Amy Schneider, In Her Own Words

By Chris Azzopardi
Photos Sean Black

Amy Schneider has made at least one thing clear: she is the person you want on your trivia team. The Ohio native ruled the “Jeopardy!” stage this year like a queen in her castle — the only question she couldn’t seem to answer was whether her winning streak would ever end.
Viewers, who she won over with every win (an incredible 40 by the end), sure hoped it wouldn’t. What we, or she for that matter, couldn’t guess is just how big her win would be. It was history-making big, as she became the most successful woman ever to compete on the ultimate quiz competition show. Schneider left “Jeopardy!” $1.3 million richer, and she left the world at large with something even more valuable — an invitation, for all of the families watching, to understand her life as a trans person.

“So when did I know I was trans? Always. Never. In 1986, or 1993, or 1996, or 2011, or 2016, or 2017, or any and all years in between,” she writes in her debut memoir, “In the Form of a Question: The Joys and Rewards of a Curious Life.” “I’ve come to realize that I don’t much care when I knew I was trans, or even if I know it now. All I care about is that you know. And now you do.”

In the book, Schneider, 44, reflects on becoming a nationally recognized and beloved trans celebrity, but these turning points are just part of her overall story. She shares other aspects of her life with unflinching candor and inviting repartee in her multifaceted memoir, which is deliberately less wholesome than her “Jeopardy!” image.  By gaining a richer understanding of her life, you can’t help but become a fan of the person she is, not just the awe-inspiring quiz-show contestant she was.

Now that Schneider has the world’s attention, she’s using her platform to open up about the intimate parts of what a trans life can look like. It may be eye-opening for some outside the queer community and, even for those within it, surprising and affirming: her newfound fame (and zealousness for the free touchscreen toaster fame afforded her), having ADD, being pro-polyamory (not so popular in the Midwest, she admits), her touching experience with a prostitute and how doing theater was critical in helping her understand who she is. I spoke with Schneider at the end of September, the same week her book hit shelves.

Congratulations on the book. What is going through your mind right now as you promote it?

Oh, I mean, it’s just been a blur. I’ve been in New York for four days, and I did “CBS Mornings” and “The View” today and I just barely have time to stop and think about it. But yesterday I did go to a Barnes & Noble a couple blocks away, and indeed there it was. It’s really real, so it’s pretty exciting.

What was it like seeing your book at Barnes & Noble for the first time?

Pretty great. The real moment was when I got my author’s copies; that really hit me. I just remember looking at it being like, “It’s got an ISBN number. It’s official. It’s part of the record now.”

You’ve got an ISBN number and a toaster. I mean, what more could you really ask for?

Indeed. I mean, this was quite a toaster, I have to say.

If ever there was a time for a trans activist, especially one such as yourself with a universal, beloved platform, it’s now. But what’s so unique about your platform is the audience you attracted just by being a “Jeopardy!” contestant. How do you think being on “Jeopardy!” helped you reach an audience who may not understand trans people or are just blatantly anti-trans?

I certainly knew going in that it’s an older demographic that watches “Jeopardy!” And so those are people that are less likely to know trans people or to be supportive of trans rights, so I was definitely bracing myself for a lot of negative feedback from the “Jeopardy!” audience. The fact is that that was really minimal. Instead, what I heard from so many different people was usually talking about their parents or people in their family who had seen me and were like, “You’re the first trans person that I ever heard them gender correctly and use the right pronouns [for]. It really changed the way I think about trans people’s place in our society.”

I think that there is a loud minority of people that are motivated by hatred and othering and hierarchies. But I think most of the people that they get their votes from that end up supporting these policies aren’t doing it out of that motivation. They’re doing it because they were raised in an America that taught that trans people were frightening and scary and weird and laughable, as I was.

I was raised with all those same messages, and if you have never encountered an actual trans person, you’re just not going to question what you’ve always been told. And so for all those people, it was just once they saw me — and I just obviously am not any of those ridiculous things — then that was all that needed to happen for them to change their mind, which I was not expecting.

With this book, instead of writing just about your “Jeopardy!” experiences, you’ve decided to present an in-depth look at your full life as a trans person.

At the time I was pitching the book, I just spent a few months doing nothing but talking about “Jeopardy!” I just was tired of it, so that was part of why I didn’t want to just make it about that. But then there were two things I was thinking of. One was those people who had gotten to know me. They had seen my most presentable, likable, normal self. While that wasn’t inauthentic, it’s a big simplification of who I am and what my life has been. So if those same people were to encounter trans people in real life and not just on TV and see the complexities and not necessarily as relatable things that have happened to them, then maybe they’re just like, “Oh, why can’t they just be like that Amy from TV?” It was something I felt a responsibility to do — to show my full self in that sense, so that you could see that those things about me aren’t incompatible with being successful and being nice and smart. And so that I shouldn’t be written off for them, and neither should other people.

Then the other audience I was thinking of was just other trans people specifically like me, the younger version of me. What are the things that I wish I had known a lot sooner about what it really means to be trans and what that internal experience is like? And the simplified version that I understood and that some trans people have lived up to?

I’ve known trans people in childhood who were fighting with their parents over what clothes to wear from age 4. That was my understanding of what counted as a real trans person, and [I thought] since that didn’t apply to me, I couldn’t be a real trans person. I can only tell my own story, but it is a story that I sure would’ve liked to have heard when I was younger.

In the beginning of the book, though, you do say that this is not a book for kids. Was it difficult for you to decide between writing a book that could reach a younger LGBTQ+ demographic given how a book by you could influence them, but ultimately opting to write a book that is more adult-oriented?

Well, actually, the good news is that I didn’t really have to choose because in the deal that I signed, the agent that originally reached out to me mostly does children’s literature. She was just going to make sure that any deal I signed had an option for a children’s version of it as a middle-grade version. And so that is something that we’re in the early stages of.

I’m going to be working with somebody who’s written for middle grade before. Because it’s a different skill set and obviously it is going to not include every part of this book, but the parts that are appropriate, we’ll be pulling those out. That said, like I say, that wasn’t exactly my idea in the beginning. That was just something my agent wanted. I’d been all ages on “Jeopardy!” and there were parts of my life that aren’t appropriate for kids, but still felt very important to share.
The thing about trans people and queer people is, because we did not fit into the moral systems that we grew up in, we are going to be more experimental around things like drugs and sex and violate rules that way because the rules that we were raised with were so wrong. That is part of what frightens people about queer people. So, that was also part of why I wanted to show, at least as best I could, why I wound up doing those societally less-acceptable things.

I love that there’s a chapter about polyamory. Again, I feel like it will be one in which people may read your book because they loved you on “Jeopardy!” and they’ll get to that chapter and their mind might be blown. Why did you decide to express that side of yourself in the book?
It’s something that I feel strongly about, and here’s this platform. I get the chance to write a book, and it’s something that I think is so misunderstood. I feel like in retrospect, I could have gotten this point across slightly more clearly. But to me, it’s more about sexual monogamy being the one and only definition of a relationship. I find [it] baffling, to be honest. I think that it partly comes from patriarchal types of ownership. I think that certainly I know that when I was living as a man in a polyamorous relationship, it was other men who were extremely hostile to me for it. Really, it made them angry that “I would allow my wife to have sex with other people.” So it is just something that I feel strongly about, and I also know that I’m in the extreme minority with that viewpoint. Trans rights have a decent following, but polyamory is still pretty niche. It is going to surprise people, and just let people know that there are rational people out there who believe in that.

You flew home to your home state of Ohio on the day you were attending the Out100 Gala to testify against a bill that would restrict gender-affirming medical care for minors. That bill is still in committee. What do we do if and when it potentially passes?

Keep fighting is all that you can do. I think that the thing that I would say is, first of all, when it comes to medical care, there is some reason for hope in the course that these things won’t be enforceable. That’s no guarantee either, of course. The other thing is to comfort ourselves with the fact that time is on our side on this. Every day somebody sees a trans person on TV or something happens where they get it, and they realize that trans people are just people who deserve the same dignity as everyone else. When somebody does that, that’s a one-way street. They don’t end up going back on that.

So the people that are targeting us right now, it’s this backlash because they see themselves losing, and they will. It doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of hardship and suffering being caused by them now, and that’s awful, and we should resist as much as we can, but there is a legitimate reason not to despair.

What would you tell a kid that makes them not feel like the “deviant subhuman” that some consider trans people to be?

This is what’s so crazy to me about people who say negative and hateful things to me, saying, “Oh, you’re really a man.” I am legitimately the world’s expert on my own mind and my brain and what’s going on inside of it. How can anyone else even think that they know better than me and what my own internal truth is? That’s something that anyone can remind themselves of. You may not be a “Jeopardy!” champion, you may not be these other things, but the one thing you are truly an expert in is yourself. You can rely on that and know that other people, if they disagree, they’re just definitively wrong because how could they know?

It’s an interesting time to release a book as a trans person, given that books with queer content are under attack. It is possible your book could be banned from libraries. What do you say to the people who want to get rid of our literature and our books and potentially your book?

I would say that people that believe in banning books are unlikely to become “Jeopardy!” champions.

I love that shady comment.

Yeah, and it’s true. I think that the mindset that people need to be shielded from information and protected from it, it harms yourself. When you shield yourself from information, you make yourself less knowledgeable, and ultimately you’re going to be less powerful if you know less.

Young people will find that knowledge no matter what you take away from them. They have other ways to be connected. There is TikTok. There is YouTube.

Yeah. I mean, even before the internet that was always the case. Certainly, I was raised in a family and community that did their darndest to keep me from learning anything about sex, but I figured it out.

Since your fame happened and wasn’t something you were expecting, was there ever a moment where you had to wrestle with being the major trans activist that you have become?
Yeah, it certainly is. I mean, it is an ongoing thing that I continue to wrestle with. Since I testified in Ohio, I haven’t really done anything like that again since. There’s a part of me that feels somewhat guilty about that. Not overwhelmingly, but I wish I had continued more of that specific type of activism. It’s also, I’ve got this book to write and I’ve got to balance my own mental wellbeing, and how much I’m willing to take on and all of those things.

This platform is extremely lucky but lucky doesn’t mean undeserved. I’m fortunate to have this opportunity, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to take advantage of it and to use the platform that I have. That’s something that took me a while to start to accept.

Do you have a barometer for understanding how you have changed social attitudes about trans people? Even activists, I imagine, need that kind of validation to keep going.
Well, it used to be Twitter DMs and now that site is sinking into the ground.
I would get a lot of stories from people about how it meant something in their family. Then also, I’m recognized out in public pretty regularly, and most of the time it’s, “Oh, loved you on ‘Jeopardy!’ I watched every episode.” Things like that, which are a delight to hear and I love that.

But just today, one of the crew on one of the shows I did during this press run pulled me aside to say that they had a trans daughter that had just come out, and that was very meaningful to her to have seen me. I do hear those stories, and it’s the best thing ever to hear a story like that. Because I feel so passionately about the trans kids out there and what they’re up against, and it makes me so sad at times. To hear that I’m helping some of them is just the very best feeling.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.

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