With hates crimes against the transgender community on the rise,
Donald Trump’s plans to reinstate a ban on transgender people in the military, and a recent Stonewall survey revealing that nearly half of trans pupils at schools and colleges in the UK have tried to kill themselves because of bullying, Judith Light feels Transparent’s return to TV screens couldn’t be more timely.
“It was important when it started and it’s become increasingly more important,” says the actress of a show which first aired in 2014 and launches its fourth season on Amazon Video this month. “To shine a light on what’s happening in the transgender community is more necessary than ever. Transgender people are still being vilified and shunned and discounted.”
There’s anger in Judith’s voice when she’s asked about Trump’s latest salvo against the community. “It doesn’t make any sense. Transgender soldiers know what it is to fight. They know what real courage is. Talk about bravery and courage and standing up in the face of discrimination and the law and religion and your family, standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am.’”
On Transparent Judith plays Shelly Pfefferman, the slightly batty but very supportive ex-wife of Jeffrey Tambor’s
Maura. Likewise Judith, 68, has long been a supporter of gay rights. She’s on the boards of the Matthew Shepard and Point foundations (both of which help young LGBT+ people), has raised awareness through the Give A Damn campaign and even has a library named after her at the Los Angeles
Gay and Lesbian Center.
As far back as age 11, when New Jersey-born Judith was at a performing arts camp, she recalls being around gay dancers and teachers “who made sure to look out for me and took me under their wing when I was so young”.
Later on, when she was in rep, she lost friends and colleagues to AIDS. “Nobody understood what was happening and I thought our country, a country that said
‘We are a country of compassion’, was not responding to my family. It began to be very clear that there was so much homophobia and I said, ‘Wait a minute, it’s homophobia that’s standing in the way of my friends and family being helped and taken care of.’”
So Judith, who had become a household name thanks to her turns on the soap opera One Life to Live and on the long-running sitcom Who’s The Boss?, got involved with the Project Angel Food meals delivery service and visited hospitals. “I watched the magnificence of the community and people coming to each others’ aid,” she recalls. “I was blown away by the love and compassion and ferocity of people who weren’t behaving as victims but saying ‘This is untenable’. I saw the community rise up and I thought ‘I want to lend my voice to that.’”
It’s no wonder, then, that she said yes to Transparent. She’s justly proud of the show and teases that season four will be the most political to date, although she’s not at liberty to say anything more beyond the fact it will be addressing the issues currently faced by the transgender community in the US.
“People so much enjoy binge-watching it that they want to be surprised and if they know too much about it in advance it spoils the excitement,” she feels.
She describes Shelly as a very lonely woman who is desperate to connect but has no idea how to do it: “So often she becomes too much for her family and they push her away. But as we saw in season two, when Maura came out, Shelly was the one person who had no question about being there for her. She loves Maura. As I often say, you don’t fall in love with the gender, you fall in love with the person and the soul of the person. She would happily be in a relationship with Maura.”
When researching the role Judith spoke to the wives of trans parents and also the wife of the show’s trans consultant Jennifer Boylan, as well as the spouses of trans board members on the Point Foundation. Some had been totally fine with it while others told their significant others, ‘I know you need to transition but I can’t stay with you.’ In Maura and Shelly’s case, it’s Maura who wanted to move on. “But there was never a moment where they lost the love they had for each other and that’s still ongoing. Who knows what their relationship will evolve into?”
Having starred in the 1989 TV movie The Ryan White Story, Judith recalls the teenager – a haemophiliac who contracted AIDS after being given infected blood – being asked on a chat show how he felt when parents and teachers called for him to be barred from school. His reply of “I probably would have been scared but I wouldn’t have been cruel” continues to resonate with her.
“It’s a clarion call to all of us,” she declares. “We are all human beings. We all have fears. I think it’s incumbent upon us to be kind and compassionate and if we don’t understand something we need to get ourselves educated on it. Fear often comes from not being educated. If we put yourself in someone else’s shoes we react differently.”
Thank goodness there’s human beings like Judith Light in the world.
The fourth season of Transparent is available now on Amazon Prime Video