Yes, I can hear you screaming at me from several time zones away. You’re saying, “Enough with the talk about politics! Give us something uplifting!” I’m fully aware of how you feel. And you know what? I agree! Positive topics have been simmering on this blog’s back burner for too long, all at the expense of things that felt personal or urgent. But it’s finally high time to get back to brighter things that will put a smile to my face and, hopefully, yours as well.
Some of those happier topics, admittedly, would’ve had a bigger impact if they had been discussed on here at more appropriate times. Things like, say, the subject of this post that my dear friend, J., shared with me way back last spring, specifically on April 1 — one day after the Transgender Day of Visibility.
But as the saying goes, better late than never. So, let’s add to “Allison’s Jukebox” a little ditty about a trans person’s struggle toward self-discovery and happiness. The song is called “I Am Samantha,” and it’s written and performed by… a cisgender male. Uh, uh, please reserve your judgement until you’ve watched the video and read the balance of this post.
Yeah, it’s a pretty sweet video, isn’t it? I’ll talk up the visuals in a moment, but let’s first discuss the song and who’s responsible. The man you heard doing the vocals is Benjamin Scheuer, and he has quite an impressive resumé as an artist and performer. He has written songs for a number of stage musicals, including a one-man autobiographical show. He has gone on tour with other musicians. And he has worked with his illustrator wife on a couple of picture books for children. He’s even been the subject of a pictorial book himself, Between Two Spaces, which chronicled his diagnosis of and successful treatment for Stage IV Hodgkins lymphoma.
So, you ask, how did a guy like Benjamin Scheuer conceive a song such as “I Am Samantha”? Well, as he told HuffPost last spring, being a singer/songwriter involves “telling stories about all different kinds of people that you may never have met” and giving those people a sense of humanity. A natural thing to say, I guess, from a man who wrote music and lyrics for a satirical stage comedy about an Afghan peasant caught up in international terrorism.
Creating empathetic music involves a very important skill — listening. One story Benjamin listened to was that of someone he met at a New York coffee shop, an aspiring writer named Samantha Williams. The two discussed his career, her life story, and the fact that Samantha… wait for it… had never recalled hearing a song about a person named Samantha.
No, seriously, that’s one of the confirmed reasons behind “I Am Samantha” — the fact that there have been songs about Mandy and Candy, Amanda and Rosanna, and even Lady Godiva… but not one about a Samantha that hit the popular culture zeitgeist. The real-life Samantha had a point, for the songs Wikipedia list with a title of “Samantha” are ones that probably, at best, “bubbled under” the Top 40.
But leave it to a songwriter to try to change all that: Benjamin would listen intently to Samantha’s life story, in particular her gender identity and transition. Benjamin took notes and created lyrics and music that reflect, in a first-person point of view, one human’s inner and outer struggles toward becoming the person they know they are. The end result was “I Am Samantha,” which was released to the world on Transgender Day of Visibility 2020, in partnership with GLAAD, Trans Lifeline, and several other LGBT+ organizations.
Watching that video for “I Am Samantha,” you may have noticed the absence of a certain someone on the screen. Oh, you do hear Benjamin Scheuer, but you don’t ever see him. Or anyone cisgender, for that matter. To make the video, Benjamin called on T Cooper, a trans-male-identifying writer and filmmaker noted for directing Man Made, a 2018 documentary about trans male bodybuilders. Cooper would assemble a film crew that entirely identified as either female, LGBTQ, or a person of color. He also formed an all-trans cast for the video; you may have spotted Queer Eye‘s Skyler Jay, as well as Monica Helm, the designer of the pink-white-and-blue trans pride flag.
That last fact bears repeating: All 27 people you see in the video identify as trans, and it’s believed to be the largest on-screen collection of trans talent to that point (“trans visibility to an exponential factor,” as T Cooper put it). So when you see them lip-sync Benjamin Scheuer’s lyrics, they are perhaps, in some form, taking them to heart:
That postal worker delivering the mail? She is Samantha.
The man tending to his lawn? He is Samantha.
The priest and parishioners in their Sunday best? They are Samantha, too.
And that woman at the end wearing dark-frame eyeglasses and a pretty awesome red dress? Well, if you haven’t yet made the comparison with the above photograph, she is Samantha.
I imagine that there were critics out there who would’ve appreciated it if a trans musician, and not Benjamin Scheuer, had the chance to record “I Am Samantha.” But such critiques overlook the fact that with his song, he brought into a positive light, visually and lyrically, one appreciative trans friend’s life story… and by extension and effort spread that light to a trans community whose own stories and talents deserve to be seen and heard in any way possible.
To echo what Benjamin and Samantha had hoped when interviewed by HuffPost, may “I Am Samantha” encourage the listener to appreciate others who may not be exactly like them. And if that listener happens to be trans, may it remind them that they’re not alone in their yearning for respect and acceptance.
Oh, by the way… definitely check out the two other videos I’ve included below. The first features behind-the-scenes footage and thoughts from the cast and crew who filmed the “I Am Samantha” video. The second, from the It Gets Better Project, features remarks from Benjamin Scheuer and Samantha Williams as well as T Cooper.