The scripted new media Web series Her Story aims to break new ground in Hollywood by offering a realistic glimpse into trans life. The plot involves complex characters who share in life's everyday struggles, opportunities, elations, and fears.
Her Story is co-written by Jen Richards ( I Am Cait ) and Laura Zak ( #Hashtag ), is directed by Sydney Freeland ( Drunktown's Finest ), with cinematography by Bérénice Eveno. Executive produced by Eve Ensler and produced by Katherine Fisher, Her Story features predominantly LGBTQ women, on and off-screen.
All six episodes of Her Story will premiere for free on Tuesday, Jan. 19. While the anticipation looms, series writer Richards offers a moment of caution.
"I'm thrilled by the eagerness with which people are anticipating Her Story, but I'd like to keep expectations appropriate to the scale of what we did," she said. "It's six short episodes, less than an hour total, made independently with a micro-budget. We're very proud of what we did within those constraints though, and audiences can expect something they've never seen before: an honest glimpse into the lived experiences of contemporary trans women crafted in a way that will be compelling to viewers of any identity."
While it is true that viewers of any identity may appreciate the show, Richards hopes trans viewers will feel "recognition, the unique sense of affirmation that comes when you see yourself represented authentically on screen, and hope."
As for non-trans individuals, she said offered: "I hope they're entertained and moved, that they, too, can identify with the characters' struggles. In many ways what makes Her Story different from everything else out there is that this isn't about a transition, or being trans. It's about women, two of whom just happen to be transgender. And that's not even the major issue for either of them."
Beyond the show, Richards is involved in activism to further the trans equality movement.
"As a movement we're a mess, in my opinion," she said. "We lack a cohesive strategy, or even a consensus on what issues should be prioritized. Not having a nationally agreed response to the crisis of violence against trans women of color, with resources for implementation and buy in from a wide range of major organizations, is unconscionable. The few attempts have been torn apart by infighting and external apathy."
She further explained, "We're a highly traumatized community that lacks the numbers, infrastructure, or financial backing to rely entirely on ourselves. Further, those with the most resources, traditionally people who transition after having been seen by the world as straight white men, have never seemed particularly interested in investing in the community. There are some exceptions and bright lights of course, particularly at the national level, where there has been a steady accumulation of legislative victories, and some long-term grassroots organizers engaging in direct action like Bamby Salcedo, but it's hard not to despair given a record number of murders in 2015. When we talk about progress today, it's mostly about media visibility, but that has yet to yield material improvements for the most in need."
Generally speaking, Richards' work on I Am Cait has offered fulfillment and a lasting impact within the trans community, but also on Richards.
"I cannot deny that the show had a tremendous impact in shifting the middle ground," she said. "Millions of people who would otherwise been ignorant or ambiguous on trans issues are now basically sympathetic and informed, and I hope that over the next few years that will result in making schools, churches, medical facilities, workplaces, etc. more inclusive, welcoming and competent."
The reality television experience is not made for everyone.
"Personally, I had a lot of fun during much of the actual shooting, very little of which was shown, and I genuinely adored the cast and crew," Richards said. "However, I learned that reality television is not a medium I'm suited for."
When asked how Caitlyn Jenner changed the landscape of trans people in the media, Richards quipped: "Honestly, I'm tired of talking about Caitlyn Jenner."
Trans individuals have long been punchline blips on the radar in film and TV. Richards said she believes the way to change that is "by doing everything possible to enable trans people to create their own media. We need internships at studios and networks, scholarships for creative degrees, investors for web series, comic books, indie films, special acting classes and casting sessions, etc. I get really annoyed when people talk about "trans Hollywood" when there is only one trans series regular on network and cable television, and that's played by a cis person [Karla Mosley on The Bold & the Beautiful]."
She added, "The media has been far more eager to talk about a trans Hollywood than Hollywood has been interested in actually opening up to trans people. I pray that someone in the industry takes note that Her Story and the film Happy Birthday Marsha!, both of which are about/starring/written and directed by trans people, each raised over $35k in successful crowdfunding campaigns."
Richards said of the LGBT community at-large, "There's a perceived schism between cis lesbians and trans women, most clearly exemplified by the intensity of MichFest arguments. It's another consequence of the same attitude underlying male violence against trans women, the sense that we're not 'really' women, and that this is revealed in the apolitical nature of desire. That is, any man who desires a trans woman is secretly gay, and that no lesbian woman would choose a trans woman, neither as an intimate partner nor a sister in community."
She added, "Coverage of Her Story has largely focused on me, co-star Angelica Ross, and director Sydney Freeland, largely because of the current interest in trans women. What shouldn't be overlooked is that it all began because of Laura and I wanting to work together, and always centered on a love story between the characters we wanted to play. Further, the idea for a web series was originally suggested by Christin Baker of the Chicago based lesbian production company Tello, and was ultimately produced and funded by another lesbian, Kate Fisher ( Speed of Joy ). Her Story is the direct result of desire and sisterhood between women, cis and trans."
Speaking of Ross, the breakout star is heavily featured in Her Story.
"My hope is that all women will watch Her Story and see themselves in the cis and trans women on the show," Ross said. "This show has the potential to open the eyes of many women who believe trans women are the enemy, when in reality, we are sisters in the struggle."
While the series is fictional, the storylines are authentic.
"Even though these are fictional characters, I hope non-trans people get an intimate look at the true beauty and strength trans people possess and that we deserved to be loved," Ross said.
Being not only an actress, but also an entrepreneur, Ross was eager to take on the project.
"My acting career has consisted of presenting as male when I was younger or being a woman in stealth where my agents, as well as casting directors and producers, had no clue I was trans woman," she shared. "I was always terrified of being found out and felt it got in the way of being able to totally give way to my performances. In Her Story, I can totally give myself to my character Paige, let you see it all and tell Her Story without the fear."
Her Story was 102 percent funded via IndieGoGo on Sept. 13, 2015.
Find out more information about 'Her Story' by visiting the series' website: herstoryshow.com .