The Real-Life Version of 'Transparent' Picks Up Where the Show Left Off

The Amazon drama's associate producer talks about how it inspired a new documentary series.
Photo: ('This is Me'/Amazon/WifeyTv)
Jun 17, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

There's a pivotal scene in Transparent in which Maura finally reveals to her adult daughter that she's transgender, a secret she's been keeping from her family for years. Caught wearing a dress and makeup, Maura has nowhere left to hide. "This is me," she confesses matter-of-factly.

The three words, which have become a sort of self-acceptance mantra, now serve as the title of a new series of short documentaries directed by Transparent co-producer and trans consultant Rhys Ernst and executive produced by Transparent creator Jill Soloway. Released online by Amazon Studios earlier in June, This Is Me expands on the transgender issues touched on in Season 1 of Transparent—everything from discrimination in bathrooms and harassment on the streets to the importance of using accurate and inclusive pronouns.

The nonfiction series This Is Me, which borrows the same soundtrack and visual style as Transparent, organically grew out of the Amazon show's aim to "connect with and sort of portray and be inclusive of the real world, the real trans community," Ernst says. "There's just so many ways of being trans and so many different experiences and joys and struggles and nuances, and it's just kind of infinite and kaleidoscopic, and you realize pretty quickly on in working with trans storytelling that the future is just open wide and what we need is just more and more and more stories."

In one episode of This is Me, those stories come from trans women like Van Barnes, Miss Barbie-Q, and Zackary Drucker, who are shown sitting around a table decorating high heels while sharing their own stories of surviving attacks and physical harassment in public spaces.

"With all the things going on now in the transgender community with violence and people doing things to us in the street, I feel like I have to walk around with my fists up again," says Barbie-Q, a performance artist who lives in Los Angeles. At the end of the episode, the women take to the streets and string their heels on the telephone wires near where 47-year-old Aniya Parker was murdered in L.A. last year.

Parker was one of 11 transgender women of color killed in hate-motivated attacks around the country in 2014. Hate-motivated violence continues to affect the trans community and LGBT people of color disproportionately. Of the 20 LGBT people killed in such attacks last year, 80 percent were people of color, according to a new report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

"Historically, trans people wouldn't associate in public because they would be more clockable," meaning more visible targets for violence, Ernst says. "And yet, we're trying to talk about [why] trans-feminine friendship is so important and coming together and building community. It's not only personally fulfilling and important, but it's also a way to push back against a culture of violence that targets trans women out in the world," he says, adding that many of the cultural and social issues explored in This Is Me were fueled by current events.

In each of the five episodes, trans and genderqueer advocates thoughtfully discuss their stories in their own words—which is significant considering that Transparent initially drew criticism for its casting of a non-transgender actor, Jeffrey Tambor, in the role of Maura. But Ernst says the show might be the most trans-inclusive production in Hollywood history, thanks to a trans-affirmative hiring program that seeks to retain and advance transgender writers, actors, producers, and crew members.

As part of that initiative, Soloway enlisted the songwriter and classical pianist Our Lady J—who'd initially auditioned to play the role of Davina, a transgender woman who mentors Maura as she transitions—as a writer for the show's forthcoming second season. "I started writing because Jill realized she couldn't write another season without having a trans writer in the room, and she wanted to honor the community and the experience of trans people," Our Lady J said last weekend at an L.A. Film Festival panel on diversity in television.

Having a transgender-inclusive staff doesn't just make sense in terms of informing the show's script. Ernst says it has also had visibly positive effects on the work environment. "I've worked in film for over 10 years and have in the past really downplayed my identity or my trans-ness or at times was in the closet about it at work, and I think that's very typical of trans people," he says, referring to a population that faces double the rate of unemployment as the generation population, and excessively high rates of discrimination in the workplace. Ninety percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming people reported being mistreated or harassed on the job or hid their identity as a means of avoiding it, according to a recent survey by leading advocates.
"What you see on a production like Transparent where the trans perspective is privileged, you see trans people standing up a lot taller," Ernst says. "Suddenly folks that would be kind of quiet and hiding themselves, or more likely wouldn't even be there in the first place, are literally standing taller. Like posture actually shifts." Ernst says he has already fielded inquiries from production companies looking to bring on transgender staffers, which means Transparent's hiring efforts could be setting a precedent for diversity in the entertainment industry.
While it's been a landmark year for transgender visibility in the media—including Laverne Cox's and Caitlyn Jenner's appearances on television shows and the covers of magazines—Ernst says there's still much to be done in terms of changing legislation and policy, including ensuring that transgender people have access to jobs and health care. In the meantime, stories from people like Barbie-Q and others featured in This Is Me are helping to move the national conversation forward.
"We believe that trans storytelling will evolve and get to the next level when trans people are telling the stories themselves," Ernst says. "We've barely begun to skim the surface with this kind of storytelling."
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of trans writers enlisted for Season 2 of 'Transparent.' This post has been revised to reflect the correction.