Indiewire chatted with activist and writer Jen Richards, the co-director of the Trans 100 and creator of the website We Happy Trans, about her take on Jeffrey Tambor’s performance, the transgender roles that speak most to her, and which upcoming shows she’s most (and least) excited about.
What did you think of "Transparent" creator Jill Soloway’s interpretation of a man coming out as a woman?
Let me correct you right away.
It’s not a man coming out as a woman. It is a transgender woman who is coming out. There’s a line in the beginning of the second episode where Jeffrey Tambor’s character, Maura, is talking to her eldest daughter. The daughter asks, "Does this mean you’re going to be dressing up like a woman?" And Maura replies, "My whole life I’ve been dressing up like a man." That is the distinguishing reality for trans people.
What did you think of Tambor’s performance as a non-transgender actor playing a transgender role?
He did an excellent job. I’ve met many women like Maura. The trans community is very diverse and people come out at all ages — Maura is very much like the older, middle-class, white trans women that I’ve run into over the years. These women have a combination of sadness over a lost life and enthusiasm for finally being true to themselves. There’s a natural and endearing clumsiness that comes with someone who doesn’t begin to express their femininity in a public way until they’re much older.
Were there specific moments when you were watching that seemed very true to life?
There were many, and I have to give credit to Soloway. She has a parent who is trans, and she’s drawing from some of her real experiences. The moment that stood out the most is the scene in Episode 4 where Maura is terrified to go into the women’s bathroom with her two daughters. Entering the women’s bathroom was the biggest fear I had the first six months of my transition — to be in a space meant for women and then be told I don’t belong there. It seems like a superficial thing — it’s just a bathroom — but think about how many times a day you use the restroom. If you’re terrified to use the restroom because there’s a possibility of harassment or violence no matter which restroom you use, then it begins to dictate your entire day. It dictates when you can go out, how long you’re in public, what you eat and drink…
Is "Transparent" the best television representation of a transgender character?
I would not go that far. I would say it’s the most thorough and popular representation of a particular type of trans person. It is the best depiction of a family going through a parent’s transition, and I love that it includes multiple trans roles. But I can think of other representations that I personally find more identifiable.
My personal favorite was the British show "Hit & Miss," where Chloë Sevigny plays a transgender assassin who discovers she has a son with a former lover.
The show was not well received by the trans community because Sevigny said some really problematic things in interviews that turned people off–
What did she say?
She was talking about how she had a very different interpretation of the character than the director. Sevigny wanted to make it much more exaggerated because she thought that’s how trans women are, an "exaggerated femininity." She wanted to play the role like an over-the-top drag queen, which was completely off base. Her performance is more the result of a very good director with a clear vision, guiding the actor to do it appropriately.
So what did you like about "Hit & Miss"?
Sevigny’s character, Mia, in "Hit & Miss" is a single, younger white woman who’s attracted to men. That’s more my experience, more so than Maura’s character on "Transparent." Mia’s dating experiences mirrored my experiences: You meet someone, you really like him, but you don’t even bother developing a real interest because you feel it’s impossible. Then you get to know him better, there’s this rush of excitement, and then the anxiety kicks in because you realize, oh god, I have to tell him. When you tell him, he freaks out. Maybe he still wants to see you, but it’s really complicated. "Hit & Miss" captured the complications of a straight trans woman dating men better than anything else I’ve seen.
So often we see transgender people as the butt of a joke on a sitcom or the victim-of-the-week on police procedurals such as "CSI" or "Law & Order: SVU." What are some of the worst representations out there?
You nailed it. It’s the nameless ones — the anonymous trans people who are used as punch lines or tragic plot points. Even if they have a name or face, then they’re not really human and are only serving a function. You see a steady parade of that over and over again on shows. Almost every trans person I know talks about how they gave up on watching television. If you’re not clued into it, then you just don’t notice how constant we’re joked about. It’s dehumanizing.
People are talking about the increase in transgender roles on television, from "Transparent" and "Orange Is the New Black" to "Boy Meets Girl" in the UK and "The Switch" in Canada. If we’re seeing a move from negative roles to more positive ones, what accounts for the shift?
If I had to credit one thing more than anything else, it has to be the Internet. About ten years ago, trans people began organizing and finding each other online. Before then, the tendency has been always to disappear from society, to "go stealth," or cut all ties from your past and don’t tell anyone you’re trans. Now people are choosing to live openly as trans, and they’re finding pride in it. We’re working together and celebrating each other. That’s the positive side. But the cynic in me asks, is the media just looking for the next new thing? As soon as marriage equality hit a cultural tipping point, I think there was the sense that trans people are the next hot issue and there are some exploitive aspects.
But it’s entertainment. I’m not afraid of the exploitation. I expect it. It’s just part of the game. It’s a matter of how well trans people can play that game. Can they even get into the game?
Lana Wachowski is an example of someone who’s in the game. Along with her brother, Andy, she has a new sci-fi show, "Sense8," debuting on Netflix next year.
Lana is an out trans woman, and she and Andy have crafted a sci-fi series where one of the main characters is a trans woman, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton. Here we have a trans woman who’s written a part for a trans woman and a trans woman is playing it. As far as I know, that is a first, where the entire vertical alignment will be true to trans experiences.
And Clayton is an incredible actress. Her work in HBO’s "Hung" — where her character, Kyla, hires Thomas Jane’s character, Ray, to accompany her to her high school reunion — is amazing. I’m looking forward to her work in "Sense8," and I’m looking forward to the day when there are more trans characters that are simply part of the cast.
Laverne Cox from "OITNB" first garnered attention on VH1’s reality series "I Want to Work for Diddy," and later this year, VH1 is premiering "TransAmerica," a docu-series produced by Tyra Banks. Is reality television another gateway for the trans community?
Bottom line, yes. Right now I am of the mindset that what we need the most is simply more of everything. That said, I think reality television is inextricably exploitive by its very nature. I am extremely skeptical that there can be a positive depiction of trans people in reality television. I don’t think anyone really comes off good in reality television because what is shot and what ends up airing is always so different. I’m wary for the release of "TransAmerica" because I think it’s going to be a very specific depiction of trans women. That said, I’m still all for it because I want more out there. There are a huge variety of us: We also have hot messes and crazy party girls. As long as we have that and we have "Transparent" and "Sense8" and "Orange Is the New Black," then that’s the key.
Next week AOL is releasing the docuseries "True Trans," which features Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace. It tells the story of Grace’s transition and her struggle with gender dysphoria. Are you less wary of this series?
Yes. I’m very excited for "True Trans." The series will show Laura on tour, and at each city, she meets up with trans people and talks about gender. I was on location when they shot an episode in Illinois, and I was really impressed with the team behind the series. It was obvious they had learned so much about trans issues, and it felt very sensitive and respectful. The experience was like Laura herself — she’s a rock star but she’s also fun and sweet and humble. She will bring a quality to the show, and you will see a great cross section of trans people.
What transgender stories still need to be told?
For me, the serious concern is that in almost none of the current depictions do we see what are the really big issues facing the trans community. I love all this visibility. I think it helps humanize trans people, but my hope is that will bring more resources. There is a crisis going on in the trans community: HIV rates are astronomically high among trans women. There is also a crisis of violence, especially against black trans women. This is happening all over the country, and it’s the worst of the violence. There are homicides. Those stories are not being told on television.