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'Transparent' director talks 'More Than T' documentary series
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2016-08-10

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Beginning with a brightly animated title Trans 102, a nearly two minute Public Service Announcement ( PSA ) released in late June contains a cast of celebrated transgender and gender nonconforming individuals representing the full scope of the community's beautifully multifaceted spectrum.

They each deliver a collage of voices to a succinct, powerfully written message sometimes highlighted by a perfectly placed graphic emphasizing both its biting satire and serious import.

"Bathrooms!" One transgender individual begins by mimicking the fear-inspiring tone used by far-right groups such as The American Family Association ( AFA ) who, aside from their usual pogrom of tearing up the First Amendment in favor of public mobilizations to boycott and thereby censor television sitcoms, dramas or commercials featuring positive LGBTQ characters, have made bathrooms their top priority.

"How does this keep coming up?," another star of the PSA asks who clearly has better things to talk about.

"You've been sharing bathrooms with us since ... always!," two others state.

"Every year, some fool tries to trick people into thinking this is an issue and somehow thinks the way to protect people's privacy in bathrooms is by policing them," the script continues. "The biggest irony is that their solution will create the very thing that they're trying to stop."

"It would put me in the women's bathroom," a handsome transgender man declares. He and a circle of animated arrows point to his face with—enthusiastically perplexed at the irony and sheer silliness of the notion that legislating transgender people out of bathrooms is somehow rational.

The PSA stands in stark contrast, both in entertainment value and stark reality, to a black-and-white advertisement released in 2015 by the organization Campaign for Houston—which, at the time, was fighting against the transgender restroom positions in the Texas's city's Proposition 1.

The video portrayed a faceless cisgender male confronting a terrified little girl as she exited a bathroom stall underscored by music that could have been lifted from the trailer to a snuff film.

The Trans 102 PSA—designed to deliver common sense rather than a cold sweat—was written by the Emmy-nominated Her Story co-creator, writer, actress, activist and rapidly rising star Jen Richards and directed by celebrated and award-winning writer and director Silas Howard whose credits include the hit Amazon TV series Transparent and feature films including 2002's By Hook or By Crook which garnered multiple awards on the international film festival circuit and 2012's equally lauded Sunset Stories.

It is a tantalizing preview of things to come as Howard and Richards prepare to launch More Than T in late summer/early fall on, as yet, undisclosed platforms.

More Than T is a series of documentaries detailing the lives of six everyday transgender individuals ( plus one mentor ) across the country who, despite the tremendous obstacles they have surmounted, are making a positive difference in their communities. The Trans 102 PSAs will accompany the documentaries as their own stand-alone pieces.

Howard and Richard's involvement with More Than T has its genesis in The MAC AIDS Fund ( MAF )—a mission of the hugely successful cosmetics line "to partner with the bold, the visionary and the brave who confront the [AIDS] epidemic in countries and communities where people are most neglected, off the radar and at highest risk. MAF funds innovative programs that deal directly with the most marginalized, stigmatized and under-heard victims."

MAF is funded by 100 percent of sales from MAC's VIVA GLAM lipstick and lip gloss. In 2016, MAF launched a specific initiative targeted towards providing economic empowerment and services for the transgender community.

Towards the end of 2015, MAF representatives had reached out to Howard for conversations about the project. More Than T was the result.

Howard chatted with Windy City Times by phone about More Than T and his hopes that it will change what has become an entirely self-serving political but dangerously antagonistic narrative about the transgender community.

Windy City Times: What was your reaction when MAF first approached you about the idea?

Silas Howard: I was over the moon about it. As a product, MAC has a lot of enthusiasm from the community and The MAC AIDS Fund has good street cred. All of the focus on trans and gender nonconforming [individuals] in the media doesn't always translate to support for the trans and gender nonconforming community and this felt like a real opportunity to really take [MAF's] idea and bring support into all of these organizations that I and people I know have used.

I also was impressed that they wanted to bring in a trans director because I think that, as the Emmy-nominated Her Story showed, it is very radical to tell the stories authentically and it creates an opportunity to reach more people. Her Story's authenticity in every frame and specificity makes it universal. [More Than T] is also chance for us to talk about our lives in richer detail—that we aren't just in a bubble of transness only. We do all these other things and we can view all these things through a trans experience as an added value.

WCT: In an interview last month with Windy City Times, Jen Richards said, "We're taking for granted that there's a little bit of knowledge out there about trans people and we're going to push that conversation a little further." Jen is as brilliantly clever as she is a tremendously gifted writer. Can you talk about the creative process between the two of you both with the documentaries and the PSAs?

SH: I am such a fan of Jen's as well. She's incredible. So I asked MAF if I could bring her on. I really appreciate her voice in the world and her experience with navigating really tricky things. In my life, I walk through all kinds of experiences. She has a grace that accompanies that whip smart intellect and observational power. She and I spent a lot of time casting. On the doc series, we honed in on these lives that were rich in terms of the work that everyone did. All of the six people are in service; one's a minister, one's a defense attorney, one works for the oppressed. Everybody is working to make the world better for all the other communities around them.

We felt like we really needed to hear these stories. I think, more than ever it is politically urgent that these authentic stories of compassion get out into the world. We desperately need to look at the intersections of our identities, instead of constantly letting ourselves get separated out which happens so easily in this country, especially right now. The Trans 102 PSAs have a rock star cast of icons, activists, actors, writers and filmmakers in our community who add a lens of humor. There is a huge trust and generosity from everyone involved. Jen wrote the scripts, added humor where appropriate, gravitas when needed and made it inviting in a "we're on this planet together and trying to figure this out" approach rather than "we're trying to educate you."

WCT: That is very clear with the first PSA on bathrooms which is so different in style and message than the far right's productions of Last Bathroom on the Left. What's the reception been like so far?

SH: Very positive. We got some great write-ups and press. People definitely enjoyed it. As a short teaser of the larger project, it was a nice surprise that people responded so well.

WCT: Do you think More Than T will have a similar positive effect, not only socially and politically?

SH: I would hope so. I am a very political person. I just keep thinking of recovering our humanity from the way that, for want of a better word, capitalism divides it up and commodifies everything. I personally feel we can use identity as a way to prevent it. That's what I feel these six people that we focus on are doing. They just wanted to live and love and feel at home in their own skin. Everyone in this series has come through so many obstacles and yet feel lucky to have gotten where they are. They are reaching out to help others get there and realize the importance of that. They are driven by compassion and this idea of being of service to others. That is the most consistent voice in the doc. series. The [Trans 102] pieces are a way of giving information that does not short change human stories for politics.

WCT: Yet personal stories have helped change political minds. They were effective fighting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and The Defense of Marriage Act.

SH: Exactly—but there also has to be an element of humor. We all know humor because that's how we survive. But a lot of times, when people are telling our stories, they don't touch on that. I feel an otherness so often with certain documentaries made from outside where there is a focus on one approach. I feel like laughing is how people connect to a moment whether they want to be or not.

WCT: How did you go about finding the individuals for the documentaries?

SH: It was a real collaboration with The MAC AIDS Fund, praytell [a PR agency], Jen Richards and myself. They gave Jen and I a lot of creative freedom to cast the way we wanted to. We spent a lot of time pulling together a diversity of people. For me, I was looking for these really inspirational lives who just happened to be trans. Even our homeless youth who are working with other people like helping Vietnam Vets find their voices.

I mean, here are these youth who are dealing with so many different levels of oppression and yet they are reaching out to others. That is such a powerful story. It was a challenge because I had a day and a half with my cinematographer and producer to find these moments where people tell the stories that they wanted to. I really didn't go at it with a list of questions and an agenda. I tried to just collaborate with each of the subjects. I spent a couple of days with each of them, hanging out and talking ahead of time and letting the story come out of the most authentic place. Their generosity was a high honor for me.

WCT: The trans community has so much to teach even fellow members. In putting More Than T together, what have you learned about the community that you didn't know before?

SH: My mind was blown. I teared up, my cinematographer teared up. I was inspired by each person's resiliency and their going above and beyond for others. I think each piece has its own organic theme about the art of living. For me, I was so drawn to each person and their individual, creative way of reaching out to the world.

WCT: You have experience in a lot of film mediums—features, television, commercials, music videos. How does helming a documentary series like this compare?

SH: I was doing this series while I was doing season three of Transparent. With the documentary, in terms of analyzing a scene, I am not walking in with an agenda. I approach each person with "what are the things we are going to explore together?" but then there is an air of discovery. The gift of this series was allowing me to go right to these inspirational people who I feel like don't get as much recognition. It's a treat for all of us to get to know them and see what we can discover in the process. My crew was so blown away and that added to the magic.

WCT: What do you hope viewers of More Than T come away with?

SH: That these are people I want in my life. Not because "they are so different" but because "I am inspired. They are amazing people." That's the scope of their lives, the generosity of their hearts and their humor, even coming out of difficulties. It should both inspire people and connect them.

For more information on The MAC AIDS Fund, visit MACAIDSFund.org .


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