Rainbow Crew is an ongoing interview series that celebrates the best LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Each instalment showcases talent working on both sides of the camera, including queer creatives and allies to the community.
Next up, we're speaking to American Gods star Dana Aliya Levinson.
"There is something radical about a queer character being granted eternal life when the world does all it can to make sure we don't live one at all." These words haven't left us since Dana Aliya Levinson shared them online after her breakout role on American Gods aired earlier this week.
Plenty of others have been moved by these words too, and in particular, how they intertwine with Dana's character on the show. "I did not expect my Twitter and Instagram to be blowing up in the way that they have in the past few days," Dana tells us. "But it's been a lot of queer fans talking about how they feel seen by the episode, which has just been incredible."
'The Rapture of Burning' opens in 1951 at the front desk of the Grand Peacock Inn where Toni Rykener encounters the Chinese god of same-sex love.
After enduring a century of intolerance in America, Tu'er Shen's power has been diminished, and he's now on the run from the police. Without hesitation, Toni shelters Tu'er Shen at great personal risk to her own life. In this "deceptively complicated scene", Toni quickly "connects the dots" and realises that she once hooked up with one of the (now closeted) police men who barged into her inn.
American Gods has embraced queerness before, most notably with Salim and the Djinn's romance in season one, but to see a trans woman bravely defy the police within the first five minutes of this episode, all within a '50s setting? That's truly miraculous.
"It felt like a really important, inherently queer episode," says Dana. "And we so rarely see that, especially in genre, especially on cable or anything that's not a streaming service."
In both this era and the decades that follow, The Grand Peacock Inn comes to represent an important safe space for queer people, much like Pose's ballroom, the Pink Palace from It's a Sin or 28 Barbary Lane in Tales of the City. These kind of spaces are vital for our community in real life too, something which Dana strongly relates to on a personal level.
"I grew up being severely bullied," she recalls. "I was assigned male at birth, and clearly a feminine kid, growing up. I had no sense of community, because I was always ostracised."
"When I was in kindergarten first grade, I was always hanging out at the girls' table," Dana continues. "And then they got to that age where it was like, 'Ew, no. You're a boy. You can't hang out with us as well.' And all the boys were bullying me. So I was just isolated between these two poles."
After she came out at a young age, Dana remembers that the first safe space she found was a teen centre called Levels. "It wasn't an LGBT-specific space, but because it sort of catered to the misfit kids, a lot of the kids were queer. And they're actually spiritually very similar to the teen centre microcosm of The Grand Peacock Inn."
That was the place where Dana first felt "affirmed" in her queerness, and for many people watching American Gods back home, just seeing the Grand Peacock Inn on screen likely serves a similar function.
"When I go out into the world, and when I'm interacting with a cis person, always somewhere in the back of my head I'm like, 'Are they clocking that I'm trans?' And if they are, 'What are they thinking about that?'"
Safe spaces like Levels and the Grand Peacock Inn give queer people a place to go "where that tension is removed," which can be "so freeing". But in this episode, Tu'er Shen does more than just bless the Inn as a temple dedicated to queer love. He also gives Toni the gift of immortality, something which, as Dana previously noted, is truly "radical".
"When I was filming that scene with Daniel Jun where Tu'er Shen grants me eternal life, we filmed his side of the room first. I was going into the scene being like, 'Oh, it's like a teaser – expositional. We're just getting it out of the way. Just banging it out. Whatever.'"
But that all changed when Daniel started his monologue. "On the very first take, when he said 'I grant you a long life, and, this will be a temple for me and mine, and you and yours,' I had tears. I just welled up immediately," Dana tells me.
"To me," she continues, "that whole concept is just radical and revolutionary. To show a queer person who's not a queer deity, necessarily, but just a run-of-the-mill queer person being granted a long and fulfilling life – it just felt like a visceral release in the moment that line was set."
And that visceral sense of release will be familiar to many fans who watched these scenes play out back home too. In a world that doesn't want queer people to live "a long and fulfilling life," shame can build within, often to a degree that we ourselves don't realise.
"It was impossible to grow up without any sense of shame around my sexuality," says Dana. "But the way that we de-shame is by being heard and seen and valued for who we are." A lot of that comes from seeing our own stories reflected on screen, something which American Gods achieved beautifully throughout this episode, and perhaps, most notably, in a scene where Toni and Salim confront the direct impact of shame.
Left to his own devices, Salim hesitates outside of a queer party, unsure of whether he should enter. It's not until Toni sees him and opens up a conversation about his shame that Salim is finally able to let go of what's holding him back, allowing him to truly embrace everything that "God has to offer".
"When it comes to de-shaming queerness and queer sexuality, nothing does it better, in my opinion, than media, especially when so much media is focused on demonising us. To place that conversation front and centre in a show like this, it reaches so many more people than a one-on-one conversation could ever have."
Moments like this are genuinely healing for queer viewers still struggling to come to terms with who they are and where they belong in this world. "When I see shows like that, it's healing for me, and I think it's important to have more and more of this on television, to break through that shame that a lot of us queer folks have imprinted onto us in our lives."
Historically, religion has played a pivotal role in this cycle of shame, perpetuating the pain many still endure in the LGBTQ+ community. But this episode of American Gods also reminds us that the relationship between divinity and queerness can transcend bigotry, tapping into something more spiritually complex, and even beautiful.
Although she didn't grow up in an Orthodox community, Dana describes herself as "a very proud trans Jewess" who celebrated the culture and ethnic identity that comes with being Jewish. However, it wasn't until Dana got sober that she became more interested in her own religious beliefs.
"Over time, my way in with my faith was actually history, originally. I slowly started to find out more about Jewish theology by way of Jewish history, and started to find myself really connected to it. And the thing that was really connecting to me, is the grey-ness in Jewishness."
"We love debating with each other," Dana continues. "We love fighting with each other, we love disagreeing with each other. That disagreement, and that tension between one thing and another thing, for me, it really related to my trans identity.
"I carry my life with me before I transitioned. Even though at this point I basically move through the world as a woman, and people see me as a woman, I still carry the years I was socialised as a young boy with me. And to me, it's like, that doesn't negate my womanhood. And for me to integrate the tension between those two things into my life, it feels divine."
Historically, religion and queerness are far more intertwined than some people might like to admit, as evidenced by the existence of Tu'er Shen. "2,000 years ago, the Torah and Hagigah actually recognised six different genders," Dana tells me. "And sort of identifying with that gender liminality within Jewishness helped me spark that feeling of divinity in my queerness."
The ways in which American Gods is willing to queer divinity is nothing short of "revolutionary," and no other scene ever featured on the show might be as "important" as the orgy which follows Toni's conversation with Salim.
Aside from rare examples like Sense8 and It's a Sin, few TV shows have successfully captured the hedonistic freedom of queer sex without prioritising the straight, white cis gaze. But here, American Gods captures exactly what it's like to move beyond the constraints of heteronormativity, opening yourself up to new physical experiences that help you rediscover yourself and cast aside all notions of shame.
Knowing that Toni would play a key role in this orgy scene did make Dana a bit apprehensive at first – "It was definitely a leap of faith" – but it was also one that she was happy to take. "I was like, 'If this nudity is going to be like anything they've done on the show before, it's going to be very empowering nudity.'
After Dana arrived on set, she and director Tim Southam met to discuss Toni's arc. "When we got into that scene, he asked me in this way – it's like, sometimes, people who aren't trans or aren't queer, put the burden on queer people to explain things. And he managed to ask me in this way that didn’t make me feel like that at all, like: 'What would you want to see in this scene as a queer person? What would you make you feel seen?'"
Dana describes the conversation they had as "very open, loving, warm, and safe," which empowered her to ask that the scene be celebratory instead of objectifying or voyeuristic.
"One of the things I said was: if Toni is just on the swings naked with a visibly trans body, and if there's no closeup shots, no 'look at this – this is exotic and different', then… If there's none of that, it'll feel like revolutionary TV."
And that's exactly how it feels. Queer pain is intrinsically part of our history as a community, and it's important that this is remembered, but far too often, tragedy is prioritised over happiness. This entire scene, and in particular, the precise moment when Toni appears at the orgy, is beautifully triumphant, queer joy personified. And it should come as no surprise that Dana felt this on set too.
"It's funny, the shot of me on the swing where it goes into slow motion, I remember shooting that. That feeling of openness and joy was just completely genuine. Because of that, I found it super-healing."
"I thought it was so important to have a visibly trans body that was being celebrated in a way that wasn't objectifying," Dana recalls. "For someone who personally is so used to being objectified, especially in dating situations and stuff like that; to have that space to experience that, to feel celebrated and uplifted in a scene that was sexual, was just incredibly healing."
To make this possible, everyone had to come together with the same goal, to make the set feel open and safe. "The whole team on the show, from the producer, David Francis, to the writer, Holly Moyer, to the director, Tim Southam and the intimacy coordinator as well, Casey Hudecki – everyone just wanted to get it right, and was so invested in getting it right that the filming space felt as safe as you would imagine The Grand Peacock Inn felt."
Plenty of people working in this industry could learn a lot from all the ways this cast and crew approached queer themes here, and transness in particular. But how do we ensure this becomes the norm one day? What can be done so that the "revolutionary" storytelling seen here in American Gods will no longer feel "revolutionary"?
"So, first," Dana tells us, "We need non-didactic roles whose transness informs who they are but is not the engine of the story. So many people imagine that our lives revolve around being trans that they can’t conceptualise us existing in a story that doesn't revolve around us being trans."
"Secondly," Dana continues, "there are simply not enough trans roles to sustain the careers of the actors who are worthy of them. Period. In the past two years, I've experienced a shift where casting directors will bring in trans actors for small roles. It's like, 'Oh, it's just a person behind a counter, so why can't this person be trans?'"
"Casting directors need to start seeing trans actors who are not just the counter girl or the bus driver dude or, 'Oh, we'll cast a non-binary person in this role, and that'll be cool.' Because that's its own kind of tokenisation."
"And to start realising that unless the role is super-specific to a cis experience, you can bring in trans people for non trans-specific leads. The range of roles that a trans actor cannot play, that are so specific to a cis-experience, are almost none."
Thanks to characters like Sense8's Nomi, Jules from Euphoria, and the cast of Pose, not to mention Dana's role here in American Gods, a shift for the better is slowly happening. And hopefully, one day, there will be nothing at all "radical" about queer characters being granted eternal life, or simply enjoying a regular mortal one for that matter either.
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