To be honest, when my spouse came out to me as a woman in April 2018, I had completely forgotten about “Transparent.”
The shine on the former Golden Globe-winning comedy, a show I had once adored, had tarnished, dulled by time and circumstance. September 2017 had seen both the launch of the series’ fourth season and a #MeToo scandal surrounding star and two-time Emmy winning actor Jeffrey Tambor, relegating the Amazon Prime Video show to a bygone era, canceled by the very age of heightened diversity and equality that it helped to usher in.
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When the two-hour “Musicale Finale” was announced in October 2018, it barely registered. My wife was still publicly closeted. We had our hands full keeping her gender identity our little secret, and tensions were high as we moved toward hormone replacement therapy and the estrogen she so desperately needed.
It wasn’t until July 2019, when Amazon announced the fall premiere date for the finale just a month after my wife had come out to the world, that I realized that I’d have to reckon with the show again. A show that was now my life.
My day-to-day has never resembled that of the Pfefferman clan. Maura Pfefferman was well past retirement age when she came out to her family as a trans woman, long divorced from wife Shelly, with three children mired in their 30s and 40s. The Pfeffermans were affluent Los Angeles natives, whose stories were inextricably intwined with their own complicated relationships with Judaism.
It was a world completely unfamiliar to me, a Los Angeles transplant from South Dakota, as a lapsed Methodist who met the love of her life at 18 and married at 22. In 2014, “Transparent” was a window into a life I could never understand and impossible for me to infiltrate.
At the time, I found it an intimate and careful series, showcasing a story that few people could imagine, and doing so with artistry and empathy.
Nowadays, I don’t know how to feel about “Transparent.” Rather, I feel a lot of things about “Transparent,” most of them in direct opposition to something else.
There are valid arguments to be made about the decision to cast a cis man as a trans woman, and legitimate complaints about how the show handled the Tambor accusations. The series absolutely is limited by being about sad rich people in a community where that is the exception and not the rule.
But I adored it because it’s a show that opened my heart, too. There was a moment nearly a decade ago that horrifies me to this day — one of those exchanges that weighs heavy with the significance of my suspicions in retrospect — when I told my wife that I could never be with her if she was a woman. It was just not something my brain had the capacity to ponder.
My life was sheltered. Homogenous. As in, I didn’t meet a Jewish person until my mid-20s; that kind of sheltered. I couldn’t reconcile my own sexuality until I was in my 30s. As imperfect as it was, “Transparent,” as did Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” just the year before, invited my narrow band of experience to explore a wider world.
It was a glimpse at a place that I would very soon join. It’s a thesis neatly stated by Judith Light’s Shelly early in “Transparent” Season 3: “When one person in a family transitions, everyone transitions.”
My wife — who is very smart and pretty — wrote that “Transparent” was never telling Maura’s story. Which is good, in a way, because Maura’s story is not one that creator Jill Soloway is necessarily equipped to tell. Instead, it’s the story of the family as a whole.
So, inspired by that, here’s my story:
Learning that my wife was trans felt like a chiropractic adjustment that I didn’t know I needed. My life was fine. Having been together for nearly 20 years, my wife and I had developed a routine that wasn’t perfect, but worked for us. Her truth hit me so hard that every bone in my body trembled. My teeth loosened. My lungs deflated.
But suddenly, I could see. I understood arguments that we’d been having for eons. Issues that we could never resolve, distance that felt impenetrable, and sadness that seemed bottomless. Problems with intimacy that no amount of therapy could resolve dissipated once there was no longer a retaining wall in my wife’s brain, keeping her true self locked away. Instantly, there was context for a million moments that weren’t strange in isolation, but in retrospect, finally made sense.
But all the hindsight in the world couldn’t mend my shattered heart.
For about 36 hours, I was lost. No matter how important and valuable the discovery, her words had basically ended my life. Our life. And it took time to reconcile that.
It’s difficult to remember the specifics of those moments. I know I called in sick. I know I cried. Though we were operating in the utmost secrecy, Emily knew I needed someone to talk to and immediately looped in one of our closest friends, who was invaluable both then and now.
Because while I was unsurprised by the grief, the anger, the sadness, what struck me most in the first days after the revelation was how isolated I felt. Not only because my wife’s identity was the most fragile of secrets, but also because it felt as though I had lost the rights to my own narrative.
As a writer, that narrative sometimes feels like all I have. Emily being a woman, instead of the man the world presumed her to be, felt as though my editor had just sent back the last 20 years of my life for a hard rewrite. In that moment, I realized why Soloway’s first impulse upon their father coming out as trans was to write a TV script. If you graft a lightly fictionalized narrative onto your life, it allows you to feel like you have control in a situation in which you feel powerless.
These were the things I thought about as I stared at the ceiling, sleepless. I wondered if my life was now a lie. I wondered if our love was a lie. I relitigated every fight we’d ever had. I realized that if we were going to make it through this, we would need a full reckoning of our past, with consideration for the new information that had been entered into evidence in the contentious and imaginary court proceedings that was our marriage.
But what I thought about more than anything was how scared I was. No matter what I decided to do, be it move forward with Emily or leave, I would lose. It could be family or friends or opportunities, just to name a few, and more likely than not, any combination of the above. That said, if I stayed, I would keep the love of my life. And that’s not nothing.
The longer I sat with it, the more I realized that Emily’s gender was not a disease, but a diagnosis. And there was a relatively painless cure. All we needed to do was treat her like the woman she always was. That’s it. If we did that, if we tweaked our world 15 degrees, then everything wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be pretty damn close.
And I know that’s a prescription that sounds so big to some people. And it is! But it’s also so small. It feels extremely strange to frame it in this fashion, but all things considered, our relationship was strangely primed to be able to take the transition in stride. There are plenty of significant challenges that can break relationships when a partner transitions, simply because it creates such fundamental incompatibilities that to stay together is impossible.
For instance, issues of attraction. A million years ago when we married, I was pretty sure I was straight. Rather, the part of me that was attracted to women didn’t have a lot of room to explore, since I started dating my partner, like, the moment they crossed the threshold of my dorm room. By the time I realized I was, in fact, bisexual, it felt like it was too late to declare it to the world. No one cares what a long-time married white cis woman identifies as and I wasn’t interested in declaring myself because the last thing I wanted to do was look like I was bandwagoning bisexuality. Emily’s transition gave me license to come out publicly and, more importantly, it means that without the burden of heterosexuality, I find my wife more beautiful than ever before.
Another reality of life married to a trans woman is that the aforementioned HRT effectively sterilizes her remaining sperm. Understandably, this is heartbreaking for couples who harbor hope for biological children, potentially forcing them on a path of assisted reproduction that they never planned on.
Lucky for us, I suppose, is that our marriage had already been grappling with infertility for years. We were so far along in the IVF process, actually, that mere weeks after my wife told me she was a woman, we had our first embryo transfer. While we’ve yet to have success — and while, honestly, we have enough to deal with right now — we are already veterans of this battle.
We are privileged — even beyond fundamental advantages, including insurance and steady employment — in ways that not all our LGBTQ sisters and brothers are, and grateful every day that our previous paths gave us challenges that prepared us for this very unique road.
So, when I revisit “Transparent” now, it’s with jaded, yet guilty, eyes. I feel intense shame at how casually the Pfeffermans storm through the world, leaving the less fortunate in their wake, rarely taking the time or effort to clean up after themselves, literally or figuratively. And practically, it feels like no one cries enough and that Maura is looked at askance too often. The show can’t ever see past the idea of Tambor in a dress and so the audience is kept at arm’s length, making it impossible to embrace Maura as a woman.
For better or worse, this is the world, as created by “Transparent.”
To watch the show’s recent finale, is to understand that even “Transparent” knows that there is no place for it in 2019. It’s not that the musical endeavor is a failure; it’s far more confusing than that. The episode picks up immediately after Maura’s death and shows the family exploring their grief through song, which isn’t bad, but is strange.
There are things that work, however, including Shelly attempting to launch a show about the family, going so far as to cast doppelgängers for her children and to find herself a new Maura (standout and IRL trans woman Shakina Nayfack) that helps her process her pain at the death of her ex.
As a whole, the episode is slightly cracked, garish and extreme and above all else, indulgent. But caught around the edges are hints of the subtle series that used to exist. One such moment has Shelly imagining herself and Maura as young girls taking dance together, remolding their bond into something truer to themselves and so profoundly moving that I had to pause the episode. I couldn’t see through my silent sobs.
This has always been the heart of conflict for a “Transparent” fan. There’s so much to cringe over and nearly as much raw, real emotion.
I miss “Transparent” in the same way that I miss my old life. My relationship wasn’t better then, but I knew what it was. It was comfortable. It’s hard to woo this hot new babe when months ago you were in a genial routine and could go entire weekends in the same apartment, communicating exclusively through Slack messages. It’s hard to challenge what you understand about identity, when it’s so much easier to fall back on what you’ve always known.
You could watch the “Transparent” finale if you want, if you feel like doing so would offer you closure. But I don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, after rewatching three seasons of the series, I’m not sure we need to revisit “Transparent” ever again. The series isn’t somewhere we’ve been and it’s not somewhere we’re going. It was a conduit that brought us to where we are now. It’s the bridge that brought us from the transgender experience as a punchline to realizing that transgender individuals are just people, trying their best to live happy and fulfilled lives.
We live in this beautiful, fucked-up world. Where we sit and wait to see if the U.S. Supreme Court will strip protections from LGBTQ individuals, even as television is helping to guide people about the nebulous nature of gender and love.
I’m grateful for “Transparent” and the weight it carried. For how it paved the way for shows like “Pose,” and how its quality injected the trans experience into mainstream conversation, opening the eyes and hearts of people around the world, including me. But using it now to try to bolster your understanding of the world around you in 2019 is like reading a safe-sex pamphlet from 1988. It’s not safe. It’s not smart. It may have been the best we had available at the time, but the world has moved on.
We can do better. And we will. Now it’s on us to make reality better than that fiction.
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