Jay Duplass: My Onscreen Transgender Romance Changed My Life (Guest Column)
An unlikely on-camera romantic pairing prompted the 'Transparent' star to "help give voice to marginalized people" in TV and film.
At the first-ever Transparent table read, Jill Soloway stood up and declared that her purpose for creating the show was to make the world a safer place for her own transgender parent. The mission was imminent and quickly expanded to safeguarding and empowering all transgender people (and eventually all marginalized/underrepresented voices).
This revolution in artmaking and culture changes everyone who comes in contact with the show. Even my character, Josh Pfefferman, whom Jill refers to as "the roving male id" of the show, opens to the idea of gender fluidity in season three. In the fallout from losing his greatest love and future child with Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), Josh finds chemistry with Shea (Trace Lysette), a gorgeous trans woman who shows up at a messy Pfefferman family soiree.
I've been told that Josh's love interest in Shea is quite possibly the first of its kind on television. A cisgender man takes interest in a trans woman simply because he is attracted to her … not a fetish, not a secret, not an experiment. Shea is simply a woman who's come into Josh's lonely world at the right place and the right time. Of course, it goes horribly wrong, but the fallout isn't due to transphobia. Josh's inherent shortsightedness and lack of empathy — his "Pfefferman-ity," if you will — is what takes them down.
Like Josh, I now experience the wide spectrum of gender on a daily basis, when only a few years ago it seemed like one of two boxes to check at the doctor's office. On Transparent, I work closely with LGBTQ and gender nonconforming people who are now my close friends — truth be told, we're all more like family. So when I'm asked what it's like to have an onscreen romance with a trans woman, my reaction is often something akin to, "Oh, you mean Trace? I guess I forgot she's trans." But it wasn't always this way. I grew up in a small, old-school Catholic world, imprinted with an above-average number of categories and judgments. I wasn't exposed to trans people in media or real life, didn't even know any openly gay people until college, and I've had fewer sexual partners in my life than Josh has in season one. So yeah, Transparent opened my heart and my mind, but it also changed my world. All of the sudden I found myself deeply entrenched in a civil rights movement, with a whole new chosen family and, wait … I'm an actor now?
If there is a downside to Transparent, it's that the bar is now extremely high. I no longer think in terms of, "How can I make something that doesn't suck?" That's how my brother, Mark, and I started as suburban New Orleans kids, with no path or expectation that we could ever make it in this industry.
Instead I now have regular conversations with my colleagues about how I, a straight white American male, can help give voice to marginalized people. Tangerine, our 2015 indie feature starring two transgender women of color, was a breakthrough experience for Mark and me, paving a new path of inclusivity that now pervades everything our company does. Recently we were having trouble casting a male lead for our Miguel Arteta-directed film, Duck Butter, until we realized that the two leads/love interests could both be women, and the script didn't need to be altered to accommodate that.
It's been a while since Togetherness, the last project Mark and I wrote and directed ourselves. We're in the process of opening our personal storytelling to a bigger, more inclusive world. But it's not about being PC or cool. We just believe it's our responsibility, especially being straight white cisgender males who are now experiencing some success, to stand up and advocate for all voices.
If we are to maintain a relevant and just industry, we must all open our eyes to the obvious lack of equality in wages, representation and access. From casting to hiring to awards races like the Emmys, taking active steps toward inclusion will make for richer stories, a stronger democracy and a better world.
This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.