Jill Soloway's Transparent sets a new precedent for transgender storytelling by integrating the trans community into every element of the series development. The original series premiers today on Amazon Prime and tells the story of a family grappling with change -- most notably, the transition of patriarch come matriarch, transgender woman Maura, as portrayed by beloved American actor Jeffrey Tambor.
"I'd like to thank my family," Soloway spoke on stage from the Hollywood premiere of Transparent. "Particularly my very own trans parent, who made a break for freedom."
Nearby, amidst the beaming rows of trans and cis supporters sat two young artists, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, who had more than a hand in shaping Transparent. Long time collaborators, Drucker and Ernst have had a surge of attention in 2014. At the Whitney Biennial they showed a photo series that documented their six-year relationship between 2008 and 2014, a period during which both transitioned -- Drucker to female, Ernst to male.
On the red carpet, Drucker and Ernst were never without a swarm of interest buzzing their way, and for good reason -- they're both associate producers on Transparent and consultants for the series' trans subject matter. The day after the premiere, I sat down with them both to learn more about what makes Transparent so special. Sitting in Drucker's Los Angeles home, they told me how their work with Soloway originated, back when Transparent was nothing more than a Pilot in development. "She asked me and Zackary to come in to talk to her about collaborating" Ernst said.
"The fact she used the word 'collaboration' was unique," Drucker added, explaining that Transparent stands out because of Soloway's radical approach to trans inclusion throughout the show's production chain. When the series was picked up in the spring of 2014, Drucker and Ernst came on as full-time consultants.
"Our job quickly became a lot more than consulting. We were in the office five days a week making creative decisions, overseeing projects, and hiring," Ernst told me, articulating the significance of his and Drucker's responsibility. The role came comfortably suited to both young artists, whose long shared goal has been to bring trans themes into their work as a vehicle for the transgender movement, and to be part of the early crossover of trans story-telling into the mainstream. One way that crossover happens is by taking trans narratives out from the cultural underbelly and crafting new, relevant and human portraits of trans experience for a broader audience.
"John Waters was absolutely pivotal in my life," Drucker said, offering some insight into the life of a young transgender person, when she was just a kid and desperate to find herself documented somewhere in culture. "That representation of difference was laced with so much humor, it was crucial to my development, in understanding the power of creating your own world with misfits and making a narrative out of it, no matter how pieced together it was."
Piecing together an identity from John Waters' films worked for me too, but it may not for most. Gender divergent and transgender themes need to be present across domains both popular and subversive, to be accessible content in the mainstream and underbelly alike. Drucker went on, "We won't know the way an increased representation of trans people will affect future generations for a few decades, but I'm sure it will be leaps and bounds ahead of where we came from. It's hard to miss TIME magazine in the grocery aisle if you're a kid and you see Laverne Cox on the cover."
Here Drucker reminded me of a moment at the show's premiere when, after Soloway finished her speech, the lights dimmed, and Transparent's opening credits, created by Ernst, began. On-screen was archival footage of trans history set to music. Clips from Flawless Sabrina's 1968 documentary The Queen appeared. Suddenly Crystal Labeija from the New York City Harlem ball scene was towering over Los Angeles, demanding our attention nearly half a century after her death. Labeija started the first of the famous "Houses" of 20th culture.
These Houses were early instances of chosen-family structures that fought to protect the trans community. The House of Labeija was popularized in Jennie Livingston's 1990 documentary of the Harlem balls, Paris is Burning. Crystal Labeija is an example of an original crusader. To see her in Hollywood, to know she will be in homes across the nation, is a profound example of Transparent's radical edge. Trans icons throughout history are working their way out of the margins of American media, with great implications.
Transparent managed to represent at least three generations from the trans community on screen, including cameos by trans legends Holly Woodlawn and Alexis Del Lago, to reoccurring roles played by veterans like Alexandra Billings and newcomers such as Van Barnes and Trace Lysette, bringing modern understanding to our movement while paying homage to it's history. "With the intergenerational dialogue incorporated into Transparent, our community no longer can be dismissed as something new. It indicates that we have always existed," Drucker said.
Given carte blanche to critique and guide production in basically every department, Drucker and Ernst introduced a "transfirmative" action program, by which great lengths were gone to find and employ transgender workers behind the scenes, "We were able to hire 10 regular transgender staff members," Ernst explained. Expanding on the immersive role of a consultant in shaping a production, he added, "Merely talking to an actor is not enough -- trans consultants on future productions should be well compensated and have global influence, able to offer unsolicited advice in any department whether writing, casting, or wardrobe. Hiring a consultant to meet a quota or as a mere symbol is a true mistake. If they're invested in and listened to, they add incredible value to a production." In her earnest attempt to approach transgender subject matter responsibly, Soloway made choices that none in Hollywood have before. This is an industry where trans subject matter has been infamously mishandled, where pale caricatures of transgender stereotypes reside as the butt of jokes, and poorly produced plot devices. Holistic trans inclusion in big-budget film was unknown until Transparent. Ernst and Drucker's wish is for this series to affect the system. "We hope Transparent can be an example for future productions. The irresponsible misrepresentation of transgender narrative will not be taken lightly. Cisgender productions that want to have a trans theme need to do even more than we have done," Ernst said.
There is no single trans narrative. The stories we tell will never represent or speak to every viewer -- producing universal content cannot be our goal. Yet, there is a world of difference between an effort that is informed and that which is ignorant. Transparent is an early triumph for the transgender community in film. It is a bridge between worlds, where the tender underbelly of culture has been upturned. By telling these stories more accurately we don't merely appease a marginalized community's sensitivity, we tell better stories. At the heart of Transparent is a story of transformation, the self, and the exchange of identity within family. Without a careful hand in its creation, it is a story that could never have been told.