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Transparent’s First Trans Director Silas Howard on the Shifting Politics of Queer Identity in Pop Culture

Photo: Randy Shropshire/Getty Images

The second season of Jill Soloway’s Transparent takes a deeper dive into queerness — it’s not just Maura, played by Jeffrey Tambor, who must navigate her gender and sexuality, but each member of the Pfefferman clan. The change hasn’t simply been in front of the camera, but behind it: Soloway brought a trans writer, Lady J, and a trans director, Silas Howard, into the fold for the second season. Howard was in the band Tribe 8, one of the first queercore groups from San Francisco, for many years before making his directorial debut in 2001 at Sundance with By Hook or by Crook, alongside artist Harry Dodge. (Fun fact: He’s the godfather of Dodge and Maggie Nelson’s child, Iggy.) Since then he’s made other films as well as a recent music video for Peaches’ “I Mean Something.” Vulture met up with Howard at the offices of marketing agency Girlie Action on a warm December day to talk about the shifting politics of queer identity in pop culture, resisting the straight male gaze, and shooting the hot-tub scene with Cherry Jones.

How did you get involved with Transparent?
One of the projects that I did was with Michelle Tea, who had a book,
Valencia, where she had 20 different directors interpret her character. Jill Soloway and I did one of those chapters, and so I met her in this context of indie, DIY, queer art making. Afterward, I reached out to her on Facebook and said, “I’d love to meet with you, I’d love to throw my hat in the ring.” They interviewed me for season one and it didn’t work out, but then they brought me back in to interview me for season two, and I really think Jill and Andrea Sperling, her executive producer who knew my first film, By Hook or by Crook, made it happen. They got me in the door.

Does your identity inform your practice, and more specifically, how you relate to the show?
I lived in queer failure in the three years from 1989 to 1991 after landing in San Francisco, when I was coming of age and coming out in the midst of the AIDS crisis and ACT UP. There was permission to fuck up, to do the wrong thing, to experiment, to take risks, because success was not on the horizon. There was no visibility. There was some gay visibility, but there was no queer visibility at all. We were really rebelling against a lot of things and moving into queer punk and queer experimental stuff. That is where I started, and it informs me still in terms of risk-taking and trying to find an irreverent humor that comes out of — you’re laughing just to keep your head above water. You’re just trying to have a community around you.

I transitioned late. I lived as a butch female for most of my adult life until the last eight, nine years. If I’m passing, I feel complicated about that. I don’t feel like a straight guy ever, even though my girlfriend’s femme, and maybe we present very different than a queer couple on first glance. I just feel that I really connect to that. That’s very part of my identity. I really relate to complicated, and Transparent is all about that lack of tidiness.

Jill Soloway has been very thoughtful and sensitive to how female pleasure and the body are shown and how to resist a heterosexual male gaze. Is this something you discussed with her before shooting?
It would come up organically because there was an open collaboration. Even us directors were given full permission to pitch ideas or give suggestions on a scene. When we were doing the scenes in the hot tub between Cherry Jones and Gaby Hoffmann, it was a really amazing collaborative moment. Jill had talked to Cherry about this scene and Cherry’s like, “I’m just going to get in the hot tub naked. I don’t like clothes in water, whatever.” It was coming from this meeting of minds in that Gaby’s character is really turned on by ideas and she’s awkward in this way that she’s never been, and it’s by this powerful woman. It’s hard to articulate, but it was all coming from the right place, and you just know it when it’s about these characters connecting. It’s hard to articulate, but it was so not a male gaze. It was such a feminist gaze. Unapologetically. And almost like flipping the script: Actually we get to be the super seductive moment and really taking this romance in a badass way. As a director that scene was really liberating to have this really funny, intellectual, playful moment in this hot tub with these two amazing actresses.

I feel like the show is one of the most radical depictions of sexuality I’ve seen.
It pushes against shame. I feel like it’s actively pushing against and using our discomfort, whomever’s discomfort — especially with families. It’s so wrong and it’s so messy and the boundaries of their family are so boundaryless that it’s just pushing against all these shame beats that are usually reinforced.

It also finds different ways to be sexy that are refreshing and how people actually experience their bodies.
Yeah, like even with Carrie Brownstein and Gaby in the scene where they’re sitting, and Carrie knows there’s a flirtation with Leslie, Cherry Jones’s character, but Gaby’s sitting there and basically her tit falls out. And I just go to tell her, “In case you care, it’s showing.” And she’s like, “No, it’s fine.” Just that. You don’t see that on TV. And there’s something in that simple act that is sexy and radical.

It’s sexy without feeling sexualized.
Right. Because we’re not looking, we’re not presenting her image for a sexual conversation. It’s just casual life, and that’s what’s sexy. It’s a messy kind of sexy instead of presented as
I’m doing a sexual moment. And that’s why sex scenes typically are so uninteresting to me in movies because they’re presented.

When I watched the scene where Judith Light tells Amy Landecker that she’s alone, I started crying. It was really moving.
I’m so glad you did. That’s a big compliment. The whole cast was so generous. It’s mostly just making sure you’re supporting and not getting in the way of what they’re doing. We shot the whole day in the living room with Jay and Amy and Judith, and so I felt like we actually got to live in the family dysfunction for the whole day. It built. The last shot was one of those moments — because we were going through all of these moments of tension and denial — by the time that we got to this final moment, they were ready to surrender and be very present. That’s the hardest thing ever.

Would you ever want to do your own TV show?
I have a TV show already with Ernesto Foronda. We have a treatment for a show that’s around the early ‘90s, and it’s about chosen family and these characters all trying to deal with life on life’s terms. It’s this idea of what happens not just when one person gets a death sentence — because anyone who was diagnosed with AIDS pre-’93, when the cocktail came out, you had two years to live. And I watched a lot of people make very important decisions that changed my life. Like open an art gallery or get a club going that they booked my band in. I’m going to make as much stuff as I can before … It’s based in that era of this group of misfits that form a band and accidentally help a new creative movement. I hope it gets picked up.

What do you think of the recent spate of big-budget prestige films about queer and trans people?
I was just talking about this. I try to talk about what I want to see or what’s working because I just find it makes more good happen. I loved
Carol. And I actually find there’s a weird gender divide. Women I know just love that movie and I feel like it’s so clear the urgency in it, and Cate Blanchett is like this femme top. She’s just amazing. Danish Girl I just feel like I won’t be able to say anything nice. To me, they did not understand the character so there’s no movie there.

A lot of people are talking about how it’s a big deal that you’re the first transgender director for the show. Are you excited about it? Or do you sort of bristle at that label?
. I feel totally yes about that. [Laughs.] It’s complicated because I’m not representing a whole community. I’m part of a rich community of diverse perspectives, but I think for visibility, it’s really important. And I’m very out. So, the part about being trans and a director is great. The worry, of course, is that it’s reductive or there’s some way that it’s not allowing other voices to be heard. I just worry about those kinds of complications, but it’s a luxury problem to have. I’m grateful for getting to do this.

Have you faced particular struggles as a trans man in Hollywood?
There’s a weird bittersweetness with looking at,
am I being held back? Coming from a working-class background, I felt like there were a lot of things I would get stuck on in terms of pushing forward. In a way, I’m used to living on very little, so that helped me, but I think that class is as much my struggle as dealing with being queer and trans.

It is tricky, though, right? The burden of representation is tough, and I feel the weight of it a lot. And it’s always shifting. Even with all of this attention on trans directors and trans performers, I’m waiting for the backlash. It feels like a rubber band that’s being pulled and eventually is going to get let go. And it’s not that I’m a pessimistic person. I’m not. I’m just used to hearing things like You’re not allowed to. We’re behind the boat on that. It’s already been done. It’s like, wait, there’s a whole section of the population that’s had 12 months of a certain amount of representation. But again, the connotation is that unless you’re cis, white male, middle- and upper-class, you’re not interesting past a certain point. You’re not. Your love isn’t interesting, your drug addiction isn’t interesting. Your hopes and dreams, your fuck-ups. That’s just a really deep thing to say.

Talking With Transparent’s First Trans Director