'Umbrella Academy', 'Juno' star Elliot Page comes out as transgender
USA TODAY's David Oliver discusses the impact of "Juno" and "Umbrella Academy" star Elliot Page announcing that he is transgender and non-binary.
Entertain This!, USA TODAY
It's possible that many "Jeopardy!" viewers are not even aware, 30 shows in, that super-champ Amy Schneider — one of the four winningest contestants in the show's history — is a trans woman.
But LGBTQ+ viewers know.
They also know that Schneider could be a cultural game-changer.
"She's phenomenal," said Leslie Farber, a Montclair lawyer. "With a personality to match her intelligence."
Mainstream viewers might not know because Schneider herself doesn't make a big point of it. Neither does the show.
It's come up a few times, in casual banter with guest host Ken Jennings, in the weeks leading up to Schneider's big milestone: passing the $1 million mark last Friday. But Schneider, an engineering manager, is so low-key and relaxed, so seemingly comfortable inside her skin, that the issue quickly became a non-issue for almost everyone except some social media trolls who felt the need to throw shade online.
“I’d like to thank all the people who have taken the time, during this busy holiday season, to reach out and explain to me that, actually, I’m a man," Schneider tweeted New Year's eve.
"Every single one of you is the first person ever to make that very clever point, which had never once before crossed my mind,” she wrote.
As Americans, over the past decade, have started to reckon with the mainstreaming of transgender people into the culture, the role models have tended to be celebrities: Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, Newark's Michaela Jaé Rodriguez (she took home a Golden Globe Sunday for her work on FX's "Pose").
And, as celebrities, they've tended to be self-dramatizing. "To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!" Rodriguez posted on her Instagram account Sunday.
Schneider is different. She is cool, casual, the lady next door — if the lady next door was a genius. It's her brain that's flamboyant.
"I guess we keep thinking that maybe someday this will not be mentioned at all, it will be completely irrelevant," said Farber, who transitioned in 2004.
With Schneider there's so much else to talk about. That she's a steamroller, demolishing all comers. That she's incredibly knowledgeable over multiple disciplines. That she has more consecutive games under her belt than any player except Matt Amodio, James Holzhauer, and Ken Jennings. That she is the most successful female contestant ever to compete on "Jeopardy!" That she has a girlfriend named Genevieve, and a cat named Meep.
On a more troubling note, that she was robbed at gunpoint in her home city of Oakland, California, on New Year's weekend. "Lost my ID, credit cards and phone," she tweeted. "Jeopardy!" issued a statement: "We were deeply saddened to hear about this incident, and we reached out to Amy privately to offer our help in any capacity."
Princess in disguise
One of the most interesting talking points, on the show, has been her tattoo. She hasn't actually shown it, on air. "They'd have to get clearance from the artist and that's sort of a copyright issue," Amy has said.
The tattoo is of Ozma of Oz. And yes, there's a story there.
Ozma doesn't appear in the book or film "The Wizard of Oz." But she's a key character in all the "Oz" sequels written by L. Frank Baum. She begins as a he — a boy named Tip, who has many adventures with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man in the second book of the series, "The Land of Oz." Only in the end is it revealed that Tip had been transformed, as a baby, by the wicked witch Mombi. He's actually Ozma, rightful princess of Oz! In the end, Mombi changes him back.
"I hope none of you will care less for me than you did before," she tells her confused friends. "I'm just the same Tip, you know; only — only — "
"Only you're different!" one of them says.
"She is revealed to be the beautiful princess she always was," Schneider wrote in a tweet. "So it seemed like the perfect image to commemorate my transition!"
Baum, who came up with arguably the first transgender character in children's literature, might almost have had Schneider in mind when he wrote: "To be individual, my friends, to be different from the others, is the only way to become distinguished from the common herd."
Which Schneider certainly is.
"Amy’s natural charm, intelligence, curiosity, and undeniable amiability has endeared her to audiences across the country," said Alex Schmider, GLAAD’s (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Associate Director of Transgender Representation.
She's invited "renewed conversation about transgender people and issues through their personal connection to her," he said.
Paving the way
Schneider is not the first openly transgender contestant on "Jeopardy!" A year ago, Kate Freeman, another winner, paved the way.
But Schneider, the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, a one-woman wrecking-ball who has knocked over challengers like so many bowling pins — all the while being nice and unassuming about it — would be big news under any circumstances.
"Jeopardy!" has handled her reign with exceptional good sense, said Tom Prol, founding and current executive member of Garden State Equality.
"I love the rollout they've done on this, which is not to do a rollout," Prol said. "It's just very ho-hum. A brilliant person who is just transgender. That's the beautiful part of this story. It's so matter of fact, tangential to her existence. This is an incredibly brilliant, sophisticated, intelligent person, the genius among us, who happens to be transgender. We swell with pride in our community."
And the press, Farber says, has followed the show's lead.
"I've been pleasantly impressed that the press mostly has used proper pronouns," she said. "That she won more money than any other woman. I know there are certainly people who would say she's not really a woman."
Many viewers, Schneider says, have written to her: transgender people who found her an inspiration, but also parents and grandparents who wanted to engage with their trans kids but didn't know how. "Jeopardy!" with its low-key family-friendly format, helped them acclimatize to the issue.
"I think I have given them some relief from their fear for their loved one, that their trans child or grandchild is going to be limited in life and isn't going to be able to succeed because of this," Schneider told The Daily Beast. "By showing myself succeeding in such a grandparent-friendly way, I think that has made them feel a little better."
In tweets, Schneider has opened up a bit about her past. Born in Dayton, Ohio. Played trumpet in the marching band and joined the drama club. Had undiagnosed ADHD. Moved to the Bay area in 2009. In 2016, split from his wife, and began the process of transitioning.
She's also credited her parents for their support and encouragement (her father died in 2016). It's a message that parents across the country need to hear.
"I think that's such a powerful message, especially to kids who are different, who are expressing a different side of themselves," Prol said. "They nurtured her, allowed her to feel free and creative. There's nothing more powerful than that moment when parents pick up something different about their child, and they embrace it and engage it and nurture it."
What Schneider has brought to the table is not that transgender people are out there. That's now widely understood, if not always eagerly accepted. What Schneider shows is that they come in all styles.
That's a message that Farber, who spent a good part of her youth as a drummer playing Zeppelin and Deep Purple covers in hard rock bands — before becoming an attorney, practicing in Hackensack and Montclair — would like people to think about.
"Maybe the celebrity types help that to some extent," she said. "But we're from all walks of life, all professions. Some of us are doctors, some are lawyers, some are athletes, some are actors, some are truck drivers. It fills every category."
A trans woman is not necessarily a diva in a sequined dress (though that's fine too). It could also be a conventional looking lady with a very unconventional mind.
"People have to be judged on their accomplishments," Farber said. "And her accomplishments are based on her intelligence."
Jim Beckerman is an entertainment and culture reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to his insightful reports about how you spend your leisure time, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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