It was indeed a very happy Thanksgiving for classical pianist and “post-religious” gospel performer Our Lady J. As her fans enjoyed her new album, Picture of a Man, along with their turkey and all the trimmings, Our Lady J spilled the beans on Instagram, Twitter, and other social media: She had scored the gig sought by transgender women across America, a staff writing job on the popular Amazon series Transparent.
“I'm so happy to announce that I'll be taking the next year off from touring to dedicate my life to the Pfefferman's as staff writer for season two of #transparenttv,” she wrote. “Thank you for having faith in me, @jillsoloway. The world is beginning to see us as we have seen ourselves.”
Media outlets gobbled up this tidbit of news about the Los Angeles–based drama, which has drawn praise for its debut season. But the leftovers were long gone by the time the official announcement came Tuesday that Jill Soloway, executive producer and creator of the series, had indeed chosen Our Lady J from a small group of transgender women vying for the coveted position.
Although Our Lady J did not respond to our requests for comment, Soloway told The Advocate in an email what sealed the deal for the performer. “Our Lady J has been telling stories with her music for a long time now, so it came to no surprise that she would be capable of the narrative depth and thoughtfulness I want to dedicate to the show,” Soloway said.
Upon Transparent’s renewal for a second season earlier this fall, Soloway, who had been a writer and producer of Six Feet Under, told reporters that she felt the show needed a new voice to help the writing team delve deeper into the middle-aged transgender character of Maura, played to mostly rave reviews by Jeffrey Tambor.
In October, Soloway told the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, “In the same way where I wouldn't want a man to say, 'I can have a writers' room full of men and we can write women just fine,' I can't say that I can create a show about a transwoman and not have a transwoman writing for me."
So to solve the problem, Soloway invited trans women across the country to send in a short story, and hundreds responded (full disclosure: including this writer). Five were chosen from the pool of submissions, and those lucky five were given a crash course in writing episodic drama for television.
But Soloway stresses this process was not a contest; in an emailed response to questions from The Advocate, she called it a workshop.
“The workshop was not designed as a means of selecting a new staff writer, although we are happy that it led us to someone who we felt was a good fit for the show. This process was a response to the absence of transfeminine perspectives in the world of television, which I noticed back when I was looking for writers for the first season. This workshop was meant to be a sort of pushback against the notion that, ‘…but there are no trans TV writers.’”
Although reports in October suggested the four not chosen would walk away with a quality, polished spec script they could use to further their career in Hollywood if they so chose, that’s not what happened.
The Advocate has learned the five trans women chosen were asked to collaborate on one sample script, with Soloway’s guidance, and after three and a half days, the final decision was made.
“Though we had originally planned for each participant to walk away with their own script, we ultimately decided that a hypothetical writer’s room of a hypothetical television show would be more focused,” Soloway told The Advocate. “The way the workshop was ultimately structured, we essentially hired the writers in the workshop to develop a pilot for Amazon.”
Thanks to the workshop formula, Soloway added, “I now have many TV writers with the transfeminine experience I'd be thrilled to recommend to other producers.”
Although hiring Our Lady J gives Soloway and her team instant access to an existing fan base and trans-friendly audience, she says that wasn't part of the search process. “We weren’t at all explicitly looking for our new staff writer to have any sort of pre-packaged following,” Soloway told The Advocate.
She said the past year has been one of growth and of 20/20 hindsight: “There are a lot of things I would have done differently if I’d known the things I know now back when I was first developing this show — for example, there has been a lot of pushback in response to the fact that I cast Jeffrey Tambor, who is a cisgender straight man, as Maura.”
Soloway directly addressed criticism from those who've said that Soloway’s hiring of a transgender writer or other staffers doesn’t ameliorate having cisgender (nontrans) actors play transgender people.
“The show would not have evolved into what it is without Jeffrey’s warmth and beauty," she said, "but I now understand that it is my responsibility to use the space Jeffrey helped me cultivate to further trans representation as much as possible. The show’s fans teach me every day how important this is, and I am incorporating these observations in any way I can that might help the show to reach its full potential.”
Soloway sees her new writer as helping with that cause. “Our Lady J will bring a much-needed transfeminine perspective to our writing staff,” Soloway told The Advocate. “And I can’t wait to see how that enriches the world, but that is far from the limit of her strengths as an artist, and I am thrilled to welcome her to the team.”
Amazon officials said season 1 of Transparent remains the most-watched series on its instant video service. The second season is set to stream in 2015.
And what can fans expect? “More Pfefferman Pfuckups, love, sex, secrets, family, food, God and silliness,” Soloway told The Advocate.