July 30, 2020
This week, author, photographer, TV-host, and activist iO Tillett Wright joins Jameela to discuss his wild childhood growing up in rough 1980’s NYC, processing his own traumas from his parents’ addictions, his experience thriving as a trans man, and photographing 10,000 queer people for his new book Self Evident Truths.
17 — iO Tillett Wright
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to another episode of “I Weigh” with Jameela Jamil. I hope you’re well. I’m fine. I am, I’m in like sort of year 45 of lockdown. It feels as though. I am, I had quite a good week. This week I found out that “The Good Place” is nominated for an Emmy, in fact, we were nominated for seven Emmys. And so that is really exciting and cool because not only is it nice to be recognized, but it’s also mostly that this show changed my whole life. You know, I got to America. I didn’t know anyone. Didn’t have any agents or managers and didn’t have a plan. Thought I would just be a writer. And finally found representation. They sent me for “The Good Place” audition, knowing that I never acted before, or at least not since school plays when I was 9. And I guess I was so bold in the audition because I was so certain that I wouldn’t possibly get it. That there was no way on earth I would be allowed to act opposite Ted Danson, having no fucking idea how to act. And I think maybe Mike Schur mistook that for competence. He mistook my confidence for competence and rather maniacally gave me the job and how much that has changed my life. It’s just beyond words. The fact that I not only got to learn how to act from Ted Danson and I got to spend all that time with those amazing people, and those great writers, and Mike Schur himself. And we made a show that really meant something and stood for something. And, you know, it was about the message that we most need in the world right now, which is that when people come from different backgrounds and different experiences and they have different personalities, they put those differences aside so that communally they can get to a better place if ever there was a year where that message was important, it’s probably now. And am I saying that “The Good Place” ending, the entire series ending, caused the pandemic? Not necessarily. Just pointing out. Bit of a coincidence that “The Good Place” finishes forever and then the world descends into fire and chaos. So that’s just a small theory I’m putting out there. But truly being able to have so much fun at your job and do something that feels so meaningful and cool. And it’s a moral philosophy TV show that is a comedy and it’s wrapped in dick and fart jokes and it has such a diverse cast and it doesn’t fall into any of the traps of stereotypes. It was so cool. And then to be able to use that as a springboard for all of my work with “I Weigh” and to be able to do this podcast and the Instagram and all of the activism that we have been participating in and supporting has just, all of it came from fucking Tahani, of all people, Tahani. So I love that annoying, stupid character. I love her with all my heart. I hated her when I first started playing, but I learned a lot from her, from playing her. Mostly what not to do. But yeah, I thought I would just ramble at you about how grateful I am for “The Good Place” because it completely changed my life and it allowed me to do things and see things and say things that I never thought were possible and completely rebuilt me as a person. Anyway, onto the podcast. More importantly, our guest today is iO Tillett Wright. Who is an American author, a photographer, a TV host and an activist. And he takes me through, and I mean, there is no way that we had enough time to go through his entire life because it’s truly one of the most extraordinary life stories I’ve ever heard. But we crammed as much of it into this one tight episode as we possibly could. And I just had my mind blown again and again and again as every minute went by. iO has had such a unique life journey and story and has somehow overcome unimaginable hardship and horror, at times, to become this incredibly stable, happy, loved up, successful beacon of hope and joy and, and love. iO is so loving in all of his work. And so I’m excited for you to hear this. It truly is remarkable what he’s been through. So please enjoy iO Tillett Wright. iO, welcome to “I Weigh”. How are you?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:04:41] Thank you for welcoming me and having me. I’m doing quite well. I think.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:47] That is reticent. Why?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:04:51] I mean, there’s a lot going on in the world right now, Jameela.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:55] I don’t know what you mean. What happened? Did I miss something?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:04:59] There’s this cough. There’s a cough that some people have. There’s an awakening that others are having. No, I’m, I’m doing very, very well by comparison to most people on Earth. I just am like, my brain feels like it’s expanding exponentially every day. So I’m trying to keep up. I’m trying to discover what brand of sleep you have to partake in every night to keep up with all of the learning that’s happening every day. I don’t know what it is, but I’m trying.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:29] Yeah, I, and also, as an activist, I think there’s always this kind of underlying feeling of guilt, of never doing enough.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:05:36] Mmhmm.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:36] And so I think that keeps all of us up at night, where we’re just wondering how can we be more effective? And also, I don’t know if you experienced this, but when you and I’m not complaining about it, it’s just an interesting thing to negotiate with, which is that when you speak out, for one thing. Then people start expecting you, asking you and expecting you to speak out about everything. My DMs are wild. My DMs are truly just things like I’ll post a picture of my dog and someone will write, truly, I have this screengrab. “So cute. Please condemn India”. That’s all she wrote in the fucking DMs. I was like, she hasn’t told me why. What I’m supposed to do. And just to use the picture of my dog to pivot straight into that. I respected the directness.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:06:22] Just all of India?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:22] Just all of India. I have to condemn it all. But my dog is cute. So I just wonder, is that what your DMs look like? Or is it just happening to me?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:06:32] No, I think it’s only happening to you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:37] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:06:37] No, I think that, I have the kind of the opposite problem where like because I spoke out about queer issues, I’m always called on about queer shit. And then, like, people don’t really know how to talk to me about anything else. And so I’ve just kind of been like wholly focused on BLM and wholly focused on, like making stuff. And then occasionally I’ll be like, oh, by the way, it’s Pride Month. Or by the way, it’s National Coming Out Day or whatever and every day should be coming out day, so I’m like, I have the opposite problem where people are like, oh, how do we talk to you about, like, not being trans? You know? And I’m like, we can talk about your breakfast if you want. We don’t only have to talk about queer shit. You know?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:07:19] Well, I do want to talk to you about that. But as we’ve already discussed, I have plenty of other things also because you have just lived such an interesting life and you meet so many kind of intersections of what makes us interesting and what give us character in your very short existence on this Earth. Considering how much you’ve lived, how much you’ve done. And I think that there are so many things that I’ve learned from listening to you and reading you. And in fact, it’s funny, I don’t think we’ve ever discussed this. But how you and I met. Do you remember how we met?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:07:55] Yeah. And it’s a story that I used to tell with great relish and zeal before I realized that you were the girl in the dress that I was talking about.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:02] Okay, so just wait. Just to be clear, just to be clear. We were both auditioning for the same role.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:08:07] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:07] That’s what happened. So we met we were down to the final few. Maybe.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:08:10] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:11] It was the final two or three. And it was me vs. iO. This is 2000 and like 14 or something.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:08:18] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:18] 2015. It was years ago. You tell the story.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:08:23] Well, I was, I walked into this place. It was, there were three of us left.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:28] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:08:28] And I remember sitting in a chair next to this, like, gorgeous, incredibly intelligent black woman who was also up for the thing. And I was like, okay, well, first of all, I’m done. Like that, you know? Then as I used to tell it, this beautiful, tall, funny, like Indo-British glamazon comes out of the room. And I was like, there’s no world in which the like spindly skinny pencil neck Jewish trans kid from New York gets the job against that person. It just doesn’t happen in the world. And then I got the job. Sorry, Jameela.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:09:05] It fucking happened. Oh my word. I was thrilled for you. ‘Cause I just really, I properly just fell in love with you that day. And we were just, we were rooting for each other so much. We were so supportive towards one another in that waiting room. And you were-.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:09:22] It was very positive.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:09:23] Yeah. It was so positive. It was the opposite of what you hear audition rooms are normally like. We just couldn’t stop chatting to each other. And then I got interrupted to be called for the audition. But I’m thrilled for you. I forgiven you. I want to start off by talking about your extraordinary childhood. Extraordinary in lots of good and lots of testing ways.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:09:46] “Testing” is a very choice word.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:09:46] Would you be, would it be comfortable to-? Would it be? Would you be comfortable in talking to me about this?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:09:53] Sure.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:09:54] Tell me what young iO was like growing up in New York City in the 80s, which was arguably one of the most. It was such a moment of awakening, from everything I’ve read, it was such a moment of awakening for America, what was happening in New York, but also it was quite a terrifying place to live for some people, considering everything that was going on back then.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:10:18] Yeah, I grew up on the same block, the Bowery Hotel is now on the block. I’m putting you on some books so that I can see you better without looking like hunched over. OK. I, so the Bowery Hotel used to be the gas station where I would get like radioactive vindaloo in the middle of the night with my mom when she was like coming home from whatever off-off-off-Broadway shit she was doing. And on the corner opposite that was a Salvation Army group home for boys. And then directly across from our building was a 700 men, men’s shelter for homeless and mentally disturbed men. And that was like the, those were like the two pieces of bread that my life was sandwiched between. So you can imagine, like the scale of mental illness and just like complete immersion in addiction and poverty at all times. And also, like, our whole block was all low income housing. So it was all Section 8 housing. And like everyone on the block was Puerto Rican or Dominican or black. So I didn’t grow up in like the fancy, like, the kids who grew up in the East Village and I have these jokes now where I’m like, oh, well, you grew up on the other side of Eight Mile because like nobody grew up, very few people grew up the way that I did. There’s a couple of people without being a name dropping toolbag who I’m sure we have in common who are like, I’m a native New Yorker, too, and I’m like, you went to private school. I grew up in like a fuckin’ bucket of syringes. But yeah, the Hells Angels headquarters was on the next block and like the cops called my, my block the asshole of the universe. So, like.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:12:09] I thought I was the asshole of the universe. That’s so weird.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:12:14] The cops must not use Twitter. Yeah. It was rough, man. It was a whole different. It was a whole different universe and it was like I went to public school in the West Village. You know, like I went to elementary school on the corner of gay and gay. Basically, it was like the the annual gay pride parade would come right past my elementary school and my, my idea of like, my, one of my first moneymaking schemes was to sell lemonade at the gay pride parade, you know, so like, there’s no, like we would go to Wig Stock when I was like 7, 6, 7. So, like, my immersion was always, like I always say, like kids are just hardwired based on what they grow up surrounded by, and what you consider normal is just what you’ve been exposed to. And the things that I consider normal and was exposed to were like 6 foot 4 men in heels who would like, they’re not out there being like, I need a safe space or I need you to use the correct pronouns. They’re like, bitch, I will put my stiletto through your eyeball if you try to disrespect me or make me feel threatened. So like, yeah, the world that I grew up in was like a very raw, very different New York than 35 dollar brunch specials. And like the 7-Eleven that is now around the corner from my mom, my mom is like, still lives there and is not happy. Like. Oh my god.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:13:37] Yeah. It’s been very, very gentrified. I guess one could say, one should say. I, I remember reading something where you were talking about the fact that if growing up the way that you grew up, you weren’t in drag or queer or an activist or a performance artist, then you were considered a weirdo and an outlier. Anything like, quote unquote, “traditional” and you were considered strange and almost other.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:14:02] That was. Is. I like in my book, I think I referred to it as like fly papers for, fly paper for weirdos or fly paper for something. It was like, that block in particular, and like the surrounding radius of all the homeless shelters on the Bowery was just where everyone on Earth went because they were too weird to be somewhere else. So if you were the strangest kid in class in Kentucky or the queerest person in Alaska or whatever, you went to New York City and you somehow landed because we had CBGB right around the corner. My godmother, Nan Golden’s Studio was also around the corner. Bosquiat was on the next block. Keith Haring was down the street, it was like everybody was right there in this, like, really intense thing.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:47] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:14:47] And also everybody was also addicted to all kinds of shit. And then AIDS hit and everybody started dying. So there was this cacophony of poverty, high creativity and art and music. And like the invention of no wave, the invention of punk, the invention of all this culture, and then the disruption of like, you know, Reaganomics and policing started to really crack down. And like, it just got really violent and really ugly and a lot of people died and most people were there because they chose to be there because they were coming from somewhere else. And not that many of us were born into it, which is always like it’s like being strapped to a rocket, like being strapped to a bomb. You’re just like shot out of my mom’s womb like wawawawawawaraa.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:15:37] Just already playing the guitar.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:15:39] Yes. Just fuckin’ rocking at, like my mom’s whole thing was, I don’t wanna raise a shy kid. So they took me to Limelight and like, wrapped me in a blanket and put me on the table.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:15:52] What’s Limelight? Sorry.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:15:52] One of the classic New York clubs.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:15:54] Oh cool.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:15:56] Like before I was two weeks old, you know?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:15:59] And so how do you feel like that impacted you? Because those are the most formative years of your life. The first ten. I mean, they say the first thousand days, in particular. But you know that first decade is so formative. How did that. I mean, did that? Did that bring kind of drug or alcohol influence into your life? Did it bring mental health issues or did it bring this feeling of just radical acceptance? Because I know you’ve spoken about the fact that when it comes to your gender, your identity, your sexuality, everything, the, while your parents were not perfect. That was something that they handled really brilliantly. Was radical acceptance.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:16:36] My parents would love this. Yes. My parents would love your assessment of their less than perfection. Yeah, my, my father is like a radical in every way. He’s a radical intellectual. He’s read every book you’ve ever heard of. He’s studied every historical movement. He knows every revolution. He knows the arc-, the architecture of every social movement that’s ever happened. He knows all about every cultural shift. He’s, he’s just the, he’s human Wikipedia. And nothing is ever radical or weird enough for him. So everything I’ve ever written. I send it to him and I’m like, what do you think? And he writes me back, well, it’s just I’ve seen this before or it’s not weird enough or it’s and I’m like, I’m not trying to always break the system. Like, my existence breaks the system. Sometimes I would like to have some friends. Sometimes I would like to eat normal food. Sometimes I would like to just like, listen to a fucking pop song.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:17:35] Be happy. Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:17:35] Be happy for like five minutes. But he. The two of them exist completely outside of any systems. So on the one hand, the way that it formed me, he left. He, he became a heroin addict when I was 4, and he left until I was 18. He went to Europe to be a stage designer, high functioning addict. But like, you know. And she was also a high functioning addict, which both of them being checked out into addiction, lent itself to the formulation of. So I referred to it as a superpower, you know, like, there are traumas that come with that and there are also some-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:22] Self-sustaining.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:18:22] Superpowers.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:22] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:18:23] Yeah, there’s survival mechanisms. And there’s also an ability to read other people’s like limbic output that you don’t have unless your survival depends on it. And like, if somebody is erratic or violent or unpredictable, as a child, you’re early development. You learn how to, like, predict what version of them is coming through the door because you literally could get swatted out of the way or burned or, you know, whatever. So as an adult, I’ve had to do a tremendous amount of work to contend with the PTSD that I have and the traumas of all of those things. But that work in turn, has made me a more self-aware, more caring, more cautious person and like more measured. So, like, when I get into relationships with people now or friendships with people now, I’m spending time with people because I want to, not because I’m like, I need something from people anymore, because I’ve been forced to do the work to like dismantle all of my traumas and figure out what health is.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:28] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:19:28] So that is a side effect of growing up with them. But also like.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:32] So when you say that they’re high functioning addicts, but also you are having to deal with the fallout of their addiction, is it the fact that they were just emotionally checked out? Rather than physically, you know, like the typical portrayal of addiction that we see in film or in documentaries is something that’s very extreme, where someone cannot function at all. And so, would you say that it was more of a kind of emotional checkdown-ness, like a negligence?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:19:58] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:19:59] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:19:59] The, especially with heroin addiction, there’s this myth of, like the gutter junkie.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:04] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:20:04] Being the only junkie. And I think that it’s also really damaging for a lot of people because they can’t recognize that what they’re looking at is addiction because somebody is not face down in a gutter.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:13] Yes.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:20:13] Whereas, I think most addicts are what we would refer to as high functioning because they’re drinking, you know, a shot of whiskey to get through their three o’clock meeting or they are, you know, smoking weed to the dome all day long to get through their, like, arduous work schedule or whatever. Like that is still high functioning addiction. And in my parents’ case, it was narcissism, emotional withdrawal, and also my mom has some, like mental health stuff going on around like food and things that you talk about all the time. You know, like her body image is really, really skewed. And that caused her to not really eat very much. She like was a really devoted actress and showgirl and dancer. And still to this day, goes to dance class every single day, despite having had a hip replacement and needing another one. She rides her bike only, does not ever sit down. You know, doesn’t do that as a practice. It’s like her religion is to just, like, be active constantly. But as a child that resulted in like our fridge was filled with strange Chinese herbs and like our electricity was off most of the time. So food wasn’t a thing. And playdates weren’t a thing because she was a hoarder. So like no electricity, no food, being forced to go to auditions and dance classes. I was going to 8 dance classes a week. Most of my entire life. And being pushed into acting and pushed into, if you’re, if you don’t become famous and you don’t become a celebrity, you failed. And like life is worthless. That kind of mentality is very abusive and it gives you a really skewed, false sense of what’s important. And also, I was starving. So between acting all the time and not going home until like 12, 1:00 o’clock at night because I’m like in some fucking bullshit off-Broadway version of “Oliver” where like I’m playing Oliver Twist for the sixth time for some like, like I can even tell you about the dentist who did the lighting in one of the shows who examined my teeth, like the stories are so deep, but then you don’t get home till 1:00 in the morning. You wake up at 8 to go to school. You haven’t eaten any dinner. You’re at school, you’re falling asleep. It’s just like it’s cycles into itself.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:27] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:22:27] And before you know it. You’re like hollowed out eyes and hungry and, and sick. I was sick all the time, so.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:36] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:22:36] There’s that side of it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:37] I understand. That makes sense. PTSD makes complete sense.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:22:41] Yeah, yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:42] You’ve had such an interesting journey through gender and through identity. But the amount of articles I found where, you know, because you’ve been talking so openly and sharing your life with the public for so long, and you’ve also been, you’ve existed publicly for so long. ‘Cause you were a child actor. In particular. I found so many different kind of iterations of iO, so many different kind of moments of your identity, where it’s, where, I mean, let’s start with the fact that at the age of six, you told your parents that you were a boy and you knew that you were a boy. And so you lived as a boy and acted as a boy, as in not in the world, as in you literally got acting roles where you played a little boy and the people who hired you didn’t know until maybe now that.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:23:29] Correct.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:23:29] That you were a young trans kid.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:23:31] Correct.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:23:31] They had no idea. They thought they had cast a cis boy. And this went on until you were 14 years old.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:23:38] I didn’t play a girl ’til I was 17.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:23:40] You didn’t play a girl until you were 17, but around 14 was when you decided that actually you wanted to, now that you would kind of hit puberty and your body was changing, you wanted to just in order to solidify your own understanding of gender. Is that correct? That that’s why you decided to try existing as a woman?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:23:55] Well, I had been taken away from my mom by the government for neglect and sent to live with my dad.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:24:01] What age did that happen at?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:24:03] And I lived-. 12.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:24:05] 12. Right.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:24:06] Yeah, I got myself, I switched to a different school, to a middle school. And they were like, they had gender segregated locker rooms for gym class. And I just had a meltdown like the first day. Sports was my religion. Sports was the thing I found solace, in basketball every day. It was like just the thing that I did every day. And so the first week at that new school, I went to the gym class and the guy was like, we’ll go to the locker room and change. And I was like, I’m already changed. He’s like, we’ll go to the locker room anyway. And I was like, Well, uh. Uh. And I was like, I can’t go in the boys. And he was, go in the boys, you’re a boy. And I was like, I can’t, because. Uh. And then he was like, well then go in the girls. And I was like, I can’t because, uh. And it just was like complete hysterical meltdown. So they sent me to the guidance counselor and she was the first person who was like, she started asking me, you know, poking around about all the usual things. And then at some point she was like, can I ask you what your home life is like? And I just, like, made the conscious decision to tell her the truth, even though I knew it was going to be a disaster. And she basically was like, well, we can call the Bureau of Child Welfare, but there’s no turning back from that. Or, or, or, or. And I was like, call them. I want to get out of here. And she did. And that precipitated, like, this whole crazy chain of events that resulted in me living in a very small, idyllic strangely clean town in Germany in the middle of the Black Forest with my dad, who I didn’t know was on heroin. Until later.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:25:40] Christ. Oh, my God, we need several episodes. There’s just. There’s, I have so many things I want to pick you up on or talk about. And I don’t even know where to begin. Thank God you’ve written so many books. Thank God you’re going to continue writing. There’s so much to talk about. Jesus Christ.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:26:03] Sorry.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:05] No, I don’t mean to say that. Like, I’ve, I’ve also had pretty sensationally like wild childhood. So I think that’s also part of me.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:26:12] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:12] That’s like, oh, my God, you like, it, it does happen, and other people do survive.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:26:16] It does.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:17] But also just, you’ve been through so much. And I mean, before we get into the gender stuff. I do think it’s just so, it’s so powerful to have someone come on and just talk so candidly about what it’s like to have fucked up parents, because we, we carry so much shame randomly around our parents and what our family life was about, was supposed to be like. And there’s so much media that conditions us to believe that there’s only one sort of family that you can really survive and thrive from.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:26:48] Which almost no one has.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:50] No one has. And we don’t talk about it to each other. And we, we fake having great relationships with our parents, etc. We just don’t tell the truth. And I think it’s so important, you know, I’m someone who’s been very vocal about the fact that there have been times where I’ve cut off my entire family for years at a time because that’s what I needed to do to survive and to recover from my childhood. And so I think it’s, I really admire you for how open you are. How, how are your parents with how open you are? How does everyone else cope? I think we’re all wondering.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:27:23] Well. It’s, it’s had its moments. I called my parents when I first, you know, I when I was 27, it was someone else’s idea for me to write a book about my childhood. It was not my idea to write a book about myself at like less than 30. And I called both my parents and was like, are you guys on board with this? Because if, and my, my philosophy was if I’m going to air your dirty laundry, I’m going to air my own too, because it’s either your honest or not. And I was no peach either. In a different way. But I, they, they said they were on board because luckily for me, both of my parents value creativity and art more than anything in the world and that, they, neither of them has ever been to therapy or any kind of recovery program or anything like that. And I think their, both of their method of growing and healing in the world is through art and creative things. So they were both like, ah, I back you. And then I don’t think either of them really understood what that was going to mean. So. I gave my manuscript to my mom. I opened my book with a letter to my mom because I knew that this was going to be an excruciating lampooning of her, publicly. And I wanted the tone to be set in the book that this is not an indictment of my mom. This is not meant to be a Joan of Arc situation. This is not about vilifying the woman, the matriarch, and burning your mother so that you can thrive. This is not what this is about. This is me telling my story. And there is also a backstory to this, which I then made a podcast about, because the love of my mom’s life was murdered three years before I was born. And I was an accidental byproduct of her grief fling. And that can’t be erased when assessing how or why something was so bad for me. She was suffering immensely. And so I made a point of it to go back in and make another work about what happened to her, to do her justice.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:29:29] Yeah. Not to excuse, but to explain. I think that’s the most important thing.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:29:33] Correct.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:29:33] Something I’m learning now that I’m an adult and I’m going through all sorts of shit and I’m making all sorts of mistakes. I’m starting to look upon my own parents with more empathy and know that they were younger than I am now when they had me, or my mother certainly was, and just recognize that, Christ, it must be hard to have kids. That doesn’t excuse quite what happened to you and me. But. And to many people around the world. But it does. I am definitely, as I’m getting older, starting to understand their humanity, and that is just helping me to at least contextualize what happened. Because even if you can’t justify it, even if you can’t take away the pain or the trauma. I think being able to explain something to yourself, to contextualize it helps you remove, A, your own responsibility in the situation sometimes because we blame ourselves as children for everything that happens to us and everything that happens in our household and everything that happens to our parents marriage. So I think it absolves you of the blame. But I also think it, I don’t know. It just, I think knowledge is such great power and I think understanding is such great power. And I think that in itself can create an armor for us. I feel stronger for everything that I understand in this world. And so I, I really, I admire your honesty, but I also I think it’s really, really wonderful that you have presented your mother as a whole human who existed before the time of your birth, because we always forget to do that. We forget that they are our own human with our own traumas, their own bad, bad childhood, all this shit that they turn up with, all this luggage that they turn up with that we have to unpack. I think is really, it’s a wild ride.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:31:07] That’s a very apt metaphor.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:11] I also think, and I don’t know if you can relate to this, but I’m also a quite detached person. So, I mean, from everything I’ve seen on your social media and everything on social media is true. So everything. None of it is a lie. None of it is a facade. Social media is a documentary of truth. And I need that to be known.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:31:28] Thank you for clearing that up for me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:30] You seem like a very happy, loving, emotionally connected person. I mean, your fucking tag, as in your name on Instagram, is iolovesyou. So I’ve always looked at you as, as a sort of icon of love.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:31:46] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:31:46] That I can’t relate to. That I cannot relate to at all because I’m a detached person. So the reason that I sometimes wonder if I overcame all of my childhood trauma the way that I have is partially because some part of me switched off as a child and just made it for through.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:32:02] Of course.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:02] And stayed switched off until my late 20s. Did that happen to you or have you just? You just beat the fucking system? Did you just beat the game?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:32:11] No, no, no, no, no, no, no. The game whooped my ass.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:12] Did you fuck up?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:32:14] The game kicked my ass.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:17] Ok. ‘Cause we’re all meeting you right now at like the most evolved, the most loving, just the most happily married.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:32:24] I’m having a great time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:27] Traditionally like thrilled and successful writer and photographer and actor and everything. So.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:32:34] I’m having a good time. But I will tell you that my good time now comes on the back of a lot of pain, a lot of pain. And that pain. I mean, I don’t have any shame around it, so I’ll tell you exactly what happened, which is that like for, I mean, OK, there’s one thing which is being trans. And yes, to answer your previous question, at 14, living with my dad in Germany, I thought, oh, maybe the key to being normal and having friends is to not be hiding this secret all the time. I had a crush on a girl for the first time and invited her over to watch a movie. And she was so hot. Oh my God, she was so hot. And it’s weird for me to think that now about a 14 year old but whatever at the time, I was just like losing my mind over this person. I couldn’t believe she was in my house. And I spent the entire time, like, huddled up on the end of the couch because I was-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:27] Because she thought were?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:33:29] She thought I was a cis boy.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:33:30] Right.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:33:32] And if she had figured it out or she had touched me, so I couldn’t do anything. So I just was like. And the pain of that of like becoming a sexual being and like wanting to touch people and wanting to kiss someone you have a crush on and then realizing if they get anywhere near me, she’s going to like, I don’t know, smell it on my skin that I’m a born female or something. I didn’t know what the fuck. But I was just like, it was traumatic. I was like, I’m going to try this other way that the whole world tells me is what I’m supposed to do. And I then entered into 14 years of this absolute embarrassing facade of like I went from like, when I first showed up in England, I had cornrows. OK. Or I went to boarding school in England after Germany.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:15] OK.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:34:15] I had cornrows. I was wearing cargo sweatpants with one leg roll-, pulled up because that’s what the drug dealers in Harlem did.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:24] Oh my god.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:34:24] I got blasted Biggie out of the front window. And I mean, like we’re talking like mansion on a hill in the middle of like Hampshire.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:33] Oh my god. You were Kevin Federline.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:34:33] In the middle of nowhere. Exactly. Like to a fucking T and if I could have grown his shitty little pencil beard, I would have. Like with great relish and joy.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:47] So this is you now, like at this time, presenting as a cis woman but with the cornrows and the-.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:34:52] This was me. This was the first step towards try-, so I, basically the first day that I decided I’m going to try to be a girl, I said to my dad, can I just grow my hair out in the back so that it gets long and keep the front short and wear the back up until it’s long and then put it down and look like a girl. And he was like, that is not how hair works.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:11] No, that’s a mullet. That’s how the mullet starts.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:35:15] It is exactly what he said. It was like we don’t do mullets in this family. We can do everything else, but not that.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:20] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:35:20] So I decided to dress like a boy until I presented as a girl. My understanding of gender was so interesting and stupid, but I was like, as long as my hair is short, I want to wear boy’s clothes. But I’ll tell people that I was born female. So I went to boarding school and looked like a boy. Looks like this little Kevin Federline, but was in the girls dorms and was telling people, oh, I was born female. And it was very confusing and very weird. And then I gradually got more feminine. And by the time I got kicked out of boarding school and sent back to New York to live with my mom again, I was wearing like mini skirts and bathing suits while skateboarding and I had hair down to my ass. My hair was longer than yours, and it was like this embarrassing performance of.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:05] Hyper cis, hyper fem cis stereotype.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:36:07] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:08] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:36:08] But I looked like I was in drag and I look like a really bad drag queen, like a really poorly executed teen drag queen who was also like fucking all these boys and like insistent that I was straight, which is like you can imagine how that went, you know?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:23] God, it’s just sounds like a just prison of shame, Just shame around everything and so much confusion and so much so, so much concern with what other people identify you as, as what other people are comfortable with, what other people will accept you for. And you reckon that comes from like, I guess feeling not terribly accepted? Like you were accepted in one way, in a really profound way by your, your parents, but you didn’t feel kind of fully welcomed in because it’s very hard for addicts to welcome anyone in because they’re not really in their own bodies. So you were just looking for family everywhere you looked. Everywhere you went, and so you were just looking for acceptance.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:37:02] I don’t know why I’ve been paying a therapist. I could have just called you. All these years.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:11] Shut up. I want to talk to you more about this, but we’re gonna get to a quick break first. And now the break’s over. So.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:37:22] Love it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:27] So OK, so I’m just gonna get the timeline down. This isn’t for the sake of being pedant, I just want to understand. So you identify as a girl until 6 and then after, at 6, you recognize that you are a boy. And so then that’s until 12 or, was it 12 or 14?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:37:47] It was 12. But I’m going to stop you there and tell you that I did not identify as a girl until 6. I just was a kid who was a boy who thought that everyone else knew that I was a boy.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:58] Got it.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:37:59] And then people were like, are you a boy or a girl? And I was like, Oh, I’m a boy.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:38:02] It was quite a poignant moment, wasn’t it? When you were 6 years old, you wanted to play ball with some kids and they said no because you were a girl and then you went and shaved your head and you’re showing me a picture right now.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:38:11] You see that little boy?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:38:11] Oh, I see that little boy. I see that cute, little boy. And then went through a moment of performing kind of cis hetero, the second act of your life. And then what age was it that you finally felt comfortable to no longer feel the need to perform your gender and identity for others?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:38:36] So that was where the other part of your question comes in of did I game the system, which is that, that whole time, I think between like 14 and 28, like another 14 years of performing womanhood, performing first straightness, then bisexuality, then lesbianism. It always felt wrong and it always fell off and it always felt like I was, I mean, like my back is permanently changed from, like hunching like this for the first, you know, 20, 30. Honestly, I’m 34 now. I had top surgery in December. So, like 34 years of hunching. And when I was 27, I had been dealing with undiagnosed anxiety and PTSD my whole life and I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what anxiety was. I didn’t know, I thought I was, like I would just became this, like overachiever. I’m going to work for The New York Times at 24. I’m going to, like, start a magazine at 18. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that. And just like look at this and look at that. And it’s all externalized destruction. But meanwhile, I didn’t know how to use a fork and knife until I was 13. I didn’t know what I like to eat till I was in my mid-20s. I didn’t know what kind of music I liked ’til I was in my mid-20s. Like, I just never took a moment to even figure out who I actually was, what clothes do I feel comfortable in, because the idea of feeling comfortable in my body, both from being trans, but also the experience of growing up in such a trauma, a trauma-based high tension scenario means that there was no time to figure out what I liked. And if you don’t have any tastes, you can’t ever calm yourself down because you can’t ever be like, I’m going to just go for a walk or I’m going to go get some soup because it makes me feel better. You don’t know who you are. So I just was in this constant, frenetic spin and I basically had a spasm, a back spasm. I had to go to the emergency room in the middle of the night ’cause from stress because I wasn’t sleeping and I was having these panic attacks every night that would last three and four hours. And I had no idea what was going on. And finally, it just crashed and burned. My fiancé cheated on me and I, it just like, it was just the thing that broke the camel’s back. And I went into the darkest hole. I call it the “Summer of Doom” because it was just the darkest hole that you can, you know, go into. Or I can go into at least. And it was, I wanted to die. I was suicidal. I called, first I called the Suicide Hotline. And they, this woman picked up who was like, “Hello, this is the National Suicide Hotline. How would I help you”? And I was like, no. And like, hung up. And then I called the Trevor Project and was like, spent 45 minutes on the phone with this woman. And I was just like, I was in a very fancy house that a friend had lent me in L.A. And I remember sitting in this palace looking around being like if everything I see is darkness right now, despite being here, what does that say about mental health? And I talk to this woman. I remember staring at my feet for the whole conversation. And at some point she completely talked me off the ledge, totally saved my life. And I said, “What’s your name”? And she said, “Tiffany”. And I was like, “I know that that’s your, like, suicide hotline stripper name, but can you tell me your real name”? And this poor woman was like, “My name is Tiffany”. To this day, I’m always like, shout out Tiffany, like my bad.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:16] You actually just gone bright red. Just talking about it again. You look like a beetroot.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:42:29] Whatever, this is supposed to be a podcast.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:32] Hey, look, this is “I Weigh”, there’s no shame. We love beetroots. That’s so funny. That’s such a funny moment.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:42:43] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:43] I love an awkward moment in the midst of darkness. I’ll never forget this one terrible moment I had with a friend who was incredibly, incredibly suicidal and on the phone to me. And I was the only person they’d call, the only person I knew that they were struggling. And the words I heard them say were as they were crying. I just feel so alone. I feel like I don’t have anyone. And by accident, I dropped my phone, and it was a landline. So it just fell.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:43:09] Oh god.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:10] And it looked like I hung up and abandoned him in his lowest and darkest moment. Thank God I managed to get back in touch with him soon enough.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:43:23] Jesus Christ.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:23] And he laughed and it actually broke a lot of the darkness that night. But Christ, the feeling of panic as you’re waiting for him to pick up was just.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:43:34] Good job, Jameela.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:35] It created like a great break in the tension, thank god. Ok.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:43:39] I am always here to laugh at myself. But no, that was basically, that was a long way of saying that precipitated me being like, ah, shit. OK, if I’m gonna survive life, I never thought I was going to live past 35 and I’m turning 35 in two months, so pray for me, if you will.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:43:57] Well done. Well done.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:44:01] But I was basically like, if I’m going to make it and I’m going to have any semblance of joy in my life and I’m not going to be run by the demons that ride on my back like some kind of unknown rider, then I’m going to have to rip my emotional plant out of the ground and chop all the roots off and replant it in fresh soil. And I stopped drinking, started going to Al-Anon, started going to therapy, started studying Buddhist philosophy and started writing a book, first person present memoir. Like, not like. And then when I was 8, you know, I fell down the stairs. It’s like I am falling down the stairs. So I had to literally re-walk through all of my traumas and address all of this shit. So it was this like two year period. And during that, I started scanning my mom’s photo collection from when I was a kid. And she’d taken like like that picture that I showed you. She’s taken like 2,000 photographs of me from 0 to whenever I left, 13 and I realize that the 2 year old I saw flexing at the pool was a boy, and he’d always been a boy, and there was never any question about that. And the only thing that interfered with that was the outside world. And I think when you go through that kind of like, you know, burn the house down to rebuild emotional experience, anything that feels dishonest really sticks out. And I just couldn’t deal with lying anymore to myself. And I couldn’t deal with my own shame around it. And it’s still to this day mindblowing because I was at that point 5 years into photographing 10,000 queer people. I photographed at that point probably 7,000 people, many of whom were trans, and it still hadn’t clicked. And I grew up the way that I did, surrounded by trans people. And it still hadn’t clicked that like this might be you, bro. You know, so it took me till I was 28 to even start experimenting with male pronouns because I had so much fear of being unlovable. It was, that’s what it really came down to, was like, will I be monstrous? Will I be a pariah? Will I be a pervert? Because that’s what the whole world tells you that you are.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:46:22] Yeah. I fucking understand the reticence to be able to own that existence and own that identity because of the way that our world still to this fucking day continues to treat people who are trans. But I’m so glad that you’ve been able to find a support system that pushed you all the way through. And also, it has been fascinating to watch it because I became like minorly obsessed after we met at that audition. And so I’ve been, like, consistently watching you and watching the evolution of the way that you not only discuss yourself, but the way that you discuss everything and then have just been very moved by the openness with which you have used your, your social media to take people through your transition, including the insecurities around your voice, which is now becoming deeper and deeper. And so, you know, and you wear your scars with such pride. And I, I remember the before and after photographs and just how, you’ve documented this wonderful, idyllic Hollywood-esque not actual Hollywood. ‘Cause Hollywood is disgusting and full of like really, really traumatized people. But the Hollywood romance, the billboard love, that is what appears to be your marriage and your unbelievably beautiful life and how in love you both seem.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:47:38] It’s so ridiculous.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:38] It’s just been incredible to watch this journey of your evolution. And it’s, this is such a personal. This has been such a personal 7 years in your life. And it’s remarkable that you’ve shared every step of the way with other people. Does that ever feel too much? Sometimes?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:48:02] You know. The thing about transitioning is that, like. I think the idea to people and I can’t say it’s a universal because all of us are different, but like my experience of it is that I think people think that you are becoming something new, almost like you’re putting a new suit on. But for me, it’s taking the wrong one off. So it’s more like I’ve been like removing the layers of things that made no sense. And the thing that has always been underneath is now just visible. So I’m, it’s almost anticlimactic for me because I’m like, oh, here I am finally, you know, now we just don’t have to talk about it anymore because here I am. So the, the tran, like all the fear about shame, all the fear about, I was so scared to not have a dick. I was like, how can you, like, stand in your-? My, my mom has said horrible things to me about trans. She said to me once, before I transitioned, she was like, you know, there’s no point in you doing that anyway, because no matter how many hormones you take, your hair’s just going to fall out and you’re going to get fat and you’re still not going to have a dick. So you’re never gonna be a real man anyway. You know, and like, that kind of shit, just it gets in there.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:21] Of course.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:49:21] And convinces you that you’re gonna be less than and I don’t feel a single ounce of less than. And I like in 2012, I did a TED talk about my photo project and it was called “Fifty Shades of Gay”. And it was all about how sexuality is a spectrum and the, the outpouring of feedback after that from people who at that point there was nothing else on TED.com about homosexuality or gender. There was one other thing that was a guy who was like, the talk was about the myth of the homosexual, the myth of the gay agenda. There was literally nothing else. It was unheard of to talk about that shit on TED. So every queer kid in the closet, wherever in the world watched that talk and wrote to me afterward and was like, thank you for showing yourself. Thank you for just like being visible so that I can, like, see someone like myself and even that MTV job that I beat you for.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:18] Oh, sorry. I must have forgotten. Thank you for reminding me.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:50:22] Just in case. Just in case. I remember being in a diner before I did that and I was like, why would I go on MTV? And I was talking to my friend who was the waitress, and she was like, you have to do it. Because when I was growing up, there was nobody like us on TV. And there’s some kid in Oklahoma who’s going to see you on MTV. And is gonna go, Oh, I’m okay, I’m normal because that person is on TV. And I was like, oh, fuck. All right. You know, if I can beat Jameela Jamil, then I’ll take the job.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:52] Well, weirdly, I’ve, I’ve watched that TED talk a lot of times.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:50:56] Really?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:56] And I want to quote a line back from it, that always really moved me. Which is when you said that familiarity is the gateway drug to empathy. And I, and I think that kind of embodies everything you’ve done with your career is that you are presenting something that people can become familiarized with and that so perfectly encapsulates everything around representation and around just being able to put people in front of what they, what they fear the most. And, you know, in that talk I remember you mentioned that people often fears people that they’ve never even met, like they haven’t met a lot of the people that they are the most afraid of, the people that they are voting against the rights of, they don’t know any people like that. And so, you know, a large portion of your work and I do want to get to talk about that in a second, is, you know, not only your own self representation work and your own writing and your own biographies in order to familiarize yourself so people can at least kind of find that empathy, take that gateway drug to empathy. But also you are, you are putting the lives of other queer people and their humanity and you’re photographing them raw without any special effects, with no Photoshop, just in their truest form, in the outfits in which they feel the most themselves. You capture their humanity in this project that you have been working on for a decade called “Self Evident Truths”. And you are photographed over 10,000 people. And we got to watch on Instagram as you unwrapped it, as it turned up at your house in hardback. Will you tell me what this project is?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:52:31] Yeah. Thank God it wasn’t over 10,000, it was only 10,000. ‘Cause 10,000 is so fucking many and I don’t know why. Oh my God. The last days I’ve been dealing with the database and like, putting it all online because something that big no one else can deal with the minutiae of because they can’t understand it. So I have to do all the backend shit and I’m just like at least four times a day. I will text someone, FaceTime someone or send them a video message or my wife and be like, why did I do this? Like why did I think this was a good idea? I, my, “Self Evident Truths” is a photographic document of 10,000 people in all 50 states of this country who identify as anything other than one hundred percent straight or cis gender. So one percent is enough, was enough, until literally last month to get you fired in 37 states of this country. The math. All the, like if I were into numerology I’d be like, oh my God. See, see, see. Because I started this project in February of 2010. I finished it in February of 2020. There were 100 photo shoots, 10,000 photographs. One month after or the day-. Wait, was it? The project is named “Self Evident Truth”, which is a line from the Declaration of Independence. I got the book the day before Independence Day and that month. Finally, the reason why I started it, workplace discrimination laws all got repealed. So like, it’s all just fucking wild. And sometimes the universe conspires to tell you, like, you’re doing the right thing. But, yeah, I spent, I spent 10 years traveling to every single state in this country and photographing anyone who felt like that applied to them without asking any qualifications and welcoming every single person in front of my camera. And the only thing we did was we went back through every single release form to check that people weren’t straight and hadn’t misunderstood, which a lot of, some people had, or that they were under 18 and could sign the form themselves.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:27] Hashtag StraightPride.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:54:30] Other than that, a lot of people were like, oh, you’re photographing allies. And I’m like, no, girl, this is not for you. But other than that, every single person who stepped in front of my lens is in that book. So as of now, I have this. It’s sitting downstairs. It’s wild. It’s like a like, if nothing else, you can use it as a brick.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:49] It’s a Bible.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:54:50] To defend yourself. It’s huge. It has all 10,00 photos. And I don’t even know you could put 10,000 photos in a single thing, but some of them are the size of a postage stamp. But you know, sorry.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:02] Well I mean. Yeah. Well, I mean, for someone for a kid who didn’t want to feel alone. I mean, you’ve created a bible of how un-alone you are. In your experience, how many-.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:55:14] I feel too seen. I’m going to go now.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:19] Sorry. Can I ask you a couple of personal questions about the existence of being trans? Would that be comfortable? I know you don’t love talking about only that.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:55:26] Oh, I don’t love talking about my personal life. Of course.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:31] No. How do other people receive you?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:55:33] I think that the feedback I get from people a lot is that they feel safe to fuck up with me, which is the most important thing to me, because I believe that, like teaching is not done by shaming. And I agree with a lot of things that you post all the time about Cancel Culture and the way that we dismiss people and shame people rather than educate people and allowing room for people to grow and allowing people to come through things. Like when I was 24, 25, my ex, big love, started dating a trans guy after me. And the things that I said. The jokes that I made because I was so ashamed of myself and so uneducated about what that meant. Like if that stuff were like, it, and it’s not at all because I’m transphobic. It’s because I wasn’t aware and I didn’t know what I was dealing with. And I, in myself or in him and. I don’t think that. I believe that education is is best done without shame.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:37] And context. I think context is really important. You know, similarly to you, with that, I used to slut shame a lot. And I started doing that the year after I was raped when I was 22. And so that was just like when I went into this period of anger and I didn’t know who to target.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:56:53] Yeah.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:53] And so therefore, I was just like. Right. Women. Women are near me. I understand women.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:56:57] Right.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:58] It’s your fault. I didn’t know. ‘Cause I was blaming myself for what happened to me and so therefore, I blamed all of us.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:57:02] We misplace. Yeah. We misplace, everyone misplaces trauma and the kind of guillotine that social media has become is very at odds with the natural function of the brain and the natural, natural progression of maturity and growth. And then, you know, on the one hand, you’ve got people becoming otherworldly famous at 12, 13 years old. And then we hold them to this crazy standard that they can never once say anything fucked up or otherwise. And like, sure, if, you know, Justin Bieber says something fucked on social media, he should be called out. And that should be addressed.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:40] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:57:40] But like should we never, ever hear from him ever again? No. You know, so I, I have really tried to build my, I recognize the fact that trans issues are extremely loaded. They’re very scary for people. Your average person in the world has no idea what they’re dealing with. And also, your average person in the world is kind and doesn’t want to offend anyone and is not trying to fuck up. They just don’t know any better. So my approach. I believe that my best purpose in the world or my, my way of being most helpful in the world is to encourage people to grab onto that kernel of kindness and that desire to be good and water it and grow it into a tree of, of knowledge and awareness. If you need to read this book, here’s this book and everything that I’m learning and onboarding right now about anti-racism. Here, take it. Like let’s do this together. And like learning and growing is not shameful. Learning and growing has to be nurtured. And the process of that means mistakes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:58:43] One hundred percent. We had, you know, a couple of transwomen on this show and, you know, we, we talk about transwomen and transmen and people who are gender nonconforming on “I Weigh” all of the time. But the experience of transmen is one that I think a lot of people don’t hear about so much. And would you, would you say that you have had a fairly peaceful time within society transitioning? Do you get pushback from cis women or men? Or would you say that people generally tend to just let you do you?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:59:26] I pass in the world now. So even without a beard. Like as soon as my voice started dropping and I had top surgery like it was immediate. Every dude. Hey, man, man. Like cis men say “man” to each other so much in a fucking sentence. It’s like, yo, man, can you pass me the thing, man? Thanks, man. OK, man. And I’m like, I get it. Like, I got it. And I don’t think they’re trying to like, show me anything. I think it’s just genuinely how they talk to each other.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:59:50] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [00:59:50] But this like, immediately, boss, my guy, my dude, you know, and like men let each other know, you know? So I think that I have the immense privilege that I wanted of passing for the most part. And I haven’t gotten, only when people are riled up about other things and have an agenda and want to be hateful, do they really, like, come for me. But I also haven’t exposed myself to the, like, mainstream world in a way where, like when things get, I had shot the Levi’s campaign this past Pride season and, you know, there’s always vomit emojis sprinkled in there. And there’s always, when you, when you go abroad, you get broad responses. But generally speaking, I pass. So people give me less shit. But my, my negative experiences is more to do with the community, like from within the community. Going from being, thinking I was a lesbian and having this like really huge, strong sense of community with other people who were lesbians. That was gone immediately. Gone.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:01:01] Wow. Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:01:03] Because they don’t know what it is and the fact that like, and you and I talked about this a little bit. But like my. Having photographed 10,000 people, which, to my understanding is the largest single document of a community in history.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:01:18] All right, mate. No need to brag. It’s fine. Calm down. I already said you’re great. You got that job. Didn’t you? 5 years ago. Chill the fuck out. What do you want? A parade.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:01:28] I just want to remind you, I got that job. Just want to remind you. MTV.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:01:35] Yeah, go on. Tell us about your single biggest documentation ever.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:01:39] I just think that I have and one has to quantify this because queer people love to say you have no right to talk about us. But having met that many people, shook that many hands. Talked to that many people. It feels absurd to me that we are all meant to be a community, that we all fall into this one laso that very clearly exists only in opposition to heteronormativity and cis genderism. Literally, that’s the only other binding agent like what the fuck do I have in common with your average gay person? Not much. What does your average, you know, cis, white, gay, wealthy, able bodied man have in common with a black transwoman from Alabama? What does your average intersex person, most people on the LGBTQIA Plus Plus, which is the first sign that something is wrong when your acronym is that long. Most people have no idea what intersex even is. So how does that serve intersex people to be lumped in with this group of people who are meant to represent them, who don’t even know what they are?
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:02:54] Yeah.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:02:55] So when I came out as trans, I was like, holy shit, your average lesbian who I thought was my community because we’re supposed to all be LGBTQIA. As I step down a rung on the privilege ladder, I realized, oh, the vista from up here on this rung is that we are all a community because you can’t see how these people are on a floor below you going, I can’t fucking get up there, like, let me up because we don’t know. They don’t know what we are.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:03:22] Do? Would you say that those people had felt like betrayed by you in some way? Like you are perhaps even, because this is something that I’ve heard from a lot, especially, you know, all my male, like all my friends who are transmen, a lot of them have experience. And you and I spoke about this on the phone. But a lot of them experienced a pushback from women that they feel abandoned, as if you think that men are superior to women and therefore you are abandoning. Whereas actually it’s like you were, you were born a man.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:03:52] Yes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:03:53] You are who you always were. Doesn’t matter what you are assigned.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:03:57] I had that with my mom. We had an interesting conversation where my mom has not responded well since I came out as an adult, as trans. At all. She has, still to this day, will not use the right pronouns.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:04:11] But.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:04:12] I know. I know.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:04:12] But as a child, she, so she was fine with it when you were a child because she thought, what? Did she think it was a cute phase back then? Or has she just changed her thinking?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:04:20] She, I think she thought. Now, she has confessed to me that when I was a kid, she thought I was playing a role.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:04:25] Right. She thought it was artistic expression.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:04:29] Yes. That I was 6 and I was living a Marina Abramovic piece. I don’t know how she sincerely believes that, but that’s what she’s said. But when we, like 6 months ago, I’ve basically distance myself from her and been like, I can’t like if you’re going to say all this horrible shit to me, like I’m about to tran-, like I can’t. So. She called me. I was leaving New York and I was at the airport with Rachel, my wife. And she called and she was like, listen, I need you to understand something. I guess I am understanding that you are some kind of third thing. They need a different word for you. And I was like. OK, Mom. And she was like, you are the first-, and then she like, stopped and she said female born person, which I was like boom. Female born person in our bloodline to own property without the help of a man. And I was. Something clicked for me where I realized that she felt an ownership of that with me and a kinship with me on that. And I said to her, I hate to break it to you, but I’m not. And like, I’m sorry to let you down in this regard. But it helped me to understand that there was a. She loved the idea of having a daughter and she loved the idea of her daughter having success. And her daughter being powerful and her daughter doing all of these things that I was doing for the first, no one in my family has a mortgage. You know, it’s not a thing. My family is like very weird and very outside the system. So they don’t. So she was very attached to that notion, and she’s, she’s really struggled with that. And like I think with her, I’m willing to tolerate it because I guess, I get the limitations of whatever mental things she’s dealing with. But with, with other women in the queer community, I won’t have it. Like if somebody says any TERF-y bullshit to me about you, you are leaving the womanhood, the sisterhood or whatever. I’m like, no. And it’s like, we will shut that down real quick.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:06:42] I have taken up loads of your time and I’m sorry. And.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:06:45] Oh my God, it’s 3 o’clock. Holy shit.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:06:47] I’ve had such a great time talking to you. Thank you so much for giving me-.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:06:52] Yeah, you too.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:06:52] So much of your time. I’ve really appreciated being able to have this conversation and, and being able to talk to someone so openly about things like childhood and, of course, things like trans issues, but also where you went with us about what you’ve been through and how you’ve been able to come out to your fuckin’ idyllic life.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:07:13] I have my struggles, too.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:07:15] No, I know, I’m joking. I’m really thrilled for you. And it’s really fun getting to know you and just-.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:07:22] Thanks.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:07:22] Just really delighted that you’re on this podcast today. So everyone should check out “Self Evident Truths”. Is there anything else you would like me to tell people about that you have going on right now?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:07:33] They can read my book “Darling Days”. They can buy a preorder, signed copy of “Self Evident Truths”, if they want. Both of those things are on my website, which is iolovesyou.com. And they should listen to my podcast, “The Ballad of Billy Balls”.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:07:50] Yes.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:07:50] ‘Cause that shit is fun.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:07:53] Yes, it’s, it’s extraordinary. It’s an amazing, amazing podcast. And I think that after listening to this, people will want to, because who wouldn’t want to know more about you? And before you go, iO, will you quickly tell me, what do you weigh?
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:08:08] Oh, Jesus Christ, 134?
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:08:11] No.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:08:12] Just kidding. I don’t know. I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t know, love.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:08:22] You’re going to have to try.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:08:24] Kindness, can I weigh kindness?
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:08:27] You can weigh anything you fucking want. That’s the joy of “I Weigh”.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:08:31] Kindness and kindness and empathy and conversation and laughter, that’s what I weigh.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:08:39] Great. Well, thank you so much. It’s been a joy and I will speak to you soon. I’m probably going to call you straight after this.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:08:46] Thank you, Jameela. OK.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:08:46] Loads of love. Bye.
iO TILLETT WRIGHT [01:08:46] Thank you for having me. Bye.
JAMEELA JAMIL [01:08:51] Thank you so much for listening to this week’s “I Weigh”. I would also like to thank the team, which helps me make this podcast. My producers, Sophia Jennings and Kimmie Lucas, my editor Andrew Coulson, my boyfriend, James Blake, who made the beautiful music you are hearing now, and me, for my work. At “I Weigh”, we would love to hear from you and share what you weigh at the end of this podcast. You can leave us a voicemail at 1-818-660-5543. Or e-mail us what you weigh at IWeighPodcast@gmail.com. And remember, it’s not in pounds and kilos it’s your social contributions to society or just how you define yourself in life. And now we would love to pass the mic to one of our listeners.
I WEIGH COMMUNITY MEMBER [01:09:30] I weigh recovering from an eating disorder for the past 10 years and learning to accept that every day is going to be a struggle. But I am going to get better at it. I weigh a fiercely protective relationship with my sister, who I didn’t let be affected by my eating disorder, and who has tried to educate and teach through all of my feelings and struggles in life and to have grown up to be such a beautiful human being. I weigh constantly trying to do better and learning to accept the short comings that I have now knowing that one day it will all be worth it.
September 21, 2023
Jameela is joined by campaigner and writer Gina Martin, and in this optimistic conversation about creating change for equal rights around the world, they discuss how anyone can show up and support activism (especially offline in real spaces) and what this activism work can look like.