Early in the just-launched web series Her Story, streaming now on YouTube, Violet (Jen Richards) and Allie (Laura Zak) have lunch at a laid-back L.A. restaurant for the first time. Allie’s writing an article about trans women for a local gay rag. She asks Vi whether she was a gay man pre-transition, then apologizes when Vi laughs awkwardly and demurs.
“It’s OK,” Vi says. “Before transition, I actually dated women.” When Allie asks her whether her current preference for men means Vi prefers straight men over gay men, she replies, “It’s not about them. It’s about me. When I’m with a man I have no doubt about my womanhood. My body next to theirs is so obviously feminine.”
Vi goes on to talk about how she can’t help but notice, for example, how much bigger her hands are compared to Allie’s — and how it makes it harder for her as a trans woman to see herself with a cis woman.
This is the kind of deeply complicated insight that escapes writers who observe trans experience from the outside rather than living it from within. When Her Story screened for the first time at the NewFest LGBT Film Festival in New York last October, a palpable silence followed this scene, punctuated by sniffles, as it brought a number of trans women in the audience to tears.
Besides starring in Her Story, Richards and Zak also co-wrote the script. Richards’ close friend and former roommate Angelica Ross plays the third lead, Paige, a black trans civil rights lawyer who has to deal with not disclosing her status in both her personal and professional lives. Another trans woman, Sydney Freeland, directed the series, and Zak’s friend Katherine Fisher serves as head producer.
At a time when trans people are titillating curiosities for mainstream audiences, the worlds of film and television are finally beginning to spotlight trans lives — but in almost all cases, those stories are being told by cisgender creators, with cisgender actors. When accused of cashing in on trans stories without actually involving the creative talent of trans people, higher-ups in entertainment tend to offer this excuse: There just aren’t enough qualified trans directors, writers, and actors to go around. With Her Story, Richards, Zak, and Ross set out to blow major holes in that excuse — while also, of course, creating a high-quality series on par with mainstream standards, a success in its own right.
“I’m so glad it’s good,” Laverne Cox told the gathered audience at NewFest before she moderated a Q&A with the cast and crew, likely echoing the sentiment of everyone in the room. Her Story is a groundbreaking show that explores trans and queer women’s lives in deeply nuanced ways, one that moves squarely away from depictions of trans women as stereotyped curiosities for mainstream audiences.
“Originally the scale was very small,” Zak told BuzzFeed News about the original plan for Her Story. “We were just wanting to do something very low-budget shot in Chicago, that probably only our friends would see.”
Zak and Richards had met on the set of another queer web series, #Hashtag, where Richards had a cameo as a trans waitress who has a flirtatious moment with Zak’s character. Richards was just starting out as an actress and writer in Los Angeles after doing trans advocacy work in Chicago, while Zak had more experience as the series co-creator of #Hashtag, after almost a decade as a manager and event producer for Eve Ensler’s V-Day women’s anti-violence project.
Zak described herself and Richards as having “a lot of friend chemistry,” so when Richards brought up the idea of exploring the relationship between their trans and cis women’s characters in #Hashtag, Zak agreed to co-write and find a producer.
“We pretty quickly decided to craft an entirely new story and new world separate from the previous web series,” Zak said. “It felt like this story, and this type of love story, really deserved its own show and its own platform.”
The original idea also included a major plotline based on the experiences of Richards’ Chicago roommate Ross, the CEO of TransTech Social Enterprises, a design and technology firm that hires and trains trans people. In Her Story, Ross plays civil rights attorney Paige, who dates men and constantly struggles about when to tell them she’s trans.
“It was always a given that [Ross] was going to be a part of it,” Richards told BuzzFeed News. “I really just felt like I had this bright shining star who wasn't up in the sky yet, and I had the chance to harness some of its power.”
“From the beginning it all felt very communal; it felt like we were all in this together.”
With a primary cast in place, Zak showed the script to Katherine Fisher, a friend who was starting her own production company after working for many years as Events Director at V-Day, and Fisher decided to tackle Her Story as her first project. “I came into this really in love with the script and wanting to put us in a position where Jen and Laura and Angelica can do their best work, trying to create that kind of safe space,” Fisher told BuzzFeed News.
The creative team’s first task was to find a director, and one of the other producers for the show, Sarah Baker Grillo, came up with the idea of approaching Sydney Freeland, who had just directed the feature Drunktown’s Finest, which featured a transgender character — though, at the time, the team had no idea that Freeland was trans herself.
“When I met with them, they were talking to me about Janet Mock and went on about her background as though they were talking to someone who wasn’t trans,” Freeland told BuzzFeed News. “I assumed they already knew. I thought these people were just really really polite!”
Fisher went on to assemble the rest of the cast and crew, which ended up consisting of about 80% women, half of whom were either queer or trans. Principal photography took place over 14 days in late April and early May, after which they reshot a couple of scenes in August.
“When we first showed up on set the first day, we were really overwhelmed,” Richards said. “We couldn’t believe this little idea we had commanded so many resources and so many talents.”
Richards also emphasized that many people cut their pay rates to support the show, which operated on a $100,000 production budget — modest by Hollywood standards — raised through a crowdfunding campaign, modest grants, and private donors. “From the beginning it all felt very communal; it felt like we were all in this together.”
Ross also relishes having a capable team behind Her Story. “Usually when you’re trying to get visibility around something as a trans person, you really have to hustle yourself. So to be a part of something where someone’s taking care of [production], it’s a huge gift.”
Allie and her lesbian friends Lisa (Caroline Whitney Smith) and Kat (Fawzia Mirza).
Her Story doesn’t only depict trans women’s experiences of themselves, but also how cisgender people deal with them. It’s a show that doesn’t sugarcoat the discrimination trans women often experience — and it avoids the easy platitudes that often accompany sympathetic depictions of trans people written by cis people.
The most cringe-inducing cis person in the show is Lisa (Caroline Whitney Smith), a lesbian friend of Allie’s who refuses to gender trans women using female pronouns and tells Paige that trans women should be banned from women’s shelters. When Allie and Lisa fold laundry together with a couple of other lesbian friends, the group suspects Allie of having a crush on Vi. They then discuss the question of whether trans women can really be lesbians. Lisa argues that no one with a penis can be a lesbian.
“If a guy wants to throw on a skirt and call himself Veronica, that’s fine,” Lisa says. "I mean, I don’t think he has to chop his dick off. But I don’t think I have to share a bathroom with him.” This is when Allie finally gets up and leaves.
It’s the kind of scene that would be so much harder to do without transgender people involved; the line between perpetuating transphobia and confronting it is really thin. More than adroitly depicting trans women’s points of view, Her Story also explores cis people’s reactions to trans women with enormous depth.
When Paige goes out with a handsome guy named James (Christian Ochoa), she also has to navigate the possibility that her cis date might react to her negatively. “You seem like a decent guy, so I want to put something on the table before we commit to a whole evening,” Paige says. But when James continues to flirt with her, she takes a beat then backtracks, deciding not to reveal her trans status.
While previous narratives like The Crying Game (1992) have privileged cisgender men’s reactions to a trans woman’s revelation of her history, Her Story focuses on the much more psychologically complicated struggle trans women who pass for cis go through as they decide when to talk about their past. Her Story eschews the easy spectacle of trans revelation to explore the murkier emotional and ethical terrain of when exactly a trans woman should disclose her status and who should have the privilege of knowing.
“There were several instances where we definitely felt like we had a shorthand, talking to Jen or talking to Angelica about a situation,” Freeland said about shooting these scenes. Freeland feels that being trans herself promoted the feeling of genuineness she desired as she directed Her Story, because she was able to discuss key moments with Richards and Ross to make sure they felt right based on their collective experiences.
Apart from writing and directing, Her Story also features trans women playing trans women, an imperative for the creators at a time when major trans roles have gone to cisgender people, like Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.
“Society keeps telling people that trans women are really men. It encourages people to continue to do that when cis men keep playing trans women’s roles,” Richards said.
“I can't waste my time complaining when I could be making space for what it is I want to see.”
Ross is also sensitive to the idea that there aren’t enough trans women who have the acting training to play themselves. “Society frequently makes generalizations about our community without being really qualified,” she said. Ross noted that there are many trans women who grew up studying drama and were only derailed by the difficulties of transition, which is also what happened to her.
“I can't waste my time complaining when I could be making space for what it is I want to see,” Ross said. She emphasized that Her Story itself and her performance is her way of addressing the criticism that trans actors are not talented enough to play trans roles.
“The argument is now moot,” Ross concluded. “There’s already a vast sea of talent in our community.”
The creators hope that the creativity and talent evident in Her Story will attract media companies who will be interested in expanding the show into a full series. “Ideally we’d love to do something with Netflix, Amazon, or a similar service,” Zak said. “Our idea would be to treat what we’ve already shot as an independently produced pilot. What we’ve shot so far would amount to the first episode or the first couple of episodes.”
“A real priority is mapping out what would happen if we got a full season,” Richards said, in anticipation of the possibility that the series would get picked up. “I’m just brimming with excitement.”
Should Her Story get picked up and made into a full series, it would mark another major milestone in the development of trans stories on television, after the surprise feature film success of Tangerine last year. Even as Transparent has been lauded as a major step forward in representing trans characters on screen, and the ensemble show Sense8 features a significant and fully realized trans woman character, Her Story breaks barriers along a number of fronts by centering trans and queer women’s perspectives, thanks to the creative talent of people who’ve lived the experiences the show depicts.