LGBT

This Webseries Sets A New Standard For Media Made By LGBT People

CREDIT: Her Story 3

After months of buzz, the webseries Her Story will finally premiere next week on YouTube. The show was written by queer people, produced by queer people, directed by queer people, and it stars queer people playing queer characters. And the best part is: it does all of these things well.

“It was important to us to show our community as a whole and who we were seeing in our community accurately,” Executive Producer Kate Fisher told ThinkProgress. “That includes good things and bad things, and we wanted to represent the women that we were seeing around us. We hadn’t seen that representation in anything previous.”

Specifically, Her Story focuses on the relationships between lesbian women and transgender women. Violet, a trans woman trying to be less reclusive, encounters Allie, a lesbian writer for a queer publication, and an attraction forms between them that neither quite understands. Meanwhile, a driven transgender lawyer named Paige works to reconcile her identity as she hides it from the straight cis men she dates. For what only amounts to about an hour of content, the six-episode series covers a lot of storytelling and character development unlike any previously seen in stories about queer lives and relationships.

A cast, a crew, a family

Laura Zak (Allie) and Jen Richards (Violet)

Laura Zak (Allie) and Jen Richards (Violet)

CREDIT: Her Story

According to Jen Richards, who stars as Violet and also co-wrote the show, Her Story‘s authenticity stems from its real world inspirations. She met co-star Laura Zak (Allie) on the set of another lesbian webseries called #Hashtag and felt something she never had before. “We started talking to each other, and really super transparently honestly I was just very attracted to Laura and just intrigued by her and kind of wanted more time with her,” she told ThinkProgress. “But I was also really self-conscious of what that meant for my own identity since I’d almost exclusively dated men. It was something like, ‘What does this mean for me as a trans woman?’ and some of the same questions were being raised for Laura as a lesbian.”

When the lesbian production company behind #Hashtag invited Richards to write something, she asked Zak to join her, “both because I liked her writing and because she knew that world, but also because I kind of wanted to spend more time with her. So that was a natural part of the story line, that our characters very much reflected what we were going through as people.”

Jill Solloway, creator of the Amazon series Transparent, had mentored Richards about screenwriting and at one point told her, “Your first script is therapy.” The result was Her Story.

The connection between Richards and Zak was only the first of many that led to the final product. Fisher joined as producer because she was Zak’s roommate, and Angelica Ross (Paige) joined the cast because she was Richards’ roommate. Ultimately, these kinds of connections were important for finding the many queer people who were responsible for the final product.

“We made a very conscious effort to ensure that the crew, not just for production but also post-production — and even the music we used in the series — is all by people within our communities,” Fisher explained. Finding that talent was “tricky,” not because it’s not out there, but because many of the pathways for finding queer professionals did not exist.

Fisher felt it was definitely worth the effort to assemble such a cast and crew. “It was family. Everyone felt represented, everybody felt seen, everybody felt calm and collected, like they didn’t have to worry about being misgendered, or they could talk openly about their relationships. There was never a feeling of having to hide anything, which hopefully shows in the product.”

Richards agreed that this significantly impacted the quality of the finished product. “This whole project has been a collaboration between trans women and queer cis women. I hope that we’re proof to the contrary of what some of the normal cliches about our communities are, that in fact we actually do have a lot in common, and that we do form relationships, and that we do often work together.

Both hope Her Story can be a model for the importance of having queer people involved when producing queer media. Richards, who consulted for The Danish Girl, had ample praise for Eddie Redmayne’s commitment to honoring trans women in the starring role, but still felt the casting reflected the persistence of a barrier to trans actors in Hollywood.

“I think for a lot of us who’ve been involved with these projects behind the scenes, our main concern has been: would we choose these people to play these roles? No. But it’s happening. It’s happening because of a reality of Hollywood that we accept, that we understand is the truth. And then we are working from the inside to change it, to try to make it a little bit better, and to try to carve out space for more and for better representations, and to try to provide a place at the table for trans people themselves.”

Richards actually worries that these portrayals have consequences because they reinforce the myth that trans women are just men in women’s clothing. “When you have a cis man play a trans women, ultimately, one of the consequences of that is that some trans woman is going to be violently assaulted.” Her male partner’s own internalized homophobia will be triggered because he “is afraid that other people are going to see trans women as men. That’s perpetuated every time a cis man plays a trans woman. That’s a reality and that’s a reality I can’t help but be mindful of.

Fisher, who admitted, “I’m coming at this from a very privileged cis white lesbian perspective,” totally agrees. “I’m very much in the camp that these stories need to be told by the people who’ve experienced them and who are within the community.” She acknowledged an understanding for why decisions like casting Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl or Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent are made, but feels “it’s just vitally important” to both the quality of the film-making and to trans lives in general “to be authentic in the process, both in casting and in production.”

Stories that have never been told

Angelica Ross (Paige) and Jen Richards (Violet)

Angelica Ross (Paige) and Jen Richards (Violet)

CREDIT: Her Story

Indeed, authenticity shines through in Her Story. The stories exhibit an elegant simplicity that is compelling because of just how refreshingly unique and original the characters are.

Referring to feedback they’ve already received at screenings, Richards proudly reported, “We have successfully turned what are very normal events in our lives into a compelling story that audiences connect to.” That affirmation has inspired her to consider just how many other simple life experiences are important stories deserving of treatment. “We feel really blessed because we’re in this very, very rare opportunity that is not given to many artists in history, which is the chance to tell a story that hasn’t been told before.”

The friendship between Violet and Paige is a clear example, but ironically one many viewers haven’t even noticed. “We rarely see friendships between trans people on screen, and we rarely see friendships across racial difference where race is actually a component in the conversation that’s actually talked about.” In a way, Richards is kind of glad viewers aren’t noticing two trans women being friends as a big deal, but for her, it still feels profound.

“For so long, we weren’t supposed to be with each other. We weren’t supposed to be in public with each other. We weren’t supposed to acknowledge each other. We were supposed to transition and hide and never be seen with another trans woman, because it increases your chances of being clocked.”

Likewise, the characters invert a lot of traditional racial expectations. Paige is a black trans woman who is a very successful civil rights lawyer, while Violet is a white trans woman who has experienced violence and poverty.

Richards is looking forward to future opportunities to further explore Violet’s character. “What Violet goes through is what many, many trans women go through. They often lose their jobs. They often turn to sex work, either for the affirmation that it brings in terms of male desire for them and their womanhood, or for economic reasons, or both, or for other reasons entirely. It’s often true that that sex work can lead to drug addiction, it can lead to violence, it can lead to a host of other issues that result in all kinds of different traumas for trans women and require different ways of coping. I would say that Violet’s story is not unique. It’s very common in the trans community, but it’s something that we don’t talk much about.” One exception is the Oscar-snubbed film Tangerine, which similarly explored these issues.

Fisher hopes Her Story‘s authentic characters will have a big impact on the different people who see them and connect with them. “From my perspective, growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I would cling to every little tiny even hint of kind of a lesbian character or story line or plot line. It would keep me going from weeks on end.” She confessed, “I had Personal Best as a VHS that I hid under my bed and pulled out whenever I knew no one was going to be home. We cling to what we have access to.”

“One of the reasons I was so eager to be involved is it did give us that chance to create content that hopefully some kid in the middle of nowhere would see and feel represented and have that glimmer of hope of seeing someone, seeing themselves on the screen — even if it’s just a computer screen — and feeling seen, and feeling like, ‘This is a community that I’m a part of. Maybe I don’t feel it like now, but I know I can be a part of it later.’”

It could also have an impact on people who simply are unfamiliar with the lesbian and trans women communities. “If you don’t see it, it still feels so much like an ‘other.'”

That’s why, Fisher explained, it was important for them to make sure the series is available to everybody. “Having that access is vitally important, not just for those of us who are queer weirdos growing up in the middle of nowhere who want to see ourselves represented, but also for the people outside the community who don’t get to see us. It’s not necessarily normalizing the LGBTQ community, but at least making us more a part of this world that some people don’t consider us to be a part of. That was why it was so important for us to be able to release it for free online. It’s going to be on YouTube; it can be watched anywhere on the world, regardless of age or income. You don’t have to have a credit card, you don’t have to have your parents’ permission. It’ll be out there and that’s important to us.”

The limitations of trans visibility

Angelica Ross (Paige) and Christian Ochoa (James)

Angelica Ross (Paige) and Christian Ochoa (James)

CREDIT: Her Story

In many ways, a queer-made series about queer characters epitomizes the so-called “transgender tipping point,” but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg.

Richards called the surge of trans visibility over the past few years a “whirlwind.” “It just happened so much quicker than any of us could have anticipated.” When her friend Laverne Cox was first cast on Orange Is The New Black, they weren’t ready for the huge impact the show would have. She was likewise impressed by the way author and MSNBC host Janet Mock became a household name, but “there was never enough good representation, and too much fell on Laverne and Janet’s shoulders. I mean, they were the ideal people to shoulder those burdens, but it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t fair.”

Richards scoffed at claims that there’s now a “Transgender Hollywood.” “I’m kind of gagging because there’s one trans character on network television, and it’s played by a cis woman and it’s on a soap opera. That’s it. That’s not trans Hollywood.” Actor Scott Turner Schofield, a transgender man who contributed to Her Story, did join the cast of The Bold and the Beautiful last year, but the character he mentors, played by cis actress Karla Mosley, remains the only trans woman character on a network television series. Shows like Orange Is The New Black, Sense8, and Transparent are helping increase visibility, but they’re also behind Netflix and Amazon’s paywalls.

“We see all these stories coming out about trans representation and visibility while we’re also watching the murder rates set record highs, while we’re still seeing all the same systemic issues. In addition to all the same shit we’re always seeing in terms of unemployment, and HIV rates not going down, murder rates still going up, homelessness still there, queer youth at risk — while we’re seeing all this we’re also seeing a backlash caused by the visibility. We’re seeing people target trans people, we’re seeing more anti-trans rhetoric in politics, we’re seeing more anti-trans legislation, so I have a lot of complicated feelings about visibility.”

Referring to her role in Caitlyn Jenner’s docuseries last summer, Richards acknowledged, “I’ve met so many people who saw I Am Cait and it impacted their lives in very real ways, and I’m very aware of that and very very grateful for it. I know that’s Caitlyn’s intention, but until we actually see people’s material lives improving, it’s hard to put too much stake in visibility as a single strategy.”

Conflict within the community

Fawzia Mirza (Kat), Kristina Mitchell (Jenna), Laura Zak (Allie), and Caroline Whitney Smith (Lisa),

Fawzia Mirza (Kat), Kristina Mitchell (Jenna), Laura Zak (Allie), and Caroline Whitney Smith (Lisa),

One of Her Story‘s primary conflicts involves a lesbian character with anti-trans views. Lisa, portrayed tartly by Caroline Whitney Smith, reflects the views of radical feminism that trans women are not women and threaten cis women’s sense of safety. The plot line mirrors a similar thread from season 2 of Transparent, which addressed the real-world controversy of a women’s festival with a trans-exclusive policy.

For Fisher, she thought it was important that the series show that conflict within the LGBT community, because it’s very real. Many who have seen Her Story at screenings ask if Lisa is a real person, “And we’re just like, ‘Oh my God. Yes. You have no idea.'”

“A lot of people have this notion that we’re all kind of on the same level. We all think the same way. We’re all progressive. It was important for us to show there are prejudices outside of our community and prejudices inside our community. It is something that is being represented more now and it’s getting some publicity because there is more representation of the trans community in the public, so those against trans rights are going to come out more because of it.”

Though the short web series format provides limited opportunities to develop Lisa’s character, enough context is available to start to explain just how she came to have the views she has. “We didn’t want her just to be a villain,” Richards explained. “We wanted her to be a character that had a perspective and that perspective was there for a reason. So in our minds, she was someone who was, like many lesbians, a survivor of violence — probably even sexual violence from men and men exclusively — and also works in a women’s shelter where that’s very definitive. The women are there because of violence perpetrated by men.” She then “just goes a little too far and conflates those patriarchal issues and toxic masculinity with trans women.”

“So it’s not just that they hate trans people because they’re awful people. It’s like no, they’re traumatized. They’re coming from a place of trauma and that’s informing their perspective. Does that make it okay? No, because she ends up reenacting some of the same traumas against people. She doesn’t know that she’s ended up doing violence as well, so there’s a blind spot there. But it’s real, and it’s complicated, and it’s something we’d love to explore much more as we move forward.”

Everyone involved hopes that the webseries debuting next week is just the beginning of Her Story‘s journey. Fisher confirmed they’ve already laid out treatment for a full 10-episode series with 30-minute episodes that expands far beyond this first foray into these characters’ journeys. It’s just a matter of finding a network to take up the cause and expand the show.

“I hope people remember that this is just a little hyper-independent micro-budget web series,” Richards pleaded. “This is an hour of material. I think it’s indicative of how starved we are for authentic trans and queer representation, the amount of attention this little web series has gotten before it’s even out.”

Regardless of its future, Fisher hopes viewers from all stripes can just connect to the show “on a personal and a human level — here are these people who are falling for each other and I can get behind that, I can root for that.” For all the themes about gender and sexuality, the show is about “rooting for love.” Viewers will no doubt root for Her Story.