A new series from filmmakers Jen Richards and Laura Zak focuses on its trans protagonist's lived experience rather than relegating her to the sidelines.
Image via Her Story
Her Story is a new series that explores the love lives of transgender and queer women. Historically, these narratives have been subsumed by the perspective of the male protagonist: She is the devastating surprise twist in his story. This has changed in the past two years to some degree, with the rise of shows like Transparent, but next week an unprecedented look into the relationships of queer and trans women will debut and stream for free on the series' website.
Writer, actress, and filmmaker Jen Richards (I am Cait) knows firsthand how terribly inaccurate, boring, and ultimately harmful the gross misrepresentation of trans sexuality truly is. She and lesbian filmmaker Laura Zak combined forces to write and star in Her Story. In an interview with Broadly, Richards explained, "The name itself, Her Story, comes down to the kind of depictions we do normally see, which is some guy picks up a girl and, to his horror and disgust, realizes she's 'really a dude'." As a transgender woman, Richards would watch cliched shows like that and wonder who the woman in question actually is—forget about the guy. "I was always thinking, Okay, but what's her story? What was it like for her to go out, meet that guy, and have to disclose? That's the story I wanted to tell: Her Story."
"Desire is apolitical," Richards said. "You don't get to dogmatically decide who your body is attracted to." This is inherent to Her Story. The series centers around two characters, portrayed by Richards and Zak, who find themselves surprisingly, and somewhat inconveniently, attracted to each other.
Desire is apolitical. You don't get to dogmatically decide who your body is attracted to.
There are longstanding, unresolved ideological arguments about transgender women in the LGBT community and beyond, Richards noted. "What happens is a man will be attracted to a woman who he later discovers is trans—or already knew is trans but he is attracted to her as a woman—but because everyone else in society says, 'But she's really a man,' it then triggers a crisis of masculinity. In certain populations, that masculinity needs to be reasserted, ultimately through violence," she said.
In fact, the prevalence of violence committed against transgender women may be representative of desire as much as of fear, or hate in the heart of the assailant. "There wouldn't be an issue if there wasn't an attraction in the first place, and a high demand," Richards said.
According to her, this dynamic exists in queer communities too, "including lesbian relationships with trans women, where they're seen as less lesbian. There's the sense that no lesbian would freely choose someone who is trans, that can only happen through some form of coercion or some form of bisexuality." Yet, Richards says, trans women know this generalization is inaccurate.
"It's so easy to dismiss trans women if that's the way you see them: They're just monsters, they're just jokes, or they're just these sad figures. But when the audience really cares about a character who just happens to be trans, it's not shoved in their face that 'this is a trans story'," Richards said. "[Zak and I] basically wanted to take all these political arguments and put them into these characters."
Her Story implants their arguments into the character's lived experience, taking a stride away from the over-politicization of transgender storytelling. "It's just a human story, a love story," Richards said. Of course, there are parts of the trans experience that are relevant to that story, the way anyone's identity impacts their lives. "That's a way of educating through storytelling, educating through caring, really," Richards said. She and Zak go one further by implicating the audience as well who, ultimately, "want [the characters] to get over those issues and just kiss already!"
At the advance screening of Her Story in New York City last fall, Laverne Cox ascended the stage as applause erupted from the crowd. She hosted the screening. A bevy of the latest transgender celebrities gathered with local advocates, community members, and allies to witness. Richards is a longtime advocate and artist, and she's well known nationally. Janet Mock (Redefining Realness, So Popular) sat in support from the third row, her hands folded in her lap. Zackary Drucker, a producer of award winning Transparent and internationally renowned artist, twisted around from her seat. She sent a kiss flying across the room. Reina Gossett, the reigning activist, writer, and filmmaker behind Happy Birthday Marsha!, a narrative trans-historical account of the Stonewall Riots, sat quietly beside her collaborator, Sasha Wortzel.
"We've had four screenings so far," Richards said. "Each time there's a group of trans women in the audience, and I watch them during the show. That's who I most care about. If they feel seen, if they feel heard, if they feel honored, then I feel that we've done something special."