EXCLUSIVE: How Our Lady J Brings Authenticity -- Not Just Tokenism -- to 'Transparent'
Getty Images

Joining Transparent for season two, Our Lady J became the first transgender woman in the writers’ room of Amazon’s Emmy-winning series, bolstering creator Jill Soloway’s commitment to telling an authentic story that, while inspired by her transgender parent Carrie, is ultimately shaped by the transgender community onscreen and behind the camera.

A classically trained musician and cabaret performer, Our Lady J participated in a weeklong TV writing workshop Soloway launched to find a transgender writer to join the staff. By the end, Our Lady J, who also appears in season two’s flashback scenes, was hired. “When I walked into the room for the first time, everyone listened to what I had to offer,” she says of not feeling like just a token hire -- often considered a shortsighted solution to increasing diversity on a staff -- but like someone who mattered, who was heard. And soon she was tasked with writing her first episode of TV.

“I was completely wrecked. My nerves were shot. But I had faith because Jill had faith in me,” Our Lady J says of the stress she put upon herself before eventually producing a draft for “Mee-Maw,” a multi-arced story that touches on several of the season two plotlines about Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) and her family, but also the adopted televangelist parents of Colton (Alex MacNicoll). While smaller roles on the show, Pastor Gene and Blossie are significant for the writer, who based them on her parents. Initially concerned about how audiences would interpret their story, her parents eventually came around to seeing their likeness onscreen.

EMMYS 2017: The Standout Performances on TV

While Transparent is rooted in Carrie Soloway’s journey, the episode gave Our Lady J the opportunity to share some of her story, adding another layer of authenticity to the transgender experience seen onscreen. And when it came to season three’s “If I Were a Bell,” a flashback episode inspired by Carrie’s story about crossdressing in her family’s bunker as a kid, Our Lady J was tasked with writing it. “You’re the only person who can write this because you’re the only person who grew up trans. So tell your story,” she recalls Soloway telling her at the time. And so that’s what she set out to do.

With more confidence as a writer, Our Lady J secluded herself in Joshua Tree, California, where she set out to channel her “painful past” into 30 minutes of TV. While a 12-year-old Maura’s crossdressing served as the arc of the episode, from the moment she’s in a baseball field daydreaming about dancing in a dress to when she gets caught during an air raid drill, it’s peppered with Our Lady J’s childhood experiences, including the scene where Maura throws a rock at her sister’s head in a moment of retaliation. “I did that at school; I threw a rock at my bully. It felt amazing but it was horrible,” she says, ashamed of her actions as a kid. 

The hardest part of writing the episode was showcasing all “the complexities of growing up in a society that doesn’t understand you,” Our Lady J says, while also making sure the story told the truth from all perspectives. “What did it look like from the family perspective?” she says of the Pfeffermans’ past going back to 1930s Germany, where Maura’s transgender aunt died

Adding nuance to the flashbacks was the casting of Sophia Grace Gianni, who is transgender, as Maura, who still identified as Mort as a child. While the priority was to find a transgender girl, Our Lady J says she just knew they wanted the actor to be female rather than a cisgender male. “I wanted everyone to see Maura how she sees herself.” In previous episodes about Maura’s past life, she’s often gendered as a man. But Our Lady J wanted to come from a place of her true identity and gender. “It changed the way we thought of present-day Maura, to see that this isn’t a man who became a woman. This is a person who was born female but assigned male.”

But the episode just doesn’t focus on Maura’s journey; it also reveals new details about the childhood of her ex-wife, Shelly (Judith Light). Building off a line from season one, where Shelly says she hates music, it’s revealed that in 1958, she was actually molested by her music teacher. Ashamed, she eventually becomes riddled with anxiety. While her flashbacks are brief compared to Maura’s, they serve as a jumping-off point for season four, which Our Lady J promises will dive deeper into Shelly’s psyche.

“You’re going to see a lot more of her,” she says of the new season, which will be much more political and topical, with her particular episode touching on issues related to Israel and Palestine. “My episode is much more about family and less about trans issues.”

That episode, Our Lady J reveals, wouldn’t have happened without the process she went through in season three, sharing deeply personal feelings. “It’s something I always wanted to tell, a story of trans childhood. It’s something we hadn’t seen onscreen before and so it just took a lot of pressure off of what I had to do artistically in the world.”

With that notion of having “to write that one thing that will make everyone finally understand me” out of the way, “I can sleep a little better,” Our Lady J says.