From Will to Sarah to Will: A Transgender Comedian's Return to Life As Man

Will Franken was featured as Sarah in the film "Transgender Comedian Thrives on Laughter to Beat Fear, Abuse" during the 7 month-period he spent living as Sarah. | Thomson Reuters Foundation


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In 2015, comedian Will Franken spent seven months living as Sarah Franken. In an interview with The Guardian, he explained that the transition took shape slowly. Franken had lived as a woman years earlier, for a few months, while a 20-something in San Francisco. A few months into 2015 Franken, now over 40, began transitioning into a new life as Sarah, first in day-to-day life, then on stage. At the time of the interview, Franken explained that this was a complicated process because the performer takes on multiple characters during stand-up routines. At the time of The Guardian article, Franken had performed 15 times as Sarah and was preparing to go to Edinburgh Fringe. 

More press followed. Just prior to Franken's appearance at Edinburgh Fringe, The Independent noted that the comedian was the first to come out as transgender mid-career. In an interview, Franken noted a hesitation to come out as trans years earlier because of the career implications that doing so might have. Franken also noted that there had been awkward instances in dealing with promoters after beginning to perform as Sarah. In a Reuters interview that ran around the same time, Franken mentioned how comedy helped deal with issues like harassing comments from strangers. 

Sarah Franken's shoes
Still from "Transgender Comedian Thrives on Laughter to Beat Fear, Abuse." | Thomson Reuters Foundation

Harassment is just one of the issues frequently reported by transgender people. In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality conducted a survey of people throughout the United States. The study indicates that 45 percent of those surveyed had reported instances of verbal harassment and 9 percent reported situations involving physical violence. Moreover, 31 percent said that they were mistreated in public places, whether it was through harassment, denial of service or an act of violence. Nine percent of those surveyed said that they were denied bathroom access and 59 percent of the respondents said that they would avoid public bathrooms.

In December of 2015, Franken went back to living as a man and using the name Will. Franken wrote about his experience as Sarah and his decision to return to life as Will on several occasions. 

In Beyond the Joke, Franken wrote more about the harassment that was alluded to in previous interviews. "I hate to admit that living as Sarah incorporated more consistent fear and resentment in my daily life than ever before," he wrote, before describing slurs that were used and encounters with women who wanted to pose for photos. 

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Franken also noted that, while performance came as a respite during his time as Sarah, the transition was also affecting his work. "I do not and will not write brave, one-hour coming out stories peppered with light-hearted anecdotes to make an audience feel good about their shared acceptance of me," he wrote. Press became a problem. Franken adds that aspects specific to his experience — like not wanting to go through surgery or hormone therapy — weren't included in articles. "These important caveats were often omitted in publication, presumably to keep in alignment with the current trans-narrative of 'Man Becomes Woman and Finds Pot of Gold at End of Rainbow,’" he wrote. 

Audience at Sarah Franken's show
Still from "Transgender Comedian Thrives on Laughter to Beat Fear, Abuse." | Thomson Reuters Foundation

Franken continued to explain the problems with press coverage of his life as Sarah in articles for The Independent and The Federalist. In The Independent, he wrote that one of the people were, overall, receptive to Sarah, but there was a downside to this in that transgender identity inevitably became a focal point. In The Federalist, Franken noted that, after The Guardian article, he received more attention from other comedians, the BBC and publishers in London. However, he added, when he pitched ideas, people did not seem interested in projects that weren't specifically about the transgender experience. 

He went on to write that some reactions to his return to life as Will was as bad as the reactions received as Sarah, noting in The Federalist article, "This was a decision I made for myself. Not, as my critics on the activist left now allege, for transgendered people en masse."


Top image: Impressionist Will Franken performs at the Just The Tonic Press Launch at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on August 1, 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Scott Campbell/Getty Images

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