Lana Wachowski's HRC Visibility Award Acceptance Speech (Transcript)
"I began to believe voices in my head -- that I was a freak, that I am broken, that there is something wrong with me, that I will never be lovable," the "Cloud Atlas" co-director tells a San Francisco fundraiser crowd.
The following is a transcript of a speech delivered by Lana Wachowski to the Human Rights Campaign's annual gala dinner in San Francisco on Oct. 20, 2012.
OK. Phew. Haven’t given a speech ever. [applause] OK, OK, I get it -- you’re very encouraging, I love you.
So I’m at my hairdresser's. [laughter] He’s gay, go figure. I say yeah, the HRC wants to give me an award. Award for what? I say, "I guess for kind of being myself." He’s like playing with my hair and looking at me and he’s like, “Yeah, I guess you make a pretty good you.” And I was like, yeah, “Yeah, well there wasn’t a lot of competition.” And ‘cause hes a catty bitch he said, “Yeah, it’s a good thing -- just imagine if you had lost.” [laughter]
I’ve been going to this hairdresser who’s this gorgeous lovely man for almost six years. He knows everything about my family, how close I was to my grandma, how I met and married the love of my life. He did the hair for our wedding three years ago, he’s seen the drunken pornographic pictures of our honeymoon in Mykonos. But he doesn’t know that I directed The Matrix trilogy with my brother Andy. [applause] So he knows all about who I am but he doesn’t know what I do.
Conversely, I was recently out to dinner with a mixture of friends and strangers who were all very excited to meet a “Hollywood” director, but all they want to do is ask about Tom Hanks, Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry, and throughout the dinner they repeatedly refer to me as “he” or one of the “Wachowski Brothers,” sometimes using half my name, “Laaaaaa,” as an awkward bridge between identities, unable or perhaps unwilling to see me as I am, but only for the things I do.
Every one of us, every person here, every human life presents a negotiation between public and private identity. For me that negotiation took a more literal form in a dialogue between me, Andy, Tom Tykwer -- our new brother by love, who’s just gorgeous -- with whom we directed our latest movie, Cloud Atlas. (Thanks for the plug; go see it.) Several months ago we were sitting in this Berlin club amid beer soaked haggardness in a space not intended to be inhabited by people and sunlight trying to decide if we should shoot this introduction to a trailer for our movie that was supposed to be posted online. Tom Hanks was supposed to do it but became unavailable.
Andy and I have not done press or made a public appearance including premieres in over 12 years. People have mistakenly assumed that this has something to do with my gender. It does not. After The Matrix was released in ‘99 we both experienced this alarming contraction of our world and thus our lives. We became acutely aware of the preciousness of anonymity -- understanding it as a form of virginity, something you only lose once. Anonymity allows you access to civic space, to a form of participation in public life, to an egalitarian invisibility that neither of us wanted to give up. We told Warner Bros. that neither one of us wanted to do press anymore. They told us, “No. Absolutely not. This is non-negotiable. Directors are essential to selling and marketing a movie.” We said, “OK, we get it. So if it’s a choice between making movies or not doing press, we decided we’re not going to not make movies.” They said, “Hang on. Maybe there’s a little room for negotiation.”
So this position in that negotiation was being examined in Berlin three months ago. All of us are conscious of the fact that not only will it be Andy and my first public appearance in a long time, but it will also be the first time that I speak publicly since my transition. Parenthetically this is a word that has very complicated subject for me because of its complicity in a binary gender narrative that I am not particularly comfortable with. Yet I realize the moment I go on camera, that act will be subject to projections that are both personal and political.
I have been out to my family and friends for over a decade and for the majority of that time I have been discussing this, this particular moment with my therapist, with my family and my wife because I know eventually I will do it but I know there is going to be a price for it. I knew I was going to come out but I knew when I finally did come out I didn’t want it to be about my coming out. I am completely horrified by the “talk show,” the interrogation and confession format, the weeping, the tears of the host [applause] whose sympathy underscores the inherent tragedy of my life as a transgender person. And this moment fulfilling the cathartic arc of rejection to acceptance without ever interrogating the pathology of a society that refuses to acknowledge the spectrum of gender in the exact same blind way they have refused to see a spectrum of race or sexuality. [applause]
So the three of us talk. We like to talk. (You’re probably realizing right now, uh oh, we got a talker here. There will be an intermission after about an hour, so.) We’re alternating perspectives quite conscious of the fact that we have just made a film about this subject -- about the responsibilities us humans have to one another, that our lives are not entirely our own. There is dialogue from the film merging easily with the discussion and I find myself repeating a line from a character who Iwas very attached to who speaks about her own decision to come out. She says, “If I had remained invisible, the truth would have remained hidden and I couldn’t allow that.” And she says this aware that even at the moment she’s saying it that the sacrifice she has made will cost her her life.
Suddenly I begin this very intense rush of images, thoughts and memories going through my mind -- a kind of life flashing before my eyes that happens. People describe near-death experiences. As it begins I start to understand just how complex the relationship between visibility and invisibility has been throughout my life.
I remember the third grade, I remember recently moving and transferring from a public school to a Catholic school. In public school I played mostly with girls, I have long hair and everyone wears jeans and t-shirts. In Catholic school the girls wear skirts, the boys play pants. I am told I have to cut my hair. I want to play Four Square with the girls but now I’m one of them -- I’m one of the boys. Early on I am told to get in line after a morning bell, girls in one line, boys in another. I walk past the girls feeling this strange, powerful gravity of association. Yet some part of me knows I have to keep walking. As soon as I look towards the other line, though, I feel a feeling of differentiation that confuses me. I don’t belong there, either.
I stop between them. The nun I realize is staring at me, she’s shouting at me. I don’t know what to do. She grabs me, she’s yelling at me. I’m not trying to disobey, I’m just trying to fit in. My silence starts to infuriate her, and she starts to hit me. Then suddenly, most improbably -- if it happened in a movie you would never believe is -- suddenly there’s these screeching tires and my mom just happens to be driving by, totally true, she jumps out of her car, she hurls herself at this nun. She rips me away from her, rescues me. She warns the nun never to touch me again. [applause]
And I think I’m safe, but then she takes me home and she’s trying to understand what happened, but I have no real language to describe it. I just stare at the floor and she keeps asking me over and over what happened. And I begin feeling the same mounting frustration, the same mounting fury that I felt with the nun. She tells me to look at her but I don’t want to, because when I do I am unable to understand why she cannot see me.
The last time I was asked to make a speech, like this one, I was at my eighth grade graduation. I was valedictorian of my class and Mr. Henderson my teacher informed me that I got to give a speech as a result of being valedictorian. I didn’t think this was a very big deal. [laughter] I’m not sure about this little award thing, either, but. Being painfully shy I declined. I said, “Let someone else be valedictorian.” He didn’t like this answer. He said, “That’s not how this works.” He said he understood how I felt, no one likes giving speeches -- why do we do it? -- but sometimes I had to think not just about myself but about my class and my parents, who would be very proud of me, he said. There are some things that we have to do for ourselves, but there are other things that we have to do for other people.
So I wrote this speech back then much as I wrote this one with butterflies churning. I worked on it at night wearing the slip that I used as a nightie that I had stolen from my sister. I wrote about the way that knowledge had an actual materiality not unlike the materiality of a ladder that could be used to gain access to places and worlds that were previously unimaginable. I have no real memory of giving that speech. I remember afterwards being in the bathroom, hiding in a locked stall, feeling the slip I wore under my suit as I cried, feeling stupid and that I was a liar because I was unable myself to imagine a world where I would ever fit in.
In high school I joined the theater department partially because of my older sister, but mostly because of the storeroom high above the stage amongst the catwalks that was filmed with costumes. I fell in love with this storeroom as much for its dust-scented privacy where I would sit and read as for the racks of dresses and endless rows of shoes. I remember wearing this beautiful brocaded dress one day with a built-in corset when suddenly I heard the stage manager calling my name. Just before she opened the door I dove desperately between the shadowed folds between the racked dresses, my heart pounding like a mouse, listening to her call my name over and over, praying that somehow I might remain invisible.
As I grew older an intense anxious isolation coupled with constant insomnia began to inculcate an inescapable depression. I have never slept much but during my sophomore year in high school, while I watched many of my male friends start to develop facial hair, I kept this strange relentless vigil staring in the mirror for hours, afraid of what one day I might see. Here in the absence of words to defend myself, without examples, without models, I began to believe voices in my head -- that I was a freak, that I am broken, that there is something wrong with me, that I will never be lovable.
After school I go to the nearby Burger King and write a suicide note. It ends up being over four pages. [laughter] I’m a little talkative. But it was addressed to my parents and I really wanted to convince them that it wasn’t their fault, it was just that I didn’t belong. I cry a lot as I write this note, but the staff at Burger King has seen it all before, and they seem immune. [laughter]
I was very used to traveling home quite late because of the theater, I know the train platform will be empty at night because it always is. I let the B train go by because I know the A train will be next and it doesn’t stop. When I see the headlight I take off my backpack and I put it on the bench. It has the note in front of it. I try not to think of anything but jumping as the train comes. Just as the platform begins to rumble suddenly I notice someone walking down the ramp. It is a skinny older old man wearing overly large, 1970s square-style glasses that remind of the ones my grandma wears. He stares at me the way animals stare at each other. I don’t know why he wouldn’t look away. All I know is that because he didn’t, I am still here.
Years later I find the courage to admit that I am transgender and this doesn’t mean that I am unlovable. I meet a woman, the first person that has made me understand that they love me not in spite of my difference but because of it. She is the first person to see me as a whole being. And every morning I get to wake up beside her I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for those two blue eyes in my life.
In Sydney, Australia, I finally came out to my family. When I told my mom what was going on, she jumped on a plane immediately. It was this big, tear-soaked baptism, and she confessed that she had been afraid to arrive and grieve the loss of her son. But when she arrived she found it wasn’t so much a death as it was a discovery. That there was this other part of me, an unseen part, and she felt it was like a gift because now she could get to know that part of me. [applause]
We went to dinner. I dressed as feminine as I could, wanting to be seen by strangers as Lana. Hoping that waiters would not call me “sir” or “he,” as if these people suddenly had the power to confirm or deny my existence. My mom is also a bit talkative. She always introduces herself to the waiter or waitress. And she’s like, “Hi, I’m Lynne. This is my daughter Lana.” And the waitress smiles and says, “Wow, she looks just like you.” [applause]
When my dad arrived he shrugged it off easier than accepting that his wife and daughter had once voted for Jane Byrne instead of Harold Washington [for Chicago mayor in 1983] -- a choice that still rankles him today. He said, “Look, if my kid wants to sit down and talk to me I’m a lucky man. What matters is that you’re alive, you seem happy, and that I can put my arms around you and give you a kiss.” [applause] Having good parents is just like the lottery. You’re just like, “Oh my god, I won the lottery! What the -- I didn’t do anything!”
I remember thinking about my dad’s words, his acceptance of me, when my wife and I first read about [murdered transgender teen] Gwen Araujo. It seemed impossible that something like that could happen so close to this city, yet here was this person like me murdered by ignorance, by prejudice, murdered by intolerance, it seemed in direct inverse proportion to the acceptance of my family. Murdered by a kind of fear that seeks to obliterate any evidence that the world is different from the way they want to see it, from the way they want to believe it to be.
Invisibility is indivisible from visibility; for the transgender this is not simply a philosophical conundrum -- it can be the difference between life and death.
A few short weeks ago after my coming out, the three of us, Tom, Andy and I were being interviewed, one of the reporters ventured away from the subject of the film towards my gender. Imagine that, a reporter. My brother quickly stepped in, “Look, just so we’re clear,” he says, “if somebody asks something or says something about my sister that I don’t like, understand that I will break a bottle over their head.” [applause] Few words express love clearer than these.
I am here because Mr. Henderson taught me that there are some things we do for ourselves, but there are some things we do for others. I am here because when I was young, I wanted very badly to be a writer, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I couldn’t find anyone like me in the world and it felt like my dreams were foreclosed simply because my gender was less typical than others.
If I can be that person for someone else [pause, applause] then the sacrifice of my private civic life may have value. I know I am also here because of the strength and courage and love that I am blessed to receive from my wife, my family and my friends. And in this way I hope to offer their love in the form of my materiality to a project like this one started by the HRC, so that this world that we imagine in this room might be used to gain access to other rooms, to other worlds previously unimaginable.
Thanks very much.