For many queer and trans people and people of color, television and film haven’t always been a place that we see ourselves reflected in positive, nuanced ways. When we do see ourselves reflected in media, it gives us opportunities to imagine living long, fulfilling lives – something many of us struggle with in a society where our identities and experiences are too often erased. Seeing ourselves on screen reminds us that we aren’t alone, that we have ancestors who navigated the same paths we walk today, and that there will be many more who come after us.
This is one reason that LGBTQ+ representation matters so much in 2018. Film and television have, increasingly in recent years, seen LGBTQ+ and creators of other minorities take the reins on groundbreaking projects. As many before me have observed, the outburst of support for these projects reflects how hungry we are to tell and listen to better stories. It’s about damn time!
One such groundbreaking project to emerge recently is the T, a crowd-funded web series created and filmed in Chicago and released for free online this summer through the Chicago-based platform OTV |Open Television. The T follows Jo, a white trans woman, and Carter, a black queer man, as they navigate friendship, dating, and family in Chicago. It’s a welcome addition to a growing list of stories that portray queer and trans lives with grace and humor.
I spoke with the creators, directors, and stars of the show, Chicagoans Bea Cordelia and Daniel Kyri, to talk about how the show came to be, the importance of storytelling in our communities, and what’s next for the pair.
(Author’s note: the following interview contains mild spoilers for the T!)
The T began to take shape several years ago, when friends Bea and Daniel realized they had been working separately on parallel ideas for a show that they wished existed. Daniel recalls wanting to play more nuanced queer characters: “One of the impetus for me was a desire to create the work I wish I had as an actor.” He approached Bea about his idea for a show about two friends navigating dating, friendship and family in Chicago, and Bea told him she had already written the pilot.
For Bea, the idea for the show began with a real-life relationship. “In 2013, I came out of the closet and also went through a difficult breakup. Eventually though, enough time passed and then things were different and we were friends. I haven’t really remained friends with anyone else like that. It was just really cool because there was already so much love there.” One night at a New Year’s Eve party with that friend, Bea asked herself: “Why isn’t this on TV?” She began writing what would become the T, which also begins with Carter and Jo going to a New Year’s Eve party.
Once the pair began to work together, it became important to them to depict their characters and their native Chicago in honest, nuanced ways.
When asked about how Chicago and its queer/trans communities are important to the show, Daniel and Bea both bring up the idea of the “reverse diaspora” that is often an experience in those communities. As an urban center, Chicago draws many LGBTQ+ people together who are born in places and circumstances scattered across the world. To Daniel and Bea, this is part of what makes the Chicago queer community special. Bea says: “In the queer community here you have these people who come from all different socioeconomic, racial, religious, and geographical backgrounds. We have these bonds that connect us across all these supposed divisions. There’s an underlying core of humanity that we can find amongst each other.”
Daniel agrees. “Chicago brings so many of us together,” he says, “and though we’ve all come from such different upbringings and geographies, we find that in learning to accept ourselves, we have related or even sometimes identical experiences. So that makes our communities rich, in embracing our commonalities and respecting difference. In the T we wanted to capture all of that in a joyful expression– which is how our spaces so often look. That joy in queer spaces is a real and vibrant aspect of Chicago.”
Indeed, some of the show’s most successful moments come when Jo and Carter encounter obstacles and joy, and the show refuses to look away. Several of these moments revolve around the character’s different experiences with family; towards the end of the series, we see Carter reconnect with his estranged father, a Christian pastor, and the two have a frank, difficult conversation: “I’m gay,” Carter tells his father with a certainty that he finds over the course of the show’s story. Daniels says of the moment, “There’s trauma in families, certainly, but also love. In writing those scenes, we asked ourselves, how can we retell those moments in a meaningful way?”
We also see Jo spending time with her mother. The two characters have such a warm familiarity that I was surprised when Bea told me the actress isn’t actually her mom – but agreed that Chicago actress Barbara Robertson absolutely nails her portrayal. Showing a warm relationship between Jo and her mother was important to Bea. She says that after coming out, she grew closer to her parents, and wanted her character to have similar circumstances. “I wanted to make sure that there would be a strong counter-narrative to what people are used to seeing about queer and trans people and our parents. Just because people are used to tragedies surrounding us [in film and television] does not mean that that is the only narrative,” she says.
The T also portrays the struggles and joy of queer and trans dating, something that we don’t see enough of on television. Bea identifies one of her favorite scenes in the show as one in which her character stands up for herself to a partner. During editing, Bea fought for Jo and Robin’s breakup to stay. “Robin is like a lot of men that I’ve had the misfortune of coming across– who, under other societal circumstances would absolutely love trans women but just cannot bring themselves to openly date trans women because the stigma is too much. And what a slap in the face that is, to be told by people how hard it is for them.” In the scene, Jo responds, “You’re scared to be seen with me in public if people knew who I am. I am that person all of the time.”
That moment, Bea says, is one she’s never had in real life, and she felt it was important for anyone watching the show to see Jo as a trans woman “standing in the length of her spine, in every ounce of her truth, and telling Robin that he’s not doing enough.”
Bea continues, “It was important to portray a trans woman choosing herself over external validation. Which can be hard to do when most of the world seeks to invalidate us– our governments and people at work and on the street and often times family members.”
For Daniel, his favorite moment in the show was a similar opportunity to confront stigma. After his character is diagnosed with HIV, he struggles to cope, but ultimately, asks for help from his partner and family. Daniel says, “I wanted to make his experience authentic and human, and to end with acceptance and humanity, rather than rejection. There is so much joy in being queer and black, but also flaws and struggles. So we portray Carter dealing with both, and he grows up when he decides to tell his partner Teddy about the diagnosis after retreating at first. And Teddy’s response is important– he responds with compassion but also holds Carter accountable for initially ghosting him.”
Considering the importance of representation in the show, I ask Daniel and Bea about the first time they saw themselves reflected in media. Daniel responds, “I remember being in my basement at night, after my folks had gone to sleep, and coming across shows like Queer as Folk, Noah’s Arc, even Six Feet Under, which has a major gay character. I remember relating to characters in those shows, but even then, that was still just a sliver of my identity, and never the full picture of my experience. Shows like that were also all on cable, which costs money. It was important for us to make the T free and available online for everyone.”
For Bea, it was much more recently: on a day off from shooting the T, she saw Una mujer fantástica (A Fantastic Woman), a film from Chilean director Sebastián Lelio that came out in the U.S. earlier this year. Bea says she was floored by how relatable some of the main character’s experiences were to her as a trans woman, that she had never seen on a screen before. “That movie resonated really profoundly.” In a key scene, the character navigates both the women’s and men’s sides of a spa. Bea says of the scene: “Navigating different gender spaces that you’re not supposed to be able to move between, it’s like a superpower that trans people experience. That was just so affirming and cool to see on the screen.”
Seeing A Fantastic Woman influenced the way Bea approached an important scene between Jo and Robin having sex. Bea says that the number of positive portrayals of trans women’s sexuality in media is depressingly low.
“So the question was, how do we have a trans sex scene that honors both people and celebrates their bodies and pleasure? I realized that there wasn’t much of a roadmap for that. Having just seen A Fantastic Woman, I was thinking about what that movie meant for me, and I wanted to create something that would mean something to someone else in the same way. That was what gave me the strength that I needed to go in there and shoot the sex scene between Jo and Robin.”
Like for so many of us, seeing themselves reflected in series and films changed how Daniel and Bea relate to themselves and their world. Both speak about wanting to give others opportunities to see themselves reflected in the T, and to create television that they wish they had as younger queer people.
The power of storytelling in LGBTQ+ communties is that it can bring people together within the “reverse diaspora” that Bea and Daniel describe. This is increasingly true in the age of the internet, in which more and more people can instantly choose from a vast collection of media and stream them instantly from computers in our bedrooms and pockets.
In the T, Jo’s relationship with Emerie, played by Evilyn Riojas, reflects how the internet and media bring queer and trans people together. In the show, they meet online, and the opening scene brings us to Emerie’s New Year’s Eve party, where it all begins. Bea says, “Evie and I met exactly the same way in real life. We had been talking for like six months on Facebook and were becoming pretty tight, but had never met in person. And at some point I went to this birthday party, partly because I knew Evie would be there. I got there like, completely sober, and she saw me and she screamed and was really drunk and it was so cute. Just like in the show. And where else would we have met? You know? It’s crazy how much the internet has been a lifeline for people in our community.”
The recent success of series and films that place minorities behind the helm prove not only that artists that are underrepresented in Hollywood can tell their stories excellently, but that there is a wide audience for them. When I ask what he hopes for the future of queer storytelling, Daniel points to shows like Insecure and Pose as shows that place women and queer people of color on boths sides of the camera, to incredible results. “With shows like POSE, I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s so good! Having a show created by all these vibrant queer voices, I can really relate. There’s something so special about that show, and now I don’t want to see anything else.”
When I ask what’s next for the show and the pair as writers, they respond with cautious optimism about the possibility of a second season of the T – though not through the same DIY process that the first season had, which both Daniel and Bea agree was “arduous.” The first season certainly stands on its own as a cohesive story, but the pair say that if the resources for a longer season become available, the world might get to see more of Jo and Carter.
After their collaboration on the T, Bea and Daniel tell me they’ve continued to write together for other projects they hope to produce – particularly comedy, which was much more prominent in the original script for the T. Bea mentions that they have been meeting with people about the future of the show, as well as pitching their new work.
With a powerful debut and a growing list of projects to come, it looks like we haven’t seen the last from Bea and Daniel (thankfully).
Be sure to watch the T at thetwebseries.com, and stay tuned for more from this talented and hard-working pair.