Jill Soloway’s dramedy was hailed from the start as a breakthrough for transgender representation on television, earning heaps of acclaim as it followed the Los Angeles professor and grandparent Maura Pfefferman, who transitioned from Mort Pfefferman. Along with other circa-2014 developments—like Janet Mock’s widely read memoir Redefining Realness, Laverne Cox’s breakout role on Orange Is the New Black, and Caitlyn Jenner’s transition—Transparent was held up as a sign of new visibility and acceptance for transgender people. Soloway all along spoke of a long-term purpose: “Topple the patriarchy.” This was the show, plenty politicized, that Tambor signed up for.
But as quickly as Transparent became a phenomenon, the conversation around the issues it raised began to evolve. Tambor, a famous cisgender man, was now playing the most famous fictional transgender woman on TV—at a time when roles for transgender actors are frightfully sparse. Soloway addressed criticism of this fact by hiring a significant number of gender-nonconforming people to work in front of and behind the camera. Accepting the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series last year, Tambor called for the film industry to “give transgender talent a chance” and added, “I would not be unhappy were I the last cisgender male to play a female transgender.” The obvious implication: Transparent’s advocacy for trans people would be incomplete without broader, behind-the-scenes change.
The accusers against Tambor, his assistant Van Barnes and the actress Trace Lysette, are both transgender women. Lysette’s accusation is the most detailed, describing Tambor rubbing against her while filming a scene in Transparent’s second season. Her statement also shows an acute awareness of how two political desires have been put at odds: the desire to speak out against piggishness and abusive men, and the desire to promote transgender stories, such as those Transparent tells, in the media. While describing Tambor’s alleged offenses, Lysette expresses gratitude for getting to play “a low-income trans woman with active roots in New York’s ball culture,” and adds, “Transparent has been a guiding light in the industry, by employing more trans people in Hollywood than any other production in history, which made it even more difficult to speak out.”
She proposes a solution, though. Rather than cancel the show, she suggests Amazon “use this as an opportunity, a teachable moment to recenter the other trans characters in this show with the family members instead of just pulling it.” Our Lady J, a writer on the show who is also trans, has spoken out to support Lysette’s statement, writing, “You are right—we cannot let trans content be taken down by a single cis man.”
It’s worth noting that Transparent by no means is solely about trans issues, nor is it as pedantic as the description of it as “political” might make it seem. Maura is a deeply flawed character who has, at times, ended up hurting other trans folks (see the Season 3 opener in which she becomes a reckless white-savior type, overstepping boundaries while trying to help someone who called a crisis hotline she works at). Much of the plot is driven not by Tambor’s character but rather by other Pfefferman family members, who sometimes chafe against gender and sexuality norms but more often struggle simply with their own selfishness. Liberal pieties are often joyfully mocked.