The year before I came out I watched a trans woman on TV get fucked by another woman.
Twenty minutes into the Wachowskis’ whirlwind of a show Sense8 we cut to a dimly lit bedroom in San Francisco, a mix of moans and the clang of metal already filling the soundtrack. We’ve seen flashes of her in the opening sequence, but this is our official introduction to Nomi Marks – trans woman, lesbian, hacker, recipient of her girlfriend Amanita’s strap-on.
Nomi is played by Jamie Clayton who is herself trans. The first time I saw the episode I wouldn’t have known, but now when I rewatch the scene I take pleasure in the sexy tinge of transness I recognize in her voice – even just in her moans.
“You literally just fucked my brains out,” Nomi tells Amanita. And then Amanita throws the wet rainbow dildo on the floor with a thud and a splash.
“Happy Pride,” they say to each other.
By the time it was announced that Jamie Clayton was joining the cast of The L Word: Generation Q, there had already been a small outcry at the show’s supposed lack of trans women.
A casting notice looking for two trans male actors set off a flurry of tweets from trans women wondering why a show supposedly about lesbians was prioritizing men.
This was, of course, misguided at best. Cis-dominated lesbian spaces do tend to have more transmasculine people and one of the original L Word’s greatest sins was against Max, its trans male lead. It made sense that the reboot would focus first on amending this mistake.
But most importantly, we’re not in competition. If the intention is to reflect queer community then there should be trans men, trans women, and a lot of non-binary people. We shouldn’t be fighting for a few spots in a large cis ensemble.
A month after the first two rounds of new casting, it was announced that Sophie Giannamore – a trans actress who played Young Maura on Transparent – would be joining the cast as Jordi, a rebellious teen and probable friend of Bette and Tina’s daughter Angie. The small amount of media with queer trans women has focused on teenagers and people who are older. The L Word was primarily about the messy lives of young adults so while this announcement was a relief it still felt like a consolation prize. Placing a trans girl only in the teen storyline seemed to imply that the next generation of trans women were worthy of inclusion, but it was too late for millennials.
One week later Jamie Clayton was announced as a bartender named Tess.
The excitement I felt wasn’t just because she’s a trans actress – it was because she’s Jamie Clayton. I’ll forever love her for that sex scene, but the other thing about Jamie Clayton is she’s a fucking amazing actress. She has a natural movie star charisma that captivates every moment she’s on screen. Throughout the two seasons and a movie of Sense8 she showed such a range of emotion and humor and since that show was prematurely canceled I’ve been increasingly frustrated with her lack of work. This isn’t rare for trans actors. Hollywood loves an underdog story but hates to shift power. A new trans actor is a headline; a seasoned trans actor is just, well, an actor.
But now Jamie Clayton was joining The L Word and I felt myself getting truly excited for the sequel for the first time. Still with this casting announcement so late – and having been let down by trans representation so many times – I braced myself for her to simply be in the background, to not get much of a storyline at all.
Three episodes into the show Jordi had been set up as Angie’s cool girl love interest and Tess was set to run Shane’s lesbian bar – while her new boss was being classic Shane and sleeping with Tess’ girlfriend. Neither character was very well-developed, but the potential was all there. They weren’t the focus, but they certainly weren’t forgotten.
Then an interview came out on Autostraddle with show creator Marja-Lewis Ryan where she revealed a shocking piece of information: Tess and Jordi aren’t supposed to be trans.
Marja: We have two trans actresses who are trans but their characters are not.
Riese: Wait, really?
Marja: That was something that like when I met with Jamie and was like, what’s next, how can we push forward? And she was like, what if my character’s not trans? I was like, awesome. ’cause that feels like something I didn’t know and I wouldn’t have known to do that. But most of my job is to hire well and listen. So we’ll see how that goes.
Clayton certainly isn’t the first trans actor to express a desire to be cast as cis. There are only a handful of trans-specific parts each year and most of them are consumed with the characters’ transness (usually through a cis lens). Clayton is one of many talented trans actors whose careers have progressed all too slowly after their break-out role.
But is the desire actually to be cast as cis? Or is the desire to be cast as a character granted a humanity beyond their transness? And what happens to the work itself if that transness is explicitly removed?
Indya Moore, who currently plays Angel on Pose, tweeted: “i dont think trans people wanna play cis characters, i think we just want to take on narratives in stories where the focus is not on the ways this society consumes our gender variance/identities. It’s possible to be fully trans in film/tv & NOT existentially politicized.”
Jen Richards, who last year was in Tales of the City and Mrs. Fletcher, retweeted with the comment: “So true! Whenever I play a character whose gender isn’t discussed, people applaud my being cast as cis. But unless you see a baby coming out of my vagina, my character is trans. Always. And that’s not a limitation.”
Creating a film and TV landscape where characters are only trans when the storyline is about their transness ignores all the other facets of our lives. It ignores our personhood.
And what’s especially unfortunate about making Tess and Jordi cis is the storylines they eventually received exceeded even my most optimistic expectations.
While the first few episodes of Gen Q set up a romance between Shane and Tess’ girlfriend Lena, once this flirtation was consummated Lena disappeared. The show shifted its focus towards Tess’ reaction – and her wavering sobriety.
During episode five, Tess bonds with fellow newcomer and probable fellow alcoholic Finley. It begins as a sort of mentorship after Tess’ sponsor tells her to turn her cravings towards helping someone else. They go out for brunch and we learn that Tess grew up in Vegas and has a hot showgirl mom.
But after a confrontation with Shane and ignored calls to Lena, Tess relapses. And Finley is more than happy to become her drinking buddy instead.
After closing, the two of them play a drunk, flirty game of Never Have I Ever. And then they’re making out. And then they’re getting naked. And then Finley is sticking her fingers in Tess’ mouth and putting them inside her. And then Finley is going down on her as Tess writhes in pleasure.
The scene is obviously complicated by Tess’ lapse in sobriety. Neither of these characters should be hooking up with each other. It’s objectively the wrong decision. But characters having sex they shouldn’t is a time honored L Word tradition. And for once a trans woman is involved – a trans woman actress at least.
This scene is the first time a trans actress has had sex on TV with another actress – cis or trans – besides Sense8. Transparent featured a sex scene with Maura but she was played by a cis man. And Euphoria had a few queer make outs but the only sex we see Hunter Schafer’s Jules have is with a cis man.
It’s also worth noting that Tess has sex with Finley – the closest person the new L Word has to a masc woman character. Since the first trailer premiered people have been calling Finley the new Shane and while that’s a reduction there’s no denying that Finley is the messy, endearing, soft butch heartthrob of the new show. The pairing of Tess with Finley – the message that sends – is revolutionary in a world where it’s still difficult as a trans woman to find inclusion in cis-dominated lesbian spaces. But it would’ve meant so much more if the character – not just the actress – was trans.
While Tess and Finley are having their misguided tryst, across town Angie is confessing what anyone with any sense already knew – she’s crushing hard on Jordi. After their school play – which Jordi starred in! while Angie did crew! high school theatre! – Shane asks Angie if she likes Jordi and then tells Angie that she thinks Jordi likes her too. They’re all smiley at each other and it’s painfully cute.
Next episode, Angie gets her license and immediately drives over to Jordi’s house. Angie tells Jordi she likes her. She tells her she like likes her. She tells her she maybe loves her. Jordi with a smile says she likes her too – she loves her too. And then they kiss.
Shane and her wife/ex-wife Quiara applaud from the car. I applauded too.
Underneath a YouTube preview for this episode somebody named Mollie commented: “Because I’m a high schooler I’m very happy about the high school gayness that has been added to the show I’m happy about all the gayness aaaaaaa my gay little heart”
One of the best parts of Generation Q is its ability to show queer lives across a spectrum of ages. Kids like YouTube commenter Mollie won’t just grow up knowing they can someday be gay – like those who watched the original show in secret – they can know they don’t have to wait. Angie and Jordi are adorable and it’s indicative of a new generation that Angie’s love interest would be trans without any drama. It also allows an opportunity for queer trans kids to feel the same sense of inclusion as queer cis kids – if only Jordi’s character was actually trans.
By the time the eighth and final episode of the first season airs on Sunday both Jordi and Tess will have been established as major characters in the Gen Q ensemble. And there’s no reason both of them can’t be trans in future seasons.
The thing about representation is it’s personal. Every day I go out into the world as a trans lesbian and live my life. It factors into my dynamics with friends, it impacts my sex life, and, yes, it influences the work I do for this queer women’s website. Last year for work and pleasure I watched over 150 movies about queer women and only two featured a trans woman in a leading role – both seen at Outfest, neither since released. I love watching and writing about lesbian+ film and television, but I’m always aware that the connection I feel to these works is separate from another part of my identity.
Similarly, while it’s brought me so much joy to witness the surge of trans women who have appeared on TV over the last couple years, I’ve often had to put aside my gayness to connect. I’m grateful for the two love stories with cis men Jen Richards got to play on Tales of the City and Mrs. Fletcher, the complicated love story with a cis man (well, alien) Nicole Maines is stumbling through on Supergirl, the failed crush Hunter Schafer has on a cis man on Euphoria that leads her tentatively into the arms of her queer girl friend, and, of course, the variety of love stories between trans women (and a non-binary person) with cis men on Pose. But with each of these shows I once again must ignore a part of my identity.
Not every queer show has to cover every identity which is why I’ve never been eager for a trans lesbian to appear on Pose. I simply want more – more shows, more characters, more experiences portrayed. I want to see trans love stories where cis men aren’t always framed as the prize. I want to see trans women and trans men and non-binary people with cis women but, more importantly, with each other.
I want to see trans love stories that aren’t love stories at all. I want to see trans love stories that could better be described as drunken misguided hook-ups. Because I’m a person – a messy, queer person – and that’s most of what I have.
More than any show on TV, The L Word: Generation Q has come the closest to featuring the kind of trans women representation I crave. All that needs to change is for the show to actually make the characters trans women.
There is an entire world of possibility in between ignoring a character’s transness and making their transness the focus. I live in that world every day.
Make Tess trans. Make Jordi trans. Include their transness in their other storylines. And, most importantly, keep giving them those other storylines.
The same interview with Marja-Lewis Ryan where she said these characters are cis, she mentioned the desire to have two of every identity in her writers room. But on the first season of Gen Q there was only one trans writer and no trans women. Hire a trans lesbian writer for season two – we’re out here and eager to tell our stories.