In a Guardian profile of “Transparent” creator and “I Love Dick” series co-creator Jill Soloway, Hadley Freeman writes that Soloway “now identifies as a gender non-conforming queer person, who prefers to be referenced with gender-neutral pronouns (they/them/their).” The article accompanying Soloway’s (fascinating) recent Fresh Air interview states that Soloway “identifies as genderqueer”; in interviews, Soloway also uses the terms non-binary and trans. Soloway, 51, is very much in the public eye, and like any coming-out, this takes courage.
It’s possible, I think, both to acknowledge that courage and to have a critical discussion about some of how Soloway presents gender politics in recent interviews. On Fresh Air, Soloway describes a superior workplace experience when dressed in conventionally masculine attire, in the context of their move towards a genderqueer identity. They offer a similar account to Friedman:
“‘I’m happy to speak on behalf of women and on behalf of feminism. But I notice when people see me as non-binary, I get treated more as a human being.’”
Friedman wonders what to make of this remark, from a feminist perspective:
“Hearing Soloway, whose work is so profoundly feminist, suggest that the best way to be treated as a human is to not be a woman is so befuddling that I am almost speechless.”
To be clear, Friedman is not approaching the topic from a transphobic perspective. She’s not, that is, insisting Soloway isn’t really non-binary, or that non-binary isn’t a thing, let alone pulling a David French and insisting upon using the pronouns for Soloway’s assigned gender at birth, rather than the ones they now use. Her issue isn’t with Soloway’s identity, but rather with the unsettling explanation they give for having arrived at it.
I had more or less the same reaction as Friedman when listening to Soloway’s interview with Terry Gross, particularly when Soloway – correctly, in my view! – described their discomfort with female gender roles as something many (ostensibly cisgender) women also experience. Yes, society demeans the conventionally feminine, while pushing women to doll up. The political answer here would seem to be promoting acceptance of women not keen on skirts and Sephora, while also refusing to treat women who do go in for these as vapid and unserious. Identifying as non-binary, while an absolutely valid as an identity, is not a generalizable political response to sexism; it seems from both interviews as though Soloway might be presenting it as one.
It seems clear enough why Soloway’s description of their arrival at non-binary identity might be troubling on feminist grounds. But maybe the problem lies more in the cultural expectation that individuals’ gender identities (if not cis) and coming-out processes be explained. Soloway may not have impeccable feminist reasons for identifying as they do, but… they don’t need reasons, feminist or otherwise.
Their coming-out is relevant, however, when it comes to arts criticism. Coverage of “Transparent” had long pointed out (if not called out) Soloway’s identity as a cisgender woman. Could a cis person tell a trans story? With the new information that Soloway is trans – that “Transparent” was created by a not-yet-out trans person, and not (as some critics would have it) a cis one blithely enjoying cis privilege – does something change? Does everything?