read the stories or seen [the film] requires a level of strength that I would
never have imagined that I’d continue to need, all these years later,” she says. “But I do think that every
time we present our best selves to the public, and demand respect for ourselves and our loved ones, that
we are advancing our cause and dispelling incorrect ideas about who we are.”
That, too, is a primary motivation for her partnership with PFLAG.
“I’m sure that the parents of GLBT people worry about the negative things that un-supporting people will
direct at their children,” she says, “and because the majority of these parents are heterosexual, they often
have no point of reference to understand what their children are feeling or experiencing where being GLBT
is concerned. I’m sure it might be frightening and difficult, so an organization like PFLAG not only supports
the GLBT people, but it builds a network that allows the parents and friends to learn from each other and
get a little support when they need it as well.”
And, in-between educating, Addams says she’ll keep entertaining, too, bringing out one of her first loves,
the fiddle, for a return to music again. She’s just released a new single, Stunning, which is available on
iTunes and on her website, www.calpernia.com.
“As a showgirl, I loved the pop music of the clubs, from Madonna to Britney and beyond,” she says. “I
always wished that I could make that kind of music myself, but I was afraid to try until recently.”
“I decided that no one expects me to sing like Christina Aguilera,” she told Ambiente, “but that I still had
something to say and enough ability with musical instruments and computers to make a go at it.”
That ambition and determination has resulted in partnerships with producers like Jer Ber Jones and
Lucian Piane . . . and a new-found love that compliments her other work perfectly.
“It’s all about letting go of self-imposed limitations and saying what you have to say to the world,” she
says. “I’ve always been making music, performing on stage, writing drawing . . . I just evolve the style as
the years go by.”
Yet there’s no doubt that Addams never goes out of style. From her partnership with PFLAG to her
undeniable presence on the stage and the screen, the Calpernia experience can be aptly summed up by
her perfectly-titled new sound: Stunning.
(Calpernia invites Ambiente readers to visit her at www.calpernia.com and “say hello!”)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Ralls joined PFLAG in March 2008 as the organization's director
Prior to his work with PFLAG, Steve worked for 8 years with Servicemembers Legal
Defense Network, a national legal aid and advocacy organization dedicated to
repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on openly gay troops. In his
LGBTadvocacy work, Steve has been widely quoted in the media, including in The
New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, the Associated Press and other
national and local press
outlets. He has appeared on CNN, National Public Radio, CBS News on LOGO and
recently coordinated a ground-breaking 60 Minutes report on changing attitudes
regarding LGBT personnel in the U.S. militery.
Along with PFLAG communications coordinator Adam Ratliff, Steve develops,
implements and oversees PFLAG's communications program, including media, messaging,
online communications, publications and public education programs. He is also a regular
contributor to The Bilerico Project, and is a steerinig committee member of Amnesty
International's OUTfront program, focusing on international LGBT human rights issues. Mr.
Ralls also is a regular contributor to Ambiente Magazine.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
Copyright © PGFLAG.org, Steve Ralls & AMBIENTE MAGAZINE. Do not reproduce without citing these sources.
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