The last two years have been a landmark for the visibility of transgender people on screens large and small -- including “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox, Eddie Redmayne’s character in “The Danish Girl” and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner and her reality show “I Am Cait.”
Thursday, when Emmy nominations were announced, that visibility reached a new level with a nod for “Her Story,” a Web series about the lives of two trans women (played by Jen Richards and Angelica Ross, who both are trans) and a woman who identifies as queer (played by Laura Zak, who is also queer) as they navigate the intersections of desire and identity.
The show, nominated in the outstanding short form comedy or drama series category, was released on YouTube earlier this year in an effort to vary the representations of trans people in the media. Co-written by Richards and Zak, it was produced by Katherine Fisher and a team of primarily trans and queer women. The show is nominated opposite network-supported shows “Childrens Hospital” (Adult Swim), “Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462” (AMC), “Hack Into Broad City” (Comedy Central) and “Unreal: The Auditions” (Lifetime).
In a phone interview with The Times, Ross, from Washington, D.C., and Zak, in Los Angeles, shared their excitement over the nomination, what it means for the future of storytelling and how they plan to celebrate with a new bar pickup line.
Tell me, what are your current feelings?
Ross: Ecstatic. Elated. I don’t know.
Zak: Hopefully articulate enough to talk with you right now.
How did you find out the news?
Zak: Since [Wednesday] night, Jen [Richards], Angelica, Kate [Fisher] and I have all been on a group text message. It’s been a little bit of the nerves of anticipating if we got nominated, but, also, at least speaking for myself, a little bit of trying to play it cool: Like, regardless of what happens tomorrow, we know it’s a quality show and it’s an unlikely thing to happen. This morning, [“Her Story” cast member] Fawzia Mizra, who is crashing on my couch for Outfest, Kate and myself opened Fawzia’s computer at 8:30 a.m. and pulled up the Emmys website. Kate actually took a video of us pulling it up and finding out for the first time. We just lost it, screaming and jumping around. We’ve since been in a state of whatever this is -- shock.
And you, Angelica?
Ross: It’s crazy for me to say, but I was shocked, but also not shocked. The girls will tell you that I’m very spiritually in tune. I chant, like in that whole Tina Turner “nam myoho renge kyo” type practice. I’ve been chanting the whole time and saying I feel it. In that group text, I sent them a screenshot of when we were filming and it was prophetic. I was typing that I feel like I’m going to have to get ready for some big old black tie affair, some award show. Just really calling this forward and feeling the pulse of it. I’m surprised and it’s an exciting thing, but when I got up this morning the feed wasn’t working -- my Internet sucks here. I found out through the group text. It said: “We got it.” I just lost my mind.
Laura, when you and Jen were conceiving of this show, did you think it would ever come to this point, being recognized in this way?
Zak: Absolutely not. We were just trying to seize the opportunity to tell a story we hadn't seen portrayed before. We were initially thinking it would be a very small scale production that maybe our friends would see and some people in the [LGBT] community and would help some people. It was really when Katherine Fisher with Seed of Joy Productions came on that everything got escalated. It’s been this organic, domino effect since.
With the Emmy campaign specifically, we had friends come on to offer their skills -- photography or helping to disseminate our videos on YouTube -- at low cost or for free. I’m also so proud of Kate because “Her Story” is the first thing that they produced and it’s nominated for an Emmy. You can’t get better than that for your first out of the gate.
The show has been well received within the queer community as well as outside of it. What’s been the greatest takeaway for you all in this moment?
Ross: It’s so emotional because as a trans person, we’re just so used to people speaking for us or not acknowledging us at all. So, my takeaway is that we have power in our voices, in telling our own stories and standing up. A lot of the perspective before this was the media being this powerful thing that you can’t influence, that the people in the rooms making the decisions about what gets on TV aren’t reflecting the people like us that we want to see in these stories. And yet, when [Richards and Zak] decided to, instead of just complaining about it, write this story, this is inspiring for so many others to write their own stories.
This was a collective thing across women, and women altogether realized that this isn't about trans. It’s about women, period, and we go through very similar issues of not being woman enough in America. It’s an interesting intersection.
Zak: And I think right now with the conversation happening about diversity and authentic representation [in Hollywood], it’s just really telling to get this recognition in this moment that I think says we’re ready for more of both behind the scenes and on-screen authenticity and representation across sexuality, race and gender identity. This project, hopefully, will create a template for how to do that well and hopefully we’ll continue to get an opportunity to make more of it and model a new way to be truly diverse and intersectional.
YouTube was the platform of choice for this, but the other shows in your category are supported by these major networks. What does that say to you?
Ross: I would quote [Zak’s “Her Story” character] Allie: “I learned the power of a true story well told.” YouTube is accessible across the world and we knew that trans people around the world were waiting for a story like this. I think [this nomination] shows that it’s not only about the folks in those decision-making rooms [who decide] what gets on TV, but an audience that is not being recognized. YouTube has been a great platform for those audiences having a voice and us being able to reach them.”
Zak: It was very important, as she said, to be able to have everyone access it no matter where they were, their economic bracket, if they were out, whatever it was. To that end, we also tried to, in a crowd supported way, hustle with the translations and captions and accessibility across the board. Now, hopefully the next step will be the visibility and we’ll have the opportunity, with an Emmy nomination, to bring in an even wider audience.
What do you think the rise of “Her Story” illustrates about what you hope to be the future of storytelling, queer and otherwise?
Zak: I think it definitely says something about stories that are born out of the communities that they are representing -- rather than someone in an office identifying what’s trending at the moment and dictating how to tell those stories and to have people who aren’t a part of said communities writing these characters. You can usually see though that, especially the people of these communities. Hopefully this will just move forward queer and trans talent and creators, putting them into those rooms or creating situations where we are the ones helping to make decisions and flesh out those stories so that they are more accurate and authentic.
Ross: The rise of this shows how culturally authentic a product can be when you actually include people from those communities at all levels of production and creation from the beginning.
So how are you two going to be celebrating?
Ross: I don’t even know. I’ve got to go to FedEx to mail some things off because I run a business. [laughs] But tonight, I'm single and on an Emmy-nominated series -- I might have to use that as a line.
Zak: A new Tinder bio! [laughs]
Ross: I’m going to use it at the bar and see what I can get into.
Zak: Well, Outfest is happening, but I’m going to find Jen. I just want to be with these people that I’ve been on this journey with and just celebrate.
Anything else I didn’t ask that you want to say?
Ross: I want to say something about Sydney Freeland, our director. She’s so in the background, but she's so brilliant. I want to acknowledge her and that [we had] a transgender director, someone we didn't even know was trans until after she was hired for the job so she was hired based off her skill. This incredible project could not have been here without her.
Watch “Her Story” online here.
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.