This New Web Series Tackles the Topic Other Transgender Shows Shy Away From
Within the first 60 seconds of the new Web series Her Story, the lead character fires off a series of questions that guide the show’s exploration into the love lives of transgender women. “Who are they? Who are they dating? Where do they go to meet people?” asks Allie, a Los Angeles–based reporter played by actor and series cowriter Laura Zak.
As Allie comes to find out after interviewing and befriending local bartender Violet, played by transgender activist and series cowriter Jen Richards, there is no single consistent answer to any one of her questions. The trans women she meets hail from different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, have different sexual orientations, and meet romantic partners in ways that can be as disparate as through Craigslist or at a café.
Richards said the story line grew out of her own range of feelings about gender and sexuality—which aren’t always easily categorized. “I’ve literally had gay relationships, straight relationships, female relationships, and they’re all different,” she said. “I was just telling a true story about my friends and I and the kind of things that we went through. It just happened to touch a nerve, and one that hasn't been explored before.”
The six-episode series, which was crowdfunded last year and is available to watch free online as of this week, is backed by star power including Vagina Monologues writer Eve Ensler, who served as executive producer. Richards said transgender director Lana Wachowski donated money to the filmmaking campaign, and Transparent creator Jill Soloway encouraged her to learn screenwriting “because she wanted there to be more trans writers in Hollywood.”
While it may seem like there’s been an explosion of transgender personalities on television in recent years, researchers at GLAAD say there’s still a lot of catching up to do. In an analysis released last year, the advocacy organization found that prime-time scripted shows had zero transgender characters, and just 2 percent of characters on cable programs were transgender. That number bumped to 7 percent for online series.
Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Amazon’s Transparent, and the E! docuseries I Am Cait have been hailed for ushering in a new era of mainstream representation and acceptance of transgender people. But each of those shows, though dissimilar, depicts characters who transitioned later in life. Both Caitlyn Jenner and the fictional Transparent lead Maura Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor) raised grown children before coming out to their families as transgender. And while season two of Transparent sees Pfefferman meeting a romantic interest (played by Anjelica Huston), none of television’s most prominent transgender characters deeply explores the intricacies of sex or dating as a young, single person.
Her Story confronts those topics head-on. Richards’ character, Violet, is living romantically with a man but finds herself falling for a woman. That woman, Allie, identifies as a lesbian but is attracted to Violet—causing friction among her gay friends, who challenge the idea of a lesbian dating a transgender woman. Meanwhile, transgender attorney Paige (played by trans actor Angelica Ross), struggles to find men who are willing to be in a committed relationship with her, sometimes choosing not to disclose her identity to potential romantic partners early on.
“So much of my sense of womanhood was built upon being someone that men find attractive—and men’s attraction to me affirmed my womanhood,” explained Richards. “There were a lot of queer women who are attracted to trans women but were worried about what other people would think. So I took all these anxieties and feelings and [portrayed them] through the lived experiences of these characters. And I want the audience to root for them to get over it.”
Richards, a Chicago native who recently moved to Los Angeles, is an activist who previously founded the blogging platform We Happy Trans as a means of countering negative representations of transgender people in the media. She also co-launched The Trans 100, an annual ranking and gala honoring transgender advocates including Laverne Cox and Janet Mock.
But to some TV viewers, Richards is best known for her appearances on Jenner’s reality show I Am Cait, during which she exchanged barbs with the Olympian, challenging some of her conservative views about LGBT people, including those on welfare. She said creating her own scripted series allowed her to craft a story that’s not always easy to tell through the sometimes-rigid expectations of community activism and nonfiction writing.
“Part of the real gift of narrative work and storytelling is getting to step aside from all that and show how real people interact in the real world and how that can be clumsy and endearing and all of those complex [things],” Richards said.
Audiences will likely be seeing more of the writer and actor on-screen—and not just as a guest star on Jenner’s show. She said the trailer for Her Story has already led her to being cast in a feature film without an audition. And while she never thought to approach major networks about producing Her Story, she’s optimistic that the first season could lead to a television deal.
“To me, there’s been a great step forward in that there’s been an increase in pressure to have trans actors play trans roles, but what we really need is more trans people in the writing room and as producers and directors,” Richards said. “Until the stories come from an authentic place, we’re not going to see the stories we need to have.”
She hopes movies and TV shows featuring transgender people can move beyond the obvious, teachable plotlines that involve transitioning or coming out. “I just want to be a lawyer or doctor and have the trans aspect of my identity secondary to the story lines,” Richards said. “There’s a lot of trans people who just want to live their lives.”