Imagine a nightclub where reality shows about transgender women fill the floor, each competing for your attention with the same old tired cliches and themes. But then, you spot a newcomer, alone at the bar, a scripted Web series that locks eyes with you, luring you away from the rest with a story that's sorely missing from the current media love affair with everything trans.
Created and produced by a team of trans women, the new series aims to tell, for the first time, Her Story. And it's looking to create a long-term relationship.
Perhaps nothing better describes Her Story than four words featured on the home page for the forthcoming Web series: Simply, the series aims to tell "a story about women."
"These are characters struggling for their place in the world," says cocreator and costar Jen Richards. She and her team sat down with The Advocate as post-production got under way this summer to reflect on their groundbreaking show. "We poured our resources into making a very small story very well-told. We're not covering a lot of ground; it's very simple. It's a story of two couples who are just getting to know each other. That's it."
What those couples discover is something no other production of this magnitude or quality has done before: explore what it's like to date a transgender woman.
"Her Story is not like Transparent, where someone is starting their transition," Richards says. "This is our lives."
Primarly, the series's focus, as billed on its website, is a look "inside the dating lives of trans and queer women as they navigate the intersections of desire and identity."
"I'm transgender myself," says director Sydney Freeland. That's an aspect of her that Richards, cocreator and costar Laura Zak, costar Angelica Ross, and producer Katherine Fisher didn't know when they approached Freeland to direct. "I got the script and I read it, and I think the thing I really responded to was, it was showing me something I hadn't really seen before: a trans woman and a lesbian woman having a relationship."
But it was more than that which drew her to the project, Freeland says:
"On a deeper level, one thing that attracted me was that in media, trans women have a tendency to be sexualized, fetishized, and in Her Story it was kind of the opposite. It was two people getting to know each other. Hopefully that's what will attract audiences as well."
Dating while trans is a topic touched upon this summer in the premiere season of E!'s docu-series I Am Cait, in which Richards made frequent appearances. In one episode, she talked about how much would change if only one major male celebrity would openly date a trans woman. Proving that she knows the trials and tribulations of this issue inside and out, Richards authored July's comprehensive cover story for The Advocate cataloguing the internal battles of the trans community.
"The joke here is I am an activist first and foremost," says Richards. "If it were up to me, [our show] would be a series of polemical monologues in which people shout at each other, and I'd pummel someone into accepting my point of view. With Kate and Laura and Sydney and everyone, it's helped tease out the human story so it's more universal and less polemical."
In addtion to cowriting, Richards plays Violet, a newcomer to Los Angeles who is described as "just beginning to break free from a self-imposed isolation. She is charismatic but presents a cautious aloofness toward those who try to know her more deeply."
And that's where cowriter and costar Zak comes in. She plays Allie, billed as "a reporter with a passion for social change and an endless curiosity for experiences that differ from her own, Allie sometimes struggles with remaining objective."
The relationship between Violet and Allie stems from the real-life chemistry between Zak and Richards.
"We met on the set of #Hashtag," says Richards, referring to the Web series in which Zak debuted as a writer and actor. "And I wanted to spend more time with her and I thought this was a good way to do that."
"That really is the origin story, a 'meet cute' in Chicago," adds Zak. "Jen had a cameo where she was a waitress who had a bit of chemistry with my character, and we hit it off on-set, and then Jen pitched to me the idea of having a spinoff of #Hashtag where our two characters were dating. And then, as we got into the brainstorming process, it just made more sense to start fresh with totally new characters and a new story, to give us the freedom to go in whatever direction we wanted."
#Hashtag, Zak's first web series about lesbian Internet dating, lasted two seasons and was based entirely in Chicago. "I think the good thing about the Web series is it gives you so much freedom, content-wise, because there really isn't anyone other than the production company policing the content," Zak explains. "So it was a really great experience from both the writing and acting aspect."
Keeping with building a cast of real-life friends, Richards's former roommate in Chicago, Angelica Ross, also costars in Her Story. Ross is the CEO, executive director, and founder of TransTech Social Enterprises, a company that empowers trans and gender-nonconforming people through on-the-job training in leadership and workplace skills. She and Freeland joined the conversation by phone.
"Jen and Laura have started to investigate the intersections of all of these women," says Ross. "What's really interesting about Her Story, and why I'm so excited, is we're talking about things you're not going to see on other shows, which don't usually have trans writers who are able to dive deep into the nuance, [have] conversations about race and class."
One of the plot points they've discussed is the abundance of white trans lesbians and what Ross says has been the lack of acceptance among the black population of trans lesbians.
"Being a black trans woman means constantly being undervalued and underestimated," says Ross, who compared her experience now to how some perceived The Cosby Show in the '80s -- as not a real reflection of being African-American. "They don't show the success stories of black trans women. To not have me be 'the tranny prostitute,' on drugs and doing whatnot, is important. I hear all the time, people don't think we exist: high-functioning black trans professionals. But we do exist."
"That's such a big issue for us," adds Richards. "We didn't see the people in our community on television."
On Her Story, Ross's character, Paige, is a powerhouse attorney for Lambda Legal -- a woman who "projects an image of composure and success, while tending to mask her vulnerability with her ambition," according to the show's description. In the series, Paige opens up to a straight man about her trans identity as they begin dating.
"Angelica is an adult trans woman who doesn't get read as trans in public," says Richards. "So that's not something I've seen explored on television: the tensions between trans women and the queer community on television. I haven't seen a friendship between a black girl and a white girl [who are both trans]. All these things that were normal for us, our everyday experiences, that we never get to see on television."
Ross agrees, eager to show off her theatrical skills:
"This is the first project I've been able to participate in, as someone who has been acting and studied theater in college and been in musical theater forever, when I used to go on casting calls, I was very much in stealth [not disclosing my trans identity]. Trying to be authentic in a role, really having issues about having to use the full range of my voice, to the full extent, such as if the director asked me to scream. I would be nervous about doing that.
"Maybe if there's a season 2, we'll see someone realize that Paige has this musical talent."
The room erupts in laughter, as Freeland good-naturedly quips back: "Let me finish this one first!"
The way Her Story all came together caught Ross by surprise, she explains. "I was really shocked," she says, describing how her then-roommate, Richards, worked quietly on the project. "We were living together, she's writing this thing, I think it's this small thing, we each moved out," Ross to Washington, D.C., Richards to L.A.
"I was like, 'Jen: what is going on? Did you get on the casting couch, girl? Who did you sleep with to get this going so fast?' I still want to know!"
Zak chimes in: "Actually, it was my couch."
"I will unabashedly sleep my way through Hollywood," Richards adds, "if it means getting great trans content made, and you can fucking quote me on that!"
The key is to get a great story told, not to be famous, she says.
"I've been around fame," Richards matter-of-factly states. "My friends are famous. I've known Laverne [Cox] since before, I've know Janet [Mock] since before, I know [Matrix director sibling pair] the Wachowskis, and I could drop all these names, but I've seen it up close. It doesn't mean anything. Are you better able to get your stories told? That's all we're trying to do."
"We all come from a background of art and activism," says Fisher, a producer on Her Story. "Fame is good, in that you can use it as a platform to get the stories out there that you want told."
"Let's be real," says Richards. Then she unleashes that inner activist:
"This is really fun, and we love doing it, and obviously we want to do it to the best of our ability, but the reason we are making this is because I didn't know how else to address that girls in our community are getting killed. And the pace of activism, the pace of the legislation train, of getting employment in place for at-risk communities, for addressing police violence, all these issues, is a long game. It's decades and decades of work to do. And when we drill down to the heart of it, a lot of it is the stigmatization of desire for trans women. And this is a tactic to address that."
Toward that goal, Her Story refuses to shy away from the very real conflicts between trans and lesbian women.
"We have not addressed every single issue yet," says Fisher, "but one of our goals is to position Her Story so we can tell a bunch of 'Her Stories' so that we can go into various characters outside the world we've created already, and also explore the backstories of some of the characters we have."
"There's a character named Lisa," adds Zak, "who in a way speaks to a lot of the radical feminist perspective, who doesn't accept trans women as part of their community."
"This connects to a larger theme of the show about identity, but we portrayed her as someone who feels their identity has been hard-won, has gone through a lot of suffering and discrimination for her lesbian identity, and isn't terribly open to other perspectives that she feels might challenge that. We certainly tried to humanize that perspective and character. But especially for people outside the LGBTQ communities, that may be something that is not even known, that there are so many riffs even within the queer and trans communities. We tried to present a spectrum within the queer women community's perspectives on trans people."
"One of the things that drew me to it," explains Fisher, "is that a lot of these issues, you can see the politics behind some of the things represented in the script and on-screen. But it's not shoving anything down anyone's throat." Again, there is laughter at the double entendre, but the producer returns to the point that the overall concept is a simple one, and intentionally so.
Richards is especially proud of the fact that the team working behind the camera also includes transgender folks. "We had crew members who didn't know Sydney was trans," she says. "When we first started working with her, we didn't know she was trans. She didn't hide it. You don't have to be loud and overt to be trans."
Proof of that came when a member of the crew came out as trans during the production. She felt the time and place were right to admit her truth, the women say, and she found the support she needed. "We see you, come on out," Ross recalls telling her.
Ross went on to describe what she called "the aha! moment" that came about as the transgender and cisgender (nontrans) crew began working together:
"It was just amazing to see this barrier drop between trans and cis women that I've seen in society. This ties us all together, trans women, cis women, queer women, lesbians, what have you."
Richards joins in: "The broader us. For us, by us. Even the music."
Still, Richards acknowleges the incredible circumstances that led to the show's creation:
"As good as the story is, as good as the actors are, if we weren't able to get someone as talented as [director of photography Berenice Eveno], as talented as Sydney, if we didn't have 14 days with those great cameras and professional sound, you wouldn't be hearing about this. It would just be a little thing that would be cute because it's written and directed by trans people. It wouldn't be what we have today."
"Kate [Fisher] is the reason all this is happening," say Freeland and Richards together, finishing each other's sentence.
"We decided right at the beginning we didn't want to wait on money," Fisher said. "We were in a fortunate position that we had private funding to get us through production, and to get us through post-production we launched a crowdfunder campaign, through Indiegogo."
The team raised $37,875 in two months, slightly in excess of their goal.
"Our goal from the beginning," says Fisher, "was to make sure we could offer it for free." They could easily have put it behind a pay wall or solicited advertisers, she says. But that was never the spirit of the project:
"We wanted to make sure anyone who wants to watch can see it no matter where they are, what resources they have, how old they are. We wanted to make sure it can be seen. Our main goal was to get it out there. Ultimately what we want to do is prove this kind of content is content that people want."
The ultimate hope, Fisher concludes, is for Her Story to be successful enough to bring in funding "for a larger series."
Last month the team unveiled the first episode of the series as a sneak peek at NewFest in New York City, and participated in a panel dicussion about the production. The series is set to premiere on the Internet, for free, sometime around the end of January.
Watch the trailer for Her Story below.