for 'transparent' writer our lady j, writing is therapy

The show’s first trans writer is ready for change to come to Hollywood. But not to Jill Soloway, who’s perfect just the way she is.

by Mattie Kahn
22 September 2016, 6:10pm

Our Lady J has been bedridden for over a week. The singer-songwriter and Transparent writer has been fluish and exhausted, only now starting to recover. "But we're putting it behind us," she exclaims when we chat, triumphant. Besides, she's gotten her voice back. And that's all that's ever mattered.

Since 2015, Our Lady J has been on the staff of the Amazon hit in addition to her career in music (watch her sing "Pink Prada Purse" and smile). She is the first trans writer on the show, tapped to join when showrunner Jill Soloway decided she would need a trans woman's perspective in order to continue to make television about a trans woman's experiences. To find one, Soloway launched a kind of boot camp and worked with trans writers to develop their skills. When it was over, she tapped Our Lady J to be a staff writer.

"It's a happy story," she says. But it's instructive, too: "Now that the model of success is there on our show, I feel there are no excuses. Hire us. Hire us to tell our stories."

On the eve of the premiere of season three, we spoke to Our Lady J about trans representation, shamanic experiences, and why her work is "like eight hours of therapy, five days a week."

If Jill Soloway were to establish the 10 commandments of writing for the show, what bits of wisdom would be in them?
She'd tell us to write from an emotional place. I'm a classical pianist. That's what I studied in school. And the best professors I had always said, "Create from an emotional space." That's the rule. But then you get out into the real world and you start creating for commerce, you forget that. And when I started working in television, I wasn't expecting to hear that because we think of TV as commerce. But that ethos is really, I think, why Transparent comes off as such an authentic show to people. Everyone writes from such an emotional space.

Was it a process to let yourself be vulnerable enough to share your feelings and experiences in the writers' room?
As a performer, there's a certain mask that you wear that creates safety. In the writers' room, I found I had to remove that mask if I was going to be completely honest about my experience. I had to access a level of vulnerability that I guess I had really only known in therapy. The show feels quite therapeutic. Really, I think the writers know me better than my therapist knows me. The job is like eight hours of therapy, five days a week.

Are there any aspects of your world that are off-limits at work?
No, honestly. There's nothing that is off-limits. I feel just so protected in the room that Jill has created and with all of the producers, all of the writers. There are no judgements. There are no wrong answers. Whether you're an actor or you work in the background or you're a grip, she says, "There are no mistakes."

We're at this critical moment in which representation of trans people and stories about trans people are more visible than they ever have been. And yet there are still too few trans people getting cast in movies and tv shows, in writers' rooms, behind the camera and in front of it. How do you live in that tension?
I think we have to bring more people into the fold. I try to use my experience and my position to bring other trans people into the business, to teach other people the craft. So, for me, it's about empowering and educating. While I can be a service to my community, I don't get caught up in what can seem like a hopeless nightmare. If you just look at the work that needs to be done, it can be really overwhelming. I just try to stay in the work, that's how I get through it.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, up to one in five transgender people report harassment in the workplace. Before joining the show, had you experienced that?
Oh, sure. I've experienced that in workplaces, especially from well-intended people who don't even realize they're carrying systemic transmisogyny. That's what kept me just wanting to be a freelance punk artist for so many years. What Jill has created on Transparent and what Amazon has nurtured—it's really the first environment where I have felt none of that whatsoever. Because systemic transmisogyny—it's checked at every point. It's so special.

And it's terrifying, too. One day, I said to Jill, "I don't ever want this to end." And she was like, "When it does, this is what you carry with you." We'll all carry this with us into our future workplaces. And hopefully, the movement grows that way.

The show is entertainment, but it's a kind of social commentary, too. Do you think it's having an effect on the way cis people who maybe haven't been challenged before think about transgender people?
Yes, and the first people who come to mind are my parents. They're really conservative. If you watched last season, you may remember Colton's parents—Blossie and Pastor Gene. Those are my parents. They're really conservative, really. But they love the show. They probably wouldn't have been exposed to it had I not been involved, but even they have been able to get past their own tastes and connect with these characters because the show is about the family of someone who transitions. It's not just about a trans person or just trans people. It is about the community that surrounds trans people and queerness. And it really shows them a lot of compassion. It's not a show that has real villains—not really. Even the people who seem like oppressors or come from what we would maybe consider "the other end" of politics—they're still treated with humanity and respect.

As writers, we try to see everyone's point of view in the show, which is why I think so many different people and maybe even unexpected people watch it. That said, I'm surprised all the time by the people who say they love the show. It feels really nice.

Looking ahead, what can we expect from season three?
I don't want to give too much away, but I'll say this: Some of our characters actually sustain relationships. So, that's exciting.

[Laughs.] I know! I'm shocked, too.


Text Mattie Kahn
Photography Ben Colen

Jill Soloway
Our Lady J