When the first season of Transparent premiered on Amazon dot com I was just starting my junior year in college. I was still recovering from my first serious breakup. I was living in the East Village on 3rd street between Avenue C and D. I’d just had casual sex for the first time and it was bad and I felt lost. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted.
I remember seeing an advertisement at the bus stop on 5th and A. I remember thinking how strange it was that Amazon was making television. I remember thinking that if it starred Jeffrey Tambor it had to be worth watching. Yes, Jeffrey Tambor is the reason I started the show that would eventually change my life.
I was a cis straight boy and cis straight boys love Arrested Development.
The first episode of Transparent begins with the opening credits. Bat Mitzvah footage is cut together with clips from the landmark drag documentary The Queen. The piano music aids the nostalgia as we’re brought back to 1994 and 1968 all at once.
The familiarity I’d feel throughout the show began with these first seconds. The home video footage could be my own. 1994 was twelve years before my Bar Mitzvah, but the people in the footage looked like my relatives. When the episode began it only became more uncanny.
The first episode of Transparent was the first time I saw myself on screen. I’m not talking about Tambor’s strained attempts at portraying Maura’s trans womanhood. I’m not even talking about Alexandra Billings’ beautiful performance as Maura’s mentor Davina. I’m talking about LA Jews.
Jewish people have never been absent from media. But there’s a difference between Mel Brooks or Jerry Seinfeld and the very specific subculture of upper middle class LA Reform Jews. The way the Pfefferman family talks to each other, talks at each other, was familiar. Watching made me realize just how dramatically I was adapting my reality when I watched most TV. It made me realize how Jewish I am.
Mixed within this familiarity was something new. My family is, as far as I know, entirely cis and straight, whereas the Pfeffermans certainly are not. But like in the seamlessly spliced opening credits, the queerness, the transness, it just seemed to fit.
Trans people took issue with the casting of Jeffrey Tambor from the beginning. But I didn’t know that. Because I didn’t know any trans people. I’d only knowingly met one out trans person, and no trans women.
My love for the first season was wholly uncomplicated. I finished it in a day, and spent the entire semester convincing other people to watch it. I listened to every interview with Jill Soloway I could find and watched their first feature, Afternoon Delight, and their short film, Una Hora Por Favora, and watched all three seasons of United States of Tara and all five seasons of Six Feet Under (the latter becoming my new “favorite show of all time”).
Over winter break I rewatched the season with my parents. Despite their usual prudishness, it felt important to let them in on this new part of my life. The specific LA Judaism appealed to them and they liked it, if not quite with my fervor. I emailed my friend to tell him we’d just finished our rewatch. “I’m so obsessed with this show,” I wrote. “And now my parents know the difference between transvestite and transgender! Woo!”
We had no idea the education yet to come.
Transparent was never about a trans woman. And not just because of its unfortunate casting. The show was always about the Pfefferman family as a whole, about Maura, yes, but moreso about how her family reacted to her coming out.
Maura was married to Shelly, a scene-stealing Judith Light. And they had three kids: Sarah, Josh, and Ali. Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass, and Gaby Hoffmann are incredible in these roles, always finding ways to humanize their narcissism. Sarah begins her own journey of queer exploration, Josh confronts his teenage sexual abuse, and Ali… also begins their own journey of queer exploration and gender exploration.
While the show was imperfect when it came to transness, its commitment to messy queerness is in itself noteworthy. The variety of queer sex and the reframing of who on TV even gets to be sexy was revolutionary. And that only became more true as Jill Soloway began their own sexual and gender explorations.
Between seasons one and two, Soloway split with their husband and began dating Eileen Myles. During this time I also began what would one day be my first out queer relationship. We just didn’t know that at the time.
My girlfriend and I started watching season two at midnight. We were still deep in the early stages of our relationship, where staying up till 4am talking and fucking was normal. It made sense to stay up just once to watch a TV show.
We made it halfway through. The fifth episode ends with Josh and his pregnant girlfriend Rabbi Raquel (another stellar performance from Kathryn Hahn) deciding they need to send Josh’s 17-year-old son away. At the same time, Maura has decided that she can no longer live with Shelly. Being trans cannot simply mean her old life in a dress. She needs independence. She needs community.
It’s a devastating ending and I understood why my girlfriend asked us to stop. My desire to prolong the episodes was as strong as my desire to watch them immediately, so I agreed. We finished the next day. I felt jittery the whole time.
I loved this season even more than the first. The decision to replace the season one flashbacks with flashbacks to 1933 Berlin shouldn’t have worked. But the more ambitious season somehow clicked. I was enraptured with this dreamy window into the past, this reframing of the Holocaust story I was told all my life. The Germany of Cabaret and the Germany of Hebrew School felt like two totally different worlds and I‘d never investigated their connection. The first time I watched the season I didn’t even know Magnus Hirschfield was a real person. But I did know that I loved the costumes and the queerness and Hari Nef’s performance as Maura’s trans aunt Gittel.
The entire season was more focused on transness. Along with these flashbacks, Maura’s story gained nuance, going beyond her coming out. There were more scenes with Trace Lysette’s Shea (though not enough) and Davina became a major character. Most importantly, the season actually had a trans writer, Our Lady J, and a trans director for one episode, Silas Howard. Maybe it’s because of their involvement, or because of Soloway’s own journey, or simply the creative freedom allowed after a successful first season, but the second season of Transparent was when the show actually started feeling trans. The other Pfeffermans are still the main characters, but when the show was trans-focused it was specific, and, when I revisit it now, it feels real.
Like with season one, I rewatched the second season with my parents over winter break. Unlike the first year, this came only a few weeks after it premiered. But I didn’t mind. I hadn’t stopped feeling jittery.
Maura’s relationship with her mother and sister is a central thread of the season. Her sister doesn’t approve of her transition and seems generally bitter the way only an adult sibling can. Their mother is in her last days and she tells Maura she should be allowed to leave the world without ever having to see her son this way.
The flashbacks reveal a different story. Maura’s mother, Rose, was close with Gittel, immersed in Berlin queer culture. She knew her sister was trans and embraced her even if their mother never did. By the last episode of the season, Rose and her mother have come to the United States, leaving Gittel behind to inevitably die at the hands of Nazis.
At the same time, in the present, Maura has found the courage to visit her mother. Ali is there for support. Rose’s face is mostly blank, but she reaches for Gittel’s ring that Ali wears as a necklace. Maura’s sister walks in and it’s fair to expect the worst. Instead, they all go to the beach.
Back in the past, the years have gone by. Rose is giving birth. Rose’s husband wants to name their daughter Fey Pfefferman. “It sounds like a movie star,” he says. Rose’s mother asks how he knows it’s a girl and he replies that a father just knows.
Maura, her sister, her mother, and her child, stand on the beach watching the sunset. Maura doesn’t know her aunt was trans. Maura doesn’t know how her mom felt.
She is born and the doctor says it’s a boy. Baby Maura cries. She looks towards the camera. We end back on Maura, all grown up, not a boy, staring off at the sea.
I started to sob. Sitting in the house I grew up in, I sobbed. Next to my parents on their couch, I sobbed. Before I began taking estrogen I rarely cried. I can’t remember ever crying in front of my parents as a teenager, let alone as an adult. But in this moment I sobbed.
My parents watched silently. “I don’t know what’s happening.” I kept repeating this. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
“Do you have something to tell us?” my mom joked. It was a joke, because of course I didn’t.
“No,” I said with a laugh. And I thought I was telling the truth.
I tried to explain why I was so upset, explaining to my parents and myself. It’s just that Maura always felt like she was wrong. The whole world told her she was wrong. And she lived in pain for her whole life. But she wasn’t wrong. Her aunt was trans. Her aunt was trans and her aunt was happy, surrounded by people who loved her, who helped her, who were like her. And Maura’s mother loved her. And Maura’s mother would have loved Maura if she got to truly be with her. And Maura’s father knew she’d be a girl. It was all destined. This thing that always felt wrong, wasn’t wrong. It was meant to be. Something about that is just so beautiful.
I’d failed to explain what any of this had to do with me. My parents changed the subject and we all decided it was time to go to sleep.
Three days later I turned 22.
I graduated college and spent my first summer post-grad assisting an abusive theatre director who showed up to rehearsals drunk and berated the lead actress. It was an exhausting couple months and made me reassess the kinds of jobs I was willing to take. I just wanted to be backstage and on-set with people like Jill Soloway. I wanted to be in what I thought were safe, progressive spaces led by women and non-binary people. I didn’t know how to reconcile that with my own identity. I was very cautious about being in places I didn’t belong, a sign I was probably not a cis man.
Earlier that year I wrote Jill Soloway a letter. “I’m a (mostly) straight white cis male and I’m a filmmaker. If you stop reading there I wouldn’t blame you,” I began. I explained that I’d never ask to work on Transparent, despite it being my favorite show, because any job I might get should go to a trans person. But with their new show I Love Dick going into production I wondered if there might possibly be a job on it for me. I concluded with: “If your crew on I Love Dick is almost exclusively women, POC, and members of the LGBTQ+ community I’d honestly prefer it, or if a different cis straight white man is more qualified I certainly understand.” I never heard back. Obviously.
That theatre gig would be the last job in the industry I took as a man. Instead I turned to freelance videography, dog sitting, and asking my parents for money.
Then the third season came out. It opens with Rabbi Raquel giving a sermon: “Thoughts on Passover. You wake up. Two words emblazoned on your chest. It’s time.” And it was.
Compared to the near-perfection of season two, season three is a bit of a mess. Soloway responded to criticisms of the show’s whiteness with a hollow “very special episode” and a few cringey moments where Ali tries to confront their white fragility.
But one attempt to go outside the Pffermans was far more successful. Shea finally got a storyline worthy of Trace Lysette’s talents.
Starting with season one, Shea’s scenes stood out. Even then I knew in a just world Lysette would be the star of the trans show, rather than a minor character. The more she and Billings appeared on screen the more the show affected me.
At Maura’s 70th birthday, Shea and Josh meet. During a game of sardines, they end up hidden away together. Lysette does so much in this moment as Shea navigates defending Maura’s announcement to medically transition, while also gauging Josh’s comfortability with transness. Josh asks where she works and she replies Silver Reign, a strip club in LA. Josh asks her if she strips and she fires back with a smirk: “No, actually, I’m the Silver Reign IT person.”
Later in the season, Josh stops by the club. His abuser, and son’s mom, has died, and he needs to bring her ashes to his son. He wants company. And Raquel, still reeling from their breakup, has turned down his offer.
While not the best circumstances for a road trip with a new crush, it starts off really cute. Lysette makes a case for someone to give her the lead in a romcom as soon as possible. After talking about how reckless she was as a teen, Josh says that he’s happy he’s meeting her now. “Oh, honey, I know you are,” she says as she shoots him another smirk.
They stop at an abandoned water park, running around, laughing and kissing. Josh goes to unbutton her pants and she stops him. She tells him she’s HIV-positive, but she has a condom in the car. His misinformation is visible on his face. She suggests instead they look into PrEP when back in LA if he’s into this being more longterm. He shuts this down cruelly. He says he just invited her because she seemed fun. “Like a sex worker good time fun, Josh?” she asks getting heated. He says he did pay for everything and she snaps.
“Fuck you, Josh. You needed a fucking date to go tell your son his mother killed herself? I see right through you and I’m not your fucking adventure. I’m a person. I’m not your fucking adventure. Grow up, you fucking child. Fuck you.”
Trace Lysette is incredible in this moment. It could have felt over-the-top or like an education for the cis audience. Instead Lysette makes it about Shea’s pained exasperation, as frustrated with herself for thinking this could be different as she is with Josh’s ignorance.
This road trip, and Trace Lysette, were all I could think about as the season continued. I kept wondering if she would return and felt anxious and upset when she didn’t. Even during the annual flashback episode, I missed her. This 1958 tale of 12-year-old Maura sneaking off to wear girls’ clothing is beautifully written by Our Lady J and directed by Andrea Arnold with a great central performance from Sophie Giannamore, the first trans actress to play Maura. But it was too in-line with the conventional trans narrative to mean anything to me.
Then the finale ends with Shelly, and while Judith Light is an absolute treasure, this didn’t connect with me either. I felt robbed of something. I didn’t understand why the season felt so incomplete and why an incomplete season of television was upsetting me so much.
The show hadn’t given my transness the catharsis of the second season. I wanted Shea to come back. Or at least for Maura’s story to connect with that hidden part of me. Of course, I didn’t comprehend any of this. Instead, like Ali and Sarah before me, I blamed my confused queerness on a renewed interest in Judaism.
I told my girlfriend that I wanted to go to temple for Yom Kippur. I wanted to find a synagogue like Jill Soloway’s: progressive, open-minded, community-based. I wanted to be back in LA so I could literally join their congregation, but that wasn’t an option.
My girlfriend, ever the problem-solver, started Googling and discovered a temple in New York called Lab/Shul. Soloway had called their rabbi, Amichai Lau-Lavie, “a God-optional, patriarchy-toppling, Jewish modern mind.” It was perfect.
I put on a suit, took out my grandfather’s tallit, which I’d only worn a handful of times, and set off for lower Manhattan. For the first time since my Bar Mitzvah I decided to fast. Traditionally, that’s when you start fasting, but I was a high-achieving kid who lost faith upon becoming a man. My girlfriend fasted with me in solidarity.
I’d never been this excited to go to synagogue. I’d been so uncomfortable since finishing Transparent’s third season and it felt like I was about to get more episodes. I wondered if Soloway might possibly be in New York for work and therefore end up at this service.
This was absurd. The service was nice, but it was not a new season of the show. I looked around and only spotted a handful of visible queer people. And while I somehow did end up next to a famous director, it was not Soloway, but Darren Aronofsky seated beside me.
Ever the bad Jew I got my holidays mixed up and had promised my girlfriend brisket, as if my relatives on Long Island would be cooking while fasting. We didn’t eat our traditional bagels until 8:30 and we ended the night annoyed with each other, our heads pounding with alcohol and residual hunger.
One week later my girlfriend’s friend died in an accident. One month later Donald Trump was elected president. Life was suddenly so different, so it went back to being the same. Transparent, Judaism, my confused sense of self. None of it seemed important.
On New Year’s Eve, my sister’s friend said the word tranny and we got into a fight. Already drunk, I left the party and drank an entire bottle of champagne by myself. I blacked out early, and took naked photos of my male body in the mirror.
It was the last time I’d start a new year as a man.
Two days before I Love Dick was released on Amazon, Jill Soloway was on Fresh Air. I listened to the interview as I went through my normal routine at the gym.
I’d already heard something about Soloway identifying as non-binary, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I had one friend from high school who identified that way, but we hadn’t talked in awhile.
“Okay, I have success. I have a TV show. I won an award. I have everything I thought I wanted. Why am I still not happy?” Soloway explained. “I realized at the tender age of 50 that I had a life yet to live that I didn’t even realize was mine.”
My whole body started shaking. Like an energy or a shiver. I stopped lifting weights and sat down on a stationary bike. I didn’t pedal.
I’d never heard someone talk about transness this way. I had no idea at 50 you could reassess your gender identity. I knew some people transitioned late, but I assumed they’d known their whole life. The only thing keeping me a man was the idea that if I were trans I already would have known. All of a sudden there was this possibility.
I kept sitting on the bike.
My girlfriend and I watched all eight episodes of I Love Dick in one night. We split a bottle of wine and as I got drunker, I became more certain I wasn’t a man.
I Love Dick isn’t even about transness. It was just so female and so queer. I knew that I needed to be a part of this world. I knew that I was a part of it.
Over the next week I came out to my best friend, my girlfriend, my therapist, and the friend from high school who’s non-binary. My therapist, not a specialist by any means, reached out to some colleagues, one of whom suggested what can only be described as a gender workbook.
As I answered the questions, my identity became clearer and clearer to me. My girlfriend began exploring her own queerness, and our mutual love of Soloway’s work suddenly made a lot more sense. As filmmakers, as queer people, we made it a goal to get as close to Jill Soloway as possible. The opportunity presented itself quicker than I ever could have imagined.
I was a fan of a website called I Heart Female Directors, a patriarchy-challenging endeavor that paired artists with love letters to women filmmakers. Film nerd culture, like Criterion DVDs or Mondo posters, is so often centered around men. It was amazing to see that kind of design work for Ida Lupino and Gina Prince-Bythewood. I sent an email thanking them for their work and added that I’d love to write to Jane Campion if they took submissions. I didn’t expect anything. I’d been writing criticism anonymously on Tumblr since beginning my transition, but I hadn’t tried to get any of it published.
One of the co-founders of the site wrote back to me. They didn’t usually work with people they didn’t know, but they wanted to make an exception. We chatted some more and she told me that she’d just started writing on the fifth season of Transparent. I hadn’t even realized the site was run by TV writers. All my talk of hating networking and I’d accidentally stumbled upon my dream connection.
Transparent’s fourth season was released a week after this email exchange. By this point, I was out to everyone except my parents and my day job. I’d been presenting as a woman all summer and I was a month away from starting on hormones. Once I had permission to be myself, I took it as quickly as possible.
For the first time, I saw hints of the show my trans peers had been watching all along. I still loved it, but Tambor’s performance grated on me. I appreciated how much time was spent with Davina, but felt annoyed by Shea’s absence. Ali coming out as non-binary was beautiful and specific, Soloway clearly drawing from their own experience, but this meant another main trans character played by a cis person. The decision to cast a second actor as young adult Maura, Zoe Van Brunt, a trans woman, was an improvement, but still a compromise. There’s one flashback where she’s allowed to be the only Maura on screen and it’s one of the best moments of the season. It hints at a show that’s less explanatory for cis people and more by trans people for trans people.
The season largely takes place in Israel, as Ali and Soloway confront their ignorance around the occupation of Palestine. It’s a choice I appreciate, considering how Jewish the show always was, and how tied American Judaism can be to an unexamined loyalty to Israel. The parallels of Ali’s gender exploration and Palestine can feel a bit off-base, but Soloway’s suggestion that Palestine is actually about a Pfefferman feels very true to Ali’s character.
It’s a great season, and in many ways works as a second half to the third season which even now strikes me as somewhat incomplete. But it doesn’t feel like a season of a show that’s about to end. Soloway had previously discussed going for seven or eight seasons, getting messier, queerer, transer, using the Pfeffermans as a tool to explore whatever they wanted, like they did with Palestine.
But that wouldn’t happen. Season four is the last full season of the show.
I was at my first trans friend’s apartment when I saw the headline.
“Jeffrey Tambor Being Investigated By Amazon On Sexual Harassment Claims; Actor ‘Adamantly’ Denies Allegations”
By November 8, 2017, headlines like this had become commonplace. This was the first one I didn’t believe. Tambor? The man who taught acting to trans people? The man who stood on an Emmy stage and asked to be the last cis man ever cast as a trans woman? The one cis straight white man in Hollywood who seemed to actually be doing things right? It’s amazing the stories we’ll tell ourselves about people we don’t know.
When I saw the accuser was Van Barnes, a trans woman, my face dropped. Of course the accusations were true. They were always true. My mind tried to reconcile this information with my belief that Jill Soloway was one of the few people in the industry who had figured out how to create a safe set.
A week later, Trace Lysette came forward with her own allegations. It feels very Pfefferman to make someone else’s experience of harassment about me, but I felt devastated. Lysette’s performance had meant so much to me, far more than Tambor’s. Knowing that Lysette was having to navigate this kind of environment while doing her incredible work enraged me. This was supposed to be the one safe industry space for Barnes and Lysette and it was not.
I assumed Jill Soloway had no idea. I assumed they were as shocked as I was.
In LA for the holidays, I got coffee with the co-founder of I Heart Female Directors. At this point, season five was planning on moving forward with or without Tambor. I still worshipped Soloway and I trusted wherever the show would go.
Unlike every meeting I’d had in New York, the co-founder bluntly asked me what kind of work I was looking for and how she could help me. She said she wasn’t sure if they were still hiring PAs for Transparent, but I should send her my resume and she’d pass it along. Despite the recent complications, this was still a dream come true.
I’d never get that job. The fifth season of Transparent would never happen.
The next year was my first full year out of the closet, my first full year on hormones. I came out at work, I attended my first pride, I had my gender marker changed on my license, and I finally started to look and feel as I always wished I had.
Towards the end of the year, Jill Soloway released a book. I never read it. I couldn’t. The excerpts I did read were too painful. All year I’d wanted to believe that Soloway had done their best. But in their own words they clarified they had not. They centered their feelings over Lysette’s. They centered their show’s legacy over the safety of the most vulnerable members of their crew, the very people their show was supposedly about.
For the first time in my life, I considered abandoning my goals of working in film and television. If this was what it’s like to work for Jill Soloway then there really wasn’t space for someone like me in the industry. They’d been my beacon long before I came out and now it was gone.
I’d just had my first piece published on Autostraddle and I thought about focusing on non-fiction and criticism full time. I went to an info session at Columbia because Leslie Jamison runs their grad program. Jamison couldn’t make the session and most of the other staff were cis white men. A large number of the student readers were cis white men as well. This wasn’t the answer. Maybe the lesson to be learned from Soloway is there’s actually no escaping patriarchy. Pretending otherwise leads to dangerous delusions.
The co-founder of I Heart Female Directors texted me asking if I might be interested in some work in LA. She had a pilot she’d written and was set to direct and she offered me a job. I said, yes.
I didn’t know if there was room for me in the industry. But I decided, in that moment, that I’d make room. I decided that I’d deal with the bullshit, the misgendering, the working with abusers. I knew I could do it, because I knew I wouldn’t be alone. Transparent was never just about one person. From the beginning, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, accomplished trans filmmakers in their own right, had been on set navigating compromises. Our Lady J, Silas Howard, Alexandra Billings, Trace Lysette, the deep supporting cast of trans talent including Alexandra Grey and Rain Valdez, were all there too.
Soloway surrounded themselves with a team of people who’d set out to transform the industry and they’ll continue to do so long after Transparent is over. Even when the work isn’t perfect, we all might change lives.
I live in LA now. I’ll watch the Transparent musical finale in a few days in the same city as the Pfeffermans. I hadn’t planned to move but as my job on the pilot came to an end, I was offered another. I broke up with my girlfriend, because, like Maura leaving Shelly in season two, my new life needed to be separate from my old one. Like all the Pfeffermans, I’d become a selfish LA Jew with an erratic sex drive who never quite knows what she wants and never quite feels satisfied.
Soon after my second job ended, when nothing was keeping me in LA except my own decisions, a new trans friend invited me to Paradiso, a monthly party aimed at queer women and non-binary people. I was almost at the club when my friend texted to say they’d be late. I couldn’t go to this alone without being considerably drunk so I ducked into a liquor store and bought two mini bottles of tequila. I hadn’t had dinner so I went to a drug store and bought some peanut butter crackers. I ate the crackers and drank the tequila in the parking lot hovered near a trash can. This is the kind of thing one does during month two of a breakup.
I walked into the largely empty club cursing myself for always being early. The alcohol was starting to settle in my brain and I felt okay, if not great. I went to the bar and got another drink. This third drink gave me permission to flirt with someone, which I did for a bit, before excusing myself to the bathroom. By this point, it was starting to get crowded. I went to get yet another drink as I kept waiting for my friend. My head swam in the darkness.
I stood patiently at the end of the bar secretly hoping it would take long enough that my friend would arrive. Then someone walked up next to me.
I remember them in sunglasses, but they surely weren’t wearing sunglasses. That was just their energy, a person who might wear sunglasses inside. They stood out in the crowd that was young even for me. They were the butch who owned the room.
Hi, Jill Soloway, I wanted to say. You’re the reason I’m at this club. You’re the reason I’m a lesbian living in Los Angeles. You’re the reason I’m drunk on cheap tequila and you’re the reason I like my body for the first time in my life. You brought transness into my life. You told me there were endless narratives and I could find my own. You care so much about legacy. Well, here I am. I’m your legacy.
I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t say anything. They smiled at me. I smiled back. They ordered two drinks and walked away. But I watched them the rest of the night. I watched as we both made bad decisions fully as ourselves.