When Amazon launched Transparent in September, it was one of this year’s many breakthrough moments in transgender visibility.
The comedic drama brought depth to the challenges of being a transgender person, exploring the life of a Los Angeles family whose patriarch, Mort, comes out to his children as Maura.
“My whole life, I’ve been dressing up as a man,” Maura tells her daughter at one point.
The show explores her transition into a new public life as well as the emotionally fraught history of transgender people living on the margins of mainstream culture.
Shaping the story with USC’s help
USC had a hand in telling that story: ONE Archives at USC Libraries, the largest LGBT archive in the world, was visited by Transparent creator Jill Soloway and her writing staff during the research phase of the show.
ONE Archives provided transgender activist periodicals from the 1960s through the 1990s that shaped the story and characters; the show’s staff studied magazines like Chrysalis, Transvestia and TS-TV Tapestry, coming away with photocopies that covered the walls of the writers room.
The articles in those magazines ranged from coming out experiences to political manifestos and makeup tips, said Loni Shibuyama, an archivist with ONE.
Like many LGBT magazines, those publications — which explained where to find support groups, trans*-friendly doctors and businesses —sometimes represented the only outlets for readers to find information about people like themselves, Shibuyama said.
“These were all limited distribution,” she said. “If you were a trans* person living in a small town in the Midwest, you might grab one of these in a major city and find out where people in your state were meeting.
“These magazines gave the community a voice and let its members know they weren’t alone,” Shibuyama added.
In one episode of Transparent, Maura and a friend attend a retreat for cross-dressers. The show depicts the uneasy tension between transvestites, who are generally straight, and transgender people, whose experience throws doubt on the gender they were born with or even the notion of a permanent gender.
These scenes in particular were informed by material found at ONE Archives, said Zackary Drucker, one of two transgender artists brought on as consultants to ensure the show depicted the trans* community authentically and with sensitivity.
“It’s based on events and community organizing that was happening in the ’90s,” Drucker said. “Cross-dressers were sort of a more organized caucus before trans* women. Cross-dressers wanted to set themselves apart.”
The fact that many transgender women first found their identities through cross-dressing was incorporated into Maura’s backstory. So was the sense of isolation with which many transgender people live.
Trans* people for so long have been satellites. It’s been a fractured community and defined by its trauma.
“Trans* people for so long have been satellites. It’s been a fractured community and defined by its trauma,” Drucker said.
Coupling creativity with realistic depictions
Drucker and her partner, Rhys Ernst, met in Los Angeles as Drucker was transitioning to female and Ernst to male (Relationship, a collection of photographs documenting this period in their lives, was exhibited this year at the Whitney Biennial). They were charged with hiring trans* cast members for Transparent and overseeing various creative projects on the show.
Drucker said that growing up, depictions of transgender people in mainstream media were rare, especially before the advent of the Internet. TV and films didn’t show characters like Maura grappling with their identity; ultimately, those struggles being out of sight leave transgender youth more alienated, with no sense of being part of a community.
“Children aware of their family history and raised with traditions have a stronger sense of self and move through the world more confidently,” Drucker said. “The same is true of trans* people. Knowing your history, that people have come before you, that the path has been cut and you’re part of something bigger, is empowering.”
Shibuyama pointed out that there were a few early spokespersons for the community, such as Christine Jorgenson, who famously received the first widely publicized sex-reassignment surgery in the 1950s. But the general trend was to go back into the closet: Trans* activist Andrea James told Shibuyama that people primarily wanted to blend in rather than pursuing activism. For that reason, “the community was hidden for a long time.”
That kept transgender issues on the margins, which is why the last couple years have been such a breakthrough. Before Transparent, Orange Is the New Black led the way with actress Laverne Cox, a transgender actress who graced the cover of Time in May.
While certainly welcome, the recent flood of news coverage creates a sense that the transgender community is somehow a new phenomenon, Drucker said. Organizations like ONE Archives — along with shows like Transparent — reveal a history that’s been part of the cultural fabric all along.
”I think it gives us a deeper place of cultural significance,” Drucker said. “The trans* community has been an underground community and an evaporating community. People who can pass as cis-gender, do. We’re constantly being assimilated into invisibility. And there are people who are visibly trans* who don’t have the privilege of fading into the dominant culture.”
A second season of Transparent is in the works, and while Drucker couldn’t say whether the writing staff would revisit ONE Archives, she personally expects to use it “over and over again.”
“I think it would behoove Hollywood to invest in LGBT history and to use ONE Archives as a resource,” she said.