The LGBT History We’ve Forgotten: A Q&A With a Producer for ‘Transparent’

Since the beginning, transgender people have been here—often in plain sight. This is the observation of Emmy-nominated filmmaker Rhys Ernst, who recently directed a film series on trans pioneers history has erased. 

Weve Been Around tells us only a handful of the many stories we all should know, including those of the 1950s gospel singer Little Ax and Marsha P. Johnson, who was instrumental in the gay rights movement in the 1960s. In between producing the hit show Transparent and legions of other projects, Ernst was gracious enough to talk with Care2 about the power of roots for such a frequently marginalized population. (Interview edited for clarity.)

rhys headshot

Photo Credit: Rhys Ernst

You have a long resume as an artist, photographer, filmmaker, co-producer on Transparent, etc. What led you to this project?

I think it started with my own desire to search for trans history and trans elders in my own life. I’ve had a really hard time finding examples of elder trans men that I can look up to.

[Also] I was starting a relationship with Focus Features and was advising them a little bit on the film The Danish Girl, and it organized into this idea: Let’s do a project on figures in trans history to show trans people have always been a part of society. The history goes back as far as you can walk, basically.

Also, with my work on Transparent, I’ve delved into trans history off and on again, so it’s been this thing that keeps on coming up in my work.

Because there’s this sort of “trans tipping point” media phenomenon that’s happening in transgender representation, it’s easy to see that just as a snapshot of right now. But the next step that makes it truly remarkable is how we can look back and find so much incredible history that most people haven’t ever heard of. In fact, most trans people don’t know about trans history.

That seems weird that trans history hasnt been represented. Your docuseries shows again and again that trans issues have always been intertwined with other queer issues.

We actually made a footnote in the script that trans people’s stories have not often been recorded, especially for trans people of color. I think it’s just a result of people living their lives on the margins.

With Little Ax in particular, we had a really hard time researching material outside of his music. He didn’t have a birth certificate, and outside his moments of living in the spotlight, there is no record at all of his drive for the battle.

What is the power of sharing the trans history you can find?

For people who’ve never felt reflected in society, that’s incredibly powerful to see their forebears, the people that came before them. For each of these films, I had a transgender person to be the narrator of each piece. For Little Ax, I cast a guy named Wyatt Grey, who’s a trans man of color who’s an actor in Los Angeles and someone I know from Transparent. I can’t totally speak for him, but he really found it impactful to learn about the trans men of color that had come before him.

It’s incredibly important to see yourself reflected. It’s kind of like a feeling of ancestry, family; it’s almost that essential, I think, in terms of cultural belonging. So we need more of it.

Often out of bigotry, some people try to argue that trans people are a new phenomenon. Whats the power in them realizing that trans folks actually do have history? 

I definitely agree that there’s a perception that transness is a new phenomenon or a youth phenomenon. And I would expect probably some people who are conservative or don’t know anything about it might think it’s a choice. But what’s really amazing is that it is a part of all human history, and there’s this cultural context for it worldwide, both currently and through history.

I often talk about how there is a third gender in Indian culture, in Thai culture, in Native American culture, and I could go on and on. When you realize that [being transgender is] a part of humanity and culture, it’s like redheads, walking flat-footed or anything else. It’s just a natural variation of society, and there’s nothing that can be done about that.

Weve Been Around premiered on the Advocate, Essence, and People. Are the people who need that perspective—that trans people have always been here shaping history—going to see the films?

I try to speak both to the LGBT, queer audience who is already at a higher level of discourse around these issues, as well as people who know truly nothing about it. And I feel like that’s the most interesting level of conversation to have is when you can hit both sides of that at the time in a way that’s not didactic.

In these stories, I don’t try to spoon-feed or explain anything—I’m not transplaining this concept that, ‘Hey, trans people have been around since 100,000 B.C.’ It’s not about making a history lesson, but it’s more about telling these really engaging, very good stories in a really visually exciting and nuanced way.

My hope is to hit as many people has possible, but like I said, even within the LGBT community, there’s really little knowledge about trans history. So it’s not like bringing this insider thing to the outside. It’s literally these stories are new to everyone pretty much.

What pioneers did you wish you couldve covered in this series but couldnt because of space and time?

I was very close to doing one on Sir Lady Java, who has an amazing, amazing story. She’s actually one of the subjects who are still alive. I felt very strongly that I needed to contact her and get her blessing to the piece, and I couldn’t track her down, so I let that go.

And there’s a million other stories. I love April Ashley‘s story. I even thought about doing a story on—she was a transmasculine Spanish conquistador in the 14th century. But I let that one go because it was such a bloody, violent sale that you’re not exactly sure if you’re on their side. [Laughs]

What was the most intriguing thing you came across in your research?

This wasn’t clear at all in any of the research, but we learned that Little Ax was reported as male on the census as a young person. He was famous for sometimes playing in groups with his brother, Big Ax. And it wasn’t really until a couple of weeks into research until I realized, ‘Wait a minute, of course his brother knew.’

This wasn’t outlined in any history because there wasn’t really any history written on Little Ax. But it was this fact that was hidden in plain sight that Little Ax’s brother was his confidante, his secret keeper, by virtue of the fact that they had played in bands together.

I loved that moment of learning about the ways in which families can be supportive of each other in a quiet way. And it’s not even a big deal. They’re not going out and advocating all over the place, but this balanced collaboration and camaraderie throughout their lives together was a really meaningful gesture.

Youve touched on it, but why is trans history so invisible?

Not only was there no cultural context in which to save or archive any of these histories because it was this thing that was culturally erased on a day-to-day basis. You know, people are still getting culturally erased, by being told not to be trans or being shamed or being subject to conversion therapy or they’re being murdered or whatever horrible types of oppression they’re being subjected to.

So, there’s obviously a cultural climate that’s working in completely the opposite direction of preservation and archiving and studying. Then also, I think the other piece is people living stealth. Not to point a finger at that, but it had an effect of erasing people’s trans histories.

As much as people can come out and live their lives, it’s really important for setting that example and changing the perceptions in your community and contributing to that cultural history, leaving your mark.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rhys Ernst via We've Been Around


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

federico bortoletto
federico b2 years ago

Grazie della condivisione.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W2 years ago

Thank you very much for sharing

Tony Bradshaw
Anthony Bradshaw2 years ago

Elaine Al Meqdad... your lack of knowledge of the Bible is only outweighed by your lack of social skills.
Sodom and Gomorrah, if you took the time to read the book you constantly quote, has nothing to do with homosexuality, it clearly states it is about debauchery and mans lack of compassion to each other. So in reality, God aimed it at people like you and although you keep saying that God is perfect and never wrong, it would seem that he didn't do a good enough job as you keep spewing out your judgements and hate on here.
And with regards to your social skills, when are you going to lean that using CAPITAL LETTERS when typing means you are SHOUTING. But then again, that probably fits your character.

Janis K.
Janis K2 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se2 years ago


NitaSick L.
Nita L2 years ago

Thank you for this wonderful article. So many people need to be reached to let them know that gay and transgendered have been a part of history since the beginning of time in humans and animals.

Timothy W.
Timothy W2 years ago

Elaine Al Meqdad
Yes Elaine. You should take a good look at Sodom AND Gomorrah, and not what the real sins being punished were.

Veronica Danie
.2 years ago


Kate R.
Past Member 2 years ago

I think there have always been folks quietly living their lives, being trans certainly isn't a modern phenomenon. Tales of girls "disguising themselves as boys" & running away to sea or joining the army are well known for at least several hundred years, & while some of them may have been chasing sweethearts, & others reckoned (probably correctly) that they'd be safer if the world saw them as a teenage boy than as a young woman, I think there can be no doubt that at least a percentage of them were simply trying to be who they were. It's only since surgical intervention has been available that one gender has been able to truly transform into the other, before that people were just living their lives in varying degrees of wierd... as are we all. I don't know if it's easier or more difficult now, but I do know that small communities are much more likely to be tolerant of "one of their own", even if they seem a bit strange, so maybe it's the anonymity of city life that has encouraged so much mindless hate & bigotry... it's quite difficult to truly hate someone if you've known them all your life; if you went to school with them, & their parents went to school with your parents, & one of your cousins married their sister.