Meet Italy's First Transgender Gondolier, a Favorite Among Hollywood Stars

THR - Alex Hai - Trans Gondolier Making Waves on the Grand Canal - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Subject

Alex Hai, whose passenger-fans include Juliette Binoche, faced years of legal battles and harassment — but now that's in the past: "People who harassed me are scared of me."

In 1996, Alex Hai made history by becoming Italy's first female gondolier. Now Hai is making history all over again.

Hai, 51 — who caused waves all over Venice for? decades by battling with city officials over a female's right to pilot a public boat on the canals — took to Facebook in the summer of 2017 to announce that he would become Italy's first transgender gondolier. "The correct pronouns to use when referring to me, at any point in my life (regardless of how I was publicly known at the time), are he/him/his," Hai posted.

Given how much grief Hai had endured back when he was identified as a woman, it was a stunning turn of events. Hai was singled out when he was still a student by a local newspaper as a woman rowing on the canals, a breakthrough in an industry dominated for 900 years by men. But the story was written without his consent, and the news was naturally picked up by media outlets around the world, making him the face of a global narrative he had little control over. 

Hai took the test to become ?an officially sanctioned public gondolier (the sort that can pick up passengers like a taxi driver) ?four times, and was failed by the gondolier's ?association each time, in what Hai is certain was a ?deliberate attempt to keep females from piloting gondolas. 

Instead, he found work as a private gondolier for hotels and for himself in 2005, but even that was apparently ?an affront to the association, which kept trying to ?introduce new licensing ordinances designed ?to keep Hai off the water. “As this is unfortunately a corrupt city, the city was the one doing it. That was an abuse of power, because you cannot change the law against or for one single person,” he says.

Ultimately, after a nine-year court battle, those attempts failed in the highest court and Hai's business as a private gondolier was once again deemed legal — which was, for Hai, liberating in more ways than one.

"For me those were most unproductive years. I can’t really recommend it to anyone. I locked my story in a cupboard somewhere and was concentrating on getting the job [of repealing the anti-female ordinances] done," he tells THR of the long legal struggle and how it delayed his coming out. "But once it was done, ?I was able to concentrate on myself. I didn't need to live a lie anymore."

Today, Hai is still piloting the canals, wearing a ?traditional 18th century costume given to him by the noble Count Marcello family (the only noble family left in the city that stays in Venice year-round), offering custom 60 to 90-minute tours of his beloved Venice (public gondoliers offer the 20- to 30-minute "selfie and song" tours). When the original costume started falling apart, fashion house Balenciaga made him a reproduction. 

Because Hai knows Venice's most private routes, he is often sought out by stars. "The first actor I had on board was Juliette Binoche," he says. "We went in the middle of the night, as she didn't want to have to deal with fans." Bodyguards usually stay back, but when he took out the Queen of Belgium, exceptions were made.  

He says he still sometimes deals with harassment, but nothing like before. "Firstly, I don’t really care about this." And although he recognizes it's a simplification to say so, he admits, "It's much easier to ?harass a woman than it is to harass a man. Now it's the other way around. People who harassed me are scared of me. They are very careful what they say."

Hai realizes that his story is stranger than fiction. “Let’s see if Hollywood is ready for it,” he says, noting that he has already set up meetings with producers during the festival to discuss a treatment of his life story he has written. “Transgender is a hot topic right now. I do have something to say. I don’t need to make anything up.”

In terms of who would play Hai, he agrees that is a tricky question, after recent backlash forced Scarlett Johansson to drop out of playing a transgender lead in the film Rub & Tug. “We are in a very strange time right now, but let’s put it this way, it needs to be a man or a transgender man, one of the two. It cannot be a woman in my opinion,” he says.

“I don’t understand why a transgender role needs to be played by a transgender person," he continues. "It can be played by a transgender person, but it should be played by the better actor.

“I would love Benedict Cumberbatch to play me. He’s the Meryl Streep for me. I think this would be very challenging and interesting for him," he says. "I could also see Elliot Fletcher, a transgender actor from America, playing the young me." 

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.