#BeALight: A Raw and Honest Interview with American Horror Story’s Erika Ervin

Stand in front of a mirror and close your eyes. Picture yourself in your mind—every detail from the shape of your face to the length of your fingers. Hold onto that image and open your eyes, what do you see? Some may see a person a little heavier or a little taller, some may even see blond hair instead of brown. What if you opened your eyes to see a little boy when in your mind, you saw a little girl?

ErikaErvinInterview_HeadShotErika Ervin is a beautiful and talented transgender woman who advocates for LGBT rights, for abused children, and for those with HIV. Her #BeALight hashtag is a beacon of hope for anyone who looks into that mirror and sees someone other than who the rest of the world sees. She stands in front of the world as Amazon Eve on American Horror Story and reminds each of our LGBT kids to follow their limitless dreams. Through her example, she shows them our family and reminds them that they are a part of it.

I am honored to share with you a raw and intimate interview with Erika Ervin.

Daily Dragon (DD): In a recent interview, you mentioned that you knew from the age of four or five that you were “different.” What do you remember seeing when you looked in the mirror?

Erika Ervin (EE): When I was five I knew I was different. When I was seven it was clear that my male gender was the issue. When I looked into the mirror I dreamed of transforming into a girl. Prior to eight or nine all my friends were girls and I loved girl games and toys. I believed in magic back then—Ha ha! I loved angels and dragons at that age and wanted one to visit me and be my protector like in the movie Pete’s Dragon. Angels and dragons are similar beings in comparative mythologies. None came to help me. My father terrorized me.

When I was eight years old I engaged in my first act of defiance against my epically abusive father, William Ervin Pilger, Sr., which came in the form of breaking his favorite implements of torture against me. The almond switch. A stiff long sapling about the length of a riding crop, which when new buds appeared prior to flowering function like barbs and make a sound like THWACK when it hits my eight year old flesh. It’s that ‘K’ sound. He was usually merciless and got off on hitting me when he was angry about something else in his life. He was hurt badly by his father, BUT NO child under any circumstances deserves that. THWACK! THWACK! THWACK! THWACK! THWACK! The horror.

Sometime around or just after Halloween I knew I was going to receive another episode of brutality—it came regularly, so with my eight year old understanding I climbed up top the refrigerator, where he kept his collection of “beat your child into submission” implements, and broke them all into two inch pieces. I thought I was clever—he didn’t like that; aaaaat ALL!!

He proceeded to slap, punch and kick me so hard that I was delirious in pain. Screaming. I tried to protect my head. He yelled at me, “Move your hands so I can hit you” with a sick glee and satisfaction of his usual rage addiction. He said that a lot. Crying, a primal scream kind of cry, bordering on a gasp in terror. I was very weak; my father got right in my face, “I want you to go out in that orchard and find me some more switches so I can hit ya.” He had this creepy grin/scowl.

I brought him back a medium sized log; almond wood club. Something you could hold like a short baseball bat, approximately two and half feet long. I presented it to him in defiance. This was my first realization that I didn’t want this life anymore. What came next was a blur of wet sounds of blood and breaking of bones of my body as I heard my father yelling at me. I blacked out. Subsequently, my mother finally had the courage to divorce him for his violence.

DD: What kind of acceptance did you find during your transition? (In 2004 Erika Ervin transitioned from male to female.)

EE: Note that when I transitioned it was an act of defiance. Society punishes you when you defy gender norms. I lost my entire family. My brother. He joined a moron religion, which isn’t very LGBT friendly, and some of my friends… they didn’t understand. I’m fortunate and blessed enough to have lots of extended family and friends all over the world that I have made along the way.  I have a strong support network.

DD: Transitioning is a huge decision for anyone. Having gone through it, what advice would you give someone considering that option?

EE: Don’t rush this process, be patient with yourself and have realistic expectations. Speaking specifically to trans women: We all want to be beautiful and passable because of all the advantages it confers. Good luck—it’s about that. I’m not about to shame what passing means and the contingent that does so is suffering from jealousy and sour grapes, passing is not only important for public safety but to find the love you want when you’re heterosexual. I wish it were different. Every young woman deserves a flowering time. Friends and family support are really important, so be patient when you come out to your loved ones. Love yourself. Be cautious with what you see in the mirror, be kind to yourself. Say to yourself, “I deserve love.”

Self-acceptance is one of the most important factors in your transition and your mental well-being. Have fun and celebrate your life. Be safe out there. Still, there is so much violence against transgender people, especially trans women of color and it may be a “State of Emergency” as Laverne Cox has mentioned, but WE ARE NOT AT WAR. THERE ARE NO FRONT LINES. NO BATTLEFIELD. NO ENEMY. NO ONE TO AIM A WEAPON AT. WE ARE NOT AT WAR. THIS IS A RESCUE MISSION.

DD: You are one of the first transgender actresses on a major television show. That’s a huge thing for our community to see, an advocate standing proud and out for them. How does that feel, showing kids that they should always reach for their dreams, no matter how they identify?

EE: I’m not the first, certainly. Maybe the first out transgender woman to play a cisgender character on a major television show. There have been many others before that have performed on many different stages, television shows, and films in stealth. Heroes are so important. I don’t relate to what I do as heroism—some will differ in their opinion because the outcome of what I’ve done has helped so many others. Moreover, my hero, Caroline Cossey, recently said this very important statement, “Underachieving to avoid public scrutiny is not the answer and a bad message to put out into the world.”  If you think Caitlyn Jenner is “courageous” for coming out now, when it’s relatively safe to do so, what does it say to be out in the early 1980s? What kind of courage does that take? I recommend you read her book My Story, which is, to me, the book of love. Caroline was loved by her family. I was not. She stood in harm’s way for us and held her grace against the gutter press and tabloid journalists. I followed that example. Just more effectively using the buzz of the outing to effectuate change politically. More about that later.  

DD: Tell me about your advocacy. I’ve read that you’re active in such causes as ending child abuse, LGBT rights, and support for AIDS patients. What are you passionate about, and how can we help?

EE: This is a long story that could be its own story in each area: One, Child Abuse Awareness/Prevention, especially Transgender Youth [Frustrated—Still Working on it]. Two, LGBT lobbying and phone paneling for marriage equality [Mission Accomplished]. Three, Healthcare access and Insurance coverage for transgender people [Mission Accomplished]. And four, AIDS Research [Los Angeles AIDS Walk—Ongoing—close to cure]. HIV took my mother’s life in 1990.

Frustrated: When I began this work in 2003 in child abuse two to three children died at the hands of their parents/caregivers daily, today four to five children in the US die at the hands of their parents/caregivers on a daily basis, mandatory reporting has increased the number of incidents of transient child abuse and neglect, but has not curbed the horrific number of deaths. The legal conundrum is that if we should not create laws so stringent that would interfere with the natural loving bond between parent and child out-weighs the needs of those that will slip through the cracks. The rational for those that slip through the cracks [is] a way to “fix you,” giving self-help authors, psychiatrists, therapists, and abuse counselors steady work for traumatized adult survivors sounds like an indecent proposal, but the monstrous results only perpetuate the violence. Leaving survivors with insulting remedies such as the “cult of forgiveness,” feckless solutions and toneless platitudes as a consolation prize from a disconnected self-help/therapy industry that is too willing to pocket clients’ money instead of offering meaningful preventative solutions in the first place.

LGBT youths are especially vulnerable to child abuse and bullying. Suicide being a huge risk factor and highest risk for transgender children who are unsupported by their parents/caregivers. With alacrity my question for parents of transgender girls: Do you want a dead son or living daughter? Reparative/conversion therapy doesn’t work and I believe not allowing your child to transition with all the information out there on this subject is child abuse; failure to thrive.

I’m really passionate about ending transphobia. I’m revealing today that I currently manage with PTSD and depression, struggling at times to be happy. I try to remain strong. It’s mandatory when you’re a public figure. However, I cannot do this alone. With all that I have gone through and all the brutal murders out there—it’s psychological warfare against transgender people. It’s a cumulative effect.

When I was born, August 6, 1967, in Turlock, California, I was given the same name as my father, and later took the “junior” off my birth-certificate and removed my family name forever. They knew my father hung me up on a wall and beat me like a punching bag in something that could only be described as mediaeval treatment. I’m blessed to have some early heroes in my life.

Move Your Hands - art by Erika Ervin
Move Your Hands – art by Erika Ervin

When I look back in time upon my personal American Horror Story, I look at my eight year old broken self-hanging on that wall and now see that I’m going to the Emmys on September 20th. From darkness to the light. I’m lucky to be alive. I survived horrible inhuman treatment at the hands of my family: bullying, child abuse, and too many suicide attempts. Don’t look at my history and judge it using this as an example of another useless platitude for therapy purposes. Don’t you dare!! The real question is what would I have accomplished without it? People who are excluded from life’s benefits don’t have to play by the rules. I’m angry. Amazon Eve was a mask I created so I could smile, underneath is the terror, a ghost in the darkness and a beautiful dream.There are those that are born in darkness and the only light they have is inside them. Long after they escape that darkness that light shines for other people.

DD: Some in our society would tell our LGBT kids that they’re broken and need to be fixed—what would you tell those kids?

EE: Little angels, you are not broken. You are not damaged goods. Not on my watch! However, it may sound like I’m setting you up with an unrealistic expectation by saying, “You are all very special.” You are beings of light. You are made from star dust. To the transgender kids—you are perfect flowers. In biology, perfect flowers have both genders. People sometimes hate what they don’t understand. I pray that you never have to go through what I went through. The Promised Land is right around the corner. Be strong. Stick together. Accept your identity. And parents, love your Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Transsexual/Transgender, and Queer child NO MATTER WHAT!

Pete’s Dragon is just a kid’s movie, a dream, and made me wonder, where did the dragon come from? You become a dragon.

Author of the article

JP Barnaby, an award-winning gay romance novelist, is the author of over two dozen books, including Aaron and Painting Fire on the Air. When she's not hanging out with porn stars or being spanked by hot guys in leather, she binge watches shows like Daredevil and Agents of Shield. A physics geek, she likes the science side of Sci-Fi, and wants to grow up to be Reed Richards.