The Gender and Sexuality Center and the Women's Leadership and Resource Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ) hosted a screening and panel discussion April 7 for the web series Her Story.
Her Story is about trans and queer women navigating "the intersections of desire and identity." It focuses on two Los Angeles trans women, former Chicagoans Jen Richards as Violet and Angelica Ross as Paige, "who have given up on love, when suddenly chance encounters give them hope."
The show also features Laura Zak as Allie and Fawzia Mirza as Kat, one of Allie's friends. Richards and Zak co-wrote the series and award-winning transgender Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland ( Drunktown's Finest ) directed. Playwright and activist Eve Ensler and Katherine Fisher of Speed of Joy Productions executive produced the series.
Following the screening, Megan Carney ( UIC Gender and Sexuality Center director ) spoke about "making our language and actions more intentional" and how peacemaking requires one to take a stand.
"What better way to bring peace in the world than through great art like Her Story," said Carney. "This series is like throwing big buckets of water on top of the flames of the bigotry and ignorance that's behind the anti-LGBT legislation happening at the state level. … This series is great art and is also radical, cultural, necessary action."
UIC Gender and Sexuality Center assistant director S. Simmons moderated a discussion with Her Story stars Richards, Ross and Mirza.
Prior to creating Her Story, Richards launched the We Happy Trans website and co-created the Trans 100 list. Ross is CEO of a design and technology firm focused on hiring and training trans peopleTransTech Social Enterprises. Richards and Ross were roommates while living in Chicago and currently reside in Los Angeles.
Mirza divides her time between Chicago and Los Angeles and has been involved in a number of web series and films including co-creating and starring in Kam Kardashian. She can currently be seen as the fictional Muslim daughter of Donald Trump, Ayesha Ali Trump, in The Muslim Trump Documentary.
Simmons asked how the series got made and what made them get involved.
Richards noted at first the project was written as a Chicago-based show. She explained that Zak co-created another web series, #Hashtag, for tello films set in Andersonville and the series needed a transgender waitress character. The producers of #Hashtag asked Richards to take on that role and she did the scene with Zak and they hit it off. After shooting her scene, Richards was talking about the lack of trans representation in the media on social media. tello films asked her to create a series surrounding trans women with the caveat that at least one of the romances had to be between two women. Richards thought of bringing Zak on board to get the lesbian perspective and Zak agreed so they started writing the series.
A series of events led to a change in production companies from tello films to Fisher's company in Los Angeles, Richards explained. Richards said Fisher's caveat was the show had to be set in Los Angeles so they moved the production there. Richards noted the move to Fisher's production company also increased the production's budget to $100,000.
Richards said the reason why Mirza got involved was originally all the lesbians in the show were supposed to be white, middle class, cisgender people.
"This was supposed to be a critique of how queer culture can be very homogenous while also priding itself for its progressiveness," said Richards. "I saw Fawzia in a show and thought this was one of the best theater productions I'd seen in my life so I called Laura and said she has to be in our show. That's how Fawzia got to be the nicest of the lesbian characters."
Ross said that as the series was developing, Richards would share scenes with her. She noted that what sold her was the story was an honest reflection of dating as a transgender person. Ross also noticed that she was giving Richards material for her script, including the character she wrote which was loosely based on her life, so she decided she had to play the role.
"I had a lot to learn as an artist, activist and human living in this community and other communities and after reading the script I decided I had to be a part of this," said Mirza. "My mission as an artist is to break down stereotypes and I wanted to be a part of the conversation … I have so much love and respect for these two amazing women."
Ross noted that Her Story became an example of how to include LGBT people, especially transgender people, in a project. She said TransTech people were involved in conceptualizing the logo and making the website for the show.
Richards said the sound editor, assistant editor and two of the musicians were also transgender. She explained that 80 percent of the crew were women with half of them being LGBT.
"When you center your relationships on shared experiences and struggles then you can celebrate people's differences," said Richards. "I thought we did that really well with this series. It's important for us to model the kinds of social change that we want both onscreen and off-screen. It's an extension of the work we've been doing for years in other areas."
Richards noted that she and Ross are now getting asked to audition for transgender roles and when they show up there are so many transgender people in the room. She said there's so much talent across the spectrum of humanity out there and "the only way you aren't finding it is if you're intentionally not looking for it."
Ross explained the reason why this project got off the ground is people are thirsty for these stories. She said the series has tapped a nerve among viewers.
Mirza noted the diversity of stories that are represented in Her Story.
Richards said both the story's romantic and non-romantic relationships were very important to her as a storyteller.
Simmons asked what they learned about themselves during this process.
Richards said she's a coward when it comes to asking people out on a date while Ross noted this experience has opened herself up as an actor. Mirza learned the importance of saying yes and doing projects she believes in as well as being around positive, good people.
"This is why we're doing this," said Richards. "Men respond to women who don't fall in line or meet their expectations with violence and in a year that had the most murdered trans people on record … we wanted to model what change could look like with this series."
As for what's next, Richards said they pitched a treatment for a much bigger Her Story that includes more characters and they're hoping to get it picked up by one of the networks or streaming services in the near future. She also noted they submitted the series for a new Emmy categoryBest Short Form Comedy or Dramaand will be launching a campaign to get nominated.
A Q&A session followed the panel discussion.
The entire series and behind the scenes footage can be viewed on their YouTube channel or herstoryshow.com/ .