‘Transparent’ Is Actually My Life Right Now: A Conversation With Jeffrey Tambor

Last year, at 32, our writer came out to her family as transgender. Last week, after watching 'Transparent' for the first time, she spoke to the lead actor about it.

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Many years ago, back in the mid-to-late ‘90s, in a time when the family home had but one screen, I — a teenaged and closeted trans girl — sat with my family watching a story on 60 Minutes. The story was about transgender people, people like me. I recall distinctly a moment when my mother turned to me and my brother and said, “You know, if one of you boys told me that you wanted to be a woman, I’d love you and support you but I wouldn’t understand.”

I stayed in the closet for many years. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of last year, at 32, that I was able to come out to my family. I told them that I’d thought of myself as female since I was very young, and that I was medically transitioning so that I could live the rest of my life as a woman.

I think back on that evening in front of the box as one of the most significant moments of my trans narrative. When I was growing up, before the iPhone meant that we held access to all of humanity’s knowledge in our hand, the telly was our main connection to The World Out There. We watched it together and constituted our relationships and ourselves through what it told us about others. Now, I am an Other. How do I understand myself and my family in relation to the world?

A few weeks ago, I watched the first season of Transparent: a new sitcom, produced by Amazon, that is currently streaming in Australia on Stan.

Jeffrey Tambor stars as Maura (nee Mort) Pfefferman, a transgender woman in her 70s with three adult children. The program picks up early in her transition as she comes out to her loved ones, and follows each of them as they are confronted by and deal with the change.

Transparent well deserves the Golden Globes it picked up earlier this year. The characters are deep, the relationships are interesting, and it’s simultaneously hilarious and tragic.

And also, it’s ME. It’s my family, it’s my life, and it’s really the first time I’ve seen a reflective examination of a family responding to the situation my family finds itself in. It was so hard to watch. The Pfefferman children, despite their efforts to support their father, are profoundly confronted by the experience, and really struggle with it. My family, while supportive, is — as my mother predicted all those years ago — struggling to understand why I’m making what they see as a choice.

So I was fairly thrilled when Junkee sent me to interview Jeffrey Tambor about the show, on his recent trip to Australia for Spectrum Now. He was exceptionally generous with his time; it turned out that I was the last interview of the day, and rather than the five minutes of soundbites I was expecting he chatted to me for half an hour.

While a lot of Transparent’s publicity has focused on the novelty of depicting a transgender protagonist, Tambor says the show is really about the children; about how people react when they find out a loved one is changing. “This really is about family, and the question that is underneath all of it is, ‘Will you still love me if I change? If something happens, will you still be there? Is your love conditional? Is your love based on my gender? Or is it based on who I am or who I can be?’”

It’s confronting for a family to face a changed relationship with a loved one — particularly when that loved one has been an adult for a while. My own parents felt blindsided when I came out. They had no idea that I was transgender and thought that they’d dodged the queer bullet years ago; they figured if one of their adult children was queer, they’d have known about it by now. This comes through strongly in the show, when the adult Pfefferman children attempt to deal with a newly configured relationship with their parent. “They don’t have the training or the equipment,” says Tambor. “They don’t even have the vocabulary.”

I laugh at this, reflecting on the number of terms I need to define whenever I speak to a loved one; the difference between a transvestite, a transsexual, and some who is transgender. Terms like dysphoria, cis, AMAB, AFAB, TERF are all foreign. There are so many questions that need to be answered to set up the groundwork for meaningful conversation, and it’s very frustrating. I long for the moment I can have a conversation with someone in my family when I’m not playing the dual role of educator.

On-Screen Portrayals Of Transgender Characters

As a society, we’ve only just begun the conversation about trans issues. Tambor is a cisgender actor embodying the character of a trans woman; he spoke to me of his own ignorance before signing on to the show. “I came up in a very liberal environment in San Francisco and the theatre circle I ran with was very liberal. However I was completely ignorant of the transgender experience and I had to accept that with great humility.” He chuckles, “Oh brave new world, and welcome to it.”

The actor sees a certain gravity in the role he plays, and understands his place in the ongoing conversation. “I love the responsibility. It makes my hands shake because lives are at stake. It’s real… My mission is as an ally, there’s something about doing this at 70 years old that is very meaningful for me. It has brought it all together for me as a performer, and it feels very right.”

“I don’t know what it’s like to be trans; that would be blasphemy,” he continues. “I know what it’s like to enact the trans experience, and I know what it’s like to feel the other-ising. At the end of the day, I — as a cisgender male — take off my makeup and I take off my persona and I am daddy Tambor, cisgender male. I don’t feel what [trans people] feel, but I think I am an ally. To pretend I’m anything more, I would be uncomfortable with that.”

It’s refreshing to hear a 70-year-old cisgender man admit his ignorance on the issue. A lot of online conversation in the trans community has taken umbrage with cisgender actors taking roles depicting trans people, particularly when the performances are perceived as unsympathetic, mean or transphobic. It’s no wonder that the trans community is sensitive to how they’re represented; there’s a history of trans people being maligned in film and television, and it’s easy to find examples of trans people being used as punchlines, plot twists or as psychopathic serial killers.

Performances from cis actors that are progressive and sympathetic also come under fire; Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, Andrew Garfield in the film clip for Arcade Fire’s ‘We Exist’, and even Tambor’s performance in Transparent have been held up as problematic. These nuanced portrayals may represent a step in the right direction, but they still exclude trans people from telling trans stories.

“There are some people in the transgender community who are opposed to me doing this role,” Tambor says. “I’ve got no problem with that. And I don’t take it personally, as long as we just keep talking. I actually kind of agree. But right now, this is what we are doing and, as I said in my acceptance speech [at the Golden Globes], thank you for your patience. Thank you for letting us be a part of the solution.”

It is worth mentioning that every other transgender character in Transparent is portrayed by a transgender actor; that Tambor consulted with many trans people in preparing for the role; and that Jill Soloway, the show’s creator, has a transgender parent, and based the show largely on her personal experience. It’s also worth mentioning that the character of Maura is a trans woman in her 70s who has just begun transitioning socially. The character has not undergone medical transition procedures so appears, physically, male. It would have been almost impossible to find a trans person of that age, at that stage of their life, who also had the acting chops to tackle the role (and moreover would be in an emotionally good place to portray their life on screen).

I feel like we are making progress. Transgender artists and personalities like Laverne Cox, Laura Jane Grace, Lana Wachowski and Jazz Jennings are finding successful careers in media and entertainment. There’s still a long way to go and there’s a lot to fight for, but it’s nice to reflect on the fact that transgender kids now have positive stories to watch, and role models to look up to. That’s not something I had when I was a teen.

When I first set out to speak with Tambor, I wanted to draw a parallel between his experience of getting to know the character of Maura, and my family’s experience of getting to know me as a transgender woman. If a cis man who self-identified as having very little experience of transgender life could convey my trans experience so perfectly on screen, then perhaps he holds some kind of key that will help me to communicate with my loved ones?

I ask him what advice he has for families that are dealing with a loved one coming out as transgender. It’s a slightly ridiculous question, given that he is after all a professional actor and not the source of all wisdom, but generously he takes it seriously: “Listen, listen, listen — listen with your head, but more importantly with your heart.” Tambor tells me of an experience he had, meeting a family who bonded over the show. The couple told him about their nine-year-old child who came home from softball and said they didn’t want to play anymore, and that they wanted to grow up to be like Katy Perry. “[The family] didn’t judge,” says Tambor. “They listened, and they are adjusting in their lives. Listen.”

Later on, reflecting on this conversation and my life, the brilliance of the show’s title hits me. Up until then I’d only considered it on one level; Transparent is about a parent who is trans. But the show is also about being seen for who you truly are by the people closest to you, for the first time. Coming out, for me, is about letting myself be seen, honestly, for the first time. It’s been about removing the layers of artifice, undoing the socialisation, abandoning the opaque masks, and allowing people to see through to what’s been underneath all along. To be transparent is to be vulnerable. It’s to be honest when you speak and to hope that when you do, that they will be able to listen, even if they don’t understand.

Transparent is available to stream on Stan.

Nicola Fierce is a pseudonym. Nicola is a trans woman in her 30s who is in the middle of transition. She currently lives as a somewhat famous man. This will change when she’s good and ready. She has a wife who is very good at editing when she’s really stressed out about a deadline.