Actor Jake Graf was perceived by the world as a woman for nearly 30 years, making him intimately aware of the biases women face in and beyond film. Today, he is one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising trans actors, recently starring alongside Keira Knightly in the biopic Colette, which tells the story of acclaimed bisexual author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who, in early 20th-century Paris, fought to write under her own name.
Born and raised in London, Graf began transitioning in his late 20s. “Once my medical transition began, I then started to feel comfortable in my body, and able to happily look at myself in the mirror—something I hadn’t been able to do in over 20 years,” he told Cosmopolitan. “My entire outlook became lighter and more positive, my only regret was that I hadn’t done it all sooner.”
Graf was able to depict aspects of his own transition through the Oscar-award wining film The Danish Girl, which he acted in, and Brace, which he wrote, starred in, and shot over two years. In 2018, he married Hannah Winterbourne, the highest-ranking transgender officer in the British Army.
In conversation with Quartz, Graf explains his experience living with both male and female privilege, why the language we use to talk to young boys is damning, and why men need to remember that they control their own impact on the world.
1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?
As a filmmaker who has primarily focused on LGBTQ stories, positive representation both on and off screen has been incredibly important to me. So yes, I think I have always thought about gender inequality to some degree.
What I have become much more aware of is how widely people I knew had been personally affected by some aspect of inequality and, in more instances than I expected, had been the victims of sexual bullying and abuse. The Me Too Movement has really taught me a lesson on complacency, and that equality is about so much more than representation. It’s about actively creating a positive culture for all genders, where people are comfortable in speaking up if they see or hear something they know to be wrong.
2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?
Absolutely. As a transgender man who lived as a woman for 30 years, I have experienced how both men and women are treated in society firsthand and so have always been acutely aware of the gross imbalance and injustices. Now, in a space of perceived privilege, I am struck daily by the differing treatment and heightened respect that I receive as a man, frequently questioning and attempting to redress it.
For me, feminism is about listening to and supporting women, and being mindful of the wildly contrasting attitudes that are forced upon all of us from the earliest age. It’s also remembering that women are better placed than anyone to create a fairer future for themselves. I just commit myself to supporting and helping that change in whatever way I can.
3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?
I try to stay educated on what the current issues are and I will openly support gender equality causes if and when the opportunities arise. Practically though, calling out casual sexism where I see it, making efforts to give on-set jobs to women in an industry in which they are often overlooked, and asking the young folk that I mentor to question the differences in how they and their peers are treated. Oh, and listening to my wife, who is always right!
4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?
I think that the language and the way we talk to young boys and men is really damaging, and sets them up for a lifetime of insecurity, anger, and perceived failure. Showing emotion is met with “don’t be a girl,” “man up,” or “boys don’t cry.” These physical and emotional stereotypes that society enforces from a very young age are a double-whammy of danger, in my opinion. On the one hand, we are instructing men to bottle up their feelings, leading to some very worrying mental health and suicide statistics, and on the other we are teaching them that acting like a woman is to be lesser, reinforcing the idea that men are “better” than women.
5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?
I am lucky in that most of my male friends were raised largely by women and so are more “woke” than most guys out there. I realize more and more that they are an exception to the rule and that most men are not so enlightened. With other males, I very rarely go into a conversation like: “Hey buddy, want to grab a coffee and talk about sexism?!” I think that will always feel confrontational and cause guys to put up barriers. Instead, if I see sexist behavior, I tend to make a joke about how stupid that behavior is and throw it back at them by asking them to put themselves in the situation they’re joking about. Generally speaking, this gets the point across.
During my transition, I was so focused on “passing” that I just kept my head down and absorbed the rampant sexism I was suddenly witness to, a truly jarring experience at what was already an unsettling time. That’s something I certainly wouldn’t do now that I finally feel comfortable in my own masculinity, whatever that is!
6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?
Like women, society places a lot of expectations on men: our appearance, hobbies, and interactions are all open to judgment and critique. And even when you don’t subscribe to that way of thinking, it’s easy to get pulled in. For a long time I worried that I wasn’t “man enough” to be the type of male that society expected me to be, but I realize now that it’s up to me to decide what kind of man I want to be. Any anxiety I feel is usually a subconscious fear of not living up to those societal standards, even if I consciously think they are absolute rubbish.
7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you?
I am a feminist and an ally who understands more than they may think, and that if they want my support then they just have to ask for it!
8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?
In my opinion, women’s equality has to be led by women and supported by men. It is therefore right that we speak up, as long as in doing so we are lifting women’s voices and not drowning them out. If there was a man who wanted to criticize me for speaking out, I think it would say a lot more about him than me.
Sadly, some men’s perceptions are unlikely to ever change, but those men will soon die out. I think that most sensible guys, when questioned on outdated or macho viewpoints, will rethink and hopefully conclude that promoting equality of others is only ever a good thing.
9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why?
Having lived in a female role for many years, I am probably more aware than most men of biases, and I’d like to think that I’ve never contributed to them, but I imagine that can’t be true. The worrying thing is that I find it hard to think of any times where this has been the case, which goes to show how subconscious these biases are.
10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?
The best advice that I have ever received is not to worry so much about what other people are doing, and focus on what I’m doing. In this age of social media it’s only too easy to compare yourself to others, and that’s never going to be healthy.
The best advice I could give to young men today would be for them to remember the position of privilege that they’re in, but to also remember that it is they who determine their place and their impact in and on society. I would also tell them that showing fear, sadness, and love is not a sign of weakness, but quite the opposite, and that when they look back on their lives it is those moments that will stand out.