Transparent’s Positive Story Arc

by John Francis Leonard

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Spoiler Alert: In the interest of starting an important conversation about a particular story arc in the third season of Transparent, one that I found revolutionary, I give away some important details in this piece. The third season has finished, but I know some viewers might not have started!

Not even eight years ago, I would have thought I’d never say that I watch more television than film. But, starting with the advent of some great series on the premium cable channels and burgeoning with the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, something shifted. New stories were being told in brilliant fashion. Hands down, the quality was better than the suddenly waning networks. The freedom from censorship and the dependence on fans, not advertisers, meant that I was seeing my community reflected. LGBT characters’ stories could be told in fresh and exciting new ways. Ground continues to be broken for my transgender brothers and sisters and, with one of my favorite shows, Transparent, they’re at the forefront of our nation’s zeitgeist. Also thrilling is the opportunity to see both the history of the AIDS epidemic told and, with Transparent, in its third hit season, even the story of someone living with HIV unfolding and speaking to our community.

But wait, not only a poz character, but a trans female poz character played by a trans actress, all rare birds in television. I still remember one of the first poz characters on TV way back in the nineties on the NBC show, ER. There haven’t been a lot of them since, especially living a healthy normal life, as so may of us do every day. HIV doesn’t define us; it has challenges, as this character played by the talented actress Trace Lysette shows us. I saw myself in this episode—nevermind that I’m a gay cisgender male, it spoke volumes to me. I think all of us, whatever our sexuality or gender identity expression, if we are living with HIV we will see ourselves reflected in this story. Any of us that have had to have the dreaded “conversation” with a potential romantic or sexual partner will understand. For those who haven’t, it’s a great opportunity to be both entertained and enlightened.

Lysette plays Shea, a beautiful young friend of Maura Pfefferman (played by Jeffrey Tambor) the show’s main character, who is transitioning. She meets Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass), Maura’s son, a cisgender straight man, at Maura’s birthday party, where they find themselves in close quarters during a family game of Sardines. There’s an easy attraction between the two. The mother of Josh’s long lost son has recently committed suicide and it shakes Josh to the core. On a road trip to Colorado to tell his son about the death of his birth mother, Josh brings Shea along for moral support. But there’s more at play, their easy relationship grows into a mutual attraction. This is brought to life subtly and brilliantly by both actors. You can’t help but find yourself rooting for it.

On a romantic romp through an abandoned amusement park, things heat up. Josh initially steps in it by declaring that sex with a trans woman would be ideal, you wouldn’t have to worry about pregnancy. An offended Shea flees, but not so fast that she can’t be caught and Josh’s apology culminates in their making out. Shea breaks it up, mumbling that “It’s fucked up.” And flees again. What is she scared of? She’s been open about the fact that she’s had “bottom surgery”; she’s been frank and open about so much else. When he’s chased her down again, more making out ensues. “Hey wait. Will you just stop for a second?” she asks.

By now, I’ve guessed it and am proven right. It’s not exactly shocking. The HIV prevalence among transgender women in countries like the U.S. is twenty-two percent, disproportionately high. Worldwide, regardless of country, trans women are forty-nine times more likely to be HIV-positive.

So, now it gets awkward; it’s “that conversation” that many of us have so often had. She assures him that she’s perfectly healthy and “It’s really nothing to worry about,” but she is HIV-positive. I’m sure all cisgender straight women can relate to this woman. Straight men are not always among the most well informed people on HIV/AIDS. We all struggle, try as you might to make it a natural part of pre-sex dialogue; it’s like slamming on the breaks of an eighteen-wheeler going seventy. Josh assures her he’s “cool” with it—he’s not going to hate her, he’s not going to “murder her.” Gee! Thanks buddy! But that slip is telling. As a transgender female it must be at the back of her mind somewhere. LGBT and HIV-affected communities face a higher level of violence. When you break it down to trans women, the rate soars. She’s disclosing information that can be a trigger for violence and she’s alone with this man in the middle of nowhere.

But, it’s “Joshie”—he’s not angry, he’s scared. He wants reassurance that there’s something that will offer a 100-percent, iron-clad guarantee that he can’t be infected. She can’t give him that in the end.

So in the end, they both walk away disappointed. Lysette beautifully conveys this woman’s initial attraction, subsequent hesitation, and ultimate frustration and anger. I’m not in the entertainment industry, by any means, but I will be shocked if she doesn’t receive at least an Emmy nomination. It’s that groundbreaking. And kudos to all the transgender producers, directors, and writers on this groundbreaking show for giving us this story, a story about all of us who are living with HIV. And that’s the beauty of inclusion.


John Francis Leonard is an advocate and writer, as well as a voracious reader of literature, which helps to feed his love of the English language. He has been living with HIV for thirteen years and he is currently at work on his first novel, Fools Rush In. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.