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A Watershed Year: Interview with Rhys Ernst

1) Looking back at 2015, it seems to have been the watershed year when transgender issues gained unprecedented visibility and support, with examples such as Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, and The Danish Girl. Was the confluence and speed with which this happened a surprise to you or did you expect it?

Yes, it was a huge surprise to me. I’ve always wanted to be part of the first cross-over wave of trans representation in media, but I didn’t expect this to happen so soon and so quickly. While this success is amazing, the goal is that this isn’t a flash in the pan, but the beginning of sustainable and positive changes in media production and for the culture at large. It’s not so much about the success of individual properties—what we should strive to achieve is long-term inclusion both in front of and behind the camera for trans crew and cast, and the advancement of trans storytelling and representation from actual trans folks. We want the visible support and acclaim behind something like Transparent to translate into employment opportunities for trans people—everything from basic opportunities to major career advancement for trans people in every department in the industry. People are there, and willing to work, it’s just a matter of taking the time to reach out to these qualified folks instead of just hiring from within the same pools of people. Interestingly, this is similar to the issues brought up in the recent dialog about diversity in the industry, how women and people of color have been excluded for years and years.

2) To what extent do you feel you contributed to the current climate of understanding and acceptance?

One of my goals on Transparent has been to hire and create opportunities for trans people at every juncture of storytelling, from content creation to the camera department. We hire as many trans people as possible for both cast and crew. It’s absolutely a group effort. There’s no one way to be trans, and what we need is more of all kinds of trans storytelling and representation, and access for trans people to enter the industry and the workforce and tell these stories.

3) Was it harder for you when you began your journey than it would be for a young person today?

We’ve made huge leaps forward in the last few years in terms of trans visibility and rights, but there’s still so much more to do. Up until the eighties, cross-dressing was still illegal in some states. So while you have trans elders who experienced some of the worst injustices from a transphobic society, you have some trans youth who are having their gender confirmed by their communities and being able to have a youth as their authentic gender, which is amazing. Some trans youth are living in the future in many ways, and I can’t wait to see what the advancement of their generation reaps for our greater community. But by the same token, we’re still just barely crawling out of the dark ages—the vast majority of trans people in the world face an inordinate amount of discrimination and prejudice to deal with on a day to day basis. In order to protect not only trans youth, but all members of our community, we, as a society, have to take the next steps to ensure access to employment, education, and safe housing for trans folks, as well as legal protection from identity-based discrimination and violence.

4) What would you say to someone who chooses to keep their transformation a secret?

In the past, the trans population was a vanishing one—often, many people who transitioned would disappear and live “stealth,” rendering their transgender histories invisible. During the seventies, the gay and lesbian movement called upon its members to come out as the most potent tool for change—I feel we’re at a similar juncture. Safety is absolutely a huge concern for many in the transgender community—that has to be considered first and foremost. On the other hand, I do believe that trans people should strive to live an open and out life whenever they can and that real change will occur when we have visible trans people in every part of society. I grappled with this in my own life when I transitioned and realized I could pass, and thus render my trans history invisible. I decided to be actively out and open, and use my filmmaking as a tool for social change.

5) What is the next challenge that you see facing the community?

Access to employment is a huge issue for the trans population. Trans people face twice the rate of unemployment as the national population, that rate is four times higher for trans women of color. The community is subject to higher rates of housing discrimination, and often subject to harassment and assault within homeless shelters by both residents and staff. In thirty-two states, it’s legal to be fired for being trans. So, the biggest challenge is one the community has been facing for a long time—trans people are denied housing, employment, and a sense of safety, and that instability only worsens when other factors like race, socioeconomic status, and health begin to intersect with trans identity. Legal protections and access to employment are vital for the community.

6) Would the results of the 2016 elections have any relevance?

It’s obvious that we would need a social progressive in office to make these policy changes and ensure nondiscrimination acts are passed. Fingers crossed we have cause to celebrate in November.


Rhys Ernst
Co-Producer, Transparent


*Rhys Ernst talked to South Writ Large via e-mail in January 2016.