I was born in 1971, and came of age watching soap operas. This was pre-Internet, before gay marriage was even a thought, when homosexuality was still a mental disorder in the DSM. When I remember back, the only images I can recall of LGBT people on TV involved people who were white and showed up only to hang themselves, or be runaway hustlers, or die slowly of AIDS, with their mothers crying at their bedside and their fathers brooding silently in hospital hallways.
I’ve been writing and publishing for over 25 years and long ago I bitterly “accepted” I’d never make a living solely as a writer. I hadn’t even made one-hundredth of my living as a writer, yet I trudged on with my little stories, all but sewing them into booklets in my bedroom à la Emily Dickinson.
When I did get the rare opportunity to be paid well for my writing, I had to completely edit out my life as a butch dyke to make it palatable/publishable to the outside world—or so was the expectation of nervous editors. And after so many years of just doing my own thing, I just trudged on, writing my novels and hosting an annual writers’ retreat in Mexico with RADAR Productions, a San Francisco literary non-profit. I met Transparent creator Jill Soloway when she attended one year.
I’d seen Jill a few times at readings after that but I had no idea she was even familiar with my work. So I was surprised and excited when she wrote to me and said, “Have you ever thought of writing for TV?”
Why, no I hadn’t. I was entering my seventh year as a cashier at a grocery co-op because after many different jobs and life configurations the co-op best suited my life as a writer. It gave my girlfriend and me health insurance and allowed me the most freedom to travel when I needed to.
“There’s like four shows coming out with trans content this year,” Jill said, when she first contacted me. One of those shows was her creation, Transparent, a dramedy that centers around an affluent Los Angeles family and their lives following the discovery that their father, whom they’d known as Mort, is a transgender woman named Maura.
I wanted to get it right, and recognized the dangers of a bad representation. I’ve lived a good part of my life in a gender-nonconforming body. As a butch who is constantly misgendered and regendered throughout the day by strangers, I have some crossover with a trans experience—especially when it comes to using public restrooms, navigating airports, getting wanded by security detail on entering a sporting event. So I felt like I could use my experience to add to the conversation.
I’d never counted how many of my friends were trans, because why would I, they were just my friends. And my friends’ histories were as diverse as the breadth of genderqueer and trans’ characters on the show: trans men, trans women. On hormones. Not on hormones. Electing surgeries or not. Early, middle, and late transitioners. Concerned with passing or not passing. And while Jill is not trans herself, I knew she was personally invested in trans visibility, as her parent had recently come out to her as transgender. Plus, the time was right: Laverne Cox’s character, Sophia Burset, on Orange Is the New Black had set a new precedent for respectable depictions of transgender characters on TV.
As I sat in the writers’ room, it was apparent right away that Jill was committed to telling a trans story with integrity. Trans artists Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker acted as consultants for the show. We also had other trans folks visit the room to help us get it right; including Ian Harvie, Jenny Boylan, and Van Barnes.
Jill Soloway told the writers to think about what we’d never seen on TV before but wanted to.
I’d lived long enough to see the never-seen gays and lesbians on TV, now peppering every show, but these “gay” characters often felt dispersed as a kind of diabolical diversity seasoning salt. I have never seen anyone who looked like me represented on TV, but thanks to Jill allowing the writers to have some cameos, I will appear as a butch security guard named Tiffany. Take that!
Jill Soloway said during the last week of shooting that the world probably needs a trans 101 show and that Transparent is more like trans 507. It isn’t a show that spoon feeds the definition of trans to the audience. Instead, we present a spectrum of trans characters to choose from: a butch, a transman, two transwomen, and Maura, a transwoman at the beginning of her transition who may or may not “medically” transition. I knew besides Sophia Burcet, the trans community had only seen themselves portrayed as victims or villains.
We were committed to doing so much more.
Can a TV show save lives? Can cisgender actor Jeffrey Tambor be enough of a first stepping stone for transwomen who’ve waited forever for any kind of representation? Could a transphobe somewhere see this show and feel something shift? With four new shows with trans content, will cisgender people pepper their scripts with trans characters to sell scripts? The thought of that makes me want to crawl back in bed.
From day one, I realized I had a unique responsibility as a queer, gender-nonconforming writer working on a big television show. I owe it to my community. I hope that this show can not only give trans people positive visibility that will therefore make them safer in the bigger world, and more employable, and able to walk through the streets without the terror of violence. I want for trans people what I want for everyone: a fair living wage, health care, the absence of loneliness, freedom from addiction, a lemon tree in the front yard, and a TV show that they really love to watch.