In Amazon’s Transparent, a musician-turned-writer unravels her poignant personal history.
In the West Hollywood apartment that Our Lady J shares with her chihuahua-pug mix, Liberace, a grand piano and chandelier adorn the dining room, photos of her Mennonite ancestors hang in the bedroom and, in the living room, lilac walls set off stunning pictures of 1960s Parisian trans women, whom Lady J lovingly calls her “transcestors.”
The combination of humor, grace and openness on display in her home has also served her well as the first trans woman to become a staff writer on a television show.
Born and raised in tiny Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, she jokes that “half the population was Amish and the other half were cows.” She began playing piano as a child, and at 14 assumed the role of music director for her family’s evangelical Christian church. A scholarship to Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy “saved my life,” she says. “That brought me into the world. It’s where I first started writing.”
She worked as a classical pianist before moving on to pop, both singing and songwriting, but the music business proved unwelcoming.
“One of the reasons I quit music was, someone said to me when I was making a record, ‘Nobody wants to hear a tranny sing sad songs. Learn to dance, lose weight and do a Lady Gaga act.’ Which is funny, because I was her pianist at NYU, back before she was Lady Gaga.” Unsure where she belonged, she fell into a depression.
“And then,” she says, “Transparent happened.”
The Amazon series about Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), her transition to life as a woman and its effect on her family has won eight Emmys Awards since its 2014 debut; Tambor has taken two as outstanding lead actor in a comedy series and creator–executive producer–director Jill Soloway has earned two for directing.
Soloway has a policy of hiring trans people on both sides of the camera. In 2015, Lady J joined a weeklong TV-writing workshop Soloway held for trans women writers. Afterward, Soloway offered her a job on season two, and Lady J quit her touring gig as pianist to pop star Sia to take it.
“I’ve always been a storyteller,” she says. “It’s just that the medium has changed.” So has her status on the show. Starting as staff writer, she is now a producer for season four.
Meanwhile, she has woven her own history into Transparent, delving into her childhood when writing season three’s heartbreaking episode, “If I Were a Bell,” which flashes back to Maura’s early years as Mort.
“I went into therapy twice a week for that,” Lady J says. “It’s not easy going in to work nine to five and excavating these memories that are surrounded in trauma.”
Like young Mort, she faced tormenters in a game of Red Rover and threw a rock at her bully. In the show, Mort is seen dancing alone in the family air raid shelter, wearing a dress. Young Lady J did the same — in a barn.
Her HIV-positive status also became a key element of the series. “That’s a huge part of my story, and the reason that two of our three recurring trans characters are HIV-positive,” she says. “Any community of need is more susceptible to the disease. Trans women are about 50 times more likely to get HIV than the general population.”
As for the rest of her story? “I’m writing a pilot about my unusual upbringing,” Lady J says. She calls herself “a reluctant educator” — her preferred role is rebel — but adds, “if you want to survive, you have to be an activist. I’m a survivalist.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 7, 2017