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What if a show featured women living normal lives, falling in love, dealing with career stress—and those women just happened to be transgender?
The magic of the new webseries Her Story (which is set to release in February) is just that: the transgender characters are fully actualized people. Their lives don’t revolve entirely around their gender transitions, and the lines the actresses (yes, trans actresses) speak aren’t simplistic attempts at resolving public ignorance. They are just women: queer, lesbian, straight, negotiating new relationships, gossiping with friends, cracking jokes about Twitter.
On Monday evening, Her Story premiered to a packed, star-studded audience (Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and Zackary Drucker included) at New York’s LGBT film festival NewFest. As the short episodes played one after the other, faces beamed while watching the complex lives of lesbians and trans women being told in a way that actually felt real. Several times while watching the series, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. The characters felt more familiar than anyone before them; they could have been any trans or queer women confronting conflicts with difficult people, over-thinking relationships and worrying about their sexual identities, Netflixing and chilling. Finally, an L Word for all of us.
Mary Emily O’Hara
The stars of the series, Jen Richards, Angelica Ross, and Laura Zak, spoke on a panel after the screening—along with director Sydney Freeland, producer Katherine Fisher, and surprise panel moderator Laverne Cox. Early in the discussion, Cox pointed out the major difference between Her Story and most films and TV shows that feature trans characters.
“When we see stories of trans people, and in particular trans women, it’s not often from our perspective,” said Cox while moderating the panel. “What I was really moved by… we know that there’s trans people in front of and behind the camera which is really crucial.”
Trans film professionals are involved at every level of the Her Story crew from the director on down. The two main characters, Violet and Paige, are portrayed by Richards and Ross, and trans actors of note are studded throughout the cast—including Scott Turner Schofield, who made history this year as the first openly trans actor to play a major daytime TV role (The Bold and the Beautiful).
Just about every trope is inverted, or tossed right out the window, in Her Story. At the panel discussion, Ross noted her happiness at seeing a black character who is successful and stable, while Richards’ Violet is a white woman with a history of drug addiction and survival sex work.
“I’ve gone on tons of auditions, and it was always for the black transsexual prostitute. That was always the role,” said Ross. Cox jumped in, cracking that she herself has “played those a few times. Seven, to be exact.”
“It’s really nice to kind of flip the script,” continued Ross, who is the CEO of TransTech when she’s not busy acting. “Because I am one of those black trans women out there who is hustling, who is a CEO, who has worked her ass off. And we don’t see those images.”
The show’s script is written by Richards and Zak, which allows for more subtleties about life as a trans woman to shine through. Richards’ Violet is clearly semi-biographical; some of the character’s lines echoed things Richards told me about herself in an interview about queer femme life earlier this year. For the most part, those nuances explore an issue that likely still hasn’t even occurred as possible to much of the larger viewing public: trans lesbians.
As Violet begins to explore a relationship with a woman for the first time since transitioning into womanhood, she starts to freak out a little. “Do you think dating a woman makes me less of a woman?” She asks Paige. Violet worries about her hands being too big and her body seeming more masculine when she’s not next to a larger man. But in the end, love wins, as Violet and cisgender lesbian Allie (who, in turn, worries that dating a trans woman makes her less of a lesbian) both stretch out of their comfort zones and fall in love with each other.
There’s even room for humor, which doesn’t always find its way into groundbreaking work about emerging identities. But the humor in Her Story only lends more of a sense of realness. At one point while Violet and Allie are walking down the street on an early date, still getting to know each other, Allie nonchalantly remarks that she’s “freezing my balls off.” Violet stops, shoots her a horrified look of offense to which Allie responds by apologizing profusely. Then Violet starts laughing. She’s just playing around at being the P.C. police, just punking her new crush for the hell of it. “I wish it were that easy,” she says of freezing one’s balls off.
Richards expressed the challenges that the role, and the writing, brought for her. At the panel, she described herself as an activist who typically “bashes people over the head” with an agenda and a soapbox. But Her Story forced her to think in narrative terms—to show, not tell, as a college writing professor might say.
“It was hard to go from essays and advocacy work, where you’re trying to convince someone through rhetoric,” Richards said in response to comments about the subtlety of the storylines. “It was a real challenge. If I had written this entirely on my own, it would have just been, like, four long monologues.”
Even the process of assembling a cast and crew introduced subtleties that no one could have predicted. Richards told the audience the story of how director Sydney Freeland came on to the project; with a lack of trans directors available, the crew had settled on Freeland because she was a queer woman of color (Freeland is Navajo, and the director of the acclaimed indie film Drunktown’s Finest). During a meeting, Freeland revealed that she just happened to be transgender as well—a fact that came as a complete surprise to everyone on the crew.
“We found Sydney because of her resume, and then, you know, bonus! She turned out to be who we were looking for,” Zak recalled during the panel. “It just goes to show that people can lead with the skill and the work and still have the diversity on and off screen.”
Therein lies the crucial factor that sets Her Story apart from most other shows and films about trans people. In Her Story, in both its storytelling and the process of its creation, people are human beings first: artists, directors, attorneys, waitresses, and lovers who just happen to also be trans. As the year of trans visibility comes to a close, and people all over the world have learned some basics about trans issues thanks to the hyper-presence of people like Caitlyn Jenner in the media, a show like this lays the path going forward—reminding us all that there’s many, many more stories to be told.
Image via YouTube.com/Her Story
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.