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Why I'm nervous for the new season of Transparent

The show, about a trans woman coming out in her late 60s, breaks new boundaries as it moves focus to Israel and Palestine – but we shouldn't forget that Jeffrey Tambor is a cisgender man in trans woman’s role

“I’M NOT YOUR FUCKING ADVENTURE!” roared Shea to Josh in an abandoned amusement park in Season Three of Transparent – for herself and for every trans woman who has dared to think of herself as more than an ephemeral sordid fantasy that he has no intention of telling his boys about… This scene astounded my spirit and sent my expectations for my own transition and the narrative of this drama up in smoke. 

For years, I swallowed down any announcements that I was trans because I did not feel worthy of “being” a woman. I had two poles of a trans woman’s existence in my mind. I was adamant I would not become the freakish pariah on a Jerry Springer show whose wig is ripped off. Exposed as a ridiculous facsimile of a woman who had tricked a straight man into seeing her as the future mother of his kids by sucking him off in an alleyway behind “da club” whilst she stays tucked.

Conversely, I was outraged that I was not petite, rich and small footed enough to embark on a journey into submissive, giggly hyper-femininity – where I could be paraded around town on the arm of a dude who didn’t mind being seen in public with me because no one could tell that I was secretly *whispers* a tranny.

Of course, the character of Shea in Transparent, played by Trace Lysette, is a conventionally beautiful, soft-featured white stripper with full tits and a fresh pussy whose gold bikini bottoms drag Josh’s gaze into its enticing orbit. Josh walks into the club and claims his prize as the cisgender heterosexual liberal white guy who is man enough to move to this girl in a classy way. I mean, he has a trans parent. He knows the deal. She’s a woman and a beautiful one.

Shea claims her rightful prize of the “normal straight dude” who wants to whisk her away for the all-American road trip. The distance to be closed between them is exemplified by their sleeping in separate rooms in a motel painted in that classic, tropical pastel blue. “What a gentleman!” the camera says. The disclosure of her HIV status is the clanging spanner in the works in what was promising to be a very modern love story. Not even a suggestion of him maybe going on PREP when they get back to Los Angeles can save the day. “Long term?” Josh’s brow furrows. “Oh, no boo, I was just looking to smash. Now you have to go and fuck it all up with being HIV,” says his demeanour. Josh’s descent from aroused NPR listener to a limp-dicked Stevie J of Love & Hip Hop (kinda) fame is swift.

We embark on the next stage of our journey into Season Four and the camera tells the stories of characters that have the ability to infuriate and entice us with Israel and Palestine as a backdrop, after Maura is invited to lecture at an Israeli conference on gender and Judaism. I am nervous in a good way. If there’s one place in the world that is always worthy of dramatisation with skilled sensitivity to the complexities of characters and situation, it is here.

“To pop John Boyega into a pair of flats, skinny jeans and a flowy top (my forever uniform) to play me would be as much of a crime as Jeffrey Tambour is in the role of Maura”

Season One of Transparent began problematically with a tight focus on the Pfefferman family and the self-involved reactions to their “Moppa”. To see a cisgender man clamber around on camera telling the story of a trans woman over a number of years will always be problematic. I look dramatically different from the time I first wore women’s clothing in public or swallowed my first oestrogen pill or cried under the sizzling laser machine which fried my skin to pieces. I will not volunteer any pictures to journalists of me “before” or answer questions as to whether I have gone all the way and “chopped it off”. I’m too protective of my womanhood for all of that.

To pop John Boyega into a pair of flats, skinny jeans and a flowy top (my forever uniform) to play me would be as much of a crime as Jeffrey Tambour is in the role of Maura. The casting of cisgender men in trans women’s roles is like watching the cocoon being spun for 20 minutes and putting it in slow motion to turn it into a much longer piece so that cis people can gaze at their navels. “So… That’s a man… Becoming… Now I’m meant to call him a woman… Ermmmm.” NO! The lives of butterflies are objectively much more interesting. For goodness sake, let us fly.

As Jill Solloway admitted to an audience at a conversation with bell hooks at The New School, she had no clue what she was doing when casting Jeffrey Tambour in the role of Maura. The situation has been partially rectified by a: “…’transfirmative’ hiring process where we make sure to have trans people in every department and identify, train, groom and promote trans people all across the production. We created many roles for trans people. We brought in as many trans and gender non-conforming people as we could.” As they should have done from the beginning.

Even so, for those who are wrongly assigned male at birth Maura provides a more intelligent road map as to how to blossom into your transness in middle age than Caitlyn Jenner – as perhaps the most well-known figure at present – could ever hope of doing. Caitlyn had buckets of money, a busload of intelligent trans women, the E! network’s resources and surgeries easily paid for. Maura has the community initiatives that Los Angeles has to offer, her liberal loving family and her intellect. There is a simplicity to the way trans communities welcome our own home with patience and love.

In Season Four it will be interesting to see how the hierarchy of “passability” in trans women’s communities, that hasn’t so far interrupted the friendship of Maura and her closest girlfriend Davina, played by Alexandra Billings. Sure, the road has been bumpy, but it’s precious to see how much they mean to each other and how sincere Davina is in wanting the best for Maura.

“It’s beautiful that Transparent doesn’t load one character down with one issue and one message”

Davina’s boyfriend pulls a standard “tranny chaser” move in telling Maura what surgeries she would need to get his dick hard which leaves her justifiably angry. Although, her dismissal of him as “beneath” Davina is partial and reactionary. Davina lets her know that she is fully aware of her choices as a trans woman with HIV and she can do without the judgment. It’s beautiful that Transparent doesn’t load one character down with one issue and one message. It reaches for complexity and achieves an anarchistic symphony that is a gorgeous collaborative orchestration.

Maura’s inability to get the surgeries she grows to desire, because of her heart condition, is poignantly rendered. Her self-obsession with her aesthetic becomes more than just being about safety and passability. Having the chance for the world to accept her as a woman at first glance fulfils the promise made to the young trans girl who danced in the mirror in her mother’s pearls and incited the wrath of a deeply disappointed dad.

The conversations that take place between trans and cis women in the show are ground breaking. Maura’s girlfriend, scarred from a mastectomy, argues against elective surgeries. Cisgender lesbians shout down TERFs who want to evict Maura from land they have claimed where once indigenous trans people were revered before the genocide of white settler colonialists came along with their blood-soaked binaries. The wordless sexual communication between Shelly and Maura where female sexual pleasure is deliciously centred and warms the bath water once more.

The show heralds the end of the gender binary in ways similar to the utopian visions of Marge Piercy in the novel Woman on The Edge of Time. Watching Transparent makes you aware of how narrow the patriarchal gaze can be. As a survivor of sexual assault, to see Shelly struggle with co-dependency and the abuse memories of a music teacher that left her as silent as Maya Angelou, without the glorification of rape culture shows like Game of Thrones has normalised, is revolutionary. The show has fortified my hope that one day as Shelly sung in the last scene of Season Three that “Everything’s gonna be fine, fine, fine!”