“Let’s be honest,” said transgender writer and actor Jen Richards, standing on stage before an appreciative audience Wednesday night. At those words, a hush of anticipation fell over the auditorium in the West Hollywood City Council chambers, where more than 130 people had just seen the West Coast premiere of Her Story.
It’s a free Web series about to go live, “about the lives and loves of trans and queer women,” as described on the Her Story website.
Richards gripped the mike in one hand as she looked over to her costars, her cocreator and the producer who got them to this night. Moderator Alonso Duralde had asked her if it was exciting to be part of what’s been called the transgender tipping point, with a sudden surge in trans stories in mainstream entertainment. "Not the apex," said Duralde, "but an apex?"
“Let’s be honest. We’re the reason that’s happening,” she said, referring to the cast and crew behind this groundbreaking new series. The audience burst into applause, and not for the first time.
Among the high-profile folks in attendance were artist and activist Nikki Araguz Loyd, criminal defender Zoe Dolan, TV comedy producer Shadi Petosky, and West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath, who presented the Her Story cast and crew with a proclamation.
The meeting room was also filled with filmmakers, actors, casting agents, and fans who had put their money into the landmark production through an Indiegogo campaign. Many of those people are themselves trans.
And so, Richards said, are many of the people who worked on Her Story.
“We have a big ethic of trying to work with and employ trans people across the board,” she told the audience following the screening. “Half the music was done by trans people, one of our editors, the sound person, all sorts of people.”
Then Richards launched into what she called her favorite story. “Ultimately we wanted a trans person to direct, but there really weren’t many options,” she told the crowd. “We can’t afford the Wachowskis.”
The crowd laughed as Richards explained that the team expanded their search to include women of color and queer women, and that’s how they found Sydney Freeland, a successful Sundance veteran and Navajo filmmaker. Richards apparently felt it necessary to explain to Freeland who trans journalist, MSNBC Shift host, and author Janet Mock was.
“Um, I know,” Freeland had said to Richards, then asked, “Jen, do you know my background?”
“What do you mean?” Richards recalled asking her.
“I’m trans,” said Freeland.
That aspect of the transgender experience is a significant plot point in Her Story, which consists of several short episodes, no more than a few minutes each in duration. In just under an hour, viewers will be able to binge watch the entire season when it drops on YouTube and the Her Story website January 19.
Although this article does not contain any spoilers, it can be said that the chemistry between Richards, who plays Violet, and Allie, played by her cocreator and costar Laura Zak, is palpable. That's not surprising given what the two told The Advocate last summer: They met cute on an earlier Web series, #Hashtag, and became close friends.
She posted her appreciation for Richards — whose online handle is @smartassjen — on her Instagram page:
“Even though it's fiction, @herstoryshow feels like our diaries, not in detail, but in those very real, touching, beautiful, truthful, and sometimes painful moments portrayed with such poignancy that only you @smartassjen, as a brilliant trans writer could depict. Many of the lines you wrote for my character Paige felt like vulnerable confessions that so many #GirlsLikeUs and cis women will relate to.”
My #wcw goes out to a woman I love without condition. Even though it's fiction, @herstoryshow feels like our diaries, not in detail, but in those very real, touching, beautiful, truthful, and sometimes painful moments portrayed with such poignancy that only you @smartassjen, as a brilliant trans writer could depict. Many of the lines you wrote for my character Paige felt like vulnerable confessions that so many #GirlsLikeUs and cis women will relate to. You and I have been through so much together and my life would not be the same if you had never been written into my story. I love you girl . Now Let's share @herstoryshow with world!!!!
And anyone who is attracted to men will no doubt relate to the hunk that is actor Christian Ochoa, who revealed to The Advocate he is — like his character — straight. Strike two: He's also happily married, to a cisgender (nontrans) woman.
Ochoa's wife, Rebecca, told The Advocate she didn't see any difference in her husband kissing a trans woman compared to any other role involving a kiss. "It's just him acting and kissing a costar. It's normal. That's it." And she confirmed what Ochoa told us about taking the part. "There was no hesitation, there was no moment when he said, 'This is weird.' He was like, 'I like the script. I like the people.'"
With Richards's blessing, Ochoa took the lid off the origin of his character, James. He is loosely based on the man newly married to Mock: Aaron Tredwell.
“My character is based on an amazing story, and I wanted to give that story, that true story the strength it deserved, I wanted it to represent the actual story.”
He tenderly described a scene in which his character and Ross's are on a date: “James wasn’t looking at her as trans, and falling in love. No, he was falling in love with a person.”
His on-screen love interest, Ross, revealed at the post-screening talk that the show honors a murdered trans woman of color.
“The thing that kicks me into gear with activism around the violence directed at trans women, was Paige Clay’s murder in Chicago.”
Clay was found dead of a gunshot wound to her face in April 2012. She was 23. Her murder was never solved. And Ross, when offered a chance to name her character, chose “Paige.”
“When I heard about that, I was so furious that the mainstream media was not talking about it. So I figured just in little ways we can add that visibility to the cause.”
“I’ve been working on the issue of violence toward black and Latino trans women for four years,” Richards told the crowd. “Any kind of change is long and slow, and meanwhile just more and more people are dying. For me this was a different way of getting at the same issue.”
Another breakout star is Caroline Whitney Smith, an actress who’s appeared on Castle and Criminal Minds. In Her Story, she provides a lot of the series’ drama and conflict with her portrayal of Lisa, a butch radical feminist lesbian who refers to trans women as men and addresses them with male pronouns.
Smith told The Advocate she’s been in relationships with both women and men and fueled her performance with the experiences she’s both enjoyed and suffered.
And despite being an antagonist in season 1, Smith has been told there’s a possibility her character might find “redemption” if there is a season 2.