Midway through the new Web series Her Story, premiering Jan. 19, an earnest young reporter named Allie writes, “It’s less that the world has changed for trans people and simply that we are seeing them as people.”
Among the many quiet revolutions of Her Story, a soapy L.A. drama co-written by I Am Cait series regular Jen Richards and actor-writer Laura Zak, is that it portrays trans women as people rather than plot points. In a media moment obsessed with all things gender, Her Story isn’t just one of the most authentic portrayals of trans life, it’s also a damn good and refreshingly nuanced tale about women falling in love.
Richards, a transgender advocate, plays Violet, a trans waitress who moved to L.A. to leave behind a past that she prefers to leave unspoken. Her trans friend Paige, played by TransTech CEO Angelica Ross, is a driven attorney for the civil rights organization Lambda Legal harboring a surprising crush on the equally confident James (Christian Ochoa).
That leaves Allie (Zak), who asks to interview Violet for a story on trans women but soon finds herself, let’s say, getting close to the story, much to the dismay of her transphobic friend Lisa (Caroline Whitney Smith).
Over the course of six, nine-minute-long episodes directed by Sydney Freeland (Drunktown’s Finest), these threads all intertwine in true serial fashion. Her Story doesn’t try to push the social drama genre forward—true to form, some of the most heated scenes play out in an outdoor coffee shop—but it doesn’t have to.
What’s new here is that actual transgender actors are playing transgender people who aren’t inserted into a story to die tragically or to add diversity to a cast. Instead, Her Story chooses to acknowledge the radical truth that transgender people love and are loved in return, no matter how much violence and hatred threatens their community. This is a show about Violet and Paige—who they are, what they want, and what stands in their way—not a set of Very Special Episodes about trans sex and dating.
For the uninitiated, however, there’s plenty of incidental education to be had along the way while the drama unfolds. As Allie develops feelings for Violet, the show touches on transphobia within the lesbian community. Some of Allie’s gay friends tease her but the more tolerant Kat (Fawzia Mirza) sets her at ease: “Last time I checked, lesbian means loving women, so what’s the problem?” Other subplots explore issues of disclosure—how, when, and should people tell sexual partners that they are transgender—and the economic hardships of trans life.
If that sounds like a lot for less than an hour of runtime, it is, but Her Story mostly manages to find natural places in the storyline for its commentary. This is not a dour moralistic drama, although it is often, of necessity, political by way of the personal.
In fact, simply by having sex lives, Violet and Paige are already pushing the envelope for trans characters. It took Transparent a whole season and, not coincidentally, the addition of trans writer Our Lady J to realize that maybe Maura Pfefferman was a sexual being. Said the writer in an MTV interview, “everyone is getting fucked in season one except Maura.”
Her Story, by contrast, gives its characters sexual desire from the beginning.
In the premiere’s opening minutes, Violet scrolls through the “m4t” (men for transgender) and “w4t” (women for transgender) sections of Craigslist, finding far more results in the former category than the latter and setting up one of the show’s central identity questions: Does she sleep with men out of convenience or out of desire? Paige, on the other hand, is exclusively interested in men, but, as a high-powered female attorney who is both black and transgender, faces dating hurdles of her own.
Not only is the show unflinchingly honest about the fact that trans people have sexual desire, it also dares to depict trans people as objects of that same desire. It’s no secret that trans people are attractive just like any other person can be attractive, it’s just that mainstream media has been too focused on using them as crass punchlines to notice.
“Guess what?” wrote trans author and MSNBC host Janet Mock in a popular blog post. “Many men are attracted to women, and trans women are amongst these women.”
The same holds true for any other configuration of gender and sexuality you can dream up: Being transgender complicates dating, as Her Story often highlights, but it is not a scarlet letter and the series doesn’t treat it like one. Violet and Paige are sexy, interesting, alluring characters in their own very different ways, not just to the audience but to the characters around them. The show doesn’t put them in a corner, recognizing instead that they live complex lives in parallel with friends and lovers, some trans, some not.
In the piece Allie ends up penning partway through the series, she writes of her prior attitude toward transgender people, “I never questioned their total absence from my world.”
For anyone whose world is absent of trans people, Her Story is a small slice of what you’re missing.