There’s much more to the show’s trans awareness than its lead character.
BY JEN RICHARDS
There is a moment in Amazon Studios’ Transparent that I can’t shake from my mind.
Jeffrey Tambor’s character, a father transitioning to life as a woman named Maura, is in the middle of a crowded dance floor. The shot holds for long enough to read wonder, joy, and anxiety in her expression. It’s one of many moments in the show that mines the particular so well it becomes universal, and its particular is a quantum leap beyond anything else that has come before.
Maura is at a camp for crossdressers, surrounded by people seemingly like her. For the first time, she is allowed a full public expression of a facet of herself she is still discovering. Through overheard conversations, the audience organically learns the difference between crossdressers and transsexuals. These are straight men who go away for a weekend and dress for fun, some with their wives. Is Maura one of them? Or is she trans?
It was hard for me to watch. I remembered my life before transition, the nights I would secretly dress up and go dancing at clubs or to social events for Chicago’s crossdressing community. I didn’t think I was trans. I didn’t want to be. The look on Tambor’s face reflected my own mix of conflicted feelings. How did they find and honestly depict such a moment? And how did they make compelling television from it?
I saw only a few bits from this episode while visiting Transparent’s creator, writer, and director Jill Soloway at Paramount Studios. I followed her from room to room as the team edited scenes. Soloway would watch, ask questions, take suggestions, and make decisions with the assuredness of someone with both a clear vision and ample craft. She knows the story she is telling and how to tell it. Soloway had only recently begun to reveal that Transparent is based on her own experience of having a parent coming out as trans.
This fact alone would give Transparent the authenticity such a timely and often contentious issue demands. With the rapid changes in trans visibility, the community has become increasingly vocal about how it’s portrayed. Trans activists and their allies refuse to be quiet as their stories are exploited for drama and pathos by artists who know little to nothing about their experiences, as cis actors reap rewards for the bravery of the performances while failing to acknowledge the actual current struggles of trans people.
There were similar concerns when Transparent and Tambor’s casting were first announced. Those concerns have since been largely allayed, and for the very same reasons, the show is able to find such honesty. Maura is not a fabrication. While the reveal of her true gender identity is the metaphorical force driving the larger theme of transparency, the ways in which we all hide our gender and sexual complications, her story and character remain rooted in the real experience of a trans person and a daughter’s desire to understand.
“‘Transfirmative Action’ was Jill’s idea,” Rhys Ernst tells me. Ernst is a trans man, a successful artist largely known for his many years of collaborative work with Zackary Drucker, recently featured in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial celebration. He met Soloway at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, where both had shorts playing; Ernst’s film, his MFA project, was about a trans man on a road trip with his girlfriend. Soloway approached him afterward, told him about her own parent’s transition, asked him questions about transition and the transgender community, and sought recommendations for resources. Soloway’s parent had come out and she was devouring all the information she could find.
Soloway later sent an early draft of what would become the pilot for Transparent to both Ernst and Drucker and asked to meet with them about collaborating. Ernst was impressed with the high level of discourse in even initial conversations. It was clear that Soloway had done her research and was sincerely committed to handling trans issues responsibly. When Amazon approved filming the pilot, Soloway hired Ernst and Drucker as consultants. One of their first tasks was to cast the support group that Maura joins.
Ernst and Drucker recognized the importance of this opportunity. Though very few pilots get picked up, Ernst believed something special was happening, that there was “too much kismet” on set. This was their chance to open the door to future roles. “It was an opportunity for us to introduce Jill to interesting trans people, to inspire inclusion,” Ernst says. And that’s exactly what happened. One of the extras, Ian Harvie, was so dynamic that a recurring role was written for him.
Tambor is the only cis actor with a trans role on the show. Soloway always had Tambor in mind for Maura, in no small part because he reminded her of her own parent. Given that the character of Maura hasn’t started hormones and is mostly living as male, it made sense to cast a cis male. The show needed an actor with the talent and experience to anchor an ensemble cast, and one recognizable enough to assure producers and audiences to tune into a risky conceit. Soloway decided early, however, to have all other trans parts played by trans people, including three recurring roles: Ian Harvie as Dale, Alexandra Billings as Davina, and Trace Lysette as Shae. In the end, trans people have 15 speaking roles in season 1, and not always in parts that are explicitly trans. Ernst himself makes an appearance as a waiter.
Soloway’s idea of transfirmative action wasn’t just for on-camera talent either. Soloway was determined to hire trans people in literally every department of the production. Soloway, Ernst, and Drucker issued an open call, asking all trans people with any interest to apply, posting on social media and in trans forums. They scoured their networks trying to figure out who could do what. Work on set is temporary and Los Angeles-based, so it was a challenge to find qualified trans people who were either local or willing to relocate without a promise of ongoing work. A further complication was that, as a studio production, most hires had to be union, and even those hired as non-union production assistants were limited in what they could do. Ernst repeatedly found himself having to navigate union rules and regulations and educate union officials on trans issues. Ernst laughs at the memory of how much time he spent on this, “I never expected to become a labor organizer!” In addition to Ernst and Drucker as consultants, eight other trans people were hired in production.
Van Barnes is brassy blonde with the confidence and ease of someone who long ago gave up trying to be anything other than herself. Barnes was a club kid in the early ’90s, both in Chicago and New York, before eventually settling into a quiet life doing interior design and selling mid-century antiques online. She met Drucker by happenstance in a Santa Fe, N.M., laundromat 10 years ago. When Transparent was picked up by Amazon, Drucker brought Barnes along to a party in celebration. Barnes speaks without a filter, disarming and delighting people who might otherwise be anxious about saying the wrong thing around a trans woman. Soloway was impressed and asked Drucker to bring Barnes to the writers’ room as a consultant. There, she was instrumental in developing the role of Davina. Like Ernst, Barnes had the sense that something special was happening, and she wanted to be part of it. When she heard that they were looking to hire trans people, she submitted her résumé.
With her background, Barnes was a good fit for set decoration. She went through several interviews and, since she wasn’t union, was hired as a PA. Though her experience in Transparent‘s writing room had been positive, she was concerned about working with crews and didn’t want to be tokenized. She found a powerful ally in the lead set decorator Nya Patrinos. Barnes told her: “Don’t bring me on just because I’m trans. I want to be challenged, be part of the team.” Patrino replied: “I know exactly what that feels like. When I started 20 years ago, I was the only black girl. If you don’t treat me like a token, I won’t treat you like one.”
Barnes credits Soloway with creating a safe and welcoming environment, one where trans people were treated as, well, people. Before production started, Soloway had Ernst and Drucker educate the whole team on trans issues. They learned what cis meant, the differences among the many identities under the transgender umbrella, why pronouns mattered. They had the chance to ask any questions without embarrassment or censure. Soloway even made bathrooms gender-neutral.
Ernst recognizes that the impact of all this work extends beyond Transparent, a belief echoed by Barnes: “I asked almost everyone if they had ever worked with an out trans person before, and few had. But I earned their respect.” By providing both mentorship to people like Barnes and education to established industry workers, transfirmative action is breaking down barriers that have kept out trans people from working in Hollywood. He’s careful not to overstate, but Ernst concedes, “We’re trying to make the whole industry a little better for trans people.”
The show isn’t perfect, of course. While it does a superlative job of mining the particular, it’s still a particular I’m largely exhausted by. My original impression of the first cut of the pilot was that it was beautifully written and performed, but that I had no interest in another story about a late-transitioning, middle-class, white trans woman with a family. It had long been the default depiction of trans people, best captured by Jenny Boylan’s She’s Not There (Boylan was also an early consultant on the show).
In this way, it suffers the same fault, and merits the same defense, as the HBO series Girls. The world of Girls is small and insular, but it’s Lena Dunham’s world. She’s a talented woman writing what she knows, and no show should carry the burden of being all things to all people. A more useful critique is that of the system that fails to provide opportunities for people of color or trans people to develop their voices. Transparent does what it does very well, and it takes the responsibility of its depictions very seriously. That’s worth celebrating. Further, through her transfirmative action policy, Soloway is opening doors to a trans people who may later end up in writers’ rooms, as producers, or as production department heads. It’s a long game.
In the end, of course, all of this matters less than whether or not the show works. For the people who greenlit Transparent, for the producers and executives considering other shows with trans characters and themes, what matters most is whether people watch. And people will watch if they are entertained, if they are moved, if they laugh and cry, if they care.
At the end of our conversation, I mention to Ernst how struck I was by the look on Tambor’s face when Maura is on the dance floor. He smiles and tells me the following story from before the pilot was shot.
“Jeffrey had been fitted for clothes and a wig, but hadn’t yet become Maura. I had the idea to take him out to a trans club in the valley as Maura. Zackary and I met him at his hotel, along with Jill and Jim [Frohna, director of photography]. Zackary did Jeffrey’s makeup and helped him get dressed. Over several hours Jeffrey slowly transformed into Maura as we all shared stories about our own experiences of gender. Jim and Jill had to leave to attend a screening of Afternoon Delight [Soloway’s 2013 film] so Zackary, Jeffrey, and I finished up and headed out. Jeffrey was terrified as he left the hotel, nervous about being clocked. We drove into the valley and met up with some more people from the cast and crew, including Judith Light, who had set up a table for everyone. Zackary and I got up to start dancing and pulled Jeffrey out with us. He had become Maura. The roots of the moment you saw were in that night.”
Ernst went on to say that we all have gender stories, not just trans people. Tambor, as a cis man, felt both fear and freedom as he became Maura that night, just as I did when I first went out exploring my own gender. Soloway’s personal experience and creative leadership, the input of trans consultants, the presence of trans crew, and the sensitive craft of actors like Tambor, all come together to turn particular moments like this into something anyone can understand. And that’s exactly what great storytelling should do.
The first season of Transparent is now available on Amazon Prime.
Jen Richards is a writer and organizer, the codirector of The Trans 100, creator of the website We Happy Trans and several other trans focused projects, and a writer/actor for the forthcoming webseries Her Side.
Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios