Jordan Gray: 'Everything’s gone mad, it’s wonderful.'
A year ago, you might not have known Jordan Gray’s name, but chances are you do now. Edinburgh comedy award shortlisted, Palladium headlining, and now headline-making too, after her recent appearance on Friday Night Live.
Channel 4 brought back the cult 1980s variety show for its 40th birthday in October, fronted by Ben Elton, and featuring turns by old-timers Julian Clary and Jo Brand, current TV names Mawaan Rizwan and Rosie Jones, and fresh talent like Leo Reich and Gray herself, who performed her barnstorming song ‘Better Than You’ in – and eventually out of – a hot pink power suit.
That appearance (and nudity) led to 1,538 Ofcom complaints, which weren’t upheld, and a tidal wave of new fans for the Southend-based comedian.
“Everything’s gone mad, it’s wonderful,” she tells HuffPost UK over the phone. “I like being pulled in a million different directions. I think it’s quite good for your brain. As long as it’s not chronic and you’re not being pulled in a million different directions every minute of the day.”
As well as her podcast, Transplaining, Gray has five separate TV shows in development – one of them an adaptation of her earlier web series, Transactions, which has been optioned by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
And the attention? She’s okay with it (she is a former contestant on The Voice after all). “I really like the responsibility of being, well, it does feel like you’re being put up on a pedestal a lot of the time,” she says. “I like being the friendly face of transgenderism for people who don’t know what they’re looking at or what the subject entails. I like being sort of a beacon.”
'I like being the friendly face of transgenderism'
In what is Transgender Awareness Week, Gray, 33, is reflecting on this stuff more than usual. She’s aware of the power of visibility and plays on it in her live show of songs and exquisite jokes – the cheekily named, Is It A Bird? – which ranges around superhero culture (Batman doesn’t come out of things well), dogs, and the mid-pandemic row about a gender neutral Mr Potato Head.
But she also knows the limits of representation, given her particular musical comedy style and newfound, more mainstream audience.
“I’m sort of forced to be a bit more broad in my explanations and use older terminologies and stuff just to keep a broader audience on side, so that we can continue the conversation and people don’t feel like we’re being tripped up, like ‘oh, I didn’t know these pronouns’. I don’t want people to feel like it’s their fault they’re not caught up on the latest language,” she says.
“The flip side of that is that I accidentally distance myself from my own community, because they’ve heard this stuff a million times; they don’t need it over-explained.”
She pauses. “I think this is a long way of saying that I wish I was around my own community a little bit more. But I do think it’s in perfectly safe hands and there are people far better qualified than me that are activists and at events doing really important work, and I’m sort of the clown on the front line.”
'It’s a nice bonus to represent. But I am a comedian before anything else'
Gray is a language geek – “when I was a kid I would literally sit and read the dictionary during playtimes and stuff, I was so obsessed with having five different words for every word, just in case you needed them” – but also knows its pitfalls, especially in current conversations around sex and gender.
“‘Sex change’ is so old-fashioned and so inaccurate but it’s sometimes the only word that people have,” she says of the approach she takes to talking about her trans identity in her act. “So rather than jump in with ‘medically-transitioned’ and ‘assigned male-at-birth’ – these are the correct terms or the terms we use at the moment, but it’s not useful for me to throw these in and leave a lot of people in the dark, because then they’re like: ‘I’m too late for this conversation, I’m going to stick with my original view.’ It’s really important that we remember that and don’t just assume everyone got the memo.”
Gray is bringing Is It A Bird? back to London’s Soho Theatre for a fortnight’s run in December – “I like working over the holiday season – it’s like working on my birthday. Everybody else would be expecting me to take the day off” – and she is already feeling up for it.
“It’s going to be special because it’s post Friday Night Live, so a lot more people know who I am coming in,” she says. “Rather than they read a review in the Telegraph and thought they’d come, now, it’s people coming to see me for a specific reason and I’m curious to see how that affects things. I’ll probably stick a little festive twist on the end if I can think of something!”
Before then, she’s switching on the Chrismas lights in Southend – where she will also be spending Christmas with her wife, once the Soho run is done.
But for now, Gray has picked five of her trans heroes for HuffPost UK to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance (below), while making a point of shouting out the work done by the community and “the wonderful things happening around this week every year” – plus the “little pang” that she’s not more immersed in it.
She adds: “I never want to feel like I’m misrepresenting the community, but at the same time, as we all know, we’re all different people. It would be weird if we all had the exact same opinions on everything. It’s a nice bonus to represent. But I am a comedian before anything else. And I never want to be a comedian that’s throwing anybody under the bus. Literally anybody. Even punching up: I very rarely punch in any direction, correct me if I’m wrong. Only at Batman!”
Jordan Gray’s five biggest trans pioneers
1. Laverne Cox
“Laverne Cox was the first time I saw someone [trans] having a mainstream place in a comedy drama – and Orange Is The New Black is very much a comedy drama. You think of the subject as tragic and dramatic, but she’s very, very funny in it as well. That always has a special place in my heart. Amazing format.
“There’s a scene where they did a flashback to before she transitioned and I don’t know if she played that or that it was a relative [the part was played by Cox’s twin brother, M Lamar], but that willingness to have that subject laid bare and examined by the show. I’m sure she brought a lot to it, the conversations, as I can’t imagine any other way it would have happened. Just incredible.
“I’m fairly convinced that if there was a transgender woman of colour in every position of power, the world would be a better place. I’d be happy with that. If Laverne Cox was in charge of everything, I’d be happy.”
2. Eddie Izzard
“Number two on my list is a standup comedian: Eddie Izzard. What I love about Eddie is that with the whole transgender boon that happened, Eddie just kind of stayed the course, because that’s been her entire career – that has been gender non-conforming. There was a point ages ago where Eddie could have said her preferred pronouns and it didn’t really bother her, she didn’t drop it in at all.
“It was only really recently that it came out and I think that’s really sweet. And now [she is planning to run to be a] Labour MP for Yorkshire? That’s where my dad lives, so it’s just a nice full circle thing for me, now there’s going to be a transgender woman MP in my dad’s hometown.”
“When I was younger, I just knew that Eddie Izzard was a funny, clever person. That’s what I knew from adults. But more recently... and multilingual as well – understanding comedy across more than one language is just brilliant.”
3. Albert Cashier
“Ever heard about Albert Cashier? Born in 1843. So, there’s loads of women at the time who dressed like men so they could fight in the American Civil War. But Albert Cashier presented as a man throughout the war, was captured, escaped by overpowering a prison guard (though assigned female at birth), then continued to live as a man for the rest of their life.
“They later got their leg broken and put into hospital where it was discovered they were assigned female at birth. and they were made to wear dresses and things for the rest of their life till they died, which sounds so tragic. But when they were buried, their army friends dressed them in their army clothes, so they were put to rest as a man, and I just think that’s so wonderful.
“Also, dressing as the gender you want to be for your own comfort is one thing, but doing it so you can also fight for something you believe in... War’s not nice, and fighting for your country is a double-edged sword (ironically something that would make it a lot harder to fight!). But fighting for something you believe in, that’s not an easy life, that’s a harder life. So if you’re talking about pioneers: Albert Cashier. And the circumstances of their birth were irrelevant.”
4. The Jurassic Park Frogs
“A really important bit of Jurassic Park is that they want to make dinosaurs but there are missing bits of their DNA, so they had to fill it with the DNA of a frog. But the thing about frogs is, depending on the temperature and their breeding habits, they change sex, and throughout their life, so they are able to keep their ecosystems balanced and stuff. So I’d like to submit frogs to this list! Without transexual amphibians, we wouldn’t have Jurassic Park.
“Now I know that’s a different thing, I know that sex and gender are different things. It’s very important that everybody knows that, including me, but I do think it’s spawned quite an enjoyable franchise of movies.”
5. Jen Ives
“Five is my very good friend and fellow comedian, Jen Ives, who is working at the moment and very active on the comedy scene. The thing about Jen is that she is proper funny and she’s been through so much. She gets so much bullshit and so much hate, because I think she is just a bit more present and her material is a bit more divisive.
Until Friday Night Live, I had no idea of the extend of vitriol I could expect as a transgender person. Maybe it’s because the comedy I make is a bit more broad, I feel like I was off the radar for most sorts of people. Friday Night Live came with its wave of that, but Jen, she gets it all the time.
“She’s already on so many top transphobes’ radar, and she went to an LGB Alliance convention to talk to someone and that went viral, because she was very much harassed when she was there. And this year, at the Edinburgh Fringe, she has some really horrible transphobic experience as part of her comedy show, and now she’s factored that into who she is, and she has rebranded herself as a Pasta Comedian. I’m fairly sure it’s an art thing – she’s got the capacity to go full Andy Kaufman – and I can’t wait to see what she does next. Definitely a pioneer when it comes to transgender people in comedy.”