Jill Soloway, even at the tail end of an exhausting day of press, is ceaselessly exuberant, remarkable for a person who should not only be weary from a long workday but also, for all intents and purposes, from the state of the world.
“I don’t think I would be able to sit here if I didn’t think I was changing the world,” the Emmy-winning creator/director/writer of Amazon’s hit series Transparent says. “We use the show so that we can go straight into the places where we want to just set off these little bombs. Kind of being an activist and being a revolutionary. Trying to break apart places where there’s stagnance is part of the fun.”
Soloway, who identifies as gender non-binary and goes by “they” pronouns, has been donning the metaphorical cape since they created Transparent almost five years ago, inspired by their own parent coming out as transgender at age 70. What was groundbreaking then seems all the more urgent now, as the show’s fourth season debuts on Amazon Prime this Friday.
The story of Mort Pfefferman, the patriarch of an endearingly caustic Los Angeles family played by Jeffrey Tambor, who decides to live his sunset years as her authentic self, as Maura, was a long overdue conversation starter for a dialogue about the transgender community, acceptance, love, safety, and rights—one that the visibility and activism of Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and, more complicatedly, Caitlyn Jenner helped bring to the mainstream.
But what seemed to be great forward momentum under the Obama administration has, over the past year, appeared to come to a screeching halt and burned rubber in reverse: anti-transgender bathroom bills, the revoking of protections for transgender students, an increase in the violence against and murders of transgender people, and, as is dominating the news, Trump’s ban on transgender service in the military.
“Saying that trans people can’t be in the military, this is absurd,” Soloway says, when I bring up how inextricably tied her series has become to the political movement and, now, the resistance.
“What is a trans person?” they say. “Somebody who is gender non-conforming? Would that be a woman who presents as male? [The military] is filled with really butch women. A lot of people define ‘trans’ with an asterisk as having all kinds of gender non-conforming people in there. [It doesn’t make sense] to talk about the medical cost of transitioning and surgery as being a burden on the military when medically transitioning is part of some people’s trans experiences. It isn’t what trans people are. It’s what trans people do.”
When you consider that, it reveals what’s really behind the call for a ban. “So then you realize this is just naming a group and trying to rouse people,” they say. “The same thing with Muslim people. The same thing with Mexican people.”
While happy and passionate while talking about issues like the trans military ban, visible advocates like Soloway have found themselves in a unique position of both having the privilege of being able to speak out about these issues through the megaphone afforded by their position, but also being compelled by the media to be the mouthpiece every single time there’s news.
“It’s weird,” Soloway admits. “I don’t always feel like it’s my place to jump out and say something on Twitter around something like the trans military ban because I know that all my followers are already feeling the way I feel.”
They’re happy to post condemnations of something like the military ban when someone wants them to, but generally they find that using Twitter as a megaphone doesn’t satisfy.
“It just doesn’t resonate in the body,” they say. “You can’t actually tell. It’s like you get a bunch of likes or you get a bunch of hate. It’s this very surface level interaction with the community. It’s like a meal that you don’t get to digest. You think you’re doing something but you’re not.”
Where they find meaning is through the show, through Transparent, through story.
“I wish I had a way to really expose the storytelling of Transparent to people who don’t understand the connection between using the othering of trans people, using the othering of any kind of people—pointing and going, ‘Them, it’s their fault!’—as a way to gain political power,” they say. “I’m more interested in finding a way to name this othering using the compassion that you can find in story. Sometimes I feel like tweeting, for me, is like tweeting to the converted.”
Jeffrey Tambor, who has two Emmys for his performance as Maura, agrees that there’s an urgency in telling this story, something that’s always been true but that has lit a fire underneath it now.
“I am, Jeffrey, furious about what’s happening politically with the military and the transgender community, as would be Maura,” he says. “So every day to me going to the set, now I drive a little faster to work and I have more of a mission statement.”
He mentions scenes from the new season in which airport TSA officers debate in front of Maura whether to have a male or female agent pat her down because she is trans and the X-ray showed a “groin abnormality,” as well as scenes in which Maura and her new boyfriend interact like any other romantic couple would.
“When you see the word transgender as a visual, it looks like a block of letters,” he says. “But when you show a scene of just Maura at her makeup table putting on sunglasses, the world changes, and you get it.”
More Season 4 Transparent coverage featuring Soloway and the cast will run on The Daily Beast in the coming weeks.