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How Silas Howard Became the Best Trans Director Working Today

Before directing "Transparent," Silas Howard was already a queercore icon, and had directed one of the most influential trans films ever made. Now, he's more influential than ever.

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Photo by Miranda Penn Turin

In her book “New Queer Cinema,” film historian B. Ruby Rich calls “By Hook or By Crook” one of the seminal works of the New Trans Cinema, and marks the film as the moment “when the baton passe[d] from outsider to insider.” More than that, the film “was so much an embodiment of old San Francisco, but also so much a creation,” Rich told IndieWire last year. Comparing the film to the more recent “Tangerine,” she added, “Silas is the opposite of Sean [Baker]: Total street cred, total history, total sense of responsibility.”

READ MORE: ‘Transparent’ Cast Q&A: On BDSM And What It’s Like When Jill Soloway Whispers in Your Ear

Perhaps more than his being trans, Howard’s outsider perspective (in Hollywood, at least) comes from his working class background. “I have a lens of my experience that’s as much class-informed as it is queer and trans-informed.” It’s what makes “By Hook or By Crook” so charged with authenticity, and what informs his most personal work. These include two shorts inspired by the life of legendary San Francisco hustler and entertainer Bambi Lake, “Golden Age of Hustlers” and “Sticks and Stones.” Rich was especially keen on them as representative of Howard’s work. “I found those pieces really wonderful in how they combined street life, history, oral history, and high production values all together,” she said.

Following the success of “By Hook or By Crook,” he applied to film school at UCLA. (“I wanted to pretend to be rich for awhile”). It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. After graduating in 2010, he re-entered the job world with a crumbling economy and a very sick father. “I was transitioning, and he was dying, and I was house painting. I was like: ‘Oh my god, I’ve done all this work.” It was during this time that he shot the two Bambi shorts and finished his second feature, “Sunset Stories,” which he co-directed with Ernesto Foronda. “I had no money for any of that.” He turned to Kickstarter, and his scrappy DIY skills to make it work. “My community greenlit me. People came and worked for me, people threw money in a can.”

Last year, Howard was approached by the MAC AIDS Foundation to make a documentary. To his surprise, he learned that the company was known for giving many trans women their first jobs at MAC Cosmetics make-up counters. Currently playing on Showtime, “More Than T” is a moving portrait of seven trans and gender non-conforming people who have overcome great challenges, but still dedicate their lives to some kind of activism. “They’re like, ‘I’m dealing with all this shit but I’m gonna go help all these other people,’” said Howard.

These days, the filmmaker is in high demand. He’s currently shooting his third feature, “A Kid Like Jake,” starring Octavia Spencer, Claire Danes, and Jim Parsons. Based on a play by recent Yale graduate Daniel Pearle, Jim Parsons’ production company approached Howard with the project. First staged at Lincoln Center in 2013, “A Kid Like Jake” follows the parents of a gender non-conforming child as they navigate New York City’s highly competitive private school admissions process.

READ MORE: Jill Soloway On Why She Addresses Race Head On In ‘Transparent’ Season 3

“It’s not really a trans story, it’s really about anxiety in society about policing gender,” Howard said. “Flying blind as a parent, and the primal urge to protect. The ways we do the wrong thing out of the urge to protect people around us. Then also the intense class structure, and how that starts right away. And the weird commodification of otherness that happens.”

When asked if he ever feels the “commodification of otherness” when it comes to his own career, Howard paused and took a moment to think it through. “I’m obviously out as a trans director and it’s really important, and then it’s also reductive to be a trans director,” he said. “So I use it. I want to tell as stories that I’ve been telling for 20 years. I don’t identify as male in a traditional way. I am masculine-presenting, I feel trans, I don’t feel male in that way. I waited to transition and I lived as gender non-conforming because I am very queer identified. So that’s so deeply ingrained in me, but it’s easier to do after 15 years of totally independent queer storytelling.”

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