Although what I experienced pales in comparison to what other women endured… this week I finally broke my silence with a post on Facebook. It’s been a long time coming.
The news first broke last fall that award-winning actor Jeffrey Tambor was accused of inappropriate sexual behavior by my FB friends Van Barnes, his assistant on the TV show Transparent, and actress Trace Lysette.,who has appeared on that show among others.
I was not among those who were stunned and surprised. Not just because this came amidst the #MeToo scandals rocking Hollywood and big business. Not just because I knew as a journalist that the accusations would need to be investigated before any action would be taken. But as a woman, I knew in my heart that there could be no mistake: the beloved, cherished and much-heralded actor who won Emmy awards, a Golden Globe, and more, had crossed the line.
Because Jeffrey Tambor had also fondled me.
He actually did it twice: Once at a star-studded gala at the Waldorf in New York City in May 2015, and a few months later at a Transparent publicity shoot in West Hollywood. I’ll share the details in a moment, but first let me address the bigger question: why didn’t I say anything? If not the first time, why not call him out the second time?
I admit, and I’m embarrassed to do so, that first time it did not even occur to me that I should. And when he touched me, even though this was in front of several other people in both instances, I remained silent, endured his touch, and just waited for it to be over.
I thought at the time, this is the shit that men do. I never said anything… because I thought this was what we did, as women. And thanks to Van, Trace, Tarana Burke, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan, Alyssa Milano, and so many more women — and men like Anthony Rapp — I found the strength to detail my own #MeToo story here. No longer should any of us remain silent.
“Dawn Ennis!” shouted the actor with the distinct baritone voice, as he crossed the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria the night of May 9, 2015. “There you are!” said Jeffrey Tambor, as he sidled up to me and took my hand. He was dressed in a men’s suit.
If my jaw hit the floor any harder, there would have been a crater. Here was one of Hollywood’s most well-known character actors, now the star of Amazon’s new streamed series… a straight, cisgender man who ‘friended’ me and several other transgender women on Facebook, presumably to be more “authentic” in his role of Maura Pfefferman… here was Jeffrey Tambor calling my name out in a crowd of celebrities and LGBT superstars.
I was there at the invitation of my friend and mentor, Jennifer Finney Boylan, then a member of the GLAAD board of directors and a featured speaker at that night’s GLAAD Media Awards. Decked out in a voluptuous violet gown, I was a victim of a Sephora stylist’s really poor taste in brow pencil, But I managed to find the words just as Tambor’s other hand wrapped around my torso.
I could feel everyone’s eyes upon us.
“I cannot believe you recognize me from Facebook,” I told him. Perhaps all those tabloid headlines helped, too. But either way, I stood in surprise, and not just at the recognition, but at the arm that now found its way around my waist. “Oh, I’m a big fan of yours! Your stories, all you’ve been through. Let’s take a selfie!” Tambor said to me, my mind racing. What was happening?
He had found me in one of those rare moments when my iPhone was not in my hand, so a friend snapped our photo as his grip held me tight and close to his body. The cheeks of my face turned bright red as I felt my left buttcheek squeezed, in that moment before the flash of the cameraphone blinded us.
And… then he was gone. I looked around, saw several others following him through the ballroom, my friends smiling at me, happy at the recognition bestowed upon me by a big name celebrity, and I thought, there was nothing I could say about what just happened. If anyone saw it, nobody said anything. I guessed I should just chalk up another first-time experience, being the woman I am. This is what happens, trans or cisgender. I didn’t feel good about the objectification, the fondle or the forced intimacy of his body pressed against mine. I took it as a price I had to pay to be who I am.
Fast-forward to August, and to a soundstage in West Hollywood, where after many, many, many requests, the producers of Transparent invited me — the new news editor at The Advocate Magazine, and its first out transgender editor — to visit a gathering of all the stars.
They gathered for publicity portraits, and to be interviewed by me about the much anticipated second season. It was the kind of exclusive I had hoped for, chatting up the stars behind the scenes, getting to know them and how their characters were about to evolve.
Although I only chatted briefly with Amy Landecker, Melora Hardin and literally bumped into Gaby Hoffman as I helped her wheel her baby stroller in the front door, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass, Alexandra Billings and the incredible Judith Light spent about 15 to 20 minutes each, examining the work they were doing and how it relates to their LGBT audience, particularly transgender women like me. In addition,
Carrie talked about how different this role was from her work on Portlandia; Jay and I laughed about his portrayal of a truly selfish and immature manchild, and the lessons to be learned from playing Josh. Judith and I discussed our love of Broadway, and fulfilling the part of mother figure even off-camera, my worries for my then-ailing wife. And Alexandra, who is trans, shared how being misgendered and being mistreated by cisgender men empowered her instead of debilitating her, and challenged her to persevere.
That is when I got word that it was time to leave, and that I would not be seeing Mr. Tambor.
“Okay,” I said. “We’ve already met,” and besides, I had more than enough material for my readers. I figured what Alexandra and Melora had to say about their characters and their own authentic identities would be of more interest than yet another interview with the star of the show, which had pretty much been done to death.
I was actually leaving the soundstage, when who should come around the bend but Tambor himself, leading an entourage of hair and makeup people. The biggest difference between May and August was he was wearing his wig, fake nails, makeup and a muumuu instead of the fancy man’s suit I’d seen him in before.
Van, his “Girl Friday,” had exchanged emails with me, but I really didn’t get much of a chance to talk with her on this busy day.
Yet once again, without me needing to be introduced or get his attention, her boss called out my name. “Dawn Ennis!” he bellowed.
I’m someone who isn’t starstruck meeting leaders and presidents, nor actors and celebrities of all kinds, since I myself was a child actor and model beginning at the age of four. But there was no denying I was again flattered by the fact that Tambor acted as if he knew me — and acted is probably the most important word in that sentence. Given that he grabbed my butt at the GLAAD Awards, maybe he felt he did know me, in his own way.
The memory was fresh, so when he walked up to me, I used both hands to grasp his. And that worked, for a moment.
“Good to see you again, Jeffrey. Thank you for what you do to represent girls like me,” I told him, sincerely. He let go of my hands, clasped my face in both hands, and then used them to firmly grasp my shoulders and pull me in for a tighter than expected hug.
“No, thank you!” Tambor replied, effusively. “Thank you, for all that it is that you do. Thank you. It’s for you and for everyone like you that I do this,” he said.
All the stars had given me a hug of one kind or another. All were meeting me for the first time. Not Tambor. And I thought I was prepared.
As I started to pull my body back, away from his embrace, I could not help but feel his long arms slide down from my shoulders… and his hands find their way straight to my rear end.
“Okay, well, go break a leg,” I muttered as I abruptly took a step back. Not sure if anyone noticed the spring in my step from that double grab… but once again, as inappropriate as it was, I did not exclaim or confront him or ask if anyone saw what he did. If they did, I suspect it probably wouldn’t have been news to anyone who worked closely with him. Just another day, another buttocks.
I thanked my hosts and hightailed it off the soundstage, walking my New York walk of big fast strides to get to the safe harbor of my car.
I told one person, and only one person, and that was my wife, before she died. We had separated since my transition two years earlier, and stayed separated after I resumed my transition, She was intent on eventually divorcing me, and in spite of everything, I still loved her… but we had found a way forward as friends.
Hearing me tell her how a famous actor had treated me like any other woman surely couldn’t have been easy, and neither was hearing her tell me what so many cisgender women say when this kind of thing happens to trans women (and if I’m not being clear, we absolutely HATE hearing this):
“Welcome to womanhood.”
Except in my case, I didn’t feel particularly welcome. Being told this makes most trans women I know feel “othered,” as if we are mere pledges to the sorority and not yet really women. Now, the truth is, I had certainly pinched my wife’s butt more than once, but I was living as a male and we were married almost 20 years. I could not get my mind around the idea that a man felt comfortable groping a woman in that way, or worse.
And then I read Van’s post. And Trace’s account. And all the other women whose stories had preceded theirs and followed them, especially Anthony Rapp’s. Eventually, I worked up the courage to tell my own #MeToo story of when I was sexually abused as a teen model, which I wrote about for The Huffington Post.
But even then, I resisted revealing these particular events. Truth is, they were still too fresh, and the backlash against the movement was virulent. I’ve had more than my fair share of tabloid attention in the last five years, and I’m not seeking any more. I do this now because I can no longer deny it happened, and happened again, and because Jeffrey Tambor continues to deny the accusations against him, insisting he was treated unfairly and blames a “toxic politicized atmosphere.”
No, sir: as Van and Trace have said more eloquently than I ever can, you have no one to blame but yourself. I consider myself lucky to have escaped your clutches twice with minimal scarring. And I’ve told you so.
All this just makes me wonder who else has not yet told their Jeffrey Tambor story.
I wish it had not taken me so long. I wish this was something no woman ever had to do. But it is in the telling that we heal, we grow, and we show that we will not be silenced. Never again.
I send my eternal praise and gratitude to Van Barnes and Trace Lysette and Anthony Rapp for inspiring me with their bravery and courage. As Van said, may it be easier for the next one.
Dawn Ennis is a journalist, a blogger at lifeafterdawn.com, HuffPost and Medium, and the host of a talk show on YouTube: “RiseUP With Dawn Ennis.”
She got her start in New York City working behind the scenes at CNN. Ennis wrote and produced for CBS, NBC, and ABC News, and has also worked as a manager at TV stations across the country.
Ennis was America’s first transgender journalist in a TV network newsroom when she came out 4 and a half years ago, and started a new career as an online journalist and independent video producer.
She is a widow who does the job of mom for three children who call her “Dad.” They reside in Connecticut with their cat, Faith.