How Well Does Transparent Handle Life After Coming Out?

Jeffrey Tambor as Maura Pfefferman on Transparent. Photo: Amazon

Winter is a trans musician, storyteller, son, brother, and Original Plumbing magazine’s Mr. Transman NYC 2013. Nicole is a non-trans journalist who writes about sexuality and gender and can remember a time not so long ago when every article about trans people or issues had to include an ad hoc definition of the term. Winter and Nicole guided us through I Am Cait, and they're back to discuss what season two of Transparent gets right and wrong about life after coming out. 

Nicole Pasulka: Hi, Winter. So nice to be back chatting about trans themes on television. Also pretty nice not to be talking about reality TV, I must confess.

This season on Transparent, Maura is living her day-to-day life as a woman. Last season was all about her transition. She told friends and family about her gender dysphoria and her new name, chose outfits, and struggled with body image and rejection. But here, right away at the beginning of season two, Maura is living. She’s at her daughter Sarah’s wedding, trying to look fly in the photo. Everyone’s talking at once, neurotic and self-absorbed as ever. Trans identities will normalize, but family drama will haunt us all until the end of time. Maura’s gender is the last thing on anyone else’s mind in this moment, until ...

Winter Laike: The wedding photographer ruins everything by calling Maura “sir!” Even after living as her true self with a family that accepts her, she still has to deal with the rest of the world’s ignorance. What seems like the slightest misgendering to anyone else can ruin a trans person’s day. What’s even more upsetting to me during this scene than the photographer’s blunder is that not a single one of Maura’s family members corrects the photographer, even though they clearly heard him, until after Maura walked away.

If there are other people who know me around when someone misgenders me, I want them to correct the person who fucked up. Some people don’t really listen when someone says, “You’ve hurt me,” but when a third party says it, it means something.

Later, Maura fingers her ex-wife, Shelly, in the bathtub. Shelly is really into it, and Maura is not. Back at the house, one of the children asks if they’re lesbians now, and both women balk. I don’t think I really need to explain the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation, but trust me, they’re fluid. Who and what a person is into may change when transitioning. Trying to put labels on it can really complicate things, too. This is why I prefer the more inclusive queer, though it is still a label.

So, is Shelly a lesbian? I know queer women who have regularly dated other women but then date someone who transitions to male. Does that make them straight? No. It seems silly to base one person’s identity on another’s.

NP: When Maura rebuffs Shelly’s attempt to get her off, too, the situation gets even more opaque. And while these were really messy scenes, there were also a lot of PSA-type encounters in this season. Times when Maura, through her exploration of her trans identity or her relationships with other trans women, has an “educational moment.”

WL: Right. This season, Maura learns that there is a trans-amorous population. She goes to the doctor for hormones and realizes she needs to get to know her body. She hears of the high rates of depression and suicide for trans people, and the struggles that some trans women of color face, including a need to do survival sex work.

But, like with I Am Cait, we have a financially well-off, white trans woman at the center of the story. There is an opportunity to share the stories of trans women of color, but the show touches on subjects briefly, mentioning that these women may engage in sex work or experience violence and stigma for their status, then moves on.

Maura can be so clueless. When she criticizes Sal, Davina's boyfriend, her closest and most supportive friend in the trans world, Maura never recognizes that she’s wrong for butting into this clearly less-privileged life. She should have left it at mentioning Sal’s unsolicited surgery consult, a mention that was warranted. Instead, Maura’s reaction is, Hey, don’t be upset with me. I’m not a terrible person. I am volunteering at the LGBT center twice a week.

NP: We do see Davina lash out at Maura and make that point, so in a way, it’s still a “learning moment.” The last thing I want to watch is a touchy-feely embrace of non-normative identities void of complexity, nuance, or any sort of realness — especially after I Am Cait. With this show, I often feel like we’re on the other side of the transgender tipping point — where transitioning doesn’t make all your problems go away and well-meaning people still act like jerks sometimes.

WL: When Maura visits her doctor to find out about getting on hormones, her doctor asks if she is sexually active, if she wants breasts (to which Maura responds, “Two, please”), and whether she plans on getting gender-reassignment surgery. “I’m gonna have to get back to you on that one,” Maura replies. The doctor suggests she take some time to get to know her body.

I think a lot of trans people may feel pressure about having procedures, and feel like they need certain body parts to fit into those outdated little binary boxes to be seen. It is super beneficial to get to know your body before making huge, irreversible decisions. A trans person may experience intense body dysphoria, or feel indifferent about their body, or like their body as it is without having any procedures. Surgery is expensive and can be traumatic. Even Davina said she's all about her original plumbing.

NP: I love that the show is talking about older people’s sexuality, though. It’s so rare. Ali, the youngest Pfefferman, and Leslie, a middle-aged butch lesbian poet, have a real romance going. Their intergenerational sex — and Ali’s general lust for Leslie — is very cool to see on TV. When a sexy and tough older lesbian walks in the room, you pay attention ... and then you hope she doesn’t say anything transphobic.

WL: Both Leslie and Maura taught at Berkeley at the same time, and it turns out Leslie was part of a group of radical feminists who were blocked from joining the editorial board by a bunch of men — one of whom was Maura back when she was living as Mort.

NP: Transparent has, at least where gender and identity are concerned, moved into territory that more closely mirrors the actual conversations, controversies, and struggles front and center in the trans, lesbian, and queer communities.

Transitioning doesn’t mean a full reset where you can’t be held accountable for any past actions. Still, gender dysphoria and the pain of living with it are real. This pain clouds people’s perceptions and messes with their lives. Maura lived as a man for a long time. As Leslie tells her, “Your pain and your privilege is separate.” She had male privilege, and she was also suffering in ways that men (and cisgender people in general) do not suffer. 

WL: The conflict escalates at the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival, which is based on a real festival called Michfest. Ali, Sarah, and Maura don’t know about Idyllwild’s ever-so-transphobic “womyn born womyn” policy (even though they do know the words to many Indigo Girls songs). Still, no one at the festival clocks Maura as trans except for an older woman, Vicki, who gives her kudos for not giving a shit about the policy.

When Maura realizes what’s going on and loses it, I’m sort of surprised there isn’t more reaction from other festivalgoers about Maura being there. Maybe the reality is that most people there don’t care whether or not you’re trans, and organizers should throw that policy on a raft and send it off on the second wave into the sunset. Only to be eaten by sharks.

NP: Ali, Maura, and Leslie’s crew of festival friends have a debate about the need for the policy, and I appreciate that Leslie tries to hold Maura accountable for her past actions without dismissing Maura’s present identity.

This stands out for me, considering the way that some media outlets have been telling stories of gender transition and trans people. For decades, the media has mostly mocked trans people and violated their privacy. Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen so much more of an understanding that harm had been committed and a genuine desire to correct the record, but the stories that are told in this generally awesome new moment of acceptance are often little more than cheerleading. They’re flat and void of nuance. As we watch Maura in the world — being selfish, sweet, goofy, awkward, and sometimes making big mistakes — are we inching toward a culture where trans people can be depicted with as much love, criticism, and understanding as everyone else? Because unless that’s where we’re headed, this whole media moment will just have been a self-congratulatory fad.

WL: Well, it’s not like television and movies are trendsetters on the topic. The internet — especially YouTube — has provided a platform for the most genuine depictions of trans people accessible to a wide audience. These are narratives about trans people, by trans people. Not actors. Not cisgender people writing about the trans experience. The existence of trans people is not a new trend that has popped up in the last few years — we’ve been here for quite some time. But now we have a fairly easy, accessible way to share our stories with others. Not only that, but platforms like YouTube provide so many resources for those who live in areas that may not have an LGBT center or a large transgender population or adequate medical care. It’s not a fad or a trend — it’s awareness.

NP: This show seems fringe in some ways, but it’s actually a showbiz adaptation of a lot of the stories that have been out there, ghettoized, for a long time. And the cast and crew is star-studded in our little world. Jiz Lee, Zackary Drucker, Jennifer Miller, Eileen Myles — these people are Kardashians. It’s weird and, I’ll admit, kind of a thrill.

WL: And the brilliant casting of Hari Nef.

NP: Who is ridiculously gorgeous.

WL: So, so gorgeous! And I’m always stoked when a trans character is actually played by a trans person.

NP: Hear, hear. And she plays Gittel, a “transsexual” who is part of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexuality in Berlin, so beautifully. I was a little skeptical about the 1933 Berlin flashbacks, but when the connection to the Pfefferman family emerged, I loved that they worked the story of the Deutsche Studentenschaft raid on the pioneering Institute for Sexuality into this season. Trauma is passed on through generations. The raid puts the pain that Maura, Sarah, Ali, and Josh are expressing into a broader context. There have been moments and worlds in which people had freedom from gender and sexual binaries, just as there have been moments of extreme repression and violence. As writer Ali Liebegott pointed out in Slate, rather than comparing the Nazi treatment of gays and transsexuals to the womyn-born-womyn policy at Idyllwild/Mich Fest, these flashbacks ask, “What if the institute had just kept going, and there was progress from that point? What would that mean for all these people who’ve suffered all this time?”

The show is about so much more than Maura’s transition, but over and over we can see how demands for normalcy in gender and sexual orientation can make people crazy and cause harm. Everyone is affected. Even Josh — whom we’ve barely mentioned.

WL: Oh, Josh. He breaks down after his life went to shit because his mom’s new boyfriend said he’s upset about not having a father. Was Mort ever a good father? I don’t understand the whole “I miss the former you” or “You’ll alway be … to me” rhetoric. Why do you grieve the “death” of a trans person’s former self instead of celebrating the present and future, especially if the past caused the trans person so much pain?

Overall, though, I enjoy the show. It leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s still way ahead of the pack.