Tommy Dorfman Would Like to Clarify

8 minute read

Hollywood began to take notice soon after I published my debut novel Detransition, Babywhich follows a trans woman, a cis woman and a trans woman who has detransitioned as they try to form an unconventional family—in early 2021. One of the calls was from the actor Tommy Dorfman. I figured Tommy would ask about a role in a potential adaptation. But no—it turned out Tommy just wanted to connect with me as a fellow queer storyteller trying to navigate the waters of the film industry and a culture in flux. We talked for two hours: it was a rare, genuine call from an artist who simply wanted to bond over telling stories.

Before then, I knew Tommy only by reputation, as the actor who rose to fame in 2017 in the role of Ryan Shaver, the conniving, scene-stealing poet on the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. I kept hearing about Tommy from artists I respected. When everyone I knew was debating Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, Tommy was tapped to star in Harris’ next project, Daddy, alongside Ronald Peet, Hari Nef and the legendary Alan Cumming.

And now, Tommy is set to direct an adaptation of Mason Deaver’s I Wish You All the Best, is starring this fall in the Channel 4 limited series Fracture and has a role in Lena Dunham’s upcoming film Sharp Stick. But this work is only one part of Tommy’s public presence: with a quick glance at Instagram, it becomes clear—even if you don’t recognize all the brand names (which I don’t)—that Tommy dresses fashionably, with fashionable people, in fashionable places. Tommy embodies a very modern type of celebrity, one that’s increasingly influential—and increasingly scrutinized. And there’s something that both paparazzi and Tommy’s followers began to notice over the past year or so: a change in Tommy’s style and appearance. People began to speculate what that shift might mean in the comments and on blogs; some of the speculation has been lurid, some tentatively supportive. And yet, for the past year, Tommy has said nothing, acknowledged no change, just continued on—until now.

Tommy Dorfman
Tommy DorfmanPhotograph by Gizelle Hernandez for TIME

Torrey Peters: We’re friends—we’re casual. So why are we having a formal conversation today in TIME?

Tommy Dorfman: We’re talking today to discuss my gender. For a year now, I have been privately identifying and living as a woman—a trans woman.

Peters: Would you say that you are coming out?

Dorfman: It’s funny to think about coming out, because I haven’t gone anywhere. I view today as a reintroduction to me as a woman, having made a transition medically. Coming out is always viewed as this grand reveal, but I was never not out. Today is about clarity: I am a trans woman. My pronouns are she/her. My name is Tommy.

Peters: You’ve been transitioning for a year. That much seemed obvious to me from your Instagram. What’s the difference between announcing it now, and letting your transition be implicit, as you’ve been doing?

Dorfman: I’ve been living in this other version of coming out where I don’t feel safe enough to talk about it, so I just do it. But I recognize that transitioning is beautiful. Why not let the world see what that looks like? So I kept, on Instagram, a diaristic time capsule instead—one that shows a body living in a more fluid space. However, I’ve learned as a public-facing person that my refusal to clarify can strip me of the freedom to control my own narrative. With this medical transition, there has been discourse about my body, and it began to feel overwhelming. So, recently I looked to examples of others who have come out as trans. There’s the version I couldn’t really afford to do, which is to disappear for two years and come back with a new name, new face and new body. But that’s not what I wanted.

Peters: Do you think that older way of coming out—where you go away and come back and announce a new name and identity—is still viable?

Dorfman: For me, personally, it’s not viable. I’m not changing my name. I’m named after my mom’s brother who passed a month after I was born, and I feel very connected to that name, to an uncle who held me as he was dying. This is an evolution of Tommy. I’m becoming more Tommy.

Tommy Dorfman
Gizelle Hernandez for TIME
Tommy Dorfman
Gizelle Hernandez for TIME

Peters: I like that idea: transition as an amplification of yourself rather than a qualitative change.

Dorfman: It is not transition. Or it is, but not as an idea of going somewhere. Just that I am actually myself.

Peters: The expectation that trans people must go away to medically transition strikes me as a burden. People have to work, to live their lives, even as they transition.

Dorfman: It’s completely unrealistic and unsustainable, especially when trans people are some of the most disenfranchised and disadvantaged people.

Peters: It’s an incredibly fraught moment for LGBTQ youth in the U.S. How do you feel about what’s happening in our country?

Dorfman: There have been dozens of bills in the last six months [introduced] directly to inhibit the success, safety and livelihoods of trans people, specifically trans youth. I always suggest engaging on a personal level: personalize your activism and advocacy, find the organization closest to you that you can assist. If you don’t feel comfortable using your body to be of service but you have monetary capabilities, do that. Educate yourself as much as possible.

Peters: Why did you want to discuss your trans identity in TIME, specifically? TIME was the magazine that declared the “Trans Tipping Point” in 2014, with actor Laverne Cox on the cover. More recently, actor Josie Totah came out in TIME, and Elliot Page gave his first interview to TIME after coming out. What is your intervention in that history of precedents?

Dorfman: When we come out, we’re always in conversation with every other coming-out. TIME is a news source that has centered this kind of storytelling for a long time, from Ellen DeGeneres on. My intervention is evolution—I’m just another person transitioning. I’m showing gender fluidity; how fast and dynamic and vulnerable it can be, how it’s an ongoing thing.

Peters: Is there a difference for you in coming out personally and professionally?

Dorfman: It’s impossible for me to separate my personal and professional transition, because my body and face are linked to my career. I’m most recognized for playing a bitchy gay poet on a soap opera, and I feared that by actively transitioning in my personal life, I would lose whatever career I’ve been told I’m supposed to have. But I’m no longer interested in playing “male” characters—except for maybe in a “Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan” way. Sometimes you just have to say, “No, this is just who I f-cking am.”

Tommy Dorfman
Photograph by Gizelle Hernandez for TIME

Peters: What’s next for you, in work and in life?

Dorfman: I’m thinking about how I can infuse my trans body into film and television. Lena Dunham gave me my first role as a girl last year—it was so exciting and validating. And personally, it’s wild to be 29 and going through puberty again. Some days I feel like I’m 14. As a result of that shift, the types of romantic partnerships I seek out are different. I was in a nine-year relationship in which I was thought of as a more male-bodied person, with a gay man. I love him so much, but we’ve been learning that as a trans woman, what I’m interested in is not necessarily reflected in a gay man. So we’ve had incredible conversations to redefine our relationship as friends. Transitioning has been liberating and clarifying.

Peters: Is there some grief and loss in that too? Everyone has to say that transition is amazing, but I personally feel that loss is also a part of it.

Dorfman: Yes, there’s a way in which in order to justify transition, you have to say everything was terrible before. And the sad part is you don’t get to acknowledge some of what you’re leaving. One doesn’t have to medically transition to be trans, but for me, it was an active choice. I’m aligning my body with my soul. Yet as a result of that, I am losing some things. I have to reckon with the fact that I brought along a lot of people and things who might not end up being there for this part of my journey. All I can do now is look to a future where I am, hopefully, just radically honest. That’s the person I am becoming.


—With reporting by Nik Popli and Spencer Bakalar. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Set production by Daniel Luna

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